Everything is interpretation – we get that. But surely there was only one, broad understanding of Azeem Rafiq’s extraordinary testimony today: that he is a good, generous man. A man who has flaws; a man who has demons, even*, but essentially a lovely, honest, concerned human. Some guy looking for a pitch, a game, a place where everyone can play as equals.
In front of the Parliamentary Committee convened to discuss and examine racism in cricket, Rafiq dug deep, often, to give a good account of himself. Palpably emotional and yet determined – without any whiff of self-aggrandisement whatsoever – to be “a voice for the voiceless”, the former Yorkshire cricketer ground a way through a series of bitterly hurtful memories. Insults, both petty and outrageous; blandishments and outright subversion from those he thought were there to represent him; the bulwark that is white exceptionalism and/or supremacy. He was heroic: you could feel both how vulnerable the man has been and how cruelly this further, sustained gathering of his wit, courage and equanimity has challenged him personally and his family life. It really did feel like he was ploughing on for other people.
Most of all, the bloke sounded almost unbelievably fair. Those who have read George Dobell’s tweets and reports over recent months/days/hours will know that the man giving evidence first-up, today even tried to make sure that one of the chief protagonists on the other side – Gary Ballance – was going to be forewarned of the incoming storm, so as not to suffer the kind of deep disquiet that has so traumatised him. Wow. Azeem, maybe they, maybe we don’t deserve you.
Having watched every moment of the Barnsley-born player’s evidence, I’m happy to argue that this awesome level of generosity may be typical of him: speculative, accepted, but how else to view the general flow of his magnanimity? Time and again he tried to de-personalise this – to talk about institutional or cultural practice not individual transgressions. Of course certain individuals were appallingly culpable but Rafiq pointed more to the milieu, the matrix, the banter-heavy context in which the unforgivable was passing as the norm. (On this particular theme, it feels not inappropriate to note that the Zimbabwean-born player who may have been most obviously and persistently guilty of racism did not accept the invitation to attend).
Other high profile people are being clawed into this, now. I’m pretty sure the need for *stories* centring on them may be unhelpful but appreciate and support the imperative towards a clear-out of lazy or manifestly prejudiced ideology and practice. I have been around one or two of those in the firing line and am unsurprised by allegations against some… but relatively concerned for one or two others who I sense *may* be being traduced. But hey, my hunches and the protestations of a bunch of senior white blokes are not fundamental, here. We need to hear the voices who have been denied, or truly oppressed.
It is certain that today was a Big Day in terms of exposing the thin, t-shirt diplomacy and corporate box-ticking around race as the tokens and funder-driven frauds they have been. That should be massive. Azeem Rafiq’s role has been likewise historic, tectonic and somehow beautifully (if agonisingly) selfless. The churn that may result will be the deep, painful but necessary angst and enquiry that must precede real change. The suspicion that this is a societal problem and that therefore it lies within other sports too may be more of a distraction than a signpost towards wider revisions (which must also come). Cricket has been found out. Cricket must act.
*Those ‘demons’. It remains unclear to me how troubling drink is in this story – if at all. (More likely it’s a minor example of the dirty tricks employed against The Accuser?)
Azeem Rafiq’s strikingly poignant admission that he lapsed into drinking alcohol in a feeble and inevitably unsuccessful attempt to be one of the lads appeared to haunt him more than any possible lapse into dependency or brief, clannish indulgence might have done. His ‘frailty ‘in this regard is forgiven – and indeed respected – in this quarter. Booze, machismo and ‘tribalism’ are so often a gateway into prejudice, eh?