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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arvind on August 7, 2014, 16:23 GMT

    Does anyone still remember how a certain country was banned from several sports, including cricket, for about two decades? Somehow that didn't amount to "using sports to make political statements", but one player wearing a wristband does?

  • Syed on August 7, 2014, 16:08 GMT

    Never saw Bilal playing anywhere, he may have potential, but averages only 31 with bat in First Class and just 9 wickets in 147 matches proves a different story. Moeen averages around 38 in FC(not great) but has 158 wickets in 120 matches..that shows his potential at least.

  • Dummy4 on August 7, 2014, 12:56 GMT

    Well said @azimislam : "'In both cases, the cause was inarguable, beyond debate.' This is not true, the author confuses the stance of liberal democracy to be universal. If they were 'beyond debate' there would be no reason for the players to make statements about them in the first place."

    I think the case for not wanting children to be bombed is a lot more inarguable than any stance for democracy. The Zimbabweans' stance was clearly political while Moeen's - by his own admission - was humanitarian.

    That said, I generally agree with what Rob Steen has said in the article. PoliAlthough a completely just article would have a lot more criticism of ICC for its shamefully double standards. Justice and equality being "inarguable causes."

    I wonder what would have happened if he had worn only one wristband saying "Save Gaza." Because that to me is more kosher than any black armband or pink clothes or message ever worn by a player.

  • Waqas on August 7, 2014, 12:30 GMT

    I know it will not be posted but can we separate sport from human feelings??? can we??? if not then what Jesse OWENS did in 1936 was right or wrong???

  • Syed Azimul on August 7, 2014, 8:21 GMT

    1. 'represent both sides'? So he should have worn both a ''proIsrael' and 'support Palestine' armband? Or rather something so obtuse it feigns an opionion while in fact offering none ('end war', 'peace for all')?

    2. of Zimbabwe and 'Black Power': 'In both cases, the cause was inarguable, beyond debate'.' This is not true, the author confuses the stance of liberal democracy to be universal. If they were 'beyond debate' there would be no reason for the players to make statements about them in the first place. And if the author's argument is procedural (no politics in sports), than even if political statements are 'inarguable', they still have to be banned.

    3. Why does the author never ask why what is 'deemed' political should be banned, while comercial messages are given free reign to the viewing public? Is that not immoral? Even on a fundamental level, to say a sport played amongst nation-states ('for pride of country') has to non-political, is a plain contradiction.

  • ESPN on August 7, 2014, 7:47 GMT

    Nicely written, but what point exactly are you trying to make? Clearly there are double standards from the ICC approving Help for Heroes logos. It should be one rule for all. Let's face it, there are plenty of people praying for Moeen to fail. For them, he doesn't fit. I for one hope he becomes England captain and shuts these doubters up.

  • John on August 7, 2014, 5:53 GMT

    It is an interesting point. While I am in agreement with Rob Steen's basic premise, it does seems that when the odds are stacked against one side, it does deserve the greater representation. Minorities under the gun require every point of support. It must, for instance, be still distinctly uncomfortable to be Jewish in many parts of Europe; on the other hand, the slightest criticism of Israel in the United States invites shrill diatribes (in fact, debate is far more possible in Israel itself). So while yes, both side of a divide require representation, one might add that locale-specificity matters and the same group in one place may require far more representation (even to the extent of lopsidedness to achieve an eventual corrective) than in other where it is afforded its time of day like any other.

  • Sammy on August 7, 2014, 3:21 GMT

    That was just silly on the part of Moeen and ECB! I wonder what the reaction of his supporters will be if the rest of the english team had worn armbands saying 'Save Birmingham"!

  • Simon on August 7, 2014, 3:18 GMT

    Muddy waters. Politics and religion have always been entwined. However the debate becomes muddy when clarification is required as to what is demonstration of religious freedom of expression and what is political protest. Then you have to ask whether all of us are entitled to respite from both while enjoying sporting contests, or are sporting identities 'allowed' to use their celebrity to bring attention to their own views while in the employ of others.

    Personally, I don't care. If they hadn't highlighted the fact we never would have known what the bangles were for, as it is impossible to read from the fence or TV.

    To the average sports fan, Moeen's politics & religion are as irrelevant as Alistair Cooks. Their averages and team orientation are more relevant.

  • No featured comments at the moment.