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21 August 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:22pm

As England’s multicultural team celebrated at Lord’s, it felt as if we were getting somewhere at last

By Jonathan Liew

The climax to the greatest cricket game of all time began when England’s Jofra Archer ran in to bowl the final ball of the men’s World Cup final at Lord’s. Born in Barbados to an English father, Archer grew up in a bungalow in Bridgetown, and learnt his bowling with battered tennis balls on a strip of grass adjoining a nearby graveyard.

The ball was hit out into the leg-side, where it was fielded by Jason Roy. Born in Durban, South Africa, Roy moved to the UK with his parents at the age of ten and was earmarked for stardom from an early age. He won a sporting scholarship to the prestigious Whitgift School in south London. Roy advanced on the ball and hurled it towards wicketkeeper Jos Buttler. If Archer and Roy were both urban cricketers, Buttler is very much a product of the provinces. He grew up in the Somerset village of Wedmore, played his junior cricket up the road in Cheddar, and has said that if not a cricketer, he would probably have ended up working on a farm. And you can glimpse a certain agricultural method in Buttler’s beefy, rough-hewn batting technique, even if his destructive, crowd-pleasing power and clutch of Twenty20 franchise contracts make him the quintessential modern cricketer.

In the instant Buttler broke the stumps to run out the unfortunate New Zealand batsman Martin Guptill, England were world champions for the first time in men’s cricket: a moment of simple, unadulterated joy for the nation’s millions of cricket fans, along with a significant contingent of curious casual observers, lured in by the irresistible scent of zeitgeist and live terrestrial television coverage on Channel 4. Yet this being Britain and this being 2019, perhaps it was inevitable that no national event would be allowed to pass without somehow being conscripted into the tedious post-Brexit culture wars, and before the champagne had even dried on the outfield, England’s triumph was already being railroaded into myriad wider political agendas.

The Leave.EU Twitter account was first off the mark. “Congratulations England,” it posted. “Proof we and our Commonwealth friends can thrive outside the EU… Brussels take note.” Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s observation that England “clearly don’t need Europe to win” was ridiculed by thousands of respondents who pointed out that Eoin Morgan, the England captain, is Irish.

Yet on the other side, England’s win was being fitted into a different narrative: a triumph of our unique diversity, a resounding endorsement of immigration and open borders, a multicultural side that epitomised the very best of these islands. As well as Morgan, Roy and Archer, spin bowlers Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid are devout Muslims and the sons of Pakistani immigrants. Man-of-the-match Ben Stokes was born in New Zealand. Fast bowlers Mark Wood and Liam Plunkett hail from the industrial north-east. In character and background, this is a team that genuinely reflects the nation it represents.

This is the story this England side are far keener to put across. Asked if England had enjoyed the “luck of the Irish” during their fortuitous run chase, Morgan jokingly recounted the words of Rashid that they’d had “Allah on our side” as well. Or as Moeen wrote in his Guardian column: “different opinions… are actually part of our strength”. Did England’s diversity really have a hand in their victory? A cynic would demur that no player ever hit the ball harder or bowled more accurately because of the colour of his teammates. And in linking diversity so explicitly with sporting triumph, there is always the danger of reinforcing the idea that multiculturalism must somehow derive its virtue from measurable success, rather than the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do. Had England lost the final by one run courtesy of a crucial mistake by Archer, would it have made their diversity any less laudable? Surely not.

What we can say with some confidence is that we’ve certainly come a long way. There’s nothing new in English cricket teams reflecting the diversity of the population (or, if you prefer, the plunder of empire), but the integration of non-white players has often been anything but smooth. In the late 19th century, the brilliant Indian-born batsman KS Ranjitsinhji, the first non-white cricketer to play for England, was frequently greeted with overt racism from crowds and even teammates. The Basil d’Oliveira affair of 1968, in which the mixed-race batsman was omitted after pressure from the apartheid South African government, was a reminder that to large parts of the English cricketing establishment, its non-white players were essentially expendable.

It’s barely two decades, meanwhile, since two black England players, Phil DeFreitas and Devon Malcolm, sued the Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine over an article that argued that as “negroes”, they could never feel a “deep, unquestioning commitment to England”. And though that sort of naked racism has largely been banished from the discourse around the England team, if you look hard enough you can still see its vapour trail. The debate over Archer’s inclusion in the squad just a few short weeks ago often struck a sinister tone, with plenty of questions over whether he would prove a “disruptive influence” or upset England’s carefully nurtured “team culture”, despite no previous history of discord.

There certainly wasn’t much of that talk at Lord’s. Perhaps, to adapt that old Steve Archibald line about team spirit, diversity is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory. Perhaps it was a largely symbolic point, part of the feel-good origin story a sporting team creates in order to give itself purpose. Even so, as England’s multicultural champions cavorted on the Lord’s outfield, it was hard not to feel that somehow, we were getting somewhere at last. 

Jonathan Liew will write fortnightly

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This article appears in the 17 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer