Rob Steen
Rob Steen Rob SteenRSS FeedFeeds  | Archives
Sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Bopara and the cultural conundrum

Why does Britain still await its first batting star of Asian stock?

Rob Steen

July 3, 2013

Comments: 45 | Text size: A | A

Ravi Bopara plays to the off side off his toes, England v India, Champions Trophy final, Edgbaston, June 23, 2013
Bopara: more liable to reverse the course of a game with thrusts than parries © International Cricket Council
Enlarge

"Oh, Raa-vee Bow-pah-rah... Oh, Raa-vee Bow-pah-rah... " As the chant went up to the tune of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", again and again and once more with feeling, it was possible to glimpse a brave new world. With all due respect to Nasser Hussain, who captured the nation's heart with splenetic disciplinarian leadership and spiky spunk rather than runs, was last Tuesday's frolic at The Oval going to go down as the night we finally acclaimed a British Asian batting hero?

It didn't quite turn out that way. First came the Champions Trophy final, then an even more agonising loss to New Zealand. For the second match running, Bopara took his team to the brink of victory and fluffed his lines. So much good came out of those two assertive, cold-eyed knocks, it would be heartless to harp on about their anti-climactic denouements, but the scoreboard is the most damning and ruthless of bottom lines.

We've been here before, of course, and not just with Bopara, who has defied those who contended that his fitful international career had ground to a permanent halt in Pallekele last October. In that same World Twenty20 fixture, while Samit Patel was battling Sri Lanka alone on that burning English deck, it was tempting to imagine, once more, that a corner had been turned. Here, after all, was a British batsman of Asian origin not simply capable enough to command regular selection but comfortable enough to be himself, to strut his stuff and dominate. Sadly, Patel's ensuing tribulations in India confirmed that the no-entry sign remained intact.

Call it the Shah Question: why does Britain still await its first batting star of Asian stock - or, rather, its first not called Sachin, Rahul, or Virender? Given that Owais Shah, one of about four and a half Englishmen to make even a small splash in the IPL, was overlooked for the last World Twenty20, a tournament that could and should have been the making of this most feckless yet dazzling of Anglo-Asian cricketers, the question of courage, of whether to fear failure or keep its extensive tentacles at bay, is not one that can be lightly dismissed.

But why? For all Monty Panesar's cult following, for all the progress made lately by Moeen Ali and Varun Chopra, for all Adil Rashid's nascent revival, for all the abundant promise of Azeem Rafiq, Shiv Thakor and Kishen Velani, it remains difficult to subdue the sense that the existing resources are not being tapped as well as they might. It would also be naïve to pretend that all cultural differences have been erased.

Unsurprisingly, being a Muslim may still be a major roadblock, as exemplified, perhaps, by the sad decline of Bilal Shafayat. We may never know how much his failure to live up to the predictions of some sage judges is traceable to the prayers he once shared with Pakistani opponents during an Under-19 tournament.

Better placed than most to comment is Wasim Khan, the first British-born son of Pakistani parents to play professional cricket, author of an award-winning autobiography, and now chief executive of Chance to Shine, for which he recently won a deserved gong. The way he sees it, Muslim cricketers have external pressures unfamiliar to the majority on the county circuit, such as being the breadwinner for an extended family or the perplexing duality of living a westernised life in the dressing room and a traditional one at home, even if county menus do now encompass halal meat.

For the best part of the previous decade, Dan Burdsey, my University of Brighton colleague, plunged into vexatious waters by examining the experiences of British Muslims in the sporting arena. Cricket, to him, is the "notable exception" to the general rule. "I guess I'm just a bit stronger," one interviewee, a professional who insisted on anonymity, said in reference to his faith. "Maybe if I become more successful," said another, "people will look at Muslims differently, and maybe it will change, you know, the stereotype and the perspective of how British Muslims are."

 
 
Cricket's first Anglo-Asian superstar, one strongly suspects, will need a spot of brashness to go with the thick skin
 

For all the priceless perspectives he gleaned, Burdsey was honest enough to acknowledge the shortcomings of his research: "There were occasions when participants seemed to be holding back from completely explicating their feelings around experiences of prejudice and some of the more problematic aspects of gaining inclusion in the sport." He attributed this, among other factors, to "a reluctance to talk openly to people who do not directly share their experiences; a belief that their position as professional sportsmen may be compromised through open dialogue on controversial topics; or a deliberate attempt to avoid being viewed as fulfilling dominant stereotypes of young Muslim men... and coming across as acrimonious about their engagement with predominantly white, British institutions."

