One of Italy’s biggest clubs, Inter Milan, was recently given a stadium ban for making monkey noises against Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly. Manchester City star Raheem Sterling, who has often been a target of racism, caused a stir across the sporting world when he took to Instagram to call out the racism in British media. Legendary Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o once picked up the ball and walked off the pitch in the middle of a game after being targeted with racist slurs.
Racism is rampant in football and there is active work being done by many to rid the game of it. But what about cricket, where one of the game’s biggest sporting superstars can call an opponent player ‘a black man’ and then try to play it off as nothing more than banter?
“Hey black [man], where is your mother sitting? What [kind of prayer] did you ask her to say for you today?” Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed asked South African Andile Phehlukwayo.
Cricket has always operated with an air of obnoxious elitism, epitomised by the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) reluctance to let more teams into the World Cup. ‘The gentleman’s game’ prides itself on its manners; you can get in trouble for expressing your displeasure at the umpire’s decision. For comparison, Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy once insulted referee Mike Dean’s baldness by comparing him to female genitalia and got away with it.
Cricket has always been the ‘classier’ sport. And yet football is addressing an issue that cricket is all too happy to just ignore, with controversial decisions such as a minimum quota of black players in the South African side only spoken of in passing.
Two main defences have surfaced for Sarfraz’s racist comments. The first says that Sarfraz is a well-mannered boy who always treats everyone with respect and did not mean to be racist, while the second points out that such language is acceptable in the sub-continent and that there is nothing wrong with it.
Those who claim it is merely a harmless part of the lexicon are only highlighting how deeply this mindset is entrenched and how much work needs to be done if we are to get rid of it. We are, after all, a nation whose media still refers to the legendary West Indian side of yesteryears as ‘kaali andhi’ (black storm).
Anyone who knows anything about Pakistani culture will tell you Sarfraz was being racist and anyone who knows anything about cricket in this part of the world will tell you such language is commonplace; just that this time it was caught on the stump mic. Let’s not pretend ‘abay kaalay admi’ isn’t a slur and let’s not pretend that those on the pitch who overheard their skipper weren’t more likely to smirk over his words than confront him about them.
Then there are those who point out how well-mannered Sarfraz is. The wicketkeeper batsman is often portrayed as the poster-boy of Pakistani ethics and, to his credit, was actually quite polite when referring to Phehlukwayo’s mother. But if the polite and well-mannered pin-up boy occupying the country’s most high-profile sporting position is openly racist, then what does that say about the rest of us?
The ICC has a strict racism code and there are talks of an eight-match ban for Sarfraz. Yet, the governing body has a chequered history and can never be relied upon to do its job properly. If the council fudges its lines, as it did with the recent ball-tampering issue, then the Pakistan Cricket Board must take a leaf out of its Australian counterpart’s book and take matters into its own hands.
Sarfraz deserves a lengthy ban for his racist comment. The fact that it was so casual doesn’t make it better, it makes it much, much worse. Cricket and Pakistan have long chosen to ignore racism and now it has reared its ugly head. This is not only Sarfraz’s moment of shame, this is cricket’s moment of shame and this is Pakistan’s moment of shame.