September a decade ago, and Yorkshire were playing Essex in the last round of County Championship. In March, at the season’s start, Geoffrey Boycott had been elected club president. “The only thing that really matters to the membership is that Yorkshire do well in championship cricket,” Boycott said then. The club’s sesquicentenary was coming up in 2013. “In our anniversary year we should be striving to win the championship. We cannot do that in the second division, we have got to get out of it.” The onus, Boycott said, was on the young players. “They have to perform, they have to help to get promotion.”
Yorkshire needed 19 points from this last game to do it. But Essex had a strong attack, and soon Yorkshire were 166 for six. That brought Azeem Rafiq to the wicket. He was 21, with a handful of first class matches behind him. He was one of those kids Boycott had been talking about. In just under three hours, he made 53 from 130 balls, with just a single four, and led the team to 312. When Essex batted, Rafiq removed three of their top five. In Yorkshire’s second innings, they were 111 for six, and the match was back in the balance. Rafiq made an unbeaten 75, in an innings that all but sealed their promotion. Then on the last day he made sure of it by taking five for 50. Yorkshire won by 239 runs.
Rafiq was Yorkshire’s leading run-scorer and their leading wicket-taker in that match. His teammate Joe Root, who would make his England debut that same winter, won the breakthrough player of the year, but Rafiq got plenty of credit too. “He has the brilliant attribute for a spinner of being able to beat the bat on both sides,” said Darren Gough. “He is a tough, naturally aggressive batsman, too, and will make a good captain at some stage.” He had already led the team in T20 cricket. “It is perhaps premature talk,” reported Cricinfo, “but he might just be Graeme Swann’s spin-bowling successor in the England team.” Back then Rafiq was, in the simple sort of terms we like using in the sports pages, a hero, one of the “young guns” the Yorkshire Post promised could “launch a legacy of domination”.
Looking back at the start of this story makes its end all the more miserable. Rafiq’s time at Yorkshire has ended in a bonfire of allegations and counter-allegations about who said and did what, to whom, and when. The latest were published in the Daily Mail last week, when Rafiq was accused of using antisemitic slurs, homophobic language, and of fat-shaming and swearing at young children.
He has strongly denied all this. He says it is “categorically untrue” and that they are part of a “never-ending, coordinated campaign of lies” against him. Rafiq has previously admitted using antisemitic language. He has apologised for it and done his best to make amends. Rafiq has never made himself out to be blameless. He’s said more than once that he is “ashamed” by some of his past behaviour. Seen in one light, this only illuminates what the culture at Yorkshire was like at the time. Rafiq was, after all, one of the best and brightest young players on their books.
His own behaviour can be understood as a reflection of the environment he found himself growing up in, a response to the harassment and abuse he suffered, and a reaction to the institutional racism he encountered.
It doesn’t make his own experiences of racism any less true or hurtful, or diminish the fault of the people responsible. What it does do is help explain why the situation has become so poisonous. There are people in Yorkshire cricket who refuse to let the club be accused by a man they could level their own accusations back at, who won’t allow that he could both be badly flawed and still have been badly failed by the club.
You could read it in the letter signed by members of Yorkshire’s staff last year, which spoke about the “kind of individual he was whilst at the club” and “the endless episodes of Azeem’s behaviour, well-known to the club, which reflect on him as a person well before he decided to accuse the club, staff and players of any wrongdoing.”
The letter went on: “We find it difficult to comprehend how this part of Azeem’s character has not been released or at least used by the club in its defence.” Those members of staff were subsequently sacked, a decision that exacerbated the very same grievances they were articulating.
This isn’t a straightforward story of heroes, villains, and victims – life away from the playing field rarely is. If you’ve been following it, you will have seen repeated Chaucer’s old proverb about people who live in glass houses, the point of the cliche being, of course, that everything will end up broken in the end. It is going to get worse. The Cricket Discipline Commission hearings into what went on at Yorkshire start soon.
The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket is due to publish its report early next year. English cricket has got itself in a godawful mess over this one case. The ICEC promises to address over 4,000 of them. There is an iceberg on the near horizon.