Hussain, the most successful British Asian cricketer, if always a bit too grimly focused to be a batting hero per se, highlights the fear factor. "The Asian family's love of cricket means you get lots of opportunities but it also gives you a fear of failure," he told the Cricketer a few months back. The experience was personal as well as general: he often lied to his father, who ran a popular cricket school in the east London suburbia of Ilford, about how many he had scored. "If your father has driven six hours for an Under-11 game at Taunton and you nick a wide one, it can be a long journey home. It makes you intense and quite complicated."

Hussain believes Bopara, Patel, Shah and Mark Ramprakash were similarly cursed. "Ravi says he has changed, that cricket has become more of a hobby, but I suspect there's bluff in that. He would still love to be a superstar."

Though he has charmed us with his wickets and unbridled enthusiasm, Panesar doesn't quite qualify: superstars should only be conversant with ridicule on the way up or down. He is, rather, a folk hero, in large part because, being a fairly useless fielder and a bit of a dunce with the bat - and hence not at all like the ebullient Graeme Swann - he makes us giggle. As for those singularly joyous celebrations, they evoke empathy: not a superstar's due but an underdog's just desserts. Outbowling Swann in India merely served to amplify his misfortune in being the No. 2 spinner in what is habitually a one-twirler XI. In the Tendulkar Era, a batsman will have to break the mould.


Monty Panesar finished with 3 for 64, Mumbai A v England XI, tour match, Mumbai, 3rd day, November 5, 2012
Monty Panesar: not a superstar but a folk hero who won England over at a delicate time © AFP
Enlarge

Bopara and Shah have been the prime candidates. As batsmen they are more adventurous, more liable to reverse the course of a game with thrusts than parries, more bedroom-poster-friendly, more brittle. Duncan Fletcher may have cause to see Shah as one of his chief failures as England coach, but it is also entirely plausible that the most damaging hurdle was Shah's family baggage. Bopara has scarcely lacked chances, and if treating one's job as a hobby leads to profoundly injudicious shots in each innings of the first Test of a series, as happened against South Africa last summer, maybe it isn't quite the best policy. In fairness, at the time a crisis at home was looming far too large.

Which brings us to the f-word: flaky. Such would appear to be the polite epithet de jour. It's the catch-all, equally applicable to Bopara playing daft shots, Shah being a liability between the wickets, Monty shelling sitters, Patel being overweight or Rashid or Ajmal Shahzad asserting themselves too much for Yorkshire tastes. Then there's the masculinity thing.

Millwall FC are a south-east London working-class institution, long notorious for their violent and racist supporters (unofficial motto "No one likes us, we don't care"). Yet they embraced their own black players - a contradiction that Tony Witter, a decent central defender, explained to Arsenal's Ian Wright, English football's most celebrated black striker, now a voluble TV host. "Ian says to me: 'Witts, man, how can you play here, man?' I said to him: 'Ian, they're as good as gold to me.' That's the whole thing, I am playing for them."

What helped Witter and Wright find acceptance on opposing banks of the Thames was the fact that they played a masculine sport in a masculine manner, underpinned, respectively, by strength and speed. In their case, masculinity - aided by the We Syndrome - trumped race. Spinners may be deft, daring, and expert mind-readers, but beyond Shane Warne, who perceives them as macho?

Panesar's greatest achievement - a rather miraculous one - was to win over a nation at an extremely delicate time, a time when wearing a patka on the wrong high street could get you beaten up, as it still can. Cricket's first Anglo-Asian superstar, one strongly suspects, will need a spot of brashness to go with the thick skin, a Nasser or Wrighty sort of brashness: a projection of absolute inner certainty that fools most of the people pretty much all the time.

Is it too late for the more flamboyant but sometimes equally cocky Bopara? He certainly looks more focused since he took a furlough to deal with that discreetly reported domestic disturbance. In recent weeks we've seen a lightness of tread and an often gasp-worthy breadth of shot selection. He may still talk it marginally better than he walks it, but the balance, helped as much by those useful wobblers as by a capacity to compartmentalise, is shifting.

