Cricket and colonialism – Legacy, resistance and nationalism entwined

By Jan Arden

Those of us who watched the gripping India test-series tour of Australia, starting with humiliation at Adelaide through a bounce-back win at Melbourne, followed by a draw in Sydney, and ending with a crazy run chase in the Waga grounds, will remember the intensities and technical prowess of both teams during the pandemic. India had breached the fortress and won the series again on Aussie soil, an exploit they will long cherish. Quick on its heels came the England tour of India in March, another formidable opponent, for three successive tests: a 5-day test series, an ODI (one-day internationals of 50 overs) series and a T20i series (limited overs of 20 each). India, despite some faltering and regular loss of the toss, raised its game sufficiently in a month-long fiesta of high-intensity emotions, to bludgeon the fearsome “tourists”, winning all three series convincingly (3-1, 2-1 and 3-2 respectively).

To understand and convey to non-cricket buffs the whys and wherefores behind the intensities, the palpable thrills, the bitter and rancorous tastes of defeat, the sublime ecstasy of wins and the whirlwind of emotions jam-packed into such international encounters, I will delve slightly into the history of this most peculiar and fascinating of sports that was born in England and somehow got even more popular in diverse outposts of its former Empire.

Although not uniformly though. In North America, Canada was far too cold and the USA would have none of this colonial quackery, favouring instead their own home-grown baseball. In New Zealand, the Maoris and kiwis found the rugged contests of rugby far more to their rumbustious tastes and cricket plays second fiddle to the national All Blacks game. In South Africa the development of the game was marred by apartheid, later racial quotas and exclusion from the international cricket governing body (ICC) which it had helped to found. Despite regaining ground since readmission, it has failed to earn much silverware since. So, the real cauldrons of cricket outside England are the West Indies, Australia and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh).

Origins of the game

Before going further, one should remember cricket’s origins as a ruling and upper middle-class peculiarity, the property in a way of Harrow and Eton “public” schools whose outputs were to be polished at either of the Oxbridge universities. During the 18th to 19th century when Britannia ruled the waves and extracted much of its wealth from overseas colonies, character, poise, team-work, controlled aggressiveness and ability to withstand duress, rather than academic credentials were deemed prime requisites for those who would be dispatched to far corners of the globe to administer the conquests of the Empire that would take over the mantle of the merchants (the East India Company and its private army).

The rules and laws were devised in England, deliberately complex and inherently strategic one can guess, so as to be enjoyed by local “old crusts” and later by wine or whisky-sipping colons and their hatted women-folk in pristine Club gardens, the epitome of Britishness which commoners and still less foreign locals, even the educated ones, could only marvel at but would hardly ever grasp. After all, these were leisurely five-day affairs for the rulers and administrators, steeped in the David Livingstone (1813-1873) colonizing motto “Commerce, Christianity and Civilization”. The temples of cricket were both in London obviously, The Oval and Lords being the two emblematic cricket stadiums of the Empire.

Team India embodies the new pan-India nationalism that even engages its diaspora far and wide. While it may fluster some internal anti-India lobbies, none would dare challenge the ferocious sense of national identity it has brought, making alive the famous saying that “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the English”…”


Spreading cricket to the colonies was not therefore just a simple matter of nostalgia or British colonial entertainment, but stemmed from a deeper need to impress locals of the lofty values of the self-proclaimed pinnacle of civilization. In 1902 a British touring cricketer summed it this way: “It provides a moral training, an education in pluck and nerve, and self-restraint, far more valuable to the character of the ordinary native than the mere learning by heart of a play by Shakespeare or an essay by Macaulay.” Colonial administrators brought in their trunks cricket bats and balls, the paraphernalia of the game, and encouraged visits by touring naval and military teams, the whole wrapped as a means of civilizing the “primitive” folk. That was then the colonial legacy.

Resistance and nationalism

It was not surprising therefore that at some stage anti-colonial and post-colonial countries would catch on to the colonial mind-game and the value of cricket as a counter-outlet for frustration and a means of bloodless resistance by overturning the tables on the colonists. The West Indies were a patchwork of islands and nations but undoubtedly cricket and the “Windies” as the team is known, became a unifying focal point of resistance and nationalism. They were the first to blow the British apart through ball and bat, with a set of blistering fast bowlers and an equally remarkable list of fearless batsmen, a team that dominated cricket throughout the seventies and eighties. All the players were fully aware that they were, as Michael Holding said “representing something more significant than cricket.” When Vivian Richards, a star performer said: “We had a mission… we believe in ourselves. We are just as good as anyone” clearly the reference was a resistance mind-game response, that of standing up as equals and often thrashing the former masters on their own turf and rules.

Cricket has been an important part of the Australian way of life for over a century without the overhang of colonial resistance although the pleasure of a pitched test against the “pommies” was always welcome. A first Aussie test victory in London in 1882 was the occasion of much rejoice down under, with a mocking obituary that read “In Affectionate Remembrance of English cricket, which died at The Oval on 29 August 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances RIP. ***NB – the body will be cremated and the ashes takes to Australia.”  That was the origin of the now famous hotly contested Ashes between the two nations.

Team India as a unifier

In colonial India, cricket had a collaborative beginning. In 1911 some Hindu princely loyalists, enterprising Parsis/ Persis, muslim enthusiasts and financiers joined hands with British administrators to create an Indian team and conduct a London tour intended to project a positive image of India and reassure authorities in Britain that the colony would remain a loyal jewel. It was only in 1971 when a visiting Indian cricket team defeated the former colonizers at their own game, on their own turf and twelve years later, when they won the World Cup at Lords, the cathedral of cricket, that cricket would become the undisputed Indian national sports, spanning the country’s diversity and regions. A matter of national pride rather than an offshoot of colonial resistance battles.


Spreading cricket to the colonies was not therefore just a simple matter of nostalgia or British colonial entertainment, but stemmed from a deeper need to impress locals of the lofty values of the self-proclaimed pinnacle of civilization. In 1902 a British touring cricketer summed it this way: ‘It provides a moral training, an education in pluck and nerve, and self-restraint, far more valuable to the character of the ordinary native than the mere learning by heart of a play by Shakespeare or an essay by Macaulay…’”


The critically acclaimed Lagaan (2001), via a cricket allegory, reflects upon identity politics and power relations in both colonial and post-colonial contexts. Meantime, newer and faster-paced versions (limited-overs cricket) had been developed and since 2009 the money-spinning Indian Premier League, attracting many foreign players, has become an undisputed new force in international cricket governance. “Team India” embodies the new pan-India nationalism that even engages its diaspora far and wide. While it may fluster some internal anti-India lobbies, none would dare challenge the ferocious sense of national identity it has brought, making alive the famous saying that “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the English”.

Of course, many polarizing factors nowadays between any of these listed countries make for eagerly awaited international festive, if not emotive, occasions followed by countless millions of TV subscribers worldwide. Lovers of the quaintness of the older more sedate test-games or of the brisk pace of modern cricket, can only hope for more enthralling contests where emotions are reigned in and batted out on the pitch in this most peculiar and fascinating of sports. They will be eagerly awaiting the World Test Championship final between New Zealand and India to be played out during autumn in England.


* Published in print edition on 20 April 2021

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