September 30, 2009

Anyone for England?

Should cricket adopt soccer's six-five rule, where the majority of the members of any national team would have to have been schooled in the country?

It's a sobering thought. Had the selectors been flexing an unusually vigorous new broom, England could, in theory, be about to embark on a tour of South Africa with a first-choice XI culled solely from players born or schooled in South Africa: Andrew Strauss (capt), Stephen Moore, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Wayne Madsen, Matt Prior, Dawid Malan, Craig Kieswetter (wk), Faf du Plessis, Gareth Berg and Charl Willoughby. Now that Charl Langveldt and Ryan McLaren have re-committed themselves to their homeland, the side would certainly look a tad light on pace, granted, but given that 10 of those men have trousered first-class centuries, runs wouldn't have been too much of a problem.

Strauss and Prior, educated in Oxfordshire and Sussex respectively, should be exempt, of course, from any appraisal of suitability/eligibility, but would it really matter if they weren't? Or if they were joined by nine South Africa Under-19 graduates? More important, arguably, is another question: should it matter? Should it matter that Peter Roebuck attributed England's Ashes victory to "Durham and the Dominions"? Should it matter that Durham could soon be removed from the equation?

Nobody objects to an American running the London Tube, nor an Australian British Airways. Sport, though, is different. Academics have cited it as "the most emotive peacetime vehicle for harnessing and expressing bonds of national cultural affiliation". However, attest Toni Bruce and Belinda Wheaton in the latest edition of the journal Social Identities, "Although the saliency of nations has not diminished, globalisation has forced a shift in our understanding of them. Many commentators argue that the state has been decentred and is no longer able to impose a uniform sense of identity; instead multiple narratives and new identities are emerging, including transnational, diasporic and cosmopolitan forms of identity and citizenship."

This, though, falls down in team sports with a strong and entrenched spectator appeal, where the bond between public and team, and the importance of that team's fortunes to perceptions of national identity, is more apparent. Would Pietersen command such affection were he to represent South Africa and England? Put it this way: given the vituperative barracking that greeted his return there in 2004-05, it is not impossible to imagine his current injury problems persisting until the coming tour of South Africa has been safely concluded. If I was in his position I'd certainly give it a miss.

ACCORDING TO THE LAWS OF THE LAND, British employers cannot discriminate against someone according to their race, nationality, (dis) ability or sex. Nor should they. Yet we bend such strictures in sport simply by dint of having divisions for men and women in team and individual games alike, let alone fielding national sides. Wherein lies sport's innate contradictions. Nationalism is not an especially laudable pursuit; nothing that divides people can be. Yet international cricket, judging by crowds and satellite-TV subscriptions, still seems to be preferable in most eyes to the notion of the all-star, all-comers outfits that constitute the IPL.

Sport, unlike most areas of human endeavour, requires context and history to have meaning. Identification too. The Guardian devoted pages 1, 2 and 3 to cricket the day after England's Oval triumph. Not just in the sports section (in which the perpetual thunder of football, hallelujah, was all but drowned out) but in the main paper. The first four pages of the Times were similarly focused. Yes, it was a Monday in August, the height of the so-called silly season, and plenty of far less frivolous stories should have been afforded preferential treatment (such as the brewing storm over Libya), but none happier. It wouldn't have happened if Manchester United had just won the Champions League - too many English football fans despise all things Old Trafford.

But did anyone at Kennington last month give a damn that Trott had been groomed at the Afrikaner answer to Oxford University? Not by the sound and weight of the applause. Basil D'Oliveira, Tony Greig, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Pietersen all won spectators over by dint of performance, though many others have floundered. Succeed and you're "one of us", fail and you're "not English through and through" (as John Woodcock infamously wrote of Greig and some hinted of Graeme Hick). It isn't necessarily as stark a difference as that, but it can be. Because county cricket, in terms of numbers, remains the game's chief domestic employer by some distance, it is also primarily an English/British problem, though the relocations undertaken by Grant Elliott and Brendan Nash hint that it may not necessarily remain so.

