Kashif Ali learned how to bat from Mohammad Yousuf and Joe Root. There were no coaches around when he and his friends played tapeball cricket, so he watched his favourite players on YouTube, and tried to imitate them. When he was 12, his family moved from Kashmir to Luton, and three years later he played his first hardball game. By the time he was 24 he had played in the 2nd XIs of six different first-class counties – without ever making it further.
Two weeks ago, Kashif finally made his first-class debut, for Worcestershire. Their County Championship match against Derbyshire was a low-scoring affair where the seamers ran rampant, and only four complete overs had been bowled when Kashif was hurried in at No 5, his team 23 for three. He put on almost a century stand for the fourth wicket with Jack Haynes, and top-scored in the innings with 52. “I didn’t think too much about it,” he says. “I just went in, played my shots, and backed myself.” The next day, Worcestershire signed him on a two-year deal. “It’s what I’ve wanted for quite a few years now, so that felt 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 another lesson too. 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 out of the professional game. Kashif had been pinging around cricket’s development system for years without finding a county. It has taken the Academy less than half a season 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 Birmingham City University researcher whose work revealed that while British Asians make up 30% of the recreational game in England, they constitute only 5% of professional cricketers. That disparity was raised at last year’s DCMS hearings into accusations of structural racism within the sport; neither the ECB nor the individual counties have got close to solving it.
“I kept being told that if you’re good enough you’ll make it regardless of your background,” says Brown. Unconvinced, Brown and Kabir came up with the idea of offering British Asian cricketers tailored coaching and education, alongside match opportunities against county oppositions. Players would receive support developed for them individually, from strength and conditioning training to nutritional advice. “We wanted to show that things don’t have to be done the way they’ve always been done,” says Brown, “and we figured, even if no one got signed this year, at least we would have created a learning environment that approached things differently.”
Instead, success has come quickly. In recent wins against Northamptonshire and Surrey seconds SACA’s team was missing more than half their first-choice players, who were already on county trials. Even Brown was surprised at the ready talent they uncovered: when he launched the scheme, they expected to find around 16 players good enough to compete for a professional contract. They have already showcased 30 in their sides, with more awaiting their turn.
Andy Umeed, who opened the batting for Warwickshire in 14 matches between 2016 and 2017, is another SACA player to earn a county contract after Somerset signed him to the end of 2023. For Umeed, the opportunity to train through the winter, and the guidance of elite coaches, enabled him to get his career back on track and “bridge that gap between club cricket and the professional game”. For Kashif, the opportunities to impress county coaches have been key. “It has been really helpful in gaining exposure, and counties having a look at you,” he says. “I have trialled quite a lot in the past but never got noticed.”
Funded by Birmingham City University, SACA has received less attention than the ACE programme, which was conceived around the same time in response to a dramatic decline in black British professionals. The academy’s size and scope is more limited than Ebony Rainford-Brent’s project; ACE has grown rapidly since gaining charitable status in October 2020, while SACA was created with the intention to make itself obsolete within six years, a short fix until the rest of the county system catches up with its ideas.
But they have one notable thing in common: both were set up by individuals who could see a problem, and were fed up of waiting for the people supposedly in charge to fix it. Rainford-Brent’s voice as a black woman in the Surrey boardroom finally prompted action on an issue that cricket has known about for more than a decade. The ECB announced in April that it would fund ACE’s “continued expansion” as part of the action plan launched in the wake of the Rafiq hearings.
Brown may be hoping that SACA’s achievements finally earn them some financial backing too; so far, they have received no support from cricket’s governing body. He says “mindsets are starting to shift” around talent identification, including the understanding that players may develop much later than the current system allows for. But in theory, at least, SACA remains an amateur side: “and the fact we’ve competed and even beaten professional sides proves there’s talent out there not making it.”