Cricket and Colonialism

Jun 2, 2020 9:20:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf dives into issues of colonialism and postcolonialsm, and explains how the sport of cricket is both a legacy of colonialism and a mechanism for resistance to it.

An English Eccentricity?

In these unsettling times, I have been working on our forthcoming occasional paper on colonialism and postcolonialism: Empires of the Mind. A time-consuming aspect of this work is that there is so much written about the topic that negotiating a manageable path through the material is problematic. Another challenge is that discussions of colonialism and postcolonialism are frequently rooted in ideological passions and are conducted through the lens of reductive reasoning to a good-bad dichotomy. Nuances are lost; ambiguities and paradoxes muted. A task, then, is to render the topic opaque. Things are not simply good or simply bad, wholly true or wholly untrue.

In this environment, I wanted to begin with facts. The following have some things in common: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Siri Lanka, West Indies, and Zimbabwe. Most have English as one of their official languages with the exceptions of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The West Indies is also different in that it is not one country but a region of separate nations. They, however, have two experiences in common: they play cricket [1]; they were also, in varying ways, colonies within the British Empire. They demonstrate a historical intimacy between empire and cricket.

American comedian and actor Robin Williams described cricket as “baseball on Valium.” In its purest international format, it is scheduled to last for 5 days and it is not unusual for a match to end in a draw because there was not enough time for the game to finish. A cricket commentator, in 2018, observing what he felt was undue haste in an England versus Australia match scheduled to last 5 days, noted that: “This game is going at a 100 miles an hour. It’ll be over in 2 or 3 days at this rate.” No cricket aficionado found this at all surprising.

Cricket is subject to much ridicule. This old joke, for example, offers an “explanation” of the “rules” addressed to one ignorant of the niceties of the game. It is designed to illustrate inherent absurdity:

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

As a fan of the game, I accept all this with good grace.

Incidentally, W.G. Grace (18 July 1848 – 23 October 1915) was the greatest cricketer of his era though, by today’s standards, he was not in an exemplary physical condition:

Photo of W.G. GraceW.G. Grace. 

This might suggest that cricket is not a matter to be taken seriously. It might be seen as an English eccentricity mysteriously adopted in those parts of the world oddly infected by what Rudyard Kipling called “flannelled fools.”  Those were the cricket-loving young men, mostly from elite Public schools [2] like Eton or Harrow and the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, who administered the British Empire overseas in its heyday.

On the contrary, an understanding of the significance of cricket is essential in the context of what we might call social colonialism and its legacies.  A brief look at the West Indies exemplifies this.

It’s Not Cricket: Post-colonialism in the West Indies

The idea of the West Indies is problematic. Fittingly the name itself derives from a mistake. Columbus believed that he had reached the Indies – islands southwest of India. Stereotypical images construct the region as English-speaking, Christian and of Black African origins. While that reflects one aspect of reality, it also erases whole nations and peoples from the narrative. Falling outside of the regional stereotype are the islands that were colonized by the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish. The substantial presence of Indians and Chinese is also excluded.

Guyana represents a marked deviation from the stereotypical idea of the West Indies:

Indo-Guyanese, or East Indians, are the largest ethnic group at 44% of the population, and they are descendants of indentured laborers from India. The second largest group is the Afro-Guyanese (30%), descendants of African slaves. 17% of the population is of mixed heritage, and the indigenous Amerindians make up 9%.

Jamaica corresponds more closely to the stereotype but there is a strong multi-racial presence:

Jamaicans of African descent represent 76.3% of the population, followed by 15.1% Afro-European, 3.4% East Indian and Afro-East Indian, 3.2% Caucasian, 1.2% Chinese and 0.8% other. [3]

The West Indies lacks political cohesion and contradicts ethnic and religious stereotypes. It is a region comprised of separate islands, [4] spread out over a thousand miles, with distinctive identities, and, sometimes, the insularity that comes from an island ethos. Prior to independence the British made a futile attempt to create a national structure through the short-lived West Indies Federation (1958 – 1962).

There are only two transnational institutions: the University of the West Indies and the cricket team. Of the two, ironically, the greatest cohesive force is a legacy of colonialism: cricket. The game offers a way of understanding complex and ambiguous aspects of colonialism.

