Sometimes cricket is “just not cricket”

by Sarah Joseph

Summer is here in Australia, which means many hours of cricket on radio and television, and, for those in capital cities, occasional opportunities to see the players in real life.  Given the subject matter of this blog, I think it an opportune time to reflect on some of the many intersections between cricket and social issues, including human rights.

Cricket emerged in the seventeenth century in England and spread in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to select former colonies, namely the Test playing nations of Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, the West Indies (in fact it is the most obvious manifestation of something that actually unites the various countries in the West Indies), Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh.  Other countries compete in shorter forms of the game, such as Kenya, Canada, and the Netherlands.


Any consideration of racial issues in cricket is dominated by South Africa.  In 1948, South Africa formalized its system of apartheid, severely curtailing the rights of its non-white population.  In 1968, England selected a “coloured” South African who had become eligible to play for England, Basil D’Oliveira, in its touring side.  In fact, he was only belatedly selected after another player had withdrawn through injury.  His original omission is suspected to have been caused by a desire by the MCC to placate the racist South African government.  South Africa refused to accept D’Oliveira’s inclusion, so the tour was cancelled.  Though South Africa toured Australia in 1969, the D’Oliveira affair precipitated its forced exit from the test arena in 1970 until 1991.

Since the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa, the “race issue” has become one of affirmative action, as a minimum quota for non-whites is adopted in choosing the South African team.  Such policies permeate South African civic and political life, in order to redress the historical wrongs of apartheid. The policy is controversial, and for example led Kevin Pietersen to emigrate due to a lack of opportunities within South Africa; he now plays for England. However, the policy also helps to ensure that the cricket team, once a symbol of illegitimate white privilege, is truly open to all races and is supported by the whole population.  The measures are meant to be temporary, until access to cricket opportunities in South Africa are truly equitable. Hopefully that time is drawing near.

The first Australian side to tour England was in fact an Aboriginal team in 1868.  However, the first (and only) Aboriginal test player was Jason Gillespie, who debuted in 1996, while Dan Christian has played a 20/20 international and has been twelfth man in the test side.  Eddie Gilbert was an Indigenous fast bowler who played for Queensland in the 1930s.  He apparently bowled the fastest deliveries ever received by Don Bradman on his way to dismissing him on a particular occasion for a duck.  Gilbert however was never picked for Australia, and died at the age of 72 after many years of alcoholism and mental ill health.

The West Indian teams long contained both white and black players, and its first black captain was not appointed until Frank Worrell in 1960-61. In its first tour of Australia in 1930-31, the West Indian Board of Control had to complain to Australian authorities about its team being split between hotels on racial lines.  The Australian Cricket Board also had to vouch to the government that the black members of the West Indian team would leave the country at the end of the tour, as the “White Australia” immigration policy was in force at the time.

Racism on the field allegedly reared its ugly head in the clash between Andrew Symonds and Harbajhan Singh in the ill-tempered test between India and Australia in Sydney in January 2008, where Symonds accused Harbajhan of calling him a “monkey”.  Harbajhan denied the charge.  He was nevertheless found guilty of racial abuse, and banned for three tests, but the ban was replaced by a fine when an International Cricket Council appeals commissioner blamed Symonds for instigating the exchange.  The Australian team was apparently furious at the light penalty, and it seems Symonds, whose career divebombed fairly soon after with a series of drinking incidents, felt very let down by the denouement.


There was a time in the early 2000s when Zimbabwe, a minnow amongst test cricketing nations, looked like it might finally make the step up to become a serious competitor, with excellent players such as the Flower brothers and Heath Streak.  However, the team then came into confrontation with Zimbabwe’s despotic leader, Robert Mugabe.  During the 2003 World Cup, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga both wore black armbands to protest the “death of democracy” in their country.  Neither played for Zimbabwe again after the World Cup, and both left the country.

In 2004, Mugabe blatantly interfered in the selection of the team, leading to the sacking of the captain, Streak, and its core of white players.  Despite the ructions, Australia toured Zimbabwe in 2004 against the wishes of the Howard government.  Leg spinner Stuart MacGill ruled himself out of the tour on the grounds of conscientious objection.  The Zimbabwean board, of which Mugabe was the patron, was ostensibly and belatedly implementing an affirmative action policy, but arbitrarily, at Mugabe’s sudden whim and in partial retaliation to the Flower/Olonga protest, rather than with the careful planning and consultation of the South African process. Zimbabwean cricket is only now starting to show signs of recovery.

