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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barney Ronay

It is tempting to see no winners but ECB’s judgment is a victory for Rafiq

A wilted red rose depicting Yorkshire CCC
The wilting red rose of Yorkshire CCC. Illustration: Matt Johnstone

Looking back at the footage now, Trent Bridge, 22 June 2009, the players of Yorkshire CCC about to walk out on to the field to face Nottinghamshire in the late evening sunshine, it is hard not to feel a sense of English cricket’s own Zapruder film being spliced into place. Every act, every cutaway, every pause, every edit seems undercut by a sense of historical weight, the smiles, the backslaps, the grassy knoll, the man smoking by the fence, details that will be pored over by endless sets of eyes, meshed and overlaid into their own competing Warren Commissions.

Here is Michael Vaughan shaking hands, Jacques Rudolph frowning, Azeem Rafiq, playing just his second T20 game, beaming with nervous energy, with that sense throughout of something happening, or not happening, or half happening just out of sight.

In this version of reality the corpse on the slab, subject of the current public autopsy, of the forensic piecing together of bone and brain and guts, is of course English cricket and beyond that Yorkshire CCC, the culture of professional sport, and the wider society into which all of this is simply an observation porthole.

Fourteen years on from Dealey Plaza, Nottinghamshire, we have the spectacle of Rafiq being cross-examined by a furiously competent KC over his recall of proven, admitted institutional racism, and the precise form of words used in a huddle full of adrenaline while simultaneously processing your bowling plans for Will Jefferson. We have the meticulously compiled results of the panel tipping itself, face first into the seething offal pot of Tim Bresnan’s WhatsApp messages, all the better to decipher the precise meaning of Tim Bresnan repeatedly using the word “Bro”, or the likelihood that Tim Bresnan called a passing woman “fit” in a bar he says he never went to.

As of Friday morning the ECB’s comprehensive 82-page report into all of this is now upon us, complete with the verdicts on charges against seven well-known Yorkshire cricketing figures. At the end of which it will be tempting to conclude that there are no winners in this; or perhaps that only Vaughan emerges with any credit, successfully cleared of a single charge of having referred to four players of South Asian origins by referring to them as “you lot” in the famous huddle.

But the truth is the ECB’s judgment is a victory for Rafiq. Those who wish him ill will choose not to see it. But the fact is nobody can doubt Rafiq’s testimony now. For all the pain, embarrassment, and abuse, the viciousness of having his character dissected in public, the key point of all this has been upheld. And Rafiq has only ever had one point to make, that Yorkshire CCC’s institutional racism had damaged careers and lives, and that those concerns had been glossed over both by the county and initially by the ECB on Tom Harrison’s watch.

Azeem Rafiq at Headingley in June 2022
Azeem Rafiq at Headingley in June 2022. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

Well, good luck with that now chaps. Because it is now a mater of public record that Rafiq was routinely referred to as “Kaffir” and Ismail Dawood as “Token Black Man”. It was found that Bresnan called Rafiq’s sister “a fit Paki”. It was found that John Blain used the P-word. More usefully we know that there was and still is a massive cross-purpose misunderstanding of what racism is, and that, for example, Matthew Hoggard genuinely believes Matthew Hoggard is best equipped to decide this matter. Vaughan will take the headlines, because he is the most famous person involved. But six of the seven people named were found liable on at least one charge, some of these arguably serious enough, if repeated now, to qualify as criminal offences.

And even the Vaughan case bears some examination. The panel decided that the emergence of several conflicting versions of the phrase Vaughan was accused of saying created enough doubt to make it impossible to say such a statement had ever been made. These are the versions produced, which the ECB decided were so different the entire case became dogged with uncertainty

‘There’s too many of you lot, we need to have a word about that”;

“Too many of you lot, we need to do something about it’;

“There’s too many of you lot, we need to do something about it’”;

“There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that”

Seriously. That is what a top KC will do, how the law works, how just enough uncertainty is introduced. But really, does any sensible person actually think these are different statements? The content is exactly the same. It is unvarying. The meaning is exactly the same every time. And the meaning is what you remember. It is the pain, not a precise form of words.

But again this is to get bogged down in Vaughan. The lasting memory of this process will be its performative nature. The report itself, the steps leading to it, the public vilification of a whistleblower (who is far from perfect, but this is also far from the point) all go some way to proving, without seeming to realise it, the content of his accusations. At one point Vaughan’s barrister, Christopher Stoner KC, questioned why it had taken Rafiq 11 years to come forward. With all due respect why do you think, Chris? Because of this? Would you fancy it?

There are those who will now crow and celebrate Vaughan’s vindication, while also pointing to the less admirable qualities of Rafiq dragged across the stage for the crime of daring to speak out. But Rafiq was of course part of this, was just as brutalised by it as those around him, drank just as deeply on the poisons. You don’t have to be Nelson Mandela to be the perfect victim, to retain the right to object. Rafiq had the courage to speak. And while there is nothing here that will feel like vindication or closure, it is he, not Vaughan, who is the closest thing to a victor.

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