In sports, being proud of your identity or re-asserting it comes at a cost. At 19, when English all-rounder Moeen Ali decided to fully embrace Islam and wear his beard as a “label,” he knew what he was signing up for.

“It’s a label for me to show that I am a Muslim and for other people to know that they can be strong in their faith and still play the sport,” Moeen had said in an interview in 2014.

A British man with an Asian ancestry who does not hold back on religious or cultural signifiers while playing the game continues to raise eyebrows even today.

Author Taslima Nasreen’s tweet about Moeen is the latest example: “If Moeen Ali were not stuck with cricket, he would have gone to Syria to join ISIS,” the author tweeted on Monday. Nasreen said she was being sarcastic, but after severe backlash – led by Moeen’s teammates standing up for him – she deleted the tweet.

Whether it is Serena Williams making herself heard as a Black woman time and again, or Colin Kaepernick taking a knee against systematic racism and triggering a global movement, athletes have found themselves in controversial discourses simply because they choose to proudly wear their identity on their sleeves.

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Moeen belongs to that category as well. His debut wasn’t the first time that we saw a cricketer clinching on to cultural or religious signifiers. But for England, it was rare. His entry in the English cricket set-up gave his country the chance to work on multi-culturalism and inclusivity. It sent out the message that the 22-yards are all yours in international cricket, that it didn’t matter if you’re Asian, Black, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.

Sport sometimes struggles to grasp the idea of faith, ideology and politics. And that struggle in cricket, in particular, seems far more magnified. The International Cricket Council has repeatedly attempted to portray cricket as an insulated space wherein it is somehow above ideological and political hassles.

However, cricket’s history shows that it is impossible to remain apolitical or neutral. Its formulation, the people who had access to it, the countries that play it, its expansion and success can all be attributed to politics. Why then, has it made navigating something as political as identity and ideology, such a difficult task?

A role model

Maybe, Moeen Ali’s perpetual humility and calm conduct will tell you that he doesn’t personally see it as big a hurdle as it appears. But because he carries it well, doesn’t mean it is not heavy. And that is why Nasreen’s tweet was hurtful.

The presence of minority ethnicities in sport can often bring up doubts about token representation. However, that doubt is rendered useless when it comes to Moeen’s place in the England dressing-room. It’s a result of hard work, talent, and now, the experience. With close to seven years with the national team, the 33-year-old is a core part of the English set-up and admired by his captains Joe Root and Eoin Morgan.

In The Cricket Monthly’s November 2015 feature about him, Moeen had made it clear that he loves cricket with all his heart but for him, being a good person, the kind that his faith expects him to be, takes precedence.

“God doesn’t care how many hundreds I score or how many wickets I’ve taken,” he had said.

Sure, he can be seen as a poster boy for inclusivity and multiculturalism. Yes, he is the perfect antidote to Britain’s old anti-colonial image. And a lot of Muslim households probably watch more intently when he is on the screen. Even though it’s not his burden alone, he has previously admitted to being a man on a mission when it comes to changing the image about his faith. He wants to be a role model.

In order to be a certain kind of person, one tends to keep their principles and ideology close. If that means someone wants to refrain from participating in team-celebrations with champagne showers or endorsing alcoholic beverage-brands on their jersey, they should be allowed that space without having to be reduced to stereotypes. It’s derogatory to Moeen, what he has worked for and his experiences of Islamophobia so far.

What Nasreen’s now-deleted tweet did was imply that no matter the number of five-wicket hauls you have, or the centuries you have scored, you will be accused of being “stuck” with cricket. No matter that you are an ambassador for a NGO that takes care of orphans, your name will be written in the same line as that of a terrorist-organisation.

When Moeen was reprimanded for wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands in the Southampton Test in 2014, he agreed that it may not have been the appropriate platform to express his views. He also received a death threat because of it. Even though his intent was humanitarian and not political, the ICC urged that the cricket field cannot provide a space wherein symbolically expressing views about political, religious or racial activities or causes during the match can be condoned.

In his book, Moeen also spoke about an incident during the Ashes in 2015 that left him angry. He was allegedly referred to as Osama on the field, even though the Australian cricket denied saying that to Moeen later. Reflecting on it, Moeen wrote:

 “I was no Osama. I never had been. My England team-mates did not think so. They knew I was a devout Muslim. They respected that but didn’t find it in any way strange or weird. What is more, neither did the English fans. The beard was no longer something to be mocked or abused but accepted — as much a part of English cricket culture as WG Grace’s beard had been. My faith may be different but I was as English as the rest of the team.”   

Cricket has made it clear that it cannot give its players the stage to assert their identities, raise social consciousness and galvanise public attention. There’s a reason why Jason Holder was disappointed at the lack of solidarity during the #BlackLivesMatter movement which failed to find its footing in cricket.

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Cricket needs to do more

Even though things are changing and players are willing to take the risk and be prouder of their beliefs and what they represent, cricket is falling behind. It insists on abstaining from creating an environment that fosters social discourse, maintaining a nearly impossible neutrality, as if existing in a vacuum. Sports and identity go hand in hand, and identity goes beyond the one determined by your nation. Athletes can represent their country, their culture, their race and their religion, at the same time. Cricket is simply refusing to accept that nuanced possibility.

For now, the England dressing-room seems to be addressing that at least superficially. It took a stand for Jofra Archer when he reported an incident about racism. Eoin Morgan has been applauded for handling a “multicultural” squad often. Some members of the England set-up rallied around Moeen, calling out Nasreen’s comment. One of them was Archer himself, who has been on the receiving end of xenophobia. Saqib Mahmood, Sam Billings and Ben Duckett too chimed in with support for Moeen.

It doesn’t solve the problem and erasing a tweet does not erase sentiments. Sport has always been about everything: nationalism, belief, culture, corruption and identities – Muhammad Ali embodied it in his time and the likes of Serena, Osaka, LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton and Megan Rapinoe continue that legacy.

Moeen was certainly not the first to be subjected to an attack on his identity and certainly will not be the last. He should not be asked to just stick with cricket neither is he stuck with cricket.

Samreen Razzaqui is an independent journalist, a cricket writer and a post-graduate student of Convergent Journalism at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia.