Why combining religion with cricket even on the field of play is not a problem
Adil Rashid may not have managed to save England from defeat against Pakistan in Dubai but his presence in the team, along with that of Moeen Ali, shows how cricket is, surprisingly, proving to be a great bridge builder in this country.
In Rashid and Ali we have two Muslim cricketers, both born to parents from Mirpur in the Pakistan part of Kashmir, who are so much part of the England cricket team that they are heroes not only to Asians but also many in the wider white community.
In a cricketing sense Rashid’s story is the more remarkable. He is a leg spinner from Yorkshire, a county which has traditionally distrusted leg spin. More significantly, he comes from a county which until a quarter of a century ago had never had a foreign born, let alone a non-white, player. Indeed it was only in 1990 that Sachin Tendulkar became the first non-white to play for the county. The reason he was chosen was Yorkshire felt that the Asians who lived in the county like in Bradford where Rashid was born, he was two when Tendulkar made history, did not identify with Yorkshire. Tendulkar’s signing was meant to be a bridge to the county’s Asians.
At that time talking to Asian community leaders it was clear they felt that Yorkshire cricket had a whites only policy. I was told by many Asian cricketers that they had been shunned by clubs, particularly the important clubs who always chose white players with the result that the Asians had been forced to form their own leagues. Yorkshire’s then almost wholly white membership disagreed arguing it was Asians who did not mix and racism was a myth. Rashid’s rise, along with that of other Asians, means that the argument as to whether Yorkshire was institutionally racist is now more for historians to debate.
In Moeen Ali case’s racism was never going to be a problem as being born in Birmingham he qualified for Warwickshire which unlike Yorkshire never had any problems welcoming players from all over the world. Moeen has been helped by the fact that his father broke the mould of Asian parents who see little value in sport and are always keen to encourage their children to acquire a professional qualification. As Moeen put it to me his cricket mad Dad “always encouraged me to both bat and bowl. My dad always wanted me to be a cricketer, study no chance. Once he saw that I was quite good for my age, no school. So, as soon as I did my GCSEs, I got signed by Warwickshire at 15.”
Interestingly, his father is not very religious and as he says, “My mother prays, my dad is into cricket and I wouldn’t say I was very religious when I was growing up. But, as a kid, I always wondered why we were here and, as I got older, I looked into all religions. Then, when I was 17 or 18, I was playing for Warwickshire against the West Indies. I met a mixed race, Caribbean guy, a Christian who had become a Muslim. I asked him why and he said, ‘Look, this is your religion,’ and started teaching me Islam.”
Now for Ali combining religion with cricket even on the field of play is not a problem. This means praying daily, doing his afternoon prayers in the dressing room at lunch time and also drinking water in a special way. “If I have a drink on the field, I’ll sit down or kneel down. It’s something the Prophet used to do and we try and follow it. I am not expressing Islam through cricket. It is to show people that you can have religion and play at the same time. It is not difficult.”
And this causes no problems with his team mates none of whom apart from Rashid is a Muslim and most of whom are not very religious at all. “The lads ask me questions about religion but they’ve accepted me. It’s about me being the best I can as a Muslim.”
Much as I believe in the redemptive power of sport I am well aware that the idea sports has solutions for all of life’s problems is ridiculous. Yet the rise of Rashid and Ali shows how sport can knock on the head the notion that devout Muslims cannot be part of our society, let alone an important part.
Mihir Bose is a writer and broadcaster on sport, India, Bollywood, race and travel.
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