Saturday December 03, 2022

Just not cricket

December 01, 2021

One of the few legacies of the British Empire that could be argued is an unalloyed good is the game of cricket. It’s a sport that has it all: excitement, skill, the heights of ecstasy at victory, the depths of despair at defeat. More than that, it is a just game: the British expression, “It’s just not cricket” is indicative of how the sport is seen as a symbol of fair play.

It is therefore distressing to see that racism is deeply embedded in the game’s institutions here in England. Azeem Rafiq’s testimony before a parliamentary committee alleging racist behaviour at Yorkshire Cricket Club was disappointing but not a surprise. Azeem fought back tears as he spoke, stating that racist language was used “constantly” and during his tenure at Yorkshire, it was “never stamped out”. He disabused the committee of the notion that it could be construed as “banter”. Furthermore, he was compelled to drink alcohol against his will to fit in. Worst of all, he was reportedly verbally abused in 2017 by Yorkshire’s director of cricket when he returned after his wife had a stillborn baby.

Unfortunately, cricket is just as problematic as any other ‘gift’ from Britain. There is a gap between ideals, rules, and actual lived experience. There are millions of cricket fans of Asian heritage in England; they rise and fall with the fortunes of their favoured players and teams. The parks and school grounds of Britain are full of young Asian cricketers honing their craft. But do they belong?

This is not a new refrain, it has echoed down the decades, since the first immigrant from the Subcontinent set foot on these shores. How much effort is required, how much needs to be achieved to gain the same measure of respect as say, a typical white male from Coventry? Why is this process even necessary? Surely, someone who comes here, abandoning all that is familiar and comfortable, to seek a better life, should not have to contend with racism. The immigrant wants to be here; to build their dream and have it intermingled with others to create a better country. But it doesn’t appear to matter how many trophies are won, or how many solicitors are qualified, or how many MPs of Asian descent are elected, there is something dark lurking in the national psyche that wants to utter obscenities at anyone perceived as being ‘the other’.

There is some good news: apparently, Azeem Rafiq’s testimony inspired a thousand people to testify about their own experience of discrimination. Furthermore, the ideals of a country or even a sport, can act as a foil. Cricket symbolises fair play: this is why Rafiq’s testimony is so disturbing. There is a distinct mismatch between what the British and others perceive cricket to be and what it is. Anxiety arises inside that gap: we all need something which touches our higher ideals, plucks on our heartstrings to play a more harmonious melody than we generally hear. If cricket cannot do it, then what can? So long as this anxiety exists, there is a pressure to reform.

A cynic perhaps would say in response to the Rafiq case, “What did you expect?” Cricket in England has been largely run by old white men, not exactly the demographic that has historically been the greatest advocate for change and equality. But to lower expectations is to accept injustice. Perhaps the most radical demand anyone can make is this: any system must live up to its stated ideals.

Azeem Rafiq became a leading cricketer due to his talent, determination, and skill. He perhaps began his journey with high ideals about what cricket is, and what it can be. The way he was treated was, to use the expression, “just not cricket”.

The writer is a practising solicitor in England.

Twitter: @shahjhan_malikk