R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
May 17, 2019
WORLD CUP CRICKET: Beyond the boundaries

In two weeks time the 12th edition of the International Cricket Council’s World Cup will commence, spanning 11 venues in 10 cities in the United Kingdom over a 45-day period. Already all the statistical calculations and predictions about winners are flooding the media and with Caribbean cricket-lovers longing for a return to the glory days, there will be no shortage of coverage.

Perhaps then, it may be useful to take an off-field journey into cricket and the World Cup from other perspectives (historical, social and sociological), borrowing from what the late, great C.L.R.

James called “beyond the boundary”.

Cricket- a colonial history

Cricket as a game has a colonial history, the game being developed and spreading just as the British Empire itself was expanding and conquest was imposing British rule over millions of subjects in the Pacific, Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. Those countries are the major players in today’s cricketing world and the major contestants in the 2019 World Cup.

In its almost century and a half existence as an international sport, the game has changed a lot but has not been able to significantly break out of the mould of the old British Empire and is still largely confined to those countries where Britain exercised colonial rule or influence. It has not been able to match the global spread of other sports. This is not surprising, given its origins.

Take Test cricket for instance, still regarded in the cricketing world as the pinnacle of competition. Where else, in a busy modern world can you find two teams of players and thousands of spectators devoting the prime working hours for all of five days in a game complete with the English “tea-break” at that? It reveals the fact that at origin this game was designed for a privileged class which could afford to expend productive time on recreational exploits because their servants and slaves were producing to satisfy the needs and desires of their masters.

The colonialists took the game with them to their colonies, whether in Australia and New Zealand, to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ceylon (the colonial name for Sri Lanka) and, of course, to the sunny Caribbean, with the blend of rum, the beaches and calypso to be thrown in later. It was no surprise that in the Caribbean context, the scions of the planter class were not only prominent in the early West Indies teams, but provided both the on- and off-field leadership and domination of the sport. This did not change until the era of Frank Worrell, decolonisation and independence of the sixties.

Cricket –bilateral and sectarian

From the time of the first Test, between England and Australia in 1877, international cricket was played, save for one triangular series in 1912, on a bilateral basis. It was also largely sectarian, the only non-white nations accepted in the exclusive club before World War 2 being the West Indies and India. In addition, one prominent member of the exclusive club, apartheid South Africa, refused to play with non-white countries until apartheid was crumbling and Nelson Mandela released.

Whereas most other international sports had global contests, the pinnacle of cricketing rivalry was considered to be the “Ashes” between England and Australia. All other bilateral contests had to take second place. But the rapid decolonisation after the Second World War, the emergence of new nations, and the growth of television, all brought new factors into play in this outmoded system. In addition, with the notable exception of the West Indies, cricket in the sixties and early seventies was becoming quite dull and boring, impacting on the spectator appeal.

A fillip was much needed. In the early sixties there were experiments in England with limited-over cricket. This proved to be popular, especially with the participation of star West Indian players such as Sir Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs, in English county teams as professionals.

The success of the one-day Gillette Cup from 1963 prompted the ushering in of a popular Sunday League in 1969. The international stage was beckoning and two years later after a five-day Test between England and Australia was washed out at Melbourne, the first tentative step towards international one-day cricket was taken with a one-day game between England and Australia on what would have been the last day of the Test.

Cricket was poised for a final leap into international one-day cricket.

Next week: The World Cup and West Indian dominance

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.