The election of Barack Obama prompts a thought or two. Before he could become the first African-American President of the USA, smaller mountains had to be climbed by other African-Americans. Long before there could be a black president, Jackie Robinson had to be the first black major league player in baseball, our sister bat-and-ball-sport.
Professional sport is one of the things which drives ethnic integration in a society. In the end, teams which want to win will hire the best players no matter what colour they are. Bigoted fans who initially object eventually come round when the “wrongly” coloured player keeps winning games for them, and so society gradually evolves.
The English population contained very few non-white people until the government encouraged large-scale immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia after World War II. Those immigrants’ children grew up in England, and by the late 1970s some naturally became good enough at cricket to be hired by counties.
When Roland Butcher, Norman Cowans and others were picked for England in the early 1980s, a number of people choked on their gin-and-tonics and said these players were not English and should not be playing for England. In one sense they had a point because the players had not been born here, but the true nature of their objection was proved by them not protesting about, for instance, the Zambia-born Phil Edmonds. The press was full of articles debating what it meant for English cricket, what it meant for the national identity and so on.
In 1998, an enlightened friend and I were discussing the merits of Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash, the two obvious candidates to replace Alec Stewart as the next captain of England. A thought struck us. The next captain of England would be a man with brown rather than pink skin. That in itself did not seem particularly remarkable to us: what caused us to feel good about it was that we could not see that anyone would turn a hair – and we were right. When Hussain was appointed, even the right-wing newspapers failed to run any splenetic diatribes, and most pieces which commented on his being the first non-white England captain had a tone of slight surprise that it hadn’t happened before.
Yorkshire were very slow to hire non-white players. Until 1991, the county insisted that their players had to have been born in Yorkshire, which clearly prevented them hiring non-white overseas players, but there were strong suspicions that the county were deliberately ignoring players who were born in Yorkshire but had surnames like Patel or Choudhury rather than Illingworth or Sidebottom.
The club stoutly maintained that it was not so, but a lot of the Yorkshire fans were very happy that Asian-descent cricketers were not progressing through the county’s ranks. I remember having an unpleasant conversation in about 1985 with a man we’ll call Seth, who was proud he never left the borders of Yorkshire if he could possibly help it and wanted all the immigrants to go back home.
Last season, Seth was sitting with some of his cronies at a table in the Long Room at Headingley, and I overheard part of their conversation as they grumbled about the uselessness of the Yorkshire team this year.
“Nay, nay,” Seth was saying, “yon Rashid’s no bloody immigrant. ‘E were born in Bradford, and ‘e’s got a Yorkshire accent just like thee.”
There is still a long way to go before we achieve a society in which ethnicity is irrelevant in Britain, but little by little we are moving towards the more perfect union of which the President-elect spoke so movingly back in March.