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Being one of only two South Asian women on her Sports Science and Management degree (the other being her best friend), Shruti Saujani questioned whether the environment she was in was the correct one. With a career in sport seemingly not a viable path, Shruti pinned an image of Bend It Like Beckham’s Parminder Nagra up onto a vision board and told herself that she would, one day, work in sport. Almost seven years on, Shruti was recruited into the role of City Programme Manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Now the Engagement Lead for ED&I, Shruti also led the Dream Big Desi Women (DBDW) programme. The initiative aims to inspire South Asian women to get involved volunteering in cricket and help lead the national All Stars and Dynamos development programmes, for children aged 5 to 11. “We wanted to create role models for the next generation. Whoever you were, wherever you came from, we wanted cricket to be a place for you.”
In 2018, through consultation and research, the ECB’s South Asian Action Plan delved further into finding what prevented more South Asians from playing cricket or acted as an obstacle for those already involved. Of those asked, 30% of women said “more female coaches would encourage more South Asian women and girls to play” cricket[i]. The report would also identify that there was currently an insufficient network of female coaches to fulfil these roles. The action was then to “retain and expand the female coaching network in order to deliver more women’s and girls’ cricket, led by female coaches.”[ii]
Dream Big Desi Women was born. What better year to kick it off than 2019, arguably the biggest year for cricket in England with a home World Cup and an Ashes series. But it didn’t happen overnight. “[It] took us over a year to develop. We didn’t have a brand name. I was going on radio stations [but] I never had a call-to-action.” Upon taking in their first cohort, Shruti and her team consulted their members that they had engaged. “They spoke about it being inspiring, a community and about dreaming. And that’s where ‘Dream Big Desi Women’ came from.”
Going into 2020, you’ll have guessed it…COVID got in the way! But it didn’t stop the team from achieving what they set out to do. Much like the rest of us, they pivoted online. Shruti, her team and the members already on board, stayed engaged via Zoom. With quizzes being the obvious go-to, Quizmaster Saujani almost fashioned a new career for herself. But they also planned other important engagement events. ‘Chai & Chat’ mornings were popular. Shruti also tells me about how the programme provided mental health training to their members and how this helped through the pandemic. “We empowered the women who had done their mental health training to be that support for women in lockdown.”
“It’s a big community. Women support women,” Shruti tells me. This was a community that the sport struggled to reach. A community that felt cricket, or even sport, was not for them. This was one of the initial struggles. “They didn’t feel like it was real. They didn’t feel like sport was opening doors for them.” Shruti continues, “that trust took time to build.” The issue of trust will have been clear from the start. We already know that “many members of South Asian communities…continue to feel excluded by, and choose not to engage with English cricket and the ECB.”[iii] This gulf in trust, and feelings of exclusion, need not be a permanent one, but it can widen with insincerity. This is a problem that the DBDW project did not have. This is a project with a team that have a sincere, true, and honest desire to want to make a difference. Like we saw during the pandemic, in order to build trust amongst communities where it existed the least, communications needed to extend to where those communities resided. “Everything we’ve done has been outside of cricket. We’ve had exposure on local radio stations, we’ve been into temples, Mosques, Gurdwaras…so everywhere where you’d imagine cricket not to be, we’ve been there.”
“For the first time ever, in this job, I went into a Mosque, and I was vulnerable about what I needed to do. The team being vulnerable allowed the women to really connect with us.” Shruti and her team have a true willingness to understand and learn. Not to simply force a singular solution upon all, but to assess all communities under the South Asian umbrella and address each accordingly. Introducing modest apparel pinpoints this perfectly. The DBDW programme introduced appropriate clothing for those that felt uncomfortable in traditional sports-wear. “We knew we wanted hijabs, looser and longer T-Shirts, looser jogging bottoms. We tried and tested stuff. We didn’t get it all right. We made mistakes. We learnt that the initial hijab fitting wasn’t the right fitting. That’s what was so great about this project. We were flexible and agile. That’s how amazing the organization was. They trusted us and backed us.”
There is an obvious long-term vision, but there is change happening right now. In September this year, the ECB announced they had hit their target of recruiting and training over 2,000 South Asian female cricket volunteers.[iv] Where to now, I ask Shruti. “Many of the 2,000 women have gone onto get jobs within cricket or within sports. That’s been amazing to see. Some of them are Foundation level 1 and 2 coaches now. Some of them want to become Level-3 and specialist coaches. We want to support that.” Member retention will also be key and Shruti tells me how there will be a focus from the team to ensure that the 2,000 women already engaged continue to stay engaged.
When Shruti shared the story of pinning a picture of Parminder Nagra up on her vision board, she didn’t just do so with the aim of simply working in sport, she did it with a hope to “change sport for women.” Women just like her. Graduating from university and working in the automotive industry to nearly ten years later and having inspired over 2,000 women to take up a sport they otherwise wouldn’t have, I think you can definitely say Shruti has made an impact. “Right now, a South Asian girl is just as likely to pick up a bat as a young white boy. You can see that’s there. Not just from our work. But from what the game has done. I have full confidence that, in that pathway, we’ll see representation in the England women’s team soon. It takes time.”
TO LEARN MORE, VISIT THE FOLLOWING LINKS:
LEARN MORE - WATCH VIDEO: Dream Big Desi Women programme reaches 2000 volunteers landmark
EXPRESS YOUR INTEREST TO BECOME A VOLUNTEER: https://www.ecb.co.uk/news/1644976
[i] Making cricket a game for everyone. Engaging South Asian communities. An ECB Action Plan. 2018, p34 [ii] Making cricket a game for everyone. Engaging South Asian communities. An ECB Action Plan. 2018, p41 [iii] Making cricket a game for everyone. Engaging South Asian communities. An ECB Action Plan. 2018, p77 [iv] https://www.skysports.com/watch/video/sports/12704488/dream-big-desi-women-campaign-celebrates-huge-milestone