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Why Norman Tebbit was wrong

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"In my first Test against England in 1968, Jeff Jones called Wes Hall 'black bastard' or something. Wes got uptight at first then realised that he shouldn't let it get to him. The minute they upset you they've done their job because you're going to give away your hand. That's how they used to get us out, probably call out some racist remarks and then you get uptight and give your hand away. "When Tony Greig said they'd make us grovel I don't know if he understood the word, but here you had a white South African telling you he was going to make you grovel…it made people just go out there and make him eat his words." Such were Clive Lloyd's recollections when I interviewed him in 1993. Now for another verse from the same hymn sheet: "I do not know of any West Indian cricketer who swears at the opposition the way those Aussies did. We came up against extreme savagery, what many would call extreme racism." Thus did Viv Richards recall the humiliating tour of Australia in 1975-76 that marked the outset of Caribbean cricket's Year Zero. A decade and a half later, he believed, little had changed. "There are some very genuine people running the game, but there is also far too much racism. The racists are people with a perverse kind of pride, who think we have no right to be competing on the same stage as them." These unsavoury memories stress how far we have come in a relatively short time. If Chris Gayle's experiences have echoed Clive or Viv's, he has kept schtum. So, since tact is assuredly not his bag, one assumes racism has been less of a blight. To pretend that cricket has conquered its Everest, nevertheless, would be utter self-delusion, especially given how some will (understandably) interpret the sudden rash of suspensions of mostly non-white spinners. Because of its imperial roots and expansion, no major sport pits race against race quite like cricket. In no other major ball game has power transferred from old world to new. As ancient scars have healed, so others have surfaced, more subtle and nuanced, more complex. Should the Chinese join the party in earnest, who knows what fresh turbulence might ensue. And so to two thorny talking points: the British Asians who booed Moeen Ali during India's recent tour, and the racism charge levelled by the ECB against Andrew Gale, the Yorkshire captain already suspended for abusing Lancashire's Ashwell Prince. Second things first: common sense should have prevailed a fortnight ago, as soon as Prince admitted he did not consider Gale's indefensible send-off ("f*** off back to your own country, you Kolpak f*****") a racial slur. That the charge remains as I write - though word has it that it will be withdrawn - highlights the perplexing nature of the beast. As with every radical step forward, be it civil rights, racial tolerance, feminism, or the currently fraught transition to fearless as well as open homosexuality, the desire to atone for historical crimes (affirmative action, quotas, that bloody awful phrase "political correctness") can lead down unsuspected cul-de-sacs. The ECB deserves our sympathy. Heavy lies the obligation, not merely to be aware of racism but to be seen to counter it - especially in Britain, where high immigration ensures it cannot be brushed beneath the nearest shagpile. Inaction invites accusations of indifference - or worse, complicity. Supporting a sporting team supplies an outlet to express an aspect of our identity; it doesn't mean we're going to bomb Parliament or enlist in the enemy's army Hence the rapidity of the apology from Angus Porter, respected chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, after suggesting - insensitively but not illogically - that Moeen should accept as "a compliment" the abuse flung at him by Indian fans for his Pakistani roots (classified by police, confusingly, as a "non-crime hate-related incident"). Relish it, Porter urged: "Take it as a positive, you'd rather be booed than ignored." If only it were that simple. Moeen, it bears reiterating, is not the first England player of Asian origin to suffer such slings and arrows. Before playing Pakistan in the northern-hemisphere summer of 2001, Nasser Hussain, the England captain, was heckled by British-born Pakistan fans for being Indian. When first chosen for England in 2006, Rawalpindi-born Sajid Mahmood, brought up to support Pakistan before switching allegiances at 13, was denounced as a traitor by British Pakistan fans. Timely indeed was Monty Panesar's concurrent rise to national folk hero. Moeen recently told All Out Cricket that young British Asians "come up to me and say they're really proud of me". He doesn't want to be famous, he insists: "It's more that there are young people out there who notice me and who want to play cricket and still practise the faith. I'm proud that they can look up to me." However clued-up and well-balanced he is, he could still do worse than a session on Hashim Amla's couch. Yet only the na├»ve would propose that the near-25-year-old "Tebbit test" (do you root for your country of residence or origin?) applies solely to Britons. We're talking facts of life here, of life on a jet-propelled, globalised planet that has never been so conducive, in theory, to migration, and now suffering the easily foreseeable if ultimately beneficial consequences (or so we lefties nervously predict). And when a vast nation has been divided or broken up, the fallout gets even trickier. Ask that troubled soul Vladimir Putin. This year has brought reports of violence in Indian colleges where students from Kashmir were supporting Pakistan against India. A friend talks of the Muslim parts of old Delhi