Social divides in teams

Social class played its role for a long time in the English teams, with the team consisting of upper class amateurs known as Gentlemen, aristocrats who did not need to be paid to play cricket, and the Players, working class professionals.  Though relations were apparently cordial, the two types of cricketer did not mix socially very often.  The Gentlemen were generally received with greater respect than the Players.  For example, in the wake of the Bodyline tour of 1932-33 and the consequent deterioration of relations between England and Australia, the English governing body, the MCC, reprimanded the working class fast bowler, Harold Larwood, and demanded a written apology from him.  He refused and never played for England again.  In contrast, Larwood’s aristocratic captain, Douglas Jardine, who had devised the Bodyline tactics and had ordered Larwood to carry them out, was not asked to apologise, and captained England in another two series. A professional Player, James Lilywhite, did lead England in its very first test series against Australia in 1877. However, it was not until 1952, with the appointment of Len Hutton, that a Player was again appointed captain of the English team.

Commentator Mark Nicholas has pointed out that 35% of English first class cricketers still come from private fee-paying schools, and he has been instrumental in a new program promoting cricket in English government schools.  The opposite phenomenon has taken hold in Australia. Ed Cowan, the opener who is most recent Australian debutante at the time of writing, is a private school boy, one of the few to play for Australia in recent times.

Division in the Australian team, notably in the pre-war years, was along sectarian lines rather than class. In a dispute which puts the petty tiff between Michael Clarke and Simon Katich into persective, Don Bradman, a Protestant, famously fell out with his Catholic team mates, such as Jack Fingleton, Bill O’Reilly and Stan McCabe.

Those of the Brahmin caste, which occupies the highest rung in the Hindu social ladder and only a tiny proportion of the Indian population, have historically dominated the Indian side and continue to do so.  In that respect, it must be noted that its captain, M.S. Dhoni, comes from a lower caste, and key Indian cricket watchers such as Ravi Shastri and Harsha Bhogle dismiss the Brahmin dominance as “coincidence”.

Pay and conditions

The issue of class is indirectly connected to issues of money.  And cricketers were not paid well for a very long time, despite the popularity of the game. In Australia, Ian Chappell, who was appointed captain in 1971, clashed repeatedly with the Australian cricket board over pay and conditions for players.  The dispute was a key to the willingness of the majority of Australian test players defecting to the breakaway World Series Cricket competition, where players were played handsomely by Kerry Packer to showcase the sport on his commercial television channel.

Today, lucrative pay is available to most players, especially via the various 20/20 competitions played around the world, particularly the Indian Premier League. However, there is a wide gulf between the game’s richest and its paupers. While Indian players receive adulation and plenty of rewards, including endorsements, their Pakistani and Sri Lankan neighbours struggle in comparison.  This may help to explain why some cricketers have been tempted by betting syndicates to do seemingly innocuous things, like bowl a no-ball at a particular time, in return for huge rewards.


Terrorism has sadly intruded onto the cricket field. Australia and the West Indies refused to play their scheduled World Cup matches against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 1996 due to safety concerns after a Tamil bombing a month earlier.  In contrast, England did not cancel its tests against India in December 2008, despite the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late November.

The most dreadful exposure of cricket to terrorism arose in 2009, when gunmen in Pakistan attacked the bus in which the Sri Lankan team were travelling, killing six police officers and two bystanders.  Since that time, no international cricket has been played in Pakistan, further impoverishing the coffers of its cricket board.  Indeed, Australia has not toured Pakistan since 1999. Early in 2012, Bangladesh announced that it would tour Pakistan in April.

The ICC and politics

Finally, it is worth saying a word about the sport’s international governing body, the International Cricket Council.  The ICC has been criticized, justifiably, for its failure to adequately address corruption in the game, its weak stance against Mugabe’s interference in Zimbabwe, as well as its craven accommodation of India, the superpower in the game.  Regarding the former, the recent scandals involving Pakistani players were uncovered by a sting operation from the British newspaper, the News of the World, rather than the ICC’s “vigilant” processes.  As an example of the latter, the ICC allows India to veto the use of the “DRS” system of reviews of umpire’s decisions in its test series; the system is used in all other test series.

To be fair, the criticism of the ICC seems to be shared by many international sporting bodies.  FIFA, which governs world soccer, has hardly covered itself in glory recently, with its president Sepp Blatter stumbling from scandal to gaffe and back, and the International Olympic Committee has also had its share of scandals.


