Learie Constantine, West Indian cricketer of the 1930s/public domain
Learie Constantine, West Indian cricketer of the 1930s/public domain

The game of cricket has had a long and complicated history in the West Indies. Originally imported to the West Indies as an agent of control and reaffirmation, the game steadily evolved into a cultural institution radically opposed to the original intentions of those who conspired for its import. The exact role cricket has played in terms of resistance to the postcolonial hegemonic order in the West Indies is widely debated. Much of this debate has to do with the variety of ways in which cricket culture has been allowed to progress according to specific histories of individual locales. Because of the diverse national histories in the region, styles of cricket vary a great deal from one island to the next, as does the cultural work each style performs. One must therefore question the usefulness in talking in-depth about West Indian cricket in ways that suggest the game developed throughout the region in a singular fashion. Having set forth this advisory, here I will attempt to point out some of the larger issues belonging to cricket culture in the West Indies which may or may not be specific to any single locale. Discussion of these larger issues is merely meant to stimulate conversation on the topic of cricket and its relatedness to postcolonial discourse. The game of cricket was exported from England to all of its colonies, including those in Asia and Africa, during the nineteenth century as a way to reinforce a hegemonic cultural order in the face of the emancipation of England’s slave population (see Colonial Education). A brief history of the state of affairs in the West Indies upon cricket’s arrival will help explain why a re-commitment to England’s Victorian ideals became necessary for continued colonial consolidation at this time of social and cultural turmoil.

Colonial History of Cricket

English slaves in the West Indies were emancipated in the year 1838. Emancipation brought to an end an institution that had helped England bring one quarter of the world’s land mass under British rule. In the West Indies during this time, the two largest groups were the newly-freed Africans, who made up the laboring class, and the white plantation owners who formed the islands’ aristocracies. The African population prior to slavery not only performed the role of wealth-makers for the white, land-owning plantocracy, but also provided a metaphorical blackness onto which the plantocracy could project their whiteness. The resulting juxtaposition went a long way in alleviating the anxiety of the white land-owners who were constantly reminded of their location at the farthest reaches of the English empire, of civilization. For the planter class, wealth was not enough. There was the constant need to be reminded that they were a distinct race separate from the Africans. Through the use of stereotypes and other forms of hegemonic control, the plantocracy learned to survive life at what they considered the edge of civilization. White was much whiter when juxtaposed against the black population.

Once the slaves were emancipated, cricket became the new cultural institution by which England sought to socialize the populations and reinforce hierarchies in its colonies. Cricket was imported to all of England’s colonies, not only the West Indies. In The Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy explains the cultural evolution of cricket in India:

The age was more an affirmation of the superiority of controlled self-indulgence and controlled flair or style, combined with reaffirmation of a moral universe. The nineteenth century was also the period when the various post-Utilitarian theories of progress began to be applied to the new colonies of Britain. The emerging culture of cricket came in handy to those using these theories to hierarchize the cultures, faiths and societies which were, one by one,coming under colonial domination (5).

Cricket operated according to a Victorian model in which cultivated style and carefully defined notions of grace under pressure worked to keep most people out of the sport. Terms such as sportsmanship, dash, courage and temperament were important to cricket’s Victorian ethos. Cricket was through and through a “gentleman’s” game, and all others were excluded by their inability to demonstrate an understanding of cricket’s image of the ideal Englishman (see Anglophilia).

England used its military forces to export the game to the West Indies (Beckles 37). Newspaper accounts written during the early nineteenth-century reveal how matches were staged between English military personnel. Needless to say, West Indian planters, fearful of changing social structures in the islands, welcomed cricket in the West Indies and by 1840 many were staging cricket matches on their plantations (38). Cricket allowed the plantocracy to pledge its support for British cultural values, concepts of social progress, moral codes, behavioral standards and attitudes towards social rankings (Stoddart 66). Blacks who were exposed to cricket on plantations where they made up the indentured labor pool also began to — either in whole or in part — espouse these views.

Despite the actions of the plantocracy, by the end of the nineteenth-century, a mercantile class had begun to dominate West Indian economic and cultural institutions. This new middle-class began forming cricket clubs which were aimed at countering the new image of social unity that cricket was beginning to suggest through its widespread popularity. Cricket clubs were formed throughout the West Indies. Each club drew its membership based on specific racial characteristics, and potential members knew to which club they would be invited to join without being told. There were separate clubs for aristocratic whites, merchant-class whites, coloreds (mulattos), and blacks. Racial integration for the most part during this time was not allowed.

Re-Colonisation or Revolution?

