Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless

Special Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
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Former cricket player Azeem Rafiq speaks with Arab News on October 8, 2023, in Dubai, UAE. (AN Photo)
Special Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
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Former cricket player Azeem Rafiq arrives to attend a Cricket Discipline Commission hearing, relating to allegations of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, in London on March 1, 2023. (AFP/File)
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Updated 09 October 2023
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Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless

Pakistan-origin Azeem Rafiq: Cricket’s voice for the voiceless
  • Rafiq told parliamentary committee in 2021 of “inhuman” treatment at Yorkshire, said he was victim of institutional racism 
  • Six former Yorkshire players were sanctioned by the CDC in May after they were found to have used racist slurs

DUBAI: Azeem Rafiq’s tale is one for the ages. It encapsulates the contemporary differences and tensions in British society, generating considerations that resonate across other societies in which cricket has a foothold.

The unfolding of his tale has been covered in previous columns. Revelations of racial abuse were first published in a cricket journal in 2020. These attracted the interest of a UK Parliamentary Select Committee in 2021, to whom Rafiq gave a harrowing public account of his experiences. After that, the England and Wales Cricket Board requested the establishment of an Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. It reported in June 2023. Three months later, the ECB published its response.

In an interview conducted with Rafiq in the Arab News office in Dubai this week, he provided a candid opinion on the ECB’s response and related issues. His overall view is that the response is “flimsy and falls short of what is required.” When asked what is required, he has no doubt that the fundamental issues of systemic racism are still not being addressed with meaningful programs of change. He refers to a previous ECB report in 1999 on the same subject that was more specific in terms of what it would put in place. In over 20 years, he judges, there has been little progress, even regression.

The issue is, why? Rafiq talked about the forces of denial within society, about skilfully produced briefings made against him and others who have supported him, and of the death threats made against him and his family. These were instrumental in them relocating to Dubai, where he feels much safer.

Asked if he has regrets, he says none at all. He is strong in his faith, which has been a sustaining force. However, he admits to dark times with contemplations of suicide. Those responsible for bringing him to this pass really ought to be ashamed. It is doubtful that they are, wherein lies the problem.

In April 2024, the book which he has been producing with eminent cricket correspondent George Dobell is expected to be published. Rafiq anticipates that it will be an uncomfortable read for some. It seems to have been a cathartic experience for him, made none the easier by no end being in sight for his tale. There may be many who wish that it would end.

The book’s title, “It’s Not Banter, It’s Racism,” is bound to annoy the deniers, for whom it remains just that — banter to be taken in the spirit of dressing room humor and bonding. Such ingrained attitudes are difficult to shift and, from my experience, those who do try end up being branded as troublemakers.

Rafiq’s resilience is remarkable and impressive. Despite Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that continue to be hurled his way, he fights on. He feels he has a purpose in life, to make access to cricket and continued participation in it for young people of ethnic backgrounds easier and sustainable. He has schemes in mind. Funding is sought, not from established sources, but from private, altruistically motivated individuals and bodies.

There is a strong sense that Rafiq has a deep suspicion of the establishment. While the concept may be regarded as a nebulous one, in this case it relates to many of those who govern or have governed cricket in Yorkshire, England and Wales in the past two decades. In his view, they are the ones who have failed to address the issue of institutional racism, tried to brush the problem under the carpet, made platitudinous promises to bring about change, waited for the storm to die down and then reverted to type.

Many would have given up, kowtowed by the forces who feel that cricket has been wronged and are striking back. There is a deep vein of conservatism in British society that extends to cricket. Despite attempts to broaden the spectator appeal through initiatives in T20 and The Hundred formats, professional players are drawn largely from non-state schools and are mainly white. The problem is exacerbated by class.

According to historian Duncan Stone: “Class dictates everything about cricket in this country, in particular. It is woven into the culture of the game.” This dictates how it is organized and structured. As a result, swathes of the population do not get a chance to participate, most notably young people in state schools. The onus for developing young talent is forced onto local clubs. Some lack the financial or technical resources to achieve that, often precipitating their own collapse. A vicious circle of declining participation and institutional racism is not seen by everyone.

