India in England 2014 September 6, 2014

England abuse hints at deep malaise

Kishan Koria
An alarming portion of the British Asian population not only does not cheer for the English team, it rejoices in abusing and ridiculing those from their own background who succeed

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Moeen not affected by crowd reaction

After Moeen Ali gently chided those booing him and put the loyalties of British-born Indians under scrutiny - and with similar disappointments perhaps set to arise with British-born Pakistanis when Pakistan next tour - it is time again to consider the issues of identity and integration in modern, multicultural Britain, and look at how they arise in the arena of cricket.

Alongside Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, Norman Tebbit's infamous "cricket test" is perhaps the most memorable political utterance about race relations in Britain. Controversially proposed by the former Conservative cabinet minister Tebbit nearly 25 years ago as a measure of immigrant assimilation, it was seen by its creator as uncovering the true identity of migrant populations through the medium of cricket.

Targeting the large South Asian and West Indian population who had settled in Britain during the '50s and '60s, whilst emphasising the conduct of the former, Tebbit remarked: "Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?"

The manner of his comments, which taken in context seemed to hit out at a perceived disloyalty common among the British Asian community, was widely criticised by his opponents, some of whom went so far as to claim he ought to be prosecuted for inciting religious hatred.

Despite this, the founder of what became known as the Tebbit Test stood by his comments, reigniting the controversy in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London, by claiming a starker appraisal of assimilation in Britain based on his method could have prevented the terrorist attack on the capital.

Such expansive claims aside, the debate around the test remains salient, particularly in the contexts of the India tour of England. That India receive significant and vocal backing when playing in England is undeniable. And it is clear, having been to games, that the swathes of Indian fans are not comprised entirely of devoted fans from India, or even just first-generation migrants, but include plenty of individuals born and raised here in Britain.

To the bemusement of those who sympathise with Tebbit, in the wake of the recent fracas between Jimmy Anderson and Ravi Jadeja, the counter-attacking batting of Jadeja (who was admittedly booed by the crowd on his way to the wicket) at Lord's was greeted with raucous chants in his favour.

This was not the first time that a Lord's crowd lived up to Tebbit's prescriptions by any means. England's hosting of the ICC World Twenty20 in 2009 saw their side booed heavily by Indian fans before their team were eliminated by the hosts.

Such a reception at their traditional home (and indeed the home of cricket in general) caused a stir in the England ranks, with the captain at the time, Paul Collingwood, saying the hostile reaction was "strange" and "hurt a few people" and that it ultimately acted as a motivational boost for his side.

And as a young, second-generation British Indian, who was once a keen cricketer and remains a massive fan of the sport, I feel this second case hits upon a trend that is a greater cause for concern: there seems to be a portion of the British Asian population that not only does not cheer for the English team, but rejoices in abusing and ridiculing them. Some of it is for comic effect, for sure, but only some.

This trend becomes all the more alarming when you consider some of the players in the firing line.

Nasser Hussain, a Chennai-born former England captain was commonly a pantomime villain for supporters of India, and has come out in the past to express his confusion as to why second- and third-generation fans do not get behind his team.

Hussain's confusion is perhaps easier to understand when you consider some other prominent names to represent the England team in my time: Mark Ramprakash, Vikram Solanki, Owais Shah, Monty Panesar, Sajid Mahmood, Samit Patel, Ravi Bopara, and now Moeen Ali. Plenty of young British Asians have taken the chance to represent England, and have done so with distinction.

Consider the penultimate name on that list. Bopara, whose family originates from the Sikh province of Punjab in India, comes across as the most quintessential of young Asian Brits. A London boy, whose cricket developed in line with the twin inspirations of the Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar and the aforementioned Hussain, Bopara owns two popular chicken takeaway shops in the capital.

Yet though he is so similar to many of the young British Asians who love cricket, he has come in line for protracted abuse from some Indian fans. He is branded a "gaddar" or traitor (which is sometimes chanted at him by partisan crowds), howled at when batting, and consistently criticised and mocked by a portion of the Indian support. Why? Simply because he plays for England.

It is this aspect of local support for India that seems most paradoxical in nature. Rather than celebrating the achievements of a talent from their own community who has made it it big on the international stage, a portion of fans choose instead to denigrate him, though they, in fact, have much more in common with him than they do with their Indian heroes. Could it be that such fans are suffering from a form of identity crisis?

Drawing generalisations is, of course, always a dangerous game. The continued support for the Indian team from embedded migrant populations need not entail a rejection of their identifying strongly as British. In fact, recent statistics seem to suggest that the Asian community in Britain does identify as such. Support of the Indian cricket team might then simply be a way of connecting with one's culture, sharing something with parents and grandparents, or celebrating one's roots in a positive and joyous manner.

Tebbit's test makes the mistake of construing identity in too rigid and simplistic a way. Each of us has numerous identities, drawn up on differing lines. To claim that the support of a team in one sporting arena by those descended from migrants in Britain gives us a definitive insight into their psyche seems rather hasty.

However, there remains a salience to his warning. While the continued support of some British Asians for the Indian team is perfectly capable of being a positive thing, the continuing sense of hostility towards the English team and, most worryingly, towards some of the British Asians who represent them, is harder to explain away.

The issue at hand is no longer "Which side do they cheer for?" but "Who do they abuse?" And when it is seen by some to be the action of a gaddar to represent England, it would seem that cricket might still have something interesting and ultimately concerning to tell us about identity in modern Britain. If those supporting India do genuinely feel hostility towards England, and to British Asians representing their country of birth then it does not seem sensationalist to claim that this points towards a crisis of identity, and a trend that is damaging to the project of meaningful multiculturalism.

Of course there remains a further explanation for some. Could it be that continued impassioned support for the Indian team, often accompanied by stick for England, is, in fact, a reaction to perceived prejudice?

As a young Asian Brit I have never felt such an impulse. However, if it is the case that young, integrated British Asians have full intentions of supporting England but spring back to the team of their roots due to perceived discrimination or racism, this must be taken seriously.

If it is racism that turns these fans away from joining the Barmy Army and instead drive them towards the Bharat Army, it must be tackled strongly. But with young Asian Brits like Moeen Ali coming through the system and taking such pride in representing the team of their birth, a disconnect of this kind appears hard to explain.

If Moeen has felt that prejudice, he has conquered it. Why fans with much in common with him would feel so differently remains a conundrum. We need to understand why it is these individuals feel this way, debate it and then seek a remedy. However, whether this is genuinely felt, or a case of football hooliganism invading cricket and manifesting in an unrepresentative minority is hard to tell.

Don't write off the power of cricket to instigate an important and meaningful debate about immigration and identity. Even if Tebbit's cricket test has not been remembered favourably throughout history, we're still talking about it.

Most crucially, we are still feeling the need to reflect on the issues it sought to address. Issues that, regardless of our view on the matter, should not be deemed too controversial to think about in modern, multicultural Britain, for it is in understanding them in their fullest that we can preserve that Britain most effectively.

Kishan Koria is an aspiring journalist from Canterbury and a graduate from the University of Oxford, where he studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This is an adapted version of a piece that first appeared in International Political Forum

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