Jaz swings in perfect harmony with sport

Jaz swings in perfect harmony with sport

A scrum-half turned property developer is now the link between business and the Asian community. Jaz Athwal talks to Peter Baber about being a proud Yorkshireman.

On the surface, Jaz Athwal’s story would appear to be about an Asian businessman doing well for himself in the UK. It’s about someone who came over here with his mother at the age of four to attend his father’s funeral, stayed with her in Bradford and only being joined by his elder siblings later, gradually built up a chain of convenience stores with the family that came under the Spar franchise, and after dividing these up among the family in the early 1990s went into property where he made a comfortable, but not excessive fortune.

Enough to be retired at the age of 48. Nothing particularly special about that then, and it will be no surprise to hear that he has now also taken on a role as a special ambassador of Bradford Chamber of Commerce to the Asian business community.

“It was a position that (chief executive) Sandy Needham created,” he says. “They wanted to spread the message of the chamber within the Asian community. Not a lot of Asian businesses knew what the chamber was.

“I had access to the senior guys, whereas someone from the chamber would first make an appointment with marketing and work their way up. I would go straight to the person at the top.

When that filters down from the top a lot more gets done.” Like many successful business people, Athwal also has a strong interest in sport, particularly, at the moment, golf. He was the first Asian captain of a UK golf club, and has launched an organisation that aims to introduce golf to inner city kids.

Princess Anne is endorsing it by making a royal visit to the academy in July. But this story starts to depart quite sharply from normality when you discover that sport is not something Jaz has lately discovered.

It is something that he has been passionate about all his life, and that he really believes has helped break down barriers like nothing else. And he should know.

The sport that he excelled at in his youth was rugby league, hardly the kind of sport that has traditionally been welcoming to players from the Indian subcontinent.

Particularly when you consider that at the time he was playing it was in the depths of the dark 1970s, replete with National Front marches and the like.

Surprisingly, Athwal can still laugh about this.

“Yes, it was very unusual for someone like me to get into Rugby League,” he says. “I was as rare as Shergar. Lord Lucan could have been found more easily. I eventually went up to Bradford Northern to the academy team. We had some great players like Ellery Hanley and Brian Noble who went on to become legends. Henderson Gill too.

“But,” he chuckles, “I used to have a bigger following than they did ever. People all around the town knew Jaz was coming to play a match. They were mainly from the National Front, of course, but I used to think they were fans of mine.”

What’s astonishing is that he is only being partly tongue in cheek through all of this. He was well used to being called “Paki” or “wog”, he says. He remembers Huddersfield in particular as being a place where he felt intimidated.

But he just took it in his stride. “I was even doing a bit of work as an MC at the time,” he says, “and I would use some of this as a joke. I knew my white English team mates would stick up for me. I had people like my friend Kevin who was soon around to sort anyone out if they came near me.

“You were in for a lot of stick anyway as scrum half, but after two years the abuse had no effect. I remember playing in Keighley once. I was smacked right across the pitch, and they looked down and said: ‘How do you like that, you Paki?’ And I said: ‘I am an Indian actually,’ and got up and carried on playing. It took two or three years to earn your stripes in the 1970s.”

Nor does he necessarily think that such abuse has ended, as a recent experience this St George’s Day only made only too clear to him. “I was coming back from a night out through Shipley,” he says, “and I noticed that one of the shops I know was still open at half ten. I popped in to make sure everything was OK, which it was. My car was 50 yards away, and when I came out there were about six or seven16 to 17-year olds sitting on it drinking cider. They were a mixture of girls and lads. I had to run the gauntlet of: ‘You effing wog, you Paki this, you shouldn’t be in this country, you have taken all our jobs’. And this is 2010. Of course it shocks me and it saddens me.”

Nevertheless Athwal absolutely refuses to let himself get down by remarks from people who, he is keen to point out, are from his community. He drinks pints like the best of them.

In fact, although he is a Sikh, and religion clearly plays a very important part in his life, his penchant for a pint is one thing that has stopped him wearing a turban. He just couldn’t be that devout, he says.

“I am a little fat Yorkshireman and I am happy to be that,” he says.  “It has served me well for 48 years.” It was his interest in sport that first got him to realise how such seeming adversaries were all part of the same community, and the hope that sport can continue to bring forward such a message is one of the reasons why he remains so committed to it.

“When I was at Priestlands Middle School in Bradford I noticed there were pockets of white and Asian lads in the playground,” he says.

“It was segregation without us knowing what that was. And then one day the teacher said: ‘We have a match on this Saturday and you are playing.’ I protested, but he insisted. Well, I played on that Saturday morning in goal and we won.

