Peter Oborne

Cricket’s foreign legion

The number of South Africans playing for England is growing, says Peter Oborne. These foreign mercenaries may be brilliant, but are they undermining our precious game?

Cricket’s foreign legion
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Last week a ferocious new talent made his debut for the England cricket team. Craig Kieswetter, a wicketkeeper/batsman, is only 22 years old and is thought likely to be a regular in the England team for years to come. Normally this would be a matter for national celebration. But with the arrival of Kieswetter there is also unease, though it has yet to be articulated. The problem is easy to state: Kieswetter is not British.

He was born in Johannesburg and grew up in South Africa, playing cricket for Western Province from the age of 13 to 18. It is less than four years since he played for South Africa in the Under-19s World Cup in Sri Lanka. Kieswetter is one of a growing number of white South Africans who have made themselves available for England over the last few years.

He is following in the footsteps of the English batsmen Kevin Pietersen, brought up in Pietermaritzburg, and Jonathan Trott, a native of Cape Town. They are well established in the England team but there are plenty of others knocking at the door, among them the Surrey bowler Jade Dernbach and the Hampshire batsman M.J. Lumb, who was last week selected for the England World Cup squad.

It can only be a matter of time before South African accents outnumber British in the dressing room. Indeed it now looks likely that the top three of the top six in the England batting order when the Ashes series opens in Australia in ten months’ time will have been born and bred in South Africa.

Some will say this does not matter. They will argue that Britain is an open country which has always welcomed immigrants. They are entitled to point out that we have always had foreign recruits in the British army, so why not the England cricket team? Furthermore, Kieswetter and Pietersen are connected to their adopted country through blood — both have British mothers.

Nor is that all. The English cricket team has a long history of hosting foreign players. Before the first world war K.S. Ranjitsinhji, an Indian prince and one of the greatest and most original players of all time, brilliantly represented England. Forty years ago Basil D’Oliveira, a coloured South African, performed with loyalty and distinction.

But Ranji (and his almost equally brilliant nephew Duleepsinhji) played for England before their native India had been granted Test match status. Basil D’Oliveira forged his cricketing career while apartheid was at its height and had no choice but to leave his native land.

This is emphatically not the case with Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter. Culturally, by accent, by training and by birth they are South African. They were each eligible to play for South Africa, and each for a time was part of the South African Test match set-up. Each of them then made a deliberate decision to quit their native South Africa, with all its complexity and hope, and play for England. Kieswetter has snubbed pleas from the South African captain Graeme Smith to stay at home.

The reasons for their decision to desert their own country have never been properly explained. Pietersen, whose execrably written autobiography displays at best a primitive understanding of the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa, claims to have been forced out by racial quotas. But his account of events has been strongly disputed. It is likely that many white South African sportsmen are making the brutal calculation that it is easier to get into the England team, and that there is more money on offer here than in South Africa.

Some would say: good luck to them. But I cannot agree. The 16th-century political philosopher Machiavelli famously warned against mercenary armies, and let’s examine the record of the band of white South Africans who chose England after their team was banned from Test cricket because of apartheid after 1970.

The first of these mercenaries was the appalling Tony Greig, a brilliant player and powerful character who was rewarded with the greatest prize that English cricket has on offer: the national captaincy. Greig betrayed his trust in the shoddiest way imaginable by recruiting the England team for Kerry Packer’s circus. Then came Allan Lamb (or ‘Illin Lim’, as his fellow countrymen pronounced his name), who repeatedly placed his own interests ahead of the national team. Lamb’s average was barely 36, well below Test standard, yet he was chosen no less than 79 times by England selectors who, like the Booker Prize judges of the same era, often give the impression of being prejudiced against native talent.

Kevin Pietersen, for all his rather too loud protestations of loyalty to England, has come under constant criticism for playing selfishly. Meanwhile Trott has been forced to deny allegations from the former England captain Michael Vaughan that he celebrated with the South African team after they beat England. The brutal question is this: we already know that Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter are mercenaries who have abandoned their native country. So how do we know that they won’t betray England as well?

But there is something bigger at stake. I have passionately followed the fortunes of the England cricket team ever since I was a small boy and I identify emotionally with any British player — a Rashid, a Bopara, a Broad or a Collingwood — who plays for England. It is impossible for me to identify in the same way with a player who has cynically turned his back on his own country and talks with a foreign accent.

Nor can I ever forget that English players are being kept out of our national team by these foreign mercenaries. It remains a tragedy that the wonderfully talented Lancashire batsman Neil Fairbrother was deprived of a serious Test career by the presence of Allan Lamb. Today there is a whole generation of upcoming British batsmen — Shah of Middlesex, Key of Kent and many others — who are being denied a decent opportunity to prove themselves in the Test side thanks to Pietersen, Trott and now Kieswetter. Kieswetter’s presence in the Somerset team has already caused the county to release Sam Spurway, a promising young English wicket-keeper, from its books.

And this is dangerous. Britain is almost the last remaining cricketing country in the world where five-day Test cricket is genuinely popular. We urgently need a national debate now — or we risk waking up to discover that our England team has suddenly changed its nature and become white South Africa in exile. I wonder whether this would be acceptable to our cricket-loving public.

My own view is that the growing presence of white South African expatriates in our national side risks doing deep damage to the reputation of English cricket overseas, as well as inflicting irretrievable harm at home.

Peter Oborne is a columnist for the Daily Mail and associate editor of The Spectator.