Almost two-dozen years ago, a British Conservative politician named Norman Tebbit declared that Britons of South Asian descent – that is, those 3 million or so people descended from immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – should support England’s national cricket team as a sign of integration and loyalty to their adopted country.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in April 1990, Tebbit, then an MP representing Chingford, declared: “A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
He seemed to suggest that full integration meant supporting the British sporting clubs even when they played international matches against teams from their home countries (where, of course, cricket, as well as soccer, are wildly popular).
The comments sparked criticism both British-Asians as well as from some politicians.
“[Tebbit] is a clever politician using soft language about cricket,” said the Labour MP Jeffrey Rooker, who represented the heavily Asian constituency of Birmingham-Perry Barr. He even suggested Tebbit should face prosecution for inciting racial hatred.
Paddy Ashdown, then the head of the Liberal Democrat party, condemned Tebbit’s comments as “outrageous and damaging.”
Two years prior to the "cricket test" comments, Tebbit had caused some consternation by suggesting that some ethnic communities in the UK would never assimilate with British culture, specifically singling out the large Pakistani Muslim community in the northern city of Bradford, whom he characterized as "dangerous."
Years later, in the wake of the deadly London bombings in the summer of 2005 (which were perpetrated by British-born Pakistanis), Tebbit even suggested that the atrocities would not have occurred had his “cricket test” been adopted -- that is, the terror bombings were the direct result of the failure of immigrants to properly assimilate.
"We have generated home-grown bombers; a combination of the permissive society together with a minority population deeply rooted in its own moral code," he told British media.
"You put those two together then you have an explosive mixture, then you only need a detonator,” meaning the war in Iraq.
Tebbit, by now a lord with the title Baron Tebbit, added: "A culture is what defines our society. So if you have two cultures, you [have] two societies living in the same territory and if you look around the world, you see that is a recipe for trouble. If people had listened to me, what they would have done above all was to improve schools in our inner cities where Asian, and indeed black youths, are most likely to come into contact with English young people."
Tebbit is still alive at 82, and his arguments on assimilation and integration seem more relevant than ever, given the continuing hysteria over immigration in the United Kingdom and the rising population of ethnic communities.
British-Asian journalist Rahul Tandon, who is fanatically devoted to India's national cricket team, is still angry over Tebbit’s comments.
“[Tebbit] had failed to understand that many of us whose parents had come from South Asia to the UK have complex identities,” Tandon, who was born in Huddersfield, England, and now lives in India, wrote for BBC.
“We were proud to be British but also proud of our Indian roots. And cricket was where we could display that part of our identity.”
Tandon noted that last Sunday at the Champions Trophy final in Edgbaston, Birmingham, between host England and world champion India, the stadium was filled with British-born Indian fans who loudly cheered for the Indian club.
“[They] had Birmingham or London accents,” he wrote. “Many had Indian flags wrapped around them and were chanting ‘India zindabad’ [long live India]. During the rain, some played a game called spot-the-England-fan as it was hard to find supporters of the home side in some of the stands.”
Even more telling, according to Tandon, some of the India fans in the crowd jeered Ravi Bopara, who plays for England but is of Punjabi descent, as a “traitor” for not playing on the Indian side. Bopara was repeatedly booed throughout the match.
One young Indian fan in the stands even explicitly declared: "We hate [Bopara] as he plays for England. He is a disgrace."
On the other side of this argument, Tandon noticed a turbaned Sikh fan who was proudly decked out in an England jersey – with the name of his apparently favorite player, Monty Panesar, a fellow Sikh who plays for England.
The Sikh fan’s cheering for England enraged some of the India fans who accused him of being a “sellout.”
"How dare you describe me as a sellout?” the angered Sikh shouted at his critics. “I am proud of my culture and you have no right to have a go at me just because I am supporting England."
Thus, Tandon suggests that now in the second decade of the 21st century in an increasingly multicultural Britain, “a small minority of Indian fans seem to be trying to devise their own test. If you support England, in their eyes you have turned your back on your culture and heritage.”
However, Tebbit’s “cricket test” may have some support among British-Asians themselves, even in the highly stigmatized Muslim community.
Indeed, in late 2007, Labour MP Shahid Malik, Britain’s first Islamic government minister, said Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants and their descendants in the UK should embrace Britain’s national cricket and soccer teams.
"My message to young Muslims is 'Be proud to be English and don't let anyone steal your identity away,” he said. “This is one of the greatest nations in the world and we should be proud to live here -- let's shout about it a bit more'."
The Burnley, Lancashire-born Malik, son of immigrants from Pakistan, noted that he supports England’s national cricket team, not Pakistan’s, and added: "I find quite a lot of Muslims who are now very enthusiastic supporters of the English football team. But supporting a team is not the true test of being English. It's about the country you consider your home, the place where you will raise your kids. I'm very proud to support the England football and cricket teams but I don't believe that is the defining element of your national identity."
Tebbit's original pronouncements rankled British-Asians because he seemed to point directly at them and question their loyalties. Strangely, he did not demand that black Britons (who primarily come from the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica) must support England instead of their home countries' clubs. Nor did Tebbit ask white immigrants from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to reject their national rugby and soccer clubs in favor of England.
Of course, white and black immigrants have much more in common culturally and linguistically with native British society than do the people from South Asia – as such, Tebbit’s controversial comments would suggest that people of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani descent should be required to surrender more of their cultural identity in order to truly become “British.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.