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Cricket and Empire

9 September 2005

On 21 July London suffered a second bombing attack  upon its transport system and people. Coinciding with this was an event that had been much anticipated throughout England; the first day of the Ashes England series between England and Australia. Unsurprisingly, the events occurring outside Lord’s cricket ground in Marylebone eclipsed those within. And perhaps with some relief for the players involved; after a promising start their batting capitulated and the Australians went on to win by a healthy margin. Over the weeks to come, however,England’s cricketers began to make front page headlines for the right reasons and provided a welcome distraction for Britain’s  worries about suicide bombers, police shootings and multiculturalism. 

 

The Ashes series of 2005 has been anticipated with far greater vigour than has been done for some time. For the first time in 16 years England has felt that they have a team which is capable of at least closely contesting the supremacy of the Australians. The defeat at Lord’s was followed by the slimmest of victories at Edgbaston in Birmingham in what has been hyperbolically labelled “the greatest ever Test match”. Suddenly a nation fell back in love with a sport that has often been derided as long, dull, old fashioned and elitist – and to the rest of the world as frankly bemusing.

Its unpopularity at home and its complete obfuscation by the commercial ogre that is now known as football is sharply contrasted by its adoption by the former British Empire’s colonies. While it has languished at home it has been revitalised with the exuberance and enthusiasm that the sub continent and theCaribbean has injected into it. In the West Indies, especially, cricket has provided these small islands with an identity and a voice on the world stage.

Cricket was originally utilised to spread British culture around its empire. The ‘subjects’ picked it up and rewrote the rules. No longer the domain of public schoolboys and the Empire, cricket became a sport for the masses – the most popular sport in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies and a major one in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The only former colony not to embrace it was
America who chose baseball instead.

The world has turned full circle. Cricket has been digested by the Commonwealth and reinterpreted with greater gusto and verve. The pace has quickened and finally, this summer, England have caught on ; in “Freddie” Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen they now have batsmen who can strike the ball clean out of the ground and their quartet of fast bowlers can hurl the ball down at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, raising comparisons with the legendary West Indian bowling attacks of the 1980s. Furthermore, cricket has shaken off its pompous and elitist reputation : only one member of the team was public school educated and the core of the team hail from the north of England, the old industrial counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumberland. Even the crowds have changed – in their own particular wayEngland’s “Barmy Army” emulate the carnival spirit that the Caribbeans instigated.

 After the defeat at Lord’s, the main topic of conversation was whether cricket would be able to wrestle the headlines away from football when the soccer season began in mid August. The closest ever margin of victory at Edgbaston, a nail biting draw at Old Trafford and a “watch-from-behind-the-sofa” narrow victory for England at Trent Bridge have ensured that cricket has dominated not only the back pages but also the front ones (and inspired a myriad of special pull out issues). Suddenly people who have taken no interest in cricket in their life have switched on to Channel 4’s coverage and begun to understand the nuances of cricket and the entertainment value in a game that is drawn out over five days. And suddenly, football, the British fixation for the past fifteen years, has been seen in a different light. The greed that suffuses its very core and its comparison with the spirit evident in cricket this summer has revealed a sport and an industry eating itself from the inside.

 Cricket this summer has thrown up what the Victorians would have seen as quintessential English values ; bravery, honour and sportsmanship - now rarely seen on a television schedule which is dominated  by visions of punch ups and spitting and by sports headlines awash with stories of petulant footballers demanding exorbitant pay rises. The sight of Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, England’s hero of the summer, reaching down to console his Australian counterpart Brett Lee after Australia so very nearly snatched victory away from England, has become an iconic image of the sporting summer.

 The Ashes contest between England and Australia has a long history. It is considered the most important contest in the cricketing calendar. The underlying currents of politics are never far from the surface; the Australians love to beat the English because England had the arrogance to send them her convicts - to a land that was far away as was physically possible and by so doing washing  their hands of the problem. There is nothing more satisfying for an Australian than to see the descendants of these ‘rejects’ return to defeat their subjugators.

 Times have changed. England no longer has an empire. She is no longer top dog. And while her influence has not completely waned on the global stage she is now perceived more as a lapdog standing alongside America’s might than anything else.England used to be defined, among other things, by cricket. While her global standing as a world power has steadily decreased since the end of the war so, symbiotically, have her sporting successes.

In contrast the Australian star has risen; now viewed as a bustling, prosperous nation with dramatic natural landscapes and a progenitor of healthy lifestyles, her success is symbolised by her sporting prowess at cricket, rugby and swimming. The last 16 years have seen Australia’s cricketers construct a sporting empire and a legacy as possibly the best cricket team that has ever played. They have revolutionised the game with an attacking style of play which has virtually nullified the existence of the draw as a potential outcome of a match.

 So we reach the denouement in a five act drama played out over the summer. The two teams meet for the final Test at the Oval in London over the course of this weekend. England lead 2-1 in the series but both teams can still claim the Ashes (if the series is drawn the holders retain them). The implications of an English victory would be the toppling of the Australian cricketing empire and the reclaiming of a crown which they wrestled from its inventors and have held on to for more than two generations of cricketing careers. The London bombings unified a nation in grief and shock. The cricket this summer has unified it in joy and, if victory could be completed just a few minutes walk from where perhaps the most distressing incident of the summer occurred – the wrongful shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station – then it would act as a small cathartic tonic for a turbulent time in Britain’s history.

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