It might seem like a harmless old British pastime, yet cricket can arguably rival football as one of the most politically-charged sports in the world. Here’s why.
It was English group 10cc – in their 1978 hit Dreadlock Holiday – who declared ‘I don’t like cricket, I love it’, and it’s probably one of the most relatable song lines I’ve ever heard. Although I picked up quite a few wickets as an amateur youth player due to my dreadful bowling technique, I was terrible at it. That hasn’t stopped me from becoming a professional spectator though.
My first (and, so far, only) game of cricket I’ve seen live came two years ago. My grandad and I were lucky enough to witness history, when Eoin Morgan hit a record-breaking 17 sixes as England romped to victory over Afghanistan in the group stages of One-Day International World Cup. England eventually went on to win the tournament in truly dramatic fashion, and it kick-started a memorable summer of English cricket (including that Ben Stokes innings in the Ashes at Headingley).
However, one thing that I have picked up on since then is how politicised cricket actually is as a sport. Former PM Theresa May – an avid cricket fan – was at Lord’s when England triumphed in the 2019 Final, a tournament where all ten of the countries who competed in it had experienced British influence over them at some point in their history. In fact, the Netherlands’ entry in the 2011 edition of the tournament was the last time a country who remained free from British colonial influence qualified for the tournament. But if you want to be pedantic, it was British soldiers who introduced cricket to the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars, so even they weren’t free from British cricket fever.
The ties between the British Empire and the sport of cricket are undeniable. Nowhere more so, however, is that truer than on the Indian Subcontinent – the former jewel in the imperial crown. The rivalry between India and Pakistan – two neighbouring nuclear states – make the Ashes look like a friendly father-son match in the park or something. This is an IR and Politics blog, so I don’t think I need to dive into the full story of India and Pakistan. Essentially though, they hate each other’s guts but they both love cricket.
They’re also both quite good at it, so that always makes for some incredible games. I watched their 2019 World Cup match on TV, and it was thrilling. I wished I was there, and I wasn’t alone. Apparently over 400,000 people applied for tickets to that game at the 25,000-capacity Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, where I saw England roll over Afghanistan two days later. That’s enough to fill the stadium sixteen times over, emphasising just how big the India-Pakistan cricketing rivalry is.
But the politics-cricket love-in on the subcontinent doesn’t even stop there! Donald Trump tried to play to the Indian crowd when he spoke about his admiration for national heroes ‘Soo-chin Tendul-kerr’ (Sachin Tendulkar) and ‘Vee-rot Ko-lee’ (Virat Kohli) at the new Ahmedabad cricket stadium last year. Plus, the current Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is the country’s greatest cricketer in history. One of the best all-rounders to ever grace the game, it was him who transformed Pakistan into the cricketing nation it is today thanks to their 1992 World Cup victory, when he captained the side.
In fact, Khan is actually the inspiration for this entire piece. Two weeks ago, following England’s defeat to India in the Second Test between the side, Khan used the official Twitter account of his political party to retweet former England captain Michael Vaughan having a pop at the state of the Chennai pitch. The India-England series had absolutely nothing to do with Pakistan, yet Khan still felt the need to throw his two cents into the ring. This is how deep the rivalry runs, and in my view, it’s irresponsible. India and Pakistan don’t have great relations but both love cricket fiercely, so for Khan to use a political platform to insult the thing the Indians love the most doesn’t exactly help that.
But this just demonstrates how deep politics and cricket intertwine. When it comes to the global cricket scene, India is arguably the hegemon. They boast the best Test team, the most popular domestic limited-overs league (the IPL) and their cricket association – the BCCI – have huge influence over the International Cricket Council. They’re basically the ones in charge.
Cricket may seem like just a harmless old British pastime to the untrained eye, but it can arguably rival football as one of the most politically-charged sports in the world. And its position in the global agenda is only going to get bigger when India become a superpower. This centuries-old sport could be about to get a whole new meaning in the 21st century. And if it does, maybe the Americans will finally see what a proper world series involving a bat, ball and field looks like.