Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

The Case of Azeem Rafiq Points to a Long History of Racial Thinking in Cricket

Michael Collins


Samarth Shirke

| 10 mins read

During 2021, long-standing concerns about racism in English cricket became very public, political questions. Back in July 2020, the retired West Indian cricketer, Michael Holding, commentating at the time for Sky Sports television, made an impromptu intervention linking the death of George Floyd to a long history of what he called the ‘de-humanisation of black people’. By June 2021, Holding published a book – Why We Kneel, How We Rise – which raised difficult questions about racism for a new audience.

Simultaneously, an investigation into racial discrimination was underway at Yorkshire County Cricket Club involving Azeem Rafiq, a Yorkshire cricketer of Muslim Pakistani heritage. By November 2021, a UK parliamentary select committee heard details of the discrimination Rafiq had experienced, garnering global news coverage.

Cricket's racialised cultural conflicts, originating in the colonial period, continued to shape the game in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and help us to understand more recent cases such as these.

Racism and racial thinking

For the purposes of clarity, this article draws a distinction between racism on the one hand and ‘racial thinking’ on the other. Racial thinking is related to, but analytically distinct from, and in fact prior to racism. Racial thinking is expressed in ideas and language about the identity of humans. It creates, organises and sustains unequal power relationships between human groups along racial lines. Racism is then defined as a term that designates behaviours (both subtle and overt) and actions that express, make real and reinforce racial thinking.

For the avoidance of doubt, to suggest that cricket is imbricated with a long history of racial thinking is emphatically not to say something as simplistic as ‘cricket is racist’. We need to understand the wider context of racial thinking. It is not enough to ‘call out’ acts of racism.

Cricket and the colonial period

Cricket's complex relationship with Englishness and its history of racial thinking presents the sport with particular problems. During the colonial period, cricket was a game that England's many non-white, colonised ‘others’ could play, but always within a framework of power in which the white Englishman remained superior, with the non-white, colonised subject remaining subordinate. Cricket functioned as ‘the imperial game’, but England and Englishness were always at its core, the originator of the game and the standard by which all others would be judged.

A key element of this lies in the game's historical pedigree. The purpose of this ubiquitous poster (pictured), which purports to explain the game of cricket to a ‘foreigner’ is, of course, to reinforce the idea that there is something very different and particular about England, Englishness and its pursuit of this antique leisure activity, unintelligible to the outsider.

Historically, the spread of cricket within the British empire did not undermine, but in fact strengthened England's sense of ownership over it. The game furnished the Anglophone world with a series of racialised cultural stereotypes about other countries that consistently ‘othered’ non-whites and re-inscribed the separateness and un-reachability of Englishness. The English would ultimately be the arbiters the very rules of the game; the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) continues to be the ultimate source of cricket's rulebook internationally.

‘A new and gruesome variation of the game’

An example of the connection between cricket and racial thinking can be found in Gordon Brook-Shepherd's 1981 Sunday Telegraph article ‘Where the blame for Brixton lies’, where cricket is the central metaphor used to explain the Brixton riots or uprisings of that year, when violence broke out across a number of English cities. Here, cricket enables the author to make an argument about the failure of assimilation black West Indians in England, but it also, crucially, provides him with a historical argument about what had changed over time.

Brook-Shepherd suggested that ‘for a while, cricket preserved the illusion that only the pitch had been moved.’ Indeed, many English observers were happy to extol the virtues of early postwar West Indian cricketers. Black cricketers could be safely admired – so long as they did not seriously threaten the ascendancy of the English cricketer or indeed Englishness.

However, sometime in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, coterminous with the collapse of empire and the emergence of an often febrile and unsatisfactory Commonwealth, the position of the black cricketer in the eyes of white English observers shifted.  Black subjects were now repositioned as aggressive and unassimilable. It should be said that the underlying fear of black power had been clearly decipherable in cricket commentaries from an earlier age, but Brook-Shepherd was keen to stress that it was within black youth—the ‘second generation’, coming to prominence in the 1970s—that things had gone wrong.

In Brook-Shepherd's evocative depiction, on ‘the streets of South Lambeth they [the children of these ‘calypso’ cricketers] have been playing a new and gruesome variation of the game, with bricks for balls and plastic police shields for bats.’

The importance of being English

And yet this problem with cricket and racial thinking does not lie somewhere in a safely distant past. In 1990, to take one prominent example, Norman Tebbit proffered his infamous ‘cricket test’, which questioned the loyalties of non-white immigrants. In 1995, Wisden, the publication of record within the cricket world, was engulfed in controversy when it published an article entitled ‘Is it in the blood?’, which questioned the commitment of some of the England team's black players. Additionally, whether or not with intended irony, in 2004 the MCC published an anthology of cricket poetry, including the following verses from a poem written in 1999 by John Groves: 'Cricket is an English game…/ It is not suited to hot-blooded races/ Although we export it to other places'.

Finally, throughout the 1990s, there was a series of highly confrontational matches played between England and Pakistan, with Pakistani bowlers widely being accused of cheating in order to win cricket matches against England.

The case of Azeem Rafiq

During 2021, the world heard the evidence of cricketer Azeem Rafiq, who experienced various forms of racial discrimination throughout his time playing cricket at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Rafiq specifically named Michael Vaughan, claiming that Vaughan—his team captain—told him and three other players of Pakistani origin that there were ‘too many of you lot; we need to do something about it.’ Vaughan has vigorously denied the allegation, whilst two of the three other players who were there at the time have since corroborated it.

Rafiq's wider testimony refers to a culture of racism that meant throughout his career he was routinely referred to by the racist slur ‘Paki’ and even forced to drink alcohol against his will and the stipulations of his Muslim faith. Rafiq's stand against such overt racism within Yorkshire cricket has brought forth a much broader range of evidence, which suggests that racism against non-white minorities in English cricket—fuelled by the spread of Islamophobia since the 1990s—is still a widespread problem.

There is a very long history of racial thinking that has constructed black and Asian cricketers in England as ‘other’ and as problematic: aggressive, untrustworthy, ‘un-English’. The origins of English cricket in the late-medieval age can easily frame Englishness as an ‘originary’ position from which the value and legitimacy of others can be judged. Cricket has historically been, and perhaps continues to be, a powerful vehicle for communicating this English cultural identity and the racial thinking that often underpins it.

As Michael Holding's recent intervention suggests, racism does not just spring from nowhere: racial thinking authorises and provides the foundation for racism. Those who wish to imagine the problem of racism as manifesting itself only in crude and vulgar insults or acts of violence misunderstand the problem. Racial thinking could be seen as being as much a part of cricket's traditions as tea and cucumber sandwiches.

It would therefore be naïve, or disingenuous, for English cricket to trade on its past, on nostalgic visions of Lord's as the ‘home of cricket’ and the MCC as the originator and arbiter of the game's rules for a global community, and simultaneously imagine that deep layers of racialised identity construction have simply evaporated.

To overcome English cricket's many challenges, carefully thought through and targeted policy interventions will be absolutely necessary, but arguably not sufficient. Progress will also require a recognition and reckoning with cricket's palimpsest of racial thinking over time.

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  • Michael Collins

    Michael Collins

    Michael Collins is Associate Professor of Modern British History, University College London.

    Articles by Michael Collins