When South African all-rounder Wayne Parnell announced his decision to embrace Islam in 2011, it came as a surprise to quite a few people. However, given his early years in Port Elizabeth, the decision seemed to be something he was destined to make, judging by the memories of a faith which would go on to shape his life.
“I was exposed to a lot of Muslims, I’ve got a lot of Muslim friends, my best friend back home is a Muslim, so even previously I was always open minded when it came to Islam and not the way it was portrayed. Now it’s just having better knowledge of it.”
Parnell accepts that there are misconceptions when it comes to the understanding of Islam, but also that he has a role in correcting that. Amid negative headlines and stereotypes, Parnell is happy to correct any misunderstandings through actions and dialogue, and actually sees the negativity as a starting point.
South Africa’s Hashim Amla (R) with team mate Wayne Parnell celebrate taking another wicket
“No I don’t see it as a negative. I see it as a positive because that is an opportunity for me to certainly change their minds and make them see the religion from a different point of view. Ultimately my stand point is that if one person in the religion does something bad, it doesn’t make the entire religion bad. It’s your duty to try and educate people more.“
“ I think it’s in my responsibility to make sure that everyone that’s in my sphere understands what my religion is about and I’m certainly open minded to understand what their cultures are about. It’s really good to be open minded and treat everyone with respect as our religion teaches us.”
When on duty for the Proteas, the left arm fast bowler and middle order batsman entered a dressing room where fellow Muslim players Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir and Farhaan Behardien were among those who made him feel at home. The decision to announce his acceptance of Islam was a personal he says, but like Amla, Tahir and Behardien, his eschewing of the country’s Castle beer advertising logo from his shirt made for worldwide speculation, which he sought to correct.
Wayne Parnell of Worcestershire bats during the Vitality Blast match between Worcestershire Rapids and Derbyshire Falcons
“ I just felt that there were a lot of rumours going around [about his becoming a Muslim] and obviously being an international cricketer for South Africa who was sponsored by an alcohol company, they would see on the shirt that something was missing. So I just felt at the time with my agent, we constructed something and announced it.”
With agreement from all sides, the Castle Lager brand logo was absent from Parnell’s shirt as well as the shirts of Amla, Tahir and Behardien.
Alcohol is prohibited in Islam, and in an ever commercially sensitive sporting environment, the advertising issue is becoming more commonplace. Brands and advertising are lucratively and inextricably linked to high profile sport and sports stars. Yet the realistion that some products may inadvertently become an individual concern with some athletes within an organisation and in any sport have seen some organisations re-evaluating their commercial tie ups.
New Zealand Rugby saw a similar situation when Parnell’s friend Sonny Bill Williams who following his own conversion to Islam, asked for understanding when he covered over the Bank of New Zealand logo as his faith forbids usury. The situation is something which Parnell is very familiar with.
Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand and his daughter Imaan at the 2019 Rugby World Cup
“I think it’s quite a tricky thing because you have to weigh up. The sponsor backs the club. You play for the club. Do you play for the sponsor or do you actually play for the club? I think obviously it all goes hand in hand, so from the club’s perspective or association you are with. I think they will respect that you know with that being your personal belief it doesn’t mean that you’re not giving 100 per cent to the team.”
Featuring predominately in the shorter versions of the game, Parnell acknowledges that, test match cricket remains a matter of unfinished business.
“I’ve featured probably more in white ball cricket. I’m just trying to get a more consistent run in the ODI team first. I’ll need to find out what’s expected of me and try and do those things. I think ultimately, the make-up and balance of the team is not up to me, so what I can do is prepare as best as possible.”
With the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagisho Rabada firing for the Proteas, Parnell’s path to Test match cricket would be limited, but he accepts that this reflects the strength of the South African pace attack.
Moeen Ali and Wayne Parnell of Worcestershire celebrate after taking a wicket
“I think for me now it’s just about having played more consistent four-day cricket and it’s just about putting a performance together week in week out and trying to be more consistent. I think probably in the early start of my career, having played red ball cricket, it’s the most difficult to string patches along because I was playing one game here, then going on tour, then coming back, then playing another game.”
Having had spells in English County Cricket with Glamorgan, Sussex and Kent, but for Coronavirus enforced delay to the season, Parnell would have been featuring for Worcestershire alongside England’s Moen Ali.
With the many changes in his life, Parnell who is married to Aisha Baker – they have a young son, is at ease with life in every aspect. But, how would the Wayne Parnell of today view his former self?
“I think there are some overlaps obviously the life style your promoting is completely different so from that perspective no, the one wouldn’t recognise the other. But I think there are certain things that remain constant. I’ve always been a friendly open minded person, that hasn’t changed much so I think it’s just about educating people now more so than before.“