English Vs. English: A Brief History of Cricket in the Olympics

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.

Urgh. How terribly plebeian!

Urgh. How terribly plebeian!

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.

It's over? What do you mean it's over? I've barely even tasted the crumpets!

It’s over? What do you mean it’s over? I’ve barely tasted the crumpets!

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.

The winning team.

The winning team. (Image source.)

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.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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The Thomasson: Useless, but meticulously maintained

All right, I’ll admit it. It’s intimidating to come back to my blog after a break of several months. (Why was I away? Grad school applications. Don’t ask, it was brutal.) One of the things that kept me going while I was away was weekly email updates about the statistics on my blog. “Neha! Two people favorited your blog this week!” “Neha! Seven people viewed and four people liked Stuff My Boyfriend Tells Me’s FaceBook page this week!” “Neha! Eleven people printed that comic of your boyfriend rocking to Daft Punk on their newborn babies’ onesies this week!” (Okay, that last one is made up. But only a little.)

Providing irrefutable proof that folks don’t know what to do with themselves in the lazy, food-filled days between Christmas and New Year, the last week of December showed unusually high activity on my blog. I immediately pointed out said blog activity to Boyfriend, and as per usual, Boyfriend nodded sagely (if “sagely” were inflected with a hint of “That’s impressive”). He was curious about why I still got updates on my blog when I wasn’t posting on it, and I said it was because I liked keeping tabs on it. “You know, to maintain it, keep track of what’s going on, etc.”

“That’s interesting. So even if you never posted on your blog again, there would still be maintenance on it?”

“Yes.”

“So it could be a Thomasson of the blogosphere. I wonder how many of those exist…”

“A what-now of the blogosphere?”

“A Thomasson…”

(You know the drill by now. No need to ask. Just wait for it. 3…2…1…)

“Did you know, a Japanese artist coined the term “Thomasson” in the 1970s to describe architectural features of buildings that no longer serve any purpose but are maintained nonetheless?”

...Are you saying these stairs don't lead to that little door in the wall that takes you down to the basement where miniature people live in secret?

So… that hole in the wall isn’t a door used by the miniature family that secretly lives in the basement? This staircase with the freshly painted railing actually leads nowhere?

I have no desire to turn my blog into a Thomasson. But it is only fitting that my first post after the break should deal with the nomenclatural genesis of this eloquent term. And there isn’t much to it, really. In fact, you could even say that the entirety of this term’s history lies in just two observations:

A: (As some of you may know) Artists are often interested in architecture;

B: (As some of you may not know) Japan is very interested in baseball.

How do these things connect? Bear with me.

A: The year is 1972. Channeling the flâneur within him, Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa is wandering the streets of his city. As he walks past a building, his attention is arrested by a staircase. This staircase, to be precise:

Staircase to Nowhere

The staircase leads up to a landing and then down again on the other side. But there is no door there, a feature that immediately strikes Akasegawa as odd. “What a strange thing,” he thinks. “I have stumbled upon a Staircase to Nowhere.”* Assuming this structure-with-no-purpose is part of an older construction, Akasegawa is about to move on when he notices that the railing on the staircase has just been repaired. “Hmm,” he thinks again. “An architectural feature that is entirely useless, but still undergoes careful maintenance!” Akasegawa is fascinated, and from that point forward he seeks out architectural features like this one in other buildings as well: doors that are boarded up but freshly painted, water pipes that haven’t carried water in years but are still cleaned, or windows that hug brick walls but still have their glass replaced when broken. Anything that fits the bill of “useless but well-maintained.”

B: The year is 1980. After having played his last game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Major League Baseball player Gary Thomasson is bought by the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Nippon Pro Baseball. Having played for the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees before he was traded to the Dodgers, Thomasson is a bit of a star. And as these things tend to happen, the Yomiuri Giants give him a contract befitting a star. The heftiest contract, in fact, in the history of the Nippon League. People have grand expectations; Thomasson is eager to deliver. But something happens upon his arrival in Japan, something dramatically antithetical to the fairytale denouement everyone is expecting: Thomasson loses his mojo. Drops his baseball chops, entirely and spectacularly. Truth be told, if he hadn’t injured his knee in a career-ending move, he may have set a new strikeout record for the league.

But the contract remains, and the Yomiuri Giants are under legal obligation to pay him. For two years, the player strikes out but cashes in. For the Nippon League–and many baseball fans in Japan–Gary Thomasson came to define “useless but maintained.”

You see the connection now, don’t you?

I’m not sure if Akasegawa was a baseball fan, but he definitely kept tabs on the performance of various players in the Nippon League. And when it dawned on him at some point during his quest that these “useless-but-maintained” architectural features should be given a name, “Thomasson” seemed an obvious (if slightly mean spirited) choice. He started to photograph these Thomassons, compiling and publishing them in his 1985 book Hyperart: Thomasson. The term quickly gained a cult following, and the book was later translated into English.

Understandably, Gary Thomasson himself had no comment on the matter. But meanness aside, I think Akasegawa has given us a great gift here; a name for all those life situations we’ve never been able to define. That tailbone that serves no purpose but needs you to exercise the muscles around it because you once injured it in spin class? It’s a Thomasson! That sweater you have to wash in special detergent made from a baby penguin’s belly feathers, but that you don’t actually wear anywhere because it isn’t warm enough? It’s a Thomasson! That dog you adopted to bark at strangers when you moved into a sketchy neighborhood because of sketchy career choices like wanting to be a writer, but who just cannot control his excitement upon meeting new people? He’s a Thomasson! That cat who–well, any cat, really–is a Thomasson! Thomassons all round, everywhere you look.

There’s perverse beauty in the term, you have to admit. And the best part? It’s thoroughly useful, and needs no maintenance whatsoever.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

*I may be paraphrasing Akasegawa’s thoughts here. I’m a storyteller. I can’t help myself.