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Rafiq ‘dreaded every second at Yorkshire’

Azeem Rafiq
Rafiq played 169 games for Yorkshire across all formats, making a high score of 100 and taking a total of 217 wickets

A car pulls up and the window winds down, up steps a former county and youth international cricketer to hand out tea and snacks.

This is now the life of former Yorkshire spinner Azeem Rafiq, who runs a food business with his family out of a shipping container in Rotherham.

“For 15 years people thought I was living a dream, in reality I was dreading every second of it,” he tells BBC Sport.

“I carried on playing because of my will and my passion for cricket, it should have been the best time of my life. It is your family’s dream and putting your family in a good place, it is your identity.

“The more the problems happened, the more I wanted to run away.”

These problems were touched on by 29-year-old Rafiq in an interview with ESPN Cricinfo,external-link in which he claimed there is “deep-rooted, institutional racism” at his former club which left him close to taking his own life.

He revealed the extent of these issues to BBC Sport, saying on nights out if he was talking with someone, a team-mate would say “don’t talk to him” and use a racially-offensive term linked to his Pakistani heritage.

Rafiq, who was born in Pakistan and moved to England when he was 10, added: “They would stereotype me and say ‘he stinks’.

“On a pre-season trip to Dubai, one of the players said ‘don’t speak to him, he isn’t a sheikh, he hasn’t got any oil’. I have left a lot of nights out in tears.

“As a Muslim lad I have tried to fit in and I’ve done things which I shouldn’t have, which I regret, but all I wanted to do was play cricket for England. I did things that were against my religion and I am ashamed of that.”

Footballer Sterling empowered Rafiq to open up

Rafiq was tipped to have a bright future with England honours, but it failed to materialise despite captaining an England side at the U19 World Cup – a team which featured Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.

He was Yorkshire’s leading wicket-taker in the One Day Cup in 2017 but his stay, and ultimately his career, ended in acrimonious circumstances just a year later after being released by the county.

The decision not to renew his contract came only a few months after his son was still-born, which he says was “used against me for their own purposes” as he retold a conversation he says had with director of cricket Martyn Moxon.

Azeem Rafiq
Rafiq now runs a tea and snacks business in Rotherham

“On my first day back after losing my child, I was called into the office by the director of cricket and he gave me a dressing down,” said Rafiq.

“I could not believe it, he said my attitude was wrong, that the club had done all this work for me and I told him he knew my personal situation.

“I left that meeting in tears and that was so wrong of him. I knew from when I reported the situation the year before what was going to happen and it got proven.

“In 2017, I raised issues about a certain individual to the coach and director of cricket about how he was making me feel.

“I went through a version of events with the chief executive and director of cricket – but while I was pouring my heart out, the director of cricket was too busy looking at the clock. He wasn’t really interested.”

In direct response to the allegations made by Rafiq, Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton said in a statement: “Everyone at the club had a huge amount of sympathy for Azeem and his family at the time of the tragic loss of his son, and he was encouraged by the club to take more time off from playing than he elected to at the time.

“Those around him at the time knew how hard the tragedy had hit him but, despite advice from people at the club, he chose to return to the squad very soon afterwards.

“We will review all the events detailed in the latest allegations, and we want to assure Azeem that we take the all the issues raised extremely seriously.”

Rafiq credits Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling for being so “strong” in opening up about his racist experiences and felt empowered by him to do the same.

Yorkshire acknowledge they need to do more

More customers come and go and Rafiq’s phone pings continuously with text and WhatsApp messages, a video call pops up from his close friend Adil Rashid, the Yorkshire and England spinner, but it is a statement released from Yorkshire that catches his attention.

During the interview on Thursday evening, Hutton has said Yorkshire would be carrying out a “wider review” of their “policies and culture”, as well as investigating Rafiq’s allegations.

Hutton acknowledged the club need to do more for a culture of “zero tolerance to racism or any form of prejudice” and will be contacting Rafiq to discuss his experiences.

In his statement to the BBC on Friday, Hutton reiterated that the club “would like the opportunity to hear directly from Azeem”.

He added: “We have tried to contact him this week to hear these grievances directly from him. We will make further efforts to include first-hand testimony from Azeem in the investigation.”

Hutton also said: “The club has made great efforts to improve inclusivity and equality of all kinds over recent years, but we know that no organisation is perfect and this process is a work in progress.

“We don’t want to prejudge an investigation that has just been launched. It will be conducted with the involvement of impartial, independent external parties to ensure complete transparency and will also be conducted with urgency.”

When asked on Thursday if he felt anything will be done, Rafiq said: “We are dealing with very clever people here.

“I am quite agitated and angry at the moment. I feel that I am getting pushed to reveal more.

“I don’t want people to lose their jobs over this because they have responsibilities and they have children to look after but I want a full investigation to be done into this and there has to be some accountability.

“Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan recently said, ‘you have two options – you stand and surrender or you say, ‘la hawla wa la quwwata, illa billah’ – which translates as, there is no power or strength expect by Allah – and you fight’.

“If that is the angle the authorities want to go down, I kid you not I will prove everything that I am saying is the truth.”

  • For information and support on mental health and suicide, access the BBC Action Line.

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