Andrew Stone considers the politics of cricket.
Exhilarating - not an adjective often applied to test match cricket. But it was a fitting description of England's two-run win in the second test against Australia, and indeed of the entire Ashes series to date. A surge of interest greeted that nailbiting finish, and I'm sure I wasn't the only cricket lover suddenly called upon by previously uninterested friends to explain the finer points of the LBW law. It might seem wilfully perverse, therefore, for socialists to turn up our noses at the wave of sporting patriotism, to take an 'anyone but England' line. Surely there are enough ideological battles for us to fight without provoking another around something as trivial as a bat and ball game?
It's not as if the Australian team is particularly easy to like - it has none of the anti-colonial symbolism of the West Indian teams of Worrell, Lloyd or Richards, or the joyous affront to the cricketing hierarchy of the World Cup winning Sri Lankan team. It has only belatedly dropped Darren Lehman, the batsmen caught shouting racist abuse after some uppity Sri Lankan had the temerity to get him out. And its players have a string of lucrative endorsements - Adam Gilchrist is doing his bit for petrol sales, Brett Lee has had a cereal named after himself (Brett-Bix, in case you're wondering) and Shane Warne is advertising mobile phone games.
But we should still be concerned about the team we're being so fervently coaxed to identify with. Big hitter Kevin Pietersen has recently displaced the veteran Graham Thorpe from the team. (Thorpe's advocates had pointed to the benefits of experience, but the team has just had to muddle along without such insights as 'the handle of the bat is very important - after all, it's where your hands go'.)
Though 'KP', as England's latest saviour is known, makes his English patriotism well known, it, like his three lions tattoo, is relatively newfound. Pietersen's motivation for leaving South Africa was, as he is happy to point out, the supposedly onerous requirements of the South African Cricket Board's positive discrimination policy. In fact this is more an informal understanding that selectors will try to pick three non-white players per game. Given that two of these spots are skilfully filled by Makhaya Ntini, the world's leading test wicket taker in 2003, and Herschelle Gibbs, one of the most explosive opening batsmen that the game has seen, and given that South Africa emerged from sporting isolation 15 years ago on the understanding that it would combat the awful legacy of apartheid, this hardly seems extreme. But it was too much for KP.
Of course the English cricketing establishment was never exactly in the front line against apartheid. The boycott began despite England's selection committee's best efforts in 1968 to avoid a confrontation with the regime by dropping black all-rounder Basil D'Oliveira from their touring party. Politics was deemed to have played no part in this decision, though D'Oliveira had just scored a sublime unbeaten century against the Australians. The authorities were determined that the white South Africans should tour in 1970, to the extent that they put barbed wire around the outfield. Eventually protests led by the then radical Peter Hain, and strike threats by transport workers and television technicians, combined to make the tour untenable.
Yet the mercenary players who went on the 'rebel' tours during the boycott years have been welcomed back with open arms. Graham Gooch, who led the first group of scabs, was later made England captain and then a batting coach. The second group of 'rebels' had their suspensions commuted when South Africa came out of isolation. John Emburey was recalled to the England team in his forties to trundle his patented brand of non-spinning off-breaks, before taking up a coaching role at Middlesex, alongside Mike Gatting, the scabs' captain. This thoroughly unpleasant character once justified his obscenity-strewn argument with a Pakistani umpire by asking, 'Does Maggie back down when she's given no choice?' He recently dispensed advice to the England players to boycott a tour of Zimbabwe, clearly an issue on which he can claim the moral high ground! The tour manager for Gatting's troupe was David Graveney, now England's chair of selectors.
Despite Graveney's CV, the virtual monoethnicity of the series (Jason Gillespie has an Aboriginal grandparent) is not down to a deliberate policy of exclusion. With the possible exception of Owais Shah, there aren't many non-white English county players with a good claim to a test place. But the message sent to black and Asian players down the years has been unmistakeable - that they never quite 'belonged'. David Frith, former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, once complained that Devon Malcolm 'acts, thinks, sounds and looks like a Jamaican. This hits the English cricket lover where it hurts.' Gladstone Small was patronised, Chris Lewis was said to have an attitude problem, and Alex Tudor's injury problems were always doubted. This isn't to argue that all these players were world beaters or above criticism, but that the tone of that criticism owed more to the racist stereotype of the lazy, stupid black man than 'apolitical' commentators would admit.
Perhaps such attitudes help to explain the current dearth of top level Afro-Caribbean cricketers. For Asian players the answer lies in an amateur structure which completely undervalues their teams, marginalised because white opponents apparently cannot make simple cultural accommodations regarding food or prayer times. All are badly served by the sad disrepair of state school cricket - the result of overworked teachers and the sell-off of playing fields. In many inner cities, where enthusiasm for cricket is often the highest, there isn't a pitch for miles. My own team, most of who live in Hackney, east London, have to travel to Watford to find an affordable, council-run ground.
It's difficult to see England building a period of competitive dominance on this fragile basis. But if they do, it will only be grist to the mill of those on the current crusade to inculcate 'British values'. The Tebbit test - who do you cheer for when England play, India or Pakistan? - is back with a vengeance. Only now it seems if you fail it you'll be deported. The idea that in a globalised world people might have complex cultural identities fills the right wing with dread. So they retreat into a nostalgic reverie for an idyllic England that never existed, but which cricket is meant to symbolise. But like most sports and pastimes, cricket's joy is in community, companionship, a test of skill and technique that could, in a world that wasn't scarred by class and racism, be on a truly level playing field. Until we create such a world we'll have to do with an approximation - hopefully one in which that stupid WG Grace impersonator on Channel 4 is forced to shut up.