An Asian cricketer claims he was subject to a disciplinary hearing after calling for an apology from a Leicestershire club whose members “blacked-up” for a fancy dress party. It is the latest incident in the crisis over racism in the game and is now being investigated by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
Four men attended the Disney-themed party apparently with boot polish on their skin and dressed in green and gold to represent the Jamaican Olympic bobsleigh team who inspired the 1993 hit film Cool Runnings. A photograph taken on the night shows the men from Sileby Town Cricket Club smiling with the chair, Nigel Kinch, who is also chair of Leicestershire and Rutland cricket league, which is at the top level of competition for amateur club cricket.
Umar Razaq, 31, a player at rivals Siston Town, who had previously been called a p*** by a Sileby player, shared the photo on Facebook and demanded an apology. But instead of issuing one, he says that Kinch called him in for a disciplinary hearing for breaching social media policy.
“This guy is the figurehead of the league of 38 teams,” said Razaq. “I just wanted him to acknowledge that blackface is wrong and to apologise publicly so that younger players coming through wouldn’t be put off. It was his party at his cricket club and he should have sent those boys home in disgrace, not had his picture taken with them. Excuses are being made for actions that are inexcusable. What sort of example does it set? I tried to challenge it and they went after me.”
Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire player whose testimony at a parliamentary select committee exposed institutional racism in the professional game, said he had been following Umar’s fight on social media. “Umar has been incredibly brave speaking out about his experiences. It’s increasingly clear that there needs to be investigations into the cultures of each county so as to get to the root of institutional racism in cricket. Again, we’re reading of a victim being abused and not heard. The game needs to change or we will lose a generation of aspiring cricketers.”
An ECB spokesman said: “As with any allegations of discrimination, Umar’s complaints must be investigated thoroughly. As these issues have not yet been resolved we will now be investigating and will also be providing independent support to find a resolution.”
Razaq said: “I’m relieved the ECB is taking this seriously as I have taken this all the way to the top of Leicestershire County Cricket Club and nobody has done anything.
“My case has really mirrored Azeem’s. Like all Asian players at all levels, I had put up with years of racism because I wanted to play and racism was just part of the game that we all felt we had to tolerate.
“But last October I decided enough was enough when [the member] returned to the club having called me a p*** in the past and served only a short ban. I called for him to apologise on social media and I was trolled by people talking about white power. Like Azeem, people turned on me for calling racism out.
“So I shared the photo of the party [taken in 2014] which was still up on a Sileby player’s Facebook page. An apology would have ended it. Instead, I was reported to the police for harassment, though that came to nothing, and called in for a disciplinary for breaching social media guidelines. I couldn’t believe it. Another Sileby player called a woman who messaged to support me the c-word on social media. There is clearly a worrying culture at that club, and it’s even more worrying that the chair is responsible for the league.”
Razaq was eventually invited to speak at an independent panel, led by Leicestershire CCC chief executive Sean Jarvis at the county ground.
Attendee Paul Joy, the director of Northamptonshire Cricket Board, told the meeting that the issue was the limited demographic of people running leagues and committees who were usually aged 50-70-plus and resistant to change. According to the official minutes, Jarvis promised to force through change, set up an open forum to facilitate it and invited Razaq to be at its centre. However, four months later, Razaq says nothing has changed. “It was a box-ticking exercise. Still no apologies; Kinch still the chairman, [the member] still playing,” he said.
On the eve of the panel, Sileby posted a link to an apology on its website, entitled only “club statement” with no mention of the subject matter. It said the picture had been taken at a private function at the club where the fancy dress theme was Disney. It apologised to “any individual offended by the incidents … and any individual who feels they have experienced any form of discrimination from our club.” Razaq said: “That is a sorry if anyone was offended, not sorry, it was wrong. And nobody has bothered contacting me to apologise. The statement was not visible, it was not labelled, you had to click through to find it or you wouldn’t have known it existed. Mr Kinch has remained silent about his part.”
The row prompted one Sileby player, Umar Afzal, to leave his club. He says he had endured years of racial prejudice dressed up as locker-room banter.
“I now feel ashamed and angry with myself for not taking a stand earlier,” he said. “It was all so normalised I didn’t even realise how bad it was. One black player joined us and left after one game because of the constant racist stereotyping of him being a gangster and a drug dealer. A Filipino player was nicknamed Yellow Man. Racism was like a disease at Sileby. It was just part of the culture.”
Under the current system, no independent body regulates the recreational game, though players can report any issues to the ECB via its website.
Kinch, Sileby Town, Leicestershire and Rutland League, Leicestershire County Cricket Club and Sean Jarvis all failed to respond to repeated requests for a comment. Jarvis said he had passed the matter to the ECB.
A spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “There is no place for racism in sport, in the workplace or in any part of our society. We urge all sports clubs to examine what they are doing to tackle discrimination and harassment so that no one involved in sport, whether as an amateur or a professional, suffers the racism that others have sadly faced in the past.”
Many Asians have been made to feel so unwelcome in mainstream leagues and clubs that they have formed their own up and down the country. Tom Brown, who helped found the South Asian Cricket Academy after studying the many obstacles preventing British Asians progressing into the professional game, said: “South Asian leagues are usually framed as an example of ethnic minority players excluding themselves from ‘the system’, whereas a more analytical lens might point to their existence as evidence that the current system is not inclusive enough
“Recreational leagues are often ill-equipped to deal with complaints regarding such matters. Often, victims of discrimination find themselves with nobody to whom they can raise concerns other than those with a conflict of interest or in some cases even to those they are accusing.”
Almost a third of grassroots cricket is played by South Asians in the UK, yet they make up only 3-4% of professionals, a figure that prompted the ECB to launch the South Asian Action Plan in 2018.
Thomas Fletcher, a reader at Leeds Beckett University who has written research papers on racism and the Asian experience in English cricket, says this can partly be explained by the lack of cultural awareness in the game.
“There is a hierarchy of cultural acceptability in cricket,” he said. “If you are Asian but you’ll join in, accept the casual racism, fit in, then you are accepted. At the other end, if you fast, don’t drink and challenge racism you’re branded a troublemaker, you’re excluded.
“It comes down to leadership. The senior coaching staff need to go into the dressing room and tell the players they need to welcome and embrace people from different backgrounds, take time to learn about their cultures.
“Resistance to change is coming from some of the leading figures in clubs at all levels who are conservative older white men mixing in homogenous circles. They don’t have their worldview challenged, so sometimes change must be enforced.”