What’s the appropriate number of South Africans to have in the England side? No-one objects to one or two of them, but we wouldn’t want all eleven. So where’s the cut-off point – three, four, five? And how do we define an Englishman as distinct from a South African?
The answer to both questions – like so many in cricket – involves an arbitrary, subjective judgement. But they’ll become increasing pertinent, especially when, as soon seems inevitable, Somerset’s keeper-batsman Craig Kieswetter makes his England debut.Of the twenty two players on show in Wednesday’s England v England Lions T20 in Abu Dhabi, Kieswetter, with an ebullient 81 from 66 balls, provided the best performance. It was his first match in England colours, just one day after he qualified to play for the side.
If Kieswetter were to play in the test team as a specialist batsman – in place of, say, Bell – five of the side’s top seven would have been born in the land of biltong and boerewors. To some, the increasing South African-isation of England is a pernicious trend, especially as home-grown young players are being leapfrogged by ‘foreigners’. But the reality is more complex – each of the players involved has their own, differing, personal circumstances.
Andrew Strauss was born to English parents, and moved here as a toddler. Matt Prior’s family relocated to England when he was eleven. Kieswetter went to school in Somerset, and has played all his first-class cricket here. Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen have played the great majority of their first-class cricket in England. Both Trott and Kieswetter played for the South Africa under-19 side – but should we really hold that against them? They were only teenagers at the time, not hardened journeymen pros. Should they have renounced the thrilling prospect of international cricket for the sake of – maybe – one day playing for England?
That said, the cynics’ charge of carpet-bagging, as applied to the likes of Trott and KP, would not have stuck without some basis, however slight. If you met Jonathan Trott in real life, without knowing who he was, you’d think – he’s a South African: in accent, background, and outlook. But how does that help us decide who’s entitled to play for England? What test can you apply which is logical, consistent, and fair? How is nationality defined, in sporting terms?
Dozens, if not hundreds, of England players have come from hybrid backgrounds. Colin Cowdrey, that quintessence of English classicism, was born in India – as were Nasser Hussain, and Douglas Jardine (whose parents were Scottish). It’s easy to forget that Tony Greig, the South African who lives in Australia, was once captain of England.
International cricket exists because the British empire took the game to its colonies. It also took British people, who settled in those nations, and whose descendants retain connections to the UK. In the twentieth century, indigenous south Asians and West Indians travelled in the opposite direction, and made Britain their home. Their children and grand-children now share a similar sense of dual heritage to Kieswetter and Trott. Andrew Strauss was born in Johannesburg to English parents. Monty Panesar was born in Luton to Indian parents. And what about England’s Irish players? As the mother country, we can’t complain if the waters of nationality have been muddied by the very vehicle – empire – which created cricket in the first place.
In practice, England supporters usually welcome anyone who makes the side better, and as time passes forget where they came from. It’s similar to having a ringer in village cricket: deep down, you have your doubts about the probity, but you’d hate to make do without them. KP is classic ringer material – an outsider, and not really one of the lads, but by far the best player. Some ringers are useful but don’t constitute an unfair advantage – like Allan Lamb or Andy Caddick. And some look great on paper but turn out to be completely useless – like Martin McCague.
The same test will apply to Craig Kieswetter. If he scores runs, keeps well, and generally fits in, his origins will fade in the memory. He can take both comfort and fright from the principle which applies to our nation’s leading tennis player. If Andy Murray loses, he’s Scottish. If he wins, he’s British.