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