Diverse city, static cricket
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.
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."
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."
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.