Azeem Rafiq’s voice cracks with emotion as he considers the impact of his quest for what he believes is truth and justice but what has turned into a personal ordeal.
‘I spoke out and I thought it would be the start of a healing process but it’s been anything but that,’ said the man who finds himself in the eye of a storm after accusing Yorkshire of institutionalised racism.
‘It’s been really difficult for me to understand how it has all unfolded. I’ve had some dark days. I wanted to be as honest as possible and I wanted everyone to know what was going on at Yorkshire when I played there.
Azeem Rafiq is hurt after his quest for truth and justice turned into a gruelling ordeal
‘But I don’t think cricket wants to listen. I don’t feel as though the game is in any way prepared to do something really meaningful about all this. I’ve been left really hurt.’
It is Rafiq’s damning verdict on what he sees as the unacceptably long time it is taking Yorkshire to make public their report on the serious allegations he made about his near 10 year association with his local county. Six months on from the launch of the independent investigation and he has heard nothing.
‘It has been a big strain,’ Rafiq continued. ‘The whole reason for speaking out was to get some sort of closure. I never expected that to be easy but it’s been tough to hear about some of the things that have been happening behind the scenes.
‘I want to give Yorkshire a chance but it’s getting to the point where I feel enough is enough. I did not think I would be getting threats to my family and my business. Whether that’s me being naïve or not I don’t know but the political side of this has been a real eye opener for me. And how the system works. I genuinely thought people would want to listen and find a way to move forward. Now I just think they want it all to go away.’
He found himself in the eye of a storm after accusing Yorkshire of institutionalised racism
This all started for the former England Under 19 captain last August when he gave an interview to Wisden.com about his catering business and how he was donating meals to NHS staff and key workers in the fight against Covid. But it took a very different turn.
‘We talked about what my business was doing but then I was asked a question about racism and prejudice and it all came tumbling out,’ Rafiq tells Sportsmail from his home in Barnsley. ‘Emotions took over and everything that was inside me and I’d kept to myself came to the surface.
‘Don’t get me wrong. This was something that I eventually wanted to talk about. I think I made that very clear in 2018 when I left Yorkshire. I tweeted that the issues around this were something I wanted to address. I just didn’t intend this to be the time.
‘But there was interest in what I said so I did a podcast and another interview. Only then did I get any sort of acknowledgment from Yorkshire. So I do believe it was media pressure that sparked the inquiry.’
It is an inquiry that is ongoing even though it should be made clear Yorkshire insist it is taking time because the allegations are so serious and they need to be thoroughly investigated. But Rafiq, who is also suing his old club for racial discrimination in a tribunal that is due to be held in June, believes their silence is deafening.
‘I sat down with the inquiry in November,’ he said. ‘I said ‘you’ve been handed a massive responsibility.’ But since that day I’ve had no communication from them and I find that disrespectful. When I was so open I thought they would go above and beyond to make sure they would keep me informed about where they were at. But there’s been nothing.
Six months on from the launch of the independent investigation, Rafiq has heard nothing
‘I have no idea when they are going to release the report. First they said December. Then January. Then February and then I heard March and then Spring. And this is all from hearing about it in the press. It just goes on and on.
‘I can see now why victims of abuse find it difficult to come forward. This has had a massive effect on my mental health and recently it’s affected my physical health as well. I think that’s down to the fact that as a victim I’ve got to sit there and convince some guy that I’m telling the truth. I’m not sure that’s how it should be.’
It is worth recounting the specifics of Rafiq’s allegations. He says he was the victim of regular verbal abuse, including being called a ‘P***’ and ‘elephant washer’ during his time at Headingley. There is also the claim that a leading figure said ‘there’s too many of you lot here’ to a group of British Asian players at the club, including Rafiq. He also says one of his captains at Yorkshire was openly racist.
‘I don’t know if those specific people have been spoken to by the inquiry,’ said Rafiq. ‘They certainly haven’t come forward to me since I brought what they said into the public domain. What I do know is that a lot of people who supported me haven’t been spoken to. Their evidence hasn’t been heard as far as I’m aware.
‘Just one person who was in that dressing room and saw what went on within those four walls has rung me to privately say sorry for what I went through. Nobody else has and in many ways that’s the worst aspect of all of this.
‘Tino Best and Rana Naved ul Hasan, who were overseas players during my time, have both spoken out in support of me and I can’t thank them enough. I know how difficult this is and I know they’ve put their necks on the line and it could affect their futures and employment chances. But it has been disappointing that others who watched this and witnessed what went on at close quarters have been too scared to come forward.’
It was not meant to be like this. Rafiq was an off-spinning all-rounder lauded for his leadership when he captained an England Under 19 side including the likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler at the 2010 World Cup. He was also regarded highly as a stand-in T20 Yorkshire captain by, among others, Geoff Boycott when Andrew Gale was injured.
But he was eventually released in the same year as he suffered the tragedy of his eldest son being still-born three years ago, leading to further accusations of a lack of pastoral care. Apart from taking coaching qualifications Rafiq, at the age of 30, is essentially separated from the game that has been his life.
Rafiq made serious allegations about his near 10-year association with his local county
‘For the last few months I haven’t wanted anything more to do with the game,’ he said. ‘I do love cricket. It’s always been my passion. From the time I was born in Pakistan before I moved to Yorkshire I would be out playing cricket on the streets, diving about and coming home with dirt and blood all over me. It’s what I’ve known all my life.
‘I used to sit down with my grandad and watch Test highlights so it hurts me that I’m in a situation where I don’t want to take my kids to a cricket ground or be involved in the game. Once this is all over and hopefully the game has listened and corrected things then I will go back to it because I really think I can make a difference.
‘At the start of this I didn’t want to cause any trouble for anyone but the further I’ve gone through the process I do think there has to be some level of accountability. It’s very important if any trust is to be won back. I do want justice.
‘If that means I need to keep on speaking out I will do that because this has affected me in a lot of ways. I know there are people in the game still suffering in the same way as I did and I do think we’re brushing it under the carpet. If we don’t take this opportunity as a game and as people we might not get another one.
‘I don’t think this conversation is ever going to become comfortable but people need to start looking at themselves and the affect they can have on people. I think not being racist is good enough anymore.
‘You can’t just say ‘I’m staying out of it.’ I really don’t think anyone who is in a position to affect change can do that anymore. Surely there has to be some humanity in the game and it’s time we saw some of that now.’
Rafiq manages a smile as you remembers the good times. ‘We don’t know each other but I wish you’d seen the teenager who went into that dressing room compared to what I’ve become now. It kills me. It’s something I’ll never get back and that really does break my heart because I’ve never lived my life like this.
The 30-year-old is also suing his old club for racial discrimination in a tribunal
‘I was never short of confidence and I never had a problem getting out there doing things. But it’s got to the point where I’ve been asking myself ‘when will it get to the stage where I can just be me?’
‘I’m not sure it will ever get to that point again and that breaks me. Part of me wants to be hopeful but nothing I’ve seen over the last few months has convinced me people are prepared to listen. That’s the key. I’m still not sure people want to listen.’
He deserves to be heard.