The India cricket fans – many of them English-born – who booed Moeen Ali at the Edgbaston T20 game on 7 September blighted what should be British sport’s most uplifting story. Nothing was done to dissuade those who heckled or to eject them from the ground. Many commentators and papers glossed over it. Apparently some racially motivated bigotry does not warrant analysis. Before changing tack, Angus Porter, head of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, urged Ali to “take it as a positive. You’d rather be booed than ignored.”
Ali is not the first British Asian to be booed by pro-Indian crowds in England. Ravi Bopara, a Sikh, is routinely called a “traitor”, despite playing for the country of his birth. Isa Guha suffered similar experiences playing for the England women’s team. Ali, a devout Muslim instantly recognisable for his lustrous beard, was also born in England (only a few miles from the Edgbaston ground in Birmingham), as were his father and grandmother. Yet his religion and Pakistani family origin were held against him by a disgraceful segment of the crowd.
The unavoidable question follows: why was there such deep reluctance to state what was obviously the case – that Ali, a British Asian, was booed by other British Asians? The abusers were unwittingly protected by a confused and wrong-headed anxiety: can a white pundit or journalist dare identify racism in other communities? They must. Sports try to take a zero-tolerance attitude to racism on the pitch. The same should apply in the stands.
At the start of the Test season in June, this column urged readers to follow Ali’s story. I wrote that Ali, who was then on the brink of a Test debut, had a chance to do for English cricket what Hashim Amla has achieved in a South Africa shirt: to become a loved and admired sporting hero while looking unmistakably different.
He has taken his opportunity wonderfully. As a player, he is a delight to watch: classical but instinctive, skilful yet carefree. There is nothing contorted or awkward – both bat and ball sit naturally in his hands as though they belong perfectly. When he walked out for his debut at Lord’s, I found myself instantly feeling far more emotionally engaged in the match. That is what happens when a natural takes to the stage.
As a man, Ali radiates calmness, dignity and (unusual in professional sport today) a sense of proportion. Cricket is a means of self-expression but it hasn’t consumed his whole life. Watching Ali this summer, I was reminded of E M Forster’s faith in a “natural aristocracy” (which the novelist contrasted with the kind based on power or influence).
Ali’s serious moral code coexists with a naturally relaxed temperament. When he was criticised for wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands during a Test match, English cricket backed his actions. It felt that he had made a humanitarian rather than a political statement.
Ali comes from a distinguished cricketing family. His cousin Kabir played a Test for England and his elder brother Kadeer made it as far as England A. Although Ali seems not to feel any added pressure, his career exists within a broader context. There is vast cricketing talent and passion in England’s Asian communities but a high proportion of those who have reached the England set-up have remained peripheral figures. True, Nasser Hussain, born in Chennai, became one of England’s finest captains. But there is a long list of fine players who never quite became central to the England team. Owais Shah, the most talented batsman of his generation, played only a handful of Tests; Samit Patel’s weight and lack of fitness proved a deal-breaker for his career (though not for some others); Ravi Bopara was a shock omission from England’s ODI squad just as he was finding his feet on the international stage.
The pattern is troubling and difficult to explain. I do not, however, agree with the journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s conclusion that English cricket is institutionally racist. Manzoor’s argument, presented in a film he made for Newsnight three years ago, was that Asian cricketers are blocked by the same barriers in English cricket today that black footballers faced in the 1970s.
As evidence, Manzoor quoted Amjad Aziz, vice-chair of the (all-Asian) Birmingham Parks League. “What we need are some pioneers who will break through those barriers for us,” Aziz suggested. “The day we have some Hashim Amlas playing within the England team – and Hashim Amla is a devout Muslim, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t wear any sponsorship that reflects alcohol or gambling – the day we have that kind of player playing within the England team, that’s the day we would have an integrated English cricket team that reflects all the diverse cultures that make up this wonderful land of ours.”
Now, just three years later, what sounded to Aziz like a distant fantasy has happened. Moeen Ali is playing for England, widely respected by his team-mates, warmly regarded by the vast majority of England fans and held in affection by his Worcestershire colleagues. “I’m very fortunate,” he told the New Statesman writer Mehdi Hasan. “[Worcestershire] have given me a prayer room, time to pray. They understand fasting, they always seem to help me and, if anything, they encourage me [to practise Islam].” Ali describes himself as “a Muslim, yes, but . . . also very English”.
Britain should be deeply proud of Moeen Ali and his family’s cricketing story. That he should be booed playing in his home city is bad enough. That the disgrace was allowed to go unchallenged on the day is even worse. That it was seriously under-reported is unforgivable.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)