It is all too easy to forget quite how privileged we are while immersed in Cambridge life, especially as sportsmen and women with access to top class coaching, as well as opportunities to compete at world-famous sporting venues. The Hawks and Ospreys Access to Sport (HOATS) scheme gives students the chance to promote sport at the grassroots level, with the aim of inspiring the next generation of athletes. Last Friday, the organisers invited Wasim Khan MBE, former county cricketer and CEO of Leicestershire County Cricket Club, to speak about his experiences of how sport can be used to break down barriers of class and ethnicity, while giving young people purpose in life.
Wasim faced his fair share of obstacles trying to establish his cricketing career. He grew up in a British Pakistani family based in a very multicultural part of Birmingham, where he attended the local state school, during the 1980s. His talent as a batsman, honed through watching matches on television, was discovered when a teacher spotted him playing one break time and insisted he tried out for Warwickshire. In defiance of the sport’s reputation of being for the white and middle class only, he was selected to captain the squad, despite being the only boy from a state school. He rose through the ranks and was awarded a professional contract for Warwickshire at the age of 19. His inclusion in the county set up was a groundbreaking moment for English cricket, with Wasim being the first British-born Muslim to play professional cricket in the country. By all accounts he did not belong in county cricket as it was then, but his teacher had told him “with a bat in your hand, you’re as good as anyone”, and he believed it.
He spent the next eleven years at Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Sussex, accruing 2,835 runs over his first class career, but grew to realise that a spot on the England squad was a step too far. He retired from cricket at the age of 31, having never gone to university, and moved back to his hometown. He started coaching at local schools, where he could see first hand how access to cricket gave children a way of making something of themselves, just as he had. This inspired him to write an autobiography entitled “Brim Full of Passion”, winning the prestigious Wisden Book of the Year in 2006, ahead of books written by Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen.
Alongside these already formidable achievements, Wasim became CEO of the £50 million ‘Chance to Shine’ campaign in 2005, with the aim of widening access to cricket to two million children across a third of state schools in the country. In 2013 he celebrated both enrolling the one-millionth girl on the programme (a cause close to my heart) and receiving an MBE, finding himself attending a dinner at Buckingham Palace in Her Majesty’s company. Not content to leave it there, since 2015 he has acted CEO for Leicestershire, making him the first British Asian to hold such a position at a county club.
One of the big questions asked on the night was how to continue to widen participating in sport at school. Cricket to me has always been a hard sell: not only is it considered elitist, but is also ‘not for girls’. Wasim’s answer was that initiatives like HOATS, which asks student volunteers to go into local schools and run taster sessions, are the best way to inspire children to discover sporting talent they might otherwise never know they have. His strategy, clearly carried over from personal experience, is to challenge status quo in sport: instead of forcing players to fit the sport, the sport has to adapt to fit the player. This is especially true for making sport more accessible to people with disabilities, who are so often overlooked at the grassroots level despite the extensive coverage of the Paralympics.
As a fellow Brit with Asian heritage, the talk resonated with me deeply. I remember my desperation to play cricket, having discovered it at the age of twelve, but I had to wait until university before receiving any coaching because there were no girl’s clubs in my area. Until then I taught myself to bowl in the back garden, with a chair acting as the wicket, dreaming of the day I would step on a cricket pitch. Now I have my Half Blue and have spent the past two seasons playing for Cambridgeshire women’s side, while watching the astronomical rise in the profile of women’s cricket, which is starting to get the recognition it deserves. Seeing the likes of Monty Panesar and Moeen Ali wear their England whites while keeping their beards fills me with pride, showing that it is possible represent your country while holding onto your heritage. Despite all the barriers that players may encounter while pursuing the game they love, people like Wasim Khan have paved the way and shown us they are surmountable. There is still a long way to go before we reach an even playing field in access to sport, but volunteering for schemes like HOATS is a great way to start.