August 7, 2014

Moeen Ali's wristy business

He deserves acclaim for daring to wear those wristbands, but the ECB should have known better than to approve his actions

In the unsuspecting spring of 2001, Bilal Shafayat, a student at Nottingham Bluecoat Sixth Form College, was being touted as England's most important bridge-builder since Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The first player to score a century and a double-century in an Under-19 "Test", he had enchanted some wise judges; some reckoned he had what it took to become the first practising Muslim to captain England. Then came 9/11.

Granted, Shafayat did go on an England Lions tour in 2003-04, shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior, but never remotely did he attain the heights forecast. Flitting from county to county, he wound up at Shropshire, a minor footnote. Now 30, he has lately found himself appreciated rather less in England - there have been occasional outings for Nottinghamshire 2nd XI this season - than in Pakistan (Habib Bank) and Zimbabwe (Matabeleland Tuskers).

We can only guess, therefore, at the scars left by claims about his treatment a few months after 9/11, during the 2002 Under-19 World Cup, when he was dropped, reported Wisden Cricket Monthly, for befriending and praying with his Pakistani opponents. While the ECB's denials were vehement (the magazine published a letter from performance director Hugh Morris in its next issue), the reporter, Kamran Abbasi, assures me he has no reason to doubt his source.

Moeen Ali is now occupying the shoes Shafayat found so uncomfortable. Fortunately, he is older and wiser. Still, even in his wildest dreams and most fervent prayers, he could not have envisaged quite how spiffingly his 28th summer is turning out. If he was pinching himself a month ago, one shudders to think what self-damage he is inflicting now. Having begun his international career as the first fellow to seriously challenge WG Grace as the owner of the most famous beard in the history of English sport, it speaks volumes for his talent that facial hair has already ceased to be his principal claim to fame.

Announcing himself as a batsman of substance as well as style was probably something he did believe was within range when he made his Test debut against Sri Lanka, though the heroic obstinacy that brought him within two balls of achieving a probability-defying draw at Headingley might have exceeded even his own demanding expectations. Vastly less foreseeable was the success of his offspin: to have predicted, at the outset of this absorbing Pataudi Trophy series, that he would arrive for the fourth instalment having pocketed almost twice as many scalps as Messrs Ashwin and Jadeja combined, would have been to invite questions about the number of marbles at one's disposal. Humble pie all round.

Moeen is plainly possessed of a rare determination, bent on maximising every inch of his talents. That's why, having initially been picked as the anti-Graeme Swann (a batsman who can spin a bit), the potential is there already to succeed where Swann failed, and achieve parity. Like Swann, he also has a big, perhaps unslakeable, thirst for action and visibility. Not only does he want to be in the thick of things at all times; all the signs are that he needs to be.

All of which may explain, to a sizeable degree, why he felt compelled to put himself in the frontline for a non-cricketing reason. And why, in wearing those wristbands, "Save Gaza" and "Free Palestine", on the second day of the third Test, he was prepared to face the music - or at least some of it.

As a proud Muslim in a complex and dangerous era, Moeen's importance to the future of British cricket cannot be overstated. More than Monty's turban and Ravi's strut, that hirsute chin symbolises possibility - an end to segregation at club level, belief among the south Asian diaspora that their children will be judged on ability alone, and the consequent impact that could have on the sport's inclusiveness, not to mention the nation's cricketing fortunes. Can we be surprised that the ECB's stance over those wristbands was so much more permissive than the ICC's?

In taking guard in a full-length beard Moeen is not taking the risk Shafayat did. "I had just grown a beard because the Prophet Mohammad had a beard and I wanted to look like him in a way," Shafayat told Salaam, a website catering for British Muslims, recalling the aftermath of the London bombings of July 2005. "But I play in English cricket and I'm a little bit in the public eye, so I did worry about any adverse reaction. I was out with my family one day and heard someone say, 'Here come the suicide bombers.' That kind of thing hurts; if someone looks like me and he's a bomber then that's my hard luck, but hopefully, people will learn not to discriminate against every Muslim."