where pavement stalls brim with posters of Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal and Misbah-ul-Haq. In his award-winning social study of Indian cricket, The Great Tamasha, James Astill relates how, during the 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan in Mohali, he sheepishly conducted his own "Tebbit test" in the main bazaar of Nizamuddin, Delhi. When Wahab Riaz screeched an lbw appeal against Virender Sehwag, dozens of hands "clutched prayer caps"; as the umpire raised his finger, "an excited hubbub filled the bazaar - though whether of delight or dismay, it was hard to tell". Nor are the focal points immune to all this. To the historian-cum-journalist Mihir Bose, until recently the BBC's sports editor, the key moment in the game's ascent from mere sport to Bollywoodised tamasha came when a young woman invaded the Bombay pitch to kiss Abbas Ali Baig after he reached 50 against Australia; a year later, in 1961, he was dropped during the series against Pakistan; only subsequently was it revealed that he had received hate mail for purportedly playing badly against his fellow Muslims. After losing the 2007 World T20 final, Pakistan's captain Shoaib Malik (who subsequently did his bit for India-Pakistan relations by marrying the Indian tennis star Sania Mirza) apologised to "Muslims around the world"; taking offence, Irfan Pathan, Man of the Match and a Muslim himself, launched a veiled attack on Shoaib. One much-travelled Indian cricket reporter believes Muslims playing for his country strive "extra hard" against Pakistan. A journalist friend of a friend recalled growing up with Muslims in Delhi. Once upon a time, he rubbished the notion that any cheered for Pakistan; when he could deny it no longer, his defence was: "If Indians in Britain can support India, why can't Muslims in India support Pakistan?" My friend, who realised he now deplored such "disloyalty", explained, as he saw it, that Muslims living in India have roots there whereas Indians living in Britain have roots in India. Sadly, if perhaps inevitably, media coverage of all this is timid at best. Indians who dive into such stormy seas are said to be communal - i.e. possessing anti-minority or pro-majority views. According to the largely left-leaning intelligentsia, reporting that Indian Muslims support Pakistan is proof of non-secularism, of not respecting all religions. (In Europe, it bears pointing out, secularism is generally regarded as the right to refuse to be governed by religious doctrine.) The point is not to incite a row over linguistic niceties but to emphasise that 1) this is a shared and growing concern, and 2) it should not be magnified into a drama, much less a crisis. That's why Norman Tebbit, Britain's Stormin' Norman, Maggie Thatcher's trusty bootboy, was so provocative, so divisive and so plain wrong. Because, being a little Englander (albeit not literally, being extremely tall), he hyped the sporting favours of Indian and Pakistani migrants into a test of integration, of Englishness, bequeathing a toxic debate that still stirs up needless angst and anger. Ajinkya Rahane walks back for 23, India v Pakistan, Asia Cup, Mirpur, March 2, 2014 India v Pakistan: a thrilling rivalry, but not a test of loyalty © AFP Enlarge Catalytic, no doubt, was the 1987 Edgbaston ODI: with naively few police present, British-Asian Pakistan fans clashed with National Front "stormtroopers" in a pitch invasion and "one London-based Pakistani had his jugular vein severed by a flying wine-flagon", as Wisden Cricket Monthly luridly described it; cue the magazine's somewhat exaggerated cover headline "Bloodshed at Birmingham". WCM was banned at a number of grounds. Here, Mike Marqusee reminds us in Anyone but England, was an extension of Tebbit's objections to inviting 50,000 heads of Hong Kong households to the UK once China took over the colony in 1997 - a clear and present threat, as Norm saw it, to national integrity. Here, Marqusee writes, was "a perfect example of the new racism in which the old naked assertion of white superiority…is replaced by an emphasis on mutually exclusive cultural identities". Supporting a sporting team supplies an outlet to express an aspect of our identity; it doesn't mean we're going to bomb Parliament or enlist in the enemy's army. The referendum on Scottish independence triggered a mini-avalanche of texts from friends wondering, since my late father was Glaswegian, whether I was a No or a Yes (a No, for pragmatic, economic reasons); one recalled how, in my youth, I had often (but not always) rooted for the Jocks when they played England, and cheered harder for Chelsea's Aberdonians than for my fellow Londoners. Underlining the meaninglessness of it all, when England played Israel, Jewish heart was nowhere near sleeve. Back to Marqusee, a New York native long domiciled in London: "Tebbit was arguing, in effect, that if one did not support a certain country in cricket one could not claim the same rights as other citizens of that country. This is grotesque. Cricket is fundamentally trivial, which is what makes it beautiful and delightful - and which is its best defence against those who, like Tebbit, would abuse it for their own ends." So long as this expression of identity does not assume racially abusive or violent form, who does it harm? Only those whose deeper-rooted prejudices blind them to reality. Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now RSS Feeds: Rob Steen © ESPN Sports Media Ltd. More in Opinion by Rob Steen All articles by this writer » Does Yorkshire's win bode well for England? | Why crowd support matters | The importance of being insatiable | Moeen Ali's wristy business | What good is a nightwatchman?

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