A CONVERSATION WITH IMRAN QAYYUM
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Imran Qayyum has just finished putting his daughter down, for the afternoon. It’s a cold, sunny, Saturday. England and Sri Lanka have just finished for the second day in the final test, in Galle. At this stage, all of England’s wickets in the first innings have been taken by seam. The conversation surrounding a lack of contribution from England’s spinners is rife. Irony being that all of England’s second innings wickets will come via spin. We briefly discuss the topic. “It’s home conditions, for the Sri Lankans…They bowl a different trajectory, different pace.” Mo Bobat, ECB Performance Director, recently referenced a statistic that says around 20% of first-class bowling is spin[i]. Not only is Imran in this very small percentage of bowlers, but he’s also in the even smaller percentage (just 4%) of British South Asian first-class county cricketers. Imran signed for Kent County Cricket Club in 2014 and is currently in training for the 2021-22 season.
He grew up in the same town as me. Southall, in West London, is affectionately known as Little India by locals, due to its large South Asian population. It is also an area which has been linked to a high rate of crime and drug offences. A Scotland Yard investigation revealed Mafia-like syndicates operating from, and beyond, the streets of Southall[ii]. “Growing up in Southall, you can easily go down the wrong route. [Cricket] keeps you busy, outside of school.” Like many South Asians, Imran grew up in a cricket-mad family. The reason for this goes slightly further than just an innate passion for the game. “My family came over here in ‘91, from Pakistan. My father played a lot of cricket, before heading over here. As soon as he came here, he played a lot of club cricket. The whole family have always been cricket mad, which resulted in growing up with cricket bats and cricket balls around me. I was holding a bat at the age of 4 or 5. Trying to bowl at the age of 6.” Imran couldn’t really get away from cricket, what with it always on TV. Conversations at home would always be dominated by cricket and he would accompany his dad and brother on Sundays to watch them play for a local family team (who he would eventually end up playing for).
Initially, Imran was encouraged to play. He quickly grew a liking to it and enjoyed it. It helped that he was surrounded by the game. He also had the network of support, especially when it came to getting to training sessions (identified as a barrier for young British South Asians getting into cricket). “My parents always took me to my games, my training sessions. Funnily, I’d actually always be late to my Middlesex youth training, because my dad would be rushing from work. I’d be standing at the corner of a road, waiting for him, I’d jump in and we’d rush to Finchley.” Another barrier for young players can often be parental knowledge, with regards to progression. However, playing club cricket from an early age, the knowledge of pathways was clear, especially with his family’s knowledge of the domestic County game. But it was making that leap from junior to professional cricket that seemed to be the stumbling block. The ever-present topic of public vs private school rears its head again. “I just didn’t get the time I needed, when I was younger. When you go to a private school it’ll be in your schedule. You’re netting at this time, bowling at this time. You’ve got the coaches…the facilities. Whereas, I would finish school and, at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday and Thursday, go to training. Then play on a Saturday. That’s it…I was never actually told what I needed to do, to become a professional. I only found that out later, when I was 18.”
It was just before the age of 18 that Imran says he thinks he “lost the belief” in his ability. The ECB’s South Asian Action Plan identifies a key challenge in “retaining talented young South Asian players, particularly between the ages of 16-18.”[iii] There are several reasons for this, ranging from focus on exams, to spending time with friends. However, he was to regain this inner-drive and credits this to playing at Finchley Cricket Club, where he spent time with ex and current professionals, such as the likes of Middlesex batsman Sam Robson. This didn’t come without a bit of tough love, though. “I was told ‘you can do it, but you’re not fit enough, you can’t field well enough, so you need to work on those things’. So, that’s when my fitness kicked in…I started having a different mind-set. Then, obviously, there’s the common link between the Asian diet and sport.” All of this, Imran feels, relates to the idea of professionalism, which is something he thinks didn’t exist within his knowledge set and only became apparent later in life, as he developed as a person. Imran is fully aware, even with the advice he had, he had to make these changes himself. That drive and resilience, which is a trait I talk about in my piece about Naomi Dattani, is something that Imran says can “only happen from within.”
It's when we’re talking about these barriers and the need for resilience, the need to persevere, that the conversation takes an interesting turn. “Growing up, if something wasn’t going my way, people [in my community] would say ‘it’s because you’re brown, or because you’re Pakistani… If you weren’t brown, you’d be playing for England.’” This, he says, is still a challenge to this day. “They forget that our people came to this country and it’s given us a lot…We’re actually creating the divide. There really isn’t a divide…and that’s the biggest thing that eats away at our community…I hated listening to that kind of stuff. A lot of other kids listen to it and start believing it.
“I’m not saying that there aren’t occurrences of discrimination, or prejudice. Currently it’s a massive problem and always has been. It’s just now, people are speaking about it, that it feels more prevalent. Talking about discrimination and racism is for a whole other interview, but yes it does exist, it is a problem…I don’t want to sound naïve. I’ve dealt with generalisations, been put in a box…I’ve had things said from the crowd. I’ve experienced [Racism] myself. I know it exists. No one should have to deal with it, but I can’t let it takeover my life, or let it get on top of me. But using it as a scapegoat, when it’s not really the case, I am not a fan of…it can be insulting and take away from real instances of racism.”
