Samir Chopra March 1, 2010

Whose culture? Whose failure?

British Asians are not a monolithic bloc

"Is Monty Panesar too deferential toward the people who are giving him bad advice?" © Getty Images

Yesterday, I read Mike Atherton's article on the 'failure' of British Asian cricketers with mixed feelings. Mixed because in the course of a worthwhile investigation, Atherton offers an analysis that goes hither and thither, travelling some well-worn and predictably non-informative grooves and ends up going nowhere. (One hint of the problem in his analysis lies in the choice of headline "Depressing culture of failure" (my italics)).

It has been evident that despite the greater visibility of Asian players on the English cricket scene, few have managed to stake out a firm regular spot in the English side. That includes Bopara, Rashid, Ramprakash, Solanki, Panesar, Patel(s), Mahmood, Shah, Chopra et al. Some have shone briefly, others not at all. Monty Panesar enjoyed the longest honeymoon in recent times but even his star seems to have described its arc and is now in decline. (Incidentally, why does Atherton not consider Nasser Hussain in his list? Is Hussain "too English" to be counted here? Is that because of his mixed parentage, or is it because Hussain has somehow transcended "Asianess"?)

So what's the problem? After all-too briefly wondering, and not really entertaining as a live hypothesis, whether English cricket has been welcoming enough, Atherton considers cricketing reasons: Mahmood is not good enough, Patel is not fit enough and Rashid has been over-promoted (perhaps in a rush to find an English Warne or a spin replacement for Panesar). These three form part of a brief denying of any charges against English cricket. Their putative counterexamples apparently suggest any facile generalised charge against the management of English cricket is unlikely to stick.

But Atherton does not consider that a lack of welcome from English cricket might not be a necessary condition in the failure of the players but merely a sufficient condition. Given the importance of dressing room politics and the notorious ease with which players slip into cliques, this would have been an angle worth investigating.

Cultural reasons poke their head up when it comes to Panesar. Perhaps he is in awe of authority (measured by something termed a "power-distance rating": India is high, England is low on this scale) and so perhaps is too deferential toward people who are giving him bad advice (Atherton also gratuitously throws in mention of Panesar's wedding being "an Indian affair" as proof of his irredeemable grounding in his Indian background).

But Shah and Bopara do not fall into this category; they have never seemed deferential enough. The failure might be the cricketing equivalent of "lack of moral fibre" for Atherton suggests Bopara was "mentally shot" after his failures (against Australia) and that Shah has suffered from selectorial slights.

But Atherton fails to consider another factor when offering this social-scientific analysis (if you're going to do it, do it right): that those in power seek to emphasise their distance from those below them, that those in power are capable of recognising and emphasising a power-relation that suits them. Might Vaughan and Fletcher have failed in this regard? Power relations are not maintained by one party in the relationship after all; they are constructed jointly. Atherton does not wait to consider this possibility. He is in a rush to figure out the cultural underpinnings of such failure. We might ask: whose culture?

What about Shahzad? Well, he seems to be doing some things right. Apparently, he isn't eating his mum's "rotis and curries" (and has substituted fish and chips with beers at the pub?) and his private school background has helped his integration into the English team. His success would, for Atherton, help dispel two notions: that British Asians can't hack it, and that English cricket is not welcoming enough. The latter seems to be Atherton's primary concern.

Could diet be the answer? Well, that would certainly explain why lots of Indian players never did well. But would that explain the success of those (like most in the Indian team) who continue to pack away rotis and curries? The "it was the curries wot did it" explanation is a silly one and especially in this context; is the English diet known for its sports-ability enhancing qualities? I know that Atherton has in mind a proper sportsman's diet, but following that is a problem for plenty of people in the English team.

The problem with Atherton's analysis is that it is scattershot in dealing with a complex problem: there are leads that Atherton considers but does not chase down, and he throws out enough suggestions to keep the waters muddied. And as noted, he simply does not consider the flip-side of the possible solutions considered. Any kind of causal analysis needs to pay attention to a variety of factors; sure, the short-circuit caused the spark that caused the carpet to catch fire, but it needed the presence of oxygen and a flammable material to get going.

British Asians are not a monolithic bloc. They are made up of a variety of different religious, cultural and economic backgrounds. And that includes their English class and regional ones. To treat them as a bloc is the first problem in Atherton's analysis. There are many equivalence classes in a set; the first step to finding an analysis that works is to divide up the set of English cricket players properly. There are working-class players from the North who don't integrate (Rashid for one, but do all the lads from up North fit in easily?); there are fitness slobs who don't do the hard yards (the young Flintoff and Samit Patel); would going in this direction enable Atherton to answer the broader and perhaps more interesting question of why English cricket in general is mired in a level just above mediocrity? Is the failure of British Asians in cricket their problem or is there a larger problem in English cricket waiting to be discovered?

Indeed, as Atherton bounces from hypothesis to hypothesis, he might have realised the answer was staring him in the face: the young men he is talking about are Englishmen. They have more in common with Englishmen than with any other nationality. Any analysis of their success or failure should begin and end by considering their case along with those most like them: other Englishmen, no matter what their ethnic background.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here