'Racism accusations at Yorkshire made me consider suicide'
John Blain counts the days since he found out Azeem Rafiq had accused him of racism. "It's 840", he explains. Now, as he finally gets his say, emotion overwhelms him within 15 minutes. "Sir Alex Ferguson once said 'it takes six people to carry a coffin – there's days when I'm questioning who will carry my coffin," he says. "There's probably only been six people that stood with me on this. I had a really dark thought the other day when I looked at my son and I thought 'is he tall enough to carry a coffin?' He's only 12, but those are the thoughts."
Over coffee at an Edinburgh hotel, the 44-year-old fights back tears as he admits he is losing almost all hope. The son of a police officer and social services worker has lost coaching jobs and BBC punditry work as a result of denied allegations that he called Rafiq a "P---" in 2010 and 2011.
A similar allegation followed from his former national team-mate Majid Haq, who claimed Blain had used the derogatory term during an international match in 2007.
Blain, who says the allegations against him are "perverse", now spends endless hours swimming and running to try to make sense of the most toxic ordeal in the game's history. "You have to remain strong because there were days when I thought 'this can't go on any longer – I can't see a way through this because the process goes on so long'," he said. "I can't see any way through it and it's not nice when you're checking insurance policies and you look at things as to what would be left behind and how you would align your estate to your family. What was difficult for me was the unfairness of it all. I just hadn't had a chance to put my side of the story across."
It is Blain's idea to meet The Telegraph to make his account public as the Cricket Discipline Commission deliberates over charges of alleged racism brought against him, six others and Yorkshire.
Given he is one of five who withdrew from the process citing a lack of faith in the England and Wales Cricket Board's investigation, a guilty verdict against him appears highly possible. But whatever the outcome in the coming days, Blain believes he could have cleared his name if "due process had been followed".
"I come from a police background, and if there's an allegation made, you go off and do an investigation," he says. "My dad's very much got that mind because of his background and his upbringing. But none of that has arrived and we cannot understand why. It's been so frustrating for me because I have got context and I've got evidence to say this couldn't happen and didn't happen."
To prove his point, Blain is brandishing a diary he kept of the 2010 and 2011 seasons in which he was coaching Rafiq in Yorkshire's second XI. There is intricate detail of exchanges with all the players. There are several pages raising concern around Rafiq alleged "ill-discipline" at the time.
There is also a record of Blain holding a meeting with Martyn Moxon, then director of cricket, to discuss Rafiq's conduct. "The Christian in me wanted to reach out to Azeem," Blain said, when the allegations were first detailed to him. "I offered that to my lawyer – to just speak to him and to have some sort of dialogue because ultimately, regardless of what he's said, I care for him and his family."
The England and Wales Cricket Board defended its investigation during the Cricket Discipline Commission hearing, saying it wrote to individuals to give them an opportunity to respond in writing before any charge was filed. Any respondent who requested to be spoken to was also spoken to, the governing body added, but Blain is dismayed he was never invited to present his own evidence face to face.
"I was never offered a face-to-face interview," he said. "I just got my charges through. Between the stages of the process of getting the allegations and then getting the charges was a period of hell. Now as we're now moving into a third week after the hearings in London, it's the same sort of thing."
'I will go to the High Court'
Similar complaints over the ECB's "one-sided" process were raised by Michael Vaughan's legal team during fraught exchanges at the Fleet Street hearing a fortnight ago. Blain shares complaints raised by the Ashes-winning former England captain about the investigation, but says he has no regrets over his own failure to show up.
Instead, he reveals he is willing to challenge a potential guilty verdict against him, potentially at the High Court. The former pace bowler who represented Scotland 118 times and claimed 188 wickets was also referred to by Cricket Scotland in the wake of a separate independent review of racism in the Scottish game last year, with Haq coming forward after Rafiq's claim came to light.
Blain strenuously denies the claims and he has several witnesses saying both claims did not happen. "I think the whole process is unfair," he adds. "For one thing each case has to be looked at individually. But how they've dealt with me feels grossly unfair and if decisions were to go against me then I have to keep going and, ultimately, I will go to the High Court."
Amid the furore, Blain was temporarily removed from the Cricket Scotland Hall of Fame, having been inducted there just a year before Rafiq's claims against him came to light. In 2019, the governing body described him as “undoubtedly one of the most successful and influential Scottish cricketers of the last three decades".
He remains heavily involved on the frontline of the game in Scotland as director of cricket at Grange Cricket Club in Edinburgh, but says he has "lost vast sums of income". He has come off social media due to "foul abuse" online.
"The allegations came from nowhere," he said. "Initially it all came on my radar when Martyn Moxon emailed me on December 2 2020, which is 840 days to today. It then became public when I was working at the T20 World Cup in Manchester for the BBC.
Then there's the subsequent things that came out – the Cricket Scotland review and certain individuals jumped on that as well. Through colluded allegations towards me, it was just utterly horrible."
'My son is called a racist in the street'
Once the saga is over, the father of two plans to marry his fiancee. However, he adds: "The problem is that you cannot make plans because you never get closure. There's never any closure on this. The effect is so deep. We have an incident response vehicle assigned to the house and the letterbox was screwed over and there's CCTV. My son's been challenged as a racist by people in the street and at school. Every time the front door goes, my daughter has panic attacks. You just live in fear."
Blain's career prior to the Rafiq claims had been unblemished. He had been made redundant at Yorkshire in 2011 but was successful in a wrongful dismissal claim. He says he found the allegations so personally offensive because his family had always attempted to help disadvantaged families, including within the Asian community
"My dad was a policeman for 35 years and mum worked for the social work department looking after kids with special needs, cerebral palsy," he said. "She used to do respite which involved bringing children to the house over the weekend. Kids with special needs would have my bed for the weekend, and I would move out. Mum worked with Asian families during the week. She was a selfless lady and morals were so important."
He says that "philosophy remained with me when I became a coach".
"If I get through this process, and I'm able to find the strength to carry on, I'll never stop helping people," he said. "Since I came back to Scotland after being made redundant in Yorkshire in 2011, I've probably worked with over 15,000 children from all backgrounds – including a huge number of Asian kids in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I set up an Asian hub in Edinburgh. I set up a youth section for Edinburgh CC who are predominantly Asian. I've got scholarships for Asian kids at independent schools."
He speculates that Rafiq may have held a grudge against him because he had questioned the spinner's discipline during his time at the club.
Blain adds: "At Yorkshire, I was a coach who saw myself as upholding standards and setting examples. I only wish I had been heard by Yorkshire when I attempted to highlight matters in 2010. The prospect of me then saying the things that Azeem alleges is just utterly devastating and untrue."
Blain says he owes a major debt of gratitude to his family and the Professional Cricketers' Association which has been "amazing in assigning me some counselling".
"I'm trying to absorb a lot because I'm mindful of the ramifications on family," he adds. "I run a lot, I swim a lot. I spend a lot of time on my own. But I think it's safe to say that it goes as deep as it gets in terms of the toll this is taking."
Blain acknowledges almost everyone involved has had their lives turned upside down. Rafiq has faced attacks over his claims and has spoken of moving his family abroad. Police are still hunting a suspect who defecated in his front garden in Barnsley.
"Everyone is a loser in all this," he adds as his mood darkens once again. "My overwhelming fear is that this will never go away and someone will ultimately take their life off the back of it because of the sheer pressure and the process."