Every four years, a certain sporting spectacle graces the world with its presence. Fans travel to this event from all over the world, wearing their team’s colors on their sleeves, their caps, their shoes, their faces, and even their refreshments. No, I’m not talking about the soccer World Cup: soccer is altogether too unsophisticated a sport to feature anywhere near this, the Gentleman’s Game.
Countries that rarely get to boast of sporting prowess are represented at this event, and some of them even break records. No, I’m not talking about the Olympics: the records at this event are made or broken over periods of about eight hours rather than eight seconds.
To tell you the truth, this sport is not even followed all over the world. Great gift of the British colonial empire to the civilizations it overpowered, the game has a serious following in just a handful of countries, most of which, not entirely incidentally, are former British colonies or dominions. But don’t for a moment let that fool you into believing the game’s fans are small in number: among the countries that play it are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. If even just one third of the populations of each of those countries followed the game (and I suspect it’s a lot more than just one third), that’s already about fifty million people right there. I am from one of these countries, as you might know. I am one of those fifty million, and for a large part of my childhood I was the kind of person who pushed the pause button on the rest of her life when this particular sporting event was on:
The Cricket World Cup.
There’s nothing exceptional or extraordinary about this particular cricket World Cup, of course. But it’s the first time I’m watching this event with Boyfriend, and his attitude–curious interest combined with contrarian resistance–has made it doubly entertaining for me. My interest is unironic and unapologetic, mind you: I stay up late into the night to watch matches, and text constantly with my sister all the way on the south end of the Bay, my brother all the way on the east coast, and my parents all the way across the world. Boyfriend on the other hand, while interested in some aspects of the sport, can’t be bothered to give it eight hours of his day, or even just two. The statistics hold his fancy, but the jingoistic patriotism sends him running for the woods. Our household is split right down the middle during the World Cup, and even though Boyfriend sometimes gives me his begrudging company, the only way he can get through a match is by constantly dishing out obscure details about the history of the game.
Like this one last week, as we watched the Great Mother Country’s team being delivered a sound thrashing by New Zealand:
“Did you know that cricket was an official part of the 1900 Olympic Games, and that England beat England to win that event?”
In the context of the match we were watching at the time, “England beat England” seemed like an accurate thing to say, given how the English team was doing itself no favors. But this wasn’t about the match we were watching, and I was immediately curious. I realized upon looking it up that Boyfriend was (obviously) exaggerating when he said “England beat England,” but only slightly. Here’s how:
In the very first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, the organizers proposed including the game of cricket–renowned, I imagine, not only in its pedigree as the favorite pastime of British landed gentry but also in just how much of your day it ate up. But a total absence of entries meant that the plan was quietly extinguished. The plan was revived the next time the Olympic Games rolled around, in Paris in 1900, and this time there was more enthusiasm: England, France, Belgium and Holland, all came forward to play.
Except at the very last minute, Belgium and Holland pulled out. It was all up to England and France to uphold the glory of this great sport now. Did they get the best brains in their respective nations to pick invincible teams? Did they round up talented youngsters from the streets of every village to make sure they had the greatest possible pool? Did they offer hitherto-unheard-of monetary incentives to potential winners?
No, no, and no.
You see, the 1900 Olympic Games were officially put down in the record books as the Olympic Games only retroactively, in 1912. Back in 1900, the term “Olympic Games” was hardly even used. The events that took place as a part of it, spread haphazardly over a period of several months, were assumed by the authorities and players to be a part of the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. Neither England not France actually realized it was the Olympic Games they were competing in. The teams, therefore, were not even nationally selected.
Still, how did England end up playing England, right? Well, England already had a team set up to tour the Isle of Wight. Composed mostly of members of the Castle Cary Cricket Club and old boys from Blundells’s school, England fielded a team of “distinctly average club cricketers.” As for France, well, they pieced together the few cricket-playing members of the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques. And unsurprisingly, almost every single one of these was a British expatriate. It was a match between a team of twelve players from Devon and Somerset counties and a team of twelve players from all over Britain, currently working in France as engineers, diplomats, and businessmen.
England Vs. England.
The result? England Won. But clearly, England also lost, as did France. With about twenty people and a few bemused gendarmes in the audience.
In the events that followed after the match, the English media declared that the French were far “too excitable to enjoy the game,” the driver of the winning team crashed the coach on the way back to the hotel, causing injury to a few players, and the Olympic committee, which had had about enough of this ridiculous song-and-dance, ended its relationship with the game of cricket with immediate effect. Cricket has never featured in the Olympics again. And even though several countries whose populations have been stereotyped as far more excitable than that of France have started to dominate the game of cricket, the French have since stayed clear of as if it were the wrong kind of cheese pairing for their wine.