T20 Cricket in the UK rarely has problems attracting crowds but not many British Asians
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‘Our City Our Way’ are the words inscribed on a mural at the concrete grounds at Sparkhill, the area in inner-city Birmingham where Moeen Ali grew up playing tapeball cricket. Alongside the words is a portrait of Moeen himself, encircled by orange: the colour of Birmingham Phoenix’s kit, the team that he will captain in the Hundred.
The mural of Moeen, commissioned by the BBC, reflects the hope that the Hundred will make the English professional game more relevant and accessible in areas such as this, a hub of British Asian cricket. Sparkhill is renowned for 20-ball-a-side games, played with tapeballs and fibre bats. One quirk of the ground is the gap in the wall at point on the left-hander’s off side – Moeen Ali’s favourite area growing up. Players who hit the ball through here get extra runs.
Yet the zest for cricket at grassroots level among British Asian communities has not been reflected in the numbers playing the sport professionally. British Asians account for 30 per cent of grassroots players, but only comprise 5.8 per cent of male professional players, and 6.6 per cent in the women’s game. Away from the pitch, the lack of representation is equally stark: a study in 2019 found that only five out of 118 coaches in the first-class game were of British Asian background.
“The traditional community and the South Asian community over the years have had quite a big gap between them,” Gulfraz Riaz, the chairman of the National Asian Cricket Council, says while at Sparkhill. “There’s been a 40-year gap between the two communities.”
The England & Wales Cricket Board see the Hundred as part of wider attempts to increase engagement with the south Asian community. In 2019, the ECB reported that ticket buyers for England home internationals and domestic matches were 94 per cent white British, 82 per cent male, with the average age of ticket buyers 50. The contrast with the diverse crowds who embraced the 2019 World Cup highlights how thousands of British Asian cricket fans love to attend cricket in England, just not cricket involving English teams.
Moeen Ali is a cricketing figurehead for cricket-mad British Asians – here he is in Birmingham Phoenix’s kit
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The announcement of the Hundred, in April 2018, came only a month before the ECB announced the South Asian Action Plan, an 11-point plan to break down barriers facing those of South Asian heritage in the English game. In many ways, the Hundred itself can be seen as an extension of this plan. It is a tournament that, in its creation of new teams based on city lines, use of a draft system to allocate players and emphasis on overseas talent, borrows from the template of the Indian Premier League and Pakistan Super League.
“Let’s face it – the Indian audience is obsessed with the IPL,” says Sanjay Patel, the managing director of the Hundred. “The more similarities you have between those two comps, I think the more and more that you get South Asian audiences thinking, brilliant, this is a tournament for me.
“We set out to make sure that the Hundred is designed to appeal to more people. The South Asian audience is one segment of that.”
During the one-day international between England and Pakistan at Edgbaston this week, a group of regular players at Sparkhill were given tickets by the Edgbaston Foundation and Warwickshire Cricket Board. Numan Hussain told me that he doesn’t think that those of South Asian origin have got a fair chance at Warwickshire, citing how Moeen Ali received few opportunities for the club.
“You see Moeen Ali used to play for Warwickshire – couldn’t get through, wasn’t good enough. He went to Worcestershire and look at him,” the 23-year-old said.
“I hate to say it but it’s a lot to do with your skin colour. It’s unfortunate but it is the way it is around here. You see a lot of people that are from Sparkhill, Sparkbrook, Highgate – they’ve all gone to Worcestershire because they know that’s where they’ll get a chance to break through. A lot of players are breaking through here – they won’t get much chance.”
Warwickshire are adamant that the situation is changing, citing new initiatives like the Ramadan League, which launched this year and was played in Edgbaston’s indoor school, and how all six members of the current academy intake are of Asian heritage. But Hussain’s comments highlight how the traditional county structure is still not regarded as welcoming for some of South Asian heritage.
Moeen Ali in Sparkhill where he played cricket growing up
Credit: ANDREW FOX
“I think the Hundred can help bridge that gap between English cricket and that audience,” Patel reflects. “The important thing is we’ve got eight new identities. There is no baggage whatsoever. These are eight new teams, brand new identities – we start from afresh, and I think that is important.”
Overseas players are part of this strategy. While the Twenty20 Blast has frequently had an enviable array of overseas stars, Patel believes that having – at least in normal times – overseas players for a whole competition will help supporters “build an affinity” with their teams. This year’s Hundred will include players from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal in the men’s competition, while five Indian players will play in the women’s tournament.
Ultimately, the ECB dreams that its warm relationship with the Board of Control for Cricket in India leads to Indian men’s players being allowed to participate. “I would love to see Indian players playing in the Hundred,” Patel says. “It’s an ongoing conversation. We always have conversations with the BCCI about how we can work better together, how we can work closer together. One of those things is how can we make sure our brilliant talent is available for IPL and maybe your brilliant talent is available for the Hundred.”
If the ECB is successful, it would both be a boon for the competition’s standing and be transformative for the tournament’s commercial rights. This speaks to how the ECB’s ambitions with the South Asian community is intertwined with its broader focus upon growing the value of domestic cricket in the country, and adjusting to a landscape in which bilateral international cricket makes up a lower share of the global cricket economy.
The lack of engagement from British Asians in the domestic game appears to be linked with another issue: the status of cricket in inner-city areas. When the County Championship was officially created, in 1890, the very notion of county cricket was already out of kilter with a nation urbanising rapidly. Unlike football, inner-city areas produce relatively few cricketers, with the traditional nurseries of the English professional game the leafy suburbs or rural areas.
Seventeen-year-old Asad Ahmed, who was draped in a Pakistan flag as he attended the ODI with Hussain, believes that people of his generation identify more with cities than counties. Birmingham, indeed, is not even in the county of Warwickshire.
“Many people in Birmingham are passionate about where they come from. Many people in the UK are passionate about what city they come from and would love to represent their city – watching Moeen Ali how he’s come from being a local lad, just doing what we do, inspires lots of young players.” With Warwickshire, Ahmed says, “it’s much harder to get into because there’s more competitions.
“I think the Hundred is like a different sort of game, something like the PSL – it brings a different kind of audience in. So it will help the English community bring more kids to cricket.”
Ahmed’s coach at Sparkhill is Mohammed Arif. A community cricket coach for Warwickshire Cricket Board, Arif hopes that the Hundred could galvanise the sport among South Asian communities like this. “Work is being done at the grassroots. But the bit that has never happened is the money, the marketing and all the pizzazz for the youngsters,” he says. “This is an opportunity for more people to engage with the game.”
Amir Fareed, a Pakistan supporter who is 17 and is another regular at Sparkhill, believes that the format of the Hundred, with a compressed game and overs of different length, will be reminiscent of the tapeball games here. “If you watch the T20s, yeah people who play cricket every week are all right with it but for a lot of park players and people who play with tapeball this is more their kind of style.”
And so for all the very real risks of the Hundred – alienating existing fans, disenfranchising those from outside the eight cities with teams, and making the schedule even more-saturated – one barometer of success will be found in areas like Sparkill. If the Hundred helps to change perceptions of English cricket here, and more British Asian talent thrives in the professional game in the years ahead, the ECB will think that their gambit has been vindicated.