All of this, as well as the potentially toxic rhetoric from his own community, could easily have doused the burning flames that would see Imran succeed in becoming a professional cricketer. But he kept the fire burning through self-determination. Combined with the encouragement he was getting from the lads at Finchley, Imran made another push for professional cricket. “It was at a [Finchley] first XI game. We might have been playing Teddington. There was a board and I saw ‘Club Cricket Conference Spin Trials.’”, he says, looking off into the distance, recalling the memory. “I spoke to a few lads in the team and they were like ‘Just see how it goes. You never know.’ At the time I didn’t think I was going to be playing cricket [professionally]. I was at City University, studying Biomedical Engineering. I went down. It was at Lord’s. Min (Patel, former Kent CCC and England spinner) was there. The top 2 people from that competition would go to India, to train. I came second in the comp. Due to Visa issues I couldn’t go, [due to my] parents being Pakistani.” But Imran didn’t let that stop him. His success in the trials resulted in a new-found thirst for the game. “Min really liked me, from those trials. He had a conversation with Simon Willis, who invited me for a couple of second team games…and then my journey at Kent started from there.”
It's clear that Imran possessed the talent and resilience, but also had a strong support network that helped him get to where he is today. Whether that was from teammates, coaches, or family. Those from a South Asian background will know that a network of family support is somewhat intrinsic to the culture. Cultural norms mean large families, sometimes with 3 generations under one roof. Children living at home, even when they’re married, is not uncommon. Family get-togethers often involve large numbers, probably because there’s an aunt or three in the same, or adjacent, town. If you’ve ever been to an Asian wedding you’ll know we leave nobody off of that guest list…and if we do, well, there’s hell to pay. I joke, but this intimacy is something quite special, amongst the South Asian community. It’s something that we count ourselves lucky for. Saying that, it’s not without its downsides. Imran touches on this a little. “I think the western world is quite an independent world. It teaches independence…We don’t have such independence.” These thoughts don’t come from a place of blame, or finger pointing. It’s simply an observation and it’s something I can relate to. We both speak from our lived-experiences and it’s these little nuances that can make all the difference, when attempting to understand why there is a lack of South Asian presence in sport.
It is at this point that I am reminded of a theory known as Enmeshment Trauma. Not exclusive to the South Asian community, Enmeshment Trauma is defined by Thais Gibson as when two or more people in a family dynamic have unclear boundaries, with one another[iv]. Those who experience, or have experienced, Enmeshment Trauma can end up dependant on their care givers for survival and this can last long into later life. This can result in, but not limited to, a loss of sense of identity, difficulty in making decisions in adult life, feelings of helplessness and guilt, as well as a fear of disappointing people. Could this then possibly impact one’s success, in adult life? Of course, we see successful British South Asians within business, finance and medicine sectors (to name a few). With that said, perhaps we need to consider why British South Asians don’t thrive in all sectors (such as creative industries, the arts or sporting fields) and whether Enmeshment Trauma may have a part to play in this? I must make clear that I am not making a link between Imran’s upbringing and Enmeshment Trauma. However, I do think it is valid to question how the traditional South Asian culture may impact on the growth, development and the mindset of our children.
Perhaps this is as simple as a clash of cultures? I don’t take away from how complex a clash of cultures is to resolve, but more to say that this isn’t something new. In 1793, The Earl George Macartney, Britain’s first Ambassador to China, travelled to the Qianlong region of China, to establish a trade deal. He took with him mountains of gifts to sweeten the deal, as was normal in those days. But he failed in his mission due to his refusal to adhere to the local custom of bowing 9 times before the Emperor (known as the Kowtow)[v]. I mention this story because I think it represents how a failure to understand another culture can be disastrous. In Macartney’s case it was a failure in securing an essential trade deal. In domestic cricket’s case it is a failure to breed the hotbed of British Asian talent that is staring us in the face. I am not saying, in any way whatsoever, that British South Asians should change, or give up their culture. More that being aware of one’s cultural dynamic (on both sides) could help with achieving greater success. Could arming coaches with the knowledge and understanding of these cultural aspects impact positively in being able to manage a child’s progression and, in the long run, result in the ridding of unconscious bias?
Experiencing and understanding different cultures is a magnificent thing. It’s something that can lead to wonderful discovery, whether that’s something as complex as political history or something as joyful as cuisine. But it can also be a problem. “We, British Asians, we’re caught in between two cultures…There isn’t a slot to fit into,” Imran says. Reconciling this can be even more difficult, but Imran’s philosophy is one we can all learn from. “You ask yourself…Do I change myself to fit in? Or, can I be myself and succeed? When you realise you can be whoever you want and still succeed, [that] is when you start succeeding…If you’re always trying to fit in, you’re never going to fit in.” I feel Imran delivers this message from a place of real peace. I feel he is content with the person he is and where he fits in, which is commendable. Another aspect he's comfortable with is when discussing International support, which can be a complex topic for British South Asians. “I support both,” he says. “I want Pakistan to do well and I want England to do well.”
As our conversation comes to a close, Imran offers important words of advice for any young athlete, South Asian or not. “Look within yourself…Make yourself as professional as you can. Ask questions. Search. Everything is online, nowadays. People are easy to contact and are there to help. Never think the world is against you [otherwise] you’re already selling yourself short and you’ve already given up. Look within, first.”
This idea of looking within is something I alluded to in my first post. I asked whether the British South Asian community are willing to be engaged? I concede this is not the case for all British South Asians. However, where this unwillingness does exist, perhaps it's not the fault of the individual? Perhaps it’s a result of a sub-conscious, inherent, trait? Of course, there are societal issues of racism that have infiltrated Cricket and will have an impact within the sport (on any sport, for that matter). Again, nobody should have to give up their culture or be forced to change, but the fact that there is an obvious complexity to being a British South Asian, could an understanding of these complexities help be a vessel for the change that’s needed?
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[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=2902&v=fHRPZBubV7Y&feature=youtu.be [ii] https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/international/story/19890915-two-gangs-of-indian-youth-linked-with-major-crime-syndicates-in-uk-816530-1989-09-15 [iii] https://www.ecb.co.uk/south-asian-action-plan [iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=nN2U5-C4XrY&feature=youtu.be [v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Macartney,_1st_Earl_Macartney#Ambassador_to_China