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References and abuses: Yorkshire and its history of racism against Asian cricketers

Yorkshire finds itself at the centre of a raging issue with its former players and employees backing claims of "institutional racism" at the club, including reference to Cheteshwar Pujara.

Written by Vishal Menon | December 6, 2020 9:07:53 pm
A view of the Headingley Carnegie Cricket Ground in Leeds. (Twitter/YorkshireCCC)

At a time when Yorkshire is facing charges of institutional racism, it has emerged that Cheteshwar Pujara was called ‘Steve’ — a generic name given to cricketers of colour — during his stint with the county in 2018. The claims, put forth by a former employee, appear soon after ex-Yorkshire cricketer and former England U-19 captain Azeem Rafiq’s allegations that relentless racist taunts at the club had almost driven him to attempt suicide.

Cricketers of Asian origin called ‘taxi drivers’ and ‘restaurant workers’

Taj Butt, who was employed with the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation as a community development officer, has said it was a practice in the club to refer to players of Asian origin as ‘taxi drivers’ and ‘restaurant workers’. “There were constant references made to taxi drivers and restaurant workers when referring to the Asian community. They called every person of colour ‘Steve’. Even Cheteshwar Pujara, who joined as an overseas professional, was called Steve because they could not pronounce his name,” Butt told ESPNCricinfo.

‘Forced to drink wine by team-mates’

Rafiq, a 29-year-old off-spinner of Pakistani heritage, is at the heart of the raging racism firestorm. Rafiq, in interviews, has alleged that the club that he represented in two stints from 2004 to 2006 and 2008 to 2016, had encouraged a system of discriminatory treatment towards cricketers of Asian origin. It often took the form of getting pinned down by team-mates and “forced to drink wine” – despite being a Muslim – to the constant ridicule and social boycotts, getting referred to as ‘elephant washers’ and being asked to “go back to where you came from”. All this had left Rafiq mentally scarred and “feeling suicidal.” In a 2018 press release, he said the reason for the prejudice was “because my face did not fit, because of my race, it had nothing to do with my ability.”

Azeem Rafiq, who left Yorkshire in 2018, said he had been close to committing suicide after what he experienced. (AP)

Confronting and heart-breaking, says Gillespie

Former Australia pacer Jason Gillespie, who was the Yorkshire coach when Rafiq was waging his personal battle against alleged institutional racism, said watching him narrate the ordeal was heart-breaking.

“I saw this interview that he had given to the media, and some of those experiences that he narrated had happened when I was at the club, and it was quite confronting and heart-breaking for me. As a coach, when I saw him struggling as a player, I didn’t realise back then that it was because of racism. There were some issues with his cricket, but listening to that interview (to Sky) really opened my eyes. There was a lot happening to him off the field and his game was suffering. It was a hard watch,” Gillespie opened up to Mel Jones in “Cricket Connecting Country”.

BLM movement triggered outburst

Rafiq said that he had complained to the club’s administrators on numerous instances, but it fell on deaf ears. However, the widespread global outrage over George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement spurred him to go public.

Rana Naved-ul-Hasan offers support

Former Pakistan pacer Rana Naved-ul-Hasan came out in Rafiq’s support, stating that he was also subjected to similar taunts during his stint with the club. Naved-ul-Hasan, who played as an overseas professional for Yorkshire for two seasons (2008 and 2009), said that Rafiq had confided to him about his concerns back then and added: “Many Asian players were similarly affected by the club’s bad attitude.”

Cheteshwar Pujara was apparently called “Steve” by Yorkshire’s members because they could not pronounce his name. (File)

Yorkshire launches probe

In September this year, Yorkshire set up a sub-committee to launch a formal probe into Rafiq’s allegations and a review of the club’s culture by law firm Squire Patton Boggs. In a statement, club president Roger Hutton said: “Any allegation of this nature is hugely concerning to everyone from the board to the playing staff here. We take these reports very seriously.” Taj Butt’s comments supporting Rafiq were part of the ongoing probe.

Rafiq hopeful of meaningful change

The former off-spinner is hopeful that the investigation will bring about a meaningful change in the club. “I want to see kids starting off their journey in cricket in a culture of acceptance and respect, where they are judged on their talent and not their culture and identity. I hope this investigation will result in a meaningful change at the club and in sport,” he said.

Usman Khawaja’s ‘lazy’ stereotype jibe

Institutional racism is not confined to Yorkshire and England alone. Usman Khawaja, the Australian batsman of Pakistan origin, recently opened a can of worms when he suggested that the constant criticism he copped about being ‘lazy’ had racial undertones. “I always had that ‘lazy’ undertone when I was growing up and I think part of that was due to my relaxed nature, but part of it was also because I was Pakistani, and people from the subcontinent were seen as lazy, not doing the hard yards,” he told cricket.com.au.

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