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Azeem Rafiq, the most stubborn man in Yorkshire, achieves his vindication

Fall-out at county is bound to be painful, but necessary, after seismic few weeks for cricket

George Dobell
George Dobell
Sometimes you have to tear things down to rebuild.
That is the stage we are in with Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It will pain many to hear the club they love - and some of the players they have admired - criticised over the next few weeks.
But it is a necessary phase. The first step towards rebuilding was acknowledging there was a problem. After many months of denials, Yorkshire - or at least their new chairman - has done that.
There is still much to admire in this great cricket club: it still produces fine players; it still plays admirable cricket. A cancer has long existed within it, though. And instead of cutting it out years ago, it has been allowed to grow. There is, no doubt, a racism and inclusion problem across society and within the sport of cricket which reflects it. But the situation in Yorkshire, at club and county level, seems far worse than elsewhere.
The evidence for this? Copious first-hand testimony. Testimony that would have been given to cricket's authorities if only the complainants had any confidence in them. Instead they turned to the media.
Remember, it has been reported in recent months that four Yorkshire players of Asian heritage - Adil Rashid, Ismail Dawood, Azeem Rafiq and Rana Naved - have made complaints of racism at some stage. We know, too, that several other players of the same heritage have made complaints in private. Until now, they have largely been ignored.
Most of all, there has been Rafiq. Partly because he was a man with nothing left to lose - never forget, he lost a child in the midst of this saga - he wouldn't give up. Not when the club refused to listen, not when his union told him he didn't have a case and not when all the people who told him he would have their support melted away. He might turn out to be the most stubborn man in Yorkshire. And that's a competitive field.
At every stage, his story shows up a grim culture. For a start, he should never have faced the abuse he did. He should never have been called 'Rafa the Kaffir'; he should never have been called a 'P**i'; he should never have felt he had to drink alcohol to fit in.
More than that, though, he deserved to have his complaints taken seriously. He should never have been driven, in despair and frustration, to the brink of suicide. And, even after it took the media's intervention to ensure there was an investigation, he deserved better than the sham of a report which concluded that use of the 'P**i' word was "banter". At every stage, the game let him down.
Lord Patel spoke well on Monday. In acknowledging a "flawed investigation" and "the need for change" he came as close as he could at this stage to admitting institutional racism at Yorkshire. In the end he stopped just short of that conclusion, but it may well follow in the coming days. It's impossible to reach any other conclusion, really.
Patel and Rafiq have much in common. Both were born overseas but grew up in Bradford and Barnsley respectively where the scourge of racism was a daily threat. Both have had their fair share of turning blind eyes and deaf ears to such behaviour. And both are now in a position where they will not do so any more.
There is a word of warning required here, though. Roger Hutton, the former Yorkshire chairman who resigned last week, held many of the same views as Lord Patel. He attempted to settle Rafiq's legal action in April and, initially at least, felt he could bring the club's executives with him "on a journey" of education and improvement; words Patel also used on Monday. In the end, that reasonable attitude counted against Hutton. Patel must know that some journeys are best made without baggage. There are those at the club who have had every chance to educated themselves and change. Now is the time to cut them loose.
Let's be clear: there is no way Yorkshire can repair its tattered reputation with the same executive team in place. Equally, there's no way most of the current coaching team can remain; they have presided over the most shameful episode in the club's history. There has to be a new start at Yorkshire.
There will, no doubt, be more uncomfortable moments in the days ahead. Neither Rafiq nor Hutton, the chair who stepped down last week, look set to hold back when they speak to the DCMS (the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) hearing next week. Equally, in the coming days, it seems inevitable that more of Yorkshire's report into his allegations will leak out. There are other prominent players - including prominent former England players - mentioned in the report. In the case of at least two of them, whom ESPNcricinfo has chosen not to name, Rafiq's complaints against them were upheld. Given that his complaint against the player who called him a P**i was not upheld on the grounds that it constituted "banter", those 'upheld' verdicts look damning.