Much of the recent scholarship surrounding West Indian cricket, writes Beckles, addresses the question of cricket’s”cultural imperatives” (Intro. 2). The question Beckles and others attempt to answer is whether or not cricket served the needs of the colonial empire, England, by re-inscribing its Victorian ethos on the newly-freed black West Indians, and if so, to what extent. Those who view cricket as revolutionary prefer the idea of cricket as “an ideological weapon of subversive, anti-colonial, creole nationalism” (Intro. 2). Cultural critics C. L. R. James, Ashis Nandy and Brian Stoddart illustrate three different opinions about the role of colonial cricket (see Mimicry, Ambivalence, and Hybridity).

I. C. L. R. James

C. L. R. James, in his seminal work Beyond a Boundary, focuses on aesthetics and takes the position that the style of play of black West Indians is itself a form of “social resistance against British colonialism”(Graves). In Boundary, James writes about the “cutting”(“a batting stroke in which the ball is hit toward the off-side in an arc between cover and third man, with the bat held at an angle closer to horizontal than perpendicular”) style of West Indian cricketers (Rundell 47):

By that time I had seen many fine cutters, one of them, W. St. Hill, never to this day surpassed … Phidias, Michelangelo, Burke. Greek history has already introduced me to Phidias and the Parthenon; from engravings and reproductions I had already begun a life-long worship of Michelangelo; and Burke, begun as a school chore, had rapidly become for me the most exciting master of prose in English … I knew already long passages of him by heart. There in the very center of this was William Beldham and his cut (6).

James equates the cultural value of cricket to great works of Western art, and the omnipotence of style of a great cutter he likens to the artistic style of Michelangelo and Burke. “The stylistic specificity of ‘cutting,’” writes Benjamin Graves, “is of some relevance here; … the point is that the shot is very difficult … a gesture of mastery that serves little if any practical purpose. To James, the ‘cut’ signifies a belligerent affront to the exigencies of colonial rule … a stylization of emancipatory ambitions.”

II. Ashis Nandy

Nandy, like James, recognizes cricket’s revolutionary potential but he identifies this potential in the “schizophrenic” nature of the game. According to Nandy, it was the “moral posture of the superiority and self-control of the gentleman cricketer” that created the spaces for those outside the hegemony to critique the English for not living up to their own standards of morality (7).

[Cricket] allowed the Indians to assess their colonial rulers by western values reflected in the official philosophy of cricket, and to find the rulers wanting …  The assessment thus anticipated the nationalist and particularly Gandhian critiques of the British which judged the everyday Christianity of the British in India with reference to philosophical Christianity (7).

The heroic ideal imputed to cricketers by Victorians in England combined with the pagan desire to win at all costs to create in cricket culture a kind of schizophrenia. The marginalized people in England’s colonies recognized the split caused by this psychotic condition inherent in cricket culture and used it as the point of attack for its critique of colonial England.

III. Brian Stoddart

Stoddart, like Nandy, recognizes the significance in cricket’s contradictory ideals. While Nandy identifies this contradiction as the site of cultural resistance, Stoddart focuses on an alternative view that points up the power of cricket as a tool deployed by the hegemonic order. Writing about two members of the Spartan club (a club composed of upwardly-mobile black players), Graham Trent Cumberbatch and H. M. Cummins, Stoddard points out a more complex reaction to racial discrimination:

On the one hand, men like Cumberbatch and Cummins became ardent enthusiasts of the cricket ideology, attempting to share the cultural values of the whites with whom they competed both in cricket and in society. On the other hand, they developed a strong desire to win, to beat the representatives of those who displayed prejudice. The essential paradox in this dual position is clear. While trying to emulate the ruling cricket and social values, Spartan members had also to deal with the inequalities contained in those ruling values. On the whole, Spartan men resolved to accept the inequalities, an excellent demonstration of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony (Caribbean 20).

Stoddart views early cricket not as a revolutionary force, but as a white cultural re-inscription of black West Indian culture. While there were isolated instances of black cultural resistance, writes Stoddart, “for the most part, the colonial elites carried on this process [of colonization] unhindered, controlling those agencies … central in the creation of hegemonic cultural values” (26).

Transnational Competition: “But is it Cricket?”

