Cricket and Europe

On the plus side of my ‘good and bad effects of the British Empire list’, I always used to put the spread of cricket. (Sometimes it was there alone.) It must have been the Empire that spread cricket, unlike football, because there are virtually no non-British ex-colonies that took it up.

That I always think is a shame. Cricket isn’t just a game. It’s an art-form and a civilising influence. It could almost be said to justify the British Empire, on its own. ‘Forget Amritsar; we gave you the LBW rule.’ If continental Europe could learn to play it, the Empire’s divine purpose in history would have been accomplished.

Which is why I always get a thrill when I espy cricket being played in Sweden; and then am disappointed when I get closer to it, and see who  is playing. It is always south Asians, usually the Bangladeshis who run the ‘Indian’ restaurants there; all in perfect whites, and with all the necessary equipment. They even had sight-screens for one game I happened on near Gripsholm. Today I discovered that, as well as the main Cricket World Cup going on now in England, there’s a sort of mini-World Cup of all the national ‘B’ teams, with Sweden, Norway and Denmark taking part. But then I looked at the scorecards. All the players had Indian or Pakistani names, with just one exception: one ND Laegsgaard of Denmark. That looks pretty Norse. Obviously I’m not prejudiced against Indians or Pakistanis – I hope that doesn’t need saying – but still this suggests that cricket is an ex-imperial game still. It’s not yet properly penetrated Europe.

I have a theory about this. In England cricketers used to be divided between ‘gentlemen’ (amateurs, usually upper-class), and ‘players’ (professionals, who couldn’t afford to take the time off that it takes to play a cricket match without pay). They had separate changing-rooms, different ways of printing their names on the scorecards (‘Mr’ for the Gents, plain ‘Smith JJ’ for the Players), and there was an annual match between them – ‘Gentlemen versus Players’ – at Lords. It was there that one noticed that most of the best batsmen in the country were ‘gentlemen’, with the bowlers coming from the ranks of the ‘players’. For a ‘gentleman’ to get a decent game of cricket, therefore, he had to engage working-class men to bowl to him.

Then they went out to rule the Empire, most of them upper class; and so – without a regular supply of white proles – needed natives  to bowl at them. That’s how the Indians and all the others learned the game. Later on the natives found that they couldn’t play amongst themselves without having batsmen, and so taught themselves to bat. That was the origin of the great West Indian teams of the 1950s and ’60s, and the Indian team of today; surpassing the English inventors of the game in every department.

The lesson to be taken from this is that for a nation to be able to avail itself of this inestimable benefit, a century or two of British imperial control are necessary. I don’t suppose the Scandinavian countries would be much in favour of this. (Especially now.) But it’s a great shame. If Sweden could put out a team full of Sjöqvists and Anderssons, alongside the Mohammeds and Guptas, I’d feel that Britain’s ‘civilising mission’ in the world had finally come to pass.

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6 Responses to Cricket and Europe

  1. Tony says:

    The ‘gentleman farmer’ was called Larkings (I think) and lasted a season or so. Fletcher was a bit later. Both Bailey and Insole captained the county at various times. Insole retired from playing before Bailey, but I remember Bailey captaining at least until mid-60’s, once typically refusing to declare to give Yorkshire a chance of winning at Leyton on a wet Monday morning and arguing with Close about it. Bailey ran a tight ship and caused considerable discontent by refusing to give players benefit seasons when due, and Barry Knight left for Leicestershire for this reason. Fletcher was probably the best batsman Essex had until Cook, wasn’t he?

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  2. Tony says:

    At the annual Gentlemen vs Players match at Lords there was a separate entrance/ exit on to and off the field, and I recall reading in Peter Parfitt’s (Middlesex pro) autobiography how this more or less reflected the pros treatment in the county game. Of course, the ‘amateurs’ were often paid as well in one way or another, eg Bob Barber at Lancashire and Trevor Bailey at Essex etc but then it still seemed important for the amateur/gentlemen (who were usually public school/Oxbridge blues/county landlowners) distinction to be maintained. The amateurs were invariably county and test captains, which reflected leadership myth of the amateur empire builder and super sportsmen so beloved of many children’s comics and stories of the time.

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    • Absolutely right. I remember the two little white gates onto the field at Lords. Trevor Bailey – my boyhood hero and the greatest DEFENSIVE All-Rounder ever – was relatively poor, but had been a Cambridge Blue, so couldn’t overtly join the riffraff. So Essex CCC paid him for being (I think) Secretary. – I was devastated by his terrible death, a few years ago.

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      • Tony says:

        I agree about Bailey who was very professional in attitude to winning, or rather not losing, but nearly every county had an amateur captain at the time, some of whom were not of county standard. Even Essex would make room for occasional Cambridge blues in vacation time, and even when Bailey retired he was replaced for a timestill reflected as by a gentleman farmer, but who didn’t last long. There must be a book, probably has been, on the cult of amateurism in English society and politics still reflected today in disdain for expertise (Gove!) and insouciant disdain for actually reading papers, mastering subjects, and ‘winging it’ with a plausible pubic school manner (Cameron, Johnson et al) Hence the mess of Brexit

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      • I don’t think Bailey often captained Essex – it was usually Doug Insole; another great favourite of mine, a kind of poor man’s Dennis Compton, rather underrated I thought. And also a Gentleman – a Cambridge buddy of Bailey’s. By the ‘gentleman farmer’, do you mean Keith Fletcher? He lasted quite long time, in a successful period for Essex.

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