Kashif Ali: “I was the first SACA graduate – there will be many more…”

Of the eight South Asian Cricket Academy graduates to earn professional contracts so far, Kashif Ali was the first. Here he reflects on making two centuries on his County Championship Division One debut with Worcestershire last week.

A few days on, I still can’t quite believe what happened. Scoring so many runs (110 and 133) in my two innings against Warwickshire was just a brilliant feeling. I couldn’t ask for a better start and it’s a really humbling experience.

Every time I go into bat, I try not to think too much about it. I try to keep my head empty, then just watch the ball and react to what’s happening in front of me. I want to play ball by ball and not think too far ahead. It’s not easy, but it gets easier as you get more experience. The more you play, the more you learn new things.

For a few years now, I’ve been going away every winter to try to play a lot of games. Some go well for me; others don’t. But going through that experience teaches you so much. Speaking to senior players about their gameplan and mindset also helps.

But even with those lessons behind me, getting that kind of start in my first ever Division One match, and to do it all at a Test match ground like Edgbaston – it’s a dream come true.

Over the last four or five years, I’ve trialled at a few different counties for the second XI. I’ve had spells at Essex, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Northants. I’ve also played a bit for MCC Young Cricketers. But while I’ve always scored a decent amount of runs, I never got offered that first contract.

When the Kashmir Premier League (KPL) started in Pakistan, I got picked in the trials and eventually my name was put in the draft. I got picked for Shahid Afridi’s team Rawalakot Hawks in 2022 and I was in the top five scorers in the league. In the semi-final eliminator, I scored 114 and we went on to win the final as well.

At that stage, the South Asian Cricket Academy (SACA) was quite new to the scene as a high performance pathway and an option for young South Asian players. But the leaders there were following my scores. Kadeer Ali, Worcestershire’s assistant head coach, watched me play and Tom Brown, who’s the MD of SACA, also watched my highlights. They contacted me and asked if I wanted to come back to the UK and start trialling again.

I just saw it as an opportunity. The day I got to the UK, Worcestershire were playing SACA in a friendly fixture. After a long flight home following playing overseas, I’d gone along just to meet the guys from SACA, but Tom sent me out to bat at no. 9 and I scored 50-odd. From there, things continued and eventually I was offered a three-month deal with Worcestershire playing in the T20s.

SACA is an absolutely amazing platform for South Asian cricketers to showcase their skills and performances. It gives South Asian cricketers a lot of exposure to the top end of the game and I really do think it does an amazing job. It’s a place that can give you hope that there’s something out there for you.

I was the first graduate from SACA to get a contract in the professional game. That’s a proud moment and something that will stay with me forever, but I know so many more will follow that path in the coming years. There are just so many talented players going through SACA.

For now, though, my attention turns back to playing with Worcestershire. On a personal level, I want to play at the highest level I can. But I’ve got to stay in the present and take things day by day. As a team, we’ve set a target to stay in the top five. It’s the first time for a lot of us in the team, but we look a strong unit.

Every day over the last few years, I told myself I wouldn’t give up. I knew I was good enough. In my head, I was just going to keep traveling to different countries until I’d made my way in professional cricket. Luckily, I hope the events of the last week mean that determination has started to pay off.