The eight most dramatic moments in Yorkshire cricket’s toxic racism saga

·8-min read
Azeem Rafiq crying illustration - The eight most dramatic moments in Yorkshire cricket's toxic racism saga
Azeem Rafiq crying illustration - The eight most dramatic moments in Yorkshire cricket's toxic racism saga

In a two-and-a-half-year saga, the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal prompted interventions from the Prime Minister, then angry accusations that due process was forgotten as reputations and careers at Yorkshire cricket were torched. What follows are the most significant moments in the case.

Rafiq goes public after the summer of Black Lives Matter

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Rafiq was born in Pakistan but moved to Barnsley as a child. He had two stints at Yorkshire but left in 2018 after a period of personal tragedy, when his son was stillborn. He went public with his allegations of racism two years later, on Sept 2, 2020, at the end of a febrile summer for race relations in sport.

In the Premier League, players were taking the knee in support of BLM protests which had intensified after the death of George Floyd. In an interview with George Dobell, who has now written his book, Rafiq had said "deep-rooted" racism at Yorkshire left him "close to committing suicide". He added that his concerns about a racist culture within the club had been "ignored".

The club came under immediate pressure within the sport and from Asian-British business owners. Yorkshire launched an investigation via the Squire Patton Boggs law firm. The involvement of Yorkshire board member, Stephen Willis, raised questions about the independence of the process part of the probe team, but other figures involved were entirely independent.

During the investigation, Rafiq had filed a legal claim against the county under the Equality Act, claiming he suffered "direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of race, as well as victimisation and detriment as a result of his efforts to address racism at the club".

Secrecy around the Squire Patton Boggs report

The report was initially delivered to Headingley in August 2020 after a ten-month inquiry. However, the club continued, on the basis of legal advice, to refuse to publish the report in its entirety. What followed was weeks of criticism over delays in publishing the findings, before the club released a summarised report on Sept 10, 2021, recognising that seven of 43 allegations outlined by Rafiq had been upheld.

A total of 29 interviews with 26 witnesses took place, with investigators finding there was “no question” of racial harassment. The seven upheld allegations were:

  1. When playing junior cricket for Yorkshire, Rafiq was not provided with halal food at matches;

  2. Before 2010, there were three separate instances of racist language used by former players;

  3. Before 2012, a former coach regularly used racist language;

  4. Between 2016 and 2018 there were jokes made around religion, which made individuals uncomfortable about their religious practices;

  5. Between 2016 and 2018, a former player made references to Rafiq’s weight and fitness that amounted to bullying;

  6. In 2018, when Rafiq raised concerns of racism, the club failed to follow their own policy or investigate the allegations;

  7. The club could have done more to make Muslims more welcome within their stadiums and should have dealt better with complaints of racist or antisocial behaviour within those stadiums.

The calamitous underreaction by Yorkshire

It is one line - the October 2021 statement "that there is no conduct... that warrants disciplinary action" - that haunts the club. A refusal to discipline any player or employee in the autumn of 2021 has proved just as damaging for the club as Rafiq's initial allegations.

One of the most damning aspects of the report itself had been a stated "dismissive" failure to tackle Rafiq's grievances appropriately when he first raised them. Yet despite that finding, there was no acceptance of institutional racism and the club apologised to Rafiq.

Then, two months later, the club sparked the biggest outrage of all by ruling out disciplinary action following an "internal review" into the Squire Patton Boggs findings. Rafiq, in response, demanded resignations as his lawyers said the club's decision to spare sanctions against individuals was "inconceivable".

Senior sources at the England and Wales Cricket Board also expressed concern for the first time, with Telegraph Sport revealing that Headingley's Test Match status could be at risk.

A sporting meltdown sparked by ministers

Leaked extracts of the Squire Patton Boggs report ignited a blaze of criticism from Westminster. An ESPNCricinfo headline on Nov 1 stating "Yorkshire racism report ruled Azeem Rafiq being called P*** was banter" prompted the health secretary Sajid Javid to tweet that "heads should roll".

Boris Johnson called for the ECB to investigate "thoroughly and quickly", while DCMS committee chair Julian Knight called for the removal of the entire county board. "This is one of the most repellent and disturbing episodes in modern cricket history," added the MP.

