Speaking on Scotland's racism crisis, former player Qasim Sheikh admits to mental-health struggles as he 'bares soul' in racism crisis
“It is a bit weird to be honest" admits Qasim Sheikh. He is speaking from The Grange, Edinburgh, during the first game of Scotland's short bilateral series with New Zealand.
"Walking in there were a lot of eyes on us and it is not what I am here for," he continues. "Us" in this context is Sheikh and Majid Haq, Scotland's all-time leading wicket-taker. He is speaking at the end of the most difficult of weeks.
He is trying to "move things forward" and is willing to speak to anyone. In some cases, he gets the sense there is an "elephant in the room".
"People are on eggshells. But I am not going to bite anybody - I am here to possibly have some discussions," Sheikh says.
"Look, these people are probably still trying to digest what happened on Monday. Some people probably just didn't know the extent of the issues that were there. This is such a diverse community in Scotland. There are so many South Asian backgrounds - just go around the cricket clubs.
"Why is there not a bigger influx of people from the South Asian community today? Are we connecting with those communities? Are we encouraging them to come forward?"
It is only 48 hours since Changing the Boundaries' damning report was published, citing 448 examples of institutional racism within Scottish cricket. Sheikh and Haq have been driving forces in the review, having come forward in November to speak of their experiences.
On Sunday, ahead of the report's publication, Cricket Scotland's entire Board pre-emptively resigned. The organisation failed 29 of the 31 tests used to measure the scale of the issues, barely passing the remaining two.
More than 1000 participants from across Scottish cricket were spoken to and 68 individual concerns have been referred for further investigation. Those include 31 allegations of racism against 15 different people, two clubs and one regional association.
Cricket Scotland is to be placed under special measures by Sportscotland until at least October 2023, while an urgent review of Cricket Scotland's governance is high on the agenda.
On Monday, post-publication, Sheikh and Haq bravely faced the media: "We hoped to get a bit more closure [from the report], but we didn't," Sheikh says. "I think there was a blunder from the leaders of Sportscotland and Cricket Scotland. I want to try and take things forward now. I am tired; I bore my soul on Monday, and it isn't easy."
The process has taken its toll on both men, with Sheikh's comparison telling: "I lost my younger brother when I was 13 years old," he told ESPNcricinfo. "Attending his funeral was the toughest day of my life, and that's followed closely by going out in front of the national press. I've never been in a press conference before. I wasn't speaking about something particularly positive; it wasn't a celebration. It was a dark watershed moment for the sport. And not just in cricket.
"My mental health on Monday was wobbly. Monday evening was a very weird feeling. I felt I did myself justice, and Maj did himself justice. But at the same time, I felt vulnerable. I felt like I was up and down with my emotions."
But from darkness, Sheikh hopes will come light: "I think this is a pivotal moment in Scottish sport. Having played football at a young age, this is not just a cricket issue, it's a football issue, and other sports as well. There's an opportunity for Scottish sport to change across the board."
The report also suggested that a minimum of 25% of Cricket Scotland's new Board members should be Black, South-East Asian, or other mixed or multiple ethnic groups. Sheikh though will not, for the time being at least, be among them: "Absolutely not," he said when asked. "I don't think that would be the right decision to make. What I'm more than willing to do - and I think I've proven that already by doing live webinars and encouraging people to come forward - is I'm more than happy to be an ally.
"I'm more than happy to advise where I think the sport is going wrong and where the things that can get better and be part of that change. Who knows, maybe one day, years down the line ... you can never say never what happens in life, but no, I'm certainly not here looking for any roles, or any financial incentives.
"This is simply being done for future generations and so that little boys and girls out there don't go through that. The amount of messages I've had from parents alone about the pain that their children have experienced ... I'm getting messages saying you've given our children hope. That's enough for me. I can sleep at night knowing that that's the case."
Indeed, it is the external support that has kept Sheikh going. He cites the Scotland women's team as being particular allies: "I was lying in bed last night visualising what this could look like in a year's time, and it warmed my heart. I woke up to some nice messages, in particular from the Scotland women's team. I have come to realise that women could become really strong allies in this fight.
They definitely haven't been as supportive as they could have been. Maj is Scotland's leading wicket-taker. He's played with pretty much anyone who has played for Scotland. Even these guys playing today; Maj is a senior to all of them.
Qasim Sheikh on the reaction from Scotland's current players to the racism scandal
"I am not singling them out, but I think they understand what racism is like having perhaps faced sexism or misogyny in their lives. They may not understand racism, but they get it a little bit better, whereas I do feel the men are a bit more fearful to have those discussions. Anybody that has reached out to me and given compassion, I have really appreciated that."
Sheikh also expressed gratitude for the support of former Scotland captain George Salmond through an interview with the Scottish Daily Express on Wednesday. "That brought tears to my eyes," Sheikh said. "To wake up and read his article meant a lot. He coached me when I was an under-17 and saw the talents we had.
"I hope people will read that and realise that people like myself, Maj, Omer Hussain and Moneeb Iqbal weren't just average players. We were talented players who should have gone on and had much more fruitful careers for Scotland. I'll never forget George for that. He contacted me right at the start and he's a very strong ally."
What has been conspicuous through absence though is vocal backing from the current players. Both Sheikh and Haq had their international careers curtailed having suggested that race was a motivating factor in selection. Sheikh has not played for Scotland since 2010, when he was aged just 25. Haq though was involved as recently as the 2015 50-over World Cup before being frozen out.
Scotland head coach Shane Burger reached out to Sheikh on Wednesday morning, but that has been an exception rather than a rule: "They definitely haven't been as supportive as they could have been," Sheikh said. "Maj is Scotland's leading wicket-taker. He's played with pretty much anyone who has played for Scotland. Even these guys playing today; Maj is a senior to all of them.
"I'm really disappointed with the way he's been completely ghosted. Every so often he calls out performances and questions some people's averages and how they've been performing. They're international cricketers ... they need to learn a little bit of criticism when it comes to playing. He doesn't come out and abuse anybody or you know, swear and shout at anybody. The way that the cricket public in Scotland comes at him on that in Scotland and defends the players is quite ... well, when somebody goes through something like Maj has, he doesn't have the same support.
"Safyaan Sharif spoke yesterday and said he probably wouldn't want to put his children through it the way it is. He's a current national team player. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know, I don't know what else people need to hear to know it's not been good enough. It needs to be a lot better moving forward." –Cricinfo