Constructing Colonialism

Notions of colonialism are frequently selective and reflect ideological agendas. The dominant narrative constructs colonialism as European control, and White domination over Black. This is the emphasis in much postcolonialism studies: a response to late nineteenth century and twentieth century global politics. However comprehensible, it derives from a narrow view of history and geography.

Examples of colonialism within Europe, Africa and Asia disrupt a White-Black narrative.

The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires are part of relatively recent history but they do not figure prominently in popular conceptions of colonialism because, in the dominant narratives, and through Western historical perspectives, colonialism is predominantly a matter of the British Empire’s control over Black peoples. The Ottoman Empire may not have had the global political impact of the British, but it lasted, in various guises from the 14th to the 20th century. Greece, Hungary, Macedonia and Bulgaria, for example, were part of the Ottoman Empire but postcolonial analyses rarely extended to those nations.

Centuries before Europe carved up the continent, there were major and powerful empires within Africa and enslavement of defeated enemies was common. The Aksum or Axum Empire (100 to 940) controlled a landmass almost half the size of India. The Kingdom of Ghana dominated West Africa between about 750 and 1078. The Songhai or Songhay Empire (c. 1460 - 1591) became the largest state in African history. To these examples one might add the Mali Empire, the Ethiopian Empire, and the Kingdom of Benin. In short, neither colonialism nor slavery was exclusively a matter of White power inflicted upon Black peoples. Discourses of colonialism and post-colonialism emerge out of the melding of poetic and political ideas: romanticisation, demonization, nostalgia, ideology, empathy, prejudice, privilege, dispossession, and so on; the interaction of these, shapes selectivity – those narratives created and those chosen.

The motivations that drove the European colonial enterprise were also not simple. The agencies of colonialism ranged from commercial and exploitative (East India Company) to ostensibly religious and idealist (missionaries, for example). Motivations also changed over time. India offers an illustration in the transition from East India Company’s commercial priorities to British government control which encompassed commerce but was not solely defined by it. David Livingstone (1813 – 1873), explorer and missionary, summarized the often-paradoxical roots of the motivations for Empire as “Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation,” in other words, a triple alliance of Mammon, God and social progress.

The dynamics that drove colonialism were complex and interconnected: extractive colonialism gave European countries access to natural resources and markets. The diamonds of Africa, and the sugar cane of the West Indies, for example, offered riches that funded the development of European nations. Extracting that wealth required cheap labor – the cheapest available was supplied by slavery and supplemented by indentured workers of Indian and Chinese origin.

Exploration and the attraction of the exotic, though customarily linked to piracy, was also a motivation in some earlier examples of European colonial adventures. This was manifest in England, during the reign of Elizabeth 1st (born 1533, reigned 1558 – 1603), in officially sanctioned piracy. In the ages of discovery, the functions of explorer, merchant and buccaneer became inextricably interwoven.

For the British, another motivation, particularly in the Americas and Australia, was to find a place where “undesirables” –religious dissenters or criminals – might be sent to relieve a perceived civic threat and/or to alleviate the pressure of growing populations on cities. [5]

Global politics and power struggles between European nations was a key driver of colonization in Africa in the nineteenth century. In pursuit of prestige and control, locations were taken and defended not for intrinsic value but because of their strategic geographical position. The significance of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Falkland Islands, the Chagos Islands have little to do with resources or wealth to be found in those spaces but everything to do with geography.

Additionally, an objective was to bring “civilization” to indigenous populations, based around notions of the colonial powers as more advanced, racially superior, or possessors of a higher religion. From 1478 for three centuries, the Spanish Inquisition spread across the world representing an alignment of military power and religious conviction. The British empire was justified on the grounds that it brought a higher civilization to the colonies. A perverse form of social Darwinism and the increasingly popular notion of eugenics offered a racial rationale for that construction. By the late nineteenth century, in the British Empire, a more idealistic, paternalistic objective emerged out of those theories. Colonial missionaries followed in the bloodier footsteps of armies. They brought bibles; colonial administrators carried with them cricket bats and balls, the paraphernalia of the game, and a means of civilizing the primitive.

In what we might think of as evangelic or social imperialism, cricket plays a significant role.

Cricket was exported to the colonies for recreation and because it represented nostalgia, real or imagined, for home. Thus, in the literature of geographical displacement, particularly in times of war, cricket symbolises the essence of a constructed notion of Englishness. The poet Siegfried Sassoon in “Dreamers” contrasts the savage deprivation of soldiers in the trenches of WW1 with dreams that reconnect the soldiers to a version of England

Soldiers are dreamers…
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,  
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats… (1918).

