When Azeem Rafiq saw the devastating scene of Phil Hughes lying on the ground in Australia last year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan all-rounder knew what he had to do. As one of Australia’s first black cricketers, who had never received much criticism about his looks (and obviously it never bothered his performance either), Rafiq felt a sense of obligation to the victims of racism both in cricket and in society. And as someone who had experienced not only racial taunts but racial abuse as well, he knew that cricket needed to tackle the issues facing its black players in a modern way.
There were plenty of other players who also had issues with racism in cricket, he said. But many of those players never took such a public stand. “I wanted to stand up and I wanted to say something,” he said at a recent celebration of his life in Pakistan. “And I wanted to fight and win this battle against racism. It was very important for me. And I just wanted to stand up and be part of this fight.”
In 2009, Rafiq made the Pakistan U-19 cricket team and was hit by a rising ball during a match, causing a severe neck injury. Although he was lucky to walk away, he suffered intense headaches, and struggled with his wife, five-month-old baby and 3-year-old son. Rafiq started to accept that he needed to get help to deal with his physical and mental health problems. And also as the captain of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa team, he started speaking out against racism. He found he wasn’t alone — there were dozens of other cricket players facing similar challenges.
Not everyone on the pitch was accepting, however. “They were saying things to me like we must like Muslims, we must like our mothers, we must like our families,” he recalled, but those views were a force to be reckoned with and had to be dealt with. That is why Rafiq got the courage to come forward and speak out. “I could not stand it,” he said. “I thought ‘Why do we say that? Why are we afraid? We have the right to voice out against this.’ We have to stand up. We have to speak up. We have to say what we want to say.”
As part of a new series on cricket, The New York Times discusses ways the sport is working to combat discrimination and sexual harassment. Watch more short videos below:
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