A Birmingham PE teacher decided his inner city comprehensive pupils deserved the cricketing best. So, against the odds, he took them on a tour of India and Pakistan. Antony Dore reports.
The cricket pitch at George Dixon School is hardly the carefully tended strip of grass associated with long summer afternoons and the sound of leather on willow. Until the start of the new cricket season this week, it could just be detected as a lighter shade of green between the 10 and 22-metre lines of a rugby pitch, where scores of studded boots have churned it into a tufted, muddy graveyard for any batsman unfortunate enough to have to use it.
Yet two months ago a team from this inner city school in Birmingham was playing on a rather better surface 4,000 miles away at the Mothera test stadium in Ahmedabad, one of the shrines of Indian cricket.
That they were able to do so is the result of months of graft, diplomacy and persuasion by one of George Dixon's PE staff, Raja Khan, who organised a 19-day tour of India and Pakistan. A slow left arm bowler and opening batsman who represented Warwickshire under-19s, Mr Khan has made it his personal mission to provide his pupils, mostly from the Handsworth area, with the kind of opportunities normally enjoyed at top public schools.
In doing so he has had to clear not just logistical hurdles, but those thrown up by opponents, some within the school, who complained that the tour was too ambitious, unrepresentative and unfair to female pupils.
Mr Khan, who is 27, claims only to be doing what his own PE teacher Peter Bolland did for him when he was a pupil at another Birmingham comprehensive, Small Heath. Mr Bolland, he says, helped him to overcome the class advantage that opens cricketing doors wider for some than others and kickstarted a mundane Midlands existence. "He used to drive us to trials in his Mini. And when it came to picking the team, he would make sure that our names were up there. He would say, 'This lad might not have the right kit, but he's good enough'."
Cricket has an unfair share of sport's thinkers and intellectuals, so it is no surprise that Mr Khan - who has an MA in race and ethnic studies and is working for a doctorate in education and politics - knows the sociology of the game. He recalls how in his first game for Warwickshire - as one of the few Asians in the side - he faced a vast array of knives and forks at an official function and was ashamed at the thought of picking the wrong one. He since realised that as this gaucheness was replaced by confidence, he felt that his race too made him less of an outsider. "Class transcends race," is how he sums it up.
The first step in helping his boys - and nurturing the talent he is convinced exists in Birmingham's poorer areas - was to find suitable wickets to play on. He volunteered to run youth sides for a local sports club run by the brewers Mitchells and Butlers, where Warwickshire's second XI plays. In return the school could use the well-kept pitches for matches.
After that came a trip to Lords for an indoor nets session with top coaches and visits to Warwickshire's Edgbaston ground, where 60 boys from the school put on a display of mini-cricket during a lunch break in a test match.
But the moment the tour took shape in his mind was when George Dixon beat a local school who, unlike his own team, were all smartly dressed in whites and cricket shoes. If they could do that - dressed mostly in grey school trousers and training shoes- then why not give them not just a sporting but an educational and cultural experience they would always remember?
Much of the Pounds 13,000 cost of the tour was raised through the local Sikh and Muslim business communities. Apart from flights, the team needed their own kit and gifts for their hosts and the villages they would visit. Although some parents paid around Pounds 400 for the complete tour, the poorest paid nothing while the wealthiest gave Pounds 1,000.
The strain on Mr Khan was immense. Originally planned for last year, the tour had to be cancelled because of the Indian earthquake. Then, five of his top players, who had stayed on to the sixth-form largely in the hope of the tour going ahead, dropped out at Christmas because of poor academic performance. Meanwhile, the school would not allow the tour to go ahead until money was pledged - but without this confirmation, many sponsors held back.
Governors then became worried about violence in the Punjab and Mr Khan had to visit every parent to reassure them that the itinerary avoided the troubled areas. "I was told on three separate occasions not to go ahead. People asked me, 'What use is this to the community?' I was working every night until 11.30pm. I must have been near a mental and physical breakdown."
But the tour went ahead without mishap taking 11 boys - five Sikhs, four Muslims, one Afro-Caribbean and one white - a small group of adults and 55 pieces of luggage to Bombay, Agra, Delhi, Lahore and Islamabad via the Golden Temple of Amritsar and a meeting with the England A cricket team. The only problems were the theft of a pair of training shoes outside the Taj Mahal and a scrape between a tractor and the tour bus.
There was also a sobering lesson in the standard of the sub-continent's cricket: four defeats in four matches despite the help in one match of a Warwickshire professional Wasim Khan, who travelled with the party. But even to be beaten at the Mothera stadium was a particularly precious moment for the nine Asian boys in the team. "They were playing on the ground where Kapil Dev broke the world record for the number of test wickets and Gavaskar scored his 10,000th run. For Indians this is something remarkable."
What they found extraordinary was the passion of the young boys they played, many of whom had dropped out of school but turned up desperate for a game of cricket against English visitors. "Their teams were picked by lining them up against a wall and picking out 11. All those who were passed over dropped their heads - they were devastated."
The touring party also gave away sets of cricket equipment to wide-eyed villagers and ran a coaching camp for street children in Ahmedabad. Expecting a corner of a quiet cricket field and some nets, they were ushered back to the Test stadium where the city's mayor in civic chains, television cameras and 300 children awaited.
While their cricket improved slightly, Mr Khan has seen great leaps in the boys' attitude to work, behaviour and personality as a result of their experiences - ubiquitous and highly-organised beggars, bureaucracy and racial tension engendered by cricket (often so serious that the army appears on the streets in Gujurat whenever India plays Pakistan anywhere in the world).
"This was more important than the cricket," explains Mr Khan. "For the Asian boys to see where they came from was remarkable, although no one ever felt really at home or totally out of it. And it was often quite harsh conditions: we travelled second class in trains without air conditioning for up to 24 hours through the heat."
The young cricketers grin with delight at the memory of the tour, until they recall the quality of the cricket they faced, the pace and bounce of the bowling and the natural talent of the batting. "All our friends were pretty shocked that we actually went," says the team captain Anarjit Tanday, 17. "But when we returned they were very envious. They have started to tell us to shut up about it. The cricket was hard. They live for it over there. But the whole experience was unbelievable."
Carlton Duncan, George Dixon's headteacher, says he was aware of opposition to the tour within the school, although he says most of the doubters were concerned about the money being raised. "Iwant to applaud the efforts of Mr Khan."
But as the new cricket season starts, the fate of the sport at George Dixon is in doubt. The Mitchells and Butlers cricket club has closed, leaving only the school playing fields.
Mr Duncan admits that cricket is neglected by schools generally but hopes this will change. George Dixon's playing fields are to be redeveloped by a Birmingham rugby club who will share the Pounds 3 million improvements. It is hoped some better playing surfaces for cricket will be provided. "It is something we are aspiring to put right," he says.