Cricket, Empire and the BBC

Despite the sale of televised England home-matches from the BBC to commercial broadcasting, cricket remains central to collective imaginings of 'Englishness'. Recent attempts to situate the sport within the history of empire reveal much about the BBC's continuing ties to the ideology of state-led imperialism.  

Claire Westall
13 July 2012

As the England cricket team starts to dominate Test and ODI world rankings, we might be forgiven for thinking that the state broadcaster shows little interest in visually displaying and exploring cricket.

As Mike Marqusee explains in Anyone but England, 1998 saw the England and Wales Cricket Board (or ECB – where the absence of ‘W’ marks the consumptive elasticity of England within Britain) persuade the Labour government to remove England home matches from the protected list of sporting occasions reserved for broadcast on terrestrial television, sometimes known as the 'crown jewels'. This in effect privatised coverage of the sport that most directly represents England’s idealised image of itself and its former dominance of the world via the British Empire.

Since then, and with the exception of news bulletins, England home internationals have not appeared on the BBC (moving first to Channel 4 and then BSkyB). In effect, Blair’s New Labour enabled the severance of the state broadcaster from the visually alluring green and white image of England’s national cricketing content as part of a privatising logic that also sought to reassert cool Britannia’s upward mobility and the red, white and blue insignia of Union.

Nevertheless, cricket has remained an aural staple of the BBC’s diet via Test Match Special (TMS), broadcasting on Radio 4 (long wave) – having moved from Radio 3 in the early 1990s – and Five Live Sports Extra (digital and online). Launched in 1957, the year of Harold MacMillan’s arrival as PM and his ‘never had it so good’ message, but with a presentation style and air of institutional authority derived from the 1930s, TMS was the first programme to cover every ball of a Test and it has continued in this vein for all England matches for more than fifty years, providing a form of continuity that casts the sport and its accoutrements as significant, desirable and audibly engaging.

Such continuity tells of the BBC’s understanding of its own power to speak of, and for – rather than visually show – England and Englishness through cricketing commentary, its associated humour (about players, places, cream cakes and crowd action/in-action), and a set of familiar voices: EW Swanton, John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Henry Blofeld, Christopher Martin Jenkins and Jonathan Agnew, to name just the obvious.

What is striking is not that TMS – a miniature institution that references the stasis of the BBC as an institution – is held in affection by cricket fans (myself included), as alluded to in the musical track ‘Test Match Special’ by The Duckworth Lewis Method. Rather, it is the BBC’s insistence upon endorsing and enhancing the rhetoric of affection in order to create a vision of the programme’s continuation as both hard won and taken-for-granted and, thereby, imbue itself with the same hard won but taken-for-granted continuity.

There is something important here in the way that the public are not able to see (and the BBC is not able to pay for) the very action that is described on TMS. Indeed, despite substantial web content on the BBC’s sports pages, cricketing action has become an aural delight offered by the BBC as it positions itself in relation to a not-to-be-seen, but always-already known version of Englishness that supports the idea that the mind’s eye of each listener should saunter towards the pastoral idyll of English cricket’s fantastical past. Moreover, TMS carries these messages within a musical frame, or theme tune, that is Booker T’s ‘Soul Limbo’; a frame that alludes to empire by co-opting postcolonial performativity and one that reminds us that while cricketing liveliness was, for decades, associated with the West Indies team and their supporters, such exuberance was also a site of fear and a prompt for reactionary regulation change.

In recent years the removal of cricketing play from BBC TV and the endurance of TMS have been cast against a set of intriguing television documentaries that report on cricket’s history and future, its ability to speak of Britain’s imperial past and the globalisation of the sport. Through these programmes, the state broadcaster shows itself as keen to display cricketing stories and human-interest angles that are sold as moving far beyond the boundary.

BBC Two’s Empire of Cricket was a four part series (broadcast in June 2009) with hour long episodes dedicated to England, West Indies, Australia and India, stretching from the ‘inventors’ of the game to the new dominance of India and the rise of the Indian Premier League. The BBC summary statement for the England episode read:

"The English invented cricket, created its rules and a whole moral code for the game. They then exported this elegant game of bat and ball to the wider British Empire. But England began to struggle when the natives began to play the game so much better."

