Essex Cricket: Diversity and beyond – In conversation with Arfan Akram – Wisden

Amer Malik interviews Arfan Akram, Essex CCC’s East London Cricket Operations Manager.

While discussing diversity in cricket on Sky Sports earlier this summer, Nasser Hussain touched on the effort being done to bring grassroots cricket into state school and the significance of these opportunities afforded to certain individuals based on where they live or what kind of school they attended. He spoke highly of one individual who has been at the forefront of bringing the game into state schools, a gentleman by the name of Arfan Akram, who, as well as being a keen cricketer himself, representing Wanstead and Snaresbrook CC for many years, has helped to promote cricket in underserved communities of London and Essex.

Hussain also mentioned my own borough of Newham, which struck a chord. I was captain of Newham CC in the late noughties and can proudly boast of my very minute role in developing the club along with the late Richard Henchley.

Arfan has had numerous roles in the game throughout the years, in one way or another which have involved promoting cricket to a wider audience. His father Mohammad also a decent club cricketer in his time often used to practice with then Pakistan captain-turned-PM Imran Khan. Arfan has inherited his deep love of the game from his dad, along with his twin brother Adnan who is also an integral member of Wanstead and Snaresbrook CC.

Arfan’s positions have ranged from being ambassador of various charities (including the Courtney Walsh Foundation and the Imran Khan Foundation) to serving roles with the Essex County Cricket Foundation, he has spent the last eight years with Essex CCC as the club’s East London Cricket Operations Manager. A role he performs while simultaneously serving on the MCC’s main committee.

“Arfan’s commitment to promoting a love of the game in the community of East London is to be applauded,” said [Nasser]Hussain, an old family friend of Arfan’s going back to their days training at Ilford cricket school. 

“A man passionate about his sport, he spends his time ensuring that all those living in East London have the opportunity to engage in and be excited about cricket, from the preschool child who first picks up a bat to the walking cricket group, and everyone in between. He works tirelessly to ensure that every member of the community can find a route into cricket, whether it be playing, coaching, officiating or just enjoying from the sideline.”

I was interested in Arfan’s role in game promotion as well as resolving the game’s existing diversity and discrimination issues.

Were there any obstacles to the marketing of the game in the UK’s poorer communities when you first started as a development officer?

I think that’s where the role really originates from. When I was invited to discuss with Essex, the then-new head of operations at the time stated that Essex was the second biggest county landmass-wise. He saw that East London, at the time the statistics weren’t precise, but it was producing a huge volume of our participation, our pathway, yet we only had one member of staff covering that region. There kind of lies the problem to start off with, it never really received the attention. Initially it was an honest reflection: we have a barrier. 

From a county perspective, it was a first reflection of, “we need look at this, as well as understand it and learn from it”. What was refreshing was that it was not a knee-jerk reaction, and we as county and collective accepted fault and proceeded to work on it with more human investment.

How far have you progressed as a development officer in introducing the game to various sections of the country?

My answer to this question is slightly different: it’s less to do with me, more to do with the community. They are incredible, emotional, enthusiastic, and loving of the game. It is that inspiration and passion that was locked away; we unleashed it, that was our first success, we embraced it. It was a cultural learning for my colleagues, and those learnings were fundamental. They were basic learnings around why you play the game and why you love it. Then also understanding the cultural barriers that were preventing the game being accessed. So, all I have done to be honest is listen and learn through community engagements. I have then been fortunate enough to share these good practices across other platforms in Yorkshire, Warwickshire, and Leicestershire– as part of the ECB Core Cities network – which looks after all those areas with diverse communities across the country.

The lack of kids playing the game in inner-city areas has been minimal compared to those in rural or suburban areas. Is there an element of discrimination that has restricted kids from taking up the game. Has the game priced out those that can’t afford to play the game?

I will refute that point; I think it’s factually incorrect. Within inner cities there is a higher level of participation. Cricket has this statistical data association that it has got to be recorded, for example on Play-Cricket or other platforms. Football got it right with ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’: you turn up to the park with your mates, have a kickabout for an hour, you have got your physical activity right there. Those who want to play cricket know it will entail playing a full day. Cricket is big in the inner city, it is booming. Where the question is valid is the access to the game from a financial point of view, as it’s becoming very expensive, substantially pricing out those kids from deprived areas. The governing body and charities like Chance to Shine and all the key stakeholders have put in some initiatives to keep kids in the game. The problem we have is the recorded versus the unrecorded. In my own personal experience, I have seen people play in car parks, underpasses or wherever they can find an empty space of land.

Do you believe there is space for advancement in the game’s further grassroots promotion? Are there any programmes in place in Essex to address this?

It must be looked at from a business perspective. If you want to be relevant, you must possess a product that people can access, so what we have done is, once again, listen. Our biggest challenges have been around females in the South Asian communities, mainly Muslim girls. We have this ECB initiative called ‘Dream Big Desi Women’, a programme which is about focusing on South Asian women to be more active and trying to understand their coaching and volunteering journey. Last year, through my colleague Nafisa Patel, we engaged with 300 women, of which 120 completed the course. If you can put the foundations in place, which consists of volunteers, coaches, role models and the infrastructure, then you have the right seeds in place for it to grow.

The Independent Commission recently published its report on Equity in Cricket, which stated that English cricket suffers from “widespread and deep rooted” racism, sexism, elitism and class-based discrimination at all levels – aside from issuing apologies, what are the practical solutions that can help eliminate these prejudices within the game, especially at grassroots level?

The first thing we must applaud is that finally we have a researched document which factually states that there is an issue within the game itself. This is also a moment to pause and reflect, to appreciate that four thousand people including myself gave evidence (for and against), this is their moment. They provided narratives from their own subjective experiences – a lot, not all, are historic, it’s such an important moment for them to feel an element of justice.

