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Warwickshire reaching out through Ramadan League

Club takes steps to better reflect the community it serves but admits there's more work to be done

George Dobell
George Dobell
Shozair Ali (left) offers advice to kids demonstrating more connection to sides in Pakistan than Warwickshire, 28 April 2021

Shozair Ali (left) offers advice to kids demonstrating more connection to sides in Pakistan than Warwickshire  •  Sam Bagnall, Warwickshire CCC

Almost the first time Shozair Ali bowled with a leather ball was at his Warwickshire trial. He had been spotted playing parks cricket in Birmingham - in Calthorpe Park, actually; just 200 metres or so from Edgbaston - a few weeks earlier. Little more than a year later, he was representing England Under-15 at Lord's.
Things didn't work out for Shozair. Not how he had originally hoped, anyway. Although he went on to play for England in the 2012 U-19 World Cup in Australia - he opened the bowling with Reece Topley in a couple of games - he suffered a series of injuries that curtailed his progress. After one first-class game, he accepted his future was in coaching.
His story is revealing, though. It suggests there is much talent outside the traditional pathways. And it reminds us of the challenge the likes of Shozair face in competing for selection alongside kids who may have benefitted from excellent facilities and coaching throughout their development years.
To hear him talk, it's also clear he would have benefitted from some mentorship within the sport. As he puts it, "I was used to turning up five minutes before the game in trainers and black socks. Coming to Warwickshire was an eye-opener. There are lots of things I wish I'd known earlier."
Shozair is back at the Edgbaston indoor centre to help run the Ramadan League. The scheme, run by Warwickshire Cricket Board and Chance to Shine Street, sees cricketers between the ages of 16-18 invited to take part in a league on Tuesday and Friday nights during Ramadan. Participation and travel is free - pre-booked taxis are provided - and the six-a-side games take place between 10pm to midnight. The hope is the scheme can be extended to adults when Covid restrictions are lifted.
Great, you may be thinking. But what's the big deal?
Well, the issue is Warwickshire has a modest record in terms of inclusivity. While Kabir and Moeen Ali both developed, in part, at the club, both also felt the need to go elsewhere to find opportunity. By the time the 2020 season finished, there was no non-white player or senior coach upon the staff. For a club based in multicultural Birmingham, that feels like a failure to reflect or utilise the community it serves. It's telling that there are PSL kits visible among those playing in the Ramadan League; there's no sign of a Warwickshire, Birmingham Bears, Birmingham Phoenix or even England one.
Not all the issues are historic, either. Only a few months ago, a young man named Ismail Mohammed (Moeen's nephew) left Warwickshire's pathway for Worcestershire's bemoaning a lack of opportunities in Birmingham. It raised the question whether, 15-years after Moeen made the same journey, anything had changed.
But acknowledging a problem is surely the first step of solving it. And Warwickshire do accept they have to do better.
"We are acutely aware that there is a lot of work still to be done," the club's new chief executive, Stuart Cain, says. "Understanding how we can help the communities we serve in Birmingham and further afield is crucial.
"We are making progress. Initiatives such as Chance to Shine Street Cricket and the African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) Programme are helping us break down barriers across the city's diverse communities and we are continuing to invest more in our community programmes each year."
It is interesting he should mention the ACE programme. Whatever the challenges facing the Asian cricket-playing community in Birmingham, things for the African-Caribbean cricket-playing community are far more bleak. Indeed, calling it a 'community' may be misleading. It is almost non-existent. In the last year that Warwickshire were able to conduct trials, around 800 children attended. One of them identified as having African-Caribbean heritage.
For this reason, ACE can't operate in Birmingham as it does in London. When the charity ran open sessions at The Kia Oval, almost 100 people turned up. In Birmingham the expectation is nobody would attend.
Handsworth CC, in Birmingham, still has a reputation as a 'Black' club. And you can understand why: not so long ago, its status was such that West Indies teams used to visit as part of their England tours.
Now 90 percent of the players in the club's youth teams are of Asian heritage, and 75 percent of the players in the second and third teams are, too. "There are a few Black players in the first team, but they aren't young," Eaton Gordon, a stalwart of both the club and the Cricket Board, says. "The enthusiasm of the Asian community is fantastic and welcome. But the situation for African-Caribbean cricket in Birmingham is… well, it's terrible."
We know some of the reasons for this decline. We know about the decline of West Indies cricket; we know about the costs of the disappearance of free-to-air cricket on television. Anecdotal evidence suggests there has been a dilution of interest in the sport as first-generation immigrants become second and third generation. It's not all anybody's fault.
But it meant that, when ACE held its first events in Birmingham last week, it involved coaches going into primary schools to provide kids with what was often their first experience of cricket. There is a very real concern that we have left this issue too long. The plant may not be ailing; it might be dead.
Maybe that is too downbeat. Certainly as you watch the passion and skill of the boys involved in the Ramadan League, it's hard not to be carried away with their enthusiasm. This isn't just a photo-shoot, either. Warwickshire now have scouts monitoring the parks leagues, with some of the finals played at Edgbaston, while similar sessions are being carried out for young women in Coventry and Birmingham. Shozair, alongside several pathway coaches, is now available as a mentor for those following in his footsteps. Every member of the 2021 Warwickshire academy is of Asian heritage.
And maybe some of the kids involved in the Ramadan League will break through. There's Manan Janjua, for example, who five-years ago lived in Norway but has hopes of selection for the Warwickshire age-group sides as a leg-spinner alongside his dreams of a career in medicine. There's Hamza Abbas, a burly all-rounder from Lozells, who has just become involved in the sessions and looks a talented lad.
And there are several others, some of whom have "never left their own postcode before" in the words of one coach, who are enjoying the teamwork and friendly competition and may now feel this club in the middle of the city welcomes and values them. They don't have to turn professional to have fulfilling cricketing lives. But perhaps, with the advice of Shozair and a sense that the club will do all it can to help, one or two can find a way through. The unifying, healing powers of sport are real.
But we do have to be realistic. Thirty percent of people playing recreational cricket in England and Wales identify as South Asian in origin. At professional level, the figure falls to around five percent. Over the last 20 years or so, Warwickshire have reaffirmed their commitment to inclusivity several times. A succession of chief executives have made similar comments to Cain. They've all meant it, too.
But by running this scheme - and several others besides - Warwickshire are attempting to demonstrate that the game and the club have changed. They are demonstrating they won't just operate on their own terms and that they will respect the customs and beliefs of the audience with which they want to engage. They're trying.
Is it going to change the world? Not on its own, no. We need a culture change. We need more cricket broadcast free-to-air and an end to the system whereby talented youngsters are charged for their involvement in county pathways. At present, the best players are required to pay something around £300 for the coaching and clothing.
But what's that line about the journey of a thousand miles? Something about it starting with a single step. Warwickshire has a long way to go in this area. But it does feel as if the club is, at last, heading in the right direction.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo