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Azeem Rafiq: 'Before we move forward, the game needs to listen to a lot of people who have suffered'

Former Yorkshire player determined that change will be real and not 'box-ticking' or 'tokenism'

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
As a 15-year-old playing local club cricket, Azeem Rafiq was pinned down in a car and had red wine poured down his throat.
Soon after arriving at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, he and other players from Asian backgrounds were subjected to racist treatment and offensive language such as being told to "sit over there near the toilets" and the repeated use of the slur "P**i".
In a powerful account of those experiences while giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee hearing into Yorkshire's racism scandal, Rafiq said he lost his career to racism.
Amid fruitless attempts to raise concerns over his treatment through official channels, Rafiq has previously revealed that he could have lost his life.
Now that the game has been forced to listen, Rafiq is determined that it continues to do so before making real and meaningful change rather than "box-ticking" and gestures which amount to little more than "tokenism".
"All I wanted to do was play cricket and play cricket for England and live my dream and live my family's dream," Rafiq told the hearing. "Do I believe I lost my career to racism? Yes I do.
"Hopefully in five years time we're going to see a big change and I can look back at it that I did something that is far bigger than any runs I got or any wickets I got. But it's horrible, it hurts."
Rafiq's appearance at the hearing followed the botched handling of an inquiry set up by Yorkshire into his allegations of institutional racism while he was a player at the club during two stints between 2008 and 2018. The investigation upheld seven of 43 allegations made by Rafiq but the club insisted that no disciplinary action against its employees, players or executives was warranted. Among its most controversial findings, the investigating panel dismissed Gary Ballance's use of the term "P**i" towards Rafiq as "banter" between friends.
As the crisis deepened, a number of major sponsors abandoned the club and Headingley was suspended from hosting major fixtures as some leading figures at Yorkshire resigned. Lord Kamlesh Patel, who took over as club chairman earlier this month, praised Rafiq's courage as a whistleblower and announced the establishment of an independent hotline for victims of discrimination to come forward.
Other clubs followed by issuing statements committing to zero tolerance on racism and inviting players past and present to raise any complaints. Other players have already come forward in the media, including two former players at Essex, where John Faragher resigned as chair last week following an allegation of racist language used at a board meeting in 2017.
Rafiq told the hearing he had received messages from people connected with at least three other counties to talk about their experiences and he encouraged widespread use of hotlines similar to the one announced by Lord Patel to fully expose the problem within the sport.
"There's a quick rush to move forward," Rafiq said. "I think before we move forward, the game needs to listen to a lot of people who have suffered a lot of abuse up and down the country.
"I can't even imagine as a parent, hearing me speak now, why I would ever want my kids to go anywhere near the game... this is where it's for the ECB and the counties to show that they can actually use this as an opportunity for change."
Rafiq was asked to address suggestions he had been a "heavy drinker" while at Yorkshire.
"I've been clear from the outset, I wasn't perfect," he said. "There's things I did I felt I had to do to fit in and try and achieve my dreams and I'm not proud of them, it's something I deeply regret but it has no relation to racism.
"I should have never, ever been treated the way I was treated. When I spoke I should have been listened to. Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the game as a whole really has a problem listening to the victim. There is no two sides to a story when it comes to racism."
Rafiq then detailed being forced to drink alcohol as a young, Muslim teenager while still playing club cricket.
"The first instance of drinking, I actually got pinned down at my local cricket club and red wine got poured down my throat," he said. "The player played for Yorkshire, played for Hampshire.
"I didn't touch alcohol until about 2012 and around that time I felt like I had to do that to fit in. I regret that massively, but it has no bearing on the things that I was called."
Rafiq had also accused Yorkshire of failing to provide support when his son was stillborn shortly before he left the club for the second time, in 2018. Asked on Tuesday why it had taken a couple of years for him to speak out, Rafiq almost broke down as he gave an emotional account of the toll his experiences had taken on him and his family.
"When I left I had four or five months left on my contract," Rafiq said. "I was encouraged to sign a confidentiality agreement and take a sum of money, which I refused, which at that time would have been a lot of money for me. I knew my wife was struggling, I knew I was struggling, there was no way mentally I could have even considered putting myself through this trauma. I left the country, I actually went to Pakistan and I never wanted to come back.
"Until right at the end, I was in complete denial as to what was going on. It was only around the back end of 2017 when I lost my son that I went, you know what, hold on a minute, I've seen other players have family tragedies and get support beyond measure. I've just carried my son from the hospital to the graveyard and how I'm getting treated here is not right.
"To me, it became very clear that even myself, I'd been looking the other way and there's a real problem here, at not just Yorkshire, throughout the country and I'm going to be the one that speaks about this."
And Rafiq said that speaking out had continued to pose challenges for family life, including his wife.
"We've got two young kids and they've not had a dad really because all I've been worried about is Yorkshire going out to discredit me and how I'm going to deal with it," he said. "Dealing with lawyers, dealing with press. [It's been] challenging but I just hope today provides some sort of closure and I can treat her for what she deserves."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo