We must question cricketing norms and help Asian minority find their place in game

Surrey offspinner Amir Virdi

Annie Chave

It's no secret that I love attending first-class cricket, but what you may not know is that I welcome the challenge of going to cricket as a woman by myself.

I love it because it questions the cricketing norm; and hell, if you know a bit about the game, well that is just odd. Bit by bit, though, if you start to challenge the norm, others will feel able to, and so on and so on.

This is an attitude I share with another passionate fan of Championship cricket, Harjot Sidhu.

"There's two ways of looking at it", Harjot tells me, "either this isn't where I'm meant to be, so I'll stay away, or this isn't where I'm meant to be, but I'm going to stick it out because I love it, and maybe things will change for other people.

"It's to do with representation; if you're there, other people will see you there and think, if X can do it then I can do it."

In June last year, Harjot completed a 26-mile walk to the Oval, raising £1,590 for the Nishkam Swat charity, which provides food for the homeless. He did this partly to engage with his community during lockdown, and partly because he was inspired by a hero of his, Guramar Singh Virdi, the Surry off spinner.

"I guess my attention was drawn to Virdi because seeing a Sikh at a pinnacle of a sport in this country is quite rare," Harjot says. "The actor Riz Ahmed recently made a speech in the House of Commons about the idea of representation – how important it is, as someone from an ethnic minority, to see yourself represented on the screen.

"Ahmed said that, if you're not being represented on screen, you're going to feel you can't ever be there, and this is SO true. As kids, whenever we saw an Asian on TV we'd shout the house down, and it shouldn't be like that. Calling for diversity feels a bit like quota-filling, ticking a box, whereas representation, and witnessing representation by anyone from my community, feels important."

Harjot had always been interested in international cricket, but that was where it stopped. His parents, who came over from India in the 1970s, had no time for leisure activities. They put in the hours to make a living. His passion began at university, where he'd meet with his friends at T20 or one-day matches. Then he developed an interest in the Championship that has grown and grown.

Harjot and I share a love of county cricket and we both challenge the demographic, but unlike him, I'm not interested in playing anymore. To Harjot, accessibility isn't straightforward, he doesn't feel confident about how or where to go. Engaging the South Asian community in watching county cricket is a challenge that needs to be addressed, but it's participation and integration that also need immediate attention.

Fewer than six per cent of county cricketers are Asian, yet, almost unnoticed, 35 per cent of all cricket currently played in England is played in the Asian community. Somewhere along the way, we are losing sight of a vital part of the cricketing community.

I spoke to Gulfraz Riaz, of the National Asian Cricket Council about his tackling of the integration issue. The NACC, which has had official status since 2018 under the umbrella of the ECB, was set up with the main purpose of helping the South Asian community to connect with county boards. In 2014, Gulfraz went on a road-trip seeking out South Asian communities, subsequently inviting 80 South Asian cricketing reps from around the country to a meeting at Edgbaston to decide aims and objectives. The NACC was born.

According to Gulfraz, one of the most important first steps was to challenge the South Asian community itself. He felt that the lack of cohesion was too easily blamed on the ECB or the boards, and he invited the community to ask itself what it was doing to help?

Following the outlines of the ECB's five-year plan, "Inspiring Generations", South Asian communities have reached out to the various boards but, two years into the plan, there is little evidence of significant change.

Gulfraz says: "I think the county boards really need to stop and review and ask what have we achieved in the two years of this action plan. Where are we helping support the South Asian community? Otherwise, what's going to happen, in ten years or so, the first cracks will start to appear in the South Asian cricketing community, as they appeared in the Caribbean community, the difference being that the Caribbean community accounted for only one or two percent of the cricket public.

"This is bigger and far more public, and the ECB, the counties, me, we're all going to be held accountable. So, I want to ask the county boards to ask themselves what it is they're doing to support, because they're the people on the ground, not the ECB, and the evidence coming back at the moment is not looking good."

Nevertheless, there are positive plans afoot. Gulfraz is initiating a project to relocate the South Asian parks teams, which have been playing in parks and getting changed under trees, to club grounds that are not used on a Sunday.

"If a local cricket club has a beautiful pitch that is available on a Sunday, it would be brilliant to invite the South Asian parks team to come and use those facilities, pay what the going rate is and leave it as they find it. But the key here is that it's a really crucial integration. It may well lead to some of the Asian players joining the English club side on a Saturday, and the English club benefits financially, as well as gaining new players.

"For Asian teams without junior sections, there should be encouragement to younger players to join in the English clubs' Friday-night training. You're planting the seeds very early on, so when they grow up there should be no need for a 'them and us' situation. They can play for both sides – it's a great way of bringing the cricketing community together."

More recently they have initiated a two-year pilot with ECB and Royal Springboard that places six boys from the South Asian cricketing community into boarding schools with full bursaries.

That will be close to one million pounds of backing from year 7 to sixth form. There are other ECB-led initiatives that include investing in good-quality nets in secondary schools. Gulfraz feels there is an ideal opportunity for the Asian cricketing community to forge links with local secondary schools.

"The schools have state-of-the-art nets (not holes and a burn mark on a good length), so in East London, for example, there are five South Asian leagues that could use those net facilities from 6pm-9pm. and in the summer whenever they're not in use." There is a real need for such partnership arrangements. Cricket is a multicultural game, and people like Harjot Sidhu should not be fearing that they stick out like a sore thumb in the crowd at county matches. County boards and the cricketing public at large should pay heed.

This piece first appeared in County Cricket Matters.