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)
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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

  • 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.


Rahm and Meronk share lead after first round of LIV Golf Jeddah

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Rahm and Meronk share lead after first round of LIV Golf Jeddah

  • Despite the windy conditions, six players shot rounds better than 65 at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club
  • “Really good day. Drove it great. Anytime you shoot a bogey-free 62, there’s not much that goes wrong,” said the Spaniard

JEDDAH: The high quality of the field at LIV Golf tournaments was apparent once again when, despite the wind picking up at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, six players shot better than 65 in the opening round of LIV Golf Jeddah.
The highest-ranked player in the field, world No. 3 Jon Rahm, shot a sparkling bogey-free eight-under par 62 to share the lead with Poland’s Adrian Meronk, who made seven birdies and an eagle.
Crushers GC Captain Bryson DeChambeau closed spectacularly with six birdies in his last seven holes in a round of seven-under par 63, which could have been even lower but for a double bogey and two three-putts. The American was joined in tied third place by South African Charl Schwartzel and the red-hot Joaquin Niemann of Chile.
Stingers GC Captain Louis Oosthuizen was the other player with a sub-65 round, making six birdies in his six-under 64.
Anthony Kim, the man in the spotlight as he made his return to professional golf after a hiatus of 12 years, opened with a 76 and was last in the 54-man field.
Reigning Masters champion Rahm started the day on the third hole and finished with three straight birdies on the 18th, first and second holes in what is his first visit to the Kingdom.
“Really good day. Drove it great. Anytime you shoot a bogey-free 62, there’s not much that goes wrong. I put it in the right spots and gave myself the opportunities,” said the Spaniard.
“The key to that low score was three lengthy putts I made. And I made pretty much every putt I looked at inside 10 feet.
“I feel like my record when I’m playing tournaments at a venue for the first time, has been pretty good for some reason. Sometimes, not knowing is a blessing.”
The Dubai-based Meronk, who is playing his first season on LIV Golf, made a bogey on his second hole of the day, but more than made up for it when he chipped in for an eagle on the par-4 10th hole from 35 yards.
“I’m feeling way better this week than my first two weeks (Mayakoba and Las Vegas). I had some quality practice time last week in Dubai. I’m happy where my game is, and it’s definitely a big difference from even Vegas a couple of weeks ago,” said Meronk, ranked 50th in the world.
Kim made one birdie in his round and showed his rustiness by topping his second shot of the day on the 18th hole, followed by a shank with his second shot on the seventh. However, his driving was very good all day, and his putting was on point the whole day.
“Obviously disappointed with the score, but I played much better than what I scored,” said the 38-year-old American. “I’ve got a lot to build on. Just made a lot of unforced errors, and that was unfortunate, but I feel like I’m not that far away.”
In the Team Championship, Rahm-led Legions XIII took the opening-day honors as Tyrrell Hatton (-5) and young Caleb Surratt (-4) pushed the team aggregate to 17-under, one shot better than the all-South African Stingers GC (-16).


Spain prosecutors to demand longer rape sentence for Brazil star Alves

Updated 01 March 2024
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Spain prosecutors to demand longer rape sentence for Brazil star Alves

  • Alves was sentenced on February 22 after being convicted of raping a young woman at a Barcelona nightclub in December 2022
  • Prosecutors had called for him to be jailed for nine years followed by 10 years of probation

MADRID: Spanish prosecutors will appeal against the four-and-a-half year sentence handed to former Brazil international footballer Dani Alves for rape and seek a longer jail term, judicial sources said Friday.
Alves was sentenced on February 22 after being convicted of raping a young woman at a Barcelona nightclub in December 2022.
The 40-year-old footballer was also handed five years’ probation after serving his jail sentence and ordered to pay the victim 150,000 euros ($162,000) in compensation.
Prosecutors had called for him to be jailed for nine years followed by 10 years of probation.
One of the world’s most decorated footballers, who played for Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, Alves insisted the sex was consensual.
Immediately after the sentence, his lawyers said they would appeal.
The victim, who testified behind a screen to protect her identity, said Alves had violently forced her to have sex in a private bathroom of the nightclub despite her begging him to release her, causing her “anguish and terror,” prosecutors said.
Police officers who later came to the nightclub told the court about the woman’s state of agitation and “shock” as well as her anxiety that “nobody would believe her” if she filed a complaint.
In sentencing him, the Barcelona court said: “The victim did not consent and there is evidence that, beyond the complainant’s testimony, permits the rape to be considered proven.
“The court considers as proven the fact that the defendant abruptly grabbed the complainant, threw her to the ground and penetrated her vaginally, preventing her from moving, while the complainant said no and wanted to leave,” it said.
Alves’ lawyers had argued that the victim had been “glued” to the player while dancing at the nightclub, saying there was “sexual tension” between them.
But in its 61-page decision, the court said that did not mean “that she consented to anything that might have subsequently happened.”
In October 2022, Spain’s parliament passed the “only yes means yes” law which tightened the criminal code on sexual violence by requiring explicit consent for sexual acts.
The move — which had long been demanded by assault survivors and women’s rights groups — removed the requirement for rape victims to prove they were subjected to violence or intimidation.
It sought to shift the focus away from the victims’ resistance to a woman’s free and clearly expressed consent. It was amended six months later to close a loophole.