For Moeen, the risk inherent in donning those wristbands was even greater. He wasn't just proclaiming his beliefs; he was making a statement about the most controversial and problematic battleground of our time: the Middle East. He insists it was a humanitarian statement, not a political one, hence the ECB's approval. The trouble is that one person's humanitarian matter is another's political wrangle - which justifies, up to a point, the ICC's zero tolerance policy. Overseeing the major sport most beset by racial and religious fissures is a job even Solomon might have spurned.

As a proud Muslim in a complex and dangerous era, Moeen's importance to the future of British cricket cannot be overstated. More than Monty's turban and Ravi's strut, that hirsute chin symbolises possibility

Consistency, though, remains elusive. During the third Test, in the latest exposition of ECB support for the armed forces, the home team wore the Help for Heroes logo on their shirt collars, drawing attention to the plight of injured and disabled servicemen: yes, HfH declares itself to be humanitarian, but many would justly argue that its logo is also a political statement, implicitly endorsing the nation's military excursions regardless of validity. The ICC, to my knowledge, batted not an eyelid.

The waters get even muddier when parallels are drawn, not only with Henry Olonga and Andy Flower's "death of democracy" armbands, but with the fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American sprinters whose "Black Power" salute at the 1968 Olympics is still rightly hoisted as the standard-bearer for sporting activism. Both duos caught an extraordinary amount of flak in their homeland - Olonga and Flower were forced to flee Zimbabwe; Carlos, as he put it, was "still a nigger at home" and struggled to find work. In both cases, the cause was inarguable, beyond debate. The same cannot be said of the current situation in Gaza.

Brent Musberger denounced Smith and Carlos as "black-skinned stormtroopers" and went on to carve out a high-profile career as one of America's best-paid broadcasters, but their stand wasn't exclusively about race: Smith and Carlos made it not only as African Americans but as members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. While Smith raised his black-gloved right fist as a symbol of black empowerment, Carlos hoisted his left to celebrate unity. He also left his tracksuit open in recognition, he reminded me a couple of years ago, of Harlem's underclass, of "black and white".

To hear Carlos reminisce about meeting Martin Luther King Jr the previous year was to be left in no doubt about his motivation or conviction. Why, wondered the fearless 22-year-old, was he backing the proposed Olympic boycott by the OPHR? "He said it was like throwing a stone in the water and seeing it ripple to the edge. Then I asked why he was going back to Memphis, where he'd already had death threats. His reply never leaves me: 'I have to go back and stand up for those that won't stand up for themselves, and for those that can't stand up for themselves.'"

Moeen doubtless feels similarly about the children dying in Gaza, and who can blame him? But would the admiration of the chattering classes have been quite as apparent had the message on his wrists been "Save Gaza from Hamas" or "Free Israeli citizens from random rockets"? Or if the messenger had been Jewish? Scepticism is unavoidable.

By no stretch of the imagination does this column seek to condemn Moeen. Quite the opposite. He deserves acclaim for daring to tread where he did. At worst, he can be charged with not pondering the wording on those wristbands, or the repercussions of wearing them, as fully as he might. In approving his protest, the ECB was guilty of doing likewise, which - on the grounds of age, experience and responsibility - makes his employers more culpable.

Trouble is, in hitching its wagon so laudably to the cause of a multi-ethnic game, the ECB has laid itself open to accusations of bias against another religious minority. Indeed, judging by the alacrity with which Ollie Rayner and Matthew Spriegel denied their Jewish roots to me (or, to be exact, the alacrity with which their county coaches did), being outed as a semite remains a bit of a no-no on the county circuit.

By no means are all Jews Zionists (certainly not this one). By no means do we all endorse Israel's West Bank expansion (ditto). Some of us back a group called Jews for Justice for Palestine. What unites us is our perpetual awareness of the potential for the sort of anti-semitic acts that have recently seen our brethren in Belgium, France and Germany murdered and their synagogues firebombed.

One MCC member, a lifelong friend, remonstrated with the ECB after Moeen's protest. He may sing from a more religious and observant hymn sheet than the one I consult with extreme irregularity, but his point seemed incontestable: unless both sides of the divide are represented, none should.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014

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