What England's Cricket World Cup win tells us about nationalism

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Eoin Morgan's Irish critics have more in common than you might think.

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“A d..n close run thing”, wrote Jacob Rees-Mogg on Twitter, the relief so great that he came perilously close to typing the word “damn” on his portable telephone. “We clearly don't need Europe to win...”

With this reckless outpouring of emotion, the MP dubbed the honourable member for the 19th century bestowed a Brexit seal of approval on England’s adrenaline-soaked victory in the Cricket World Cup final.

Rees-Mogg’s tweet has elicited some 11,000 responses, most of them pointing out, in varying degrees of politeness, that the side was captained by Eoin Morgan, a guy who grew up on a housing estate just outside Dublin. Not to mention that the main strike bowler was an immigrant from Barbados. 

We’ve been here before. A Eurosceptic Tory of an earlier era coined the Cricket Test nearly 30 years ago. Where do first- and second-generation immigrants’ allegiances really lie? Whose side are they really on?

If Norman Tebbit was questioning whether a multicultural society could rally behind an England team, Rees-Mogg was commandeering a multicultural team behind a Little Englander vision. Both Tebbit and Rees-Mogg’s comments are just the visible outcrops of a deeper bedrock: a reductive and essentialist view of identity, that eschews a capacious Britishness for a tighter-fitting Englishness.

Cricket, more than any other sport, is an avatar for this way of looking at things. In part this is a legacy of Empire and historical accident – the immigrants that bothered Enoch Powell and Tebbit loved cricket, not football. 

But there is more to it. Since it was codified, cricket has had a more intimate relationship with power and authority than football. Where cricket is at home on manicured school playing fields, football thrives as comfortably on the street outside the gates. And so while cricket was carried from England by Empire but never got much further, football went viral. 

Morgan would recognise this charged relationship between cricket, identity and power because he has seen it from the other direction. As an Irish cricketer, especially one who made the transition from playing for Ireland to England in search of Test cricket, he has been accused of playing a “garrison game” – a foreign pastime brought to Ireland on the coattails of an occupation. 

In the vernacular of Irish nationalism, playing cricket marks you out as a “castle Catholic” or “west Brit”. True Irishmen play gaelic games. This is an attitude still espoused by Irish republican purists.

Yet according to Paul Rouse, a historian of sport, cricket was the most popular sport in Ireland until the late 19th Century, when it was eclipsed by gaelic football and hurling – a sport Morgan played in his youth. Gaelic games were part of a self-conscious effort to prevent young Irishman from becoming “mere West Britons”. 

Michael Cusack, the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the organising body behind gaelic football and hurling, had been a keen cricketer but came to view it as part of a “de-nationalising plague”. 

Since cricket was seen as the game of the occupier, cricket clubs, including my home club in Portadown, Co Armagh, were frequently targeted during the Troubles by republicans keen to expunge any traces of Britishness in Ireland. 

Over the last decade Ireland’s relationship with the game has evolved. The strides made by the Irish side on the pitch, especially beating England in the 2011 World Cup, have helped. Attaining Test-playing status means that playing for England is no longer the only pinnacle to which talented Irish players can aspire, a set-up that had a colonial look about it. But perhaps the most fundamental difference is Ireland’s maturing relationship with its past and with Britain – a shift epitomised by Croke Park, the home of gaelic games, 12 years ago playing host to an England side in the “foreign sport” of rugby union. 

To cap it off, Martin McGuinness, the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister and a former leader of the Provisional IRA, even came out as an unlikely cricket fan. 

The sporting schism between Britain and Ireland was the deliberate handiwork of 19th-century nationalism and perhaps, from the Irish perspective, it had outlived its purpose. The Trinidadian intellectual CLR James, in his seminal cricket memoir Beyond a Boundary, pointed out the 1860s and 70s witnessed an explosion in demands for popular democracy and the proliferation of sports clubs: “This same public that wanted sports and games so eagerly wanted popular democracy too”.

Organised sport, he observed, was not a bread-and-circuses distraction from organised politics. They were born of the same stuff – a consciousness of being part of a community greater than your immediate environs. Michael Cusack understood that as much as Jacob Rees-Mogg, and so Cusack forged the Gaelic Athletic Association, an Irish variation on a theme Britain was exporting to the world. So even the institution used by nationalist zealots to remain distinct from England was an example of cultural miscegenation.

In his universally-panned book lauding the Victorians, Rees-Mogg devotes a chapter to WG Grace, the legendary all-rounder. So, too, did CLR James. 

James locates the importance of Grace not in playing for England or in touring exhibition matches but in the annual Gentlemen vs Players game – a clash between Grace's spirited amateurs of the landed gentry and the vulgar professionals. “Gentlemen would not have continued to win the Battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton if they had continued to meet annual Waterloos at Lord’s and the Oval”, James concludes.

So the class system and imperialism converged on cricket. When Rees-Mogg emerges blinking from the 19th Century he will find this is no longer the case.  

Not long after Rees-Mogg’s tweet, Morgan was asked whether he had brought the “luck of the Irish” to the England team. Smiling, he said that Adil Rashid, England’s Yorkshire-born legspinner, had told him that “we had Allah with us”. Morgan's tone turned more serious: “Actually, it epitomises our team. It has diverse backgrounds and cultures.”

It was not meant as a riposte to the isolationist nationalism of Rees-Mogg or Cusack, but it did not need to be. 

Marcus Leroux is an investigative journalist with Source Material and a former trade correspondent for the Times. He tweets @marcusleroux