“Come the Monday morning we were still in our little groups, but the guys from the white English group came to say: ‘Are you playing on Wednesday?’ I noticed then that all I had done was play football, and they had noticed me. Yet I had already been at the school four years. I was a link from one to the other.” And how.

The friend Kevin he mentioned before, the one who would protect him if anything got too abusive, first came to introduce himself on the football field.

As he shook the boy’s hand, Athwal says he couldn’t help noticing the swastika and National Front symbol tattooed on his forearm.

“He just said: ‘You’re Jaz aren’t you? You’re coming over to play for our team.’ And I thought it was fantastic.

Sport became a perfect opportunity.” It is because of this mindset that he haslittle time for anyone, whether from the Asian community or one of its white supposed supporters, who tries to take Britain down.

Yes, you need to acknowledge the huge contribution Asian immigrants have made to Britain, particularly the business community, but there has to be some balance.

“I’m really at home in Yorkshire,” he says.

“This is Great Britain, not rubbish Britain, and sometimes GB should tell people that when they come here that there are some rules they need to adhere to. If you are happy with them fine, if not make other arrangements. This country has given us a voice, so if we want to talk about injustice we should talk about injustices back home. We can talk about the slavery, the caste system, and all the things that are wrong back home. This country, by contrast, has been fantastic.”

He thinks some of the powers-that-be have become far too anxious about being politically correct in their dealings with the Asian community. True, he says, there are business advantages to be had in being aware of cultural differences.

He always admires the professional services companies he sometimes arranges business conferences with who have gone out of their way, for example, to provide halal meat in the buffet.

Those little things could often tip the balance in a “beauty parade” of firms vying for a contract, he says. Similarly he sees new ways of working out ticketing in a recent Pakistan vs Australia cricket match he observed.

“The corporate tickets were not selling at £450 a head,” he says, “but the bulk of that cost is alcohol-led. Why would someone who doesn’t drink alcohol want to pay that? They know there will be some idiot like me who will drink them out of house and home, but there is also a guy who might just want to come and watch, and he needs to be catered for.”

But in other areas, he says, liberal Britain has just been too willing to bend over and allow anything. “I would say 99.9% of migrants in this country are hard-working honest people who couldn’t give a toss about these issues,” he says, “but there are too many do-gooders in this world.

“If I tell an Indian joke, I would expect everyone to laugh even if it’s a mixed audience, but they won’t because they think it might not be politically correct.

“If we want inclusivity, no-one wants to be pigeon-holed.” Being a Sikh, Athwal feels he can’t comment on the controversial issue of burqa wearing, and both he and I are less sure on the issue of whether a Sikh man with a turban is allowed to ride a motorbike without a helmet.

“I later discover that in fact he can, but again Athwal thinks this is an issue that is overheated.

“All the safety campaigners are saying is that the helmet would be a better option for you,” he says.

“They are not saying: ‘We don’t like you being a Sikh’.” It is this ability to see both sides and to help integrate which has no doubt helped Athwal in his property career. In the 1990s he was one of the first people to win funds from a programme called Living Over The Shop (LOTS) which aimed to re-used the abandoned upper storeys of shops as living spaces.

“We got a £20,000 grant for a seven-unit scheme in Ecclesall,” he says, “and the whole project only cost £40,000.” But he made a real killing from converting former working men’s clubs into residential apartments.

“Working men’s clubs are often fantastic buildings,” he says.

“They have high ceilings and plenty of room for development. But at the time many were struggling, and would have closed anyway.” Athwal insists that his working class background put him in good stead for negotiating with such clubs, but I am also sure his skills at inter-racial diplomacy, honed on the sports field, must have helped smooth the frowns of the solidly white club committees who might have thought that this foreign gentleman was coming to take their community away.

“I wasn’t doing them out of their club,” he says. “It was just a fact that as a sign of the times they were no longer there. Whereas in the 1960s and early 1970s they were where people congregated because it was cheaper and there was a concert hall, those things were changing. Lifestyles were changing. I could have a look in and think: ‘I can make 18 flats out of this,’ which I would.” Now he has a similar modus operandi with his golf academy.

He says: “I still turn up at golf clubs, and I see people thinking: ‘Nobody has ordered a taxi or a takeaway, so what is this guy doing? That is a barrier that needs to be broken. But at the same time kids still have the idea that this is a middle-class game, and yet the trainers they have on would probably pay for a full year’s junior membership.

“Golf gives you exercise, but it also teaches you social skills, etiquette, manners. It teaches discipline. Young people need that.” At 48, he still has many years ahead to ensure they get it.