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.

“Is Don Bradman Still Alive?”

Last Saturday night Boyfriend and I met a couple of friends for dinner at Burma Superstar. We were all having a really good evening – the food was fantastic, and Boyfriend was appropriately excited because in two years in the Bay Area, this was his first time at the restaurant. The conversation was vigorous – we all like to spar – but also polite, and low on decibels out of respect for other diners. I was being particularly civilized – I didn’t interrupt or speak over anyone (What? I get carried away sometimes.), and I didn’t swear even once. Ok, maybe once. Or twice. But definitely not as much as I would have if I was at home. Heck, I was so well-behaved, I may even have spent the evening with my legs crossed elegantly and my back upright.

Until, of course, we started talking about sports. About cricket, to be precise.

One of the friends we were with is Quebecois, and though we find several common points of interests, cricket isn’t one of them. Canada has a cricket team, mind you – they don’t win anything, but they exist. (They also have a record or two.) But the influence of cricket doesn’t extend to French Canada, so said friend had no idea about or interest in the game. Sadly, the fact of this unfortunate historio-cultural accident, combined with his enduring love for comparing numbers, and his natural affinity for presenting counter-arguments, led him to dispute my assertion that the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman was the greatest sportsman – across all sports – to have ever lived. (Yes, I was comparing talent and achievement across sports. Deal with it.)

“No, he was not,” my friend stated stubbornly.

Oh, no, you didn’t.

I clicked my talons on the table top. You don’t dispute Don Bradman’s greatest-ever-ness. You accept it and you move on. Obviously, I had to find a comeback to this instance of egregious irreverence. So I summoned my best Cersei Lannister voice and asked, “Oh, really? Then who do you think is the best, Wayne Gretzky?!”

"In the discussion of Don Bradman's greatness, you either agree, or you're wrong. There is no middle ground."

“In the discussion of Don Bradman’s greatness you either agree, or you’re wrong. There is no middle ground.”

Obviously, this did not go well. Our carefully assembled pretense of politeness-when-in-public and our pointed containment of the decibel level evaporated into thin air as we got into a vigorous discussion about Don Bradman. For several minutes we argued – neither of us willing to cede an inch – and for several minutes Boyfriend watched us in silence as he stuffed his face with Tofu Kebat and Shan Noodles. Then, when he was done eating and realized he needed to break the argument if we were to order dessert, he nonchalantly announced:

“Did you know that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the first question he asked was, ‘Is Don Bradman still alive?'”

This has got to be an amazing story.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison between 1962 and 1990, and even though Bradman had retired from cricket by 1949, his rare and unmatched talent clearly made him known across the cricketing world and beyond, despite the absence of the televisation of sport for a large part of Bradman’s career.

But beyond everything else, I think this is a beautiful story because of the ways in which even the game of cricket could not escape the clutches of apartheid’s dirty, toxic fingers. Cricket had been organized on color lines since the 1890s in South Africa, and players of color were systematically kept out of the team. In 1968 Basil D’Oliveira, a player of color, went to England to play for the English team when he wasn’t selected for the South African national squad. This rightly caused a massive furor in the cricketing world, and England banned the South African team from touring their country. The ICC – the International Cricket Council (then the International Cricket Conference) imposed a ban on South African cricket in 1970, stating it would only let the country back into the sport when players of color were allowed to participate in it.

Of course, this didn’t stop private investors who cared little about freedom and equality from taking troupes of international cricketers to South Africa to play: South African audiences loved their cricket, so obviously this was a lucrative opportunity no businessman bereft of ethics could let go. Fortunately, this didn’t take off in any manner that was big enough to counter the effects of the ICC ban – one of the steps taken by the ICC and national cricket councils was that players who participated in what were called “rebel tours,” were no longer allowed to participate in national and international cricket as governed by the ICC.

The ban on South African cricket was finally lifted in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and involved himself in negotiations to end apartheid. Of course, cricket wasn’t the only sport in which South Africa had suffered international boycott for nearly three decades. And while I don’t know if Mandela directly had anything to do with the reversal of the specific boycott on cricket, I can only assume from the interest he took in other sporting matters (remember this?) that sport was a big part of the face South Africa presented to the world, and the inclusion of players of color into national sporting teams was a very significant victory for the movement to end apartheid. Mandela is also famously a sports fan, and until recently, before his health started seriously deteriorating, he made regular appearances at cricket, football, and rugby matches.

"You're good, Brian. You're good. But not as good as The Don."

“You’re good, Brian. You’re good. But not as good as The Don.” (Image source.)

So when Nelson Mandela emerges from a 27-year prison sentence and immediately asks about Don Bradman, you had better believe Bradman had to be the greatest ever. Or you could read about the book by Charles Davis, the sports statistician who compared numbers across sports and came to the conclusion that Don Bradman was the greatest ever. Or you could watch this show, which basically tells you that Don Bradman was the greatest ever:

Or you could just agree with me right now, because that will make life easier for everyone involved. We can spend a moment in reverence, and then move on to the argument over which sportsperson lays claim on the title of second-best. (It’s Pelé. Don’t argue with me.)

Want to know more? Go here. And here.