June 4, 2014

Asian cricket in the UK embraces change

Sahil Dutta
A year after the ECB announced a major push to integrate Asian cricketers into the English game, we examine the progress made

This is not a tranquil afternoon on an English village green. Instead it is inner-city East London, cricketers wear garish colours, and games are just ten overs a side. What is more, there are four stumps in place, no lbws offered, and the vast majority of players are Asian. Most strikingly, this unorthodox cricket is entirely endorsed by the ECB.

Asian cricket is deeply established in Britain. ECB research found that ethnic minorities - mostly south Asians - make up a third of all cricketers in Britain. Asian leagues and teams have existed since the 1970s but have been invisible to the authorities running the game.

Now, finally attempting to rectify this, the board last year launched a major initiative to reach the cricket-loving Asian community in Britain. This led to some important steps, including intelligence meetings with British Asian media as well as infrastructural changes like encouraging county grounds to make prayer areas and halal food available.

"We know there is a huge demand with Asians who would like to play more cricket, and also we know that there is a whole lot of cricket being played outside of traditional structures," said Jane Hannah, volunteer and participation manager at the ECB.

"It's a huge part of our market that traditionally we've not reached and we're now taking the extra step to do so."

It is a challenge Gulfraz Riaz of the Club Cricket Conference has taken up. The CCC, an association of more than 1000 clubs across the country, claims to represent grass-roots cricket in England, a statement more valid in some regions than others. And Riaz in his role as its development officer, has over the last year tried to link the Asian cricket leagues to the county boards so that resources and opportunities are shared.

It has been a painstaking process. Riaz began by seeking out the "underground" leagues that were not affiliated to any county board or formal organisation. "It wasn't a case of picking up the phone and telling them they now belong to us," he says. "It was a case of going there, talking to them, and understanding their achievements and needs. That won their respect."

His early efforts appear to be paying dividends. Starting in London and the South East there are now 13 leagues affiliated to the CCC, totalling over 300 teams and 5000 players. In January, the CCC brought these groups together for the first Asian Leagues Forum at Lord's, an event Riaz hopes will become nationwide soon.

"Some teams had been going for 35 years and for the first time they had a chance to share ideas and concerns with each other. It gave them a voice."

The ECB, through the county boards, is now trying to contact such teams but the boards are traditionally conservative in outlook and Riaz argues that it may take time for some in Asian cricket circles to overcome the "suspicion and resentment" they feel for their years of neglect.

One county making progress is Essex. As part of the ECB's "target cities" programme launched last year they used the CCC to forge initial links with the Asian leagues. They now oversee a number of schemes cultivating cricket in the Asian community, with a view to keeping an eye on emerging talent.

"People want to become coaches and do umpiring but they just don't know where the courses are and how to get on them"
Gulfraz Riaz of the Club Cricket Conference

In 2012 they made their old county ground in Leyton - in the heart of East London - available to ten different leagues to share, granting them the kind of quality pitches normally reserved for established clubs.

"The leagues have real insight into the needs of the players," said Dan Feist, Essex's cricket operations manager. "They told us they played four-stump cricket because it's quicker, more explosive, and there are no arguments over lbws. That has been really popular.

"So it's a question of: how can we support that with facilities and promote their work. But through them we're also reaching the further 80% who don't yet play the game."

One plan was to deepen the well-established Chance to Shine programme - which provides one-off cricket sessions to state schools - by ensuring interested kids had further opportunities to play.

"We're setting up satellite clubs to those schools based on Street Chance [the charity taking adapted cricket to urban settings] so kids can either go to a traditional club or, if they do not exist, a borough hub which goes up into regional cricket sessions. Then we linked up by having a representative team from all this East London cricket play against our Essex Second XI."

The first player to break through from here was Tanveer Sikandar. Born in Pakistan, he made his first-class debut for Essex at the beginning of May and two weeks later bowled Hashim Amla at The Oval.

It's a story to celebrate. But plenty of work remains. Leicestershire, for example, is another "target city". But with limited resources, the county is still trying to discover the precise needs of its Asian cricket community and has not yet built the links others have managed.

Closer to the ground, a major issue both Riaz and the counties identify is that many Asians prefer looser ties to the teams they play for. "Family, education and work expectations are different and some don't have the same time for the voluntary side of traditional club cricket," says Feist.

"People like to turn up, play and go, like five a side in football. Rather than set it up, run it, organise it, cut the grass etc."

Riaz agrees to some extent but insists the appetite is there. "People want to become coaches and do umpiring but they just don't know where the courses are and how to get on them."

He suggests one route could be to build on what's already in place. "The Telugu community, for example, run a T20 tournament like the IPL. Teams are like franchises with sponsorship, and they have generated £35,000. There is enormous potential in examples like this for a club culture to develop."

It has taken a long time for the English cricket establishment to accept its failings. Asian cricketers too are embracing change. Attitudes are shifting, connections are strengthening, but it will take more than a year to overturn history.