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WHO IS BETTY COX?
Just before the Ashes series of 2015 we went to a camp in Desert Springs in Andalucía in Spain. It is one of those classic sports camps that have developed in recent years, a sports complex in an isolated place. In winter it has ideal desert weather, warm and sunny. A lot of Premier League clubs use it for warm weather training, although unlike us they don't play cricket. Not surprising since many of their foreign players would not know what to make of the game. We did a lot of fielding and catching practice, cycling 14 kilometres to the beach, fitness work, golf for those who are fond of the game. And we played football all the time.
But while cricket has borrowed from football, our camp was not as regimented as the ones footballers have. We were treated more like adults and encouraged to think about what was best for us. In cricket the feeling then, and still is, you are grown-ups and it's your own career. Everyone's responsible for his own actions. If you mess up it's down to you. The view of the England management was, 'We are not nannies always monitoring what you are doing.' I agree with that approach. So, there was no curfew, nothing like that. And unlike footballers we weren't told what to eat. Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, may have revolutionized English football by bringing in special diets to increase the fitness of players. In cricket we have never had that sort of regime. We know we need the carbs to get through a day in the field and we have to stay fit but our food is nothing like as closely controlled as that of the footballer.
It was England coach Trevor Bayliss's first camp, an important moment and its real purpose was as a bonding exercise before the Ashes. As part of that we had to reveal facts about ourselves. One evening a quiz was organized. We had three quiz masters, Rooty was a matador, Stokesy was an Englishman abroad and Chris Taylor, our fielding coach, the Spanish golf legend Seve Ballesteros. Each of us had to give the quiz master a question which he read out to the rest of the squad. All sorts of questions were offered up by the various members of the team. My question was, 'My grandmother's name is Betty Cox. Who am I?' The quiz master read out the question and asked, 'Anybody know?' Everyone looked at each other and you could see they were completely stumped. It was obvious nobody had a clue. Eventually the quiz master asked, 'Nobody knows? Give up?' Everyone nodded. The format was that at this stage you had to put your hand up, get to your feet and reveal the answer. I stood up and nobody could believe it. I can still remember the look on director of cricket Andrew Strauss's face. He just could not believe it and still to this day can't believe that my grandmother's name is Betty Cox.
There are any number of England cricketers either born abroad, like Stokesy in New Zealand, or, like Straussy, born here but brought up in South Africa, but their names mean they are perceived to be English in the way I am not. In my case because of my name I am seen as a typical person of subcontinental origin who could not have any historic family connections with England. Most people cannot imagine that I've got an auntie called Ann who is my dad's half sister. I've got an uncle called Brett, Dad's half brother. All these relations, who could not be more English, are close family. My grandad treated Ann and Brett like his own children. My father is very close to Ann; she comes to my parents' home every week and Ann is as much my aunt as Shah Begum, my father's elder sister and Betty and Shafayat's first child. I grew up with Auntie Ann and Uncle Brett and still see them regularly. I realize when people look at me and think of my origins they would never think I have a family tree which is a bridge between England and Pakistan. At times I do feel boxed in. But the fact is my dad is half English, which makes me a quarter white.
I grew up hearing stories of how my grandfather Shafayat Ali met my grandmother Betty Cox. Nothing could be more romantic or a more wonderful insight into how after the Second World War this country took the first steps towards the multiracial, multicultural society we have now become. I have heard my grandparents' stories often and they always make me think how much we have changed and how far we have come as a nation.
Much is made of tales of mass migration and of people ending up far from the land of their birth, and when I consider my grandfather's life I realize that had things turned out differently I might have played for Australia. It was there Shafayat Ali headed when he first left the subcontinent just after the war. He was born in the small village of Dadyal in the district of Mirpur in Kashmir. Those were the days of the British Raj, although Kashmir was ruled by a maharaja, part of the third of the subcontinent which was ruled not by the British but by princes who had total internal autonomy and could do much as they liked in their own kingdom. In Kashmir this meant the maharaja invented a whole new way of playing cricket. Every time there was a cricket match he would arrive at three o'clock, the Kashmir national anthem would be played, salaams would be made and he would first retire to a special tent to smoke a long water pipe. At around 4.30, irrespective of which team was batting, he would come out to bat. Two attendants would pad him, one for each leg, two others put the gloves on, one for each hand. Then, while another attendant carried his bat, he sauntered to the middle, a small man wearing a large turban. Even if he was bowled he was given not out. Once the wicketkeeper called no- ball after the ball had hit the stumps. Eventually after fifteen or twenty minutes, by which time he had made 50, he would say he was tired and was given out lbw. The match carried on as if he had never been at the crease. History does not record what the scorer did with the 50 the maharaja had scored. How I would love to be given not out even when I am out!
