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  • Writer's pictureHarjot Sidhu


Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Cricket was integral to the British Empire. It embodied all that was English. Anything else, well, just wasn’t ‘cricket.’ But what does it mean to be ‘English’, or British, or even ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’? What qualities must, or mustn’t, you possess? There’s an assumption here that an answer exists. Surely, it’s all fluid? For British Asians, like myself, the question of ‘identity’ often looms. “We, British Asians, we’re caught in between two cultures,” Imran Qayyum said to me, when we spoke. “There isn’t a slot to fit into…When you realise you can be whoever you want and still succeed, [that] is when you start succeeding.”

In the immediate period after WWII, the British government were desperate for additional labour force, to rebuild the country. Immigrants from South Asian regions, most of whom arrived between the 1950s and 1970s, were actively encouraged to come and work in the U.K, without the need for Visas[i], however, they arrive to a world of rejection. What’s more is that a lot of these people were coming from a place of poverty and persecution. When you’re handed a lifeline, in amongst suffering and desperation, you grab it with both hands despite the deep history of mistreatment between colony and coloniser. The legacy of mistreatment was dark, bloody, but also of an emotional nature. “Invading forces were accompanied by a team of experts with explicit interests in gathering cultural materials,” writes Sathnam Sanghera, in ‘Empireland.’ There were those whose job it was and, according to Lord Curzon, their “duty to dig and discover…to copy and decipher, and to cherish and conserve.”[ii] One respondent in Dr. Thomas Fletcher’s research says “Many of us are still quite angry with English people for treating our ancestors so badly.”[iii] This, you could argue, was the beginning of a sense of loss and rejection, for South Asian immigrants, coming to the U.K.

Minority groups “interpreted as a threat to a dominant White ‘British’ or ‘English’ culture.”[iv] Their arrival to the U.K. was met with racial violence. Rejection. The National Front were out on the streets and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made the sentiment towards these communities abundantly clear. Rejection. ‘No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish’ signs outside of pubs, with one queue for white people and another queue for everybody else, degraded human beings to a base level. Rejection. Quite the welcoming party, wouldn’t you say? There was no route back, either. Most had given up everything they had in their homeland, to forge a better living for themselves. Pride would also prevent them from returning. The wounds of trauma from the period of partition were being torn wide open, all over again.

With immigration, especially out of necessity, comes a grave sense of loss. A loss of home, culture, language, family and much more. Fletcher writes: “in times of uncertainty and ethnic struggle, one element of their identity galvanises the diaspora: their identification with ‘home’.”[v] Cricket acted as a vehicle for this, as it “alleviated feelings of isolation amongst the diasporic communities,”[vi]. “As migrant families arrived in Britain, cricket encouraged different ethnic groups to socialize with white people and integrate into existing British culture.”[vii] However, during imperial reign, cricket was “initially kept by the British for themselves” and that there was no “intention of teaching the natives to play”[viii]. Rejection. Fletcher’s research determines “a very specific agenda of cultural homogenization exists in English cricket whereby, if ‘outsiders’ want to be accepted, they must conform to a normative code of ‘Englishness’.”

With forced conformity comes the natural process of having to relinquish elements of your make-up. The ‘assimilationist model’ assumed that the “incomer – along with their culture, belief systems and practices - will be absorbed into the dominant culture.”[ix] Already having lost so much and constantly rejected, the South Asian community were never going to give up the last remaining parts of their culture. Rejection leads to resistance and this resistance took form in the way of the U.K’s Asian-only cricket leagues, which have proven to be extremely popular. Some may see this as the community marginalising themselves, however it’s also been an essential method of preserving culture. It’s given them the ability to be unique and be themselves. Another obvious method of preservation through cricket is seen through South Asians supporting their country of origin, as opposed to England. It’s one of the very few opportunities to rekindle the ties to their parent’s ancestral land. There is pride in this non-conformity. For those who have been stripped of their identity, non-conformity allows them to take it back. To take back control. If that control comes from just one avenue, that avenue being cricket, then who is anyone to argue?

Some will say we’ve come a long way since the days of the National Front. That, there is a much greater level of acceptance in today’s Britain. One respondent in Fletcher’s work made it clear that he did not consider Monty Panesar to be English, due to his “‘visual otherness’ and Indian ancestry”. Think about this, for a second. I also ask you to think about the racist abuse suffered by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Lewis Hamilton in recent weeks. I ask you to consider the abuse Stan Collymore has had come his way on Twitter, for years. Or, Eni Aluko’s race abuse case against former England Women’s Manager, Mark Sampson (in which it was proven that Greg Clarke, the then chairman of the Football Association, responded to Aluko’s email highlighting the racial abuse by saying “I’ve no idea why you are sending me this.”[x]). Take Great Britain’s Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah, openly admitting that he’s been told to “go back home.”[xi] Take Raheem Sterling, being abused from the stands at Stamford Bridge in 2018 and the media’s treatment of him in general...and of course, if you are a cricket fan, the obvious and ongoing case of racist abuse suffered by Azeem Rafiq at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

How far have we actually come? Minority groups have always been, and continue to be, rejected. As long as rejection exists, so will non-conformity and resistance.


[i] [ii] Empireland. Sathnam Sanghera [iii] ‘Who do “they” cheer for?’: Cricket, diaspora, hybridity and divided loyalties amongst British Asians. [iv] Connecting ‘Englishness’, Black and minoritiesed ethnic communities and sport: A conceptual framework [v] ‘Who do “they” cheer for?’: Cricket, diaspora, hybridity and divided loyalties amongst British Asians. [vi] The making of English cricket cultures: Empire, globalisation and (post) colonialism [vii] The making of English cricket cultures: empire, globalization and (post) colonialism. Thomas Fletcher. [viii] The making of English cricket cultures: empire, globalization and (post) colonialism. Thomas Fletcher. [ix] Who do “they” cheer for?: Cricket, diaspora, hybridity and divided loyalties amongst British Asians [x] [xi]

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