Qasim Sheikh on Scotland’s cricket racism scandal: ‘To know others won’t go through this is everything’ | Cricket

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On Wednesday, 48 hours after the publication of the racism report that shook Scottish cricket, Qasim Sheikh and Majid Haq went into the lion’s den. The two former internationals whose decisions to go public with their experiences of discrimination prompted the report, went to watch Scotland play New Zealand in Edinburgh, surrounded by many of the people whose behaviour led the report’s authors to their excoriating conclusions.

More accurately, they went public again, having seen complaints they made during their playing careers have little impact. “It was quite a nerve-racking experience walking into the ground,” Sheikh says. “All eyes were on us as we came in, and I didn’t know how people would respond to us. If I’m honest, the first half an hour in the ground was quite weird. You could see people were on eggshells, which I can understand. As the day went on, a lot of them stared in silence. Many people we’ve known for many years just walked straight past us. But more people started coming up, and there was real compassion shown.

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“After the game finished Mark Watt and Chris Sole were the first two players to come out to shake our hands. They stood with us for a good amount of time, and we had some laughs. Gradually more and more of the national team players came over and showed some solidarity. That’s been lacking up to now.

“I went to the ground not sure if I should be there. I was asked: ‘Was I just there to embarrass people?’ In the end I think it was a very important day. The following morning I woke up to 30-odd messages from influential people in Scottish cricket, who are starting to come forward. But it’s absolutely not just about me and Majid – there are many people who have suffered and they all deserve to have these kinds of conversations. They all deserve to be healed.”

One thing that is clear from both Sheikh and Azeem Rafiq, whose decision to speak out about his experiences of racism at Yorkshire have forced that county – if not yet the wider English game – into a complete overhaul, is that the moment of vindication is in no way joyful. Sheikh ranks Monday, the day the report was published and he sat in front of a press conference unspooling memories he would much rather never relive, among the most difficult of his life.

Qasim Sheikh (left) and Majid Haq (right) walk with lawyer Aamer Anwar on their way into Monday’s press conference in Stirling.
Qasim Sheikh (left) and Majid Haq (right) walk with lawyer Aamer Anwar on their way into Monday’s press conference in Stirling. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

“Putting your head above the parapet, the emotions you go through are vast,” Rafiq says. “There’ll be days when you feel like: ‘What have you done?’ Because actually the change is extremely slow. It’s not like everything’s going to be great from now onwards and everyone’s going to embrace them.

“Eight months on from speaking to the DCMS [the digital, culture, media and sport select committee] I still go through days and weeks in some very dark places. I’m just incredibly proud of them and everyone else who spoke to that review, because it’s not easy to open yourself up and put your life on the table.”

When Sheikh was 13 his younger brother, Hamza, died of chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, which is one of the memories he has been confronting afresh this week. “I don’t think I’ll ever face a more difficult time. That was tough, it will never leave me,” he says. “But in a different way Monday was the toughest day of my life. My mental health had a wobble when it came to early evening, and the whole overwhelming experience.

“I’m very lucky to have people like Azeem and Majid alongside me, people who have supported me daily when I have had some very up and down moments with my mental health. It’s tough but what drives me is the message I got from a parent to say: ‘You’ve paved the way for my daughter to get equal opportunities in cricket.’ That’s everything to me. There’s no financial gain in this, not a penny. I can live with my career being gone, but to know that others won’t go through this is everything to me.”

The hope is that this will come to be seen as the start of a new era not just in Scottish cricket, but across sport in Scotland. On Tuesday the governing body sportscotland, which commissioned the report from Plan4Sport, held a meeting with almost 50 representatives of dozens of other sports to discuss its ramifications.

“No one else wants to go through this. No one wants to see a sport in such a place,” says Stewart Harris, the sportscotland CEO. “The independent review was robust and I think there are lots of lessons for all of us to take out of that. The opportunity is a positive one. It’s what we all do from here, not just Cricket Scotland – how we work with other sports to prevent this kind of thing and be open to those who have an interest.”

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The report will force Cricket Scotland – whose entire board resigned on the eve of publication – to undergo massive change. Meanwhile, though this wave hit England months ago, much of the game there remains resolutely untransformed. “What surprises me is they didn’t try in any way to gloss over serious issues,” says Rafiq. “Comparing it to how the Yorkshire situation unfolded, what a difference. Looking at the ECB, there’s been an action plan, lots of tick-boxes, but fundamentally has anything changed? I don’t think it has.”

The glacial pace of change in England has not gone unnoticed in Scotland. “We were vindicated up here, but that lad and friend of mine has not been vindicated yet, because the dinosaurs are digging their heels in,” Sheikh said of Rafiq. “If Plan4Sport went under the bonnet of the ECB, I wouldn’t want to imagine what that report would look like. But I’m not finished with this fight. Just because we had a couple of handshakes on Wednesday, that’s just the start.”

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