It's not just Yorkshire who will be embarrassed, either. The Professional Cricketers' Association also have things they can learn from the episode. Their representative in this case admitted taking no notes from the meeting in which Rafiq made his complaints and then not recalling a specific complaint on the issue of racism. As a former Yorkshire player who had colleagues who were accused in the meeting he was, no doubt, in a difficult position. But the process failed Rafiq and the PCA know they have to find better ways to act in such conditions. It may be relevant that every one of their staff - and they have 24 full-time members of staff - is white. The representative who worked on this case, whom ESPNcricinfo has chosen not to name, has left the organisation in recent days.
And then there's the ECB. They have, in recent days, done all the right things. And, to most reasonable judges, they handled the Ollie Robinson affair pretty well, too. But they were aware of this case many months ago (Tom Harrison first spoke to Rafiq in August 2020; they received his statement in November 2020) and, for all the warm words they have uttered, we are still awaiting tangible action. Perhaps it is inevitable that the wheels of progress in such a bureaucratic organisation move slowly and there will be, no doubt, much benefit in the establishment of a "Commission for Equity in Cricket". But sometimes we need to see sanctions and suspensions to know there are bites behind the barking. In short: words are easy. Now it's time to shut up and show us.
It's going to take a long time for each of these organisations to win back the trust of non-white communities. In recent months, those of us working on such stories have been inundated with the testimony of those who have suffered similar experiences. Often, they do not want those stories publicising; they just want to be heard and for Rafiq to know he has their support. In almost every case - and we are talking several dozen - they feel they tried to alert the authorities and were ignored. In other cases, they felt that there was simply no point trying. They key point is that Rafiq's experiences are anything but aberrational.
In the short term, the ECB will set up a confidential hotline which will field such calls. The hope is this will at least enable the sport to understand the extent of the problem. In time, it might also build more trust. Surrey have already released a statement asking any "Surrey player, coach, official or employee at any level of representation" to contact them if they "feel they have ever suffered racism or prejudice on any occasion during their time at Surrey CCC". Other clubs need to follow. Some of the results of this "truth and reconciliation" process, as Lord Patel termed it, may be painful, but it's the only way to progress.
In the long term, all cricket lovers - even those Yorkshire supporters who currently resent the disruption they may feel he is causing - may come to reflect they owe Rafiq plenty. Like English cricket's other whistle-blowers in recent years - the likes of Tony Palladino, Don Topley and Ian Pont - he has endured his share of abuse and isolation. But when they tried to buy his silence, he shouted louder. He wouldn't be bought or bullied or broken. He has persisted and he has prevailed. We may well look back on this as a watershed moment for the game.
There will be some - you know the sort - who claim a pay-off was always Rafiq's aim. But, by declining to sign a non-disclosure agreement, he limited his options in this regard long ago. Instead, his aim has always been change. He simply doesn't want anyone else to suffer as he has.
ESPNcricinfo understands Yorkshire's settlement with him (which includes his legal costs) also includes the creation of a bursary, in Rafiq's name, to enable cricketers from Asian backgrounds to enjoy more opportunities within Yorkshire cricket. It was perhaps more telling, though, that moments after agreeing the settlement, Rafiq committed himself to contributing to another bursary. In recognition of the role the cricket media played in bringing his case to wider attention, he will contribute to the Bethan James bursary; a scheme set up by the Cricket Writers' Club in the name of Bethan, a 21-year-old journalism student who died suddenly and aimed at helping aspiring cricket journalists from working-class backgrounds. Bethan was also the daughter of former England and Glamorgan top-order batter, Steve James.
So, where does all this leave us? With a mess, no doubt. Construction sites often look that way. And things may look uglier before they look prettier at Yorkshire. We're in for a bumpy few weeks.
But we also have an opportunity. For far too long, our professional game been growing more exclusive and less reflective of those playing it at recreational level. We have, thanks to Rafiq's determination and bravery, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to grips with this issue. We have to seize the chance. And, if we do, we'll have a sport - and a Yorkshire - of which everyone can feel proud.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo