“I am exhausted,” Azeem Rafiq says quietly as, just before eight in the morning, he takes a deep breath and straightens his black tie. The 30-year-old former cricketer, who exposed the institutional racism at the heart of a sport he once loved, is dressed in a sombre black suit. His mood is as composed and candid as it was when he gave his harrowing testimony in parliament to the DCMS select committee two months ago. “It’s a burden I’ve been carrying a very long time,” Rafiq says. “So to get all that off my chest to the select committee was a massive relief. I slept well that night. But since then it’s been a whirlwind.”
Rafiq feels under threat, unsettled by warnings that he and his family are in danger. There are also sustained attempts to undermine him and Rafiq is convinced some powerful forces are intent on muzzling him.
But here he is, on a bright yet icy morning in London, ready for a 90-minute interview which uncovers his family’s frightening departure from Karachi in 2001 and takes us through distressing years of prejudice to a seventh-floor balcony in Barnsley where he twice came close to ending his life. At the same time, with a sense of the cricketing joy he has since lost, Rafiq reflects on his past achievements while considering how England’s latest Ashes debacle mirrors a broken game in this country.
Rather than a reset for Test cricket, Rafiq concludes that the ECB needs “a reset of their morals and values – simple as that.”
In November, after articulating the racism he had endured in Yorkshire, there was such acclaim for his raw honesty that many people believed English cricket had reached a watershed. Rafiq shakes his head now. “I don’t even know the word for it. Astonishing, maybe, because I still don’t think English cricket understands it has a problem. I don’t think it gets it or even wants to get it. I find that incredibly worrying.
“I think Yorkshire gets it now, but they’ve been left with no choice. There’s been a real attempt to do the right thing and understand racism in Yorkshire. Once you say sorry, you can actually do something about it. But I have real concerns about the other counties and the ECB.”
Since Rafiq’s testimony was finally heard, after years when he had been ignored or shunned as a troublemaker, Yorkshire have replaced their chairman, director of cricket, head coach and captain. Rafiq believes Lord Kamlesh Patel, the new chairman, is leading the county in a fresh direction. Elsewhere, he says: “People are scared to put their head above the parapet. But you can’t tell me this is not an issue up and down the country. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport report said it as well last week and they’re using lots of evidence.
“Privately, many people want to speak up. Publicly, I’m not sure how many will come forward now. Around 50 cricketers were going to speak out the week after my DCMS [testimony]. But how I was attacked, and other things behind the scenes, have been outrageous. Lots of people got scared.”
Rafiq is wearing a suit because the Jewish community have invited him to be one of a select group to light a candle at a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s diary. It is another example of how Rafiq’s apologies have been accepted by Jewish leaders following the emergence of antisemitic messages he had posted at the age of 19.
We will discuss his embarrassment later but Rafiq wants to make an important distinction now. “Just to be clear, I don’t see the [exposure of his] antisemitic stuff to be an attack on me. That is what I did and I deserve everything that comes my way. But lots of people got scared and they didn’t want the hassle of talking in public. I don’t blame them.
“There’ve been concerns around physical safety for myself and my family. It’s been going on a while and the general feeling from the authorities is that it’s something I need to keep an eye on. But it’s not nice, always looking over your shoulder and worrying about your family and yourself – for talking about a subject that needs sorting out. My family are really worried for me and it affects everyone when I am stressed.”
Has Rafiq feared for his safety? “Yeah, definitely. There was a time in December when I was really fearful. I felt like I was being followed and it’s really scary.”
Rafiq and his wife opened a fish and chip shop in Barnsley on 30 October and, as he says: “I’d worked really hard for a year and a half to get that business up and running, and now I feel scared to go in there because of the threats and being a very easy target in the town centre. We had a couple of instances at the shop and I was there when a gentleman came in and talked about having a bomb he would use to blow the place up. I’m now mindful that everything is reported to the police because the authorities protect us.”
Does Rafiq know who is trying to intimidate him? “Yeah, I’m aware of the individuals and the institutions. I’m suffering on a daily basis but I want them to know I’ll keep fighting.”
A sense of unease is familiar to Rafiq. When I ask him if we could return to 2001, and the year when he and his family left Pakistan, he says that he has not spoken before in public about those days. It feels right to do so now. “We had a very nice life in Karachi. My dad was a property developer but his business partner got kidnapped and burnt and that’s why we had to move to the UK. When we found him it was incredibly disturbing. He was a 6ft tall guy and all that was left of him was a pile of ashes the size of this table.”
Rafiq points to a small coffee table. “Within our culture,” he adds, “pressure comes with me being the eldest son. My dad knew if anything was going to happen, it would happen to me as well. It was really difficult as a kid [of 10] to watch my father suffer.
“We moved to England in July 2001 and two months later 9/11 happened. I remember that day clearly. My dad had a really big beard and when he left our house it was obvious everyone was looking at him. It was scary, the looks he was getting. Suddenly, life felt very different. After a while Dad trimmed his beard. He felt he had to for our safety.
“Most Asian people will tell you they were called a terrorist. You were told to just ignore it but it’s different for my generation. We’re not going to take this any longer. We’re going to stand up for ourselves.”
Does that memory haunt Rafiq? “It really does. Being called a terrorist or the P word hurts. It’s wrong. Those words left a massive mark on me. It’s mental trauma.”
At least cricket “really did help” Rafiq adjust to life in England. “I was excelling in cricket and it helped me get a little bit of standing, a little bit of worth.”
Remarkably, five years after moving from Karachi to Barnsley, Rafiq was England’s Under-15 captain. He was also playing men’s club cricket and being brutalised by bigotry. One of his teammates, who had played professionally for Yorkshire, “forced drink down my throat” as they drove away from the final club game that season. The only reason for such cruelty was the fact that Rafiq was a young Muslim.
“It was hurtful,” he says. “I question myself now as to whether I should have complained. But as a 15-year-old, new to the country, starting to progress in the game, what do you do when a professional cricketer does that? You think: ‘Just pretend it never happened.’ I didn’t tell my dad because if he had known I would never have been allowed to go to a cricket ground again. No one apart from the people in that car knew what happened. I joined Yorkshire’s academy after that. I wanted to erase it from my memory.”
Rafiq was so gifted that in his second first-class game for Yorkshire, aged 17, he hit a century. “It was a county championship game against Worcestershire and we needed to avoid the follow-on. I went in at No 9 and batted with Hoggy [Matthew Hoggard, the former England fast bowler who has since apologised to Rafiq for calling him “Raffa the Kaffir” and an “elephant washer” under that dreaded guise of banter] and loved it. Their bowlers were bouncing me and I ended up getting 100 off 91 balls, which was really enjoyable.”
He was soon appointed captain of England Under-19s and led a side including Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and James Vince. Rafiq took them to the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand and he remembers Stokes hit “an incredible hundred” as they beat India. He then became the first Asian cricketer to captain Yorkshire as they went on a winning run in T20 matches. “I was the captain of most teams I got selected for,” he says. “I’m a massive cricket badger. I studied the game avidly and that helped me in terms of tactics and managing the lads. I got a bigger buzz out of winning and the lads doing well than my own performances. The dream was to play for England and help them become the best team in the world.”
It’s disconcerting to hear Rafiq then describe a memory of him sitting on the pavement outside a nightclub a few years later. He was crying helplessly after he had been racially abused by his teammates. “I’ve struggled with my mental health since 2013 and been on medication since then. I still am now. I remember a couple of instances, in 2013 and the winter of 2018, when I came very close to ending it all. I was on the other side of the balcony and my flat’s on the seventh floor. But I thought of the pain my parents and my wife would suffer if I took my own life. I talk about it openly because, even though it’s raw, it’s important.”
Rafiq also remembers the loss of his son in 2018. Despite his wife’s difficult pregnancy, he was asked to travel to Durham for a game. “It was the start of the one-day tournament and the year before I’d been the leading wicket-taker for Yorkshire, taking almost double the wickets of the next bowler. So I thought I would play – only to be told when we got there I was 12th man. I did all my duties but I was annoyed and couldn’t understand why they had forced me to come up. I didn’t speak to the coach or the captain.
“The next day we had a game at Headingley. I was doing the warm-up when Martyn Moxon [the director of cricket] got the phone call. He came and told me my son was no more. There was no heartbeat. I got in the car and on that journey I screamed and cried. I got to the hospital and it was really difficult, really traumatic. It took five days for my wife to get the [stillborn] baby out. It was terrible watching her go through it.”
Rafiq looks up. “The nurses had said the baby could be badly bruised. But when we held him the baby looked like he was sleeping. He looked beautiful. I then carried him from the hospital to the graveyard. We buried him the very next morning and only one person from the club came. Alex Lees. I’d been at that club since the age of 11 and just Alex came. That tells you everything you need to know.
“Then, on my first day back, Martyn got me in a room and literally ripped shreds off me for not talking to the captain and coach on the day I was left out. I was like: ‘This is enough.’”
