February 6, 2013

'It's great to show you can come through as an Asian sportsman'

Tim Wigmore
A 19-year-old Leicestershire allrounder is proving to other cricketing hopefuls from his community that they can make it too

Shiv Thakor seems unflustered by his - admittedly premature - anointing as the British Asian community's next great cricketing hope. Combining a classical batting technique with canny medium pace, Thakor has raised legitimate hopes that he can become the first British Asian allrounder to prosper for England.

It has been a challenge for players of Asian background to forge lengthy and successful international careers. The likes of Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel and even Monty Panesar have had their detractors and have spent long periods out of the side. To try to make the grade as an allrounder is an even greater task.

Thakor shrugs away such concerns. "Obviously there is going to be the pressures of expectation, but it's something that I've grown up with and it's something that I enjoy."

He may be a 19-year-old who has played only nine first-class matches but Thakor is familiar with expectations. In 2011 he won the Young Asian Sportsman of the Year award - before he had even made his first-class debut.

At a time when the ECB is re-examining English cricket's ability to win hearts and minds among South Asian youngsters, Thakor already seems very conscious of his potential wider significance, saying, "It's great for me to be coming through as a young Asian sportsman and showing that it can be done."

He acknowledges that a perception remains that it can be harder for British Asian cricketers to make it. "I don't know why it exists. A little bit of me says it's just an easy get-out, an easy excuse to make to say, 'Oh there's not a pathway in the game.'" Thakor contends that there are ample opportunities. "It's very important that the young Asian parents and the boys themselves don't just think to themselves [of] the stereotype of 'You can't make it because you're Asian.' That's a conspiracy - it's not true."

Thakor is increasingly emerging as proof of this. He was appointed captain of England Under-19s on their ongoing tour of South Africa, though a broken finger curtailed his tour after only one warm-up game. It was reward for an impressive response to his controversial omission from England's squad for the U-19 World Cup.

He admits disappointment in missing "something I'd worked towards for a long time and looked to achieve - it's a massive event". Thakor believes that he may have been hampered because the selectors didn't see him play much, since he was busy with exams and couldn't showcase his skills as much as other players could.

But Thakor now considers his World Cup exclusion a blessing in disguise. It allowed him his "first real go at playing county cricket for an extended period of time" and, in averaging 61 in six championship matches last season, he showed that he has the all-round batting game to prosper in professional cricket.

Unusually for someone so young - and as if in response to the England U-19 selectors' comments that he needed to work on being more consistent - Thakor reached 35 in seven of his ten Championship innings. A match-saving effort against Northants, when he batted nearly seven hours for once out in the game, highlighted a cool temperament.

The innings Thakor considers his best in professional cricket so far, 85 not out on a seaming wicket to set up victory against Hampshire, was testament to the sturdiness of his technique against the moving ball.

"It's very important that the young Asian parents and the boys themselves don't just think to themselves of the stereotype of 'You can't make it because you're Asian.' That's a conspiracy - it's not true"

Although he has seen the riches T20 can provide - Leicestershire won the tournament in 2011 while earning the championship wooden spoon - Thakor is clear on his cricketing priorities. "The longer format of the game is always what I think is the pinnacle of cricket. It's something I've always enjoyed the most and loved."

Even so, all modern cricketers are very conscious that they are playing in a three-format sport. Thakor has yet to play a T20 match, but he is quick to insist: "I want to play every game next year in all forms." He speaks of the need to develop "tactical awareness" in the shorter formats of the game.

An innings of 83 not out in a one-dayer against Lancashire, including a straight six off Glen Chapple, suggests that is something he is eminently capable of doing.

While batting worthy of the MCC coaching manual is Thakor's main strength - he ultimately envisages batting at three - he also offers bristling medium pace. He has only taken seven wickets in his professional career so far, but feels that he can become "a genuine allrounder" - a view echoed by his county coach, Phil Whitticase. Alongside potentially moving up the batting order, Thakor is confident that "next year there will be opportunities for me to bowl a bit more".

Balancing competing demands is familiar to him. At 13 he won a scholarship to Uppingham School, a traditional Leicestershire hunting ground, which allowed him to play "a great standard of cricket" and work with cricket master Trevor Ward, a former Kent and Leicestershire opening batsman, who Thakor described as "almost like a second father to me". Thakor didn't just develop as a cricketer there: he also did well enough academically to receive offers from Cardiff, Durham and Loughborough to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Thakor had planned to begin at university last September. "Had it not been for the season I had at the end, I would have probably gone to university. Things worked out and it was a decision I made with my family." Rather than follow ex-England captains including Nasser Hussain and Andrew Strauss in studying alongside his cricket career, Thakor is focusing completely on cricket. "I felt ready to play full-time now and take on the challenge. The opportunity is here. You only get an opportunity like this once in a lifetime."

University or not, Thakor doesn't lack ambition. His plan is to play cricket full-time for a number of years and play for England, he says. And for all the caveats attached to predicting the futures of 19-year-olds, Whitticase says there's no reason why that should not come to pass.

Whether England recognition comes while at Leicestershire might be a different matter. James Taylor left the county a year ago because, in Thakor's words, "there were rumours going around that he needed to play Division One cricket to pursue his England career". Although Thakor has two years remaining on his contract and says, "There's nothing like winning trophies at your home county", it would be little shock if he moved on after that. "If we start playing Division One cricket, challenging in all three forms, well there's no reason why I would need to move," he says, suggesting what might happen if this were not the case.

For now, Thakor's focus is converting the currency of potential to that of performance. Given his combination of talent, level-headedness, and Leicestershire's history of nurturing youthful promise, Shiv Thakor is someone England cricket should hear much more of.

Tomorrow in our series on engaging with South Asian communities in England: a case study of Leicester, the city with the largest Indian population in the UK