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English cricket marked by uncertainty

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Mihir Bose | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 16 May 2008

While England are expected to easily defeat New Zealand in the Test series which started on Thursday, the attention is not so much on what is happening here as on India.

Traditionally by this time cricket would have ceased in most of the world, barring the odd Test series in West Indies, and all eyes would be on the English summer.

But this year the vast riches offered by India and the Indian Premier League have made the English summer seem more like a cricketing footnote.

Even New Zealand great Sir Richard Hadlee, previewing his country's series, concentrated on the IPL.

English cricket gives the appearance of trying to somehow keep up with the Indian juggernaut.

The pity in all of this is that England has a long history of innovation. For example Twenty20, like all limited-over cricket, was conceived here.

English cricket as an innovator may sound a tall tale. Many years ago it was fashionable to dismiss cricket as the Tory party at play.

The reference was not meant kindly.

The MCC Touring England team in Australia 1924/25 captained by Arthur Gilligan (Middle Row Centre).jpg

Even when John Major invoked cricket during his Premiership, the picture he presented was one of cricket conveying not change, but reassurance about traditional values.

But in the past, English cricket has welcomed change and even initiated it.

Take for instance New Zealand's entry into Test cricket. That came when they played England at Christchurch on 10 January 1930.

A day later another England team took the field in Barbados bringing Test cricket to the Caribbean for the first time.

Imagine two fully-fledged Test teams from the same country playing a day apart in two different hemispheres.

But England had to do that if cricket was to be taken to new lands.

Then, only two other countries played Test cricket - Australia and South Africa.

White South Africa, imprisoned by its racist outlook, refused to play anybody who was not white and it was only after the Second World War that Australia started touring countries like West Indies and India.

In the 1920s and 30s, English cricket also ventured into areas British politicians could not.

That decade was dominated by the question of dominion status for India. The Indians wanted to rule themselves while British politicians were not at all convinced they were capable of doing so.

In 1927, in order to judge India's ability to govern itself, the British government decided an all-white delegation of MPs - headed by John Simon and including a young Clement Atlee - should visit India.

India was so outraged by this visit that Gandhi came out of retirement to lead the campaign for freedom.

Contrast this with cricket. Around the same time an English team led by former captain Arthur Gilligan toured India, playing against Indians and often at British clubs that did not admit Indians as members.

He promised to help India get Test status and was so encouraging that India formed a cricket board before making their Test debut at Lord's in 1932.

It was another 15 years and many more Gandhi-led struggles before India got its freedom.

In the 20s and 30s, political Britain could not imagine Indians, or any non-white people, capable of governing themselves.

Cricketing England, however, could see merits in Indians and this opened the cricket door for the country when the political one remained shut.

But then even before that, English cricket had shown a remarkable ability to cut across racial and cultural divides.

This was in marked contrast to America.

Take Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji and Jackie Robinson; Ranji a cricketing great, Robinson a baseball legend.

The interesting thing here is Ranji, an Indian prince, made his Test debut for England in 1896 against Australia and was instantly hailed as a genius.

Over the following decades, two other Indian princes - his nephew Duleep and the Nawab of Pataudi - also played for England.

But it was 1947 before Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play major league baseball.

While the Indians were playing for England, America segregated black players into "Negro Leagues" to become the "invisible men" of baseball.

Let me not exaggerate the innovatory powers of English cricket.

It was very slow to recognise the evil of sporting apartheid, the awful diktat of white South Africa which not only insisted that its teams would be white but that its opponents should also field white players.

It was only in 1968 that English cricket was forced to confront it.

That was when the then South African Prime Minister suddenly made himself an English cricket selector and told England it could not play Basil D'Oliveria, a Cape-coloured who had to leave his homeland to achieve his ambition of playing Test cricket.

That led to the sporting boycott of South Africa but it also removed the MCC from the heart of English cricket.

The innovations we have been talking about were the work of the MCC which had run both English and world cricket and had a world mission for the game.

The England and Wales Cricket Board may be more efficient; it is certainly richer, but it has no such mission.

While its concerns must be focused on England it also needs to acquire a bit of that pioneering MCC spirit if English cricket is to meet the challenges it now faces from India.

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