Did anyone at Yorkshire console him for the loss of his son? Rafiq shakes his head. “They did not care at all.” He was soon sent an email confirming his contract had not been renewed.
Rafiq had been hounded out of the game by the time England won the World Cup at Lord’s in 2019 with his former teammates – Stokes, Root, and Buttler. “It still hurts. But I’m incredibly thankful because I’ve become the person I am now. The cause I’m fighting for now means a hell of a lot more to me than any World Cup I could have won.”
He highlights the enduring issues of racism across English cricket and society itself. “The ECB have filed over 4,000 [racial] complaints and 50 were from Yorkshire. This is not an experience unique to me or to professional sports. I recently had a phone call from a midwife in a hospital saying I had helped her. I’ve had phone calls from staff at utility companies, from media presenters and politicians. People from different fields have said my story resonated and triggered them.”
Rafiq is less convinced he has triggered the ECB or its chief executive Tom Harrison. “I’ve heard nothing since their [anti-racism] action plan got announced. I’ve had a private conversation with Tom and I don’t know whether the counties are not listening or whether the ECB don’t care. I think it’s a combination of both under Tom’s leadership. He needs to take some responsibility. I’m sick of the words and the documents. We need to see action and we need to see it quick.”
What does he think of the fact that Harrison is due to take a share of a £2.1m bonus to be paid to ECB executives this year? “It doesn’t sit well, does it?”
The Ashes, meanwhile, “was a difficult watch” for Rafiq. “There’s something fundamentally not right with the ECB and their leadership. There’s got to be questions asked over some of the appointments from Ashley Giles [managing director of the England men’s team] down. It’s a merry-go-round, jobs for the boys.”
For Rafiq, England’s 4-0 drubbing in Australia is more than symbolic of the mess off the field. “They go hand in hand. It’s become such corporate fluff. If I was a broadcaster now I wouldn’t even do interviews because it’s like listening to a robot.”
He and Root have “exchanged messages” since his compelling parliamentary address. He has always liked the England captain yet Root’s claim not to have heard any racial abuse at Yorkshire hurt Rafiq. “It shows how even good people look the other way when it comes to racism. Joe said he was going to see me when he got back from Australia so I’m hoping he reaches out. If he does, I’m more than happy to see him.”
Rafiq is at peace with Hoggard – one of only two men, alongside the commentator David Lloyd, to apologise for their comments. “Matthew called me the morning after my first interview and I can’t thank him enough. He said: ‘I’m really sorry. I said things I shouldn’t have said and they clearly hurt you.’ That’s all I wanted.”
When his own appalling antisemitic messages from 11 years ago were uncovered in November, Rafiq “felt sick to my stomach, I was so angry with myself because there is absolutely no excuse. But I’ve had such support from the Jewish community. I apologised several times and left it to them as the victim in this situation to decide what happens. I got a call from one of the senior leaders of the Jewish community and he was very clear: ‘Don’t for a second think that they’re going to use us to derail your cause. We are with you.’ They’ve been brilliant and I’ve tried to build a bridge in my education.”
Rafiq admits, bashfully, “that I had absolutely no idea about the Holocaust until last month. I met Lily, a Holocaust survivor, and Ruth, a Kindertransport survivor. It was so disturbing to hear what happened. I can’t thank them enough for helping educate me. And to now get an invite to be a candle lighter at an iconic event like the Anne Frank lunch shows that if you accept your mistake and apologise to people then that relationship can turn into such a positive.
I’ve got a son and a daughter aged two and one. I’m definitely going to educate them to accept all races and religions.”
Rafiq is also intent on bolstering himself for he often feels alone in his struggle against those who would prefer him to remain silent. “There are times when I ask myself: ‘How much more can I take?’ I’m only 30 and I feel like I shouldn’t have seen and gone through so much. I’m battling every day and I just hope it doesn’t destroy my life moving forward.”
Before we step outside into the sunshine of Hyde Park, Rafiq sounds as defiant as he is wistful. “I wish I was a bit more normal,” he says with a smile. “But they are up against someone that doesn’t give a damn in hell about himself. My family are incredible. At times they’ve wanted me to stop but they know it’s not going to happen. When there were all those fears about my safety last month, I was done. I thought: ‘I can’t do this any more.’ But I get a second wind, a third wind, a fourth wind, a fifth wind and I just keep going.”
We walk through an echoing tunnel and then, suddenly, we reach the park. I feel his courage and resolve. “The more I see denial the more determined I become,” Rafiq says as we keep walking in the soft light of a midwinter morning. “That will never change.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the UK mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.