Azeem Rafiq’s legacy is that Yorkshire CCC and cricket can no longer turn a blind eye to racism

It was horrible to watch as a fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It was horrible to watch as a cricket fan. It was horrible to watch as a human being full stop.

Azeem Rafiq in his playing days for Yorkshire (Picture: SWPix.com)

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Azeem Rafiq reduced to tears as he details racism experiences at Yorkshire Count...

When an emotional Azeem Rafiq talked about the “car crash” of his time playing for the team cricket-loving Barnsley boys such as himself dream of representing, watching it felt like rubber-necking.

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But turning a blind eye was what got us here in the first place.

Screen grab from Parliament TV of former cricketer Azeem Rafiq giving evidence at the inquiry into racism he suffered at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee on sport governance at Portcullis House in London.

Cricket has a problem with racists – Rafiq name-checked a few but admirably tried to keep his evidence to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee away from individual name-calling and focused on the bigger picture – but it has a bigger problem with those who did nothing about the racists.

As the biggest, most famous cricket club on the planet, Yorkshire have fielded most of the attention over the racism scandal which has put the sport on the news pages and bulletins in a way people hitting balls around with bats so rarely can, but after the events Rafiq’s honesty has set in motion, anyone else in the game, in sport as a whole, who pretends it is not their problem too is deluding themselves.

It was clear Rafiq had not just been let down by negligent, complacent employers, but by his trade union, the Professional Cricketers’ Association, and the game’s governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).

Rafiq had nowhere to turn. His allegations were ignored by his club, by the governing body and by the PCA.

Former Chairman of Yorkshire CCC Roger Hutton arrives for the DCMS Select Committee Hearing at Portcullis House, London. (Picture: Hollie Adams/PA Wire)

No longer should they or anyone turn a blind eye, even if we should not be surprised that others not directly affected by it, did.

For denying it now that it is staring and screaming at us in the face is unforgivable.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s profile, and the fact cricket is basically our county’s “national” sport, means this scandal has shone a light so bright it cannot be ignored.

The hope was expressed more than once in the House of Commons committee room that this could be a watershed day for cricket.

But the only employee of Yorkshire County Cricket Club from the time Rafiq played for it who was prepared to give evidence was Rafiq himself.

You could add cowardice to the club’s shameful crime sheet had it not already been inked onto it the day it decided upholding seven complaints made by Rafiq about racism and bullying was no reason to discipline any of its employees.

At least Roger Hutton, the bewildered-looking and (he argued) constitutionally-handcuffed former chairman with an unshakeable “can’t-do” attitude had the guts to front up. The contrast when his more dynamic, determined successor Lord Patel of Bradford, only a few days into his new job, was fished out of the audience to sit at Hutton’s right-hand side was reassuring for the future of this gravely wounded institution which means so much to so many of us.

But there is a limit to how much any one person can change a members’ club on his own.

After much effort, the committee interrogating those with the backbone and moral conscience to accept their invitation to give important evidence managed to drag the opinion out of Hutton that Yorkshire County Cricket Club was – contrary to the view of the panel which looked at the matter on its behalf –“institutionally racist”.

The ECB – maybe out of a sense of moral duty, maybe just because they had the awareness to understand what self-preservation entails – were present too, but try as they might, the committee could not extract the same admission out of the organisation’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, who again and again gave his ambiguous answer to a different straight question. Hopefully now the politicians understand how the rest of us feel.

Over time, Rafiq came to be a trouble-maker at Headingley, and thank goodness he was. That is what whistleblowers are. Most people prefer not to cause trouble, keep their heads down, look the other way, cross the road, even though in this case the glaring whiteness on professional cricket fields and in the stands nationwide is jarringly at odds with the very clear passion members of the South Asian community in particular show for the recreational game.

Only now, once the MPs have got involved and the sponsors have abandoned ship, are Yorkshire finally starting to acknowledge there even is a problem.

Worse than just looking away, they tried to hide the report, only when the pressure became intolerable even allowing the ECB a copy, still refusing to show the wider public.

The club has shown all the stubbornness the county is famous for with none of the straight-talking.

The ECB were also content to wait until half-past the 11th hour to act, insisting they could not do anything until Yorkshire had completed their own report.

Problems cannot be addressed until we accept they exist.

Racism is just one of the types of discrimination holding cricket back.

As Rafiq pointed out, it denied us the full use of the talent available, and teams representative of the county and country they represent.

Commenting on cricket is not part of my brief as chief football writer but as a fan of the sport not speaking out – even this late – would only be to contribute further.

By making racism in cricket an issue those involved in the game would have to go out of their way to ignore, Rafiq has done his sport and the club he says – like a partner in an abusive relationship, is still “his” club – more good than perhaps anyone this century.

Watching a man who killed his own career for the greater good as a 27-year-old saying he wanted his two toddler children to have nothing to do with it was genuinely painful.

As cricket lovers, we simply cannot close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears any more.