Jigar Naik reminisces on debut for Leicestershire CCC
When Jigar Naik made his debut for Leicestershire in the summer of 2006, even at the age of 21 and thinking not much beyond making a good impression in front of the friends, family and coaching staff watching him, he had an inkling that his place in the county’s history would shape his life.
His selection to face a West Indies A team at the Uptonsteel County Ground, Grace Road made him the first Leicester-born player from the city’s South Asian community to play for Leicestershire.
“When I first had that tag I knew it came with responsibility and that a lot of kids would see me as a role model, especially within the local community,” he said.
“I’ve always tried to maintain that, because I know it helps for young players from a similar background to mine to have an example of what can be achieved.”
Naik did that as a player. Over 11 seasons in the Foxes’ colours, he took 242 wickets across all formats as a quality off-spin bowler and scored more than 2,000 runs.
He was Leicestershire’s leading first-class wicket-taker with 49 in 2011 and was part of the squad that won the county’s third T20 title in the same summer.
Now, having been appointed the county’s Head of Talent Pathway earlier this year, in addition to his duties as lead spin-bowling coach, Naik has become a role model in a different way, endeavouring to help the latest generation of talented young players to fulfil their dreams as he did.
One of his priorities has been to make sure the club spreads its net to all corners of the county and its communities, not just in the hope that no talented young player is missed, but to forge strong bonds between those communities and the club and foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity.
“The county has put a lot of things in place over recent years, doing really good work,” Naik said.
“What we are aiming for is a broader base. We have created a Community Talent Champion, whose sole responsibility is going around introducing themselves and the Leicestershire club and letting people know they can feel part of the club.
“We want to go around as many places as possible to make sure nobody is missed off our radar. That includes park cricket and schools, but also where there are events and functions and tournaments, even club training sessions, where we can send coaches to scout but also to have a bit of representation for the county.
“We ask ourselves if we can target unusual areas that maybe would have been overlooked in the past. For example, the other day we heard about a tournament at a temple that we didn’t know about before and it turns out the temple runs indoor cricket activities.
“It is by no means the finished article. Much more needs to be done. You have to take the small steps first but before that you have to identify what the small steps are.”
Naik’s own experiences are part of his driving force and he believes his background is an asset when it comes to showing youngsters what can be achieved with dedication and hard work.
“It was tough for me, I can’t lie,” he said.
“I lived on Melton Road, right in the centre of Leicester. It was about seven miles from Grace Road and the biggest barrier for me when I was a kid was getting to the ground for training.
“My dad was very keen for me to play but he worked nine ‘til six in a factory, so it was difficult for me to get to training. Sometimes I had to bike it in, sometimes I’d have to get the bus. I used to try to scrounge a lift of my uncle sometimes, and I remember times when my schoolteacher would help me out. I always got there, one way or another, but it was a challenge.
“Happily, I was always made to feel welcome. The South Asian community has been established in Leicester for many years so in my memory the club has always been quite open and welcoming.
“Nowadays, I think people are more open in any case. I think people understand religions and ethnic backgrounds a little bit more. I hope so.
“When I was growing up, there were a lot of complaints from local clubs that none of our coaching staff had been to their clubs. That was the easiest thing for me to sort out, to try to get into the clubs as soon as possible. To say ‘this is who I am, this is what we do, this is how the pathways work’.”
Enthusiasm for cricket among the South Asian community remains as strong as ever.
“The council recently installed a new cricket net and astroturf in Cossington Park, which is right at the centre of a predominantly Asian area, near Belgrave Gate and Melton Road,” Naik said.
“It is rare that I go past and there’s not 15 or 20 kids using it, and if the sun is out you’ll see two or three games going on in the park
“So I think the passion and the enjoyment is there, and it is for us to make sure that where kids can’t get to some of the facilities, we can then bridge that gap and say we’ll come to you instead.”
The club’s drive to be inclusive is already seeing results. The biggest success story has been Rehan Ahmed, just turned 18 and a prodigiously talented leg-spinner who has already played for England Lions and Southern Brave in The Hundred.
Although Nottingham-born and originally in the age-group system at Trent Bridge, he switched to Leicestershire at 13.
“He’s been a massive success story in terms of how we run our academies and our pathways. He has gone through the whole system and come out on top,” Naik said.
“We have quite a few who have come from our search. For example, in our academy side we have a player, Uttam Ramji, who was playing street cricket in Cossington Park only a couple of years ago.
“The youngsters we take on have to realise that you have to work hard to get better. That was how it was for me. I knew if I wanted to get better I had to train more, so I would find a park or whatever just to get the volume of work in.
“We are seeing success stories here. The bad news in cricket tends to be highlighted but sometimes the good news needs to be as well.”