Cricket in today’s global environment has been altered a great deal by new technologies, capitalism and revised geo-political landscapes (see Transnationalism and Globalism). Because of the intrinsic value of cricket as a repository of culture, postcolonial scholars and fans have looked to this new form of global cricket in an attempt to understand its full implications. Several sites on the internet such as CricInfo (owned by giant sports conglomerate ESPN) offer weekly and/or daily information and news items about various national cricket teams. The central role England has maintained in global cricket for well over a hundred years is now being relinquished as her former colonies enter the international and technological marketplace. In the past, England was the primary provider of international competition for many of these countries. As England’s Victorian ideal withers under the heat of international play, so too do the theories of nationhood that are tied to, or somehow dependent upon, cricket’s age-old Victorian ideal. James’s is one such theory, as Kenneth Surin explains:

The claim that cricket is ‘a means of national expression’ is just untenable, especially in the last two decades or so, when capitalism has moved into a globally integrated phase. Cricket, as a commercial sport, has had to respond to this transformation as a condition of its financial survival. This shift is especially evident in the way in which the modern (one might as well say ‘post-modern’) West Indian professional cricketer now earns a living, namely, by playing several ‘seasons’ in the course of a single year: the domestic West Indian season, and English summer of county cricket, a winter tour abroad, and if this can be squeezed in, maybe a spell playing for a state team during the Australian summer (318).

Once professional cricketers become professional athletes who tour the world in pursuit of ever-increasing financial rewards, their faces become more recognizable in the various countries where they play and — most importantly — their style of play becomes less distinctive. This latter point is the result of international players who routinely play against one another and who have more opportunity than in previous ages to imitate the best aspects of one another’s style. Adds Surin, “Cricketing styles become homogenized in consequence of this ‘internationalization’ of the game, and even the ‘subjectives’ of cricketers becomes fungible” (318).

Nandy, like Surin, also bemoans what has become of cricket in the modern world. As is usually the case with Nandy, he focuses on the role of cricket as harbinger of a cultural ideal. Once cricketers resort to body-lining (“fast leg-theory bowling, especially as used by the England fast bowlers during the 1932-3 Test series in Australia”; bowling close to the batsman’s body) and other immoral acts in order to win, the real victory is already lost (Rundell 20). The value of cricket for Nandy is the cricketer’s constant search for an ideal behavior. When cricketers scoff at seemingly trite notions of good sportsmanship, the space between the ideal and the actual identified by Nandy never materializes and the opportunity for cultural empowerment is closed off. “When Australian wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh,” writes Nandy, “openly says that Australia should try to beat the stronger West Indian side by reverting, if necessary, to being ‘ugly Australians,’ he is being true to the anti-culture of consumable sport” (117).

Despite the variance of opinion about the past and future role of cricket,the game remains a favorite pastime in former English colonies and does battle with soccer, another British import, as the most popular sport in the world.


  • Beckles, Hilary McD. and Brian Stoddart, ed. Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.
  • Beckles, Hilary McD. “Introduction.” Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.
  • Beckles, Hilary McD. “The Origins and Development of West Indies Cricket Culture in the Nineteenth Century: Jamaica and Barbados.” Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture. Ed. Hilary McD. Beckles and Brian Stoddart. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. 33-43.
  • Cashman, Richard. “Cricket and Colonialism: Colonial Hegemony or Indigenous Subversion.” Pleasure, Profit and Proselytism:British Culture and Sport at Home and Abroad, 1700-1914.  Ed.J. A. Mangan.  London: Cass, 1988.
  • Cummings, Christine.  “The Ideology of West Indies Cricket.” Arena Review. 14.1 (1990): 25-33.
  • James, C. L. R. Beyond a Boundary. Durham: Duke University Press,1993.
  • Nandy, Ashis. The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games. New York: Viking, 1989.
  • Rundell, Michael. The Dictionary of Cricket. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Stoddart, Brian.”Cricket and Colonialism in the English-speaking Caribbean to 1914: Towards a Cultural Analysis.” Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture. Ed. Hilary McD. Beckles and Brian Stoddart. New York : Manchester University Press, 1995.  9-32.
  • Stoddart, Brian.”Cricket, Social Formation and Cultural Continuity in Barbados: a Preliminary Ethnohistory.” Liberation Cricket:West Indies Cricket Culture. Ed. Hilary McD. Beckles and Brian Stoddart. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. 61-85.
  • Searle, Chris. “Race Before Cricket: Cricket, Empire, and the White Rose.” Race and Class 30.3 (1990): 343+.
  • Surin, Kenneth.”C. L. R. James’ Material Aesthetic of Cricket.” Liberation Cricket: West Indies Cricket Culture. Ed.  Hilary McD. Beckles and Brian Stoddart. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. 313-341.
  • Tiffen, Helen.”Cricket Literature and the Politics of De-Colonisation: the Case of C. L. R. James.” Sport, Money, Morality and the Media. Eds. Richard Cashman and M. McKernan. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1981.

Related Sites

Information about Ashis Nandy

Website for West Indian national cricket team

Author: Carlton McClendon, Spring 1998
Last edited: October 2017


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    Thanks for such info. 🙂

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