Published January 9, 2022
Australia thrashed England in the third Ashes Test last month; inset: Azeem Rafiq
Australia thrashed England in the third Ashes Test last month; inset: Azeem Rafiq

Last month English cricket was momentarily submerged in a racism crisis. Azeem Rafiq’s revelations to a parliamentary committee, on the treatment meted out to him and other Asians at Yorkshire, was both shocking and unsurprising. Until the Aussies started giving them a pasting, it remained the most serious crisis in English cricket since the last time the Aussies had given them a pasting.

I had three immediate reactions to this sordid and deplorable affair. The first was aimed at Rafiq: sympathy, for having endured years of racist abuse, and admiration, for speaking out so powerfully about it.

The second was a form of confirmation bias. Was anyone — anyone at all — surprised that, of all the big names in the orbit of English cricket, Michael Vaughan and David Lloyd were two of those pulled up in the scandal? Sometimes, the “banter” behind a microphone or a Twitter account, while not necessarily over the line itself, gives you enough of a window into a personality for which more offensive behaviour may be typical.

The third reaction, more Machiavellian, is the subject of today’s column. Amidst all this anti-Asian discrimination in English cricket, is there not something to be gained for Pakistan?

After all, one thing made abundantly clear by Rafiq’s harrowing testimony was that there exists a pool of Asian players at the youth level that is, because of racism, drummed out of the system before they even get a real chance.

As a Pakistan cricket fan, that spells opportunity to me. Why should all those desi kids who play in under-15 and under-17 teams give up their dreams of playing international cricket? Why don’t we take them on instead?

Could the racism crisis in English cricket be a godsend for Pakistan to get even, not just with the Pig 3, but with the English Cricket Board?

One man’s trash, as they say, is another man’s treasure. If English racism destroys an England career but creates a Pakistani one, who are we to complain?

The practical details can always be worked out. Pakistani law, officially anyway, already allows citizenship for people born in the UK as long as at least one parent is a Pakistani national. That should take care of most of the potential candidates. But how about going further still, and creating a “special talent” dispensation for gaining Pakistani citizenship, fast-tracked to, say, 18-24 months if at least two grandparents were born in Pakistan?

Leaving aside the legal complexities, the mechanics of recruitment would presumably entail the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) scouting youth teams in club and county cricket in Asian-heavy cities and neighbourhoods. Go around East London and distribute pamphlets, like an air force dropping propaganda in wartime. Flood the target demographics’ social media with ads. Repeatedly and uniformly send the message: “If you are between the ages of 12 and 17, good at cricket, and sick of being called ‘Paki’, we have some real good news for you.”

There already exists a layer of British-Pakistani handlers in the UK — operating in the nebulous space between ‘agent’, ‘journalist’, ‘liaison’ and ‘local guide’ — that has established close relations with our professional cricketing fraternity. (This amorphous group is actually quite shady, and its ties to the 2010 fixing scandal remain uninvestigated and under-discussed). These people can be considered a resource for the PCB to draw upon, acting as formal and informal intermediaries. It would not be pretty, but then who said poaching talent is?

The bottom line is that if Riyad Mahrez, born and raised in the Paris suburbs, can play for Algeria — and not just play for Algeria, but captain Algeria — why can’t the next Moeen Ali or Adil Rashid, each born to Mirpuri families, play for Pakistan? Among contemporaries, we have already tasted success with Imad Wasim or Shan Masood (I am defining “success” liberally here). Rather than relying on these ad-hoc cases, we should institutionalise it as a real policy.

An important caveat: this argument should not be seen as a moral judgment on the merits of British society relative to ours. Few countries have as little standing as Pakistan to critique the state of minority rights or discrimination elsewhere. Generally speaking, life as a minority in the UK is not nearly as taxing as life as a minority in Pakistan — a land where neighbourhoods can be burned to the ground and humans can be burned alive for, well, not very much at all.

No, this idea stems from something the ECB, as part of the Big/Pig 3, is intimately familiar with: pure, unadulterated profit maximisation. For demographic, cultural, linguistic and religious reasons, Pakistan is uniquely positioned to take advantage of structural racism in English cricket. In the dog-eat-dog world of international cricket — where Pakistan is an afterthought, mostly given paltry two-Test series if blessed with cricket at all — why shouldn’t we?

Additionally, karmic justice points in favour of the proposal for at least three reasons. First, English cricket has itself benefitted immensely from importing players in their late teens and even 20s, especially from southern Africa and the rest of the UK. It would be psychologically satisfying, nay delicious, if it suffered countervailing losses.

Second, the problem of racism in English cricket is real. If there is not going to be any internal accountability, as seems to be the case, then their comeuppance may as well come from thousands of miles away.

Third, it bears underlining: while New Zealand had at least a defensible, if frustrating, reason for not visiting us as scheduled this fall, the ECB’s no-show was in an entirely different category. Frankly, we need to get even with English cricket. We may as well start by stealing their players.

Of course, every idea has downsides. The most important in this case is the massive risk posed to our security as a sovereign republic. Specifically, now that the British know we are prone to electing our cricketers, it may be possible for MI6 to infiltrate the highest levels of our government with a cleverly placed mole. British intelligence could conceivably groom an Asian cricketer, let us pluck him at 15, patiently wait until we elect him three decades later, and then gleefully rub their hands as he posts all our nuclear secrets to Instagram.

The hitch in this plan from the perspective of the Circus, to borrow the late John le Carre’s term, is that it assumes England can actually produce cricketers good enough to elect Prime Minister. On the evidence of the ongoing Ashes, it seems that, to the contrary, local library councilmember is probably their political ceiling.

The second danger would be to team unity and camaraderie. Would born-and-bred Pakistani players resent the “imports”? Would these outsiders be given longer leashes, because the PCB invested in them, or shorter ones, because people would be eager for them to fail?

Let us not forget how our cricketing public first treated Wasim Khan; harsh enough for the New York Times, of all papers, to run a story titled ‘He Loves Pakistani Cricket. It Doesn’t Love Him Back.’ And the beleaguered Khan was an extremely successful administrator. Imagine how we would treat a “foreigner” who actually fails.

Finally, let us not mince words: such a strategy would put the British-Pakistani community even more directly in the firing line than it already is. Remember, the UK is the birthplace of the Tebbit test. If Asian kids are already bullied for having divided loyalties, then what would a steady pipeline of British-born teenagers leaving to play for Pakistan do to such abuse? Indeed, we would almost certainly worsen the problem of racism faced by the likes of Rafiq.

So, the plan would not be costless. Few ideas are. But it may be a notion Ramiz Raja, no stranger to unconventional thinking, could at least bounce around before discarding.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US.
He tweets @ahsanib

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 9th, 2022



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