At 12 years old Siraj Ali wasn’t a bad kid. But, like many of the young people he grew up with in the outskirts of Birmingham, he’d hang out on the street at night, sometimes get in trouble at school, and had anger management issues that could boil over.
“The area that I come from, the crime rates are really high,” says Ali, a decade later. “In and outside school I was getting into a lot of trouble. I wasn’t being myself. I was being dragged into the wrong crowd.”
Birmingham’s reputation for gang culture and the associated crimes – such as those involving knives and guns – is widely reported. In hindsight, Ali, now 22, reckons he was at risk of slipping into that “bad crowd” and that if things hadn’t changed he’d carry a criminal record by now and struggle to get a job.
From gang life to team spirit: the youth mentor using cricket to turn lives around
Thankfully, things did change – and in September 2017 he graduated from the University of Wolverhampton with a degree in sport, media, culture and development. He’s currently confident of being hired by a teaching agency and, perhaps most importantly for him, he’s teaching young people cricket at his local leisure centre, where he hopes he can help others negotiate the dangers of growing up in that neighbourhood.
“If I hadn’t got involved in cricket something bad would have happened to me,” he says. “When I went to Street they just dragged me in another direction.”
He’s referring to Chance to Shine Street, a charity that uses cricket as a means to build young people’s confidence, social skills and focus – while keeping them off the streets for a few hours a week. With the help of its official long-term partners, NatWest – who have a long history of supporting grassroots cricket to support communities and help make the game accessible to all – Chance to Shine Street has helped more than 38,000 youngsters since 2008. The broader Chance to Shineprogramme has introduced more than 3 million young people – half of whom are girls – to cricket since its inception.
The focus is on inner-city areas and those with high levels of deprivation – 85% of projects are based in the 50% most deprived areas in England, and 76% of projects are based in areas with sub-national-average areas of green space.
Now a coach with the organisation, Ali first encountered Street (as it’s generally known) as an angry 12-year-old. Invited along to a session by a local coach, he grew frustrated, smashed over the wickets and walked out. Luckily, both he and the coaching staff persevered. Ali went on to play around the country in his teens, continued playing for local T20 sides while at university, and is now dedicated to using cricket to help the kids coming of age in the Alum Rock and Saltley areas of Birmingham.
“I’ve been coaching at the local leisure centre for four or five years now,” he says. “I enjoy the role because it’s challenging. With some of the kids you don’t know what’s going on at home or at school. But I always try to ask questions: ‘How are your studies? Are you getting into trouble? How are things at home?’”
Ali, who coaches primary-school children as well as those in secondary school, reckons the key to Street’s power is the way cricket can help instil a sense of confidence in young people.
“Street cricket is available for all kids, and it’s a fun and friendly environment,” he says. “These sessions are in areas where there isn’t much opportunity for kids, and they offer a chance for them to help themselves grow in many ways, such as in confidence. This is very important for kids – it can be very beneficial for them in their education.
“When they play in a group, a big group of 13 or 14 kids, it’s a different crowd every time – one’s funny, one’s low on confidence, one’s very confident. They sit together, talk to each other, express how they feel and they become good friends. They work together like that. That’s the main key to our organisation – to help kids work together and get on and help each other.”
Many of the young people he’s worked with over the past five years have gone on to a college education or university. The player-turned-coach attributes his ability to reach students to the fact that he’s been through the same things they’re going through; the children can relate to him in a way they sometimes can’t to parents or teachers.
“I understand them because I came from the same community and I’ve been through this all at a young age,” he says. “It’s all about understanding the kids and what they go through. Some of the children I have worked with are now playing for Warwickshire youth teams, so this is progress, and I will continue to help kids.”
Mentoring is something Ali enjoys – and that influenced his choice of degree, which is focused on the development of young people. But it’s been a two-way street. At university, Ali found he was more confident than many of his peers, thanks to his time spent speaking to large groups of young people and working with people from across the charity and beyond.
“When I first joined the street project as a coach, things were a lot different and I wasn’t confident leading sessions,” he says. “Coach Khaled worked with me and he started to review my performance. Week by week I was growing in confidence, and this confidence has been vital when I’ve had to make presentations at university or lead my group in front of the whole class. I am now a graduate and I am looking to continue to inspire kids and help them grow their passion for cricket and their education.”
As a diverse and inclusive sport, cricket truly has no boundaries, and NatWest think that’s worth protecting. That’s why they’ve supported it since 1981. NatWest are proud to be the principal partner of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the official partners of Chance to Shine, reflecting the bank’s own values and commitment to fairness and inclusion.