10 Jul 2013

Will England’s Ashes team pass the ‘cricket test’?

With eight South Africans in England’s cricket squad, is it another reflection of the country’s multi-culturalism? Or is nationality a question of identity and not just a matter of convenience?

Ashes 2013 (G)

So after a weekend of sport in which a British Lions team dominated by Welshmen won their first series for 16 years and a Scot became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77, now it’s the turn of the English, writes Malcolm Boughen.

For once, the home side are favourites to beat the Australians. One of England’s heroes of yesteryear – Sir Ian Botham – has even predicted a 5-0 whitewash not only this summer, but also next winter when England tour Down Under. So a chance for a bit of English patriotism maybe?

English patriotism?

Except it’s not as straightforward as that. Of the 11 players likely to take the field at Trent Bridge, three – Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior – were born in South Africa.

And if you look at the members of the 30-strong England Performance Squad named for the 2013 international summer, no fewer than eight were South African by birth.

Aware of the sensitivities of the issue, the England and Wales Cricket Board ruled last year that, in future, cricketers who move to England after their 18th birthday will have to live here for seven years before they qualify to play for England.

But has the previously shorter qualification period – of just four years – had a negative effect on England cricket?

Matter of identity

The writer and cricket buff, Peter Oborne, certainly thinks so. Last summer – at the height of the row over Kevin Pietersen’s text messages to opposition South African players – Oborne wrote that it was not possible to be born and brought up as a South African and give your full loyalty to England.

“Nationality is not just a matter of convenience. It is a matter of identity,” said Oborne.

“Kevin Pietersen may have chosen to come to Britain. But his attitudes and his cast of mind were formed in South Africa. Ultimately, Pietersen has not much idea of what it means to be British.

“Playing cricket for England demands a sensibility that he seems to lack: a sense of restraint, decency and fair play. Above all, Pietersen seems unable to grasp the concept that the team comes before the individual.”

Now, Oborne has perhaps an idiosyncratic view. This week he dismissed Andy Murray’s victory as one for the “small minority of relatively affluent people” who play tennis, rather than the country as a whole.

This despite the fact that 17 million people watched the final on television – the highest TV ratings of the year so far.

Empire states

But does he have a point about a risk to the team spirit of the England cricket team from a South African influence?

Well, first of all, it’s not unusual for foreign-born players to be representing England. Cricket is one of the games Britain has given to the world, taking it to the outposts of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

And pretty much from the start, the sons of many of those early colonists decided that cricket was the game for them and the mother country was where they wanted to play it.

In the days of the Raj, the greatest links of this kind were with India – and it wasn’t just players of English heritage who made the transition.

K S Ranjitsinhji was an Indian prince who came to Britain in the late 19th Century and (known to one and all as Ranji) became one of the greatest batsmen of his time.

His nephew, KS Duleepsinhji (or Duleep), followed him to play for England between the wars, and then there was the Nawab of Pataudi – one of the few cricketers to play in tests for both India and England.

Douglas Jardine – remembered as the England captain in the infamous Bodyline tour of Australia in 1932-33 – was born in Bombay, while Colin Cowdrey – one of England’s best-ever post-war batsmen – was always destined to play cricket for his country.

Cowdrey’s father, Ernest, was a keen cricketer who never made the breakthrough into the first-class game and went off to run a tea plantation in India.

But when his son was born, his first acts were to christen him Michael Colin Cowdrey (giving him the initials MCC) and put him down for membership at Lord’s.

Both Jardine and Cowdrey returned to Britain when they were young – as did the last England captain, Andrew Strauss, who himself was born in South Africa.

Chosing England

There is a long list down the years of overseas-born players who came to ply their trade in England. Indeed, when England played New Zealand in Christchurch in 1992, no fewer than seven of their team were born outside the UK.

But that doesn’t wholly answer Peter Oborne’s argument. His beef is with players who – like Pietersen and Trott – were brought up and learned their cricket in South Africa, but have chosen to pursue their international careers with England.

And that word “chosen” perhaps is the point. It goes to the basis of Britain’s broader debate on immigration.

Beyond the plucky Brit

If this country can attract talented people – in whatever field – should it really be turning them away? Surely they can only enrich the British experience and, in the case of sport, even increase our chances of success.

There are signs, particularly since Britain’s even better than expected performance at London 2012, that our sportspeople are beginning to progress beyond that image of the “plucky Brit” whose “sense of restraint, decency and fair play” is laudable but often ends in failure, to become hardened competitors with a will to win.

The presence in that Olympics squad of people like Mo Farah – born in Somalia but proud to be British – only emphasised the multi-racial, multi-cultural country that Britain now is.

British sportsmen and women of all backgrounds have finally started to become winners. We’ve seen it with the Lions. We’ve seen it with Andy Murray. Now it’s our cricketers’ turn. Bring on the Ashes.