Ajmal Shahzad does not hold back when addressing a topic that continues to pose awkward questions for English cricket. The views of the former Yorkshire and England fast bowler, however, are not what many may expect.
‘As a South Asian community, we cannot say that the pathways are closed or there’s racism out there,’ the Derbyshire bowling coach tells Sportsmail. ‘I think that’s a very easy place to go and it’s actually a very bad place to go.’
As one of the few British Asian coaches of 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 is now working as a coach for Derbyshire and has eyes on an England role
The 35-year-old was also a team-mate of Azeem Rafiq, who is suing Yorkshire over allegations of racial abuse and discrimination, claiming ‘institutional racism’ at the club left him close to taking his own life.
But Shahzad says: ‘I’ve never experienced racism myself in cricket. You never want to hear the things that Azeem said he experienced. You wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
‘But I can only go off my own experiences and I had a good time at Yorkshire and the people were good to me.
‘It was such a good environment that I actually picked up the phone to (director of cricket) Martyn Moxon and (coach) Andrew Gale in December and asked if I could come and get involved in their practices and they welcomed me with open arms.’
Shahzad admits he went through a ‘dark time’ transitioning into coaching after his playing career – which saw him represent 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 never experienced racism in cricket but team-mate Azeem Rafiq (above) did
After initially attempting to become an accountant, Shahzad coached at Ampleforth College near York then helped out unpaid with the MCC Young Cricketers before becoming their head coach. Following two years at Lord’s, he was appointed by Derbyshire in February.
‘In South Asian families such as mine, the men are the ones who go out and earn the crust,’ says Shahzad. ‘So from my playing days when the crust was strong, to walking away with just £20 a day was a tough pill to swallow with a young family to look after.
‘I needed 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 might think there are barriers because they’ve knocked on two doors and none of them opened. But in my mind, you’ve not knocked on enough doors. Don’t blame the person behind the door. Go knock on somebody else’s door.
‘The easy thing to say is “there’s just no opportunity there” or “they look within”. People get disheartened and say “it’s because of this, this and this”. Well actually no it’s not, you’re just not up to standard.
‘At the end of the day, we’re in professional sport. Don’t expect a handout from anybody. That’s something I learnt from a young age from my dad. If something becomes difficult to get and you finally get it, you appreciate it so much more.’
Analysis by Sportsmail showed that just six of 93 county coaches in 2020 were from a black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) background, with Surrey’s Vikram Solanki the only British Asian head coach.
There were also just 33 BAME players in county 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 – supported when it started.
Analysis showed that just six of 93 county coaches in 2020 were from a BAME background
But now he says: ‘It kind of bugs me that we have these programmes because we are solely focusing on a group of players and I don’t feel that there’s a breakdown. I think there’s enough opportunity out there.
‘With the Young Cricketers, I held trials in Bradford, in London, in Birmingham. I was trying to create opportunities for everybody across the UK. It doesn’t take much for someone to get in the car.
‘We need to do everything we possibly can to create opportunities for ourselves. So get to practices on time and work hard. There’s nothing stopping people from throwing in CVs and emailing people. Get yourselves on social media and showcase your skills online.’
Shahzad, though, does accept that not enough British Asians are making it as professionals – and he offers an explanation as to why.
‘When you get to a certain age and you need to earn money from work, something’s got to give and some of the time they go on and do office jobs and sacrifice sport,’ he says.
Shahzad opened up about his ‘dark times’ after ending his playing career back in 2017
‘There’s a better understanding now from South Asian families that sports can give you a livelihood. But some people can’t just play cricket in the hope that they are going to get paid or make it as a professional.
‘There’s also what happens after cricket. When you need to go and get a job you have to start at the bottom of the ladder once again. If you started work as a trainee accountant, you’re guaranteed to do that job for the next 40, 50 years and only go up.’
Still, Shahzad hopes his career can give other South Asians the belief they can make it to the top. He blazed a trail 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 who won the 2010 World T20.
‘I’d like to think that I am a role model for my community,’ he admits. ‘I represent a group of people and it’s much bigger than just me.
Shahzad became the first Yorkshire-born Asian to play a Test match for England back in 2010
‘I probably didn’t reach my full potential as a player. There were many contributing factors to that – injuries, time and place, coaches, luck. But as many lows as there were, there were many highs. I was one of England’s quickest bowlers. I bowled two of the fastest spells in England’s history – and that was in one Test.
‘You think to yourself, “If you had stayed fit and played some more, would you have been a legend?”. But I ruptured my Achilles and lost a bit of confidence in my body and it kind of went a bit pear-shaped.’
Shahzad, though, has his confidence back as a coach as he prepares for Derbyshire’s County Championship opener at Warwickshire on Thursday.
‘I played cricket to be the best I could be and go and represent my country,’ he adds. ‘I am now in the coaching game and my natural inclination is to be the best I can be and represent my country again.’