An historical analysis of cricketing history within the context of post-colonialism, and the emergence of the modern game, from Left Foot Forward's Matt Owen.
Cricket as a social force is a topic rather in vogue right now – after years without a documentary about the sport, two have arrived at once; Left Foot Forward’s Matt Owen reports
Stevan Riley’s excellent Fire in Babylon covers how the West Indies of the late 1970s abandoned the flamboyant style of losing dubbed “calypso cricket,” and morphed into a juggernaut of a side who went undefeated in a test series for more than fifteen years; James Erskine’s From the Ashes, meanwhile, presents the celebration of England’s 1981 Ashes win as a rare moment of national unity during a time in which Thatcher was introducing the country to her brutally divisive brand of neoliberalism.
Undeniably then, the game of cricket is capable of exerting its influence beyond the field. Indeed, this goes for a number of sports. Just as the West Indies of the 1980s rediscovered their dignity by beating their former slave masters on the cricket field, Argentina and Brazil’s footballing sides have spent years revelling in defeating their former European colonisers, and both Australia and America take great pride in national sports which are essentially reconstituted cross-breeds of British ones.
However, cricket occupies a special cultural place, for it is not just a sport with some socio-historical relevance. It is the quintessential post-colonial sport, an “international sporting competition decisively shaped by the history of the British Empire”, (pdf) and a powerful vehicle for post-colonial pride.
Every single one of the major cricketing countries competing today – all ten current ICC full members or test-playing countries – are former British colonies. The only reason the sport even exists outside of Britain is because colonists took it there. However, despite being an imperial export, the sport quickly became, and remains, a tool with which British territories can assert a national identity.
During the second half of the 19th century, as the sport was revolutionised by the legalisation of overarm bowling and hugely popularised by W.G. Grace, the first international Test series began to take place.
In 1882, in arguably the most famous test match of all time, England were defeated by Australia at The Oval, and following a mock obituary in The Sporting Times entitled:
“In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882.”
And carrying the postscript:
“n.b. – The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
The Ashes was born. It is a sporting rivalry which even a century on has not lost its colonial overtones, and continues to provide Australians with a source of fierce, independent national spirit.
As legendary Aussie fast bowler Jeff Thomson said of the English in 1987:
“I dunno. Maybe it’s that tally-ho lads attitude. You know, there’ll always be an England, all that Empire crap they dish out. But I could never cop Poms.”
For the West Indies, the situation was similar. As covered brilliantly in Fire in Babylon, the West Indian team of the late 1970s essentially invented modern pace bowling, with its radical variations in length. Through utterly disregarding the Victorian cricket model of reserved, aloof sportsmanship, they came to dominate world cricket as an athletic, aggressive side.
And as C.L.R. James states, in arguably the seminal cricketing book, Beyond A Boundary, the groundwork for this was done by generations of previous West Indian players, who had long viewed their own approach to the game as a form of “social resistance against British colonialism”, and “an ideological weapon of subversive, anti-colonial, creole nationalism”.
Indeed, as Viv Richards himself writes in the foreword to Liberation Cricket:
“In my own way, I would like to think that I carried my bat for the liberation of African and other oppressed people everywhere.”
In the subcontinent, where cricket had arrived via that early paradigm of imperialism-via-market-forces, The East India Company, the sport was a powerful source of national identity both before and after the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947.
Ashis Nandy, one of India’s preeminent ‘cricket scholars’ , cites the sport as being integral to the earliest stirrings of independence movements. The “moral posture of the superiority and self-control of the gentleman cricketer,” he says, provided as an image with which Indians could expose and judge the hypocrisy of their imperial rulers:
“Cricket allowed the Indians to assess their colonial rulers by western values reflected in the official philosophy of cricket, and to find the rulers wanting…
“The assessment thus anticipated the nationalist and particularly Gandhian critiques of the British which judged the everyday Christianity of the British in India with reference to philosophical Christianity.”
Post-independence, virtually all the cricketing nations of the sub-continent have developed into formidable teams, if still victim to the ebb and flow of fortunes which affects all sporting sides.
Ultimately, cricket has gone from being what scholars term “a tool for civilizing the colonial subjects by spreading the values of Victorian morality” to – as Ashis Nandy says, with tongue firmly in cheek – “an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English”.
It is an imperial export that has been converted into a deep source of national spirit and identity for millions of previously downtrodden people; it is a sport at which England regularly lose, often badly, to countries they once ruled (even including, recently, Ireland).
Former colonies have not merely done away with cricket as a vestige of colonialism, or a bad memory. No. As Arjun Appadurai says, “for the former colony, decolonisation is not a simple dismantling of colonial habits and modes of life,” but “a dialogue with the colonial past” – a dialogue in which cricket has survived as an act re-absorbed by people now free to play, and win, on their own terms.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.