Cricket is a major part of the cultural and social history of Australia and other Commonwealth countries.  We revel in its mythologies, the stellar records of past greats like Bradman, Trumper, Sobers, Lillee, more recent stars like Warne and Lara, current but fading heroes like Tendulkar and Ponting, and may be seeing the development of new superstars in Michael Clarke, David Warner and James Pattinson.  As a key part of the fabric of so many countries, and like other major sports, it has of course not been immune from social political and even human rights issues. The above are a selection, rather than a complete catalogue, of those issues, for people to contemplate as they settle down to watch.

12 responses to “Sometimes cricket is “just not cricket””

  1. Very good article. I have recently done research on Human Rights issues which have arisen in sport and it’s interesting to note the way in which a nation’s politics inevitably influences their sporting culture.

    It’s very sad what has happened to Zimbabwe cricket in particular. 7-8 years ago I picked the team comprising off Heath Streak, Grant Flower, Andy Flower, The Irvine brothers, Tatentda Taibu would one day be up their with the best of the world, couldn’t be more wrong.

    If you haven’t already seen Kuma Sangakarra’s Speech at Lord’s on the Spirit of Cricket I highly recommend it as he talks about a lot of the issues you have discussed.

    Personally, as secretary of my local cricket club it’s good to see that racism and class are no longer an issue on the sporting field in Australia and differences in colour and race do not enter ones mind let alone become the cause for abuse. Let’s hope the rest of the world follow and a nations cricketers or sportsman represent their best – not their ‘wealthiest’ or their ‘whitest.’


  2. Interesting post, Sarah. One unsavoury incident that probably needs mentioning (although I know this is only a selection of stories) is that between Lillee and the Indian captain, Javed Miandad. You will know the story and the controversy and I won’t buy into it here, but at the time I was working with Indians, and I can’t begin to tell you how shocked, embittered and confronted they were by it. It was like the worst reminder of the insults of colonialism and white supremacism for them. I remember my own dear old academic guru at the time softly saying the day after that incident that he would never follow cricket again, and he did not do so while Lillee was playing.

    • I remember the incident. Lillee kicked Javed and Javed nearly belted Lillee with his bat right? Certainly unsavoury. But I don’t remember at the time any suggestion it was racist. Of course, I only saw how it was reported in Australia, and I mightn’t have been paying sufficient attention.

  3. Excellent article. My dissertation actually looked at celebrity culture in cricket, and whether these endorsed, over-the-top t20 tournaments are making cricketers commodities instead of me. I’m glad my undergrad essay came in useful for you.

      • There would be 10 players from Bihar cnetaiapd by Dhoni. So it makes 11 from undivided Bihar. He just CAN NOT get rid of Dhoni hence he will make the cut . else all the 11 would be from Bihar. Reservation would now start and the criteria could be caste, district, and of course poilitical affiliations!!!! LOL +1Was this answer helpful?

  4. Great post Sarah. Unfortunately cricket in NZ is still viewed as a largely Pakeha middle-class game. We have had two Pacific Island test players (Murphy Sua and current captain Ross Taylor) and a handful of Maori boys, including Adam Parore and Shane Bond. Given the Polynesian dominance in all winter sporting codes, this is astonishing and shows the ongoing influence of the historical construction of cricket as white and wealthy.

    I recently read a really interesting piece by an economist on the economic benefits of integration in baseball (Jon Lanning, “Productivity, Discrimination and Lost Profits During Baseball’s Integration”, The Journal of Economic History (2010) 70:964-988).

    The only upside of your spanking of India in that series is that it makes our (solitary) victory look that much better!! Yay!


    • Thanks for that. Would like to write more on sport and human rights. There are heaps in soccer and baseball. Not sure re rugby, apart from Sth African issue. I am sure they are there. (just don’t know much about rugby full stop)

  5. An outstanding article and a highly enjoyable read. Your insight into the game from a social justice point of view is unique and much appreciated.

    This is one aspect about the culture of cricket I appreciate – few other sport is as intricately linked to such array of social conditions.

    Without knowing your sources forgive me if I have inadvertently offended your range of readings by offering a few enlightening articles:

    * Detailed timeline f the d’Oliveira affair

    * Story of a 1800s South African fast bowler who was basically an equivalent to Eddie Gilbert:

    * How the class divide messed up India’s tour of England in 1936

    • Thanks SC. And thanks for the articles. But I’m not so sure that cricket is unique in this respect. Baseball in the US in particular partially mirrors US 20th century history (great doco out there by Ken Burns), and there would be some remarkable and horrifying tales from soccer (including child labour issues, a real match to the death in WWII, and the soccer war between 2 Latin American countries). Thanks for the RT too. Knowing your cricket knowledge, this comment means a lot to me.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: