February 5, 2013

English cricket's Asian challenge

Harnessing the interest of the UK's population of enthusiastic expats from the Indian subcontinent is going to be important to the future of the English game

In the afterglow of the London Olympics, Sport England's funding allocation for the next four years was always going to be a tough one for cricket. The emphasis was on Olympic medals, legacies, and the importance of minority sports, which were suddenly held to be a vital part of the nation's fabric.

That the ECB emerged with some relief, with a reduced grant of £20m - and with a further £7.5m awarded to the Chance to Shine initiative to promote cricket in State schools - owed much to the board's strengthened commitment to engage with South Asian cricketing communities. Easy to say, difficult to make a real and lasting impact.

That both professional and recreational cricket is becoming more multi-racial is undeniable. Integration is happening. But progress has been patchy, slowed variously by old-school league officials or clubs with little appetite for change, and by the itinerant nature of many cricketers with Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan antecedents, many of whom still play ad-hoc cricket in Sunday park leagues, where facilities are poor and pitches are rarely of a quality for players to progress.

Sport England's Director of Sport, Phil Smith, outlined the challenge when he told ESPNcricinfo: "Participation in cricket has traditionally been very strong within South Asian communities. Over 40% of current regular cricketers in England are non-white, making cricket one of the most diverse sports already.

"Some individuals are playing regularly in informal settings or unaffiliated leagues outside the realm of formal cricket structures of the county cricket boards, so the challenge for the ECB is to bring this community into the mainstream of the game."

The ECB has worked in the past with the traditional club sector, queasily aware that a vibrant yet informal Asian catchment was largely passing them by. Nick Marriner, policy and research manager at the ECB, said: "There's a massive untapped demand for more participation amongst the South Asian community. We know a lot of South Asians play cricket outside the traditional affiliated club network. Previously we've not really engaged in that way."

The solution is both imaginative and unproven. With the help of the Club Cricket Conference, the ECB will focus on five "target cities": London, Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds and Bradford, where research has shown there is most potential for progress.

Paul Bedford, head of non-first-class cricket at the ECB, said: "There was the highest level of latent demand for playing cricket in the South Asian community than in any other group. In a high proportion of cases, we weren't as close to [tapping that demand] as we should have been. We have also identified the cities where people wanted to play cricket more than anywhere else."

The Club Cricket Conference is little known outside the Home Counties, but a programme of fixtures and tours against Affiliate and Associate nations has recently shown it has an appetite for regaining its influence of half a century ago, when it would produce representative sides to face touring teams.

Two years from its centenary, the Club Cricket Conference has the chance to re-establish itself as a driving force in England's club network. It has been asked to act as a catalyst to persuade South Asian park cricket to become more mainstream and to awaken the county boards, run largely by well-meaning elderly white middle-class men, to the untapped potential on their doorstep.

The county boards responsible for the five cities chosen have until October 1 to prove themselves fit for investment. Good things are happening in Leicester already, according to Bedford, and they need to be, because, strikingly, the Leicestershire Premier League does not include one club from the city itself.

The task is to win over hearts and minds, to find community leaders who can instil the right virtues, and to prove to the traditional clubs and the tens of thousands of informal South Asian cricketers that the pace of integration will be quickened

Land in Birmingham has been identified that can be developed, but Yorkshire's passive approach at amateur level has yet to show the foresight of the county club itself, which in the past 15 years has made giant strides in terms of minority ethnic communities. Announcing that you are from the ECB in Yorkshire league circles is not always a passport to popularity; heaven knows what they will make of the Club Cricket Conference.

The task is to win over hearts and minds, to find community leaders who can instil the right virtues, and to prove to the traditional clubs and the tens of thousands of informal South Asian cricketers that the pace of integration will be quickened. For a body with only a handful of full-time paid employees, it is an onerous task.

Gulfraz Riaz, the conference's development manager, says eight leagues representing 2300 cricketers have been persuaded to affiliate in the past eight months. "We are not saying it is a takeover," he said. "We are saying there are certain guidelines that must be followed for the good of cricket.

