Sporting heroes, but on whose side?

The Wisden cricketing row reminds us of the ugly side of patriotism. Robert Winder looks at the complexities behind national pride

On the face of it, Robert Henderson's article in this month's Wisden Cricket Monthly looks like a straightforward bit of medium-paced racist slur-mongering. The author wonders whether the problem with the England cricket team is that there are too many foreigners in it, and presents his argument as a bold piece of taboo-breaking straight-talk rather than an undignified attack on certain individuals.

Two England cricketers - Philip DeFreitas and Devon Malcolm - are consulting lawyers, and you can see why. DeFreitas actually declined a tour of South Africa a few years ago while a number of never-say-die patriots (Gatting, Gooch, Emburey, etc) were happy to give up the inimitable thrill of pulling on the England sweater in favour of the apartheid buck. And Devon Malcolm ... well, did anyone question his lion-hearted commitment to the cause when he hurled himself on the South Africans at the Oval last year, winning the match almost single-handedly?

It was certainly clumsy of Henderson to wrap his argument around a discussion of individual cases, imputing bad motives to eager sportsmen. Why pick on DeFreitas, who came to England when he was 10, and presumably had little choice in the matter, rather than Graham Hick, who came to England in his twenties with the express purpose of qualifying for international cricket?

The timing of the article was bad, too: anyone who watched South African- born Robin Smith sweating out his runs against the West Indies last week could see that determination and resolve can easily survive the acquisition of a new nationality. But there is a serious subject here, one that concerns vexed issues of race and national identity. It is common these days for sportsmen to further their careers by switching nationalities. The most flamboyant recent exampe is Greg Rusedski, the Canadian who has shrewdly harvested the grants and benefits that go with being the flag-waving darling of the Centre Court. But it is impossible to generalise about the effects of this on sporting performance.

When Martina Navratilova became American, it didn't stop her winning Wimbledon about 500 times; when Kepler Wessels opened the batting for Australia, he was just as bloody-minded and hard to get out as he has since been captaining his native South Africa. No one seemed to mind Allan Lamb or Tony Greig tonking centuries for England. And Frank Bunce, who played for Western Samoa in the 1991 Rugby World Cup, was outstanding as a New Zealander in the tournament that finished last week.

Henderson's argument, to be fair, is that it is the team, not the individual, that suffers. But what about the West Indies, which doesn't exist as a country but is a collection of different nations with awkward racial mixes that comes together purely to play cricket? It is fractured by deep rivalries - when Trinidad and Tobago play Jamaica it's a bit like England versus West Germany.

A better example, perhaps, is the Irish football team, a motley assortment of foreigners who have notoriously qualified on the slimmest imaginable grounds. If you've ever been to Dublin on a school trip or drunk a pint of Guinness, or can recite a limerick, thenyou're in. In Pete Davies' account of the 1990 World Cup, All Played Out, one of the Irish players jiggles his feet while the band plays the national anthem, and after a while he leans over to his team-mate and says: "Blimey, this one goes on a bit." He is rewarded with a swift jab in the ribs. "Sssshhh..." his compatriot replies. "It's ours."

But that's sport for you. Generalisations never work. There are always examples on both sides. For every foreigner who fails to perform for an adopted country (Zola Budd, even Graham Hick for a while) there are plenty who triumph. Similarly, for every die-hard England supporter who wanted Terry Venables' team to beat Brazil last month, there were hundreds who would have been mortified to see Brazil lose. The only thing revealed by Robert Henderson's article, and the chord it will undoubtedly strike in many club dressing-rooms around England, is the depth of the atavistic feeling that national pride is an essential ingredient of sporting success.

This is not a pretty thing, but neither can it be shrugged aside. The South African team that somehow or other beat the All Blacks in the World Cup was clearly harnessing some ferocious national will-power, and there is no doubt that teams can and do thrive on jingoistic fervour. The premise of Henderson's article indeed is that national pride is the supreme motivating force without which nothing is possible.

Is that true? It would be lovely if it weren't. But almost all of international sport drinks deep from the poisoned well of political and racial animosity. Track and field athletics is perhaps the most individualistic sport there is - years of lonely training in order to clip a few thousandths of a second off your personal best - yet when the Olympics come around, it's all anthems and flags and "Gold for Britain!" headlines. None of this matters very much - it is an innocuous form of national rivalry that is, in any case, half ironic. Much of the fun of the Olympic Games is the cosmopolitan get-together in the so-called village, where hurdlers from Kenya and hammer-throwers from Denmark meet to share jokes, stories, herbal tonics and whatever else is permitted these days.

To quite a large extent it is the media that insists on converting the "Games" into a frenzy of crowing and moaning about national pride. But there will always be plenty of authentic antagonisms involved. Australian cricketers used to have a little song that went:

Sing you a song, won't take long/ All Pommies are bastards.

Second verse, same as the first/ All Pommies are bastards.

It isn't all that clever, but sport is a playground for vices - such as selfishness, aggression, vanity, the desire to intimidate and hurt - as well as virtues, such as smiling when you lose.

And this is why Henderson's article is, in the end, a sad and thin piece of work. It implies that national identity is something that can be conferred only by birth and not by choice, which runs counter to just about every democratic principle in the land.

Almost as bad, it suggests, too, that sport is only about two things: winning and national sovereignty. At one point, he attacks those soppy fools, liberals: "An Asian or a negro will, according to the liberal, feel exactly the same pride and identification with the place as a white man. The reality is somewhat different."

Well ... so what if it is? A serious liberal wouldn't dream of arguing that an Asian - or even a "negro" - would feel the same way about England as a blond Oxbridge man: why should they? He would, however, argue vigorously that this has nothing at all to do with their right to play for England if they want to, and if they are good enough. They may well have their own reasons for wanting to succeed - perhaps they even want to put one over on the nasty codgers in the crowd, and in cricket magazines, who jeer at them for not being white. Bully for them.

One of the attractions of sport is that it is simpler than life, but that doesn't mean we should refuse to acknowledge that life is complicated and changes. Henderson's article is embarrassing because it longs for England's cricket team to be a coherent fighting force of "like-minded" patriots willing to shed blood for the lads, the cause, the flag, the nation and all that. It doesn't seem to consider the possibility that 11 blokes with different backgrounds could bind themselves into an effective team, and have fun, and win. Talk about unsportsmanlike.

How a foreigner can play for Britain

Rugby Union

Must be born in the UK, or have parents or grandparents born here and three years' permanent residency.

Cricket

Must be born in the UK, or have parents or grandparents born here and four years' permanent residency, or seven years' residency as a British Citizen (four years if under 14).

Football

Must be born in the UK, or have parents and grandparents born here and a British Passport.

Athletics

Must be born in the UK, or have parents and grandparents born here, or Hold British Citizenship and three years permanent residency.

Tennis

Must be a British citizen and hold a British Passport and prove three years permanent residency and not have represented any other country during the preceding 36 months.

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