The Legend of ‘Cricket’Benjamin Haynes-Greenwood |
When Prince Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji stepped onto the Old Trafford playing field on July 16th 1896 for the Second Ashes Test of the summer, history was made. Ranjitsinhji, or, as nicknamed by his team-mates, ‘Smith’, became the first player of Asian descent to represent England at international cricket.
Ranjitsinhji was born in Sarodar, Gujurat, India in 1872, into a clan of Rajput warriors, earning him his title. He arrived in Cambridge, England in 1891, and it was there that he discovered the beautiful game to its full potential.
He produced a record-breaking performance, as he became only the second man (after WG Grace) to score a Test match hundred on debut for England. Coupled with this he also became the first ever batsman to record a century before lunch, when he added 113 of his 154 on the third morning.
He finished with an average of almost 45 in 15 matches, a very good record indeed for that period, but his legacy was always bound to be one that focused less on his achievements on the field of play, and more on other things.
Over the following 112 years there have been surprisingly few to follow in his footsteps, and even fewer successfully, but his impact on the game at the turn of the 20th century was undeniable.
Many parts of Asian batting we take as givens were introduced to the English by this great pioneer of the game. Ranjitsinhji added new shots to the English textbook, including the leg-glance and the late-cut. These occurred due to his use of the wrists, and by displaying the advantage of exquisite timing as opposed to brute-force.
All cricket lovers are aware of the status the great game has in Asia. Cricketers are the celebrities of their world alongside the Bollywood stars, with players such as Rahul Dravid, Shahid Afridi, Mahela Jayawardene and Mashrafe bin Mortaza holding statuses akin to the Tom Cruises and Will Smiths of the West.
With high levels of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis seeking perhaps greener pastures throughout the so-called ‘major power-nations’, it is easy to see why South Africa, New Zealand and England all have fielded players of Asian descent in their national elevens over the past decade especially.
There are almost 2.5 million persons of Asian descent living in England according to the 2001 Government census, which equates to 4.9 % of England’s population. So then, how is it that only 16 cricketers with Asian roots have represented England since 1896? To add to this it, is arguable that only half of these have been, or have any chance of being, successful.
A quick look at a list of these 16 does little to inject confidence that Asians representing England has boosted the country’s fortunes down the years. Min Patel – two Tests. Aftab Habib – two Tests. Usman Afzaal – three. Others have failed to impress the selectors when given the chance, but have time to prove them wrong yet, two examples being Kabir Ali and Sajid Mahmood.
Despite this pessimistic view however, there are many current positives. Owais Shah has been told by another player of foreign upbringing, captain Kevin Pietersen, that he is the new ODI number three. Samit Patel is in possession over county team-mate Graeme Swann of the spin-bowling berth in ODIs, and then of course there is the cult-hero who has already ensured his name will be forever engraved in English cricketing history – Mudhsuden Singh ‘Monty’ Panesar.
In fact, it is another skill most commonly associated with Asian cricket that the current British-Asians are dominating – spin. Patel and Panesar have already been mentioned, but the up-and-coming Adil Rashid is attempting to become the first English leg-spinner to take a test match wicket in over eight years. The last two were Ian Salisbury (2000) and Michael Atherton (1996) – proof that the nation is definitely very much in need.
A brief look at the county circuit reveals there are a number of players of Asian descent playing regular Championship and Pro40 cricket, with an average of 1.33 fielded per side in their latest County Championship matches. Of these Ravi Bopara has big England hopes, Navdeep Poonia is a key player for Scotland, and Vikram Solanki has 52 ODI caps stashed somewhere in his Worcester home. Maybe the breakthrough is imminent.
One question regularly asked is that of allegiance. Bolton-born Sajid Mahmood was very harshly booed on his Test debut against his father’s nation Pakistan, and it brings in the question of who a player should be loyal towards. Personally I was fortunate enough to witness Samit Patel’s Indian-born father give his son the world’s largest hug, combined with a smile portraying the overwhelming elation of sheer pride, at The Oval this summer, after Samit’s 5 for 41 against the South Africans. I wonder how he will cope with the mixed emotion of his son lining up against Yuvraj Singh and Mahendra Singh Dhoni this winter in the upcoming ODI series.
Patel is certainly not guilty of switching allegiance, but even if he was, it is not a new phenomenon. Ranjitsinhji is accompanied by many names, such as Tony Greig, Robin Smith, and of course ‘KP’. However, despite Jacques Rudolph’s confused ambitions, cricket has not quite reached football’s ‘Manuel-Almunia-wanting-to represent-England’s’ totally bewildering level.
One further possible Asian influence could be that of Twenty20. The creation of the Indian Premier League and Indian Cricket League have meant many young Asian cricketers are gaining vast amounts of experience in this form of the game. Some players have even burst onto the international scene as a result, a prime example being Yusuf Pathan. With the introduction of the English Premier League imminent, and with a general lack of funds existing in English cricket, especially when compared with the IPL, English sides could turn to these as alternative signings. This may be just a theory, but perhaps watch this space.
The influence the great continent of Asia has had on the English game is plain to see. Even though the national statistics hint towards there being maybe just one player of Asian descent in the England team, expectations are perhaps raised when considering the love for the game the subcontinent holds.
Despite this vast influence, and slow infiltration of the English game, the conversion into producing genuine international stars has been slow.
It is possible, however, to think of an England team within the next few years containing Shah, Patel, Panesar, Rashid and Bopara. This would certainly constitute for more than five per cent of the team. The reality is left to be seen.