"Representatives of communities need to understand their responsibilities. There is the need for a player pathway, there are welfare issues, there is the need for child protection and first-aid training, there are constitutional issues, insurance, community cohesion, player registration, coaching opportunities. That is where the conference, under the umbrella of the ECB, can provide guidance."

The conference is most recognised these days as a fixture bureau, helping clubs arrange friendly games outside the normal league structure. It can also offer representative cricket for men and women against county 2nd X1s and a developmental U-21 side, and is building links with university cricket, all of which offers opportunities for the best players from park leagues who are willing to embrace a more integrated future.

The next task is simple but potentially hugely beneficial. They plan to develop an online ground-sharing scheme in which traditional clubs, which tend to play league cricket on a Saturday, will hire out their grounds on a Sunday to South Asian cricketers seeking better facilities either because council upkeep of their squares has deteriorated, because their grounds have been closed, or simply because the thriving parks cricket scene is simply outgrowing the facilities available. Ground shares are already happening, but the possibilities are much greater. Ground shares are the first stage to a sense of belonging and, for the best players, a pathway to a first professional contract.

"Asian guys will be able to play on better grounds, traditional clubs will get a bit of revenue, and equally importantly, we will encourage integration," Riaz said. "Some players will say, 'We would like to be part of this club and still have our own identity on a Sunday.'

"We see traditional English clubs struggling financially and we have these thriving cricket communities looking to better themselves. Ground shares can be the first stage in closer relationships. Once you get junior members from an Asian background involved in traditional clubs then change quickens. Parents want to sit on the committee. They say, 'I might not drink alcohol but I can help organise a barbeque with halal food, I can support fund-raising events.' The knock-on effects are potentially huge.

"My club in Watford has about 20% Asian membership. At the time of the Pakistan floods we raised £4000 in an afternoon of cricket, food, auctions and raffles and collected donations of 150 bags of clothes. Times are changing and we are working together. The sense of a cricketing family is absolutely vital. It is about the right people from the right communities saying the right things at the right time."

Riaz accepts the argument that many South Asian cricketers have been too itinerant for their own good. "Players do tend to join and leave clubs in fours and fives. That's disruptive and that's a fact," he said. "Our brief is to achieve sustained integration, which will provide a pathway for park cricketers and will help to sustain traditional English clubs. In some places the mindset hasn't changed from 30 years ago. In wanting to be recognised, sometimes you have to meet halfway."

Tomorrow in our series on engaging with South Asian communities in England: Tim Wigmore's profile of Shiv Thakor, the exciting young Leicestershire allrounder and England U-19 captain

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2013, 0:42 GMT

    In the 20 or so years I have been a Warwickshire fan we have produced a number of talented young Asian-origin cricketers, Anurag Singh, Mohammed Sheikh, Niqash Tahir, Moeen Ali, Mark Wagh, yet most of the other Midlands counties have failed to produce even a quarter of that number. The only time they have had Asian-origin players play for them has been if they have moved into those sides from other counties. Warwickshire has always been a county which has tried to make the most of the Asian talent on its doorstep, through once of the best organised league structures, the Birmingham League, in the UK. However, other counties have not been anywhere near as forward thinking in this area, hence why, despite Derby, Leicester and Nottingham all having sizable Asian populations, most of these sides have had few if any Asian players in their teams.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2013, 3:50 GMT

    The very first south Asian generation followed their native team . Time have changed over decades and nice to see the newer generation supporting England. English cricket is free of racism or discrimination better then English football. As south Asian, we feel proud to wear England top and cheer England. Nasser Hussain, Panesar, Mahmood, Kabir Ali, Ramprakash , Vikram Solanki, Dimitri Mascarenhas Ajmal, Bopara, Samit Patel, etc Asian experience of English cricket.