They couldn't quite exhort him over the line, but that uplifting chorus line at The Oval dropped a refreshingly heavy hint that Forest Gate's finest may yet win over minds as well as hearts. Anyone for the Bopara Bop?

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

RSS Feeds: Rob Steen

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by jay57870 on (July 6, 2013, 18:34 GMT)

Rob - Good topic. Any sports journalist worth his salt knows of the great Ranjitsinhji, the first "batting star of Asian stock" in Britain! Not to mention Duleep & Pataudi Sr with their heroics for their adopted country! Even after scoring a century on his 1932 Ashes debut at SCG, Pataudi was sent home because he had challenged captain Douglas Jardine about his flaky Bodyline tactics! It's not kosher felt the Nawab. Like "civil disobedience" (1930 "Salt March"), it turned out to be a real "cultural conundrum" & tipping point: cricket hasn't been the same ever after, especially for the dueling Eng-Oz duopoly! Let's now turn to another intriguing sports story, it's not about cricket. Ever heard of Ranji's contemporary Norman Pritchard? Born in Calcutta in 1877 (possible Brit roots), he schooled & trained there to become (Believe it or not!) the first Indian athlete to participate in the 1900 Paris Olympics. Of the 5 track events, he won 2 silver medals (200m dash, 200m hurdles)!! TBC

Posted by jay57870 on (July 6, 2013, 11:45 GMT)

Rob - Good topic. Any sports journalist worth his salt knows of the great Ranjitsinhji, the first "batting star of Asian stock" in Britain! Not to mention Duleep & Pataudi Sr with their heroics for their adopted country! Even after scoring a century on his 1932 Ashes debut at SCG, Pataudi was sent home because he had challenged captain Douglas Jardine about his flaky Bodyline tactics! It's not kosher felt the Nawab. Like "civil disobedience" (1930 "Salt March"), it turned out to be a real "cultural conundrum" & tipping point: cricket hasn't been the same ever after, especially for the dueling Eng-Oz duopoly! Let's now turn to another intriguing sports story, it's not about cricket: Ever heard of Ranji's contemporary Norman Pritchard? Born in Calcutta in 1877 (possible Brit roots), he schooled & trained there to become (Believe it or not!) the first Indian athlete to participate in the 1900 Paris Olympics. Of the 5 track events, he won 2 silver medals (200m dash, 200m hurdles)!! TBC

Posted by   on (July 6, 2013, 7:00 GMT)

Ravi Bopara is a curious case , in my mind. He seems to have to fight for his place constantly, somewhat like Laxman. A couple of failures and his place in the team is questioned. I am not sure if Bopara has done as well as Laxman so far, but he holds promise or once did. I am an Indian team fan, and when we play England, I have always felt that if Bopara comes in to bat, the match is in England's favor..for sure..He can score 30-40 runs often during the crucial closing stages especially while chasing... We had 2 such instances recently..against India at the Champions Trophy and versus NZ in a T20 match..Too bad for Bopara he could not take England over the finish line..Against NZ it was a bit hard since the asking rate was high..but against India, it was the good old choke..

Posted by jay57870 on (July 5, 2013, 14:40 GMT)

Notably Pritchard was the first Asian to win an Olympic medal to boot! Yes, he was an avid football player. He was as an Indian Football Association official from 1900-02. He moved to Britain in 1905. Which brings us to Steen's "flaky" word: Britain claimed him as a Brit & his 2 medals because he had competed in the British AAA championship in 1900. But the IOC disagrees: it officially recognises Pritchard as an Indian athlete & credits the medals to India! A "flaky" cultural conundrum indeed! But the story doesn't end there. This remarkable man was multi-talented. He relocated to England to trade in jute. But soon turned to the theatre to become an instant hit in the 1907 play "The Stronger Sex"! Rest assured no "masculinity thing" here, as the amazing Pritchard soon moved to USA. In his new Norman Trevor avatar (Believe it or not!) he entered Broadway successfully & later became a Hollywood silent movie star!!! A multi-cultural conundrum for Steen to bite off & chew on without salt!

Posted by Shaynej on (July 4, 2013, 18:17 GMT)

Some recent posters have forgotten the one colossus of English batting over the last 30 years - has everyone forgotten Gooch?

