I had an Irish grandmother called Katie O’Reilly, I’ve enjoyed holidays in the Emerald Isle and used to love a pint of Guinness once upon a time. Under today’s rules I could have pulled on the green shirt of the Republic of Ireland and would doubtless have won more than the 57 caps I gained for England. The only problem is, of course, that I was born and raised in England of two English parents and I am, therefore, an Englishman.
I simply cannot have imagined representing any other country. And had the England dressing room been half-full of non-English players using this country as a flag of convenience, I could not have sat back and stayed silent. If my international ambitions had been blocked by players from another country, I’d have been spitting blood about it It seems the political elite in all countries want to dilute national identities – yet they still want to have international sport, by their own rules, ie, there are no meaningful rules.
I love cricket, always have done and always will, yet when I sit down to watch England play Sri Lanka in the current one-day series, I see four South Africans and an Irishman in our team – but 11 Sri Lankans in theirs. During last winter’s Ashes, it was wonderful to see England stuff the Aussies, but you simply could not enjoy the spectacle with the same sense of pride when key players were South African. It was an issue the Aussies could sneer about – even when they were being thrashed – and you could hardly blame them.
There will always be grey areas in terms of nationality. Nasser Hussain was born in India of an Indian dad, but is every bit an Essex man as I am, in terms of his upbringing and where he learned his sport. Yet the same is simply not true of Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Craig Kieswetter and Jade Dernbach. In the Apartheid era, when South Africa was banned from international sport, there was some sense in the fact that the likes of Allan Lamb and Robin Smith were able to play for England, even if you didn’t agree with it. Now it defies logic.
In terms of foreign players coming to England to play at club level, I’m all for it – the more, the merrier. That is what makes the Premier League so great – and the great mix of nations also makes cricket’s Indian Premier League such an enjoyable sporting event. But with the IPL already the most lucrative event in the sport, cricket will dilute the value of the international game at its peril – when England is no longer England, the game starts to lose its meaning. Rugby has had its fair share of the same problem and now we have the invasion of ‘plastic Brits’ opting to qualify for the Great Britain Olympic team because they are not good enough to represent their own country.
English football hasn’t had this problem yet but it is sure to come as national boundaries get blurred in sport, as in the wider world. When I played for England, I always said that Tottenham Hotspur were probably a better team, due to our outstanding Scottish, Welsh and Irish players. And yet playing for your country was the greatest honour and privilege you could have. I often wonder whether England’s cricketers feel the same – especially those who can’t get into the team. And for those athletes who will miss the highlight of their career, competing for Great Britain in the London Olympics, well it’s nothing short of a scandal.