  • Philip on February 5, 2013, 22:20 GMT

    English cricket needs the South Asian community. They also need the Caribbean community and they appear to have lost serious traction there over the course of the last fifteen-odd years. Some Brits of course, as has been pointed out, would ultimately have links to both South Asia and the West Indies. There is so much potential there. As an Antipodean relative of a young Brit with Indian-Leicester heritage I found it odd that the Leicestershire Premier League does not include one club from the city itself. English cricket has a world of tradition but it should be mindful of the need to keep updating it. That appears to be one reason why the Caribbean community's involvement is now less than it should be.

  • Syed on February 5, 2013, 17:49 GMT

    i wouldnt mind being integrated to England youth system... they should help minor counties like dorset become better.

  • Ray on February 5, 2013, 15:44 GMT

    @SamuelH: When it comes to talking about today's British West Indians you're no doubt right. However, the ECB and, more particularly, Surrey missed a huge opportunity to nurture this population in the 70s/ 80s. I went to school in Brixton. Most of my mates were W.Indian British, were cricket mad and had cricket mad fathers. However, being in inner London, there were no school playing fields and little organised school cricket. For whatever reason, there was little attempt to integrate us local lads into the local Surrey league clubs and Surrey CCC's recruitment strategy seemed to consist of a trip to Tennison's school (across the road from the Oval) once in a while before catching a train to the more leafy parts of Surrey to see if there were any potential players there.

    Hopefully, counties such as Leicestershire and Yorkshire will have more success in attraching and nurturing British-Asian cricket talent, and will continue to adopt more innovative recruitment policies.

  • Cricinfouser on February 5, 2013, 12:21 GMT

    @Hitendra Hirwani - The players you list had plenty of opportunities. If you think that they were more deserving than Cook, Bell or Broad, I suggest that you compare their records in international cricket. Panesar is very much part of the England team but Swann plays ahead of him because he his his equal as a bowler and a superior batsman and fielder. The implication that the national selectors treat players of Asian descent differently from the rest is pretty insulting.

  • Lee on February 5, 2013, 11:49 GMT

    As far as hosting Asian sunday teams is concerned, One of the big challenges this scheme will have to overcome is that hosting a simple game of cricket is a loss making exercise for a club, it's the ability of the club to make money from spectators during the game then the spectators and players after the game that enables clubs to cover cost, rightly or wrongly in most community clubs this tends to be made over the bar. Thought needs to be given to how this revenue gap can be bridged to make it work for all. The point about players joining/leaving in groups of 4/5 is another point well made. Sure these issues can be overcome and good that's there's a good honest conversation being started rather than PC nonsense getting in the way

  • Rayner on February 5, 2013, 11:20 GMT

    Also, fair play to the ECB, by far one of the most progressive boards in world sport. Combined with the MCC, I doubt many national boards do more for the progression of their sport, not just locally but worldwide.

  • Rayner on February 5, 2013, 11:16 GMT

    @ Posted by on (February 5, 2013, 10:25 GMT) - wuite an unfair comparrison, Ramps had a lot of chances but never proved himself in testing conditions, Shah usually runs someone out every innings, Patel is an allrounder who can't bowl to international standard Panesar is your only point but he had a run in the team, fell out of form and got replaced by Swann who is now england's most successful spinner.. I think the management have now realised in turning conditions we need to play both but this was perhaps a 'play to our strengths' ploy, not a racially motivated one. and you're comparing them to Cook - who will probably be England's greatest EVER batsman, Bell who averages nearly 50 and Broad who has been great for us. Unfortunatley in all the player's you've mentioned none of them have really won us a game, whereas Cook, Bell and Broad have.

    Now, if you were to compare them to the likes of Dernbach, I would completley agree! Waaaay too many chances.

  • Samuel on February 5, 2013, 11:11 GMT

    @Walter - part of the problem with British-Caribbean players is that so many other sports pull them away from cricket: football being the obvious one, but athletics, rugby union & even British basketball, which is on the up & up, all offer viable sporting careers. Until cricket can compete in terms of accessibility & attractiveness, other sports will continue to be a talent drain.

  • No featured comments at the moment.