Andy Bull, 1 November 2016, in The Spin,where the title runs “Farage’s canvassing shows English cricket must embrace other cultures” … and where the subtitle says “Canvassing counties and alienating communities” … . and the first lines stresses that “When Nigel Farage leafleted Yorkshire fans he tried to tap into outdated notions at odds with the example being set by England’s four Muslim players”
Ansari and Moeen for Blighty in Cricket …. “Zafar Ansari, left, does not practise Islam but identifies as one of four British Muslims in England’s Test side: ‘That’s really exciting and something we’re proud of.’ Photograph: Philip Brown/Getty Images
Back in June, a little less than half a year and a little more than half a lifetime ago, Nigel Farage visited Headingley. It was the fourth day of Yorkshire’s match against Lancashire, but he had not come for the cricket so much as the opportunity to pose for a photos and press some flesh. He stopped off in the Long Room, where his assistants started handing around Ukip leaflets. Farage often talks about what a keen fan he is of the game. But here, perhaps, was a first clue that this may not be entirely true. Because anyone who understood the sport would surely know better than to try to proselytise Yorkshire fans while they were attending to the serious business of watching the Roses match. Farage was, apparently, told to either leave off or leave altogether. One of Yorkshire’s members wrote a fine follow-up letter to the club. “You only have to look at the newspapers which people read at Headingley to see that Yorkshire cricket supporters hold diverse political views,” he wrote, “but we are all united by a love of cricket in general and Yorkshire cricket in particular.” Headingley wasn’t the only cricket ground Farage campaigned at in the summer. He also held a rally at New Road in Worcester, stopped in at Lord’s, and had lunch at the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells, where he spoke about how much he enjoyed the “very English scene”.
By his own account, Farage “grew up playing [cricket] as a kid” and “continued through to my mid-to-late teens”. He apparently “opened the batting, bowled a little, but my main interest was being captain”. The last time I used this quote I received an email from a reader who had been at school with Farage, who had clear memories of playing rugby with him, but none whatsoever of Farage “playing or watching cricket”. He added that in fact “the closest thing to a bat I saw him hold was a swagger stick”. Well, memory can of course be a treacherous and unreliable thing.
There is at least one description of Farage’s cricket online. It notes that he didn’t actually bat, bowl, or field, and that his most memorable contribution to the match was to turn up wearing a pith helmet. Regardless of whether or not he plays, it’s unsurprising to hear Farage wax on about his love of cricket, bound up as it is in nostalgia for an England that used to be; a country, in John Major’s well-worn quote, “of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’”.
Major gave that very speech at a meeting of the Conservative Group for Europe, in which he argued for the case for the country being at “the heart of Europe”. When he reeled off this list, he was trying to persuade the Eurosceptics that “Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials”. And he included cricket among them because he knew that a certain type of English person sees it as being symbolic, in some small way, of our national character. As did Farage, which is why he toured the county grounds 20 years later.
It was refreshing then, to hear Zafar Ansari, born to an English mother and a Pakistani father, talk so openly about what he believes that character to be. Ansari doesn’t practise Islam, but still identifies as one of four British Muslims in the Test team, along with Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, and Haseeb Hameed. “As a collective, as a group of four British Muslims, there is something in that,” he said on Tuesday. “There’s no doubt that’s really exciting and something we’re proud of. A lot of people outside the group clearly care about that and value that a lot. And that is a good thing in our society.”
By simply “being themselves”, Ansari says, Hameed, Moeen, and Rashid are doing a fine job of “representing their communities”. Today, around 40% of the recreational cricketers in England have Asian heritage. The men and women who run the sport and finally started to realise the truth of what Mike Marqusee said back in 1998, when he wrote that British Asian cricket “represents an immense potential resource for English cricket, provided that English cricket is prepared to redefine its notions about what constitutes ‘Englishness’”.
English cricket has been wrestling with this since 1896, when the selectors were split over whether or not Kumar Ranjitsinhji was eligible for the Test team. Lord Harris, then president of the MCC, felt Ranji was just a “bird of passage” in this country, so shouldn’t be allowed to play. His decision was overturned three weeks later, when Ranji was picked for the Old Trafford Test, and made 62 in the first innings and 154 in the second. As Moeen once put it: “If I can play, and change the mind of one person about being a Muslim player and having a beard, then I’ll feel as if I’ve done my job.” Rashid has also spoken about how he “would definitely like to inspire more interest in Yorkshire cricket among Asians”.
On the ground around the country, the different communities of British cricket sometimes seem to mix as well as oil and water. And a recent survey commissioned by Yorkshire Cricket Club found that two-thirds of casual British Asian players in Bradford and Leeds would like to play cricket more often, but feel they lack the opportunity and access to do so. So change has been slow and faltering in coming, and still has a long and difficult way to go. But it is undeniably under way. “The multiculturalism project has failed,” wrote Farage last January. But the very team he purports to support is, as Ansari says, proudly multicultural, together in both victory and defeat.
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