Playing the Long Game
After the Yorkshire Cricket racism scandal in 2021, British Pakistani sports players and fans are reconsidering their roles on the pitch and in the stands.
It was racism that reduced the cricketer Azeem Rafiq to tears.
One of his own teammates called him a derogatory term for Pakistani, a racist slur. But it wasn’t the first time he’d been called it while playing cricket for his county. It had happened countless times before.
Despite seeing Mr. Rafiq’s tears, the player who used the slur said he had no idea he was causing offense and “would have stopped if Rafiq had asked.”
In September 2020, Mr. Rafiq made accusations of racist bullying at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, where he had played for eight years. It transcended sports and led to a government hearing. Yorkshire Cricket was suspended from hosting international matches over its handling of the case. By November 2021, the story dominated British headlines.
It was a watershed moment that highlighted the troubling mix of how deeply British Pakistani athletes and fans are woven into the landscape of professional sports, but how tenuous their ability to belong in Britain is. I competed and worked in athletics for over a decade and, despite meeting hundreds of athletes, only ever knew of three who were British Pakistani. Two of them were my brothers. Now, working as a sports journalist, I was recently told by a press officer of a national governing sporting body that I could never be impartial on any story about race because I’m not white.
If we speak out about racism, even if we are believed, there’s no promise it will be taken seriously, and it might cause us to lose acceptance. My own first experience of racist abuse, as a mixed-race British Pakistani girl growing up in the same region as Mr. Rafiq, also involved an ethnic slur. I was 8 and physically abused at school while my classmate shouted obscenities along with the slur. I was sent to the headteacher, who demanded to know what I had done to “provoke” the attack, and was made to believe it was my fault.
Racism relies on power and, in sports, power comes from the institutions responsible for selecting athletes — who need to earn a living — for teams. In January 2022, Mr. Rafiq said he had no doubt that speaking out had cost him his career.
But some British Pakistani cricketers believe Mr. Rafiq’s case can help move things forward, by giving them the confidence to speak out themselves.
“The greatest thing that came out of it was that there were players who felt like they had a voice,” Moeen Ali, an England cricket legend, said.
A World Cup winner and the best-known British Pakistani cricketer, Mr. Ali said he believed the governing bodies in British cricket have failed to develop young South Asian players.
“So many players have been missed,” he said. “There’s so much talent. If you look at the country, the most people that are playing cricket are Asians. So why are we missing these players?”
Despite how we perform on the pitch, society doesn’t put us on an equal playing field. Birmingham City University research has shown that white British cricketers from private schools are 34 times more likely than young Asians to reach elite level — a disparity that could not be explained in terms of performance.
While soccer and cricket aren’t the only sports British Pakistanis play, their ratios of participation in elite sports make them crucial case studies. British-Asians make up 7 percent of the population, but only 0.25 percent of our professional soccer players are from any British-Asian background, with the overwhelming majority having Indian heritage.
For the British Pakistani soccer player Easah Suliman, the first player of Asian heritage to captain an England soccer team, it was representation within cricket that made an impact. A practicing Muslim who grew up in the same area as Moeen Ali and currently plays for Nacional in the second division of Portuguese soccer, he says representation can “give players an extra push.”
Mr. Suliman, 24, was part of the winning U19 European Championships squad in 2017 and scored the opening goal of the final. “It was special, imagining my grandma sitting on the sofa watching me win in my England shirt,” he said. “I don’t think when she was younger, living in Pakistan, she’d have thought that one day she’d be watching her grandson playing for England.”
But getting to that level, he didn’t see many other people from his background. Only one, in fact, in 13 years at Aston Villa Football Club.
Another lone brown face at a Premier League club is Zidane Iqbal, who is of Pakistani and Iraqi heritage. Mr. Iqbal, 18, made history in 2021 when he became the first British South Asian to play for Manchester United. His dad, Aamar Iqbal, said it was “a culmination of over 14 years of dedication.”
“His mum and brother had tears of joy for him that night,” Mr. Iqbal said. “It meant so much to everyone who knows Zidane as well as the wider community, and Zidane is really proud of his heritage.”
For those who do make it, it’s often their talent that acts as an armor against racism. Riz Rehman is the head of the Professional Footballers Association’s Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme, which aims to increase the number of South Asians in soccer. His brother, Zesh Rehman, was the first British Pakistani player to start a Premier League match in 2004.
Growing up, the Rehman brothers were chased home from school and called ethnic slurs daily. It was only when their peers realized they could play soccer that their attitudes changed. “We both made captain of the school team,” Mr. Rehman said. “All the kids got to know us and it was only through sport that we were accepted. Football saved us.”