This week has seen the start of the qualifiers for the World T20 cricket tournament – a chance for cricket’s less-established nations to gain entry to the sport’s most lucrative tournament. These smaller nations lack the resources and infrastructures of cricket’s elite, so many are looking for any loophole in the rules in order to give them a competitive edge, including pushing laws on eligibility to their limits. Nations are spending a lot of time scouting and picking the best talent available – including players who aren’t actually from that country itself. Italy have won three of their five games whilst playing a team that consists of four Australians, four South Africans, one New Zealander and only two Italians, which begs the question, what makes international cricket a battle between the best of two nations?
The ICC (international cricket’s governing body) state that if a player is a citizen of a nation, he is allowed to play international cricket for them. While this normally means that only those born and raised in a country can play for them, there are ways of getting around the rules. If a person has just one grandparent from that nation, that is enough to gain citizenship, and a passport is granted if a term of residence is served. The cricketing administrations of these countries are fully aware of the loopholes in the laws, and are using the flexibility of certain people’s nationality to their advantage to improve their teams.
One nation that’s seen both sides of the coin is Ireland. Thanks to investment at grass-roots level, Ireland have been able to produce plenty of world-class talent, which has made them competitive at international level. However, without the lure of test cricket, Ireland have lost some of their brightest talents, with Ed Joyce switching to English colours in 2006, Eoin Morgan in 2009, and Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling and George Dockrell all reportedly on the brink of changing allegiances. To counter this, Ireland has looked to the best of the English county scene whose chance at international level seemed to have passed them by, with former England Under-19 bowler Tim Murtagh being picked for the first time for this tournament after he successfully applied for an Irish passport. And to confuse things further, Ed Joyce is now back playing for Ireland after being dropped from the English team, with ICC rules permitting players to switch back and forth as and when they choose.
Supporters of Irish cricket would argue that ‘stealing’ players from England is the only way they’re able to compete, as England have been poaching their best and brightest talents for years. And some would argue that Tim Murtagh playing for Ireland is a non-story, as with three Irish grandparents it makes him as eligible as any. Tim himself is excited at the thought of playing for Ireland. “Through my grandparents I do have Irish blood in me. I’m coming up to my 30th birthday so realistically if I was going to play for England then that would have happened by now, so the chance of playing an international tournament is massive for me. Cricket Ireland got in touch and offered me the chance to play, and I jumped at it”.
Irish cricket expert Sinead Farelly, however, isn’t so keen on ‘plastic Paddys’ like Tim representing her nation. “It all boils down to one simple thing, your nationality is part of who you are. In Ireland we are very much into supporting the area you grew up in; the area that you call home. We love seeing players who came through our own training systems performing well on a national or international stage, and while we do delight in the presence of Trent Johnston [former captain, born in Australia] being in our sides; truth is, any time that we play, the Irish fans would always prefer to see an Irish player take to the stage”.
But how should we define nationality anyway? The case of Geraint Jones is a curious one. Born and raised in Papua New Guinea to two Welsh parents, he moved to Australia when he was 12, and then to England when he was 22. Qualifying for England through his Welsh parents (the England team is officially the English and Welsh Cricket Team), Geraint became England’s most capped Welshman despite never having lived in Wales. After being dropped by England in 2006 and with his international career seemingly over, he was selected by Papua New Guinea for this World T20 qualifying tournament. So who should Jones play for? PNG, the country of his birth? Australia, the country that he went to school and learnt cricket in? Or England, the country of his parents?
The question of nationality in international cricket is certainly an emotive one, and an issue that’s unlikely to go away. In today’s multicultural and multinational society, it’s very difficult legally to stop players from switching between nations as and when it suits them. But does players representing countries that aren’t their own go against everything international cricket stand for? Sinead certainly thinks so: “Cricket overcomes divides in our country – it’s a celebration of all things Irish be it Catholic or Protestant. When we play we stand together as a nation. I feel that some of that is lost, no matter which country, when imports are used to make up the numbers”. The fickle nature of fans, however, means that for most, blind eyes are turned as long as results are good, and the ruthless nature of the cricket boards, combined with the constant relaxation of citizenship laws worldwide, means that international cricket will continue to be a very international affair for a long time to come.