Nasser Hussain revived the touchy debate about the "Tebbit Test" a couple of years ago when he publicly lamented the lack of support for the English cricket team from young British Asians. The provocation? The Madras-born English captain could not understand why the Asians plumped for the countries of their origin---India, Pakistan, Bangladesh---against the country of their residence in the 1999 World Cup.
By every indication, British Asians will happily fail the "Tebbit Test" this World Cup, too, greatly disappointing Hussain and Lord Norman Tebbit (the Conservative Party leader who sought to use cricket as a test of national loyalty). England meet Pakistan in Cape Town on February 22, and India in Durban on February 26, and not even the merciful decision to have them as day/night matches, ensuring primetime television audiences here, will pump up patriotic decibels among the Asians.
Make no mistake. British Asians are not lacking in gratitude. Not by a long shot, Sir. They are extremely thankful to the colonial power, for instance, for accidentally discovered "their" game, to paraphrase Ashis Nandy. They are also grateful for the kind act of the organisers to hold cricket's showpiece tournament on this very soil four years ago, which gave them a chance to bat (and shout) for their home teams.
Just don't ask them to back Hussain and his boys. That's all.
Which begs the question, what is about cricket that prompts British Asians to back their 'desi' teams in spite of their current 'videsi' nationality? And what is it about the Indian team that makes British Indians, in particular, love them in spite of their recent form?
"What do you mean? I am Indian," says Suneel Shah, a pharmacist, sharply. A typical emotional reaction of a cricket fanatic? Nossir. Shah was born in Kenya to parents of Indian origin, and has lived here for 30 years. "I try and see every match that India plays in England."
Truth to tell, the pandemic is still to catch on here. Although the tournament is almost a week old, there is little buzz on the streets of Southall, London's 'Little India'. Pubs aren't advertising matches. There are not too many Asians going around with cordless FM radio headphones stuck to their heads. But the flame of the game burns bright in the hearts and homes of Asians here. And a deep sense of Indianness' that is expressed best through their ardent support for the Indian team is already simmering.
Never mind the rather tepid opening game against Holland.
Unlike Shah, Sunil Arora does not have to take days off and watch the World Cup. Arora, 37, was born in London and loves and plays the game. And since he works at the financial markets his screens won't take long to flip from stocks to sports. "By supporting the Indian team, we feel this is the closest we can get to being Indian." Sunil was in India when India played Pakistan and Anil Kumble took his 10 wickets. He remembers the frenzy very well. "Cricket is the Indian national sport, the only thing India is known for internationally, apart from academics," he adds.
Cricket among British Asians is mostly a weekend affair, when friends and family come together. Since India's matches are mostly on weekends in this World Cup, there is a going to be tonnes of cricket talk at the table. However, not too many British Indians are planning to watch the India matches in pubs. "Indians do not associate sport and alcohol. They drink less and eat more when watching a game," says Arora.
Moreover, with the football season in progress and the rugby season due to begin soon, the pubs are crowded with fans who have scarce interest in watching cricket. And what little interest British Asians may have had for the English team has fast evaporated following the protracted fracas over whether to go to Zimabwbe.
At the home of local news agent S. Singh's home, the invites have already gone out for a party during the India matches. "I will allow the day-time staff to watch the store and go home to watch the matches. We cook home food during the matches."
Southall's shop owners will see the matches on Sony, which will further add to the 'Indianness'. But, for Nilang Rami, an Indian who as lived in London for the last seven years, the TV experience is nothing like watching cricket in India. "I miss being in India for the World Cup." The sentiment is shared by most Indians who now live and work in Britain. "There is so much more excitement in India when there's a World Cup. It doesn't quite feel the same here," says 28-year-old Sanjith Kamath, who works in the software division of a recruitment company.
Much to Lord Tebbit's consternation, British Indians have no qualms about supporting the Indian team. "We feel Indian, and the British don't look at us and call us British. They call us Asian. In the end we can choose," says Sunil Arora.
And in spite of Lord Tebbit's stern lesson to prove patriotism on the playground, the love for the team from back home only seems to grow as it is passed down to the younger British Asians just like Punjabi, Gujarati, Salwar Kameezes and 'Indian curry'.
Shamick Patel, 16, took to cricket in a big way only recently, even though he watched the last World Cup. Patel's father, a garment store owner in Southall, does not have the time to watch cricket. But Shamick plans to hook up with his uncle and watch all the cricket matches, especially India matches. Much as he likes Saurav Ganguly's and his boys, Shamick expects Australia will win the Cup.
And much as the "Tebbit Test" unites Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis alike, there are smaller tugs-of-war among the subcontinental brethren.
Sure, they all live harmoniously together. "We play together in the local team, and we can be immune to the political issues that surround our respective countries and its games," says Sunil Arora. Yet, if England were playing Pakistan, the British Indians would support England.
But it is when India meets Pakistan that the unity will face its biggest test. Zebunnisa Hamid, a Pakistani student, and her Indian friends are getting together to watch the match at an English friend's house. "This match, regardless of the result, will be the most fun to watch, because we have not been able to see our two teams on the same pitch for such a long time," she says.
Adds Arora: "The passion with which these countries play is what cricket is about. They have the pressure of one billion people beating down upon them. No one in India will say 'At least you tried,' like they would say to English cricket players here. In India, they say 'You only tried'." The Indian cricket team not only has pressure from one billion Indians but also from the strong pravasi bharatiya community here too.
After a disastrous tour in New Zealand, the jury is still out here on whether India stands a chance in South Africa.
Without Shane Warne now in the Australian side, will things be better for India on Saturday? "Not much," says Subhash Kamath, a 49-year-old chartered accountant. "The Australian team is strong even without Warne and I think it will win the Cup".
But the hope to see India lift the World Cup after 20 years is stronger than the strength of the Australian side for Arora: "In my heart, India has to win the World Cup. They have the best team. They should muster the best attitude and win." Amen.