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All photos by PA Images

Moeen and Multiculturalism

Scott Oliver

An inspiration to all, regardless of ethnicity, Moeen Ali has been expected to steady the listing ship of British multiculturalism – and fill a Graeme Swann-sized hole in the England side.

All photos by PA Images

Moeen Ali has had a lot on his plate these last 12 months. As well as having to fill a Graeme Swann-sized hole in England's spin-bowling department, he has also been expected to steady the listing ship of British multiculturalism. We make great demands of our sportsmen and women – be role models! saints! – but asking someone to condemn ISIS on account of a shared beard configuration is perhaps a little much (incidentally, he gave his pronouncement on whether or not he was pro-beheading in an interview with Mehdi Hasan).

While Moeen's underrated right-arm Islam and wristy, bearded, Mecca-facing strokeplay have been progressing fairly well in an England shirt, it's those religious and cultural signifiers that have continued to vex and annoy in some quarters – and let's face it, beards do make a lot of people irritable.

In a column that his editors at The Telegraph adorned with the somewhat provocative headline 'You're playing for England, Moeen Ali, not your religion', that beacon of easygoing tolerance, Michael Henderson, betrayed some of Middle England's curtain-twitching discomfort: "There is one thing all players must acknowledge" he declared: "if you are chosen to represent your country, that is who you represent. You may be a Hindu, a Sikh, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jain or (chance'd be a fine thing) a Christian but that is not why you have been chosen". Quite a telling chance'd be a fine thing, that (should they wear crosses, just so we're sure?). Anyway, it hardly needs pointing out that you can represent both your nation and your religion at the same time; they are not mutually exclusive, as someone who spends a 200-word preamble pointing up the complexities of modern, composite national identities ought to be able to grasp.

It is perfectly possible to find the truth-claims of religious belief – that's religious belief of all stripes – a bit far-fetched, maybe a little passé, and yet at the same time to welcome the character traits and behaviours that faith can engender. For all the teeth gnashing, and for every fucktard calling him "Bin Laden" on Facebook, the English cricketing public – many of whom are atheists, you would imagine – have taken to Moeen. He's a likeable lad.

His basic humility and decency – which evidently derive to a great extent from his faith – was made apparent to me on the opening day of the 2008 season, when my club's second string, competing against the 1st XIs of other clubs in the North Staffs League's fourth tier, required a sub pro. Several avenues were tried before the late Damien D'Oliveira, then Academy Director and 2nd XI coach at Worcestershire, said he had someone and would send him along.

It was so cold that our sub pro for the 1st XI, a 40-year-old Chris Lewis, still a few months away from bringing some dodgy tinned pineapple back from St Lucia, bowled a 30-over spell without removing his beanie hat and three sweaters. Moeen not only turned up with hand-warmers (never before seen by his colleagues), but also started off bowling medium-pace seamers. This wasn't too successful, however, and he soon switched to bowling off-spin, bagging five for 45 while chucking himself about in the field with 100 percent commitment.

Waiting to bat at first drop, he involved himself in the low-grade banter while reassuring teammates they should be positive before doing just that and making a decisive, quickfire 67. Everyone warmed to him, a teammate recalls: "He joined in the games with everyone without wanting a million throwdowns or anything like that or without interrupting and trying to take charge. When he batted you could see he could hit a clean ball and he got us nearly all the way to the win and then got out. On the whole, a top bloke, no edge to him, approachable and chatty if you spoke to him. He just came and had a game of cricket without name dropping, telling stories of how good he was, or anything else." After the match, with no fee having been agreed, Moeen simply asked for £50 petrol money to get him back to Birmingham, despite the skipper's protestations.

Humility is not the same as timidity, of course. Brushing off Henderson's criticism with a gnomic "a lion doesn't worry about the opinion of sheep", Moeen showed plenty of guts and discipline at Headingley last year when he took England to within two balls of a draw, scoring an unbeaten, rearguard 108. There lingers a perceived vulnerability to the short ball – possibly a false flag if you dig a little deeper, since one dismissal was a toe-ender and another caused by indecision – and it is clear the Australian heavy weaponry of Johnson, Starc et al will be giving him some chin music this summer. The beard may help muffle it.

Mo has fared well in his debut year in international cricket – he is the cover star of the latest Wisden, an accolade to add to being county cricket's MVP and leading run-scorer in 2013 – but it was his bowling that surprised, perhaps overachieving given how relatively little bowling he had done up to that point. (In any case, people tend to forget that calling him a "part-timer" is a judgement about quantity of bowling, not quality.)

