Starting The Conversation
Updated: Feb 22
I had just finished working for the day and my dad and I got in the car. It’s the start of June. Sod’s law that the pandemic seemed to bring us glorious weather. It’s about 25 degrees outside. It was a short drive, just to the edge of Southall, to where the Nishkam SWAT charity are headquartered. We turn into a car park in an industrial estate. Vans emblazoned with Nishkam SWAT’s logo are parked up, the backs of these vans being loaded up by volunteers, ready for the evening’s drive to Central London to feed the homeless. Towards the back of this car park is a little hut. A make-shift kitchen, with windows open for ventilation. As I approach, I can see two chefs through the open windows, toiling away with their heads down, making large quantities of pasta for that evening. One chef giving instruction to the other. I can tell they’re busy. There’s a frantic yet ordered manner to the craziness. It’s clear that there’s a lot to do, but all is in hand. I am wearing my PUMA face mask and carry a couple of Tesco bags in my hand, full of biscuit tins. All wiped down with disinfectant, of course. These bags would contain a small, but what I would later realise, important donation to the charity. Small for Nishkam SWAT in the grand scheme of things (or so I felt, anyway). Important for me as the moments that were about to ensue would spark a series of thoughts and events that would eventually lead to this blog post.
One of the chefs looks up and recognises me, and I him. It’s Surrey County Cricket Club’s young 22 year old spinner Guramar Singh Virdi, otherwise known as Amar Virdi. During (but not limited to) the original Lockdown, Amar had been working with Nishkam SWAT, volunteering his free time to the charity helping make food, preparing food packages and delivering these packages to the less fortunate on the streets of London. The pandemic brought with it a lot of solitary time and lot of time for reflection. It wasn’t until the pandemic and lockdown hit that I realised the significance of the work that they do. It was also the pandemic that made me realise how significant Amar Virdi was for me, as a cricket and Surrey CCC fan, a sports fan, a Sikh and a South Asian, in England.
Amar welcomes me in Punjabi “Kiddah, Paaji” (How are you, brother?). The fact that he greets me in our mother tongue is something quite special. It’s something that I probably don’t share with many other professional athletes, especially in professional English sport. In a sport like cricket, where Asians will often tell you it’s in our blood, you’d imagine the talent from our community is brimming, especially considering the number of South Asians that reside here. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 3.2 million residents of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Afghan or Nepalese ethnicity across England and Wales (5.7%). These numbers are expected to grow to 6 million by 2031. Of these 3.2 million, Indian and Pakistani communities are the largest of the minority ethnic groups. Couple this with the fact that 30% of recreational cricketers in England are South Asian, why then is it that South Asians make up just 4% of first-class county cricketers, in England and Wales?
The fact that Amar Virdi is one of very few South Asians playing professional cricket right now is definitely a reason I am drawn closer to the game, there is no doubt about that. I have always loved cricket. I have always watched International cricket, but only started getting into county cricket about 10 years ago. I came across Virdi about a year or two before his debut season at Surrey, in 2017. I immediately took an interest in his career, interestingly more so than other first team players. I remember Googling him when I first came across his name, trying to find out anything I could about him. I found as many of his social media accounts as I could and hit that follow button. The excitement and joy of finding out about another Sikh cricket player, playing for a team that I supported, was almost like another version of seeing an Asian on TV when being a kid. We’d shout “INDIANNNNN” so that your parents and siblings would come running to catch a glimpse of someone that remotely looked like and represented us (It probably didn’t matter whether the person on-screen was actually Indian, or not). This is how desperate we were to see ourselves in an environment that we felt was unattainable.
Right now, Amar is a representation of me. Much like Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid also represent(ed) me. They all take my ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ (what these 2 words really mean is probably a deeper topic, for another day) and put it on a stage where the rest of the whole world can see me. This isn’t to say that I personally feel hidden or neglected, in any way. But I do understand what it took for my parents to make a living here so that they could allow me and my generation to have parity with my peers. Travelling to a foreign country out of necessity, with just 3 pounds in their pocket (some with less and some with nothing, at all). Living through the 60s and 70s, when the National Front were rife. When signs outside pubs, or rooms for rent, clearly read “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish”. When those who wore turbans and with kept beards, a sign of their religion and identity, were forced to cut their hair and shave purely so that they could be employed and earn. Look up the Southall riots of 1979 and you will easily go down a rabbit hole of injustice, hate crimes, racism and corruption, akin to that seen in Steve McQueen’s BBC Small Axe series. So, people like Amar, Ravi, Monty, Moeen and Rash are all signs of our community’s perseverance and resilience. But why aren’t there more? If our parents struggled so hard, why aren’t we prepared to grasp these opportunities that have been made available to us?
Of course, I am not the first to have asked this question. It’s been a common topic in cricket and sporting circles for quite a few years and has really come to the fore this summer. There are some very clear and obvious issues. In 2018, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) formed the South Asian Action Plan (SAAP). An ambitious initiative to get more South Asians playing the game of cricket. The ECB have done their homework. It’s an in-depth 11 point plan aiming to tackle some key problems, such as the drop-off rate of recreational to professional cricket, South Asians in coaching, affordable facilities and ensuring the match day experience is more accommodating. As of June 2019, there have been some significant initiatives launched and planned for (COVID has obviously impacted the progress of this plan).
One of the more interesting areas for me is how the appetite for the game does not translate to domestic English cricket. The 2017 Champions trophy tournament, hosted in England and Wales with an India vs Pakistan final, saw 40% of all tournament tickets purchased by South Asian fans. A similar story for the 2019 Cricket World Cup, where out of 800,000 fans, 324,000 tickets sold were to South Asians (figures released by the International Cricket Council). However, South Asians see domestic English cricket as a “serious, less important and old fashioned sport”. This results in these communities feeling excluded by, and choose not to engage with, English cricket. The ECB have solutions in mind and I applaud them on having identified the issue (not that my praise means anything), though I do think this is a very difficult issue to solve and with some very complicated variables involved.
When I approached that make-shift kitchen, with those Tesco bags in hand, Amar could easily have greeted me in English, as would have been expected. But he chose to greet me in a way that immediately connected the two of us. He greeted me with the language I speak at home with my parents and elders, behind closed doors that not many others get to see, or hear. The fact that this is a language also spoken by a young talented professional English cricketer, who is on the verge of debuting for the England Test team…I mean, that’s pretty cool. Surely the more Virdis there are, who can help young South Asian community connect with cricket, the more chances of improving the level of representation (or, at least, participation rates) in the sport from a South Asian background? One of the ECB’s solutions is to use role models and “Community Talent Champions” to bridge this gap. I do feel this will help lessen the notion that cricket is an old fashioned and serious sport. It will help make it feel more attainable. But is this enough?
As well as looking at engaging the South Asian community, should we be asking whether the community have a real willingness to be engaged? Is there, perhaps, a reluctance to get behind England as a national team, regardless of the sport itself? If so, why? Isa Guha said on the Sky Sports cricket Podcast that even though the ECB are reaching out, “there has been a level of disconnect from the Asian community. It’s got to be something that goes both ways”. As a South Asian, I wonder whether we need to look at ourselves too? Or even, where there have been successes, really digging deeper into these and finding those common denominators.
I’m hoping to start a little journey to find out a little more about all of this, no matter how anecdotal. This may take me a while and I may never get anywhere, but I am just curious to educate myself and have the conversation. I wonder where this takes me...
*Unless otherwise stated, stats and figures taken from the ECB South Asian Action Plan
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