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)