Batting for the British Empire: how Victorian cricket was more than just a game

For Victorian imperialists, cricket was more than just a game, it was a means of exporting English virtues across the globe. But how, asks Souvik Naha, did this great “civilising mission” go down with the colonised peoples?

A photograph of the England team that faced Australia at the Oval in the 1896 Ashes series

A strange letter was published in The Times on 25 June 1968. The writer, DM Brittain from Aberdeen, said: “Now I know that this country is finished. On Saturday, with Australia playing, I asked a London cabby to take me to Lord’s [cricket ground], and had to show him the way.”

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The letter summed up the growing anxiety about a rapidly changing world in which the British empire had lost its prestige, and people with little interest in cricket drove cabs in the capital city. If cricket was no longer central to British identity, Brittain reasoned, what hope was there for the future of the nation?

Cricket has been a marker of English identity for two centuries. It is the “most exalted icon”, as one scholar has written, of “theme park heritage Englishness”. In order to be England’s national game, cricket had to be English in origin and character (though it may have evolved from games in France and the Netherlands). And when Englishmen travelled the world to forge an empire, they took their “national” game with them.

It was the Victorians who wove a distinctive English imprint into cricket by trumpeting the virtues of fair play, equanimity and loyalty – all of which they hailed as the building blocks of British democracy and empire. The timeless, leisurely nature of cricket in the mid-19th century was imbued with the wistful imagery of a bucolic past set in contrast with the industrial present, rooting the sport strongly within English history and culture. And this was an ideal to which Victorians were introduced at the youngest of ages. The public school system mythologised the sport as the ultimate lesson in morals, justice, religion and life itself. By playing cricket, boys – and later girls, non-Christians, and colonial people – would become exemplary citizens of the British empire. “Give me a boy who is a cricketer and I can make something of him,” said George Ridding, headmaster of Winchester College.

Just as you were told not to dissent the umpire’s decision, so you couldn’t question the empire

In the contest between bat and ball, social and cultural leaders from the mid-19th century to the end of the Second World War found the answer to every social problem, including health and illiteracy. In Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown‘s Schooldays, a schoolteacher emphasised the importance of discipline, teamwork and putting one’s team’s interest ahead of oneself. Just as you should not dissent the umpire’s decision, so you must not question the nation and the empire. Adopting such a mindset was seen as the perfect preparation for imperial administrative and military functions.

If this vision of a sport in sync with the ideal society was to succeed, cricket had to be depicted as central to England’s character – the nation’s lifeblood. A cartoon published in The Star newspaper days before Christmas in 1920, titled “The Relative Importance of Things”, showed the discussion about cricket, even in off-season, towering above Christmas, the weather, the latest divorces, and politics in the pecking order. Neville Cardus, the celebrated writer and critic, made a sweeping claim that “if everything else in this nation of ours was lost but cricket… it would be possible to reconstruct from the theory and practice of cricket all the eternal Englishness which has gone to the establishment of that constitution…”

In the age of empire, when Britons were busily exporting their values across the globe, it didn’t take long for the nationalist and imperial sensibility associated with cricket to be transferred to British colonies. Homesick colonials played cricket wherever they went. In 1721, a group of British seamen reportedly played cricket while their ship was anchored at the Bay of Cambay in Western India. The writer Horace Walpole, who hated cricket, witnessed a match in Paris in 1766. Horatio Nelson organised a game in Naples in 1793.

The earliest players were chiefly members of the armed forces. In the West Indies, the first known reference to cricket is from a match between two garrisons in 1806, and the British Army founded clubs everywhere from Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1825 and Buenos Aires (1831) to Shanghai (1858). In 1818, Lord Thomas Cochrane’s arrival in Valparaiso to commandeer the Chilean navy in their war of independence against Spain was celebrated with “grand dinners, cricket-matches, races and picnic parties”.

Cricket may now have been played across the globe, but it was still viewed as a white man’s sport. When Indian soldiers in the British Army started playing for regiment teams in the 1830s, they were hardly welcomed with open arms. Rather, cricket helped the white soldiers self-differentiate from the imitative “natives”. A regiment in India, when pressed hard to play against a Parsi club, agreed to do so on the condition that the match be played as “officers with umbrellas versus natives with bats”.

It was a similar story in the West Indies, where black people would have to wait until 1895 before being included in any competitive match. In the same decade, Barbados refused to play Trinidad in the Challenge Cup if black players were selected.

Civilising mission

Yet just as white soldiers in the outposts of empire sought to exclude locals from cricket, British politicians were increasingly tuning in to the game’s potential as a conduit of imperial solidarity. Cricket, they thought, could serve as a unique cultural bond between the coloniser and the colonised.

