February 7, 2013

Diverse city, static cricket

Tim Wigmore
Leicestershire has a big Asian-origin community, but you wouldn't know that if you saw its county team

Leicester epitomises the diversity of modern Britain. It is on the verge of becoming the UK's first "majority non-white" city, and at 28.3% possesses the highest percentage of British Indians. Yet Leicestershire's county cricket side struggles to be representative of its area: of the squad of 20 professionally contracted players, only two are from British Asian backgrounds.

It has been difficult to turn promising British Asians into established professionals. Of the eight British Asian players from former academy intakes at Leicester since 2003-04, only one - Shiv Thakor, the current England U-19 captain - has subsequently earned a county contract. The comparable figure for non-Asians was ten out of 25. And of the nine players in the Leicestershire academy today, only one is a British Asian. The picture in age-group cricket is much more balanced but those cricketers have yet to show they can make the grade.

Leicestershire is hardly a county that can afford to miss players. While it has produced England players in recent years, talents including Stuart Broad, James Taylor and Luke Wright all moved away from Leicestershire early in their careers. Neither, as a county that attracts some of the smallest crowds in the country, can it afford to lose a potential additional audience drawn by a proven commitment to developing cricketers in predominantly Asian areas in the inner cities. It is these issues that the ECB, with the help of the Club Cricket Conference, is seeking to address in a new undertaking in five England cities, Leicester included.

Reaching out
At the grassroots, there are always rumblings of discontent. Mahesh Mistry, the club secretary of the Shree Prajapati Association Cricket Club, asserts that the county had not been "very proactive" in reaching out to cricket clubs. "I haven't seen a lot of information about 'Leicestershire county cricket club are here to help you or do this or that.' There's a lot more that could be done. The structure itself seems to be very closed and exclusive - rather than involving everybody."

Mistry, who has been playing cricket in Leicestershire for 27 years, believes that the process by which talented young cricketers are identified by the county lacks transparency. "If you know people in certain clubs, that's how you can get in. If we had players of a reasonable standard at a lower level I don't know if people are interested in getting them in - it just seems that Leicestershire themselves are very removed from what's happening elsewhere. They don't seem to be reaching out to all parts. Nobody's ever gone down to our club and scouted anybody. The kids who've actually gone on to play for the colts have done it via schools and parents knowing certain people".

Rubin Sthankiya, secretary and treasurer at Belgrave Cricket Club, expresses a similar concern. "The Asian kid may be good - he can score a hundred in park cricket. But a hundred in league cricket will be viewed differently. If you've got an Asian kid who wants to look up and think, 'Which feeder system do I go through, which is the best academy' - there isn't one."

"If you say your favourite sport is cricket, you'd think you might come and watch county cricket here, but it doesn't happen. I think their favourite sport is Indian cricket, so a game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire doesn't make them want to go and cross the road to watch it"
Mike Siddall, Leicestershire chief executive

Leicestershire is well aware of difficulties reaching out to the Asian community. Mike Siddall, the Leicestershire chief executive, says, "I've given a lot of thought to it but it just isn't easy. There is a real problem in engaging the local Asian community to become involved with this county cricket club. But it's the same for the football club and the same for the rugby club as well."

Under Siddall's tenure as chief executive, steps have been taken to increase the appeal of Leicestershire to Asian communities - notably cutting ticket prices for Under-16s for all T20s from £8 to £1. Mistry praises this decision. "I've noticed that Leicestershire county cricket club have provided student tickets and discounted prices, so that's been quite useful."

However, Siddall expresses frustration that, although Leicestershire's game against the touring Indians in 2011 was a sell-out, it has proved difficult to translate that enthusiasm into attendances at county games. "If you say your favourite sport is cricket, you'd think you might come and watch county cricket here, but it doesn't happen. I think their favourite sport is Indian cricket, so a game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire doesn't make them want to go and cross the road to watch it."

It is legitimate to ask how this could change. Sthankiya says that "attitudes and views are changing" and that notions of an Asian glass ceiling existing in cricket are being eroded. However, "it's difficult to say" whether second and third generation Asians are developing more attachment to the county club, Sthankiya believes.

There is a disconnection between Asian and non-Asian cricket in Leicester, Keith Webster, secretary of Leicester Electricity Sports Club, says. Although his club has significant numbers of both Asian and non-Asian players, Webster says it is an exception. "Clubs in the city tend to be either Asian or white. In the city itself, a lot of Asians have tended to run their own teams and not have proper grounds - they tend to be park sides - and not play in the main league."

The ECB's strategy of directing funds towards clubs with good structures is understandable - it is designed to avoid waste and help clubs with thriving junior sections - but it may be having an adverse effect on park cricket sides, which tend to feature a large number of Asian players. "The biggest get bigger and the weakest fall by the wayside," says Webster. "I think we will see a trend of some of the park-based Asian teams folding."

Webster is also concerned about the cost of playing and organising park cricket. "[It often costs] £10 per player per game or more. People can't afford that." The quality of pitches in park cricket is another problem. "The better grounds are taken up by other clubs," says Mistry.

Leicester's Asian talent
But despite the difficulties, British Asian talent is emerging from Leicestershire. Offspinner Jigar Naik was the first Leicester-born Asian to represent the county, and has developed a solid career; Samit Patel largely came up through the Nottinghamshire system but was born in Leicester. So too was Thakor, who excelled in his six championship matches for Leicestershire last season.

While stressing that he experienced no problems himself, Thakor is well placed to talk about the difficulties aspiring Asian cricketers face. "You see a lot of young Asian lads coming through age-group cricket and obviously as they go up they filter out and there's less and less that make it through."

Leicestershire head coach and academy coach Phil Whitticase attributes the drop-off rate to "various reasons - performance, fitness, and also to a degree some parental guidance in regard to academic education".

Thakor is atypical in that he received a scholarship to board at Uppingham School for five years. But he says that he's aware of the situation in state schools. "A lot don't play cricket themselves and it's something that needs to be worked on. I know there's a huge emphasis on grassroots cricket and I'm trying to get involved as much as I can here, going in to schools and helping out to coach."

Unsurprisingly, elite private schools are disproportionately well represented in the Leicestershire team - apart from Thakor at Uppingham, Josh Cobb and Matt Boyce attended Oakham School, as did Stuart Broad. However, Webster believes this may change. Private school domination "used to be the case in rugby union, particularly in this part of the world - to get good coaching, and all the support and encouragement, players had to go to the likes of Oakham. Players now don't have to go to public school to get the coaching - that will now happen with cricket."

Positive steps
Leicestershire county has made important progress in its dealings with the British Asian community. Shahid Sheikh joined the club's board of directors in 2011, the first British Asian to be invited.

The work county players - including Thakor and Naik - do in state schools is increasing, while some senior players, most notably Matthew Hoggard, have been involved with Chance to Shine, the charity that seeks to increase opportunity by forging links between clubs and State schools that lack cricket facilities or expertise.

There are also encouraging signs in the make-up of some of Leicestershire's youth squads. Eleven of the 26 players in Leicestershire's U-16 and U-17 squads are from ethnic minorities, as are nine out of 37 players currently enrolled in the England Development programme at Loughborough, which covers the 16-19-year-old age range.

But the real challenge - and the historic failing - is ensuring that these players become professional cricketers at the same rate as non-Asians.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2013, 14:19 GMT

    I have to say this is a bit of a non story. If you look at the England U19 teams over the last 20 years there have tended to be at least 2 or 3 British Asians in the each of the sides. If there is a problem in terms of demographics with English cricket it is the lack of West Indian heritage players not Asian. I know people of a left wing persuasion are always looking for some oppressed minority to stick up for but in this case it is way off beam. Look at the success that both Yorkshire and Worcestershire have had bringing through British Asians into their first teams over the last few years.

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2013, 0:29 GMT

    I am a Warwickshire fan of nigh on 20 years, and I recently chose to go to a match at Grace Road, on a day when Warwickshire were playing at home, because my disabled friend had never been to a cricket match, and wanted to go!! Suffice to say I wouldn't go again. There was no disabled parking for my friend, and the only disabled access gate only let her through, not me, who was needed to help her to her seat. There was no pa system on the side of the ground we were sat, so we couldn't hear what was going on in the game. We also couldn't read the writing on the only scoreboard there was in the ground, so we couldn't even tell which player was batting. Plus, despite the "family stand" where i was sat being nearly empty, just because i had one beer i was ejected from the stand until i finished it!!! When Leicester....a supposed "first class" county cannot even get these basics right, I am not surprised they can't figure out how to attract Asian-origin players to play for them!!!

