x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ashes is not a black and white issue

Many British Asians have a divided loyalty when they compare the Ashes series to matches involving Pakistan and India.

The waiting is over. For the next seven weeks, the cricket-loving public are going to be in thrall to what is usually termed "the biggest cricket rivalry on the planet". But is it really? A number of the home nation's own players may have grown up thinking very differently. England could conceivably employ as many as four British Asians - Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah, Monty Panesar and Adil Rashid - over the course of the summer. Did a bilateral series between England and Australia always represent the ultimate to them? How much does the Ashes actually mean to British Asians? Karachi-born Shah, 31, grew up in London, but that did not stop him idolising Javed Miandad. "He was the big star of the Pakistan cricket team [when I was] growing up," he reasoned, adding that Sachin Tendulkar and Viv Richards also featured in his personal pantheon. "India versus Pakistan was the equivalent to England-Australia. We were always very keen to see the results when India did play Pakistan. "But living in England we also wanted to see how the England team were doing and their big rivals were always Australia. "I was really excited by both series, but the thing I was mostly excited about was just having cricket on the TV." In 2001 Madras-born Nasser Hussain, the then England captain, complained that he could not understand why British-born Asians continued to support Pakistan or India. Yet the situation is not that black and white. At last month's World Twenty20, fans wearing England shirts, but with Pakistan or India flags draped over their shoulders, were a common sight at Lord's, the Oval and Trent Bridge. Bopara, who attended the academy set-up by Hussain's father Joe in Ilford, Essex, speaks proudly of batting at No3 for England. Growing up, he only had eyes for Tendulkar, and he retains the ambition of playing in Mohali for his IPL-franchise, Kings XI Punjab, the region from where his parents immigrated to London. Panesar, the first Sikh to play for England, made his debut in his parents' homeland, and nearly ran all the way home to Britain, so frenzied was celebration when Tendulkar became his first Test victim. As Min Patel, another British Indian who bowled left-arm spin for England, put it: "Monty's success has made parents realise cricket can be a career, and that their children don't have to be doctors." More pertinently, players like Hussain, Patel and Panesar have laid out a clear route for British Asians to play for England. "We don't feel any extra pressure, we just feel quite proud that we are doing well on the field and playing for England," added Shah. "Hopefully we can inspire other youngsters around the country who can follow in our footsteps and play for England." According to Vikram Banerjee, a left-arm spinner for Gloucestershire who is part of England's spin bowling development unit, the current generation may have been put off the Ashes by the fact England were so poor for so long. "If I look back now, until 2005, I really couldn't tell you what happened in the Ashes," said Banerjee, 25. "I know England lost. I could say that with some certainty. "It was always there as the biggest series around, but, because England were so poor, there was not that much interest in watching it. The contest wasn't there. "I used to watch whatever was on, but you would always show more of an interest in it if it was a close contest." Banerjee's parents moved to Bradford from Calcutta in their mid-20s, then settled in Birmingham. He says his choice of heroes were not bound by nationality, and numbers Phil Tufnell amongst his influences, along with the more conventional Tendulkar and Brian Lara. "For me, now the Ashes is the ultimate series around, but in the world it is a close contest between England-Australia and India-Pakistan," he added. "They are both passionately followed, but for me, as someone who was born and brought up in this country, who now plays in the English system, the Ashes has to be the pinnacle. "For my parents, I think India v Pakistan is easily the biggest series. It is more important for them, even though my dad has now spent a higher part of his life in this country than he has in India." pradley@thenational.ae