England’s latest spin prospect, Amar Virdi, is hoping there will be more chances in elite cricket for players who share his state-educated, British Asian background.
Virdi’s call-up to the 30-man training camp ahead of next month’s Test series against the West Indies has hardly come out of the blue – he plays his county cricket at the established proving ground of Surrey and toured Australia with England Lions over the winter – but his route has been less straightforward.
The uncapped off-spinner, one of five slow bowlers on site at the Ageas Bowl, turned down the chance of place at the private Reed’s and Hampton boarding school as a youngster and with it access to the best cricket facilities and coaching prospects.
Instead he stayed close to his Hounslow home at the Guru Nanak Sikh Academy and turned out for the men’s teams at Indian Gymkhana Cricket Club. His obvious talent saw him move on quickly, gaining sufficient exposure to win Surrey’s attention, but in leaving his comfort zone Virdi took a step others shy away from.
Providing a more welcoming pathway to the British Asian community is close to the top of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s current priorities, and in Virdi they boast a ready-made reason why.
At just 21, a particularly tender age for an up-and-coming spinner in these conditions, he already has 69 wickets in 23 first-class matches and a distinctly bright future.
“That’s a big topic there, there are so many factors,” he said, when invited to discuss English cricket’s connection with those who have similar upbringings to his own.
“It can be very daunting for people from minority communities to be playing cricket just within your community and then moving to a bigger club.
“For instance, I started at Indian Gymkhana, which is majority Asian, and I found it daunting moving to Sunbury Cricket Club, which I did at about 12 years old. But that was the best move for my cricket because it’s important to play at a standard where it’s recognised, where you’ve got ex-pros at the club and where you’ve got a lot of support.
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“It’s changing now but maybe a lot of kids don’t go to private schools and they might not be able to afford the opportunities. That might also be a problem because maybe you’re not being seen by people in the county set-up.
“If you’re at a private school you’re getting that cricket but my school didn’t even play cricket so that’s another avenue. A big thing is more education for the minority communities and parents – how the actual county system works. There’s so much talent, from so many different communities, it definitely needs to be tapped into.
“A lot of parents are busy, making ends meet, and they don’t have time necessarily to take kids to practice, but I’m so thankful to my mum and dad that they took time to support me, running me up and down the country, and without that I wouldn’t be here.”
Virdi might help hasten the shift himself should he make it to the England Test team and knows from personal experience about the importance of seeing role models at the highest level.
“Growing up I remember watching Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar bowling and that was very inspirational to me,” he said.
“Obviously with Monty it was because he looks very similar to me as well, especially being from the (Sikh) community that I am. We’re in a minority in a lot of industries and to see someone progressing and doing well in the field you’re in really motivates you and shows you you can do it if they’re doing it as well.”