ICC World Cup 2019: England cricket’s vote for diversity
The captain is Irish, the main spinners are both of Asian origin, and a young all-rounder of British-Bajan parentage could prove the X-factor.
The Brexit turmoil continues to rage, and there are no signs of an end to the English summer of political discontent. The British may be split over the immigration question, but one of the most multi-cultural England cricket teams has been tasked with winning the World Cup for the first time.
The captain is Irish, the main spinners are both of Asian origin, and a young all-rounder of British-Bajan parentage could prove the X-factor. Add two South Africa-born players and an all-rounder, probably the world’s best, whose father played rugby for New Zealand.
This is the most diverse of the last three World Cup squads, and mirrors last year’s football World Cup squad, which coach Gareth Southgate felt represented a ‘modern England’. The team that reached the semi-finals was the result of four decades of cultural churn, so strong that Southgate may struggle to pick a strong squad with only home-bred players.
Football joined the multicultural bandwagon late. A 2013 BBC report revealed that Benjamin Odeje was the first Black to play for England at any level—in the 1971 schoolboys’ team. The numbers though have rapidly gone up this decade.
Cricket’s tryst however dates back further. From the time Ranjitsinhji bemused the English gentry with his leg glance, to his nephew Duleepsinhji who averaged over 58 in pre-World War 2 Test cricket; from Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi who defied Douglas Jardine, to Nasser Hussain, and from the feisty Kevin Pietersen to Monty Panesar, who befuddled a famed Indian batting order in their backyard with his left-arm spin and set up a marquee Test series win in 2012.
These are just a few names that made it to the top. According to a Wisden report of 2018, around 6% of the professional players in the domestic circuit are British Asians. Then there is the ever-growing Caribbean diaspora, or players of South African descent who came to England in search of a better life. Like current opener Jason Roy, the Durban-born who moved with his family at the age of nine.
Tom Curran—the Cape Town-born son of former Zimbabwe all-rounder Kevin Curran—had played age group cricket for Kwazulu Natal till he was invited to try out for Surrey at the age of 17.
Younger brother Sam, whose all-round efforts were vital in England’s Test series win over India last year, had followed in Tom’s footsteps.
Jofra Archer’s case took some intervention. Having already started out with the West Indies under-19 team, he had to fulfil a seven-year residency period to be eligible to play for England. Enthused by his talent, the England Cricket Board reduced it to three years to fast-track his case. The driving factor behind that intervention was creating an all-inclusive team based on talent and performance, not heritage.
It’s paying dividends. After hitting rock-bottom in the 2015 World Cup where they failed to qualify for the knockouts, England have turned the corner in style, winning 34 of their 47 ODIs at home since then. And barring the 2-3 defeat to Australia in September 2015, England have won all the other nine bilateral series at home. In three of those rubbers, Roy and Adil Rashid topped the runs and wickets tally.
England’s spin department is another case in point. After Graeme Swann retired, it has almost always been filled by British Asians—Zafar Ansari apart, Moeen Ali, who goes into the World Cup a better all-rounder thanks IPL, and Rashid hold sway. That is a massive statement for a country for which ‘Englishness’ of its cricket always seemed exaggerated, if not entirely misunderstood.
Then there is Ben Stokes. His Rugby League player father Gerrard moved to England from New Zealand with his family after he was appointed head coach of Workington Town.
So inspired were the Barmy Army by his all-round abilities they penned a song ‘The Fairytale of Ben Stokes’ the lyrics of which read: ‘You’re a legend and a hero, you’d get Warner for a zero, and then give him a sendoff ‘cause he punched Rooty too’. That’s Stokesy alright. If nothing else, the Bristol brawl of 2017 may have only strengthened his public image of a hothead who is willing to do everything for his team and mates.
The battle hardened but ever-smiling Eoin Morgan gets to lead a bunch of characters like these. He was probably not ready for captaincy when it fell on his lap after Alastair Cook was fired two months before the 2015 World Cup. But it has been a near-perfect run in the last four years.
World No 1 in ODIs, England go into this World Cup riding an all-time high wave of expectation. That an Irishman has been entrusted with the job to lead shows how much this means to them.