Azeem Rafiq, among others, does see it, and is driven to do something about it. Despite his sordid experiences in cricket, he still loves the game. His campaigning seeks to circumvent the formal channels, as he doubts their ability to achieve the changes that he believes are necessary. Hence, his lukewarm view of the ECB’s response to the damning conclusions of the ICEC report. He does give credit to the ECB’s commitments around women’s cricket and match-fee equalization.

Another commitment is to an action plan designed to increase the number of state primary and secondary school students playing cricket. The ECB also proposes to work with counties to redefine the talent pathway, aiming to ensure that finance is not a barrier to participation. While Rafiq accepts that these are steps in the right direction, he is skeptical that they will resolve his main concern, that of racial discrimination.

Challenging this is a huge task, striking at the fabric of British cricket and society, and not helped by current political trends. That does not seem to faze Rafiq. In his own words, he is “providing a voice for the voiceless” — those who are afraid to speak out or have no channel to do so. This puts him outside the mainstream. It will not be for lack of effort on his part if South Asians continue to experience discrimination when playing cricket.


Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP

Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP
Updated 30 min 54 sec ago
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Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP

Xavi to remain Barcelona coach: club to AFP
  • The 44-year-old decided on his dramatic change of mind after a day of meetings

BARCELONA: Xavi will remain as coach of Barcelona, the Spanish giants told AFP on Wednesday, despite having announced in January that he planned to quit at the end of the season.
Spanish media reported that the 44-year-old, who had signed a contract extension until 2025 last autumn, decided on his dramatic change of mind after a day of meetings with club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco.


Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final

Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final
Updated 24 April 2024
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Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final

Kewell’s Yokohama beat Ulsan to reach Asian Champions League final
  • Yokohama will host Al Ain in the first leg of the final on May 11, with the return being held in the UAE on May 25

YOKOHAMA: Harry Kewell said his Yokohama F-Marinos players can “handle any pressure” after beating Ulsan Hyundai 5-4 on penalties on Wednesday to set up an Asian Champions League final against Al Ain.

Former Liverpool and Leeds forward Kewell’s side came through a pulsating semifinal that ended 3-3 on aggregate to reach the Champions League final for the first time.

Trailing 1-0 from last week’s first leg in South Korea, Yokohama scored three goals in the opening 30 minutes in Japan but then conceded twice and had a man sent off before halftime.

Goalkeeper William Popp saved from Ulsan’s Kim Min-woo in the shootout to hand Yokohama the advantage in constant driving rain, before Carlos Eduardo converted the decisive spot kick.

Kewell, who took over as Yokohama coach at the start of the year, said he told his players that “the hardest games you will play are semifinals.”

“I said: ‘Nothing easy in this game’,” said the Australian.

“You are going to get pushed to the limit where I believe you can handle it.

“I think it showed them tonight, they believe now they can handle any kind of pressure.”

Yokohama will host Al Ain in the first leg of the final on May 11, with the return being held in the UAE on May 25.

Al Ain beat Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal 5-4 on aggregate on Tuesday to reach the final.

Yokohama looked certain to join them after a barnstorming start to the second leg but two goals for Ulsan and a 39th-minute red card for defender Takumi Kamijima cranked up the tension.

Ulsan laid siege to the Yokohama goal but Kewell said his players grew in stature as the game went on.

“The players were composed, they were confident,” he said.

“They were getting stronger and stronger as they got closer to the final whistle.”

Ulsan, who had already booked their place in next year’s 32-team Club World Cup in the US by winning the semifinal first leg, were looking for their third Champions League title.

“My players kept going until the end,” said coach Hong Myung-bo.

“It’s unfortunate because we had a lot of chances to score in both the first and second legs.”

Yokohama took the lead in the 13th minute when a defensive mix-up between Kim Young-gwon and Hwang Seok-ho allowed Asahi Uenaka to streak through and score.

Anderson Lopes added a second in the 21st minute, firing home a left-foot shot from just inside the box.

The home side kept up the pressure and Uenaka notched his second of the game on the half-hour mark when he slipped his marker and curled a shot past goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo.

But just as it looked like turning into a rout, Ulsan hit back when Matheus Sales headed home direct from a corner in the 35th minute.

Moments later, Ulsan had a penalty and Yokohama were reduced to 10 men when Kamijima was red-carded for a handball as he slid in to make a tackle.

Substitute Darijan Bojanic, who had come on in the 34th minute, made no mistake from the spot.

Kewell admitted Yokohama “rode our luck at times” as they held off Ulsan but said his players “deserved everything they got.”

“We’re going to enjoy the final,” he said.

“You don’t get a chance to play many finals in your career so when you do, enjoy it and play the way that you’re born to play.”


India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz

India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz
Updated 24 April 2024
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India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz

India’s Pant boosts World Cup hopes with IPL batting blitz
  • Delhi posted 224-4 courtesy of a 113-run stand between Pant and fellow left-hander Axar Patel, who hit 66
  • Hosts kept Gujarat down to 220-8 to win by four runs after David Miller’s 23-ball 55 and an unbeaten 21 off 11 deliveries by Rashid Khan

NEW DELHI: Rishabh Pant smashed an unbeaten 88 as he led Delhi Capitals to a tense IPL win over Gujarat Titans on Wednesday, boosting his chances of playing for India at the T20 World Cup.
Delhi posted 224-4 courtesy of a 113-run stand between Pant and fellow left-hander Axar Patel, who hit 66, after they slipped to 44-3 inside six overs at their home Arun Jaitley Stadium.
The hosts kept Gujarat down to 220-8 to win by four runs after David Miller’s 23-ball 55 and an unbeaten 21 off 11 deliveries by Rashid Khan.
Mukesh Kumar kept his nerve in the final over for Delhi’s fourth win in nine matches as they kept their playoff hopes alive in the T20 tournament.
Pant, 26, struck his third half-century of this season after 14 months away from top level cricket following a frightening car accident when his Mercedes rammed into a barrier, flipped and caught fire in December 2022.
Pant, a wicketkeeper-batsman, suffered multiple injuries and was rushed to hospital before being airlifted to Mumbai for further treatment and surgery.
“Everyday that I’m in the middle, I feel better,” man of the match Pant said after his 43-ball blitz studded with five fours and eight sixes.
“Every hour on the field matters, I love being on the field. I try to give it my 100 percent. I think the first six in the match gives me the confidence in a game.”
Pant has not only fired with the bat in the IPL but his sharp work behind the stumps prompted Delhi’s director of cricket Sourav Ganguly and coach Ricky Ponting to back the India star for making the national team for the World Cup in June.
Up and coming Australian batsman Jake Fraser-McGurk gave Delhi a strong start with his 14-ball 23 but medium-pace bowler Sandeep Warrier took three wickets including two in one over.
Patel, a bowling all-rounder promoted to number three in the batting, brought up his fifty with a boundary off Rashid before another Afghanistan spinner Noor Ahmad had him caught at long-on.
Pant reached his fifty in style with a six off Mohit Sharma and then hammered the medium-pace bowler in a 31-run 20th over when he finished with a six, four and three hits over the fence to raise the roof.
South African Tristan Stubbs watched the blitz from the other end after he smashed Sai Kishore in the 19th over, which went for 22 runs, for his unbeaten seven-ball 26.
In reply, Gujarat lost skipper Shubman Gill for six off Anrich Nortje before impact substitute Sai Sudarshan smashed 65 off 39 balls.
Gujarat lost regular wickets but the left-handed Miller smashed Nortje for three sixes and a four to give Delhi a scare before his departure in the 18th over.
Rashid kept up the fight till the end as Gujarat needed 19 off the final over and five on the last ball.
“I think we played some really good cricket, disappointing to lose in the end, but great character shown by everyone,” said Gill. “Great fight till the end and we never thought we were out of the game at any point.”


