British Asians still fear failure at the top playing for England
Ravi Bopara seemed to be his usual relaxed self when he rejoined his England teammates this week, ahead of his return to national duty at Edgbaston in Birmingham today.
Anyone would have thought the only worry he had in the world was being on time for his appointments, now that the battery on his new iPad had run out.
Then he let slip, that he was feeling a hint of apprehension about making his return to an otherwise settled England side, with a series to win over India and a world No 1 ranking to assume. Bopara's parents have their roots in Punjab, India.
"I can't keep saying to myself 'this is my last opportunity', although I do sometimes think like that," the England batsman said.
Bopara's feeling of unease is an understandable personal response to his position.
He knows a cricketer only gets so many chances to prove himself at the top level, and he has already had a few of them. Happily, the matter of race could not have been further from his thinking.
No one asked if he felt a burden of carrying the banner for the British Asian community. It is just not an issue any more.
However, even though British Asians abound in the professional game in England there are none who are currently established as part of the national team.
In general, cricket is a multi-ethnic success story, but is there a reason for the absence of a successful, household name, national team player?
"I think there is a certain fear factor with a lot of British Asians who play for England," Wasim Khan, a former county player with Warwickshire and Sussex, said.
"There is an underlying fear that they are not going to be given a proper, fair go.
"Some people might be backed for a long time, and play 10 or 15 games before they get a score, like Ian Bell was.
"I think that fear of failure creeps into the mind of a lot of these Asian cricketers.
"How long will I be given a chance for? If I don't succeed in my first game, will I be given another chance? That is not a healthy mindset to be going into international games with."
In many ways, Wasim was a pioneering British Asian cricketer, despite the relatively modest record of eight centuries and an average of 30 in 58 first-class matches.
Looking at the statistics, his career seemed unremarkable and might have passed as such, had he not then written an acclaimed book which charted his rise, "from the ghetto to pro cricket".
He made his debut in the county game in 1995, and was at that time in a small minority of British Asians, such as the likes of Min Patel and Nadeem Shahid, playing the game.
Now the county game, at least, is awash with players from Asian communities, which better reflects the wider cricket playing population in the UK.
When Monty Panesar's star was at the height of its ascent, Patel, his forebear as a left-arm spinner of Indian origin to have represented England, predicted it could provide a new watershed for British Asians.
"Monty's success might show the parents that their children do not have to become doctors, but that they can have a career in cricket," Patel said, while on tour in Sharjah in 2006.
Raj Lakhtaria is one such parent. He has four daughters, the senior one being a barrister, while the youngest, Raveena, is an aspiring cricketer.
Job prospects for women cricketers anywhere are limited, but Raveena, who will attend university after she receives her A-level grades next week, has already achieved recognition in the game.
When India were warming up for the current series against England, Sachin Tendulkar invited her to be a net bowler at Lord's.
"If she was given the choice, she would play cricket all day, every day, seven days a week," her father said.
"I have left it to them whatever they have wanted to do, but I have always encouraged sports to them.
"We are a cricket family, and I always told them that sports are very important in long-term life."
The idea strikes a chord with Wasim. "When I started, my dad never came to watch me play cricket because he thought I would grow out of it pretty soon - then they found out I'd become a pro cricketer," he said.
"One of the questions I'll never forget was when I got my highest score in first-class cricket, my uncle came round to my house two days later and said: 'Congratulations on scoring 181, but isn't it about time you got a proper job?'"
Historically, it seems cricket had problems attracting British Asians from either end of the social scale.
As the stereotype has it, the more affluent parents would prefer their children to study to become doctors or lawyers, for example, while at the other end, underprivileged children had little access to the game.
In Birmingham, where today's Test between England and India is taking place, 95 per cent of Pakistani families live in low-income areas.
Coincidentally, there are more informal park cricket matches, often to be found being played by Pakistanis, in this city than anywhere else in the country.
"They love the game, were brought up on it, and their parents are passionate about Pakistan and how they get on," Wasim, who now runs a foundation which gives state schoolchildren the chance to play cricket, said.
"They grew up in that culture, and that is strengthened in adulthood when they continue to play and watch cricket.
"There is a fierce passion for cricket here in the Midlands among Pakistani people and Indian people as well."
Bridging the divide from the ghetto to the Test arena is then all about conquering the fear factor to which Wasim refers, rather than prejudice.
"I don't see a difference - it solely depends on what quality you are," Lakhtaria said.
"As far as I am concerned, it does not matter what race, colour or creed you are, it solely depends on who stands out the best, whether it is an English girl, an Indian girl, or a West Indian girl."
Some Asian names who made it big playing for United Kingdom.
Ten years ago, Nasser Hussain wrote in an English Sunday newspaper: "I really cannot understand why those [Asians] born here, or who came here at a very young age like me, cannot support or follow England."
Thanks in part to the Madras-born former Essex batsman's success in the international game, many do follow England now.
Hussain, who was brought up in an area of Essex with a large Asian population, played 96 Tests for England, including many as captain. Bopara is also a product of the academy Hussain's father, Joe, founded.
While relatively few have been able to follow his lead to date, he has at least shown it can be done.
Ravi Bopara said this week that the only way he could keep his place in the England cricket team would be to "knock someone out".
He was speaking metaphorically, but England's other batsmen should beware: evidence suggests some British Asians pack a considerable punch.
In boxing, more than any other sport, British Asians - Pakistanis in particular - have reached the top and become household names.
Amir Khan earned the respect of the nation when he won a silver medal for Great Britain at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and has since gone on to win world titles in the professional game. He was born in Bolton to a family originating in Rawalpindi.
Zesh Rehman, a Birmingham-born British Pakistani, appeared for England at a variety of age-group levels for England, as well as in the Premier League for Fulham. However, the centre-half remains in a minority of one, and his career, too, has now led him away from the UK.
He is currently playing in Thailand, and in 2005 he ceded his chances of ever representing England at senior level when he opted to play for Pakistan instead.
Michael Chopra, the Ipswich Town striker who was born in Newcastle to an Indian father, explored the chance of playing for India at this year's Asian Cup in Qatar.
Although he did not appear for them then, he has indicated he would be willing to do so in the future.
John Kirwan, the Japan coach and former All Black, recently predicted that Asia will become the next great power in rugby union.
That seems a little far-fetched at the moment, and it would need something seismic to get British Asians into the sport.
Despite the cosmopolitan nature of English rugby - the current national squad includes players born in Kenya, Australia, Samoa, South Africa and New Zealand - there has yet to be an Asian player of note.
If the prominence of Britons from a subcontinental background in cricket is linked to the influence of their national team, rugby has much catching up to do. India are ranked No 73 in the current International Rugby Board standings.
Published: August 10, 2011 04:00 AM