Socialist Worker

Cricket—born from racism and imperialism

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2782

A Pakistani cricketer makes a catch against Marylebone Cricket Club

A Pakistani cricketer makes a catch against Marylebone Cricket Club.


Late on 26 February 1956 Donald Carr and six of his cricket team-mates put on masks, slipped into the Services Hotel in Peshawar and gagged the Pakistani umpire, Idris Bai.

They carried him roughly down the back staircase, dumped him in a carriage, drove him across town to Dean’s Hotel, sat him in a chair, and then poured two buckets of cold water over his head and poured whisky down his throat.

Captain Carr said, “Quite honestly, when I look back I think it was about the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life.”

It was the Marylebone Cricket Club rather than an England Team because Pakistan wasn’t yet seen deserving of receiving the privilege of playing a test match against England.

Institutional racism and colonial prejudice lie at the heart of cricket.

The bosses of English cricket said, “should have realised that this ragging,” that’s posh for banter, “although initiated by nothing more than high spirits and with no harmful intent, might be regarded in many quarters as an attack on an umpire.”

And if you can attack an umpire, you can attack an empire.

Letters—Yorkshire cricket has a long history of anti-Asian racism
Letters—Yorkshire cricket has a long history of anti-Asian racism
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The British ruling class need to justify their rule. Emphasising the timeless nature of class and looking back to a rural, pastoral heritage gave a role to the aristocracy in the age of industry and empire. So cricket was structured around rural counties and it emphasised its gentleman as opposed to its player. Formed in Victorian Britain, cricket’s structures were always looking backwards.

It added a dubious English posh conception of leadership that could be taught on the playing fields of public schools. And rules that must be followed strictly—one must play the game and so on.

Both were handy in the ideology of empire. Initially it was viewed as a purely white man’s sport. Exclusion and separation was the purpose.

The ICC was set up in 1909, as the Imperial Cricket Conference, when South Africa was admitted to test match status to join with Anglo-Australian white sports club.

The meeting was chaired by one Lord Harris.

Harris summed up the relationship. Born in Trinidad where his father was the governor. He moved through Eton and Oxford and played cricket for Kent and England.

He was a Tory undersecretary of state for India and governor of Bombay.

He claimed to have brought cricket to India—which was a lie but claimed, “Cricket had done more to consolidate the empire than any other influence.”

In 1890, he rejected a petition signed by over 1,000 locals to relocate white polo players to another ground so that the locals could use the area for cricket matches. It was the least of his crimes.

In Australia and South Africa for most of its history cricket remained an expression of exclusive white nationalism. In the West Indies, black people would have to wait until 1895 before being allowed in any competitive match.

But the history of cricket is also the history of the former colonies overtaking their imperial masters. Cricket, CLR James said, is a metaphor for the Empire, one way of undermining the colonists was to beat them at their favourite game.

By the second quarter of the 20th century, the relationship between the colonisers and colonised was beginning to change. Far from viewing cricket as a means to impress the imperial authorities, the Indian and Caribbean middle classes were now employing it as a tool to resist.

As the empire declined the balance of power slowly shifted. In 1964, the ICC became the International Cricket Conference.

Now India is the dominant force in world cricket in scale and money and is increasingly in power.

But much of the racism and imperialism that shaped the game remains.


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