However, beyond the vicissitudes of on-field success, it is with the symbolic baggage of multicultural integration that Moeen will be lumbered and it's something he is happy to take on, as he told All Out Cricket magazine: "If I can change just one child's mentality for the positive... I'd probably be more proud of that than anything else. Loads of people play Test cricket but I think inspiring people is greater than playing Test cricket."

Moeen's engagement with the world beyond the cricketing bubble caused a mild commotion last year when he wore a couple of wristbands expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, then under heavy bombardment from Israeli jets, during the Test against India in Southampton. It was a "humanitarian gesture" said Moeen, with the support of the ECB.

The ICC gave him a slap on the wristbands due to their prohibition of "political statements", which is of course entirely disingenuous since international sport is, very precisely, a competition between entities defined politically. To claim sport as a politics-free oasis is ludicrous – many tyrannical regimes have sought ersatz legitimation through sport, and it is to the eternal credit of Zimbabweans Henry Olonga and Andy Flower that they refused to accept cricket as some blissful arcadia beyond the everyday strife of a grotesquely dysfunctional society, memorably flagging up "the death of democracy" with black armbands, and at the cost of their careers. (The position of ICC and other adminstrators that sport should be politically quiescent is symptomatic of the cynicism of the age: i.e. we cannot take a moral position on things because there is simply too much at stake economically to kick up a fuss. See Western foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia for a benighted example.)

Moeen has shown that he's not someone to pretend sport is played in a vacuum. However, the role model he could be is as much about class as race, for he grew up (and still lives) in inner city Birmingham, where along with his brothers and cousins he played endless hours of pick-up cricket matches. He is an example of triumphing over a lack of opportunity, largely due to the extraordinary devotion of his father, Munir. And in a cricketing culture where the ECB President blusters that Alastair Cook "and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain to be", Moeen is an inspiration for all people from underprivileged backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity.

Indeed, Moeen's early cricketing identifications were not along race lines – it was with Marcus Trescothick, and at any rate his grandmother is an Englishwoman named Betty Cox – and he is adamant that English-born people of Asian background should be supporting England. That said, he found out there may be some way to go before everyone passes the infamous 'Tebbit Test' when he was viciously booed by Indian supporters last year during a T20 international at Edgbaston, not too far from his Sparkhill home.

It only underlines the fact that sport, whether it wishes it or not, cannot lock political reality outside the stadium. Inevitably, it is riven with political, social, financial and cultural forces. As such it offers a litmus test of our political maturity, of our tolerance, of the depth of our tribalism.

So it seems that in these febrile, rightward-drifting times, Moeen will continue to be something of a bellwether for the multicultural project. But then, there are progressive and conservative multiculturalisms. The latter consists of groups more or less self-ghettoizing in barely interacting communities, focused above all on protecting some fixed notion of What We Are. Defending an Idea. "Englishness". This is the principal delirium of fascists of all stripes.

A progressive multiculturalism, on the other hand, sees the social groups to which we belong – and some, such as race, have a greater degree of permanence than, say, the Inspiral Carpets fanclub – as more like an experiment. In this view, cultural difference is simply the starting point for the invention of new, more inclusive identities – a process of creating the future, not being weighed down by the past. And in this regard, Moeen may have his conservatism. But do we really need him pissing on the outfield or downing sambucas in Kavos to accept him as one of us?

If a truly progressive multiculturalism is the glacially slow process of the coming-undone of that patchwork of segregated cultures – their nervy encounters and mutual adjustments in such crucial common arenas as cricket – then it also requires the incalculable bonding effect provided by such moments as Moeen's sublime match-winning catch at Lord's on Tuesday, a moment of raw exhilaration, of forgetting those pre-given cultural co-ordinates through which you may understand and locate yourself. Yes, these are the words of an unreconstructed idealist, but I think if you shut out the jaded cynic then you know in your heart they are true.

So perhaps the best thing that could happen during the Ashes summer is for the ECB to start selling replica beards. If a symbol of multicultural harmony is required, then a crowd of beard-wearing Mo-ists might do it. Imagine 'Jimmy Saville' – not the serial paedophile, but his unfortunate lookalike from the Barmy Army – standing in his St George's cross suit and top hat wearing a Mo-beard. You never know, if we thrash the Aussies, Dave, George and the Bullingdon Boys might also jump on the bandwagon.