Asian and English

Kabir Ali leads the way for a new generation of England cricketers
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The face of English cricket is changing. Not so long ago it seemed that a generation of players of Anglo-Caribbean descent would transform the game's landscape. Today, just as the fortunes of the West Indies have declined, so the flow of black cricketers playing here has slowed to a trickle.

The face of English cricket is changing. Not so long ago it seemed that a generation of players of Anglo-Caribbean descent would transform the game's landscape. Today, just as the fortunes of the West Indies have declined, so the flow of black cricketers playing here has slowed to a trickle.

However, as one door closes another opens. County cricket is benefiting from the emergence of a host of players born in England into families of Asian background. Among those featuring in the opening week of the new season have been Essex's Ravinder Bopara, a 19-year-old Londoner, Lancashire's Sajid Mahmood, a 23-year-old from Bolton, and Surrey's Nayan Doshi, the 26-year-old Nottingham-born son of Dilip, the former India spin bowler.

Above all, there is the Ali family from Birmingham. Moeen Ali, who is on Warwickshire's books, and his brothers Kadeer Ali, who recently joined Gloucestershire from Worcestershire, and Omar Ali, a youth player at Warwickshire, are all hoping to follow in the footsteps of their cousin, Kabir Ali, the Worcestershire all-rounder.

Kabir, 24, made his breakthrough with the England one-day team in South Africa over the winter and can hardly wait for the summer's international business, culminating in the visit of Australia, to begin.

Kabir's grandfather emigrated to England from Kashmir, where the family returned for seven years when Kabir was aged five. Since the age of 12, however, his family have lived in Birmingham and Kabir's national allegiance is as strong as his Brummie accent.

"Playing for England was what I always dreamed of," he said. "I've always thought of England as my country. I was born here and I grew up here, as have my friends. I was very proud, as was my father, when I played for England." Kabir and his cousins - they are the children of twin fathers and mothers who are sisters - grew up in a family dominated by cricket. "Everyone played club cricket - my granddad, my father, my uncle," he said. "You were definitely the odd one out if you didn't play. All the little ones play as well. My earliest memory is of watching my dad play cricket. I always used to watch him play in the parks around Birmingham. The women in the family don't play cricket but they all love watching.

"I remember an incident when England played a one-day series against Pakistan here recently. My dad was sitting there watching the game in his England shirt. This Asian girl came up to him and said: 'You should be supporting Pakistan.' He said back to her: 'Look, we've been born and bred here. What's your problem?' I think she was a bit embarrassed.

"In the past a lot of Asians here supported India or Pakistan, but things have changed. All my friends are totally behind the England team. Especially around my area of Birmingham, Asians have changed. The younger generation regard themselves very much as English."

Kabir believes there has been a key shift in attitude towards cricket among Asian families, who in the past might have directed their children at academic or vocational work at a key stage in their sporting development.

"For a long time Asian parents didn't see cricket as a career for their children," he said. "They felt there was no way you could make a living out of it. But times have changed. Not everybody can become a doctor or a solicitor and people have seen good role models like Nasser Hussain, who've earned a lot of respect.

"Parents are now happy for their children to become sportsmen, though they'll still generally want you to carry on with your studies in case things don't work out. You even see a lot more Asian girls - sikhs and muslims - playing cricket than you used to. I think that's a good thing for everybody.

"Twenty20 cricket is playing a big part in making cricket more appealing, particularly amongst young people. The four-day game might still be seen as a bit old-fashioned, but Twenty20's exciting, what with the colourful clothes and the music. Because of Twenty20, cricket's become a cool game, like football."

Kabir's cricket career took off at school in Birmingham. "Like a lot of Asians I was never really into football," he said. "I played cricket a lot at school. My headmaster thought I might have a chance so he recommended me to Warwickshire. I played a lot of youth cricket there, but unfortunately things didn't work out. Warwickshire had a lot of senior bowlers on the staff and I couldn't see myself getting into their second XI. I had the chance to come to Worcestershire and it turned out to be the best professional decision I've ever made."

In 2000 Kabir made his debut both for Worcestershire - who are captained this year by his friend Vikram Solanki, another England player from an Asian family - and the national Under-19 team. Within two years he was the third leading wicket-taker in the country and was Worcestershire's player of the year and PCA young player of the year.

Kabir's international debut came a year later. A call-up for a one-day international against Zimbabwe was ruined by the weather, but compensation soon arrived with his Test debut, against South Africa at Headingley. "The importance of it all didn't really hit me until the day of the match, after I'd been named in the XI," Kabir said. "I was sitting in the dressing-room and I was watching Nasser Hussain put his cap on. I suddenly thought: 'Oh my God, I'm playing for England, it's happening.'

"We were fielding and I just went out on to the pitch thinking: 'I hope I get a bowl.' When Nasser gave me the ball he said: 'Look, mate, you've done well for your county. You're good enough to be here. Show us what you're made of.' My first three or four balls were very nervous."

Not the fifth, however, as Kabir took the wicket of Neil McKenzie, caught behind by Alec Stewart. Kabir took five wickets in the match, claiming the scalp of Gary Kirsten in both innings, and although he made only 10 runs with the bat it is a surprise that it remains his only Test appearance.

However, Kabir played in all seven one-day internationals in South Africa over the winter. Opportunities with the bat were limited, but he played an excellent supporting role to Kevin Pietersen with innings of 20 at East London and 25 at Centurion, and his right-arm, medium-pace bowling brought 13 wickets at 26 runs apiece. Above all there was Bloemfontein, where Kabir bowled the last over in a thrilling tied match.

South Africa needed eight runs to win and had five wickets in hand when Marcus Trescothick, standing in for the injured Michael Vaughan, handed the ball to Kabir, who by his own admission had not bowled well while conceding 49 runs from his previous seven overs. The first delivery of his final over, a nervous no-ball full toss, produced another five runs, but Kabir, encouraged by Darren Gough, kept his head. After Mark Boucher was caught by Ashley Giles and Ashwell Prince was run out, South Africa needed a single off the last ball to win. Kabir secured the tie when Andrew Hall was stumped by Geraint Jones.

"I hadn't done particularly well with the ball, but I was hoping Marcus would give me the last over," Kabir said. "Defending eight runs was a pretty hard task, but I wanted to have a go. I was very nervous and after the first ball I literally thought to myself: 'Oh my God, what have I done? They only need three runs off five balls now. I've cost us the game.'

"But then I thought to myself: 'Hang on a minute. Let's just give it a go.' Marcus and Goughie were very supportive. Goughie said: 'Don't worry about it. You've done it before, you've done it for Worcester. Keep at it. You've got nothing to lose now. Just give it 100 per cent and hopefully something will happen.' Luckily for me it worked out. I bowled a good yorker for the last ball and Jonesey took it well and made a good stumping."

When the best team in the world visit later this summer Kabir will be hoping to show the Australians what he has learnt from some of their compatriots. Among the influences on his career have been Tom Moody, director of cricket at Worcestershire, Rod Marsh at the national academy, the England bowling coach Troy Cooley, Dennis Lillee, whose academy he attended in Madras, and Bruce Reid, who helped Kabir in Australia.

Kabir, whose start to this season has been delayed by a minor calf injury, also had the benefit of playing alongside Glenn McGrath for Worcestershire. "I learnt a lot just by watching him," Kabir said. "The first game I saw him he conceded about eight runs from his first nine overs and picked up a wicket. I just thought: 'What is this guy made of?' He's a great professional. He works very hard.

"The main thing he said to me was: 'Just keep it simple. Bowl a good line and length and you'll pick up wickets.' I'd love to play against him this summer."