  • Victor on February 7, 2013, 23:05 GMT

    This article is nonsense. It conflates two issues -the first being talented Asian youth dropping out of cricket; and the second being access to league cricket for Asians.

    The first could be a problem if it were really true. But I think the many Asian-origin players playing for counties prove it's not really a big issue.

    However it has nothing to do with the second issue. A lad who is playing age-group county cricket but then drops out is not dropping out because he can't join a league club! There is a problem with ages 16-19 dropping out of cricket. If it is worse among Asians this is likely due to parental pressure to study rather than play; or peer pressure to drink not play.

    Finally, the second issue has no basis in reality.

    I am a British Asian cricketer and in my experience of playing for clubs in 3 counties, there is no access to cricket issue in England. I agree 100% with mrpfister - there is nothing stopping Asians joining established league clubs.

  • Dummy4 on February 7, 2013, 22:05 GMT

    You can't ghettoise yourself as an ethnic minority and then complain about the being isolated from the main stream. If you want to be picked by Leicestershire you need to play formal cricket within the Leicestershire cricket system. That means either playing for a club already established in the Leicestershire Leagues or setting up a club to play in the Leicestershire Leagues. You can only lead a horse to water. If people in the Indian community would prefer to play informal cricket so be it. That is their choice. I can understand Leicestershire's frustration as they have tried loads of things to attract the Indians to Grace Road but they just don't turn up. Even when they had Virender Sehwag as their overseas player it didn't attract people.

  • Robert on February 7, 2013, 20:10 GMT

    It saddens me to say it but there are too many counties and a couple at any rate need winding up. Leicestershire have gone speedily downhill in recent times, one area with a particularly great concentration of first-class counties is the East Midlands and their poor record in this matter is an excellent persuading factor.

  • Nilesh on February 7, 2013, 17:00 GMT

    A poorly researched article. Any serious examination as to why more British Asians are not breaking through the Leicestershire system needs to look at the existing nexus between the fee paying schools (Uppingham, Oakham, Leicester Grammar, Loughborough Grammar, the LCCC youth set up, and the leading club sides such as Loughborough Carillon, Barrow Town, Ivanhoe, Loughborough Town, Sielby etc.). It needs to examine why current and ex county pros do regular coaching stints at these independent schools but never go to state schools, apart from quick cricket with plastic bats one day in a blue moon! It needs to examine what efforts are made by county scouts/coaches to look for talented youngsters playing park/unoffical cricket and also needs to examine the importance and value of educational achievement (over sporting achievement) in the British Indian family structure.

  • Al on February 7, 2013, 12:59 GMT

    One factor that is in the shadows here is the British Indian attitudes to education and a tendency to view sport as only recreation. The risk-reward ratio in a typical sports career is definitely skewed towards risk - read injury, bad form etc. On the other hand, education has a more guaranteed promise of a stable career and prospects. Shiv Thakor took a conscious decision to not go to university - there will be very few British Indian families who will be happy to permit their teeangers to take that same road in the pursuit of a career in sports.

  • Bryan on February 7, 2013, 12:16 GMT

    Maybe Leicestershire should have a look at Yorkshire's systems. There's no shortage of players from British Asian backgrounds coming through up here.

  • Hari on February 7, 2013, 10:34 GMT

    I was curious to know if Prajapati Association Cricket Club and Belgrave Cricket Club have any non-Asian cricketers playing for them.

  • H on February 7, 2013, 10:23 GMT

    @HueyLad "This aside, I would suggest that batting, bowling and fieding skills, attitude, commitment and desire would be the things I would look for when compiling a squad, not ethnicity." - Welcome to the future of England and Europe my friend. You just have to look at SA and the US to see how they will use minority political identity to do exactly that.

  • No featured comments at the moment.