Azeem’s anti-Jewish slurs were hurtful, but he’s still a victim of racism

Alex Sobel MP speaking with Azeem Rafiq before his DCMS committee appearance
Alex Sobel MP speaking with Azeem Rafiq before his DCMS committee appearance

Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was born in Leeds; I am a fan of Yorkshire; it is in my blood. My earliest cricketing memory as a child was listening on a neighbour’s radio in Sheffield, to Bothams heroic innings of 149 followed by Bob Willis taking eight for just 43 runs in Headingley at the 1981 Ashes Test. The club is an international institution with an unrivalled global reach – something I became more acutely aware of since becoming the MP for Leeds North West, the club’s constituency.

As MP, I have been invited to events at Yorkshire by club officials. They were always very keen to talk about their work in community development and inclusivity; cohesion and equality were always prominent features in any conversation. On the eve of this summer’s Test match, I visited their project at Brudenell Primary School which supported hundreds of South Asian Children with a holiday cricket club. However, this image of diversity they were desperate to perpetuate was a deception.

When Azeem Rafiq courageously blew the whistle on the club in September 2020, I was deeply disturbed. As a Jew, who has been the target of antisemitic abuse in the past, I felt a kinship with Azeem and his experiences. The anti-Jewish slurs used by Azeem Rafiq on social media when he was 19 are deeply hurtful but also all too common. He apologised publicly and also called me and gave me a heartfelt and sincere apology which he wanted me to share with the community. He wants to find out more and engage with the Jewish Community in Yorkshire which is now happening.

Since his initial allegations there have been countless attempts to undermine his credibility as a victim of racism. Most in his position would have given in but, due to his persistence and determination, he kept going. I was sat right behind him when he made his heart-breaking testimony to the DCMS Committee. Watching him relive his experiences was horrific. In every single response there was something extraordinary, blowing the lid off behaviours in cricket. The reputation of British democracy has taken a real beating recently, however the very fact Azeem was given this platform to tell his story, without restriction, was a demonstration of it working at its very best.

Following Azeem’s testimony was Roger Hutton, former Chair of YCCC, and then the English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). There was an incredible amount of obfuscation from their responses which compounded just how much cricket needs to change. There are many in cricket who do not recognise the picture being painted by Azeem. It is clear that racism is so ingrained and institutionalised that people do not see or hear it. It is of paramount importance that everyone involved in the sport listens to Azeem’s story, reflects on it, and comes forward if they have witnessed anything similar.

But what next for Yorkshire and English cricket?

In my view, YCCC must now release their report in full. Only then will a truly complete account of events at the club be on public record. Yorkshire has rightly taken a battering, but the focus must now be on the ECB and English cricket as a whole. The ECB themselves said in their testimony at DCMS committee that they are the regulator, governing body, promoter, and funder of cricket. In any other walk of life, the regulator and governing body would have intervened long ago. They are now beginning to conduct an inquiry and need to be given some time to do that. However, we need to question what has gone wrong in the governance of cricket. Why have they taken so long to act?

Many see this moment as a watershed moment for changing attitudes in cricket. Though, I do not think we are quite there yet. I gave evidence into the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – that report and the subsequent actions were a watershed moment. That is where we need to get to. To ensure there are no more Azeem Rafiq’s we need to focus on the governance and regulation of the game and have real independent scrutiny of the ECB. Back in 1993, ‘Kick It Out’ was established to with sole aim of ending racism in football. I think cricket is long overdue their own ‘Bowl it Out’ version of this. Although Football is still a long way from achieving this aim, it is in a far better place than it was thirty years ago.

I have been encouraged by the appointment of Lord Patel as Chair at Yorkshire. His actions and words since being appointed have shown he is facing up to the issues at Yorkshire. He must now, free from the shackles of the club’s past, be allowed to get on with the colossal task ahead. If he is successful his actions could become the blueprint for cultural change, not just at Yorkshire, but across the country.

Like Azeem, Yorkshire is my club, and we want it to be the very best. That means we must work towards being the most inclusive, diverse and welcoming for everyone, irrespective of their race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, disability or experience.

Azeem, despite everything, still loves cricket. If one day we see him walk through those famous gates at Headingley to cheer on the team he once dreamed of playing, then we know that real progress has been made.

About the Author
Alex Sobel is a Jewish MP who represents Leeds North West.
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