There’s something about cricket that’s quintessentially British. Maybe it’s the tea intervals, the lackadaisical attitude towards an efficient use of time, ongoing debates about whether batsmen should stand their ground when they’ve been caught or begin the walk back to the pavilion before the umpire has raised his finger.
There’s also the parallel institution of Test Match Special which, since 1957, has provided ball-by-ball commentary of England’s anguish and occasional elatedness as 22 men dressed in white spend five days running stretches of 22 yards, attempting to get a leather-clad ball beyond the rope marked boundary.
This week I spent a few anxious minutes believing that the impossible could actually happen. And still I was disappointed. I’d spent most of the final day assuming the wickets would fall and the match and series would be lost.
That conditional hope is a very British thing too, hoping that something special might happen, but holding back a reservoir of pessimism just in case it doesn’t. The legacy of defeat after defeat and the decades in the wilderness, even the golden generation who won the Ashes at home and down under, crumbling to a humiliating whitewash in the last tour – nothing good ever lasts for long, and if it seems too good to be true it probably is.
Another very British thing – because to draw this match would have been a victory. A match England began dominating, before collapsing and failing to contain Sri Lanka; where on Sunday evening established batsmen threw their wickets away like paper plates. Had Anderson stayed for two more balls, he and his fellow defender Moeen Ali would have been heroes.
This was the same Moeen Ali, scoring an unbeaten 108 runs at an excruciating pace, who a couple of weeks before had said he was ‘representing the Muslim faith’. Former England captain Nasser Hussain caused consternation over a decade ago when he expressed his frustration that British Asians didn’t support England. Cricket is perhaps one of those things that gets close to understanding Britishness.
It is something hard to describe, much better to experience, a little odd from a distance and insatiably charming close at hand. And it is a sport where representing your country is not done out of any nationalistic fervour or jingoism, but a sense of together muddling through. Maybe it was that, and not his South African descent, that made Kevin Pietersen an awkward fit in the team. His swagger was not quite British.
And perhaps that’s why the idea of the latest all-rounder to stake his claim for the number six spot ruffled feathers by wearing his faith so visibly.
But Michael Henderson, writing in the Telegraph, gets this wrong. He says: “Membership of a national team can only ever represent one thing, and that is the country in whose name you take the field.” We all have complex identities, our nationalities, our occupations, our pastimes, and certainly our beliefs. For some these are incidental and easily relegated, but for others they are primary, and the idea of removing them from any area of life is to undermine that identity.
And while there may be discomfort at faith being so very public, trying to remove it is also an imposition. It is to say that some things do not belong here. And that kind of censorship is not very British.