Kashif Ali learned to strike with Mohammad Yousuf and Joe Root. There were no coaches around when he and his friends played cricket, so he watched his favorite players on YouTube and tried to emulate them. When he was 12 his family moved from Kashmir to Luton, and three years later he played his first game of hardball. By the age of 24, he had played in the 2nd XIs of six different first-class counties – never going any further.
Two weeks ago, Kashif finally made his first class debut, for Worcestershire. Their County Championship game against Derbyshire was a low-scoring affair where the seams piled high, and only four full overs had been thrown when Kashif was rushed to No.5, his side 23 for three. He stood for almost a century for the fourth wicket with Jack Haynes and had the highest score in innings with 52. “I didn’t give it too much thought,” he said. “I just walked in, played my shots and backed myself up.” The following day, Worcestershire signed him to a two-year contract. “It’s what I’ve wanted for a few years now, so it was really good.”
For some – including Kashif himself – the moral of this story is that if you keep faith in yourself, dreams can come true. But there is also another lesson. Kashif is one of the first graduates of the South Asian Cricket Academy, an “intervention programme” launched this year to help British Asians overcome the systemic inequalities and invisible biases that keep them away from professional play. Kashif pored over the cricket development system for years but couldn’t find a county. It took less than half a season for the Academy to secure him a contract.
The Academy was born out of a conversation between Kabir Ali, the former England all-rounder, and his club teammate Tom Brown, the University of Birmingham researcher whose work has revealed that while British Asians make up 30 % of recreational play in England, they make up only 5% of professional cricketers. This disparity was raised during last year’s DCMS hearings on accusations of structural racism in sport; neither the ECB nor individual counties have come close to solving it.
“I keep being told that if you’re good enough, you’ll be successful no matter your background,” Brown says. Unconvinced, Brown and Kabir came up with the idea of offering British Asian cricketers tailored training and education, as well as match opportunities against county opponents. Players would receive support developed for them individually, ranging from strength and conditioning training to nutritional advice. “We wanted to show that things don’t have to be done the way they always have been,” says Brown, “and we thought that even if no one had signed this year, we would have at least created an environment of learning that approached things differently.
Instead, success came quickly. In recent wins over Northamptonshire and Surrey, the SACA side were missing more than half of their first-choice players, who were already on trial in the county. Even Brown was surprised by the ready talent they uncovered: when he started the program, they expected to find around 16 players good enough to compete for a professional contract. They have already presented 30 alongside them, and others are waiting their turn.
Andy Umeed, who opened the batting for Warwickshire in 14 appearances between 2016 and 2017, is another SACA player to earn a County contract after Somerset signed him until the end of 2023. For Umeed , the opportunity to train through the winter and the advice of elite coaches, enabled him to get his career back on track and “bridge the gap between club cricket and professional play”. For Kashif, the opportunities to impress County coaches have been key. “It’s been very helpful in getting exposure and the counties are looking at you,” he says. “I tried a lot in the past but never got noticed.”
Funded by Birmingham City University, SACA received less attention than the ACE programme, which was conceived around the same time in response to a dramatic decline in the number of black British professionals. The size and scope of the academy is more limited than Ebony Rainford-Brent’s project; ACE has grown rapidly since gaining charitable status in October 2020, while SACA was established with the intention of becoming obsolete within six years, a short fix until let the rest of the county system catch up with his ideas.
But they have one notable thing in common: both were set up by individuals who saw a problem and were tired of waiting for the people supposedly responsible to fix it. Rainford-Brent’s voice as a black woman in the Surrey boardroom finally prompted action on a problem cricket has had for over a decade. The ECB only recently stepped in, announcing in April that it would fund ACE’s “continued expansion” as part of the action plan launched following Rafiq’s hearings.
Brown may be hoping that SACA’s accomplishments will finally earn them financial support; so far, they have received no support from cricket’s governing body. He says “mindsets are starting to change” around talent identification, including the understanding that players can develop much later than the current system allows. But in theory, at least, SACA remains an amateur team: “and the fact that we have competed and even beaten professional teams proves that there are talents who do not succeed.”