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Inside the rise of the South Asian Cricket Academy

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim learns more about a programme addressing the lack of South Asian representation within the English professional game.

In New Malden, a pocket of south London not far from the lawns of Wimbledon, Surrey seconds are in action on a June Wednesday. It’s a county second XI game, a 50-over friendly, so I can count the number of spectators on one hand. But there’s still jeopardy here; these are players fighting to make the step up to the big leagues. This all matters, even if there’s barely a soul to take it in.

And there’s a bit of class on show, too. I see Surrey left-arm spinner Dan Moriarty – 36 first-class wickets at 26.36 – take a caught-and-bowled to leave the opposition 54-2 inside 11 overs. But with all due respect to Moriarty and his teammates, I’m here to learn more about the side who are batting: the South Asian Cricket Academy (SACA).

Savin Perera is at the top of the order and navigating his way through the Surrey attack. Tom Brown, the managing director of SACA, explains that Perera is playing his second match for the Academy. His first was the previous week, when he rattled off scores of 79 and 93 in SACA’s win over Northamptonshire’s seconds. Clearly, the diminutive left-hander can play. He flicks through the leg-side for four, his back foot elevated in a show of flair. There’s a cover drive next ball, and then a good-looking pull shot not long after. While batters perish around him, Perera advances to a hundred, top-scoring with 118 off 129 balls in a total of 246.

It’s only after the match that I learn the full story. Born in Sri Lanka, Perera played age-group cricket for Middlesex before being selected for the 2018 Under-19 World Cup, where he opened the batting for England alongside Tom Banton in a side captained by Harry Brook. But four years on from representing his country, he’s still making his case to step up to the next level. He only arrived on SACA’s radar after a friend of his messaged the Academy’s Twitter account in April about the possibility of Perera getting involved. Five days on from his hundred against Surrey, Perera plays for Glamorgan’s seconds against Gloucestershire. He makes another century, this time in a red-ball game at No.3.

It’s a reminder of the talent out there, hiding in plain sight, scrapping away at the margins of English cricket for a chance of going pro. But will that call, the one that changes your life, come? For British South Asians, the story is a familiar one, summed up by a galling statistic. An ECB report in 2018 revealed that players of South Asian heritage made up 30 per cent of the recreational playing base in England and Wales, but that number dropped to four per cent when it came to players at the professional level. For too long, English cricket has wasted the resources at its disposal. So in came SACA.

***

Azeem Rafiq’s testimony in front of MPs last November brought the struggles of British Asian cricketers into the spotlight. After Yorkshire admitted that he had been a victim of “racial harassment” during his time at the club, Rafiq told a DCMS select committee that he’d lost his career to racism. Similar stories were heard outside of Headingley as Rafiq’s revelations prompted other South Asian players to speak up. At Essex, Jahid Ahmed and Zoheb Sharif shared their experiences. Qasim Sheikh and Majid Haq spoke out north of the border, leading to an independent review that exposed institutional racism at Cricket Scotland.

While Rafiq had managed to make it as a professional, achieving the distinction of captaining Yorkshire at the age of 21, his testimony highlighted the dearth of British South Asians in the English first-class system. From recreational to county age groups, and then to the very top – why were the numbers dropping at each level?

Tom Brown has been investigating this topic for years. After beginning work as a performance coach in the pathway system at Warwickshire in 2017, Brown then started PhD research at Birmingham City University (BCU) the following year, investigating the lack of British South Asian cricketers at the professional level. “To be honest with you, I spent the first part of my PhD looking at what the Asian community were doing wrong,” he says. “I think the further I got through my studies, I started to realise, actually, maybe the subjective nature of talent ID and development is where we’re going wrong. Not understanding the cultural differences and the needs of the players is actually more of an area that is causing this [lack of] representation, as opposed to Asian players not being good enough.”

Brown cites a lack of adequate representation in coaching – an ECB report in 2018 found that less than five per cent of coaches at first-class counties were South Asian – and explains how selection biases may work within the existing system. “Within Asian culture, there’s very much a different way of showing respect and a different way of communicating, so there’s less eye contact. Looking down is more of a sign of respect, there’s less challenging of authority. I think there’s a lot of things that we look for in the game that are what I’d call westernised ideologies. We want people to challenge us, we want people to take ownership of their own development, and there’s a lot of stuff that different cultures will do very differently. Ultimately, none of that has anything to do with how good you are at cricket.”

The numbers that emerged from Brown’s research were startling, revealing English cricket’s issues with both race and class. He learned that white and privately educated British male players were 34 times more likely to play professional cricket than British South Asians from state schools.

