The racism issue engulfing English cricket took a new turn late Thursday, when photos of Alex Hales wearing blackface surfaced, with the batsman claiming it was a “tribute” to the late US artist Tupac Shakur. The photos were published by The Sun newspaper in the United Kingdom just hours after former player Azeem Rafiq admitted to sending anti-Semitic messages as a teenager. Rafiq’s revelations about the career-ending racism he faced have shocked the English game.

“In 2009, I attended a New Year’s Eve musical tribute fancy dress party,” Hales said in a statement to The Sun. I dressed myself like Tupac Shakur, a musical favourite of mine who I’ve admired since boyhood, and I had no idea how inappropriate it was at the time.”

“I reiterate my prior statement, emphasising how much I despise racism and bigotry in all of its forms,” said the 32-year-old batsman, who was suspended by England for a second positive drugs test in 2019 and now faces a new probe. Rafiq told a parliamentary committee last week that Hales named his black dog Kevin after cricketer Gary Ballance used the name as a pejorative epithet for persons of colour, a charge that drew a “categorical response.”, Hales denies it.

Following Hales’ remarks on Thursday, Julian Knight, the MP who presided over Tuesday’s committee hearing, described the photos as “extremely upsetting and disgusting,” warning that “the whole soul of English cricket is now at stake.” Rafiq was greatly praised for telling Knight’s committee about the bigotry he experienced during two stints with Yorkshire, having earlier stated that the abuse had prompted him to consider suicide.

“Do I believe I lost my career to racism?” the former off-spinner, whose case has led to more findings in other English counties.  However, The Times newspaper reported earlier on Thursday that Rafiq sent communications to former Warwickshire and Leicestershire player Ateeq Javid in which Rafiq is seen making insulting remarks against an anonymous Jewish person.