However one feels about the merits or otherwise of professional patriotism, it is hard to blame the likes of Trott and Pietersen for taking the route they have chosen, not least since no fewer than 14 players have appeared in a Test for more than one national team, only one of whom, Kepler Wessels, could be said to have had his hand forced by non-cricketing politics. Dr Hilary Beckles may have been referring exclusively to Caribbean cricketers but his views have a universal application: "Today's cricket hero… now wishes to be identified as a professional craftsman with only a secondary responsibility to the wider socio-political agenda carried out by his predecessors. He does not wish to carry the responsibility for nationalist pride, regional integration and the viability of the nation-state. He sees himself as an apolitical, trans-national, global professional." And yet still we expect him to put nation before self.

One potential remedy might be for the ICC to bar any player who had played for his country's Under-19s from representing another nation, but that could well result in a rash of writs for restraint of trade. Indeed a test of such measures is currently in mid-flight. In introducing financial incentives for counties to field younger players (on top of those for fielding England-qualified players), the England and Wales Cricket Board is also aiming to reduce the influence of Kolpak players, yet the board has already been accused of ageism by the Professional Cricketers' Association (96% of whose members favour a meritocracy) and may yet be prevented from enacting what is a double-edged piece of legislation.

Nobody objects to an American running the London Tube, nor an Australian British Airways. Sport, though, is different. Academics have cited it as "the most emotive peacetime vehicle for harnessing and expressing bonds of national cultural affiliation"

THE QUESTION PERSISTS: should sport be allowed to stand unmolested, outside the law, to exist in its own hermetically sealed bubble? There is an argument that says, "Yes it should." Cricket is an industry-cum-business for which identification, and hence nationality, is important, so what harm is there in having stricter qualification rules? On the other hand, it would be nonsense to suggest that an England XI numbering constituents from Karachi, Cape Town, Perth and Port-of-Spain - let alone Dublin - is not representative of this multicultural nation. In any case, with all due deference to the cricketing aspirations of the Celtic nations, "England" is a nonsensical identifier. In terms of personnel, "England and Wales", "Britain" and "British Isles" would all be more accurate.

Other sports have similar issues. The All Blacks' success on the rugby field owes much to players lured from the South Pacific, undermining the islands' own aspirations. New Zealanders with fictitious Welsh grandparents have played for Wales. In an era of multinational club sides, and nowhere more so than in England, soccer has its own difficulties. Witness not so much the headline over Matt Dickinson's column in the Times on September 8 - "Wanted: an Englishman to coach England" - but the almighty hoo-ha that greeted the suggestion that Fabio Capello, England's Italian coach, might pick Manuel Almunia, Arsenal's Spanish-born goalkeeper.

Roused by its evangelical new supreme, Michel Platini, a Frenchman bent on instilling greater equality and reducing greed, FIFA has resolved to take action, proposing the introduction of the so-called "six-five" rule, whereby clubs would be obliged to field teams numbering at least six players qualified for the national side. This would not, insists a 2008 statement on fifa.com, contravene the European Labour Law on freedom of movement. Six months later, European Union ministers said it clearly broke EU rules, whereupon FIFA commissioned a report from the Institute of European Affairs, whose chairman, Professor Jürgen Gramke, was adamant that there was no such conflict. The IEA report claims that, under EU law, the "regulatory autonomy" of sporting associations is recognised and supported: "The key aim of the 6+5 rule in the view of the experts is the creation and assurance of sporting competition. The 6+5 rule does not impinge on the core area of the right to freedom of movement. The rule is merely a rule of the game declared in the general interest of sport in order to improve the sporting balance between clubs and associations."

Last year, the website explained the rationale thus: "We need to ask supporters around the world the following questions: are you in favour of a strong national team? Are you in favour of national team players playing for the top clubs in your country's league? Are you in favour of youth players being trained and then getting access to the first team at their original club? Do you want players who have come through the youth system at a club to sign their first pro contact with that club? If you answer 'yes' to all these questions, then like me you are in favour of the '6+5' rule."

The crucial difference between soccer and cricket is that international cricket matters far more than international soccer, spiritually, culturally and economically. Which is why the main question asked of England followers by the ECB, were the board to propose a clampdown on selecting players trained overseas, would be rather different: "Are you in favour of anyone, suitably qualified by residence and/or ancestry, playing for the national team?" The answer, one suspects, would depend on the respondent's view of success. If winning Tests and tournaments are the only things that matter, the response would almost certainly be, "Yes, so long as they're good enough."

Yes, but what if England were to field an all-South African-bred XI? Should cricket impose its own "six-five" rule, whereby the majority of the members of any national team would have to have been schooled in Britain? Of one thing we can be certain: the arguments will intensify before they abate.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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