Yorkshire have begun an investigation into allegations of “institutional racism” and a review of the club’s culture after Azeem Rafiq, a former England Under-19 captain, said his experiences at Headingley left him close to taking his own life.
Rafiq was released by Yorkshire in 2018 after two spells on the playing staff and in a wide-ranging interview with ESPNCricinfo shared details of being made to feel like an “outsider” in the dressing room because of his background.
The off-spinner, who moved to the UK from Pakistan aged 10 and went on to captain Yorkshire’s T20 side in 2012, admitted to regrets over not challenging comments during his rise up the ranks but said the one time he did his “life was made hell”.
Rafiq said: “I was living my family’s dream as a professional cricketer, but inside I was dying. I know how close I was to committing suicide during my time at Yorkshire. I was dreading going to work. I was in pain every day. There were times I did things to try and fit in that, as a Muslim, I now look back on and regret. I’m not proud of it at all.
“But as soon as I stopped trying to fit in, I was an outsider. Do I think there is institutional racism? It’s at its peak in my opinion. It’s worse than it’s ever been. My only motivation now is to prevent anyone else feeling the same pain.”
Rafiq’s account, which included details of racist comments and a “loss of faith in humanity” after being released by the club shortly after his son was stillborn, pointed to the absence of non-white faces in the Yorkshire coaching staff and hierarchy.
The 29-year-old, who now runs a tea shop in Rotherham and played for Lincolnshire last summer, was among a number of British Asian cricketers who broke into Yorkshire’s first XI since the turn of the century but, of those, only England’s Adil Rashid remains part of the current set-up.
The club, which had stayed silent following similar recent interviews with Rafiq by Wisden.com and the Cricket Badger Podcast, said on Thursday it “must do better to fully promote a culture of zero tolerance to racism” and will now check into the spinner’s experiences. A wider review is also under way.
Roger Hutton, the Yorkshire chairman, said: “We are in the process of finalising the structure of this investigation and we will be approaching impartial external parties to be part of the review to ensure complete transparency.
“We accepted a long time ago that change was needed at Headingley to improve diversity, especially in terms of racial inclusivity. While as an organisation we’ve made real efforts to that end, we are not perfect and it’s a work in progress.”
The club said it has tried to make contact with Rafiq this week and is keen to “hear his grievances in as much detail as possible”. This has been welcomed by the National Asian Cricket Council, which is key advisory body to the England and Wales Cricket Board and partnered its South Asian Engagement Plan in 2018.
Gulfraz Riaz, chairman of the NACC, said: “It’s very disappointing and concerning to hear of Azeem’s experience, particularly the impact that it has had on his mental health. Given the seriousness, it’s important that the matter is investigated in a thorough and professional way by his former county.
“The topic of inclusion and diversity is rightly at the forefront of our minds at present and Azeem’s experiences highlight the responsibility that we all have for delivering change and also the size of the task ahead of us.”
Rafiq’s account follows that of Michael Carberry, the former Test opener, who said in June that in his view English cricket “is rife with racism” and “the people running the game don’t care about black people”.
It also comes in the same week that Ian Watmore began his tenure as ECB chairman with an admission that a lack of ethnic diversity on the governing body’s board – and across leadership positions in the sport generally – is “not acceptable”.
A statement from the ECB read: “We are deeply troubled to hear of Azeem Rafiq’s experiences and recognise the courage it has taken for him to speak out.
“The ECB welcomes Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s commitment to thoroughly and urgently investigate this case and the wider review of club policies and culture. We will follow these closely and are in contact with the club and with Azeem. We will consider any further ECB steps which may be appropriate.”
• In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.