22 November 2021

When it comes to racism in cricket, we should listen to Shahzad as well as Rafiq


For the last week or so the country’s eyes have been firmly fixed on British-Pakistani cricketer Azeem Rafiq, who accused Yorkshire County Cricket Club of ‘institutional racism’ and English cricket of being ‘institutionally racist’. Rafiq has given evidence in Parliament to the Culture select committee and been championed as an anti-racist ‘trailblazer’ by the BBC – before he ended up having to apologise for historic anti-Semitic comments he made on social media, of course.

But while Rafiq has been all over the news, people could be forgiven for not having heard of another British-Asian cricketer, Ajmal Shahzad. 

It is quite remarkable that the views of Huddersfield-born and Bradford-raised Shahzad – the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire – have been given so little attention and publicity. Having played for five different counties, Shahzad is well positioned to comment on organisational environment and dressing room culture at different cricket clubs. Considering his background and the fact that he also represented England in all three formats of the game, it’s even more remarkable that Shahzad’s rather different account of his cricketing experiences has had so little attention.

While expressing solidarity with fellow Yorkshireman Rafiq, Shahzad – who is now a fast-bowling coach at Derbyshire – told the Daily Mail that he had never experienced racism in English cricket.  Veering wildly off the progressive script du jour, Shahzad also said that: ‘As a South Asian community, we cannot say that the pathways are closed or there’s racism out there… I think that’s a very easy place to go and it’s actually a very bad place to go.’ 

To be clear, Shahzad’s personal experiences and comments in no way undermine the credibility of Rafiq’s testimony – the latter suffered a torrid time at Yorkshire CCC and experienced sustained forms of racial abuse. But Shahzad’s insights deserve to be taken seriously in their own right. The views of one British-Pakistani Yorkshireman should not take priority over the other, depending on how nicely their life experiences nestle into the metropolitan identitarian script. If the debate on racism in English cricket is to progress in a constructive manner, the experiences and viewpoints of both Azeem Rafiq and Ajmal Shahzad ought to be included in that wider conversation. 

Shahzad has also provided a possible explanation for the mismatch between South Asian representation at recreational/club level and in the professional game. While three in ten players in recreational/club cricket are of South Asian origin, this drops to just 4% in the county game. Why is there such a disparity? Nottinghamshire’s Samit Patel – who like Shahzad has represented England in all three formats of the game – has suggested part of the answer lies in the career expectations of some British Asian parents. ‘I don’t think they take cricket that seriously, they think cricket doesn’t make the money they think, they’d rather their son or daughter be a doctor or a dentist, or something like that,’ Patel told Sky Sports.

Shahzad himself has made similar comments about the difficulty of combining employment and a sporting career: “When you get to a certain age and you need to earn money from work, something’s got to give and some of the time they go on and do office jobs and sacrifice sport…some people can’t just play cricket in the hope that they are going to get paid or make it as a professional.”

If we are to examine topics of accessibility and ethnic-minority representation in the higher levels of English cricket, it is vital that we do not lock ourselves in the reductive ‘disparities = discrimination’ paradigm. The prioritisation of academic commitments, along with culturally-driven career decisions should be considered as potential factors, when exploring why young gifted players of South Asian origin don’t make it as professional cricketers.

On the broader question of institutional racism, there is certainly no denying that a rotten culture was allowed to take root at Yorkshire CCC – one that enabled and encouraged discrimination against Asian players. But that alone is not evidence that the entire sport is ‘institutionally racist’ – a claim that seems to have been uncritically accepted by many guilt-ridden ‘progressive’ journalists. To make such a sweeping generalisation, there has to a robust examination of the organisational cultural norms and official anti-discrimination procedures within all 18 major counties, along with the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB). As it stands, there is no reason why Surrey, say, should be tarred with the same brush as Yorkshire.

None of this is to say we should sweep instances of racism under the carpet or pretend there are no problems in the UK. But if we want to make progress as a multi-racial society, it’s important that the moderate, sensible centre pushes back against both the denialists and the obsessives who want to make everything about race.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. His PhD thesis investigated levels of social and institutional trust within British ethnic minorities.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.