Hitting out beyond the ‘set’ boundary: racism and cricket

Azeem Rafiq’s courageous testimony on his experiences of racism in the British game has ignited fresh examination of institutional racism, but will it lead to real change?, asks Puru Miah

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

CLR James, Beyond a Boundary

When Azeem Rafiq gave his testimony to the House of Commons, many of us from the Muslim and South Asian community were not surprised. It chimed with our own personal experiences of how cricket is played and run in the United Kingdom. What surprised me was the expression of shock and horror from those who were not from a minority background that such behaviour, personal and institutional, existed. Is the ignorance deliberate and convenient? When the outgoing chairman of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Roger Hutton, said to the Parliamentary Select Committee: “The culture of Yorkshire is stuck in the past,” he was wrong. For many of us, Rafiq’s experiences are a reflection of the game today.

The question of racism in cricket is not something that is new; it is as old as the game itself, with roots going back to the British Empire – a fact beautifully outlined by CLR James in his book, Beyond a Boundary. In modern times, the Bollywood blockbuster, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, outlines that history, with Aamir Khan taking the lead role and producing the film.

Growing up in a market town in the home counties, my first experience of racism and cricket came from reading the local Sunday newspaper. The paper reported how a convoy of South Asian drivers, mainly taxi drivers, drove down to a village. Soon, a royal rumble mass wrestling match occurred on the village green between the local villagers and the convoy drivers. What was not reported in the paper was that after the fight, a game of cricket was played between the village and a visiting cricket team. The ‘visitors’ stayed on and watched the game and soon left after it was concluded.

The above description is not a scene out of some film but my earliest education of how racism and the game of cricket, a hierarchy of race and class, is intertwined. South Asian taxi drivers from the town had to go and battle with a village so their sons and nephews could play cricket on the village green. I come from a cricketing family and cricketing town: both of my first cousins played cricket at a semi-professional level, with one being invited to trials and cricket camp by the England cricket team at Lords. So racism in the game, as in employment and politics, was a given fact and something to be overcome.

Growing up in that home county town, with the advent of the cricket season we were all reminded of the unwritten rules and hierarchies that existed, exhibited in how the game of cricket was played. The town is divided by a railway track. On one side lay elegant Victorian townhouses and the public schools, with their neatly mown cricket pitches and practise nets. On the other was a declining industrial area, occupied by migrant communities, where cricket practice was in the street with a taped-up tennis ball. The public school players had coaches and pathways set up for them; for South Asian players no such facilities existed. When local South Asians wanted to join established cricket teams they found their applications rejected, so they formed their own team to play in the local leagues. However, the struggle for legitimacy and acceptance continued: even when they were playing, there was disbelief at how the South Asian teams would consistently outperform their more established counterparts, with constant accusations of cheating and ball-tampering. It got so bad that a local solicitor, a cricketing enthusiast, took it upon himself to accompany the South Asian teams wherever they played.

I witnessed first-hand the barriers in the game in trying to get a close friend to play for Northamptonshire County Cricket. We had to proactively, and repeatedly, contact the club. In the end, they agreed for him to attend trials at the club, after passing the rigorous tests imposed on him. Then they used the excuse of an eye injury he sustained not to admit him as a player. He eventually played for our local county cricket team, Bedfordshire. However, there were barriers there. He would come home hungry each day from the matches because there were no vegetarian options offered during the lunch break. They took no account of the fact that he had to work to support himself. This is something that was echoed by Azeem Rafiq in his testimony to Parliament: the economic pressures faced by cricketers from working-class backgrounds. In the end, due to the intensity of the cricket schedule imposed on him, he sustained an injury which meant that he had to retire from the game.

These experiences of prejudice are not just limited to the game of cricket. Here in Tower Hamlets, the campaign for the Tower Hamlets Hockey Club to get a practice pitch has demonstrated that local authorities and other public authorities are responsible for discrimination in sport, despite being in clear breach of their public sector equalities duty.

Azeem Rafiq’s testimony is part of the longer struggle for equitable treatment by minorities in sport and other fields, such as employment, politics and within the Labour Party. Like all other struggles, documenting facts is only half of the campaign: the other half is change in policies and a change in culture. So I look forward with others to the committee’s recommendations and to campaigning to change the culture within the game.

Cricket, like all other sports, is not just a leisure activity but also a political activity. The goal is fair competition, but the implied terms are to maintain and perpetuate existing social hierarchies. So when the cricket season commenced in the home town of my childhood, it was not just the clash of willow against leather, but a clash of social justice against the existing social order. As with all competitive sports, there can only be one winner.

So when the South Asian cricketers from the working-class neighbourhoods smashed the balls bowled by the established clubs in the town, an example of beauty and truth emerged. Race and class struggle were mixed up in a game of cricket. All the spectators watching the contest knew where the real quality cricket was played, beyond the set boundary of the clubhouse and the trimmed grass of the cricket pitch.

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