This was a sport dominated by a white elite, but it was taken up increasingly by the colonized.  It also carried a coded behavioral message. Cricket was a mechanism to inculcate a set of British values drawn from the upper and upper-middle classes. The historian Cecil Headlam was in the “Oxford Authentics,” a team that toured India in 1902 -1903, and precisely understood that role:

It provides a moral training, an education in pluck and nerve, and self-restraint, far more valuable to the character of the ordinary native than the mere learning by heart of a play by Shakespeare or an essay by Macaulay.

Cricket was intended to be a means of control. It did not encourage dissent; the authority of the umpire was unchallenged by the gentlemen who participated. “Play the game” and “it’s not cricket” were phrases that spoke to the implicit ethics of the game and its alignment with English values.


The game was indeed successfully implanted in most of the colonies of the British Empire. Significantly, however, as expertise in the game increased, the colonized saw in it a symbolic form of bloodless resistance. Post-independence, a great West Indian team emerged that dominated world cricket for almost 20 years, through the 1970s and 1980s. The great fast bowler Michael Holding gained the nickname, Whispering Death:

Michael Holding ImageMichael Holding in his prime.

The political significance of the emergence of that team was entirely understood by commentators and players. Stevan Riley’s film Fire in Babylon [6] demonstrates the degree to which the players were fully aware that they were, as Michael Holding said “representing something more significant than cricket.”  Vivian Richards, a star performer said: “We had a mission… we believe in ourselves. We are just as good as anyone – equal for that matter.” The batsman Gordon Greenidge put it succinctly: “A group of Black guys being successful… people couldn’t believe it was possible.” The team celebrated, in short, “victory against our colonial masters.” [7]

There is a considerable body of literature that examines the role of cricket in postcolonial narratives. The best is probably still the classic work of the West Indian historian, activist, and commentator C. L. R. James. (1901 – 1989). In Beyond the Boundary (1963), he credits the emergence of a postcolonial West Indian sensibility to the pride taken in the cricket team; it was the unifying factor in a fragmented group of nations.

Cricket offers a metaphor for resistance to colonialism and the formation of postcolonial identity in the West Indies, but it is more than a symbol. It is the means by which national and individual pride may be reclaimed from imposed subservience. In On Cricket (2018), Mike Brearley (born 1942), captain of the English cricket team from 1977 – 1981, understood that significance. “For ex-colonial sides to beat England at cricket, making our game their own, in their own particular style, is a particularly robust strand of self-assertion.” The crowds of fans from India, Australia, the West Indies, South Africa and elsewhere who celebrate a victory over England experience a form of emotional independence that goes beyond politics.

Conclusion: Cricket Matters

There is, an irony in the fact that cricket, a legacy of colonialism, became a mechanism for resistance to colonialism. Of course, postcolonial realities must be studied from wider perspectives and questions asked that go far beyond what happens on a cricket pitch. However, the issues raised by the role of cricket, even if you do not understand the rules and cannot stand the game, are a significant element in understanding how and why the sport became important in these histories. A cricket match between England and Australia, or India, or the West Indies is much more than a sporting contest.

The players may be good friends and colleagues; they may play together in various leagues and competitions, but when they represent their countries, they enact another reality. They engage in a competition that reflects connection and disconnection, a colonial history and postcolonial consciousness. In short, the narrative of postcolonialism is incomplete without an understanding of that bizarre, bewildering, thing we call cricket.


[1] They are also members of the International Cricket Council, the controlling body for the sport.

[2] An explanation is called for. Public schools in England are, perversely, private elite schools where cricket was used to teach young men the disciplines of order, courage and conformity. The word “Public” was used to distinguish them from Church schools at the time of their foundation. Winchester was founded in 1382, Eton in 1440, Harrow in 1572.

[3] Guyanese and Jamaican statistics are drawn from the World Population Review, February 2020.

[4] Guyana is the exception. It is not an island but is the only English-speaking country in South America.

[5] This aligned in with the theories generated by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834). His most influential work, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued that increases in population would outstrip supplies of food.

[6] Available at

[7] The Hindi film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) represents a fictionalized victory for the colonized in a cricket match against the colonisers in rural India in 1893. Available with subtitles at:


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education