In the comments to my last post about cricket, Scavella mentioned the role of cricket as a ‘vehicle of subversion of empire’. It was always inevitable that cricket would have a political dimension.
For those who aren’t fans, the list of nations that play cricket at the top level is: England, the West Indies*, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. There’s obviously some scope for friction there. For a start, there’s the various kinds of post-colonial baggage in the relationships between England and everyone else. There are local rivalries, whether fairly friendly (Australia and New Zealand) or deadly serious (India and Pakistan). There’s a division between the white cricket nations and the rest, and the awkwardness of South Africa as an ex-white cricket nation trying to produce a more representative team via a quota system. There’s also a psychological division between the Anglophone countries and the Asian countries. The increasing political tension surrounding Islam adds a potential edge to games involving Pakistan and Bangladesh – as indicated by the latest controversy.
What really gives these issues life, perhaps, is the intimacy of the sport. With only ten test-playing nations (only seven before the 1980s), the same teams face each other over and over again. In football, England’s ‘rivalry’ with Argentina consists of about seven matches in 50 years. In the same period, we’ve played 116 tests against Australia, 89 against the West Indies, 60 against India and so on. No match is ever an anonymous one-off against a team you know nothing about. That’s also part of the appeal for the fan; every series brings a long sporting history with it. It can also bring a lot of political issues into the spotlight.
As an example, the liveliest issue over the past few years has been the status of Zimbabwe. Because cricket has historically been a predominately white game in southern Africa, Mugabe’s land reform policies are rather close to home for a lot of people within cricket, and there has been political pressure for England to stop playing Zimbabwe in protest, with the controversy further stirred up by Zimbabwean players protesting against political interference in the sport.
There are always people in these situations who try to insist that politics should be kept out of sport. That’s an understandable aim, not just because part of the pleasure of sport is its inherent unimportance, but because it’s a bit unfair on the sportsmen to burden their actions with such importance. But inevitably politics has a way of getting into everything, whether you want it to or not. Politicians will always try to hijack sporting events if they can see an advantage in it, and sometimes the political overtones are just inevitable anyway.
Just writing all this while listening to the cricket is faintly depressing. I like to think of cricket as being a simple pleasure for long, lazy summer’s days. Ho-hum. Still, England just took another wicket, so that’s good.
*obviously the West Indies isn’t actually a country, but they play as a single cricket team.