Colonialism, a matter of great pride for the British ruling elite, brought with it – in their eyes, at least – a moral obligation. They regarded empire-building as a “civilising mission”. And what could educate the non-white natives better than cricket?

British governors in India such as Lord Harris and Lord Brabourne patronised the sport in the hope that it might “bond together India’s religiously, linguistically and ethnically diverse population”. For them and others, however, the proliferation of cricket among the “inferior other” served to buttress the empire’s white supremacist agenda. It was thought that the “excitable Asiatic” was at a disadvantage to the “phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon” on the field of play. And while the English nature was the perfect harmony of mind and body, black West Indians possessed “brute physicality” and “oriental” people had intelligence without physical prowess.

A batter at the crease in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2009.
A batter at the crease in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2009. No sooner had British missionaries introduced the sport in the early 20th century than the islanders were making their own modifications to the game, expanding the number of players and incorporating dance and song into proceedings. (Photo by Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Arguably, cricket’s most enthusiastic patrons were Christian missionaries. Charles Darwin saw a match played by freed Maori slaves, led by the son of one such missionary, at Waimate North in New Zealand in 1835. When missionaries introduced cricket to the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the natives gave it their own distinctive spin, expanding the number of players, adding dance and song, and modifying the bat.

Distinguished players

From Shanghai to Samoa, colonists used cricket to spread the word of God by reshaping the pastimes – and, by extension, the mentalities – of the non-believing natives. This propagation took place mainly in schools and colleges that aimed to replicate the English public school ethos in the colonies. These establishments were attended by scions of some of the more influential families of the region, who took a lead in popularising cricket among the masses. Ranjitsinhji, who played for England (from 1896–1902) with distinction and later became the Jam Sahib (titular prince) of Nawanagar, is the most famous product of this system. In 1879, two Cambridge-educated British schoolmasters in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) started an annual match between Colombo Academy (now Royal College) and St Thomas’ College. The fixture is still played today, making it among the world’s oldest school-cricket derbies.

But not all colonists saw it as their mission to spread the word about the sport. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, white settlers largely distanced themselves from local influence, as well as local cricket. These conclaves of whiteness were presided over by politicians, military officers and rich businessmen – a fact that’s reflected in the titles of the domestic first-class tournament trophies: Sheffield Shield (Australia), after British Conservative politician Henry Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield; Plunket Shield, presented by British diplomat Lord William Plunket (New Zealand); and South Africa’s Currie Cup, donated by Scottish shipowner Sir Donald Currie.

For Australians, cricket generated a sense of exclusive, racialised nationalism, which enabled them to self-identify as citizens of the British world but not necessarily subjects of the empire. Beating England in cricket nurtured a sense of national belonging among the colonial officials, guards, convicts and free settlers in Australia. At the same time, those with English ancestry could celebrate their Englishness in the field of play.

After Australia’s emergence as a self-governing Dominion, its national identity was expressed even more powerfully with bat and ball. The “Bodyline” series of 1932–33, in which England’s bowlers adopted the infamous tactic of directing short, fast deliveries at the bodies of the Australian batsmen, strained the two countries’ diplomatic relationship to breaking point.

Cricket’s power to shape diplomacy was exploited no less potently by indigenous groups. Indian princes, in particular, patronised the sport as a means to ingratiate themselves with the British rulers. Partly due to their participation, the late 19th and first half of the 20th century saw an explosion of British cricket tours to a variety of destinations, including, of course, India itself. And this was far from one-way traffic. When a party of Australian Aboriginal cricketers arrived in London in 1868, they were merely paving the way for a succession of indigenous cricketing tourists to England – including two Parsis teams in the 1880s, and an all-India team in 1911.

Cricket had now become a weapon to protest against colonial rule and beat the colonisers at their own 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 British criticism of their masculinity. The sport became a symbolic weapon to protest the inequality of colonial rule. When, in 1926, CK Nayudu hit 153 in two hours, including 11 sixes, against a touring side representing the MCC (cricket’s London-based governing body), one spectator thought each shot was a nail in the coffin of the empire.

Almost a century on, the empire is still woven into cricket’s fabric. While cricket retains its power to captivate players, journalists and spectators across the globe, that power is restricted to a handful of nations, most of whom are former British dominions. It’s hardly surprising then that, three centuries after a British seaman produced a bat and ball and challenged his companions to a match at the Bay of Cambay, cricket is yet to shed the tag of the empire’s game.

Souvik Naha is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions postdoctoral research fellow at Durham University. His forthcoming book is Indian Cricket and Postcolonial Society (CUP)

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This article was first published in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine