Playing for England – how English must one be?

Keaton Jennings created a slice of Test history in Mumbai, becoming the first man to score a century in his first Test innings and a golden duck in his second. This, normally, would be the sole talking point about a Test debutant, but instead the conversation veered towards a familiar theme in English cricket.

IMPOSTER! Ranjitsinhji wowed the crowds of Sussex and England, but was born at the other end of the Empire, in India. Should he have played for England? Yes!

IMPOSTER! Ranjitsinhji wowed the crowds of Sussex and England, but was born at the other end of the Empire, in India. Should he have played for England? Yes!

Jennings was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He made his First Class debut for Gauteng in 2011 and he even captained South Africa U19s. His father, Ray Jennings, would have represented the Proteas but for the international isolation brought about by apartheid. His brother, Keaton’s uncle, Kenneth Jenkins, also played First Class cricket in South Africa. Keaton’s own brother, Dylan, also played 24 First Class games for Easterns and Gauteng in South Africa.

Keaton, then, is unmistakeably South African. Except, rather than playing for South Africa, he is forging an international career for himself with England. He is hardly a trailblazer, either.

Jonathan Trott, England’s most recent Test debut centurion before Jennings, also captained South Africa U19. Kevin Pietersen, too, notably struggled with the cultural shift of ‘being English’, something the quieter character of Trott adapted to a little more easily. Jennings, too, will fit into the set up like a hand in a glove.

Pietersen’s nationality was often used by those who opted to vilify him. His brash style, loud haircut, diamante earrings and positive on field self-confidence was entirely at odds with the English cricketing order. I wrote about England’s quintessentially un-English Englishman, here.

Given this recent history of ‘obvious’ South Africans (i.e. those born and raised and ingratiated into the sport in South Africa), why then, is Jennings causing a stir now?

Geoffrey Boycott declared on Test Match Special that, “it’s not right that he plays for England.” He wasn’t ‘born and bred’ in England.

Others born in South Africa have escaped the same commentary. Andrew Strauss, now managing director of the ECB, was born in South Africa. Matt Prior, too.

Other players throughout England’s cricket history have travelled from afar to represent the Three Lions. It’s hardly a recent phenomenon.

Famous names from England’s past include a trio of highly talented men who were born and raised in India. Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, who was born in Kathiawar, is widely recognised as one of the finest batsmen of his generation, if not of all time. His nephew, Shri Duleepsinhji, also born in Kathiawar, was a hugely popular figure within the England team and amongst its supporters. The Nawab of Pataudi also represented England, scoring a century in his first Ashes Test during the infamous Bodyline series. He was born in, funnily enough, Pataudi. He is also the only man to have represented both India and England in Tests.

Albert Trott made his Test debut for Australia before moving to England to play for Middlesex, then going on to represent England. He famously stands as the only man to have a six over the pavilion at Lord’s and is a distant relative of Jonathan.

Players around the world, too, are representing countries in which they were not ‘born and bred’. Imran Tahir, twirling his leg spinners for South Africa, hails from Pakistan. Recent New Zealand debutant, Colin de Grandhomme, is Zimbabwean, much like Gary Ballance, the (former?) England batsman.

Some players have received abuse from fans for not representing the country of their community. Moeen Ali was roundly heckled by Indian supporters during India’s tour of England in 2014. He was born (and yes, bred) in Birmingham.

In 2006 when Pakistan were in England, Sajid Mahmood received abuse during the Old Trafford Test from Pakistani supporters who saw it that Mahmood had turned his back on Pakistan and should be playing for them, not England. He was born (and bred) in Bolton.

Some players, I guess, just cannot win in against the muddied background of dual nationality, being second generation nationality of other countries and, in some cases, outright racism and xenophobia.

That is not to say that I view Boycott in such light at all. The fact that Jennings was South Africa’s U19 captain does make this something of a grey area. He was once, after all, a proud South African. Can he still be a proud South African and represent England? Can he truly give his all for England?

This is hardly the forum in which to debate the ins and outs of one’s identity, but these are all players who qualify to play for England and have chosen, quite willingly, to pursue the dream of international cricket with England. There are many more besides them, too.

As a supporter, I care not where a player is born; only that he is good enough to play for England and gives everything to the cause. I would also have sooner seen Jennings opening England’s batting than Ben Duckett last week…

This situation has become so regular as to make it surprising that it still causes so much as a stir when it happens. The world is a small place and people move around it for a variety of reasons. The political climate in South Africa is something I am unqualified to speak on, but I am quite sure that the route to First Class cricket primarily, and international cricket beyond that, is far clearer in England.

If Jennings wants to play for England and feels ‘English’, then good luck to him as he’s clearly good enough and England are happy to have him. He joins an illustrious list of England cricketers born and bred outside of its green and pleasant lands.

By Miles Reucroft

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2 comments on “Playing for England – how English must one be?

  1. An interesting blog – you are, of course, quite right to say that non-British born cricketers have a long (& sometimes distinguished) history playing for England. But there are, I think, some differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ which need more discussion.

    For example in the 19h Century professional cricketers who played for more than one country were, if not common, then certainly not unusual: in addition to Albert Trott (who fell out with Australia after failing to be selected for a tour of England in 1896 led by his brother!) there were Billy Midwinter, Billy Murdoch. JJ ferris, Sammy Woods & Frank Hearne. Most of these were professionals trying to maximise their career earnings (though Sammy Woods was an amateur who was Australian born, but lived most of his life in England). It’s fair to say the rules for qualification in this period were a bit different to today – for example Ranjitsinhji was selected by the committee at Old Trafford having been excluded from the previous Test by the Lords committee. Should he have played for his native India – of course, except India had no Test team (and wouldn’t for another 36 years). The selection of his nephew Duleep and the Nawab of Pataudi Snr. for England in the 1930s is less understandable, except that both had strong links with English cricket, and probably wanted to play at the highest level (which wasn’t India at that time).

    Jump forward to the 1970s/80s – South Africa was excluded from all international cricket so it was perhaps understandable that cricketers such as the Smith brothers and Alan Lamb who could qualify to play for England, did. They – like Ranji in the 1890s (but for different reasons) had no alternative. You might say the same for some of the Zimbabweans who have moved abroad in recent years – the political situation in their homeland (plus the diplomatic isolation and economic chaos) has made it very difficult to forge a career there. So Ballance’s decision to move to England is, at least, understandable.

    This isn’t the case for South Africans today though – whether KP, Trott or Jennings. They could have played in SA and, no doubt, have done well for the country of their birth and education. For me that is where they should be playing (though I agree totally that they have done nothing wrong – it is the rules I feel need looking at). For those born abroad but educated (or mostly educated) in England, like Strauss or Prior, I think the situation is different. I’d place them as closer to those England players born abroad in the past – Bob Woolmer, Colin Cowdrey and Robin Jackman were born in India, but no-one would question their right to represent England. And Ted Dexter couldn’t have had much of a career in Italy (or Freddie Brown in Peru!)

    So I’d support a longer qualification period for those who come to the UK after, say, the age of 16 for representing England (though not for playing county cricket). Maybe 10 years (I think it has recently risen to 7, which is a step in the right direction). Not the full Boycott, but if England, with 18 counties, can’t pick a successful Test team we really shouldn’t be picking those from abroad who can’t, or don’t want to, represent their own team.

  2. Pingback: The un-English Englishmen – another perspective | The Cricket Blog