Brown’s PhD research highlighted the problem, but more work needed to be done on how it could be fixed in the long term. In the meantime, he knew something needed to change, that there were South Asian players out there who needed support now. “At the moment, the amount of [South Asian] role models and players in the professional game is getting smaller each year,” says Brown. “So we need to do something just to stand still in terms of representation.”

Brown, an accomplished club cricketer who played at age-group level for Warwickshire, was turning out for West Bromwich Dartmouth CC in the summer of 2020 when he got talking to one of his teammates, former England fast bowler Kabir Ali. “We were just talking about my research and I remember being at Harborne Cricket Club and pitching the idea to Kabs there.” Together, the pair founded SACA.

With Kabir taking the role of director of cricket, much of 2021 was spent trying to find funding for the project. “We were of the opinion that we’re not going to start the project until we know we’ve got enough money to finish it,” Brown says. When BCU confirmed their intention to fund the programme late last year, it was time to move.

First came recruitment. The aim: to build a squad of male South Asian players, aged 18 or over, with an open application process – applicants can send a bio and videos of themselves playing to a WhatsApp number – bringing in new talent. “Everyone in our programme has sort of, by definition, been rejected by the system,” says Brown. Training over the winter in Birmingham gave players access to experienced coaches, with Kabir and fellow former England international Jim Troughton part of the set-up. (Ahead of the season, Kabir and Troughton took up coaching positions at Yorkshire and Surrey respectively; Owais Shah, Shaftab Khalid, Alexei Kervezee and Brown made up the coaching staff when SACA played Surrey.) Then came the summer, and the opportunity to play against county second XIs.

***

The Academy’s first intake has resulted in the reappearance of some familiar names. Andrew Umeed – who made a hundred for Warwickshire on his County Championship debut in 2016 – captained the side on multiple occasions earlier this summer. Atif Sheikh, a 31-year-old left-arm quick previously seen at Leicestershire, has showcased his pace. “A few years ago he was clocked in the nineties (mph) and there have definitely been spells this year that were high eighties,” says Brown.

Then there are those at the younger end of the programme, still searching for their first real breakthrough. Amrit Basra, a 20-year-old batter who bowls a bit of seam, too, made his way through the Northamptonshire age groups and into the seconds. But he couldn’t make the final jump, failing to secure a professional deal last year. “This is my first year out of the [Northants] set-up,” he says. “You’ve been working for this your whole life, as a kid training every winter, loving it. And then when someone says you’re not quite there – it was tough. But this is when SACA came in. And it was great because they offered another path. Not being in a county set-up through the winter, one thing I was really going to struggle with is, ‘How am I going to train in the winter?’”

The launch of SACA brought structure to Basra’s off-season and training in Birmingham gave him a place to keep on working at his game. That resulted in a call-up to Kent’s second XI earlier this summer, and he responded with an unbeaten 157 off 194 balls in April against Essex’s seconds.

Ashane Wijesuriya, a keeper-batter who played age-group cricket for Middlesex, is emphatic in stating why the arrival of SACA was necessary. “I think the system was designed – which Tom Brown is now obviously trying to remove – to not see South Asian cricketers benefit.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes behind Asian cricketers not being able to field, or being unprofessional. But the way we go about our business, we’re still providing the same results and we’re still putting in the performances, and we’re still being as keen as we can. The amount of cricketers I know that are more than capable, as you can see from the results that our SACA team are putting out there – we’ve kind of been put out of the limelight. Now we’re finally getting the opportunity.”

He followed the Rafiq story and could relate to it. “Thankfully, someone’s said it. Because it’s kind of opened up the door for everyone, not even just in county cricket, but club cricket, to be a bit more aware with what actually goes on. It’s still there. But it’s less so. But I’ve experienced it all the way since I was 10. Growing up, you kind of get taught to wash it out and put it behind you. But this has given the platform to be like, ‘I can stand my ground here, and I can do the right thing’.”

Wijesuriya reveals that he suffered racist abuse earlier this year while playing club cricket. “I was at a club game and I was told to go back to where I come from. I didn’t know how to handle it. I just came off the pitch and I was like to the chairman of our club, ‘He said this to me’. And he said, ‘We back you 100 per cent. If you want to do something about this, we can do it. If not, it’s up to you’.’ I said, ‘We’ll just say something because I don’t want it to happen to someone else’. I’m quite thick-skinned so it doesn’t really affect me, but it was more to protect the next guy that it happens to, or to prevent it from happening.” He says the matter was dealt with by the umpires.

There is, as Wijesuriya explains, a sense of resonance within the SACA dressing room. “Everyone tells the same story, just in a slightly unique way. So it’s good to have 11 or 15 lads that actually understand where you’re coming from, from the same backgrounds, who just get you a bit better.”

