Grassroots unsung hero Arfan Akram aims to help cricket survive

‘I love it if I inspire kids and bring people together’: Grassroots unsung hero Arfan Akram on his mission to create support programmes for future cricketers in the east end of London

  • Afran Akram is making sure that grassroots cricket survives the pandemic
  • He’s made huge strides in bringing all the various communities together
  • Akram oversees cricket for the county in the four East London boroughs 
  • Graham Gooch, Ravi Bopara and Varun Chopra have all supported the cause

I have a father who is passionate about cricket so myself and my twin brother Adnan were exposed to the game at a very early age.

We spent most of our childhood in Walthamstow surrounded by cricket and cricket people — like dad’s friends Imran Khan and Javed Miandad, to name but two. Not that we realised how big they were at that stage!

It led to us joining Wanstead Cricket Club, one of the best in our area, as 11-year-olds and the club gave me an incredible grounding. It is the heartbeat of its community and prides itself on being diverse and inclusive.

Arfan Akram (pictured) has been one of cricket’s unsung heroes at grassroots level

I was part of the Essex age-group set-up all the way up to the second team and was scouted by the Cambridge University cricket programme. Even though I was caught behind for a duck on my debut against my home county by one of my best friends, James Foster, I did go on to make a first-class hundred against a strong Kent attack.

I didn’t make it to senior county level but Wanstead made me captain at 20 and I had 10 great years in charge. We had so much success on and off the field. The club has gone from strength to strength and it’s still a huge part of my life.

When playing for a living didn’t quite pan out for me, I worked for Barclays Capital in Canary Wharf, although I wanted to work in cricket administration. I made strides towards that in 2009 when I started volunteering.

Eventually, the University of East London took a punt on me to run their cricket programme. Then Essex realised there was this little pest who wanted to get involved and asked me to do some research into the cricket potential in my home area.

Akram grew up surrounded by cricket legends Imran Khan (centre) and Javed Miandad (right)

I took my opportunity and now I oversee cricket for the county in the four boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Waltham Forest, Newham and Redbridge. I absolutely love what I do.

When we started in 2013, we tried to unearth what you might call underground cricket that was not recognised by the governing body.

There was a lot of nervousness among some of the minority communities as Essex had not reached out to them before, but there was real support from the county board and my boss Dan Feist, who told me there would be funding for what we wanted to do and that this wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise.

Now we have made huge strides and are bringing all the various communities together — even during the first lockdown we had 24,000 interactions of cricket participation, from tape ball up to playing first XI hard-ball games. The cricketing potential in East London is huge.

Nearly 70 per cent of the Essex boys performance teams, from Under 11s right up to Under 23s, come from this area, of which 90 per cent are South Asian.

Even more revealing is that eight of the full Essex team who won the County Championship in 2017 were born at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone, as indeed were Harry Kane, David Beckham — and me!

We have great support. Graham Gooch, himself an East Londoner, sends me some lovely messages offering to support our programme in any way he can and that is typical of this community — it motivates and inspires me.

Graham Gooch sends lovely messages offering to support our programme in any way he can

There has always been a rich seam of talent among the South Asian communities in East London, but in the past it has not always come through.

To rectify that, we created four pillars (pathway, education, communication and facilities) to ensure there was a route towards the Essex team.

It has been great having ambassadors such as Ravi Bopara, Varun Chopra and Feroze Khushi, all East Londoners, helping with those pillars and increasing the number of BAME coaches who can be role models.

Now we have programmes for schools, the community, women and girls, and for disabilities, and these are the product of East London’s passion for cricket. We’ve listened and adapted and seeds have been planted to empower kids to become the next players, coaches and role models.

At Essex, we’ve been very proactive in seizing our chance to make a difference.

Part of the ECB’s South Asian Action Plan was to create urban hubs throughout the country and we became the pilot for that a couple of years ago.

We looked at around 20 sites and found a hidden gem of a 1960s sports hall at the back of the historic old Leyton County Ground where the likes of Don Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers once played.

Ravi Bopara (right) and Varun Chopra (left) of Essex have become role models in the sport

And, of course, a certain Leytonstone boy called Graham Gooch, who played in the last-ever Essex match at his local ground in 1977.

We made sure the community felt like the hub was theirs and I’m just the lucky so-and-so who got to project-manage the whole process, from talent identification to leading the wide range of programmes delivered from Leyton. We told the local people seven years ago that we wanted to go on a journey with them. Now, the whole East London community can be proud to call this iconic building and ground theirs.

And nothing makes me prouder than a programme where Muslim women take off their head scarves at our hub because they see it as a safe environment. Our motto is to provide cricket for anybody at any time, whatever the level of their ambition. We don’t want any boundaries.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing how this ‘tree’ grows in the next 10 years. I feel incredibly fortunate and humbled to be involved.

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