Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
A FORMER Zimbabwe youth international cricketer is in the eye of a racism storm, which has shaken the foundations of one of England’s iconic franchises, and snowballed into a major crisis, triggering the flight of key sponsors.
It is generating grim headlines, around the world, and has once again thrust the issue of race relations, in a sport which prides itself as the ultimate game of gentlemen, into focus.
There could be serious consequences, with Julian Knight, the chair of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, calling it “one of the most repellent and disturbing episodes in modern cricket history,’’ and demanding that heads should roll.
“Given the endemic racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, I struggle to think of any reason why that the board should remain in post,” Knight tweeted.
Yesterday, the franchise was suspended from hosting England’s international matches, which bring in significant revenues for the counties, because of the racism storm.
Gary Ballance is accused of being the cricketer whose sustained racial abuse of former teammate Azeem Rafiq drove him into contemplating suicide.
Rafiq is an English cricketer of Pakistan origin.
The vicious abuse is said to have occurred when they both played for Yorkshire, an iconic establishment within the domestic cricket structure in England, which was founded in 1863.
Several sponsors have ended their partnerships with the franchise with flagship backers, Emerald Publishing and Yorkshire Tea, leading the way.
Yorkshire are the most successful franchise in English cricket history, with 33 County Championship titles, and are the home to current England captain, Joe Root.
The franchise also used to be home of current England coach, Chris Silverwood, a man whose cricket career has always been linked to Zimbabwe, having played his first and last ODIs, against the Chevrons.
Silverwood’s Test debut also came against Zimbabwe.
In 2009, he had a stint in this country, as a player/coach, at Mash Eagles.
Current England cricketers, Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid are contracted to Yorkshire.
Some of their former stars include Geoffrey Boycott, Tim Brenan, Darren Gough, Matthew Hoggard, Ray Illingworth, Ryan Sidebottom and Michael Vaughan.
The explosive case has also sucked in Yorkshire’s two metro mayors, Dan Jarvis and Tracy Brabin, who have signed a strongly-worded letter to the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Tom Harrison, demanding action.
“We maintain the inquiry must be conducted in a timely and transparent manner, with consequences for both the players responsible, and those board members who have failed to address this blatant racism.”
A further 34 British MPs, drawn from all the parties, and assistant government whip, Andrea Jenkyns, have also added their voices to the outrage.
The ECB, through their spokesperson, have acknowledged receipt of the franchise’s report.
‘’We are conscious about the length of time that Azeem has waited for resolution and the toll that must be taking on his well-being and that of his family.
“We are sorry that, as a sport, this has not yet been resolved.
“We will conduct a full regulatory process that is fair to all parties, but also ensure this happens as quickly as possible.’’
Rafiq is also set to appear before Select Committee, on November 16, in a session expected to be explosive, as he narrates a saga, which is now dominating world cricket.
He claimed last year the “institutional racism” at the club left him contemplating taking his life.
Ballance, who was born in Harare on November 22, 1989, is the central figure in the case.
A left-handed batsman, and left-arm leg break bowler, Ballance grew up at a tobacco farm and attended Springvale House and Peterhouse Boys School, in Marondera, for the early part of his education.
He made five appearances for Zimbabwe at the 2006 ICC Under-19 World Cup.
That year, left for England and has played 23 Tests, and 16 ODIs, for the country while he has also captained Yorkshire.
Between 2010 and 2012 he played for local cricket franchise, MidWest Rhinos.
On Wednesday, Ballance issued a statement saying he was saddened and upset over the allegations which were being levelled at him.
“Azeem was not just a teammate of mine, but he was my closest friend and supporter in cricket,’’ he said.
“I had not intended to make any public statement but, given the reports which have been published, and with journalists arriving at my house, I feel I have no choice but to provide a public response.
“To be clear, I deeply regret some of the language I used in my younger years. The independent enquiry, having heard all of the evidence, accepted that the context of some of the language used was in a ‘friendly verbal attack’ between friends which was not intended to offend or hurt and that no malice was intended.
“Given my incredibly close relationship with Rafa over the years I am saddened that it has come to this.’’
Ballance claims many of the things were now being blown out of context when they were said between two very close friends.
“Because we were such good friends, and spent a lot of time together drinking and on nights out, we both said things privately to each other which were not acceptable,’’ he said.
“It has been reported that I used a racial slur and, as I told the independent enquiry, I accept that I did so and I regret doing so.
“I regret that these exchanges took place but at no time did I believe or understand that it had caused Rafa distress. If I had believed that then I would have stopped immediately.
“Rafa said things to me that were not acceptable and I did the same with Rafa, I never said anything with any intended malice or to upset Rafa.
“One winter, I suggested that Rafa and his bowling coach travel to Zimbabwe to stay with my family, which they did. He lived in my family’s house in Zimbabwe and spent time with my parents and my brothers, while he trained in Zimbabwe.
“He would later become very good friends with my brother and the two of them stayed together regularly when my brother was in the UK.
“Rafa was always very grateful for the support and love which my family gave him and he regularly expressed this to me.
“I was honoured to be invited to his wedding in Pakistan which I sadly could not attend.’’