“Climb for it, you f***ing monkey”. Those words should send a chill down the spine of anyone who loves our game. They were uttered by an as yet unnamed Essex cricketer as he threw a banana down the stairs at Maurice Chambers, a man of Caribbean decent who played for the county between 2005-2013. Chambers alleges he was routinely offered bananas and subjected to racist abuse during his time at Essex. He added that he would go home at night and cry in his room.
Azeem Rafiq’s evidence to MP’s yesterday has been equally as shocking as Chambers’ revelations. To read of the treatment he allegedly received from senior figures at Yorkshire after the stillbirth of his son is particularly heart breaking.
To many of us these allegations of racism will come as a shock, to others they will have seemed a long time coming.
Something must be seriously rotten at the heart of our professional game. In grassroots cricket, South Asian players are the bedrock of the sport. I have played club cricket for 13 years and all the teams I have played for have had a strong South Asian representation. I can also say that in those 13 years I can never once remember hearing a racist comment from a white player to an ethnic minority player. I realise that as a white English person there may be things that I was unaware of, but I believe I would have noticed any racism in dressing rooms I was part of.
However, something clearly changes higher up the cricketing pyramid. The fact that Azeem Rafiq’s allegations have been followed by so many other ethnic minority players coming forward shows the depth of the problem we have.
It is also worth noting how many notable names in our game sat in those dressing rooms at that time. Maurice Chambers played in the same team as Alastair Cook, Azeem Rafiq as Joe Root, the two most recent England captains. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.
Root, in particular, has disappointed this week in my opinion. None of us can know for sure what Joe remembers. However, the claim from the England captain that he played alongside Rafiq and Garry Ballance since junior cricket and was a presence in the Yorkshire dressing room for the last 12 years, yet never heard a single word of what Rafiq alleges, will raise some eyebrows.
At this point it is also worth sounding a word of caution. The investigation into racism in the sport must not become a witch hunt. Good people who have given their lives to the game must not have their reputations ruined on the basis of hearsay or rumour. We must be careful to hold the real villains of the piece to account without falling into the sort of social media frenzy that characterises the modern world.
Humour and mickey-taking are the lifeblood of the dressing room, and we cannot allow this to be stamped out in a climate of fear. If that happens the game will become a very joyless thing indeed. We must have the wisdom to separate harmless wisecracks from abuse / racism while holding the actual racists and bullies to account. They cannot be allowed to hide behind the banner of “banter”.
We must begin by accepting how deeply this problem runs and how long it has been ingrained in our game. Casting my mind back to the late 1990’s-early 2000’s, even as a young child, I can remember commenting to my mother about how few black players got picked for England and how much quicker they seemed to get dropped after a bad game than white players who had performed equally badly.
For example, the Gloucestershire captain and all-rounder Mark Alleyne was one of the most innovative leaders in the sport at the time. His side dominated the limited overs county game, winning four competitions in a row. Alleyne’s keen cricketing brain could have transformed the England one day side in an era when their performances plumbed the very depths of ineptitude. Instead, he played only 10 one-day internationals. It is also instructive to remember how many other all-rounders England tried during that period.
Steve Waugh would often comment that Australia’s players would be “amazed” whenever Devon Malcom was left out of the England team as he was the one England bowler they truly feared. Malcolm certainly appeared to be the fall guy for every bad England performance at the time and was routinely left out of the team with seemingly little justification. The possible reasons for this are more complex than I can address here, but I would recommend reading Mike Atherton’s autobiography and his account of how the England management treated Malcolm. It does not sit well, particularly in the light of recent events.
The experiences of Azeem Rafiq and Maurice Chambers will chime with many other Asian and Afro-Caribbean cricketers up and down the country. Just this morning, former England bowler Amjad Khan, who is now a lawyer, claimed that several former players had approached him with stories similar to Rafiq’s. These stories will also chime with anyone who has experienced workplace bullying and simply been dismissed as a “troublemaker” or someone who did not share the team’s “values”. Depicting victims as people “who just can’t take a bit of banter” is something that we must move away from as a society. After all, as we have seen at Yorkshire, bullies rarely perceive themselves as bullies. .
A light has been shined today on some uncomfortable truths in cricket. For this we have Azeem Rafiq and Maurice Chambers to thank. Rafiq’s brave testimony will act as an inspiration to anyone who has ever experienced this sort of treatment. They cannot be expected to simply shrug it off just to “fit in”.
Our beloved game and its most valued organisations will be hurt by this. But no sporting institution is as important as that one person who goes home at night and contemplates ending their own life because of what the game we love has put them through. That must never be allowed to happen again.