When England take to the Edgbaston field this week for the inaugural day-night Test in this country, they could be doing so with the first county cricketer to have come through the Chance to Shine programme.
Twenty-one year old Sukhjit ‘Sunny’ Singh made his County Championship debut for Warwickshire when they took on Somerset on 19 May, and is one of four youthful players to be performing 12th man duties for England during the Test match with West Indies.
The slow left-armer has played three Championship games this season, including a 6-for against Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl in June. His journey to the County circuit has however been less than straight forward.
When Singh was 10, he moved with his family from the Punjab in northern India to Handsworth, Birmingham. Singh arrived speaking no English and struggled to integrate until he began to engage with cricket.
In 2009, Warwickshire Cricket Board Coach Eaton Gordon was delivering Chance to Shine sessions at George Dixon Academy – where Singh was now at school. Gordon noticed Singh’s enthusiasm and enjoyment of the sessions and suggested he join local club Handsworth CC.
Singh continued to excel and through playing cricket he began to develop his social skills as well. PE Teacher and Singh’s Head of Year, Patrick Williams, said “Sunny was quite a shy boy, didn’t relate to anyone, any sport, any thing. Eaton took him aside and helped to develop his techniques. He started to come out of his shell, his behaviour improved.
“Sunny’s cricketing performance affected his academic performance, his English was improving… A lot of the other kids started to look up to him.”
Gordon put Singh forward for County trials at Warwickshire and it was then he began to take his cricket very seriously. “After I got into the [Warwickshire] Under-16s I started to think like I could make it!"
Singh has progressed quickly since then, spending six-months at the Darren Lehman Academy in Adelaide last winter after being recommended by England spin coach Peter Such. Singh cites this as a hugely beneficial learning experience despite initial difficulties “I was homesick for the first three months but I thought I’ve got to stick with it and then during the last three months I started to enjoy myself and I really started to perform.”
“I came back a better person, I’d grown up a bit more and I’d learnt how to look after myself. I was stronger and I could bowl more overs.”
Singh returned home and made his 1st XI debut in the First-Class game against Oxford University earlier this summer, finishing with match figures of 4-52 off 30 overs.
In May, Singh was selected to take on Somerset at Taunton and in doing so became the first County Cricketer to have come all the way through the Chance to Shine programme. Warwickshire’s hopes of a first win of the season were washed away by the rain but Singh picked up his first Championship wicket, that of South Africa opener Dean Elgar, caught by another international Ian Bell.
No man was prouder than Eaton Gordon, keeping up to date with the action on his phone: “I followed it from the start. My feeling inside was as if I was doing it myself, as if I was out there walking onto the field. It made me feel 10 miles tall.”
For Singh, it was just the start: “Obviously, it was really good, I enjoyed it. I really wanted to mark my debut with a wicket and I was pleased with it but I felt I could have got a few more!”
Singh is taking his success in his stride but knows that his work ethic and commitment will need to continue. “Next for me is to become a regular first-team cricketer, get that spot and make it your spot. Be taking 50 wickets in a season and playing all three formats for Warwickshire. Obviously the dream is to play for England, that’s everyone’s dream. Play for England and to play in the Ashes.” Given the distance he’s travelled to get to where he is today, those next steps won’t seem nearly as daunting.
The Chance to Shine Schools programme is designed to give young people a great first experience of cricket and to inspire them to play regularly and learn key life skills. Since its launch in 2005, it has reached more than 3.5m students in 14,000 state schools in England and Wales.
Luke Swanson, Chief Executive at Chance to Shine, said: “Sunny has been on a remarkable journey from the Punjab to Edgbaston, and from his first school game to First-Class cricket. We have deep admiration for his commitment and determination, and take great pride in playing our part in his progress."
Sunny is in no doubt as to whom he owes his career to “Since I was 13 he helped me so much, he’s given me a lot. Without Eaton there wouldn’t be Sunny playing for Warwickshire.”