Ashes September 3, 2009

Settlers and sons

The Sydney-based Roebuck has long maintained that Aussie dominance in the Ashes is a fitting reflection of the contrast between (what he perceives to be) the vibrant and competitive "prevailing culture" in his adopted home and a chronic national

From Imran Coomaraswamy United Kingdom A response to Peter Roebuck’s “No time for back-slapping”.

I’m a regular follower of Peter Roebuck’s columns for Cricinfo and the Sydney Morning Herald. The former Somerset captain is certainly one of the most eloquent and thought-provoking cricket writers around today. His most recent opinion piece for Cricinfo, however, a warning to English cricket that it’s "no time for back-slapping," strikes me as faintly ridiculous, and some of the comments in it regarding English-born Asian cricketers I find really rather disconcerting.

The Sydney-based Roebuck has long maintained that Aussie dominance in the Ashes is a fitting reflection of the contrast between (what he perceives to be) the vibrant and competitive "prevailing culture" in his adopted home and a chronic national malaise back in the old country. It seems the Australian team’s sudden fall from grace has upset his worldview. Convinced that "English culture" still lacks "vim and vigour," he looks elsewhere for an explanation for England’s recent success.

Its Ashes team was not entirely a product of English cricket, or indeed the country at large. Four of the top six batsmen were born in South Africa and raised within its traditions. The coach comes from Zimbabwe, two of the players come from the local Asian communities, and two Irishmen have fought their way into the one-day party. It’s hard to deny that Kevin Pietersen and Johnathan Trott learnt their cricket in South Africa, but including Andrew Strauss (who has lived in England since the age of six) and Matt Prior (who has represented Sussex from Under-12 level upwards) on that list is frankly comical.

What is less humorous, however, is Roebuck’s reference to English-born Asians Ravi Bopara and Monty Panesar. In what way is either of these two ‘not entirely a product of English cricket, or indeed the country at large?’ The implication here is that players from local Asian communities are somehow not really English. In fact, Roebuck goes on to articulate this opinion explicitly: “At present, counties have roughly 119 foreign-born players on their books, and that does not include Irishmen (14), Welshmen or Scots. Obviously the 23 locally born Asian players have been omitted. Of course they are a separate category.”

Why should locally born Asians even enter into this discussion? In this context, why are they a “separate category” rather than simply locals? Roebuck is on very dangerous ground here, as in the not so distant past, there have been a number of highly controversial public debates on the “Englishness” of black and Asian cricketers representing England, notably the racially charged Henderson affair in 1995. In this case Roebuck makes clear that he celebrates the success of these cricketers, but feels it disguises the fact that “Anglo-Saxon England is underperforming.” (Which Ashes series was he watching? In the one I just saw, Bopara and Panesar underperformed and were dropped.)

He notes that the rise of the locally born Asians in county cricket “says a lot about them and English society, all of it favourable.” His remarks about them in this article say a lot about him, not all of it so favourable.

It can hardly be convincingly argued that the England cricket team is a product of the system or the national will. To the contrary it consists in no small part of settlers and sons. And it's the same in county cricket. Whatever Roebuck might mean by “the national will,” I find it rather offensive that he regards recent immigrants and their children as being at odds with or excluded from it. There is also no small amount of irony in the fact that these comments are being made by someone who is one of the five million current residents of Australia who were born outside that country’s shores.

Roebuck regards the Ashes as both a Test series and a test of the relative merits of the protagonists’ cricketing systems and wider cultures. The essence of his argument in this piece is that while deserving of its victory, Strauss’s team was not really English, and hence the real England does not deserve bragging rights over Australia - the former is still morally bankrupt, while the latter “remains intact.”

That sporting success is a direct measure of national self-worth is questionable to say the least. As for the notion of “prevailing culture,” one appalled Cricinfo reader (krumb) has rightly condemned his description of England today as an “absurd caricature that bares [sic] absolutely no relation to a deep and complex society.” I might add that for all its faults, this society is a great deal more inclusive than Roebuck’s comments betray him to be.

Other Cricinfo readers have been quick to comment that elsewhere in the same piece, Roebuck manages to make ill-informed statements about the origins of Yorkshire and Geordie dialects, the history of black professional footballers in England, the previous captains of the Indian cricket team and the composition of Surrey’s playing staff. He also sounds a familiar refrain about strong fast bowlers from the mines and classical batsmen from public schools, portraying these as English cricket’s now sadly exhausted seams of cricketing talent, rather than manifestations of a class divide and stereotypes that ought to be eradicated.

Amid all this, it must be said that Roebuck makes some very valid points. There is clearly a need to examine whether the success of the likes of Pietersen and Trott is masking a lack of up-and-coming home-grown talent. The jury is still out on whether the various academies and specialist coaches are having an impact. Conflicts of interest in the selection process and the media must be resolved sooner rather than later. The England team is still ranked fifth in the world, and the ECB would indeed do well to avoid back-slapping in favour of further soul-searching.

At this point, I should also make clear that I do not believe Peter Roebuck to be a racist. I have read enough of his writings on cricketers of all backgrounds to be convinced otherwise. However, if he intends not to “belittle diversity,” he really ought to reconsider a number of his comments in this piece, and revise his perceptions of English national identity. Finally, I can understand that Surrey’s recent need to sign wicketkeeper Steve Davies from Worcestershire might give someone cause to question the county’s own youth system (though as the 23-year-old is a product of the National Academy and England Under-19s, I wouldn’t myself see this a symptom of English cricket’s ill-health).

On the other hand, that Roebuck apparently interprets the fact that “two Afghan refugees open the bowling for their Under-16s” as further evidence of Surrey cricket’s decline is pretty shocking. I should note here that I have no proof other than Roebuck’s word that there are any “Afghan refugees” in Surrey’s Emerging Players Program. What I do know, however, is that they do not have an Under-16 team. Aman Shinwari has opened the bowling for both Surrey Under-15s and Under-17s. From his name, I would guess that he is of Pashtun origin. On the Surrey website, he names James Anderson as his favourite player, and states that his aspiration is to play cricket for England. I sincerely hope that no one ever tells him his success is an indication that Surrey cricket has “run out of gas.”