Does the revelation that Azeem Rafiq is himself guilty of sending anti-Semitic texts undermine his claims of racism at Yorkshire? I guess the answer to that is probably no. He does not have to be a saint in order to call out sinfulness in others. We might think less of him – people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and all that – but the point he was making was relevant, no doubt true….and shocking.
At first, I was sceptical about his claims, not prepared to believe them on the basis of hearsay, without much in the way of corroborative evidence. This hesitancy on my part had much to do with the utter astonishment – and some doubtfulness, I have to admit – that such things could go on in the game that I love. No family is perfect – and certainly no individual in any family has a totally un-besmirched escutcheon – but family is family. Let anyone take aim at us and we soon circle the waggons. Cricket is like a family, a large heterogeneous one, but we all share the same basic values. Don’t we?
The trouble was that I did not recognise the picture Rafiq was painting. When I was playing county cricket in the Seventies, all teams (except Yorkshire, of course) contained overseas players, mainly black or Asian, and there was never any resentment or prejudice exhibited towards them – as far as I was aware. Ah, but my argument fragments when you realise the identity of these overseas players. The likes of Clive Lloyd, Vanburn Holder, Deryck Murray, Lance Gibbs, Alvin Kallicharan, Garry Sobers, Michael Holding, Keith Boyce, Wayne Daniel, Asif Iqbal, Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Sadiq Mohammad, Bishan Bedi, Mushtaq Mohammad, Viv Richards, Joel Garner, Majid Khan, not to mention our own Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts….. would anybody in his right mind ever think of insulting any of that cohort? Of course not! Because they all came with vast international experience and great respect. They were simply the best. No need for any of them to ‘play along’ with dressing room joshing and mockery if they didn’t want to – they were above all that.
For that reason - the awe we held them in - racism never entered our heads. Perhaps it is easy for me, a white man, to say that but anybody who felt the need to denigrate Andy Roberts in the dressing room would need a good place to hide when it came for his turn to bat in the nets. Black or Asian cricketers inferior to us? Nonsense! They were better.
But that was back then and this is now. These are not overseas stars complaining about the dreadful treatment they have suffered but our own, home-grown players, many of them struggling to climb the greasy pole just like any other young professional. What on earth is going on at these clubs? For a sharper perspective on recent events, I sought the views of my old mucker, John Holder. We played together at Hampshire – I have written a book about him – and he later became the first black umpire in county cricket. He was appointed to the Test match panel but was unceremoniously dumped by the authorities without reason or explanation. In vain, he sought redress, even to the extent of exploring the possibility of court action (which he was advised to drop because too much time, in legal terms, had elapsed in the meantime). Although he had no evidence that his sacking had anything to do with his colour, he not unreasonably – or very reasonably, in view of the Rafiq affair – wondered aloud whether there had been unspoken prejudices simmering below the surface.
Though personally disappointed that his case did not gain the traction he was hoping for (he only wanted explanations, not heads on a platter), he is happy that his initiative has helped to shine a pitiless light on the murky and reprehensible inner workings of the ECB. Too often, he asserts, have complaints about racial harassment and prejudice made by a number of recent and current county cricketers been swept under the carpet. Assurances were made, investigations put in place, sub-committees set up and action promised….”and nothing ever happened”. His own action – initially anyway - was to expose the panel that oversees the appointment and performance of first-class umpires within the ECB as unfit for purpose…opaque, clannish and self-serving.
His voice, hitherto muted, has become more strident in recent months. The disturbing testimony of Rafiq in front of the select committee of Parliament has added weight and credibility – if such were needed – to Holder’s claim that there is something broken in the governance of the ECB. “When it talks about diversity and equal opportunities,” he says, “it’s all nonsense. Their actions show they mean nothing.”
To support his case, he made one or two damning observations. “I am the last black umpire in the English first-class game and I retired 29 years ago! And who was the last black, English player to make his Test debut? Michael Carberry….10 years ago!” Oh, my Lynches, my Butchers, my Malcolms, my Tudors, my Lewises, my Smalls, my Cowanses, my Headleys, my de Freitases (not so) long ago….. Where is the second generation of these English-born black cricketers who blazed a trail? Our cricket is the poorer for their absence. It’s a shame and a scandal.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…” (Hamlet)
John, without mentioning names, told me that there are many more cases of racism and bullying currently being laid at the doorstep of the ECB, in addition to the ones that have publicly come to light. “Some of these guys are struggling financially,” he said, “Hardly surprising considering how pitifully few roles in coaching and administration have been filled by black, former cricketers.” The fact therefore that they are opting to settle ‘out of court’ for considerable sums of money if they remain anonymous is perfectly understandable. John Holder however is constrained by no such confidentiality clauses. “I’m at an age when I feel free to speak my piece without fear or favour. Some of the stories that I have heard, Murt, would make your toes curl. If by speaking out, I can in some small way help to cut out this cancer from the game I love, then I am content.”
The question had to be asked. Were you aware of any racism when you were with us at Hampshire? His laughter has always sounded like Vesuvius erupting. “You lot bullied me unmercifully!” Vesuvius eventually blew itself out and became dormant once more. “No, Never! I can honestly say that my career at Hampshire was the happiest time of my life. I made friends that have lasted all my life. Including you, Mr Murtagh, you will be surprised to hear.”
What do you think will happen now? “Well, the ECB, in their panic, have brought out a blueprint for change. However, they’ve said that before. We shall have to wait and see. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” My old friend and former fast bowler, even at the age of 76, still retains his enviously svelte figure. Obviously he doesn’t eat much pudding.