But that was in the capital Srinagar. There was no cricket in Dadyal. My grandad didn't learn about the game until he came to this country and never took to it. His concern when leaving his little village was to get out and find work and this he did when he was sixteen or seventeen. He went first to Mumbai, one of the great cities of the British Raj, where he found work on a ship which took him to Australia. This was the era of the White Australia policy after the war, when the government, keen to get the British to migrate there, tried to attract the Ten Pound Poms. But they had to be white. It was not long after this that Harold Larwood, having terrorized Australian batting during the 1932 bodyline series and fed up with running a small shop in Blackpool, migrated to Australia under the Ten Pound Pom scheme. Many others – estimates say it was over a million and half – did the same. Who knows how my life would have turned out had Australia then allowed migrants from Asia. My grandad came back to Mumbai and from there sailed for England. He found work as a die-caster in the Lucas factory in Birmingham. It was at Lucas that he met Betty, a local girl from Acocks Green, and they married in 1949.
Betty's story is just as fascinating. Her first husband, a pilot, had died in the war and she was left to look after two young children, Ann and Brett. She knew little about the world my grandfather had come from. At that time in England there was little chance of knowing about it as there were very few Asians in this country. In a city as big as Birmingham there were only about ten people from Kashmir. My grandfather would often tell the story of a guy called Zaman who had come from Kashmir a year or two before him. He was the first to arrive and was seen as some sort of pioneer.
Strangers, they say, do attract. I don't know whether it was that, but my grandparents' love for each other was deep and overcame all racial and cultural differences. In those days mixed marriages were unknown and there was overt racism in this country of the type we, thankfully, do not see today. My grandfather saw signs outside boarding houses saying, 'No dogs, Irish or coloured'. It helped that my grandmother's family accepted my grandad. From the beginning my grandmother took to her husband's culture and faith. She converted to Islam and when in 1956 he decided that their young children should go back to his village for their basic education, reading the Koran, saying Namaz, or prayers, she readily accepted.
I can only wonder how difficult the journey to Dadyal must have been. She had by then four young kids: apart from Bhaiji Begum, the eldest child who was six years old, there was my uncle Shafi Ali, four years old, and my father, Munir, and his twin brother, Shabir, just seven months.
My father and his twin nearly died on that trip. The journey itself was difficult. A flight to Lahore then travel by car to Dadyal. My father and Chacha (or uncle) Shabir were in incubators. But in Dadyal they got diarrhoea. Dadyal then was a village with no amenities, not even a doctor. They had to be taken to the nearest city and there the doctors said they were untreatable. They were too weak. They wouldn't survive the journey back to England. The only alternative was to take them to Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, to see a specialist. They got better and eventually made it back to England.
Just over a year later my grandfather decided his children must return to Dadyal to make sure they had a good basic Islamic education. So, my father, aged two, left England and did not return until he was ten. Neither of my grandparents moved to Pakistan. My grandfather continued to work here, going back and forth, staying for months at a time. My father and his siblings were looked after by my great-grandparents. It was what Betty did that showed a great sense of adventure and tremendous courage. While my father was in Dadyal she made five trips there, to a world she had no knowledge of and which to her must have been very strange.
I have often heard the story from my father of seeing his mother arrive in Dadyal for the first time. Buses normally did not come to the village, where most transport was by tonga, a horse-drawn cart. As the bus approached all the kids ran towards it. The sight of the bus made the kids so excited that they tried to jump on board to see this strange machine that had suddenly come into their midst. To them it must have seemed like the scene from Spielberg's ET when the kids watch an alien spaceship landing. For my father it was particularly exciting for on the bus was his mother coming all the way from England to see him. He was only five and it had been three years since he had last seen her.
If the bus was alien to the children of the village then for my grandmother life in Dadyal was also very strange. And how she coped with life there was remarkable. In the 1960s Dadyal, which is now a substantial town, had no electricity, running water, paved roads or proper sanitation. For their ablutions people just went outdoors. This Englishwoman from Birmingham, far from being fazed, adjusted to it. One of my dad's cousins was fairly well off and their house was the only one in the village with an inside toilet. They said that as my grandmother was not used to such a rustic life she could come and use the toilet in their house. Sometimes she did but not all the time. She just joined in with the locals. (Ironically, what surprised my dad most about England was to discover that there were houses with outside toilets. He had been brought up to believe that everyone had an ensuite bathroom.)
