It's not just Kevin Pietersen: Many of our sporting greats 'border-hopped' their way to Britain – and so what?

Belonging is not always about birthplace - especially for Britain


It seems rather harsh, when a man has played over 100 Test cricket matches for his country, for Mary Dejevsky to now declare that Kevin Pietersen - born in South Africa to an English mother - should never have been part of our team anyway, because she wishes to put a stop the “border-hopping” of sports stars “to play for other people’s national teams”.

But Dejevsky's claim that such sporting migrations began with Zola Budd in 1984 is to rewrite British sporting history.

Pietersen scored his famous 158 to clinch the Ashes at the Oval in 2005, but a whole century earlier, the great Indian batsmen Ranji scored 154 not out on his Ashes debut in 1896. The Times had written of the popular press campaign protesting omission from the previous test that “There was some feeling about K. S. Ranjitsinhji’s absence, but although the Indian Prince has learnt all his cricket in England he could scarcely, if the title of the match were to be adhered to, have been included in the English eleven.” Yet the Australians, asked if they would object to Ranji being picked, said that they would not.

Belonging is not always about birthplace - especially for a country with one of the longest global histories of emigration and immigration. So Britain's very first Olympic medalist, Charles Gmelin in 1896, was born in India, the son of a Christian missionary. Britain's first black British Olympic medalist was the enormously popular sprinter McDonald Bailey who, after volunteering for the RAF, wore the British vest in London in 1948 before winning a medal in Helsinki in 1952.

Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, the Daily Mail campaigned vociferously against “Plastic Brits” but could never quite decide which foreign-born sportsmen it did and didn't want to count as proper Brits. Certainly, the claim that “one in ten of Team GB were plastic Brits” - based on a crude head-count by foreign birthplace - misread the public mood entirely. 

Almost everybody took pride in Mo Farah's pride in being British, and most people neglected to notice that Bradley Wiggins was Belgian-born. The 'plastic Brits' label was quietly ditched as out-of-step with the spirit of 2012, and all of the medals were celebrated equally.

Ipsos-Mori polling for British Future that, by an overwhelming majority of 75 per cent to 13 per cent, the public supported all Team GB athletes equally, regardless of birthplace, rather than cheering that bit more for those who were British-born.

This reflects our clear citizenship tradition that that we welcome those who contribute positively, and reject the idea of a two-tier Britishness, where only those born here count fully.

It is perfectly legitimate, in sport as in citizenship, that we should debate and decide who to admit to the club. There may well be examples where the spirit and indeed the letter of the rules have been bent or broken. But once we have invited you to don our national colours, then you must have equal status with your team-mates, not a provisional licence, just as long as we keep winning.

KP has been a mercurial talent, thrilling with his swashbuckling batting, yet sometimes throwing his wicket away. But if he was English enough to win the Ashes in that heady summer of 2005, he must remain so after England's winter of discontent. We can all debate the cricketing merits of the decision to drop him from the team. But the end of his international career can't now retrospectively strip him of his status as one of the England greats of his generation.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future

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