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Proud ‘Englishmen’ or just cricketing mercenaries… Who gets your vote?

The adopted Englishman is a curious beast, but who would be your top ‘outsider’ to wear the Three Lions? Derek Pringle poses the question…

It is unusual for foreign players who have qualified for England to captain their adopted country but Eoin Morgan, the current captain of England’s one-day side, follows in some big footsteps – Tony Greig’s being the biggest. Both these men are fine players, but has anyone who has qualified for England been truly beloved by those who support the team, with all the emotional turbulence that entails?

Morgan is a curious case. Ireland is not so far removed from England and Wales, yet he is distinctly foreign in his approach to cricket, being essentially solitary in his outlook. Clubbability is that most English of traits and he lacks it. But we live in fickle times and should he manage to deliver us that elusive World Cup, or even this year’s Champions Trophy, then any perceived crimes against the state, like bunking off Bangladesh while the team plays on because you feel threatened (very un-captain like), will probably be forgiven.

Not that Greig, an immensely popular figure for most of his playing career, was ever entirely absolved for defecting to Kerry Packer’s Circus in 1977. A flamboyant, charismatic figure, Greig was liked and admired by his team mates at Sussex and England.

The public also took a shine to this handsome 6ft 7in blond adonis-cum-all-rounder, at least at the start. But despite delivering a fine win as England captain against India in 1976/77, Greig never really got over his infamous “I intend to make them grovel” remark against the West Indies, after England went down in the Test series against them 3-0.

Some, particularly traditionalists, always suspected the South African-born Greig of being a ‘mercenary’, after he used his Scottish-born father as a means of being eligible to play county cricket. But actually, he’d begun playing for Sussex in 1966, four years before South Africa were banned from the international game in 1970. That view spread to the point where it still pertains today among many cricket followers particularly after his hasty departure to Packer as one of its main architects.

The Southern African with British roots proved a popular way to play for England while South Africa listed in the international wilderness for 23 years. Allan Lamb, Chris and Robin Smith, all had to spend time qualifying for England in county cricket. Graeme Hick, from Zimbabwe, also clambered on board, though without a British parent to speed the process Hick spent seven years qualifying to be eligible for England instead of four. When he finally arrived on the big stage, in 1991 he never quite recaptured the form he’d shown while getting there.

Lamb was a fine player of fast bowling while the Smith brothers, although never playing together for England, cut a contrast for their county Hampshire – Chris a calm, studious patience; Robin a bundle of nervous energy with a withering square cut. Were they popular with the public? I’m not sure. Lamb and both Smiths were liked by team mates, but their harsh South Africa accents, which they never lost, always set them apart. As David Steele, a team mate of Lamb’s at Northants, once told him, “Lamby, you’ll never be an Englishman as long as words come out of your mouth.”

Kevin Pietersen came from the same province of South Africa as the Smiths. He also had to qualify in county cricket to become ‘English’ despite having a mother who was born here. Where he differed from them was in his reasons for wanting to play for England.

For Lamb and the Smiths, apartheid denied them an international outlet for their cricket skills due to sporting sanctions. Yet South Africa had been readmitted to international cricket by the time Pietersen began playing in earnest.

In a neat irony, Pietersen’s reason for wanting to play for England was that transformation quotas were denying him the opportunities players of colour, now being fast-tracked, were once denied under apartheid. Still, when he got his chance for England he became one of their finest batsmen until being dropped in unedifying circumstances in 2014.

Fans certainly admired Pietersen’s aggressive batting and inventive strokeplay. Many, though, failed to marry up the player who declared his love of playing for England by tattooing three lions on his arm, with the one who once told Australian player, Ed Cowan, during an England match against Australia ‘A’ – “I’m South African Eddie, this is just the day job.”

Aside from Greig, cricketers from abroad qualifying for England were rare before the 1980s. Gubby Allen (born Australia) and Ranjitsinhji (born India) were two who won Test caps, though there was an ambivalence towards Allen despite him attending Eton College and becoming more establishment than the establishment. The past 40 years has seen a glut of foreign-born players qualify and play for England, the latest being Keaton Jennings. Between him and Lamb are players like Andy Caddick, Geraint Jones, Adam and Ben Hollioake and Jonathan Trott to name but a few.

Born in South Africa, Jennings made his Test debut in Mumbai last month and christened it with a hundred. In the aftermath he professed surprised at the animosity he’d received on social media for playing for England after being born overseas. Now, a few bad eggs can make a big smell on social media, but there have been so many players qualifying for England in recent times that the public have become cynical. Indeed, many see them as little more than economic migrants and as such have found them hard to warm to.

In truth, the cricket-loving public in England has probably always had a detached relationship with foreign-born players who chose to qualify to play for England rather than the country of their birth. Choosing the one most beloved is not easy.

I know who I would pick, Robin Smith, but that is from the perspective of a team mate who shared a changing room with him, rather than an England supporter. For those of you in that camp, the choice will not be so easy.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, January 13 2017

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