October 11, 2013 3:53 pm

If only all national heroes were as clear-cut as Tendulkar

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Genuine migrants should be allowed to play for England – those moving as professionals not

Sachin Tendulkar has announced his retirement from cricket, and the hosannas will last well beyond the Indian batsman’s scheduled 200th and final Test match next month. The words “Tendulkar” and “god” appeared together in 118 news stories published by formal media in the 24 hours after the news; on Google the combination produces 5.5m results.

As a cricketer, he was neither as compelling nor as game-changing as his near-contemporaries, Brian Lara of the West Indies and Australia’s Shane Warne. That, however, is missing the point. Tendulkar is above all else an Indian cricketer who emerged as a teenage prodigy just as his country was beginning to awake to its potential.

He became the personification of India’s rise both in cricket and the world. He survived more than two turbulent decades, exuding calm, rarely blemishing his reputation, despite being surrounded by adulation bordering on hysteria, and wealth and corruption bordering on obscenity. He achieved this mainly by spending much of his time, aged 14 to 40, at the batting crease, where very little troubled him.

Coincidentally, the long-expected news of his departure – apotheosis? – came in the very week that two British-based sportsmen with a lesser sense of dignity, and very itchy Twitter fingers, got into a public row about the nature of nationality.

Last Sunday an 18-year-old newcomer called Adnan Januzaj scored both goals in Manchester United’s win at Sunderland, leading to speculation about his future in international football. Januzaj’s nationality turned out to be unusually flexible: he was born in Brussels to Kosovar-Albanian parents giving rise to various possibilities, England perhaps among them.

Jack Wilshere of Arsenal and England, who is showing much promise as both a midfielder and a controversialist, then tweeted that “the only people who should play for England are English people”. The South African-born England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who has never met an argument he did not like, joined in: “Interested to know how you define foreigner? Would that include me . . . ?” and added a list of other rather globalised but nominally British sportsmen. Wilshere, being 21 and a novice at this game, then blinked and tried to make peace. But he had touched a nerve that is a great deal rawer than Britain’s liberal elite likes to pretend.

The partition of the Indian subcontinent was a horrifically murderous process well within living memory but it is, by and large, established fact. In sporting terms, India’s Muslim cricketers have trouble winning full acceptance from the public, non-Muslims in Pakistan even more so. But it is pretty clear who is what.

Contrast that with the two small but baffling islands off the northwest coast of Europe. In political terms, they contain two separate nation states: the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. But in football they compete as five (England, Scotland, Wales and two Irelands); in rugby as four, because Ireland is reunited for the purpose; in cricket, England in practice represents the whole British Isles, even though Scotland and Ireland (but not Wales) are nominally separate; in the Olympics, the UK is represented by Team GB, which is inaccurate because the term Great Britain does not include Northern Ireland, but then Team UK would not be quite right either; in the Commonwealth Games, even fragments such as Jersey (part of the UK for sporting purposes but not politically) compete separately. Confused? Who isn’t?

The catchment areas of maternity hospitals do not respect subnational boundaries, which can make people living on the Welsh and Scottish borders very confused. And it may soon get even messier, since Scotland could leave the UK after next year’s referendum. All this is nothing, of course, to the question of allegiance on the Irish border, which was murderous very recently indeed, and where sporting loyalties still depend more on religion than geography.

On top of that has come 60 years of mass immigration from the former British empire and latterly the EU, a process characterised by political confusion, administrative incompetence and ludicrous rhetoric.

In sporting terms, nationality became an issue during South Africa’s absence from international sport in the closing decades of white rule, when cricketers in particular, with ripe accents from the veld and Cape escaped isolation by discovering their British ancestry. The most egregious case involved Zola Budd, the runner who was sponsored by the Daily Mail to run for Britain in the 1984 Olympics, with miserable results for all concerned. Latterly, the Mail became the chief opponent of what it termed “plastic Brits”.

So who should represent England/GB/UK/whatever? The (English) Football Association has promised to study the issue. My own view is simple: those who come to Britain as genuine migrants and are educated in the country should count, which would include the Somali-born Olympic champion Mo Farah, but not the likes of Pietersen or Januzaj, who move as professionals to advance their career. Without genuine allegiance, international sport becomes meaningless, and Pietersen, a great player, has always given the impression of representing Kevinland above all.

Oh, for the unruffled simplicity of India, where a national hero is precisely that.

matthew.engel@ft.com

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