The Panesar and Mahmood effect quick to take hold

  • @stephenbrenkley

Two contrasting images may endure from the final day of the Headingley Test of 2006. They reflect cricket, the society in which it is now played (wasn't it ever thus?) and demonstrate how far both have come and how far there is to go.

One was of Monty Panesar more or less completing his adoption as a national icon, a devout Sikh, the son of Hindi- speaking immigrants who has high-fived his way into hearts and minds. The other was less wholesome. It was of Sajid Mahmood, a Muslim, like Panesar the England-born son of Asian immigrants, being roundly abused as a traitor by Pakistan supporters in the crowd. If it was a small element, nobody should doubt the malevolence.

Both responded impeccably after their significant parts in victory. Panesar, whose rise has been as meteoric as any English cricketer, insisted amid a media scrum in his home town of Luton on Thursday that he was keeping his feet on the ground and that his faith helped him to be a more disciplined cricketer.

Mahmood said the abuse became personal from one section of the crowd. In keeping with his relaxed and relaxing nature, he also managed to make light of the taunts, suggesting jocularly that his dad, Shahid, might have instigated them. He was also asked by other Pakistan fans in the crowd to pose for photographs afterwards.

Rudra Singh has been uplifted by the overwhelming response to Panesar, and deeply disappointed by what happened to Mahmood. An immigrant from Lucknow who played one-day cricket for India, he has been a professional in the Lancashire leagues for 20 years and a cricket development officer for more than a decade. Singh has been at the sharp end.

"I was surprised Saj was given that abuse, and it shows it can still be very much part of the system, them and us," he said. "But I also know there has been so much change in the last five years: a merging of cultures, certainly as far as cricket is concerned. The way people every-where have related to Monty shows as much as anything that they care about the quality of the cricket."

Many cricketers of Asian stock have played for England. Only Nasser Hussain, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, had a durable career, and he virtually shunned his Indian background and religion. As he wrote in his autobiography, he only ever spoke a few words of his dad's native language, did not know whether it was Urdu or Hindi, and "religion just never featured in my life".

Panesar and Mahmood are different. Not only is their faith important to them, but they look to be around to stay, unlike recent Asian cricketers to have played for England such as Usman Afzaal, Aftab Habib and Owais Shah. This is a significant shift, because it means the England team will change probably forever. There is an opportunity here. It is a tall order for a mere sport, but cricket can help bridge divides.

Singh is convinced of its role. "Time is the key as in so many things," he said. "It started slowly. People from ethnic minorities were reluctant to take part in mainstream cricket clubs 20 years ago, the clubs sat back meanwhile and tended to take an attitude of 'look, we're not doing anything wrong, anybody can play'. But now there is much more real understanding. A lot of clubs depend on Asian youths to keep up their playing membership, but up here Asian families are coming out more into society, in this case cricket clubs."

Both Panesar and Mahmood resist the notion that they are role models, or that their presence in England's team can play some small part in helping society progress. Panesar said: "I just want to play cricket for England. I don't think of role models; I used to look up to Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart. If people are getting inspiration from what's happening that's good for cricket, but I just concentrate on cricket and not beyond. I don't focus on the role of Asians in British society."

Mahmood has been slightly more forthcoming on a delicate but relevant topic. "As a family we mixed pretty well with every-one. Religion is important and it's a big part of our family. As soon as I got into county cricket I wanted to play for England. I think some kids support Pakistan because their parents do. You follow your parents a lot, but that might change in the future."

Rudra Singh has tangible evidence. "As recently as six or seven years ago, when I wanted to create interest in the schools I would ask Wasim Akram or an ex-Pakistan player from one of the leagues. But now a Lancashire player is much bigger news. That has been a remarkable change."

Singh is still concerned about leagues and clubs who while supperficially open to all are not. "There are still some people who want to just run Asian cricket, but how can they survive? I can tell you that a bridge has been built and more traffic is going over it."

Singh fears another problem. "We're losing Asian youths to football more than anything else. I dread the day when we have the first [high-profile] Anglo-Asian Premiership footballer. That will be the testing time."