Cricket: the War Game

As I tuned my PC to watch something of the England vs. New Zealand game at the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup (on right now), even before I had picture the roar of a helicopter filled my speakers. I’d caught a commercial. ‘Join the Royal Air Force’, it said.

‘What the…?’ thought I. ‘What has the Brit military got to do with cricket?’ The thinking got me going off on a tangent, and here it is: Wherever England went, back in the olden days, the army went. Wherever England left (almost), cricket stayed. Seen in that light, this year’s World Cup team roster is quite an interesting document.

Proud Scotland was first invaded by the mixed bunch who’d come to call themselves English in the 1200s – long before the game was invented – and have more or less been under the English heel ever since. The word cricket is of Dutch origin, the game ‘invented’ over there somewhere, likely by sheep farmers who then passing it on to sheep farmers in England. Then only did it take its perfect time to travel the Roman road to the border. In 1992 the ICC gave the Scots their cricketing independence, allowing them to feature in the 1994 World Cup. They won no games and back home English rule never diminished. In 2014 55.3% of voters decided to stay British.

Perennial underdog Ireland was first seriously touched by the hand of the Brit under King Henry VIII in 1536, and cricket was soon to follow. In the mid 1600s that charming Oliver Cromwell ordered all the Irish bats and balls confiscated and burnt – likely a fit of rage at his inability to train the surly buggers. Being the Puritan he was, he also banned cricket on Sundays. Gone for a time was the big money made by the Lords and Earls on wagers and prize money. Thankfully for England, Ireland and the world the gentle art was to come back with a vengeance when the monarchy was restored [1].

It was at Christmas time, 1600, when Queen Libby-One waved her magic wand and gave the East India Company and the British Army (or surrogates thereof) rights over all of cricketing giant and two time world champions India. Yes I did history at matriculation level and I vividly recall her with her wand and in a little box above her head ‘make sure I get my cut’. No doubt the pickings were good because India was sorely exploited and so it took time for cricket to formally take root. The first recorded game was at Cambay, near Baroda in 1721. The first first-class game was played in 1864, ‘a Madras v. Calcutta match’[2].

Sri Lanka, formerly Celyon Tea, the team that came from nowhere to take the cup in 1996, was given by the Dutch to England on the defeat of France (simple!) in the late 1790s. The locals didn’t like it and cricket was delayed as the British waged bloody war in the mountainous interior until around 1815, when finally the tiny Kingdom of Kandy was taken as a prize. On 21 July 1981 Sri Lanka was admitted to full membership of the ICC and awarded Test Match status. They lost their first game.

In 1947 the Brits finally left the Indian sub-continent (after a sleep-over of 350 odd years), but before going sliced off a corner and called it Pakistan, 1992 champion. West Pakistan and East Pakistan were not happy with being lumped together and nine years of intense warfare finally gave rise to cricket’s steam engine that thinks he can; Bangladesh. Cricket not only survived but thrived and today, in all three nations, it has become the sport of kings. The Pakistani team has been welcomed into Australia notwithstanding the nation’s archaic religious rules and continued horrific treatment of women when it suits the men. There wasn’t even a peep from the Australian public last year when a Pakistani Christian was sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy’ [3]. Pakistan has been a regular ODI top member for a while. Bangladesh made its world cup debut in 1999.

Brave minnow Afghanistan is on the road to India, a country so blighted and abused on the social networks and blamed for the world’s problems, yet few know it has been under the West’s hammer for nearly 200 years (mostly because it is on the road to India). In the mid-1800s, when war clouds gathered in the drawing rooms of the royal families of England and Russia it was unfortunate Afghanistan that was in the way. We all know of the Charge of the Light Brigade and associated heroism but naught of the plight of the Afghans and those of the nearby Stans either. Forget your history syllabus, the real reason for the First World War was all that oil that the Brits and the Germans wanted (not for sharing – look it up or watch comedian Robert Newman’s beautifully entertaining account) [4] in nearby Iraq. In fact Britain couldn’t give a continental on how many people were to die and how many civilisations were to be destroyed provided they got it first and got it all. Of the very West leaning orientation that characterised Afghanistan up to the 1970s (Afgan women were given the vote in 1919) [5], somehow only cricket has survived. This is their first World Cup and their thrilling edge over Scotland their first win. Go Afghanistan!

Cricket arrived in #chokehappy South Africa with the final defeat of Napoleon, the first recorded smack of leather on willow was in 1808. As the British advanced into the country, first securing the farm lands around refuelling ports and then following the animals, diamonds and gold, cricket was sure to follow. In between driving off the Boers and herding black people into reserves, the sport was played by whites under the hot African sun. Alongside the pitch in the pubs afterwards, re-attired as gentry, the rules of the race game were drawn and modified. Appropriately the first international was played over the 1889/90 season mid-way between the destruction of the Zulus and of the Boers. When shakedown time came, the players and sponsors refused to give up apartheid, and apartheid refused to give up cricket; instead they introduced unsuccessful rebel tours. Cast an eye over the stats and you’ll see South Africa’s first ODI was in the early 1990s.

Up north in Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) the first game was played in 1890 near Fort Victoria. Good King Lobengula had already been tricked into signing over to Queen Vicky’s henchmen the entire country. Three years on, when the Matabele suddenly wanted the land back, Rhodes took umbrage. He telegrammed Dr Jameson who was in Fort Victoria (playing cricket?) saying ‘you know what to do’ and of course he did. ‘Pick up the bails and unpack the Gatlings’ he shouted. In 1965 in Umvuma, once a mining centre in the Midlands, on the white school field I was on 67 not out against Umvuma’s India when the duty police arrived and stopped the game. 15 more years of fighting to keep non-whites from playing followed. Zim had its first ODI in 1983.

The islands of the Gulf of Mexico have a huge and turbulent history. Way back in 1492, Columbus came across them, a doorway to the Brits who came calling in 1674. The islands were occupied and it was from this first touch that their troubles started. Gold was expected and God needed converts. Of the islands that were to play cricket the original natives were virtually wiped out by European diseases and exhaustion. The first white workers dispatched to the West Indies to work the cane fields couldn’t handle the job so they were replaced, and that’s how many and most of the current crop of cricketers’ families got to the islands – in the holds of little boats from Africa with chains about their bodies.

The United Arab Emirates, better known as the ‘Don’t-Know-Where-Don’t-Know-How-But-They’re-Rich-And-Have-The-Biggest-Airport’ team, are in competition after 100 years of occupation and the disposal of leaders who didn’t care for the Brit plan. This two time world cup qualifier was created in 1971 at a time when the European colonial powers were dumping territory for trading and economic partners. The country has a poor (a-hem) human rights record and around 75% of its population are ex-patriots, indicating it can’t do too much for itself. And it’s still stuck in the middle. The Brits and their new big buddy, the US, are War-On-Terroring away and the UAE is not merely a handy landing strip they’re heavily involved, paying $ for training and arms dealing.

Magnificent four-time winners and co-host Australia was first visited by the white man (the Chinese were there much earlier) back in 1606, but it was in 1790 that Captain James Cook staked the place for the UK. A penal colony for naughty blokes was formed, and the slaughter (genocide?) of the Aborigines followed. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi conferred ‘equal rights’ to the far more warlike Maori of hosting partner New Zealand, just across the Tasman pond. Their ‘equal rights’ didn’t go too far though, as subsequent wars based on just a touch too many whities coming calling led to the Maori’s taking a big back seat in the country, losing most of their land and becoming impoverished, a legacy that exists today. The always brave ‘Black Caps’ played their first test in 1930, and won their first in ’56.

Closing out the list of nations taking part in this year’s World Cup we have England, oh England (and Wales). A 1598 land dispute in Surrey in which the word ‘creckett’ is mentioned proves Old England’s cricketing parentage, and the case of two men arrested in 1611 for playing rather than attending church on a Sunday backs it up. Runners up three times, the source of the Barmy Army’s pride and the originators of the game England have never taken the World Cup Trophy. They are the fathers of the sport, but not the kings, and are also the only team who somewhat by tradition (and need) draw on the Commonwealth to make up a 1st XI. Can you recall the last All-England team…?

Absolutely, cricket is a great game. The spectacle of the battle between balls bowled at 100 mph over 22 yards to be duffed away at twice the speed while horns, whistles and old timers like me sedately clap and shout ‘what ho’ is a satisfying one, deeply. Serenaded by the whiff of beer, finding each other through clouds of burnt sausage and smiling multi-national crowds is fun and far better than running home to watch the choreographed slaughter of Iraq’s civilians by the USA’s Quarter Master’s Stores Grand Re-stocking Sale department.

I have to wonder, though, is cricket the only decent thing the Brits left behind?

Talking on behalf of Africa, before the Brits brought Christianity, Capitalism and Corporacy to the continent, the land was looked after and animals were killed only for eating. The sun, the moon, indeed even the rain were revered. There was no obesity or malnutrition, the family system worked. Sure they raided each other, stole the women and kids and chopped up the men but they were not doing as good a job as the whites were doing in Europe over the entire 1800 years before. Before the Brits there were no ‘white’ diseases. The prison-like conditions into which Africa’s black people were hounded and destroyed without replacement of their original systems, resulted in a rise in infant mortality as well as in population, malnutrition, obesity, TB, etc.

Today, after the death of the empire and its replacement with global economic subjugation, are all the commonwealth nations of old better off than they were when the Queen’s men first arrived? Well, it’s a tough one.

I do love cricket. Along with the sport it’s a chance for people from the four corners of the world to recognise and realise that together we can do something about pulling our world from the brink. In that sense, perhaps it would be more appropriate for the ICC Cricket World Cup to not only feature ads for the Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, but give it the job of chief sponsor too. Because that would be real, a necessary doff of the cap to that warring legacy that brought me to Africa (no matter how tragic), a vital part of why cricket sings in my blood.

Go Zimbabwe! (Or whichever band of heroes is yours)

Of course there are better sponsors out there but alas, they don’t have the money.

Douglas Schorr can be reached through his website.


[1] Speculation cannot be ruled out that cricketing lovers were involved, deeply, in the drive for a return to the monarchy.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cricket_in_India_to_1918

[3] ‘(Reuters) – A Pakistani court upheld the death penalty on Thursday against a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, her lawyer said, in a case that drew global headlines after two prominent politicians who tried to help her were assassinated.’ See http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/10/16/pakistan-blasphemy

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIpm_8v80hw

[5] http://www.amnesty.org.uk/womens-rights-afghanistan-history#.VPBZTFoWHFI

This article originally appeared on Pambazuka.

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