Racism in Cricket: Rafiq’s Revelations

Azeem Rafiq has accused English cricket of ‘institutional racism.’ In photo, Azeem Rafiq gives evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, after he accused his former club Yorkshire CC of being ‘institutionally racist’.

COMMENTARY By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

Is anyone surprised at racism in cricket? It has been going on for years. What Azeem Rafiq did in 2021 was to blow the lid, to unmask some of the culprits, and to allow the world to hear the meaningless apologies and promises ‘to learn from this.’ Racism in cricket is probably as old as the game. This article highlights its recent history.

It is a sunny day in the summer of 1931. Eddie Gilbert runs up to the wicket. The delivery is more like a boomerang than a cricket ball. Don Bradman shuffles across his stumps, misses by a mile, and is bowled for a duck. This is the Bradman that was the scourge of bowlers in England. After the triumph over Bradman, the wheels of hate began to turn against Eddie Gilbert. They said he had no right to bowl so fast, he was a chucker, and Eddie’s career took a downward slide. Eddie was an Aboriginal Australian, and in those days, they did not figure, even though Bradman acknowledged that the five deliveries that Eddie bowled were the fastest he had faced.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) Anti-Racism Code says, “ICC and all of its members shall ensure that there is no discrimination of any form against any person because of race, color, religion, national or ethnic origin.” There is also a rule for spectators that hurl offensive racial remarks at players as they can find themselves ejected or banned from the stadiums.

Despite these rules, racism has continued to raise its ugly head in cricket. One of the most infamous cases of racism was the D’Oliveira affair. In reflection, Basil D’Oliveira was to cricket what Jackie Robinson is to baseball or Tiger Woods to golf. They broke down barriers. D’Oliveira, a Cape Colored, learned his cricket in South Africa but could not play in the big leagues because of apartheid. He moved to England in 1960 where he ended up playing for Worcestershire and was selected in the English party to tour England in 1968. The South African government objected to his presence and said that he would not be welcomed in South Africa.

England cancelled the tour and the opposition to apartheid began in earnest. It took years of pressure for apartheid to fall, and when it did, South Africa was readmitted into the arena of international sports. Today, England and South Africa play for the D’Oliveira trophy, and on the day of D’Oliveira’s passing, Hashim Amla, of Indian descent, scored a century for South Africa. Amla was also the Test captain of South Africa.

One might think that the struggles of the anti-apartheid movement would be the catalyst for friendships among cricketers. But in a report ‘Anyone for Cricket?’ that was published in England in1998 there is the conclusion that, ‘racism is so deeply entrenched in amateur cricket in Essex and East London that the local game has split into two camps.’ In 2003, Sri Lanka played Australia in a One Day International (ODI) in which the Australian batsman Darren Lehman was run out. He reacted by describing the Sri Lankans as ‘black bastards.’ This was a violation of the ICC Code of Conduct and Lehman became the first player to be suspended.

In 1999, tragedy struck a few days before the Australian team was due to fly to Sri Lanka. There was a bomb blast in Sri Lanka in which 50 people were killed. This was time for cricket to act as a healer but what happened was most deplorable. According to two Sri Lankan reporters, “A senior player in the Australian side told an Australian radio station that he wished more bombs would go off, so that they would not have to play in Sri Lanka.” In August 2006, cricket was in a state of crisis seldom seen in its history. The Test Match between Pakistan and England at the Oval abruptly came to an end when umpire Darell Hair accused Pakistan of ball tampering. Pakistan refused to take the field after the interval and forfeited the Test. Pakistan accused Hair of racism against Asian nations and refused to have him as an umpire in the future. Hair informed the ICC that he would quit if he was paid $500,000 in cash.

It may be a positive move in some cases to employ former cricketers as television commentators. However, in the case of Dean Jones it completely backfired. In a game between South Africa and Sri Lanka in 2006 Hashim Amla took a catch to dismiss Kumar Sangakara. Commentator Dean Jones was overheard on live television saying that, ‘the terrorist has got another wicket.’ Jones was promptly sacked by his employers, Ten Sports.
A year later, Herschelle Gibbs of South Africa was banned for two Tests for telling the Pakistanis, ‘to go back to the zoo.’ One of the most un-celebrated incidents occurred at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008 in which Harbhajan Singh clashed with Andrew Symonds over Harbhajan’s alleged use of the word ‘monkey’ to describe the Australians. India temporarily suspended the tour that was dubbed by the press as ‘Bollyline’ and some sections of the media concluded that ‘race remains an acutely sensitive subject in cricket.’
There is one dimension to the race problem that is rather novel. This is home grown racism and it has occurred as recent as September 2014. When Moeen Ali was selected to play for England, his family thought that it would be a happy occasion. Moeen was born in Birmingham, in the heart of the immigrant community.

In the T20 game against India, Moeen was booed by a number of spectators. The majority in the crowd turned up to support India. Moeen is a player of Pakistani descent. A report from ‘Cricinfo’ says that Moeen was booed from the start to the end of the game. Moeen’s father says that the booing occurred because Moeen is a Muslim and because of his Pakistani heritage.

As the 2014, English season was winding down, Andrew Gale of Yorkshire was accused of verbally abusing Ashwell Prince, Lancashire’s South African import. Gale was banned for two games. Many officials and fans ask: how long more can we make the excuse that racism is practiced in the heat of the moment? One initiative would be for the ICC to adopt policies to Bowl Out Racism (BOR) in all countries and for public relations and media outlets to help sensitize the fans. Clearly, nothing has been done. Rafiq, a former captain of Yorkshire, has detailed what he calls ‘institutional racism’ in English cricket.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.