SAFF: 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship ‘will be the first of many’ tournaments held in Kingdom

Updated 01 March 2024
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SAFF: 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship ‘will be the first of many’ tournaments held in Kingdom

  • Jordan defeat Nepal in penalty shoot-out to claim victory in 1st official 11-a-side women’s tournament held in Kingdom
  • Saudi officials hail ‘exciting new era for professional women’s football’ after milestone event draws nationwide interest

RIYADH: The latest chapter in Saudi Arabia’s football evolution came to a close last weekend as the 2024 West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship — the first official 11-a-side women’s tournament held in the Kingdom — reached its conclusion. 

A milestone occasion that attracted nationwide interest and engagement, the eighth edition of the championship was staged in Jeddah throughout its 11-day duration from Feb. 19 to Feb. 29 as seven countries competed alongside the host nation.

Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Nepal, Palestine, Syria and Guam joined Saudi Arabia with fixtures played at the King Abdullah Sports City and Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Sport City stadiums. A total of 15 matches were played across the group and knock-out stages.

The final was played in front of over 4,000 fans at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Sport City Stadium and ended 2-2 after full time, with Jordan winning the tournament via a penalty shoot-out against Nepal in Thursday’s final.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s message following the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship was clear — this debut official 11-a-side women’s tournament on home soil “will be the first of many.”

“We promise that the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship is the start of an exciting new era for professional women’s football in Saudi Arabia,” Lamia Bahaian, vice president of the federation, said in a statement.

“Besides showcasing our hosting credentials to the region and wider world, it has paved the way for more competitions to make their way to our shores in the years ahead. For sure, this will be the first of many.”

Bahaian said that the women’s game is inspiring audiences as a driving force for positive change, with the Saudi Arabia women’s national team “instrumental” to the direction of travel.

“Reaction to the tournament and the way it was received by fans and the wider community was incredible — witnessing fans embrace the competition, get behind our women’s national team, and attend matches was a genuine joy,” she said.

“Our national team has been instrumental here. The players are pursuing their dreams and representing their country for everyone to see. This has helped introduce women’s football to audiences new and old, laying new foundations for sustained growth and development while contributing to a positive shift in wider society.”

Underpinned by a strategy to help elevate Saudi Arabia to elite status in world football by 2034, huge strides have been taken in the last few years, with growth witnessed across a series of key metrics. 

Since 2021, the number of female clubs nationwide has increased by 112 percent, with the number of local players up 150 percent and national teams up 300 percent.


Lakers hold off Wizards in overtime, Nuggets edge Heat in NBA Finals rematch

Updated 01 March 2024
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Lakers hold off Wizards in overtime, Nuggets edge Heat in NBA Finals rematch

  • Jokic finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the Nuggets fended off Miami’s fourth-quarter rally
  • Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ 111-99 victory over the Hornets in Charlotte

LOS ANGELES: The Los Angeles Lakers, fueled by 40 points from Anthony Davis and 31 from LeBron James, pulled off another NBA thriller on Thursday, beating the Washington Wizards 134-131 in overtime.

One day after James reeled off 34 points — 19 of them in the fourth quarter — to key a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers had to dig deep again against a Wizards team tied for the worst record in the league.

James’s four points in overtime included a three-pointer that tied it at 131-131. He fed Davis for a dunk and capped the scoring with a free-throw.

James, already the league’s all-time scoring leader, is now nine points away from becoming the first player in NBA history to score 40,000 in the regular season.

Jordan Poole scored a season-high 34 points and Marvin Bagley III added a 23 for Washington, who dropped their 13th straight.

But Lakers coach Darvin Ham said the young, hungry Wizards were a tough opponent — — especially on the heels of Wednesday’s draining victory.

“They put pressure, they’re a tough team to play coming off a back-to-back, really high emotional game from last night,” Ham said. “But we found a way, we found a way to win.

