England’s cricketers provide voice of reason after racist abuse of Moeen Ali | Barney Ronay

In a heartening collision of the cultural spheres Moeen’s England teammates were quick to jump in when he was abused by dissident free-thinker Taslima Nasreen

The first little buds and whispers are here. Rabbits are rustling in the tree line. Photos of grimacing people in white jumpers shadowed by vast anvil clouds are bubbling up on the timeline. At Northants Gareth Berg, aged 40, has been bowling to Darren Stevens, aged 44 – a weirdly primal collision, like some ancient dance of defiance by the last men on Earth before the nuclear winter hits. And yes, the English cricketing summer is here.

What are the roots that clutch? What branches grow out of this stony rubble? Will the usual angst at the usual flux give way to the usual throbbing late-season life? How will the pre-seeded group stage of the remodelled County Championship interact with the carried-over points tallies in the second-phase divisional matches? And are there iced fingers still for tea?

Sadly, some things don’t appear to have changed. Even before the first ball of the English summer had been bowled on Thursday morning someone had racially abused Moeen Ali on social media.

In a break from the usual intersection of stupidity and viciousness, the person responsible was a Bangladeshi writer and academic. And for once this has caused an enormous stir because it is happening in India.

Poor Moeen. It has been a miserable winter. The last six months of bubble-bound life have brought seven games of cricket (six defeats) on three different continents. In the middle of which he has, as ever, been dragged on to a revolving carousel of other people’s anxieties, a peg in every pet gripe and hobby-horse theory, from “commitment” malarkey, to culture war-style takes on his continued selection.

And now this. “If Moeen Ali were not stuck with cricket, he would have gone to Syria to join Isis,” Taslima Nasreen tweeted on Tuesday morning. It is a strange comment from a political activist who will know better than your average teenager from Egham the violent disrespect involved in comparing a devout Muslim cricketer to an army of psychopathic child-molesting slave traders.

In a heartening collision of the cultural spheres Moeen’s England teammates were quick to jump in. Jofra Archer urged Nasreen to delete and apologise. Middle-order utility ace Sam Billings called for the feminist polemicist’s account to be mass-reported. Nottinghamshire run-machine Ben Duckett described the views of the former Simone de Beauvoir prize-winner as “disgusting”.

Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen has dismissed the critics of her tweet about Moeen.
Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen has dismissed the critics of her tweet about Moeen. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Nasreen posted a follow up in which she dismissed her critics, including the spine of a serviceable England 50-over team, as “haters”. She insisted her initial tweet was “sarcastic”, although there is no sensible way this could be true.

Worst of all the entire affair has been deeply upsetting for Moeen’s father, Munir Ali, who wrote a column for the Indian Express on Thursday in which he talked tenderly about the obstacles his son has had to overcome, and about the pain of having to watch the effect such comments can have.

From an English perspective the entire exchange is hard to comprehend. Remarks like these are usually the territory of white racists. Nasreen is a south-Asian woman and a kind of dissident free-thinker. Her focus is human rights and the systemic oppression of women. Now she’s taking a stand against Moeen on the grounds he has a beard and plays cricket on television.

There are a couple of things worth saying about this. First, the reason this has blown up to such an extent, beyond the fact Moeen is a bigger star in India, is that this is deeply inflammatory territory.

It is no secret India has become a more difficult place for Muslims under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata government. Indian Cricket has on the whole remained an island apart from religious tensions. The current team is seen as a model of non-partisan diversity, a place where talent trumps background.

How pristine is that surface? It was notable how many of India’s cricketers, past and present, posted what some see as coordinated support for the government in the face of recent protests. Not too long ago Wasim Jaffer was levered out of his job as coach of Uttarakhand, accused of Muslim favouritism.

You get the drift here. This is not an apolitical sphere. To call Moeen a terrorist on the eve of his stint at Chennai Super Kings is not a neutral act. And while he will simply shrug and carry on, it is startling how much abuse this mild-mannered, non-preachy cricketer gets.

Moeen was booed at Edgbaston by a stand of Anglo-Indian fans. Moeen is routinely abused on social media and questioned on his commitment by ex-England players and the general chunter.

Again, this stuff does not exist in a vacuum. It isn’t just in India that a right-of-centre government has helped create a hostile environment. It is both reassuring and a little scary that the voice of reason in this volcano of inanity should come from Billings, Archer, Duckett and Saqib Mahmood, that it is the players who offer moderation and support.

Sports people are often neutral, ill-informed and deeply cautious around any friction at all in the home of the pension-fattening pay-day. We should be proud of them.

One other thought: the IPL kicks off on Friday afternoon, a day after the English county season, with 14 English players scattered around the franchises. This would be a textbook moment to bemoan the defeat of English domestic cricket, and reject the intrusion of the outside world.

But we are surely past that now. This sport is one mobile digital product. People will watch the IPL and like cricket, play cricket, consume cricket. The best players will find a home. The IPL may even, who knows, end up launching its own insert over here.

Follow it all, enjoy it all, note the fact the biggest story in English cricket is currently happening on the sub-continent, that even our racism is now outsourced. There is only one wild, year-round season these days, and as of this weekend it’s happening in both Chennai and Chelmsford.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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