Cricket: Birmingham's example for England

Jon Culley studies the efforts being made to tap the ethnic talent pool
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The Independent Online
THE ENGLAND cricket team has long been a multi-cultural phenomenon, accommodating players from a variety of places outside these shores. The present captain, born in Madras, has 15 predecessors whose place of birth was not actually England. But the presence in the Edgbaston Test side of another ethnic Asian is seen as a landmark.

Aftab Habib, the Leicestershire batsman given his Test debut in Birmingham, is from Reading. After the World Cup demonstrated the vibrant enthusiasm for cricket among British Asians it is his selection that has caught the mood and reopened a debate pursued with equal passion.

Birmingham is right at its centre. By 2001, it is estimated that the school population of Britain's second largest city, of some 1.1m inhabitants, will be 50 per cent non-British in ethnicity, hardly a minority.

Cricket, on the whole, sees itself as non-racist and in no city does the game, on the parks and in the leagues, have a greater Asian presence than Birmingham. Yet of more than 400 players registered with the 18 first- class counties this season, there are fewer than 25 British Asians.

The question being asked, naturally, is "why?" The conclusion to which some have moved is prejudice. Imran Khan and Wasim Akram have said as much. So has Dermot Reeve, a former Warwickshire captain.

The picture in Birmingham, however, is one of deep complexity. The last decade has seen massive progress, driven from all sides, towards giving professional cricket the chance to tap into a vast resource of potential talent and young Asians the chance to take up the game as a career.

Under the guidance of the director of cricket, Richard Cox, the Warwickshire Cricket Board has actively opened doors. Its development programme, running eight teams from Under-11 to Under-19, numbers 107 players, of whom 37 are from ethnic group backgrounds. Applications for places at Under-15 level included 41 per cent from those groups. Yet among Under-19s, even though Warwickshire has the largest contingent of British Asians among all counties, interest registered at only 14 per cent.

"It is in that area that questions need to be asked," Cox said. "What is happening between 15 and 19? Are young players dropping out by choice or are opportunities being closed to them? Why are we not attracting them into county cricket? All the Asian players that have come through to the England team come from a privileged background, not in that they were necessarily rich but in having had a good education and parental support," Cox said. "What we need is for quality cricketers to come through from an under- privileged background."

Asif Din, a Ugandan Asian who played for Warwickshire for 15 years and still lives and plays (for Wasim Akram's new club, Smethwick) in Birmingham, believes cultural differences are a key factor. "You look around inner- city Birmingham and there are Asian kids playing cricket on the streets," he said. "You see talented Asian youngsters at county Under-15 level but a lot of that talent is then going missing.

"There are financial problems in the inner-cities, of course. But also it is a matter of understanding each other's culture. I am a Muslim and in a way I lived two lives, one at home, one playing cricket. I do not drink and I am a vegetarian, I would get up early each day to pray in my hotel room. But I never had a problem with other players. If you are strong willed, if you talk to people and say why you do these things, it should not be a barrier.

"But I do feel there is a need to get out and talk to families. Parents will want their children to become pharmacists, accountants, doctors or whatever. This is part of their culture and cricket needs to understand that. But they need to understand that you can play cricket and have an education, too. Look at Mark Wagh and Anurag Singh, two Warwickshire players who have been to university and played cricket at the same time."

To find good facilities in the inner cities presents its own problems. In a thinly spread budget, Birmingham City Council does not make cricket pitches a priority. But Naz Khan, assistant principal at a sixth-form college in Asian-dominated Balsall Heath, has seen barriers overcome through co-operation. A partnership with the former Moseley Grammar School, which brought Lottery money to the school, enabled him to take the Attock club of which he is chairman from a club of just 14 members to one with three teams and more than 100 members in five years.

"There are some problems with enabling young Asians to realise their potential," he said. "There is a lack of sensitivity among some people about financial barriers. And for some players there is a difference of cricket culture in that they like to play with flair while their coaches might be more keen to see their elbow in the right place.

"I would be lying if I said there was no difference in attitude towards Asians. We need to get the politics right. But Asian youngsters in Birmingham have a passion for the game. They are British and they want to play for England."