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  • Harjot Sidhu

A CONVERSATION WITH NAOMI DATTANI

Updated: Jan 21


I am very much at the start of what I am calling my journey, going in deeper as to the reasons why there is a lack of South Asians in cricket (and perhaps maybe even sport, in general). One of the things I also want to do is hear success stories of those South Asians that have succeeded, in sport. How did those, who quite obviously have the odds stacked against them, make it to where they are? What did they have to face and overcome and also what helped and spurred them on? This is why I reached out to Naomi Dattani, a 26-year-old female professional cricket player.


Naomi and I share heritage. We are from the same area in West London, we have a mutual friend and we also went to the same Secondary school (albeit at different times). Apart from that, we don’t share much else. She doesn’t have to agree to speak to me, but she does…and I am thankful, as it really is an intriguing conversation. Resilience is a word that comes to mind, when speaking to Naomi. There’s a reserved and extremely humble nature to her manner, but I am not mistaken in thinking that she is anything but driven and passionate. It’s no surprise then that Naomi is currently the captain of the Middlesex women’s cricket team and has been signed to London Spirit, due to compete in the delayed inaugural Hundred tournament this summer, a brand-new, shorter and more innovative format of the game, expected to draw a brand-new audience.


Naomi’s story doesn’t conform to the typical tale of a young, budding athlete. There were no role models, no dreams of stardom and no pushy parents, contrary to the stories of some of the most successful stars in sporting history. “Sport was never really a thing in my small family,” she tells me. “We never really watched cricket. I don’t think I started watching until I was about 19,” which ironically was about 10 years after she first started playing. Naomi got involved with the game through playing with her older brother, in the back garden. One thing led to another and she joined a local cricket club and progressed through the pathways.


But the route to professional cricket wasn’t as simple as I make out. “There were times in the week where mum would be working and she couldn’t drop me, so I’d take the bus after school to Finchley. That would be like 3 busses and then dad would pick me up in the evening.” A lesser individual with a lack of forward drive (pun intended) may well have given up. Jigar Naik, former batsman and current Pathway coach at Leicestershire County Cricket Club, also cites getting to training sessions as one of his biggest challenges. “I’d either bike it in, cycle in, bus it in, or just try and scrounge a lift off anyone I could, really. Just to get to the ground to play an hour’s worth of cricket,” he said on the National Asian Cricket Association (NACC) Middle Stump podcast.


This necessity to get to a club, or just a general facility to play and train, is a barrier facing many South Asian children playing cricket. The ECB’s South Asian Action Plan found that 1 in 5 South Asians have trouble finding a place to play. “I think facilities is a big thing,” Naomi says. “It’s expensive. Say you share the 1 hour with 5 people, you’re barely getting any cricket in…to get people to play cricket initially, you need to make it fun, accessible and cheap.”


The London Cricket Trust is a charity formed by Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey County Cricket Clubs. Their aim is to ‘put cricket back into London’s parks’ through free-to-use cricket nets. Naomi is an ambassador for the charity, alongside other notable names, such as England and Surrey’s Ollie Pope. She hopes that the work she does here, as well coaching young cricketers, will inspire the next generation and change the landscape of the game. This is something she takes in her stride and isn’t fazed by. “I think it comes naturally [to give back], especially when I spot patterns I used to face, so it’s quite nice actually.” A lot of Naomi’s students are also South Asian females, which poses many other challenges for progression. “You’re facing 2 barriers. Women in sport and Asians in sport.”


She tells me her aim is “just trying to educate as many parents and kids as possible.” She reflects…“Now that I look back at it, I could have done a lot more. I don’t think there was that education around of ‘well, if you do want to play at a higher level, you need to do this, this and this.’ But, I know that now. They [her parents] didn’t know that. A lot of kids’ parents that I coach don’t really understand that element of it. Nutrition, training, rest. It just wasn’t a thought.”


This isn’t to say she didn’t have the support of her parents and those around her. “They were supportive, definitely. Taking me places in the early stages, investing in cricket kit.” It’s more of a realisation that “parents in the South Asian community don’t really understand the commitment it takes to play at that level of sport…two thirds of the girls I coach are Asian. They are telling me that they want to keep pursuing it, so I’ve realised how much education I’ve had to give them…even if it’s just the confidence say ‘no, I don’t want to come to this social event.’”


What Naomi is doing, I feel, is arming parents and future talent with all the necessary information needed, to be able to make informed decisions on their future. For me, I really do feel this could have a huge impact on influencing the next generation. The advice she is providing her students, as well as their parents, will be second to none. It will be coming from someone that the South Asian community can relate to. It will be coming from a place of real-life lived experiences, which is absolutely crucial.


Support in Naomi’s career also came from the secondary school (Greenford High - notable sporting alumni include former Leeds United & Everton FC striker Jermaine Beckford, Arsenal FC legend Paul Merson and current England and Arsenal teenage sensation, Bukayo Saka). “My form tutor always had conversations with my parents to manage my workload during the week. There was that support from the school.” I spoke to Naomi’s former P.E. teacher, who explained how Greenford High helped provide Naomi with the facilities and extra volume of cricket, outside of school hours, to help supplement her County level training. Naomi continues, “but not all state schools are like that. [With] private schools, I think you get all of that stuff anyway, so I think that’s where the big difference is.”


According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), around 7% of youngsters in the UK are privately educated. Yet during the summer of 2020, of the 11-man team chosen for the second England test vs Pakistan, 9 players were privately educated. Private schools have the investment, facilities and coaches, which state schools just do not have. On top of this, with the fees involved, private education would just not have been viable for most second and maybe even third generation British South Asians. So, with the majority of this community being in the state school system, surely the more support they can get, the better the chances of progression through the pathways?


Should one of these kids persevere and make it through the pathways, like Naomi did, there is a whole different issue. If you’re a cricket fan, or perhaps even if you’re not, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the likes of Michael Carberry and Azeem Rafiq speaking out about their experiences of racism in the game. In my opinion, it goes without saying that cricket, as well as society as a whole, has an issue with racism and elitism. Former Leicestershire CEO and current Pakistan CEO, Wasim Khan, also cites the idea of Unconscious Bias, particularly coming from coaches. The Elitist Britain Report of 2019 illustrates how access to some of the most prestigious, influential and well-paid roles in the country is limited to those born with advantages from the very beginning of their life. Also, that "there is a danger to society if many of those in such positions of power and influence are from a very similar background and a limited set of life experiences, which do not reflect the lives of the country as a whole." This is why, I feel, we need coaches, and people in positions of influence, like Naomi. If the cricket playing South Asian community resides within the state schooling system, where these kids lack opportunities, advice and face racism, elitism and unconscious bias, could this be the reason they feel excluded from the game (as the ECB’s research suggests)? Might these be the reasons that they feel the game is just not for them? Is this lack of opportunity leading to grievances and mistrust in the system? Is it then, any wonder, that we don’t have more South Asians pursuing the game, in the face of these challenges?


To start this piece, I spoke about Naomi’s resilience and I hope that through all of the above, you now see what I mean. Naomi carried on, regardless. A senior England call-up hasn’t quite come her way, just yet, but the determination is very much still there. One thing she can most definitely look forward to (all going well, with the pandemic) is her debut for London Spirit, this Summer, in the very first Hundred. “I can’t wait!”, she says with a glowing smile.


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