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Irish cricket's Asian legspin hope

Varun Chopra's inclusion to play in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh will be a boost to his community's involvement in the game back in Ireland

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
The Ireland Under-19 squad poses for a photo before the match against Papua New Guinea, ICC Under-19 World Cup Qualifier, Kuala Lumpur, October 16, 2015

Legspinner Varun Chopra (front row, second from right) is expected to take plenty of wickets in Bangladesh  •  ICC

Barely a fortnight ago, Ireland's Under-19 players were still reflecting on the disappointment of missing out on qualification for the World Cup. Now, after Australia's withdrawal from the competition because of security concerns, Ireland are preparing to begin their World Cup campaign with a televised game against India.
The match will hold particular significance for Ireland's youngest player, Varun Chopra. In 1974, Varun's father, Vishal, then aged five, was in a car driven by his mother, Asha, who was eight months pregnant. On a street in Derry, she was shot dead by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The bullet had diverted off the arm of a policeman it was intended for. It later led to an official apology from the IRA. Asha is believed to have been the only Irish-Asian killed by the IRA.
Vishal immediately moved to Mumbai to be with his grandparents, but returned to Ireland aged 17 "to see if I could make something of my life". He now lives in Coleraine, in the north of Northern Ireland, where Vishal met his wife and built a career importing jewellery. "Heaven on earth I call this place," he says. "It is the nicest place on earth. That is why I chose to come back here. Ireland has given me a lot and I hope that me and my children will be here forever. My family in India all know about the game. Hopefully they'll be supporting the youngster!"
One of Vishal's other children, Rishi, is a 20-year-old offspinner who already plays for the North West Warriors, one of the three sides in Ireland's interprovincial competition.
"He gets good revs on the ball, and as a result generally gets 'drop' - a key ingredient," says the former Ireland offspinner Kyle McCallan, now a selector, although Rishi's release point, "past perpendicular", can cause problems with his line.
Varun, a legspinner who turns 16 on February 1, the day of the match against New Zealand, is reckoned to be even more promising. He caught McCallan's eye immediately when he saw him three years ago. "He has a repeatable action and bowled with impeccable accuracy. What was more impressive was that he spun it hard and had the ability to spin it both ways."
A combination of cold weather and damp pitches means that bowling spin in Ireland is no glamorous pursuit. "In Ireland it's absolutely freezing, so it is tough. You need good weather, which hopefully we'll get in Bangladesh," says Varun.
As a young legspinner, it has been Varun's fortune to work with Bobby Rao, the former legspinning allrounder from India who later settled in Ireland. Varun worked with Rao from the age of 10.
"He is a great learner," Rao says. "He is a genuine orthodox legspinner with a well-disguised googly. The wickets in Bangladesh take turn - he will be a match-winner for Ireland."
Tall for his age, Varun tends to bowl flat and quick for a legspinner, in a manner bearing some resemblance to Anil Kumble. In person he has the shyness one would expect of a 15-year-old unaccustomed to doing media interviews. But his ambition is easy enough to detect.
"The aim is to be a professional player and represent the Ireland senior team in a couple of years. Hopefully this experience will help me big time and can help me into the main team in a couple of years," he says. Like Rishi, who is studying at Leeds Beckett University, Varun aspires to eventually gain a county contract. That would provide vindication for copious hours spent travelling from Coleraine to Bready, where indoor training is held during the winter.
Varun had just turned seven when Ireland toppled Pakistan on St Patrick's Day in 2007. The years since have seen the image of Irish cricket transformed. "A lot more people follow cricket and Ireland cricket's profile is increasing - a lot more people know about it and are following it," he says.
For Cricket Ireland, the story of the Chopras has a greater significance. The era of professionalism in Irish cricket has so far passed the Irish-Asian population by. Ireland have not fielded an Irish-Asian since 2005, despite a growing population from cricket-loving Asian countries - the non-Chinese Asian population is the fastest growing demographic in the Republic of Ireland, and there are over 60,000 people of South Asian descent living across Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, admits there is "anecdotal" evidence that Irish-Asian fans who have attended ODIs between Ireland and Pakistan or Sri Lanka in recent years are less inclined to attend other matches.
But Cricket Ireland is attempting to grow links with the Irish-Asian community. In 2014, Shapoorji Pallonji, an Indian construction billionaire who is the world's 55th richest man, agreed to fund the board's academy for the next decade, giving around €2.5 million in total.
Efforts are being made to nurture the best Irish-Asian talent, especially around Dublin, where the concentration of cricketers of South Asian heritage is highest: a Cricket Inclusion Development Officer for Cricket Leinster targets some Asian areas. Cricket Ireland is currently helping fund artificial wickets and nets in Ballyhaunis, a small town in the west of Ireland that has the highest percentage of immigrants in the country. Almost one-third of registered club players in Munster are of South Asian descent.
Yet there is also recognition that despite financial support from the ICC, which is meagre compared to that which the weakest Full Members get, Cricket Ireland could do more to engage the Irish-Asian community. This will be one focus of the board's new strategic plan, which will be launched in the next few months.
"The new strategy will highlight opportunities to reach out to cricket-loving expats from outside of Ireland, especially within the Asian communities, and the need to shift perceptions of cricket as an elitist, exclusive sport to one that is open and accessible," says Richard Holdsworth, Performance Director of Cricket Ireland.
"The challenges are how to engage with the community in the right way, and whether we try and integrate that community into existing cricket structures - through clubs - or whether we need to devise new channels of entry to the game here, similar to the Chance to Shine programme in England," Deutrom says. "It's likely to be a mix of the two."
Part of Cricket Ireland's challenge is to find poster boys for the growing Irish-Asian cricket community. "We certainly hope that the success of the Chopras will continue into the senior squads and inspire other youngsters of South Asian descent to join their local club and play for Ireland," Deutrom says.
The Chopra brothers could become the standard-bearers for Irish-Asian cricketers. And, if all goes well for the boys and their country, Varun and Rishi could one day be Irish spin twins in a Test match. "That would be a dream come true," Vishal says. "Anything is possible if you work hard enough."

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts