A technician at the British Cricket Balls company tests balls in a wind tunnel, 1981. Photo: Getty
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If you want to imagine England under Ukip, think back to cricket in the 1980s

Back then when critics pointed out that England had been overtaken by hungrier and more progressive teams, a stock reply was ready: “But we’re English and we’ve always done it this way.”

I was recently asked a difficult, intriguing question. Would I be able to identify national cricket teams at a glance, even if they had randomly exchanged jerseys? What, if anything, makes the England team distinctly English?

Initially, I wondered if the answer might lie in body language. Is there an English gait or an identifiable team dynamic? After all, great Australian teams often project a macho aura. Might there be an English way of standing, walking or, perhaps, swearing? Then I realised that the answer was much simpler. In terms of race, speech and skin colour, the England team looks and sounds less uniform than any other. And because our players are so ethnically and culturally diverse, they are the most resistant to stereotype. The quality that makes it so hard to say what we are is the very thing that makes us what we are.

The squad selected to play against Sri Lanka in the Twenty20 and one-day internationals this spring is a case in point. Chris Jordan, one of the stars of the series, grew up in Barbados before finishing his schooling in south London. Michael Carberry was born in Croydon but has family roots in Barbados and Guyana. Ravi Bopara, the second Sikh to play for England (after Monty Panesar), is the son of two Indians who migrated to England in the 1970s.

Two players opted for Englishness as an adult and professional choice. Eoin Morgan, until recently rated the best T20 batsman in the world, learned his dazzling stroke play in Dublin but chose to qualify for England. Gary Ballance left Zimbabwe to pursue opportunities in English county cricket, where the sheer volume of his runs forced him into the England side.

The most exciting new face, meanwhile, is also the most recognisable. Moeen Ali’s exuberant beard instantly marks him out as the latest British Muslim to be selected by England. His cousin Kabir made his England Test debut when I was playing in 2003. Moeen, blessed with a languid bat-swing and wristy elegance, has the chance to do for English cricket what Hashim Amla has achieved in a South Africa shirt: to become one of the country’s most loved and respected athletes while looking unmistakably different.

In this revealing list, we encounter a broad variety of personal stories. For some, immigration was an individual and pragmatic decision based on professional opportunities – examples of those who made the most of the newly fluid and globalised labour markets. For others, the move to Britain changed an entire family history. In each instance, whatever the motivation, English cricket has been the beneficiary.

Other teams, it is true, are more diverse than they may look to the untrained eye. The Sri Lankan team has included Tamils and Christians as well as Buddhists; India were captained by a Muslim, Mohammad Azharuddin; Australia recently selected Fawad Ahmed, a refugee from the north-western frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan; South Africa’s post-apartheid quota system has insisted on opportunities for non-white players. But England’s diversity is the most organic and complete.

What about the argument that “native” players have been starved of opportunity as a result of English cricket’s policy of relatively open borders? Here, we see the flawed and misleading paranoia at the heart of anti-immigration rhetoric.

English cricket (last winter’s 5-0 trouncing in the Ashes notwithstanding) has enjoyed a very healthy few years. Since 2009, England have conquered Australia in three separate series and briefly became the top-ranked team in the world. The top tier, as usual, reflected progress in the whole game. For all the criticism levelled at “mercenary foreigners” who have plied their trade in county teams, their hunger, determination and work ethic raised the standard of the league – to the benefit of our national team. The improved quality of county cricket, driven by foreign and adopted English players, helped make the England team much more competitive on the world stage.

The benefits have extended beyond the pleasure of watching England play well (itself not to be underestimated). New money from sponsors and television has poured into the sport, and much of it has been reinvested in grass-roots projects and charities. Erase the contributions of Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott, Eoin Morgan and all the other foreign-born players and the English game might well be on its knees.

Cricket turns out to be a classic example of how immigration affects an economy: by raising the standard of employment, it increases the size of the whole pie. Conversely, English cricket in the 1980s was at its most insular, introspective and stereo­typically “English”. Back then, it was assumed that the solutions to new problems had to reside in imitations of past glories. To critics who pointed out that England had been overtaken by hungrier and more progressive teams, a stock reply was ready: “But we’re English and we’ve always done it this way.”

Nostalgia for past triumphs, which were often exaggerated, morphed into a bizarre methodology; it was as if the semi-conscious inflation of bygone reputations was a practical solution to present-day problems. These arguments and prejudices were presented in committee rooms and corporate boxes around the country, powerfully articulated by overheated middle-aged men wearing ill-fitting blazers and ties depicting small birds.

The performance of our national team, meanwhile, was at its most lamentable. Just what we could expect if Ukip ran English cricket – or the country. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times