Bowlers who had the misfortune to face him in the last 10 years of his Test career would never question his greatness and, to this day, still talk of how much he intimidated them, regardless of what they threw at him. If the measure of a batsman's greatness is the reluctance of bowlers to want to bowl to him, Gooch stands head and shoulders over every English batsman since the days of Hutton, Dexter and May. He's justifiably the finest batsman to have donned English colours since Lord Ted and May, and only never gets his just dues because he never made the media or fans feel warm and tingly during his playing days....or after.

Posted by   on (July 4, 2013, 18:10 GMT)

@Aditya that may be true but the aim should be to put a bat or ball in every child's hand and give them the chance and that means at all schools not just private schools (I guess you get what you pay for). We have to get away from the idea that a child should be inspired by someone only from their own heritage and that to achieve success we must a future star must be of a particular ethnic group. Ravi Bopara or whoever should inspire all children who want to become cricketers not just a section of the population.

Posted by liz1558 on (July 4, 2013, 13:42 GMT)

@ Paul Rone-Clarke - Not sure the David Gower was a superstar, although he ought to have been. You missed out Hutton and May - I suppose Herbert Sutcliffe is just outside your 80 yr time frame, but then so is Hammond, whom you have mentioned. Since 1951, you're right, plenty of good, and one or two very good batsmen, but no really great player.

Posted by liz1558 on (July 4, 2013, 13:34 GMT)

Has anyone else noted the British Indian chap who's just scored a triple hundred for Oxford in the Varsity match, Sam Agarwal? Top hull! By the looks of things he's born in Inja, but bally well qualified for Blighty! Could he be the one?

Posted by Shaynej on (July 4, 2013, 1:52 GMT)

I think Steen is grasping at straws. Many of the Brit-Asian players mentioned weren't good enough to hold a place in the England XI. Nasser and, to a lesser extent, Panesar are the only ones who have really performed when given their England chances. It's got precious little to do with skin color.

How can Owais Shah claim to be diddled when he got plenty of chances over a decade, and yet only scored 2 50s over 10 Test innings? That's hardly a Test-calibre record. Flashy county runs don't mean that you get to automatically demand a Test slot by right. International cricket is hard yakka, and you have to fight for your slot with runs and wickets, and lots of them, against world-class players on unfamiliar pitches - not a mid-week knockabout at Taunton. Bopara, for all his recent flash, falls into the same category because he's never scored the big runs to be taken seriously.

Posted by shillingsworth on (July 4, 2013, 0:05 GMT)

Panesar didn't outbowl Swann in India. He's the no 2 spinner for a reason - Swann bats, bowls and fields better. Hussain was a better batsman than he's given credit for here - not many players scored a double hundred against Warne and McGrath. Disappointing that the questionable premise of this article rests upon such dubious claims.

Comments have now been closed for this article

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Rob SteenClose
Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination"

    'When I became an umpire, I didn't realise how complicated this game was'

Peter Willey on suiting upo against '80s West Indies, and umpiring in England

    'Saqlain was like an English spinner with a subcontinental touch'

My XI: Erapalli Prasanna on a spinner whom even Sachin Tendulkar found hard to bat against

Anjum on the spot

How well does one of Indian women's cricket's leading lights know her career?

    Last ball, last wicket, and Northants' parched spell

Ask Steven: Also, Vijay Manjrekar's nickname, Abid Ali's no-ball, oldest double-centurions, and this decade's leading players

The thing about Australia's superiority to Pakistan

Ahmer Naqvi: Despite their record, the fact that they haven't played in Pakistan for 16 years weighs against them

News | Features Last 7 days

How India weeds out its suspect actions

The BCCI set up a three-man committee to tackle the problem of chucking at age-group and domestic cricket, and it has produced significant results in five years

A rock, a hard place and the WICB

The board's latest standoff with its players has had embarrassing consequences internationally, so any resolution now needs to be approached thoughtfully

Kohli back to old habits

Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala

Twin Asian challenges await Australia

What Australia have not done since returning a fractured unit from India is head back to Asia to play an Asian team. Two of their major weaknesses - handling spin and reverse swing - will be tested in the UAE by Pakistan

West Indies go AWOL

West Indies may have formally played the fourth ODI in Dharamsala but their fielding suggested their minds were already on the flight back home

News | Features Last 7 days