by Julian Guyer
London - The racism crisis tearing through English cricket took yet another turn late Thursday following the emergence of photographs of Alex Hales in blackface, with the batsman saying it had been a “tribute” to the late US rapper Tupac Shakur.
The pictures were published by Britain's The Sun newspaper hours after former player Azeem Rafiq - whose revelations of the career-ending racism he suffered have sent shockwaves through the English game -- admitted he had sent anti-Semitic messages as a teenager.
In a statement, Hales told The Sun: "In 2009, I attended a New Year's Eve musical tribute fancy dress party. I dressed in tribute to my musical hero, Tupac Shakur, someone who I've admired from childhood and, at the time, did not realise the offensive nature of this.
"I echo my statement from earlier in the week and stress how much I deplore racism and discrimination in all its forms," added the 32-year-old batsman, who now faces a fresh investigation after being suspended by England for a second positive drugs test in 2019.
This week Rafiq told a parliamentary committee that Hales named his black dog 'Kevin' due to cricketer Gary Ballance's use of the name as a derogatory term for people of colour, an accusation that prompted a "categorical" denial from Hales.
Hales' statement on Thursday regarding the photographs led Julian Knight, the MP who chaired Tuesday's committee hearing, to label the images "incredibly disturbing and offensive" as he warned "the very soul of English cricket is now at stake".
Rafiq was widely praised for giving a disturbing account of the racism he suffered during two spells with Yorkshire to Knight's committee, having previously said the abuse had led him to contemplate taking his own life.
The former off-spinner, whose case has led to further revelations at other English counties, told the committee: "Do I believe I lost my career to racism? Yes, I do."
But earlier on Thursday, The Times newspaper uncovered messages from Rafiq sent to former Warwickshire and Leicestershire player Ateeq Javid, in which Rafiq is seen to make disparaging comments about an unnamed Jewish person.
Rafiq responded by tweeting: "I have absolutely no excuses. I am ashamed of this exchange and have now deleted it so as not to cause further offence."
"I was 19 at the time and I hope and believe I am a different person today," the 30-year-old Pakistan-born Rafiq added.
"I am incredibly angry at myself and I apologise to the Jewish community and everyone who is rightly offended by this."
Board of Deputies of British Jews president Marie van der Zyl responded by saying: "Azeem Rafiq has suffered terribly at the hands of racists in cricket so he will well understand the hurt this exchange will cause to Jews who have supported him.
"His apology certainly seems heartfelt and we have no reason to believe he is not completely sincere."
- 'Nuclear option' -The consequences of Rafiq's revelations for Yorkshire, one of English cricket's oldest and most prestigious counties, have been devastating, with sponsors making a mass exodus and the club barred from hosting lucrative international matches.
Both Yorkshire's chairman and chief executive have resigned, with head coach Andrew Gale himself currently suspended pending investigations over a historical anti-Semitic tweet.
Such is the dismay at how English cricket authorities have dealt with Rafiq's case, the UK government threatened them with the "nuclear option" of independent regulation on Thursday.
England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chief executive Tom Harrison, who also testified to Knight's committee on Tuesday, insisted his organisation was "fit for purpose" as both the promoter and regulator of the game.
But sports minister Nigel Huddleston warned that if the ECB "don't get their act together, then we have the nuclear option of legislating in order to potentially bring in an independent regulator".
Harrison's position has been called into question, with the Rafiq scandal and its fallout likely to dominate Friday's all-game gathering of the ECB's 41 constituent members at the Oval.
Were Harrison to be ousted now, however, it would leave a leadership vacuum following the resignation of ECB chairman Ian Watmore last month after the controversial decision to call off an England tour of Pakistan scheduled for October.