India vs England: Test cricket in a divided United Kingdomhttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/cricket/india-vs-england-cricket-in-divided-kingdom-5283829/

India vs England: Test cricket in a divided United Kingdom

Ahead of the five-match series, Team India couldn't have expected a more vulnerable and unsure England, on and off the field.

England coach Trevor Bayliss and his players are involved in a discussion during a practice session at Edgbaston in Birmingham on Monday. (Source: Reuters)

Of no deal and A-dil

A small yellow sticker pops up on the window of the train that pulls out from the station inside Birmingham airport with the text: “Bollocks to Brexit – It’s not a done deal”.

For a country that specialised in dividing and conquering the world, it has come to this yellow sticky graffiti – a nation split, anxious, angry and chaotic. One of the oldest imperialists is choking on irony: it has stumbled on to the 21st century seeking a consensus on national identity. Paranoia is in the English air. There is talk of the army on standby if things turn dire over the Brexit deal, to supply food, medicines, and fuel in case ports get blocked. Some are talking about a second referendum over the break-up with the European Union. Radios talk shows chatter, newspapers mutter, sociologists babble, politicians seem defensive and out of depth, with people turning to sports to find some relief. It’s in this context that the euphoria and boisterousness around England’s surprise run in the football world cup needs to be looked at. Virat Kohli and his team have walked into this bubble of national discontent that has, perhaps more than ever, left people looking to sports as a caffeine shot of joy.

In many ways, English cricket has turned oriental, if one could use that term. Extraordinary situations kick up out-of-ordinary responses. Like pulling out Adil Rashid out of semi-retirement from the longer forms of the game. It seems one cracking leg-break that hoodwinked Kohli’s waft was enough to trigger open the doors for a man who shut out county cricket.

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United Kingdom is divided over the way Brexit is going and it reflects around Edgbaston. (Source: AP)

England is now hanging its hopes on ageing stars who have seen better days. It seems almost unimaginable that James Anderson and Stuart Broad can last five Tests in six weeks, but English expectations rest on their bodies holding up. Its batting hope remains a former long-time captain whose form is imperative if the team has to succeed on dry pitches against India. Where have we seen this over-reliance on old-timers before? The subcontinent, of course. An old Kapil Dev hobbling along in pursuit of that 431st wicket. Tendulkar caught in a maze, looking for that 100th hundred. A country that fretted and sweated over the possible exit of Dravid and Laxman. England of today has transmogrified into India of the old. Don’t give up yet, carry on playing for our dreams are entwined now. Panic and paranoia — in politics and in sport.

In startling contrast, India seems hellbent on going the other way. Of cutting down the stature of big players. Inculcating insecurity as a performance-enhancing drug. They dropped R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, two of their biggest performers, from the limited-overs side. Understandable, and correct decision, of course. They are again contemplating to make Kuldeep Yadav their front-line spinner in Tests. Understandable move, again. They dropped Ajinkya Rahane for two Tests in South Africa earlier this year. Unwise move, but the message was no one was indispensable. They are now muttering about Cheteshwar Pujara’s lack of form and intent. They let go of Rohit Sharma after some hand-wringing. If Jasprit Bumrah is not fully fit, they won’t try to make any desperate attempt to play him. Unlike what they did with RP Singh, who turned up groggily as a replacement for Zaheer Khan who shouldn’t have rushed into that Lord’s Test in 2011.

Immigrant, saviour

Politically, the country seems unsure about how to tackle immigrants now. The writer John Lanchester didn’t mince about the issue in an LRB podcast recently. “There is a real darkness in this country. Racist xenophobic sickness of heart that is closer to the surface today than it has ever been for decades. It’s a direct result of the referendum debate. Its legacy is the end of the idea that politics is based on rational arguments and a new permission to hate immigrants.”

The Brexit blues have dug a moral dagger through the heart of the nation. Politically that is. The national cricket team is propping Rashid as a saviour. A country high on debates has already worn itself out on Rashid. Is it a slap on county cricket or, as Alastair Cook put it, an “extraordinary situation” requires steps like this?

Monday morning burst open the Pandora’s Box in England. In their podcast The Analyst, looking ahead to the Test, Simon Hughes and Simon Mann went on for an agonising 20 minutes on the Rashid issue.

At one point, talking about which English spinner would the Indians want to bat least against, the debate collapsed into the inevitable confusion. In the same breath, where they talk about Indians would be “very confident” about facing Rashid as he doesn’t have a great long-form record and they can feast on his loose deliveries, it was also said that he would be the man they would least like facing. They could have been talking about Rashid or Brexit: same difference.

Adil Rashid’s is a fascinating story in many ways. (Source: Reuters)

Rashid’s a fascinating story in many ways. His father moved from Mirpur in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to Bradford, a multiracial town where Muslims form a quarter of the population, and asked his eight-year-old son to not only play cricket but made him bowl leg-spin. Mentored by Terry Jenner, who coached Shane Warne, Rashid grew up to become the first Muslim to play for Yorkshire. On a dry hot day, aided by a dry pitch, he picked six wickets on debut. Fragility of mind kept him from taking the next step in Tests, according to Mushtaq Ahmed, former Pakistan spinner who has coached England’s spinners. Mushy remembers a call from Mark Robinson, then England Lions coach, four years back. “Happy news, Adil has improved.” How? “He has got his Allah back. He no longer fears failures. That mental weakness seems to have changed. He told me that he now leaves the results to Allah, and that has freed him to bowl well and focus on his bowling.” As it turned out, he had success in patches when he desired it in earnest, and just now when it seemed he was turning his back on the longer formats, England have come calling, breaking down his doors. Panic or an astute move?

Split down the middle

The Birmingham radio waves are crackling with indignation and accusations. Politicians stutter about even as radio hosts assault them. Liberal and conservative radio stations seem mighty confident about their stated positions even though the answer seems to be blowing in the immigrant wind. Trains from provinces outside London steam into the capital every morning, full of migrant workers. The locals are baffled by these immigrants. Why is this country so attractive to outsiders? Why are these people succeeding when they, the natives, are failing? No wonder, in this chaotic state, ‘Take back Control’, the cynical rallying cry for the Leavers, as those who wanted to break away from EU were called, made sense to the majority. “These are extraordinary times,” screams a host. It’s almost looking like one of the game shows: Deal or no deal?

Most people in the UK receive more from the state than what they contribute, a host says. In direct money transfers from the welfare programmes and in benefits in the health and education fields. 48 percent of the population receives some form of welfare, and 48 percent contribute in taxes and funds. It’s getting clear now that both parties have turned bitter. The people who think they are contributing to others’ welfare, and the ones who aren’t happy being seen as recipients of largesse. Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise then that the Brexit vote too was almost split in the same percentage.

It might be the same sort of split over Rashid. The sports radio shows hem and haw about him; some try to see Rashid’s inclusion as a positive move that this team needs, others aren’t sure.

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Rashid and Moeen Ali stand as poster boys for a silent revolution of sorts. It’s in this messy England that Kohli and his men now find themselves, with issues and self-doubts of their own of course, but still with dreams of making history and legacy of their own. These are two teams with problems of their own (top order and bowling combinations for Indians and English reliance on ageing stars) but victory in cricket perhaps carries more significance and joyous relief to people of this country, even more than the players.