'You have to work twice as hard': South Asian cricketers on the ongoing battle for equality

  • In a two-part special report during South Asian Heritage Month, ITV News Anglia's Andy Ward looks at why there's a lack of Asian players in professional cricket - and what's being done about it

With an exhilarating Ashes series drawing to a close, and a World Cup in India on the horizon, it's a glorious time for cricket.

The 'Bazball' tactics employed by England against Australia this summer have captured the imagination of the sporting public, but away from the spotlight, a long-running battle for equality continues to rumble on.

The entertainment served up by the England squad in recent months is undeniable, but whether it's a squad that truly reflects the diversity of the country is open to debate.

Out of the 14 players picked for the fifth and final test at the Oval, 13 are white.

The exception is veteran spinner Moeen Ali who came out of retirement for the series following an injury to Jack Leach.

Moeen Ali is the only South Asian player in the England squad. Credit: PA

For years now, Ali has been a beacon of hope to the South Asian community - an all too rare example of someone who made it all the way to the big time.

It's an anomaly that people involved in the sport are struggling to understand, especially when you consider that at grassroots level, the passion for cricket among the Asian community is as strong as ever.

In fact, according to the South Asian Cricket Academy, 30% of recreational players in England and Wales are British South Asian, but only 5% of professional players come from the same background.

  • Watch an extended interview with South Asian Cricket Academy co-founder, Dr Tom Brown

At Chelmsford Spartans Cricket Club in Essex, interest in soaring. Ever since the club was founded during lockdown, more than 50 young players from South Asian backgrounds have signed up as members.

Captain and chairman Shyam Kumar has been a key part of that success, investing thousands of pounds of his own money to help keep the club going after moving to the UK from the cricket-mad nation of India.

Shyam Kumar helped found Chelmsford Spartans Cricket Club during lockdown. Credit: ITV News Anglia

"The main motive why we started this is to have some sort of place for our next generation," he told ITV News Anglia.

"Most of us are passionate about cricket, having come from India - we're all like cricket freaks there, it's like a religion for us."

For whatever reason though, for many players, grassroots clubs like this is where their cricketing journey ends.

One theory is that some parents still see sport as an unwelcome distraction once their children reach exam age, while others are worried about injury.

Former Essex and England batsman, Owais Shah. Credit: PA

A perceived drinking culture can also be a concern for Muslim players and parents.

Whatever the circumstances, one thing that pretty much everyone involved in the sport is in agreement with is that there's a distinct lack of role models.

Former Essex batsman Owais Shah was one of the few South Asian players who did make the jump into professionalism, representing England in all three formats of the sport.

But getting an opportunity in the first place wasn't easy.

"My mentality was that I had to work twice as hard. If someone got a century, I had to get 150 or 160 to stand out," he said.

"Have you got to be that much better than your average person as a South Asian player? I'm afraid you have to be at the moment, because it's pretty evident that you have to be. Can people change that? I don't know. The jury's out as far as I'm concerned."

Members of the Sikh community pose for a picture with young Essex player Eshun Kalley. Credit: ITV News Anglia

At top flight side Essex, bosses are trying to bring about that change as quickly as possible.

The county is currently in the process of trying to rebuild its reputation among diverse communities following allegations of historical racism.

The club is still awaiting the findings of an independent investigation after three former players claimed they were subjected to racist abuse.

One of those players, ex-bowler Jahid Ahmed, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee in December last year that some of his teammates regularly used to mock his ethnicity by calling him a "curry muncher".

Essex Cricket operations director Dan Feist. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Restoring trust is a key part of the county's vision, as illustrated by the signing of an athlete charter pledging to better understand the needs of Muslim players and staff.

The club also recently entered into a three-year partnership with the South Asian Cricket Academy, an initiative designed to offer players from diverse communities a better chance of making it as a professional, while members of the Sikh community were special guests for the County Championship clash against local rivals Kent last week.

But with only one South Asian player making the Essex squad for that game against Kent, there's still work to do.

Cricket operations director Dan Feist admits there is room for improvement.

"In anything, you can be better," he said. "It can always be better and we have that ambition to be better.

"We've got the likes of Feroze (Khushi) and Robin Das coming through now. These players are now knocking at the door. We're looking at how we make sure that the environment, the culture and the support mechanisms are in place to make sure that they can succeed."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…