“I think … when I look back … I can’t …”

Imagine being Joe Root right now. For the past two summers you’ve engaged sincerely with the need to broaden your sport. You’ve taken the knee. You’ve stood for the cameras in a T-shirt covered in uplifting slogans. You’ve engaged with issues beyond the remit of any previous England captain. You’ve spoken proudly of the diversity in your team, in a way that does make a difference, and not only to the optics-panic of your employers at the ECB.

And now this. In the past two weeks the county club Root calls “my family”, his sporting home from the age of 12, has been exposed as a muster point for day-to-day racism.

Root’s former housemate and close banter-buddy has admitted routinely using a racist insult. Azeem Rafiq, who called this out, who had to crawl to get this far, was Root’s teammate in the Yorkshire age groups.

In the aftershocks, people Root has known since childhood – coaches, club staff, mentors – are feeling the ground beneath them dissolve. The place he grew up in has become a haunted house. Careers, lives, friendships and the basic mental wellbeing of people on all sides are at stake. How do you walk this line? Where do you feel it most in your gut? Which truth are you prepared to tell?

Root has had a year and a half to arrange his feelings on this. Perhaps there was a sense it would simply fade away. But Rafiq is tenacious. He will be heard. Eighteen months, then, for Root to prepare himself for the question he was asked on Sky Sports on Thursday morning, the obvious one about culture, principles and the will to stand against the tide.

“Was there ever an occasion where you could have called out racism?”

“I think … when I look back … I can’t …”

Joe Root and Azeem Rafiq celebrate Yorkshire’s promotion to Division One in September 2012.
Azeem Rafiq (second right) stands between Joe Root and Gary Ballance (right) as Yorkshire celebrate promotion in September 2012. Photograph: Keiran Galvin/Swpix.com/Rex/Shutterstock

Ah, Joe. Say it isn’t so. Are we really going down that route? And yes, there is past pressure, friend pressure, social pressure. But there is also a time for standing up and speaking out.

Instead, what we got in that moment came over as an evasion. Nobody expects Root to snitch or name names. But really? You never heard anything? For Rafiq and others who have been through a similar experience, this will feel like a denial.

At the same time, England’s captain released an official statement composed almost entirely of platitudes and T-shirt slogans. Harnessing a diverse environment. Reaching out. Moving forward. Making a big difference. Celebrating our diversity. Pressed to speak from his own experience, to support a former teammate who at one point considered suicide over these issues, Root spoke in words seemingly written by a comms team.

This is not leadership. It’s damage limitation, a position to be taken four days before a parliamentary committee hearing. If nothing else, it’s a terrible comms strategy. Use your own words. Speak freely. Trust your instincts.

And yes, it is hard to say it. I like Joe Root. You like Joe Root. He’s a phenomenal cricketer and a good person. Rafiq has named him previously as a supportive presence, one of the good guys. Some will say Root shouldn’t even have to express opinions about this stuff at all, that asking him to negotiate these complex societal issues is like asking Camille Paglia to build a match winning third-innings partnership on a slow turner in Galle.

Root has a habit of dismissing difficult questions as “above my pay grade”. In reality, nothing is above his pay grade. Root is the highest-paid employee at the ECB. His employers are keepers of the national sport, regulators with a duty – both moral and funding-related – to spread the game, to create a happy and successful culture. And the captain really doesn’t get to duck this issue, not when it speaks so directly to his own experience.

“It hurts knowing this has happened at YCCC so close to home,” Root suggested in his statement. In which case this is some seriously longstanding pain. Rafiq’s experiences date back 15 shared years. And this really was close to home. Root and Ballance, chief user of the P-word, were housemates as junior pros, subjects of a 2014 BBC interview that gushed over their domestic palliness.

“Rooty did a bit more of the cooking than me. I would do the dishes and the housework.” “That’s not true. He’s the messy one.” “He says I’m messy but he’s a bit OCD when it comes to cleaning.” Which is all great. But in the middle of all that you never heard a thing? Never picked up a vibe?

Shaheen Shah Afridi appeals for LBW against Mitchell Marsh
Shaheen Shah Afridi appeals for LBW against Mitchell Marsh, ‘the best thing I’ve seen all week’. Photograph: Michael Steele-ICC/ICC/Getty Images

It would not have been hard to come up with a more noble statement, one that mentioned Rafiq by name, which acknowledged having been in those spaces. Perhaps even a statement that didn’t end on “with the Ashes approaching”. Really? This seems like a good moment to … talk about the Ashes? We’re selling product here?

That slight note of impatience speaks to a wider sadness. Because, yeah, everyone feels it too. This isn’t why people come to sport, the great glorious distraction. The best thing I’ve seen all week wasn’t a penitent England captain. It was Shaheen Shah Afridi’s opening over in the World Cup semi-final, an outrageous display of craft and cartwheeling athleticism, the ball released with a flick of the wrist, seam surgically erect, dipping and veering into Mitchell Marsh’s front pad as Shaheen turned and bellowed, arms outstretched, possessor in that moment of the perfect ball, the perfect jawline.

This kind of stuff: this is why people love sport. Not the painful parts, the fight for resources and opportunity. Nobody likes those bits, least of all the people who can’t just slip this stuff off like a well-meaning T-shirt at the end of the day.

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And this is the point about how people such as Root respond. The real danger at this stage is more evasion, more puff and pretence, more reputation management, more useful guilt-washing.

I don’t believe these are Root’s own instincts. He doesn’t need to protect his position, doesn’t need the money or the power, isn’t clinging to his job like the administrators around him. He is free to speak in his own words, to use his platform for good. There is still time to get on the right side of this.