Nadal will only play French Open if he can ‘compete well’

Nadal will only play French Open if he can ‘compete well’
Updated 24 April 2024
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Nadal will only play French Open if he can ‘compete well’

Nadal will only play French Open if he can ‘compete well’
  • The 14-time Roland Garros champion conceded that if the action in Paris were to kick off today, he would not be able to participate
  • “I will keep fighting and doing the things I believe I have to do so I can try to play in Paris,” Nadal said

MADRID: Rafael Nadal said on Wednesday he will only play at the upcoming French Open if he feels “capable enough to compete well.”
The 14-time Roland Garros champion conceded that if the action in Paris were to kick off today, he would not be able to participate but vowed to keep fighting for the chance to play at his most successful tournament one last time.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three weeks. I will keep fighting and doing the things I believe I have to do so I can try to play in Paris, and if I can play, I play, if I can’t, I can’t,” the former world number one told reporters at the Madrid Open on Wednesday.
“I will not play in Paris if I am the way I am now. If Paris were today, I wouldn’t take to the court. That’s the reality. I will only play in Paris if I feel capable enough to compete well.”
Nadal returned to tennis in Brisbane in January after spending almost an entire year on the sidelines nursing a psoas injury. But his comeback was short-lived as he sustained a muscle problem in Australia and has competed in just five matches so far this season.
The Spaniard kicked off his clay campaign in Barcelona last week, where he lost in the second round and is set to face 16-year-old American Darwin Blanch in his Madrid opener on Thursday.
“I don’t think I’m ready to play at my 100 percent but I’m prepared to go out and play tomorrow. It’s important for me to play one last time here in Madrid, for me it means a lot,” said the 37-year-old Nadal.
As he attempts to resume his ‘Last Dance’ in Madrid and say goodbye to one of his favorite tournaments on court, rather than on the sidelines, the 22-time major champion admits his farewell tour hasn’t been as enjoyable as he would have hoped.
“A few weeks ago, I didn’t know if I will be able to play again on the professional tour, so today I am playing,” he added.
“It’s not perfect, of course not perfect, but at least I am playing and I can enjoy again, especially in the few tournaments that are so emotional for me. I’m able to enjoy the fact that I can say probably good-bye on court.”
Nadal says he’s hitting the ball well when he is able to be on court but “it’s about more body limitations. I went through a lot of things last year and a half, two years.”
“So body feelings are not enough good to feel myself playing with freedom enough in terms of body issues. That’s not allowing me to compete the way that I would like to compete.”


Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton

Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton
Updated 24 April 2024
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Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton

Haaland ruled out of Man City’s crucial trip to Brighton
  • Haaland missed City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley
  • City boss Pep Guardiola insisted Haaland’s injury was not serious

LONDON: Manchester City’s Premier League title bid has suffered a blow after Norway striker Erling Haaland was ruled out of Thursday’s crucial clash at Brighton.
Haaland missed City’s 1-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday due to a muscle injury sustained in the Champions League quarter-final exit against Real Madrid last week.
City’s leading scorer, who has 20 Premier League goals this season, is yet to recover and will not make the trip to the Amex Stadium as the champions look to close the gap on leaders Arsenal.
City boss Pep Guardiola insisted Haaland’s injury was not serious, and he could come back into contention in time for Sunday’s game against Nottingham Forest.
While Haaland is sidelined, Guardiola was boosted by England internationals Phil Foden and John Stones getting the green light to face Brighton after their own fitness concerns.
“Erling is not ready for tomorrow, the other two, they are ready,” Guardiola told reporters on Wednesday.
“I know it is not a big issue, but he is not allowed for this game.”
As a gripping title race approaches the final furlong, third placed City are four points behind leaders Arsenal, who thrashed Chelsea 5-0 on Tuesday.
Guardiola’s men have two games in hand on Arsenal and have played one match less than second placed Liverpool, who face Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday.