Cricket and the anti-colonial effort

Winning in the sport of cricket was a political statement for those having suffered colonial rule

A family of cricketers determining who will bat first by playing rock, paper, scissors in Swat, Pakistan. Photo Mohammad Khan

When I took a trip to Pakistan in January 2020, I found myself in a love affair with a sport I never thought I would play: cricket.

The infamous—and original—bat and ball game, with a countless sum of rules is still somehow the second most popular sport on Earth. It perplexed me to see rows of men and children in every village, town, and city all playing this game in the same regions of the world that gave us the sports of Buzkashi, Pehlwani and Kabaddi. 

Why is cricket so popular here? 

A quick Google search gives us the answer to this question, that answer—like the answers to many questions surrounding the modern Indian subcontinent—has to do with British colonialism. 

The British introduced the ball and bat game of cricket to British India, the Americas and the Caribbeans during the 18th century. 

Cricket was originally another instrument of the British Empire in assimilating their colonies, little did they know, the game would fulfill a role of political liberation amongst the colonized.

According to Malian writer Manthia Diawara, they played the game with expected pretentiousness and privilege. The sport, with its many rules, fancy white sweaters, and extremely tedious pace, intended to demonstrate English civility, properness, and “intellectualism” at the time. 

Diawara would add that this sense of “Englishness” was performative racial superiority as well, characterizing English values and behavior as supreme and paramount in contrast to the “others” (notably the colonies) who intended to mimic and copy their conduct, but could never do so properly as they claimed. Such was the underlying political narrative established by the English when they had first introduced the game to the rest of the world. 

Ironically, the British both desired others to imitate them but did not want them to do so in a manner that would best them. When it came to sports, the colonial empire did not realize that it could have its cake and share it too.

According to the famous Trinidadian historian C.L.R James, cricket turned into an unsuspected means of revolution against the British Empire. 

In his book, Beyond the Boundary, which discusses this phenomenon involving cricket in the Caribbean and West Indies, he states that the sport: “Seemed like a classic ploy by the conquerors: games, particularly so restrained and ritualistic a game as cricket, could be imposed upon the colonies to tame them, to herd them into the psychic boundaries where they would learn the values and ethics of the colonist. But once given the opportunity to play the master’s game, to excel at it, the colonials gained a self-esteem that would eventually free them.” 

While the ruling colonial masters played this game, the people of the colonies soon learned it too—and as their movements in independence grew, cricket soon became an outlet for diplomatic statements. 

Some colonies, like that of the Americas, revolted in creating their own variant of cricket (now known internationally as baseball), while the colonies of India, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, and many others, found joy and pride in not only playing the sport but beating the “intelligent white man” at his own game. 

“The clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket [...] social and political passions denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games,” James states in his book.

Sooner rather than later, the West Indian teams of the 1960s dominated the sport followed by India, Pakistan, and Sri-Lanka soon after. Each winning Cricket World Cups against the long-time symbols of “white cricket excellence” in the teams of England and Australia. 

This great pride and joy in the athletic revolution against their colonizers can be seen in their descendants as well, as the people of the Indian subcontinent now lead the International Cricket Council and the sport’s popularity has not faded. 

“Cricket has always been a deep passion of mine. Playing in my hometown village with the other children was everything for me. It holds a special place in my heart,” says local cricketer Ayaz Yusufzai. 

Yusufzai is a Pakistani immigrant who shares a similar account of the sport as many young men and women of India and Pakistan do. In fact, India holds the record for the most Under-19 Cricket World Cup Championships and Bangladesh is the current champion. 

As a result of the ever-growing popularity of the sport, the former colonies have not only revolted against their colonizers through the sport but revolutionized it as well.

New formats of One Day Internationals and Twenty-20 have created shorter, faster, and much more action-filled games. While cricket in its purest form was a long-drawn game that lasted over the course of multiple days, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and the West Indies have all brought their own flare and style that has seemed to change the sport forever.

The cricket of today is now a global sports phenom in a post-colonial world that is still struggling to overcome the consequences of Western imperialism in the last four centuries. 

“The Greeks believed that an athlete who had represented his community at a national competition, and won, had thereby conferred a notable distinction on his city, his victory was a testament to the quality of the citizens. [...] A city which could produce such citizens had no need of walls to defend it,” James writes.

Cultural identity, revolution, and emancipation characterized the political landscape of the British colonies, and for many, it was through the very game of the colonizer’s that freedom, hope, and liberation could be cheered on with emphatic pride.