Although cricket’s relation to empire is emphasised (and was emphasised in the programmes), the soft, de-politicised cultural critique of empire cultivated allows the BBC to speak as if it is separate from the British state, the state of empire, and thereby to think of itself as undercutting the colonial past even as it replicates the colonial idiom – with the English as inventors, the game as ‘elegant’, and the ‘natives’ as opponents. The very use of ‘natives’ ironises the colonial rhetoric of the British past while re-deploying it in the present without speech marks; without taking it out of the BBC’s (the state’s) voice of authority. In this fashion, the British state via the BBC allows itself to use ‘native’ to mark the imperial other, even after empire, as it tries to do multiculturalism and globalisation through cricketing stories of cross-cultural traditions and transactions.

In addition, the synopsis cites ‘rules’ when everyone in the cricketing know appreciates that these are ‘laws’ that sit within ‘a whole moral code’ that was the public school system of imperial preparation captured by Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and has, more recently, been reasserted by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) through their ‘Spirit of Cricket’ initiative. The combination of constructed, self-defined moral superiority and laws that are always evolving in relation to the pre-established superiority of the masters was the key element in the indoctrinatory (and physical) violence that accompanied empire’s use of cricket, as was so clearly seen in C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary (1963). Yet recognition of such violence was largely absent from Empire of Cricket.

Under series editor Nick Fraser, BBC Four’s Storyville has included two distinctly different cricket documentaries, both of which were made as independent feature-lengths but were distributed by and aired on the BBC. Stevan Riley, of Blue Blood (2006) – a film about the annual boxing match between Oxford and Cambridge – directed Fire in Babylon, first broadcast on 27th February 2012. The documentary told “the story of how West Indies cricket triumphed over its colonial masters”, “emerged to smash the giants of cricket” and “struck a defiant blow at the forces of white prejudice worldwide.” According to the BBC, the West Indies, who dominate ‘the genteel game […] on their own terms’,  tell their own story here “in their own words” through the interviews and footage used.

In an interview about the film, Riley described his finished piece as a “feel good tale with a good soundtrack” including reggae, dub and calypso. He also suggested that ‘players just thought that they were playing cricket’ despite Viv Richards expressly politicising his cricketing performances during his career and in his autobiographies. The film is a bouncey, musical and colour-filled masterpiece of digital montage, as old footage and reggae tracks are woven together with interview clips to convey the past greatness of the West Indies. It is cricketing history for beginners – which is perfectly useful and enjoyable in some ways – but it fails to capitalise on the abundance of cricketing history available, especially from the University of West Indies. It also functions as British nostalgia for the contestations of the 1970s and 1980s when Britain, via England, allowed itself to still read the Caribbean explicitly, perhaps even exclusively, in relation to their own colonialism.


A more unusual Storyville offering was Afghan Cricket Club – Out of the Ashes (This was released on DVD in 2010 as Out of the Ashes). Made between 2008 and 2010 by three young filmmakers – Tim Albone, Lucy Martens and Leslie Knott – the 90 minute feature tracked the Afghan national cricket team as they attempted to qualify for the 2011 Cricket World Cup by playing in places as diverse as Jersey and Buenos Aires. Apparently the film shed “light on a nation beyond burqas, bombs, drugs and devastation’ by enjoying “unrestricted access” to the team on their “epic journey”.

There is much that is beautiful, moving and strikingly uncanny about the film, especially as it follows Taj Malik’s lifetime effort to build a national team after learning his cricket in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Yet there are numerous occasions when aesthetic contrasts and institutional intrusions reveal the tensions at the heart of the project. The first is the image of bright Afghan ODI clothing cast against the cement grounds and desert-like spaces of cricketing play in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The second is the intrusion of the British Ambassador to Afghanistan during a training session because he cannot help but laugh at the national team’s efforts even as he endorses the “war-like” attributes of their “tribe”. The third is the presentation of Jersey as a lush green and pleasant land that stands in for England – or more accurately cricketing Englishness – and keeps the Afghan team in a position of disorientated difference and patronised secondariness (as demonstrated by Geoffrey Boycott when they win the tournament).

In ‘Why Documentaries Matter’ (Observer 20 March 2011), Fraser claimed that the success of documentaries has “something to do with the way they are taken for granted, casually watched”. This seems to be part of the danger presented by the Storyville films, in that watching them enables the kind of taken-for-granted easy viewing that is actually not seeing. This may aid the built-in institutional politics offered by such programming and bypass the anti-institutional critique to be gained from a closer analysis of the ways in which cricket is still linked to empire via the British state and its broadcaster, even as they attempt to expose and move beyond their own imperial roles. 

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