“Our guys pulled together when we needed to and made the plays when we needed to.”

In Denver, star big man Nikola Jokic missed out on a fifth straight triple-double but Michael Porter Jr’s 30 points fueled the Nuggets in a 103-97 victory over the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals rematch.

Porter added 11 rebounds, helping fill the void after Jamal Murray departed in the second quarter with a sprained ankle.

Jokic finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the Nuggets fended off Miami’s fourth-quarter rally.

Bam Adebayo scored 22 points and Butler added 21 for the Heat, who were without injured Tyler Herro, Kevin Love and Josh Richardson and saw their five-game winning streak end.

A trip to Madison Square Garden was just what Golden State star Stephen Curry needed to break out of his scoring doldrums.

Curry scored 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the Warriors to a 110-99 victory over the New York Knicks, bouncing back from a scoreless first half in the Warriors’ win over the Wizards on Tuesday.

Curry said he fed off the energy at Madison Square Garden — an arena steeped in NBA history and where he broke the record for career three-pointers in 2021.

“It didn’t hurt that in the Garden I had a good vibe and a good flow going,” Curry said. “It’s always fun. This is a special place.”

Jonathan Kuminga added 25 points for Golden State, who grabbed a quick 14-0 lead and never trailed.

Jalen Brunson scored 27 points to lead the Knicks, who had the deficit down to four midway through the fourth quarter but with key contributors Julius Randle and OG Anunoby sidelined could never gain the upper hand.

Another sparkling effort from rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama helped the San Antonio Spurs snap a five-game losing streak with a 132-118 victory over Western Conference contenders Oklahoma City.

French star Wembanyama scored 28 points with 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.

The fourth quarter featured four lead changes, but with three-and-a-half minutes remaining Wembanyama produced a pair of three-pointers and a big block of a three-point attempt by Oklahoma City’s rookie of the year contender Chet Holmgren, and the Spurs pulled away for the win.

“We’re just playing with heart,” Wembanyama said.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 31 points, Jalen Williams added 26 and Holmgren contributed 23 for the Thunder, who slipped a game behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for top spot in the Western Conference.

Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ 111-99 victory over the Hornets in Charlotte.

Malik Beasley made five three-pointers on the way to 19 points for the Bucks, who pushed their winning streak to four games and completed a season sweep of the Hornets.


Boutier delivers putting masterclass to grab Singapore LPGA lead

Updated 01 March 2024
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Boutier delivers putting masterclass to grab Singapore LPGA lead

  • Starting the day tied 30th, Boutier needed just 22 putts to navigate her way around the par-72 Tanjong course at Sentosa Golf Club and she heads into the weekend with a one-shot lead over Japan’s Ayaka Furue, who shot a 67
  • World No. 1 Lilia Vu struggled to a 74 to finish her round in a share of 21st place

SINGAPORE: France’s Celine Boutier delivered a putting masterclass to storm up the leaderboard with an 8-under par 64 and snatch the second round lead at the HSBC Women’s World Championship on Friday in Singapore.

Starting the day tied 30th, Boutier needed just 22 putts to navigate her way around the par-72 Tanjong course at Sentosa Golf Club and she heads into the weekend with a one-shot lead over Japan’s Ayaka Furue, who shot a 67.

Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom posted a 68 to take third place while overnight leader Sarah Schmelzel of the United States slipped to tied-fourth after carding a 72.

Boutier, a six-time LPGA winner, struggled on the opening day with a 73 but bounced back with eight birdies against no bogeys for a two-day total of 7-under par 137.

“I didn’t really make that many putts yesterday and came up pretty short,” said Boutier.

“But today I felt like I made everything. I putted to the right place and was not trying to be too indecisive.

“It was definitely less windy and I was able to get a good start with two birdies on the back, which is my front nine. That gave me a lot of confidence and I just kept going,” the 30-year-old added.

Boutier’s stellar round gave her watching father a birthday gift to remember.

“He was following me around today and I wanted to make it a point to play well. I wished him a happy birthday before my round and he was like, ‘You’ve got to get me a gift.’

“I hope he enjoys this one.”

Furue, who pipped Boutier to the Scottish Open title in 2022, will have the Frenchwoman for company again as they tee off together in the third round.

When asked if she was confident of outplaying Boutier again, she said: “She is a really good player. I just want to catch up with her and play good tomorrow. There’s no pressure at all.”

World No. 1 Lilia Vu struggled to a 74 to finish her round in a share of 21st place.

Defending champion Ko Jin-young is a further shot back in tied-27th after signing for a 73.