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Former England batter Gary Ballance has admitted using “a racial slur” against his ex-Yorkshire team-mate Azeem Rafiq, whose claims of institutional racism are embattling the club on a political, commercial and reputational level.
Ballance, who played 23 Tests and 16 one-day internationals between 2013-2017, released a long and emotional statement on Wednesday during which he accepted he was responsible for some of the offensive and derogatory terms that Rafiq was subjected to during his time at Headingley.
The 31-year-old attempted to offer some context of his “incredibly close relationship” with Rafiq during their time together at the club, claiming both men “said things privately to each other which were not acceptable” but also offered remorse for his part of those exchanges.
Ballance’s name was redacted in a summary of the independent report into Rafiq’s wide-ranging allegations against Yorkshire, but it has been reported by ESPNCricinfo that the panel upheld claims he had been repeatedly called a “P***” by a team-mate.
In a lengthy statement released via the county, the former Yorkshire captain wrote: “It has been reported that I used a racial slur and, as I told the independent enquiry, I accept that I did so and I regret doing so. To be clear – I deeply regret some of the language I used in my younger years.
“I do not wish to discredit Rafa by repeating the words and statements that he made about me and others but I have to be clear that this was a situation where best friends said offensive things to each other which, outside of that context, would be considered wholly inappropriate.
“I regret that these exchanges took place but at no time did I believe or understand that it had caused Rafa distress. If I had believed that then I would have stopped immediately. He was my best mate in cricket and I cared deeply for him. To my knowledge, it has never been alleged that I reduced Rafa to tears.”
The independent panel determined those racial slurs were delivered “in the spirit of friendly banter” – a conclusion which has caused a wave of condemnation from prominent politicians and campaign groups and kicked off an exodus of Yorkshire’s commercial partners.
We have taken the decision to remove our brand association with YCCC and Headingley Stadium. We do not tolerate any form of racism or discriminatory behaviour. We hope that YCCC will respond with serious action and uphold the values we all expect. https://t.co/mQ7LliDac9
— Emerald Publishing (@EmeraldGlobal) November 3, 2021
But it is a defence that Ballance believes offers an accurate representation of his relationship with Rafiq. He says the former spinner “was my closest friend and supporter in cricket” and details Rafiq coming to stay with his family during a winter in Zimbabwe, as well as being invited to the latter’s wedding.
Whether any of these do anything to halt criticisms of Ballance, or calls for further censure and disciplinary measures, remains to be seen.
Any hopes Ballance had of Rafiq’s support in the matter appeared to dissolve when the latter took to Twitter, with a succinct post reading: “Funny how things change from complete denial to I accepted everything over a 14 month period ??”.
Explaining his reasons for going public with his version of events, Ballance said: “My family and I are deeply saddened and upset by the allegations recently levelled at me in the press and by the misleading and selective nature of the reporting in the last few days.
Funny how things change from complete denial to I accepted everything over a 14 month period ??
— Azeem Rafiq (@AzeemRafiq30) November 3, 2021
“Throughout this process I have cooperated with the independent investigation and I have been completely honest and transparent with the club and the investigators at all times. Information and allegations have been leaked and reported in the press which in my view give a misleading impression of the evidence which was heard in the investigation.
“That does not mean that what passed between us was right or appropriate. It was not. Rafa said things to me that were not acceptable and I did the same with Rafa. I never said anything with any intended malice or to upset Rafa.
“Rafa and I remained closest friends throughout the time we exchanged these inappropriate comments. I am aware of how hurtful the racial slur is and I regret that I used this word in immature exchanges in my younger years and I am sure Rafa feels the same about some of the things he said to me as well.”
Ballance’s intervention, an 865-word narrative which finally broke a lengthy silence emanating from the club, came after a day of almost continuous external pressure on the White Rose county.
A host of other partners followed the lead of shirt sponsor Anchor Butter by severing ties with the club over their handling of the matter, including Emerald Group Publishing foregoing naming rights of Headingley Stadium among other tie-ins with the team and Yorkshire Tea dissolving its association with immediate effect.
Meanwhile, a prominent group of the county’s politicians – including former Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves – wrote to the England and Wales Cricket Board demanding action.
Cricket is an institution in Yorkshire which everyone should be able to enjoy.
As Yorkshire & Humber MPs, we're calling on @ECB_cricket to launch an immediate, comprehensive and independent inquiry into the racist abuse faced by Azeem Rafiq.https://t.co/BZQPHH0cAK pic.twitter.com/fVW4JKdy5c
— Dan Jarvis (@DanJarvisMP) November 3, 2021
The region’s two metro mayors, Dan Jarvis (South Yorkshire) and Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire), co-signed a sternly-worded letter to ECB chief executive Tom Harrison and were joined as signatories by 34 cross-party MPs. As well as Miliband and Reeves, prominent backbenchers Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper added their names, as well as assistant government whip Andrea Jenkyns.
The letter read: “We find any suggestion that using the word “P***” is “banter” truly abhorrent, but for the formal investigation to make such a conclusion brings the report and the club into disrepute.
“We therefore request that the ECB establish an immediate, comprehensive and independent inquiry into YCCC’s handling of the original allegations and the subsequent investigation. We maintain the inquiry must be conducted in a timely and transparent manner, with consequences for both the players responsible, and those board members who have failed to address this blatant racism.”
Rafiq is set to appear in front of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s select committee in an evidence session that is understood to be taking place on November 16, and could offer up his fullest and most damning account yet given the presence of parliamentary privilege.