***

On the day of the Surrey game, Brown explained that his side were probably a batter light. It’s not because he couldn’t find any; rather, counties were beginning to take notice of the players he’d recruited. Andrew Umeed had been called up to play for Yorkshire’s seconds, and Amrit Basra was with Kent. “We’re starting to become the first point of call for these things,” Brown said. “The first few months were very slow, nothing was happening, we couldn’t get anyone out on trial. And now we’ve had 12-13 guys go out.”

The new pathway is working. Players are impressing in friendlies against second XI sides, then getting opportunities as triallists at those counties. When I first spoke to Brown in May, he dropped in the name of Kashif Ali, a batter attracting interest on the county circuit. In April Kashif had played for SACA against Worcestershire and hit a quickfire half-century. On the day of SACA’s game against Surrey, Kashif, having already signed a short-term professional contract for Worcestershire earlier that month, played for his new county’s seconds against Warwickshire in a four-day game. He made scores of 108 and 82. In July, the big news dropped: Kashif, 24 years old, had signed a two-year deal with Worcestershire.

The news of Kashif’s deal came just days after Umeed had signed a contract with Somerset until the end of the 2023 season. “The South Asian Cricket Academy have helped me a lot,” Umeed said. “They’ve given me the opportunity to train through the winter and given me access to quality coaches. That has helped me to bridge that gap between club cricket and the professional game.”

Aside from Worcestershire, Kashif had played second-team cricket for Essex, Leicestershire, Kent, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire, and for various club sides across the country. He’d gone well beyond the shires to make an impression too; last year he played in the Kashmir Premier League, finishing the tournament as the fourth highest run-scorer, his name sandwiched between Shan Masood and Shoaib Malik in the batting charts. For his part, Umeed had disappeared from the county scene after being released by Warwickshire in 2018. Just months after being recruited by SACA, they landed full-time deals.

Who will be next? Brown has high hopes for Zen Malik, SACA’s captain for the Surrey game. The 24-year-old played for England under-19s in 2016 after coming through the ranks at Worcestershire. The last few years have seen him do the rounds with various county second XIs. “If I felt like I wasn’t good enough, I would have given up a long time ago,” Malik says. “But because I feel like I’m close, and I have done for the last few years, I think it’s still worth that battle, still worth that struggle.”

***

Funding for the programme is minimal. Its first year is running on around £55,000 – Birmingham City University are the main funders – and more money is required. “Our next phase: we want to regionalise it,” says Brown. “We’ve had over 160 applicants, and I’d say 40 or 50 of them were good enough to have a look at and have a go in the team. I’ve only got 11 spots in the team and with the winter stuff being in the Midlands, you’ve got guys coming from Scotland, Hampshire, from all over the place, and it’s not fair to them. I’ve got one academy at the moment, costing me £50k. If I have another three then it’s going to be at least double, triple the cost. So I’ve got to find that money.” The programme has not received any funding from the ECB.

Money isn’t exclusively being directed into the development of male cricketers. The debate over diversity in the women’s game is not as loud, yet there are significant issues to tackle. Isa Guha, a patron for SACA, remains the only player of South Asian heritage to have played more than once for England Women. Brown explains that there has been a lack of study into the dearth of British South Asian representation in the women’s game, something SACA is hoping to rectify; with the help of partners, the Academy has also pledged to fund PhD research into the issue. Its female programme began last winter in partnership with Warwickshire, with SACA providing extra coaching to British South Asian players in the county’s pathway, aged 13 to 15. The aim, Brown says, is to simply keep these players in the system. “It’s to stop the dropout at 15, rather than progress them into professional athletes.” The focus on developing more pros, you sense, will come with time.

The key detail to acknowledge about SACA is that it is an “intervention” programme. The aim is for it to run for only three to six years in the hope that the structures of English cricket have changed by then, making it redundant. Given the current situation, this feels optimistic. It was the inaction of administrators that led to the introduction of SACA, with a specialised programme required to aid the entry of British South Asians into the professional game.

Or perhaps there really is no turning back, with SACA presenting an unanswerable case – demonstrating that the decision-makers, those making the calls over who goes pro and who doesn’t, have been getting it horribly wrong. By revealing how negligent the game has been in ignoring generations of British South Asian cricketers.

***

Back at New Malden, Perera’s hundred means Surrey are chasing 247, and at 110-2 in the 23rd over, the county side are firm favourites. But Jafer Chouhan makes the breakthrough, getting his leg-break to spin sharply past the advancing Nico Reifer before Ashane Wijesuriya completes the stumping. Angus Lovell is lbw next ball to what looks to be a googly, and although Surrey threaten again with a couple of partnerships, they collapse from 211-6 to 226 all out. Brinder Phagura takes 4-36, and Atif Sheikh finishes with 2-17 while going at less than three an over. SACA have pulled off another win over a county second XI. Something, in this quiet corner of south London, is stirring.

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