During a week of unprecedented chaos for the sport, on Nov 4 former England cricketer Gary Ballance admitted in a statement that he used the derogatory slur towards Rafiq. He was suspended indefinitely from selection. The next day Michael Vaughan announced in his Telegraph Sport column that he had been accused by Rafiq of telling a group of Asian team-mates there were “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it”. Vaughan, however, categorically denied the claim.

Amid a wider backlash against Yorkshire, Emerald Group Publishing, Yorkshire Tea and Anchor Butter all ended their associations with the county. The ECB then suspended Yorkshire from hosting internationals, with Roger Hutton resigning as Yorkshire chairman and being replaced by Lord Patel. Within 48 hours of his appointment, Patel met Rafiq in Wakefield and agreed a six-figure settlement of his employment tribunal case.

The parliamentary hearing that forced the ECB's hand

The full extent of Rafiq's claims were memorably laid bare on Nov 16 as he told of "inhuman" treatment  and said racist abuse was an "open secret in the England dressing room".

He claimed Joe Root was present when Gary Ballance had called him a p---, although the England captain has repeatedly denied that claim. Rafiq also publicly accused former England players Matthew Hoggard and Tim Bresnan for the first time.

However, it was the ECB who would be tasked with cleaning up the mess. Rafiq said the board had previously hid behind its own “constitution”, using it as an excuse to not take control of the Yorkshire inquiry when it became clear it was running into trouble over the winter.

Damian Green, the MP for Ashford, said the ECB did not want to “look under the stones”. Eventually, Julian Knight, chairman of the committee, said: “The ECB failed to take decisive action at the outset and it is clear there is much work for it to do... if cricket’s tarnished reputation in this country is to be restored."

Civil wars inside Headingley and warnings about Rafiq's past

In the week that Lord Patel was declaring in his first press conference on Nov 9 that  "Azeem is a whistleblower and should be praised as such", a differing picture was being painted by staff behind the scenes.

It emerged that 14 backroom figures accused Rafiq of a "one-man mission to bring down the club" in a letter to the board the previous month. In the email leaked to Telegraph Sport, they wrote: "Staff who knew Azeem well felt that an initial apology to him and an acceptance that he was a victim was not the correct approach and misrepresented entirely what kind of individual he was whilst at the club."

The atmosphere on the streets of Yorkshire in those weeks was febrile. Staff were sent images of the Grim Reaper via email and had their car tyres slashed as public outrage escalated. But three former chairs – Colin Graves, Steve Denison and Robin Smith – became increasingly enraged by a perceived failure to expose the full story behind Rafiq’s damning accusations.

Then, just two days after his appearance before MPs, Rafiq, the self-styled “voice of the voiceless”, was forced to apologise after it was discovered that he had written anti-Semitic remarks on Facebook in 2011.

Yorkshire and the ECB forget about due process

The Squire Patton Boggs report remains the only investigation to directly invite all witnesses for face-to-face interviews. Patel and the ECB took an blinkered approach to rallying behind Rafiq from the outset.

Within a month of Patel's arrival, all of those who signed the letter expressing concern over Yorkshire's actions were sacked. One of those fired has since been driving a supermarket delivery truck to make ends meet. Others have fallen into depression or become sick. But subsequent pay outs secured last October included an admission by Yorkshire that their dismissals were “procedurally unfair”.

However, it was the ECB, which handed back conditional Test match status to Headingley in Feb 2022, who would face the most severe criticism over "one-sided" efforts to land charges against Yorkshire and seven individuals.

Vaughan fights to clear his name while others walk away

Eight months after charges were brought, only Vaughan, the Ashes-winning former England captain, was willing to appear before the independent three-person Cricket Discipline Commision to defend himself. Five other team-mates charged – Matthew Hoggard, John Blain, Tim Bresnan, Andrew Gale and Richard Pyrah –  walked away citing a lack of faith in the process.

Only the cash-strapped new regime at Yorkshire and Ballance, now playing in Zimbabwe, pleaded guilty to the ECB's charges of bringing the game into disrepute. With the exception of the new regime at Yorkshire, all of those accused agreed with a blistering summary of evidence from Vaughan's legal team. The racism case was "woefully inadequate" and an "affront to fairness", said Vaughan's KC, Christopher Stoner.