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.