Dad remembers her going to the river to wash the clothes. There, like the locals, she would bash the clothes against the flat stones along the river bank. I can only marvel how this middleaged woman, having come from an England where many homes now had a washing machine, instantly took to the traditional launderette of the subcontinent. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for this but she was determined to be part of this world and intelligent enough to know how to do it. For her it was exciting. She enjoyed the experience of learning the ways of this world, so different to her own. Betty told me that when she first arrived there were lots of scorpions in the very basic family house, which terrified her, so a maulana, a Muslim scholar, was called in – once he'd recited his words, she never saw a scorpion again. In an effort to understand the people, she learnt Urdu and while she never spoke it well she could follow conversations. Her willingness to become part of my grandfather's world was greatly appreciated by his family and friends, who all called her Babbhiji and treated her with utmost respect. They recognized that she kept everything together.
Dad did not come back to England until 1966, when he was ten years old. He remembers how frightened he was when the year before there had been war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and every time the aeroplanes were in the air he and all the kids in the village would run and hide to escape the bombs. He and his siblings spoke Mirpuri, an old language, a cross between Urdu and Punjabi. He knew a bit of Urdu, but only a few words and even that not very well. He could not speak even a single word of English.
When he went to comprehensive school this caused a problem on the very first day. His uncle had told him that he would pick him and Chacha Shabir up at lunchtime and that they should come to the school gate and wait for him. When it came to mid–morning break, not able to follow what was going on and thinking it was lunchtime, the two went to the school gate and waited. They were still there when everybody went back in and when the register was taken in the class they were missing. This started a hunt for them and eventually my father saw a white boy approaching them. Despite the fact that he couldn't follow a word the white boy was saying he understood it was not yet lunchtime and they had to go back to the classroom. It was no easy matter to learn a new language at the age of ten; English for a long time was a foreign tongue for Dad, and it was only by the time that he and his brothers sat their O Levels that they were confident in the language. There was never much money, life was quite hard and Dad would get nervous when speaking: at the age of fifteen he developed a stammer due to stress.
Everything about England was strange and you can hardly blame him for feeling like an outsider. The famous English weather bewildered him. In Dadyal he used to see the sun blaze from a cloudless sky every day, except occasionally during the rainy season. That was hardly worth commenting on. Now he had to get used to the fact that in England if the sun came out it was almost a day of joyous celebration. He had come in April and soon there was summer which did produce sunny days, but when winter came he could not believe how grey and cold it was, even inside the house. That first winter when my father saw snow he had the same feeling that Clive Lloyd had when the great West Indian came to England for the first time to play for Lancashire. Like Lloyd, Dad had never seen snow before and just could not believe these slivers of wispy white paper falling from the sky and covering streets, houses and cars so suddenly that the whole world seemed to have turned white.
Dad did not see much of my grandfather after his return to England from Pakistan. He did not really get to know his father. This was because my grandfather decided to leave Birmingham and go back to Dadyal to look after his parents and settle back in his village, becoming a local politician. He visited occasionally but for much of Dad's youth Pakistan was my grandfather's home. But while Dad only had his mum with him in England it was not the typical single-parent home you might imagine, as the wider family of uncles and aunts all lived together. Often there were visitors who also stayed there for long periods. My grandfather was well known and when people came from Dadyal and they had nowhere to stay they would head for the house in Church Road, Moseley. The doyen of the house was my grandfather's youngest brother, Daulat Ali, who I called Nikka Bhaji, small uncle. By the time I was born he was an old man with kidney trouble but I heard many stories of how he had been a very strict man who laid down the law and had a reputation of never telling a lie. My father, who loved him, says everybody used to come to Nikka Bhaji to ask his advice because they knew he would not waffle but give it straight. Inside the house there was warmth and comfort, a world my grandmother did much to create. It was a big house with seven bedrooms but with so many people living there my father's bedroom was in the attic, which he shared with his two brothers and three other cousins. At weekends many others from Mirpur would come for a meal and my grandmother taught all her children to make tea while she did the cooking. Dad's abiding memory of his mother is in the kitchen at all hours of the day slaving over a hot stove. There were always people to feed and these were lavish meals.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moeen"
Copyright © 2018 Moeen Ali.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Prologue: The Magic of the Oval,
1 Who is Betty Cox?,
2 The Boy from Sparkhill,
3 Chickens and Cricket,
4 Not Welcome at Home,
5 The Day it All Made Sense,
6 The Worcester Man,
7 Will England Ever Call?,
9 The Beard Returns to Lord's,
10 A World Cup Horror Story,
11 Take That, Osama,
12 The Beard Goes Abroad,
13 All the Asians,
14 Glorious Summer Turns Dark Winter,
15 Back on Home Soil,