It is nearly 25 years since the veteran Tory politician Norman Tebbit proposed what has come to be known as the ‘Tebbit Cricket Test’ for immigrants of south Asian origin: which side do they cheer when their country of origin plays against England?
Simply put, the test means that if India play cricket against England, immigrants with origins in India should support England and not India, to show their loyalty to England. Similarly, immigrants of Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka origin living here should support England.
But in practice, whether the Indian team wins or loses on England soil, hundreds of thousands of raucous British citizens of Indian origin spontaneously and happily fail the test.
India cricket team reception at the residence of the India high commissioner Ranjan Mathai in London. HT Photo by Prasun Sonwalkar
They may have been born here, never been to the India of their parents, but say they are proud to be British and also proud of their Indian roots, and cricket is the forum they display that part of their identity.
Such collective failure of the Tebbit Test was evident at Lord’s on Monday as India defeated England for the first time in 28 years. Given the way the England team played, England supporters were disappointed, but good-humouredly enjoyed the celebrations by Indian supporters, never mind the Tebbit Test.
It was in April 1990 that the Los Angeles Times published an interview with Tebbit, who questioned the loyalties of Asian immigrants to the United Kingdom. Using the example of cricket, he declared: “A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
Tebbit’s comments caused much furore as Asian leaders declared them hurtful and disgraceful. Opposition politicians were outraged. Labour MP Jeff Rooker called for Tebbit to be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred, while Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wanted Margaret Thatcher to condemn the remarks.
Tebbit was not really censured by the Conservative party for his comments, but his test has since become a benchmark to talk – even if lightheartedly – about race and identity politics in multicultural Britain. The serious-minded see it as just another version of the ‘nasty party’ and put it on the same footing as Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968.
As globalisation of the media – most Indian television channels are available in Britain – ensures that identities are reinforced and sustained, sub-continental rivalry in cricket and much else is replicated in the large South Asian diaspora here.
The situation becomes complex when cricketers of Indian origin such as Ravi Bopara and Monty Panesar turn out for England against India. For example, Bopara was barracked as a ‘gaddar’ (traitor) during the India-England Champions Trophy final in Birmingham last summer.
It is anybody’s guess which side Pakistani immigrants support when India play England. The taxi driver who took me to Edgbaston for the Champions Trophy final turned sanctimonious and told me to support England because, ‘hum ehsan faramosh nahin ho sakte’ (we immigrants should not be ungrateful) – until I discovered that he was of Pakistan origin.
He preferred to remain silent when asked who he supports when Pakistan plays against England.
It was impossible to find an England supporter in the stadium during that packed India-England Champions Trophy final, as Indian supporters played a game called ‘Spot the England fan’.
Colonial history, race and identity politics get mixed up with passion when India play England in England, but there are also many who see Bopara and Panesar as great role models for British citizens of Indian origin, and prefer to just enjoy the cricket.
In 2012, when Spain won the European Football championship, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg admitted his children would fail the Tebbit test, because their mother Miriam is Spanish: “I'm not sure if my children who were wearing their Spanish football kit, given to them by Miriam, would have passed the Norman Tebbit cricket test”.