Ajmal Shahzad has no hesitation in raising a topic that continues to pose tough questions for English cricket. However, the views of the former Yorkshire and England fast bowler are not what many would expect.
“As a South Asian community, we cannot say that the paths are closed or that there is racism,” said the Derbyshire bowling coach. Sportsmail“I think that’s a really easy place to go and it’s actually a really bad place to go.”
As one of the few British Asian coaches on a county first team, and the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire, Shahzad is well placed to discuss the thorny issue of diversity in the game.
Ajmal Shahzad has opened up to Sportsmail about his new coaching role and racism in cricket
The 35-year-old now works as a coach for Derbyshire and has an eye for an English role
The 35-year-old was also a teammate of Azeem Rafiq, who is suing Yorkshire on allegations of racist abuse and discrimination, and alleges that ‘institutional racism’ at the club was on the verge of taking his own life.
But Shahzad says, ‘I have never experienced racism in cricket myself. You never want to hear the things Azeem said he had been through. You wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
‘But I can only have my own experience and I had a good time in Yorkshire and the people were good to me.
‘It was such a good environment that in December I actually picked up the phone with (cricket director) Martyn Moxon and (coach) Andrew Gale and asked if I could come along with their practices and they welcomed me with open arms. ‘
Shahzad admits going through a ‘dark time’ and moved into coaching after his playing career – in which he represented England in all three formats – ended prematurely in 2017 at the age of 32.
But he insists he never wanted a ‘handout’ and earned his breakthrough through his ‘robustness’ and never giving up.
Shahzad says he has never experienced racism in cricket, but teammate Azeem Rafiq (above) has
After initially attempting to become an accountant, Shahzad coached at Ampleforth College near York and then worked unpaid at the MCC Young Cricketers before becoming their head coach. After two years at Lord’s, he was appointed by Derbyshire in February.
“In South Asian families, like mine, it’s the men who go out to earn the crust,” says Shahzad. So from my play days when the scab was strong, to walking away on just £ 20 a day, was a tough pill to swallow with a young family to take care of.
‘I had to get back on the horse. I knocked on five doors and none opened. I knocked on 10 and none opened. So I knocked on 45 and one of them opened.
Some people may think there are barriers because they knocked on two doors and none of them opened. But in my mind you haven’t knocked on the door enough. Don’t blame the person behind the door. Go knock on someone else’s door.
The easy thing to say is, “there is just no opportunity” or “they are looking inward.” People get discouraged and say “it’s because of this, this, and this.” Well actually no, it isn’t, you’re just not up to standard.
‘Ultimately we are in top sport. Don’t expect a handout from anyone. I learned that from my father from an early age. When something is hard to get and you finally get it, you appreciate it so much more. ‘
Analysis by Sportsmail showed that only six of the 93 county coaches in 2020 were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, with Surrey’s Vikram Solanki being the only British Asian head coach.
There were also only 33 BAME players in the county’s first teams last season. The ECB launched a South Asian action plan in 2018, something Shahzad – who was raised in Bradford by a Pakistan-born father and Bradford-born mother – backed when it started.
Analysis found that only six of 93 county coaches in 2020 had a BAME background
But now he says, ‘I find it a little annoying that we have these programs because we focus exclusively on a group of players and I don’t feel like there is a malfunction. I think there are plenty of opportunities out there.
‘I had tests with the Young Cricketers in Bradford, in London, in Birmingham. I tried to create opportunities for everyone in the UK. It doesn’t take much to get someone into the car.
‘We must do everything we can to create opportunities for ourselves. So practice on time and work hard. Nothing stops people from throwing in resumes and emailing people. Post yourself on social media and show your skills online. ‘
However, Shahzad does accept that not enough British Asians make it as professionals – and he explains why.
“When you reach a certain age and you have to make money from work, you have to give and some of the time they do office jobs and sacrifice sports,” he says.
Shahzad started talking about his ‘dark times’ after ending his career as a player in 2017
‘There is now a better understanding from South Asian families that sports can provide you with a livelihood. But some people can’t play cricket just hoping to get paid or make it as a pro.
‘There is also what happens after cricket. If you have to look for a job, you have to start again at the bottom of the ladder. If you start working as a trainee accountant, you are guaranteed to do that work for the next 40, 50 years and you will only go up. ‘
Still, Shahzad hopes his career can give other South Asians the belief that they can reach the top. He made his way as a player, becoming the first Yorkshire-born Asian to play test cricket for England when he won his only cap in 2010, returning match figures of 4-63 against Bangladesh.
He also appeared in 11 ODIs and three T20Is and was a non-playing member of the squad that won the 2010 World T20.
“I would like to think that I am a role model for my community,” he admits. ‘I represent a group of people and it is much bigger than me alone.
Shahzad became the first Yorkshire-born Asian to play a test match for England in 2010
‘I probably haven’t reached my full potential as a player. There were many contributing factors: injuries, time and place, coaches, luck. But as many lows as there were, there were also many highs. I was one of England’s fastest bowlers. I’ve cast two of the fastest spells in England history – and that was in one test.
‘You think to yourself, “If you had stayed fit and played a little more, would you have been a legend?” But I tore my Achilles tendon and lost a little bit of faith in my body and it went a little pear shaped. ‘
However, Shahzad has regained his confidence as a coach as he prepares for Derbyshire’s County Championship opener in Warwickshire on Thursday.
“I played cricket to be the best I could be and am going to represent my country,” he adds. “I’m in the coaching game now and my natural inclination is to be the best I can be and represent my country again.”