The journey had already started into making reforms. The governing body knew of this, just not the depth of the issue. There is more understanding now of the path an Asian or Black kid must take to play the game at a greater level. This understanding previously was virtually nonexistent; now support mechanisms are in place to encourage pathways into the game. The report has enabled all organizations to understand these pathways.

According to the report, 87 per cent of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ancestry faced discrimination in the game. Having worked in boroughs with rich and diverse communities from both countries, how much of this did you observe, and if so, what corrective actions were in place to address these issues?

If you were to further break down the demographic of those communities, the Muslim community to be more specific, again it was the lack of understanding of their religious or cultural beliefs. For example, being a Muslim you would pray five times a day, for that you need space for Wudu [ablution], as well as halal food options. In the past there was a culture where you play on the weekend, you are expected to stay behind in the club house to have a drink and socialize. It’s also not appreciating that a huge demographic was from low socio-economic conditions. Some of these guys would be putting in night shifts, and then turn up the next afternoon to play a game. When they could not abide by the social norms of what club members expected, they were then let go. 

Since those dark days much has changed, clubs having more knowledge around cultural and religious beliefs. Take Ramadan for example: last year in the Essex league 60 percent of the fixtures were postponed and rescheduled, because of Eid falling on a Saturday. For me that conversation as part of the Essex league committee was brilliant, as I barely had any contribution, just the date input; the initiative was put forward by all the non-Muslim members, which was just amazing, especially up to that point being the only Muslim member. Now we have one more Bangladeshi gentleman on the committee.

This year we [Essex] were approached by Cricket Ireland as part of their ODI hosting to see if we would be interested in hosting Bangladesh for three ODIs – the honest answer was an immediate yes. Over the three days we had around 150 Irish fans; the rest were made of Bangladesh supporters. In the past this would have been a logistical challenge. Not now. Here we had the county actively wanting Bangladeshi participation to activate and help run a major ICC series. Not only did they smash it, but they also helped us with the pricing mechanisms of the tickets, with the promotion, the music, and the food. There was less bar and more soft drink availability. We then had over a thousand people partake in Friday prayers in the indoor centre at Chelmsford – led by the local Imam. This was on a voluntary basis, none of them were paid. It was a brilliant example of committee cohesion, working in collaboration and developing a relationship, unbelievably rewarding. The knock-on effect of which is bringing in more requests for more community events.

The lack of representation in the professional game, especially from the South Asian community, not only at playing level is low considering they make up 26 -29 per cent of the game’s adult recreational population, according to the ICEC report.  From your own experience is this something you have observed? how is this being tackled on a local level?

Remember I said recorded and unrecorded? Most of that data will be from Play-Cricket etc. However, you and I know, you turn up to Hainault Rec or Valentines Park on a Sunday morning in the spring or summer, even at 6 am, there will be a multitude of games being played. These stats aren’t always recorded, though visual confirmation will tell a different story.  

It is being tackled by our performance programs in the ECB. We want to make sure local cricket centres are set up like the state-of-the-art Leyton Hub, for example. We don’t want kids to travel more than three miles to play cricket, or worse still further out to Chelmsford – especially those from deprived areas. We must consider the economic factors, as well as accessibility. Essex cricket now can’t afford to miss out on the Feroze Khushi’s, hence why they have established these performance-based pathways. If you can change the culture within an organization, then you create the foundation to give people the opportunities, thus enabling more talent to stand out. It’s no longer a boy’s club, now everyone has an opportunity.

The report also claims that cricket has failed Black communities. Given that the West Indies were at the forefront of the game in the 1970s and 1980s, do you believe there has been a monumental failure at the grass roots level to address this issue, and why is the distinct lack of black cricketers and role models in the game preventing black children from taking up the game?

Yes, is the answer. The Black community through Windrush moved here earlier than the South Asian communities. They arrived here with a great love of the game, cricket DNA was in their blood, then they were told their type of cricket isn’t wanted. Even if you look at the stats, you will notice there was always a higher degree of players from the South Asian community participating in county cricket. Integration was nonexistent, Caribbean-only leagues were set up. Even then a player of serious talent would barely come through to the professional ranks. 

There are now programmes, one is ACE (African Caribbean Engagement) conducted by my colleagues Ebony Rainford-Brent and Chevy Green, which will take time, but will highlight all the talent in those communities and bring them to the forefront.

What words of advice and encouragement would you provide to young Asian or Black people who are looking to make their way into cricket, especially those who may have been discouraged by perceived allegations of discrimination?

Be open and honest. Do not feel pressured into thinking you have to accept other cultural or social norms. Be yourself. Clubs are now more understanding than they were, say, 30 years ago. Now there are role models and mentors you can approach who can and will help you with any concerns, as well as help eradicate them, and they can take it straight to the top if need be – here at Essex, one of them is Robert Rollins – they undertake these roles and perform them with great integrity and responsibility.

Finally, where do you see the advancement of cricket in under-privileged and impoverished areas in the next 10 years. Will there be change, or will cricket continue to be sport limited to the lucky few?

The cost-of-living crisis, the gap between social classes is huge. The cost of maintaining and sustaining local facilities are at saturation point and that in turn could cause a larger rift if local authorities decrease expenditure, pricing out some demographics. The cost of equipment is not to everyone’s advantage either, especially when a decent cricket bat can set you back up to £500. No one should be discriminated against through economics either.

The flip side to this is, there are amazing organizations like Chance to Shine, the MCC foundation, working with kids in state schools, and the Lord’s Taverners, and you can’t fault any one of them for their inspiring work. No one should be discriminated against through economics either.

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