Nasser Hussain finds out how Essex is encouraging Asian and black children to play first-class cricket

It was opened during the 2019 World Cup in the heart of the east London at the old county ground in Leyton, where Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes once set a first class world record partnership of 555 for Yorkshire against Essex.

Now the Leyton Hub provides an antidote to the racist storms that have engulfed cricket.

Nasser Hussain, raised in south Essex, returned to his old turf to speak to his friend and former Essex second XI player Arfan Akram, now director of cricket operations for east London for Essex cricket, to see if Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities really engage with the game. That’s what Essex, faced with historic claims of racism itself, did next.

Sportsmail's Nasser Hussain (L) with his friend and former Essex second XI player Arfan Akram

Sportsmail’s Nasser Hussain (L) with his friend and former Essex second XI player Arfan Akram

Nasser Hussein: When we were little we learned cricket in my dad’s hut, Ilford Cricket School. This place looks a little better! How and why did it appear and what is its importance for local communities?

Arfan Akram: The ECB put in place a South Asian strategy and following that came the South Asian action plan. One of the aims was to build an urban hub and we were fortunate that Essex’s work in east London had already started, in 2013. The passion for cricket was evident here so we became the ECB pilot project. There are others being created by the ECB across the country.

Hussein: Was it a failure of Essex cricket before all this? Was the education of Asian communities the missing piece of the puzzle?

Akram: For the amount of cricket played in this area, it was not producing enough players for Essex. When I was a young boy, I didn’t quite understand what the path was, but now there are clear opportunities on the simple principle that we don’t want anyone to miss.

Arfan Akram is now the East London Cricket Operations Manager for Essex Cricket

Arfan Akram is now the East London Cricket Operations Manager for Essex Cricket

Hussein: When I was growing up I felt you had to be 50% better as a British Asian or from the Afro-Caribbean community to be ahead of the average privately educated white schoolboy. Is this correct and has it changed?

Akram: The evidence suggests this was true in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. The key for us was whether these communities were being overlooked or whether we were doing this because it was the right thing to do. If we want to right our wrongs, we don’t want to just do it by ticking boxes. We want to do it to change the game.

Hussein: So what did you think when you saw Azeem Rafiq open up to MPs about what he’s been through?

Akram: It was so hard to watch, especially when he said he wouldn’t encourage his kid to play the game. I liken his statement to when Michael Holding stood by your side at the Ageas Bowl. Cricket now does what society does. Pause, reflect and think about what needs to be done. We were already on a trip, but it showed there was a long way to go.

Arfan Akram insists there has been a huge culture shift amid historic allegations of racism

Arfan Akram insists there has been a huge culture shift amid historic allegations of racism

Hussein: What started as a Yorkshire problem quickly became a nationwide problem. And an Essex. Three former Maurice Chambers players, Jahid Ahmed and Zoheb Sharif have made allegations of racism since their time at the club. Essex have been accused of discrediting the game by the ECB and we are awaiting Newton’s report on the case. What did you think of all this?

Akram: I know all the guys involved so it hurts. Investigations are ongoing so I don’t want to influence that. What I would say is that the allegations were historic. There has been a huge culture shift. I think a lot has been learned and it goes back to when Chris Silverwood became first team manager. He was very keen that all players celebrate the beliefs of others and be empowered by them. It helped us because it came from above.

Hussein: Have you ever experienced racism as a player at Essex?

Akram: I have been discriminated against. There was ignorance. It was a social thing. It was class as well as race. But it made me stronger. I’m not saying it’s good but that’s how I handled it.

Hussain wanted to see if Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities were getting involved in the game

Hussain wanted to see if Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities were getting involved in the game

Hussein: There have always been a lot of Asian kids, especially in Ilford in my time and now in cricket and the academies by age group. But I still don’t see them in large numbers in the first teams. Is there a reason why they are decreasing?

Akram: We were looking at this before Azeem said what he did. In the past, communities wouldn’t engage with us because they just thought we were interested in taking their talent and having them join a traditional league. Over the past four or five years they have shaped the way we think.

We looked at the barriers that prevent them from realizing their potential. Finance. Give them access to equipment, facilities like this, and coaches who know the communities. We train British Asian coaches who have ambition and aspirations. They know how to put kids on the right track. Mikey Holding once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We brought Ravi Bopara here to give a T20 masterclass. You are here now. It’s super powerful.

The pair are joined by a number of coaches including Asher Roberts, the ACE development agent for Essex cricket

Hussein: Asher, when I played for England my first roommate was Phil DeFreitas. I also played with Devon Malcolm, Gladstone Small, Dean Headley, Alex Tudor, Mark Butcher. The list continues. Had the black community disappeared from cricket or, like the Asian community, was it still there and perhaps not finding its way?

The Leyton Hub provides an antidote to the storms of racism that have engulfed cricket

The Leyton Hub provides an antidote to the storms of racism that have engulfed cricket

Robert: The Caribbean community still loves the game immensely. But the ACE program does so much to get as many black people into playing cricket as possible and the message is strong. What we’ve always needed are more role models. Seeing what people like Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan are doing with England and Ebony Rainford-Brent with ACE is like a light in a dark tunnel.

Hussein: There was more controversy recently when Middlesex chairman Mike O’Farrell appeared to suggest that the problem is that black children prefer football to cricket?

Robert: I can see what he was saying. If you ask any black kid what their favorite game is these days, most would say soccer. It’s faster, faster, more energetic and less time-consuming. That’s why when the Hundred arrived, we tried to make our sessions shorter, more exciting and fun. Shorter variations helped the black community.

Drummer Feroze Kushi shines at Essex

Versatile Jamal Richards is another rising star at Essex

Drummer Feroze Kushi (left) and versatile Jamal Richards (right) are rising stars at Essex

Hussein: What about what O’Farrell said about Asian kids prioritizing education, Arfan? You played first-class cricket, but you also went to Cambridge University.

Akram: This is the perception that we had to question. And, looking at Middlesex, they’ve done a fantastic job over the past 10 years. And if their president had talked about all the good things happening now in his county, it would have painted a truer picture. I think he was wrong, but these discussions need to take place. I hope if he’s interviewed in 10 years, he won’t be able to say the same things.

Hussein: And when will we see more role models in the Essex team?

Akram: It has been building for almost 10 years and we are seeing the results. Watch out for Feroze Khushi, Robin Das, Eshun Kalley and Jamal Richards, who was last year’s academy player of the year and went to the same school near here as Graham Gooch. If we get the culture right, we’ll see more. We started this journey under Chris Silverwood and it is gaining momentum.

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