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Beyond Gallery: Cricket and Nationalism

Cricket is undoubtedly the second most popular sport after football in the world. Approximately 2.5 billion people who follow this sport are mainly from the former colonies of the British Empire. All the more surprising, most of the test-playing countries were somehow directly or indirectly part of the mighty British Empire where the “Sun never set”. These are Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Ireland, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, and Zimbabwe.

When speaking of nationalism, it is an abstract idea that holds the sense of national consciousness by promoting group solidarity and interest by elevating one’s own nation above all others. Generally, the notion of nationalism can be evaluated based on the historical background, culture, geographical location, religion, particular movement (American Revolution of 1776-1783, French Revolution of 1789 and Russian Revolution of 1917, etc.), socio-economic situation, sports, and many more. These components help to shape a particular nation and create a separate identity among a particular group of people.

According to Snyder (1964:2): “Nationalism is a condition of mind, feeling, or sentiment of a group of people living in a well-defined geographical area, speaking a common language, professing a literature in which the aspirations of the nation have  been expressed, being attached to the common traditions, and, in some cases, having a common origin.”

The notion of nationalism in the British colonial territory emerged in various ways; such as vernacularizing of the national language, cultural heritage, glorifying of the history, etc. Cricket was also a medium of incitement of nationalism in the colonies.

Cricket as a sport originated in England. Being called a “Gentlemen’s Game” for its use of expensive gears and lack of physical contact between players when playing, the structure of this game was developed in the countryside of England and some of the rules that are still practiced today came into force unofficially from late sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century. However, after the establishment of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1787 at Lord’s Cricket Ground, the laws of cricket were officially published by MCC in 1788 in written form.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the British Empire had kickstarted by subsequently colonizing North America (USA, Canada and the Caribbean), Asia (Indian Subcontinent), Africa (Southern Africa), and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The British not only established a strong colonial presence in these regions but also gave efforts to spread their three C’s namely “Culture, Civilization, and Christianity”. The reason behind this huge popularity of cricket in the former colonies is the policy of cultural imperialism by the British. Anything “Un-British” was considered inferior due to this imperialist policy, and so cricket gradually gained a strong foothold in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Caribbean region. So evidently, Cricket became part and parcel of the culture of the colonial people and as such, they predominantly fielded their own teams to play against their British superiors either as a pastime or to upstage them publicly.

Australia was the first nation to get test status in 1877 though it got independence from Britain in 1901. Similar things happened with South Africa (test status in 1912, independence in 1932), West Indies (test status in 1932, independence in the 1960s and 1970s), and the Indian Subcontinent (test status in 1932, independence in 1947, 1948, and 1971 respectively).  That means these countries played cricket with England or each other before the official recognition of their independence.

Whenever they played bilateral series in England or other countries, they used various symbolisms to express their national or cultural values. For instance, when the Australian team toured England in 1895 for the Ashes, they used fringes of green and gold colour on their flannels as well as Kangaroo and Emu logo on their “baggy green caps” for promoting the Australian nationalism. By this process, the players, along with the people of these regions, identified themselves as a separate nation with the help of cricket.

After the end of World War II and the subsequent beginning of Decolonization in Africa and in Asia, many former colonial states started playing cricket more seriously than ever before instead of outright ending the colonial pastime. To these states, Cricket had become a vital component of propagating national values and prestige by defeating the top tier teams such as England and Australia.  Time after time, the people of Indian Subcontinent always fell victim to British oppression whenever they protested. That is why even after gaining independence in 1947, the people of India and Pakistan could not leave behind the baggage of the horrific misrule of their former colonial masters, England. So, they made it a vendetta to defeat England or Australia at any cost to achieve moral victory over their former oppressors and they used to make a huge deal out of it whenever they succeeded in doing so. Although we no longer see this ruckus in twenty first century, throughout most of the twentieth century this was a common scenario. This explains why we can see the impact of this mindset whenever Bangladesh plays Cricket with Pakistan, England, Australia or India and gleefully defeats them. As seen in the case of Pakistan, when it won the test match against England at Oval in 1954 for the first time ever after gaining test status in 1952, it helped Pakistan to create its own cricketing national identity in front of the world.

“It was a glorious moment for all of us … The win gave Pakistan a visible identity. Not many had known about Pakistan until then” said cricketer Hanif Mohammad after this first victory against England. The Indian had the same reaction when India won in 1952 for the very first time against England, the former colonial ruler of India.”

From the aforementioned scenario, we can easily visualize the emergence of nationalism with the help of Cricket as it was a popular way to exact revenge without violence for the people of the Subcontinent who suffered a lot under the British rule. As a result, whenever India and Pakistan played against England, the game of Cricket transcended beyond the gallery and people of both countries. By this process, Cricket was no longer seen as the relic of the former colonizer but rather a medium for exacting moral victory seemed within the cards.

Bangladesh having passed fifty years of its existence in 2021, had to suffer extensively under two colonial rulers; British rule from 1757-1947 and Pakistan rule from 1947-1971. As always, West Pakistan even continued to discriminate East Pakistan in cricket while maintaining the “Master-Slave” relation in the fields of politics, economy, socio-cultural and military. In the timeframe of 1947-1970, only four cricketers from East Pakistan ever got to represent Pakistan national team.

However, after the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 followed by a decisive victory over them in the 1999 Cricket World Cup played in England, Cricket has assumed an integral part of the identity of Bangladesh as far as promoting the spirit of Bangladeshi nationalism of 1971 to the world stage. Not to mention, it is the only unifying factor for a country like us that is often disunited by the political squabbles between Awami League and BNP as well as rampant corruption. Former West Indian cricketer and national team coach of Bangladesh, Gordon Greenidge once candidly said, “Bangladesh is a unique success story where people are people are united by Cricket and disunited by politics”. Even though this statement landed him in hot waters with Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB), Greenidge did tell the absolute truth regarding our Cricketing culture.

We can see still see the manifestation of this cricket nationalism in the present day. For example, when Bangladesh and Pakistan play bilateral series or in tournaments like Asia Cup or One-Day International (ODI) World Cup and T20 World Cup organized by International Cricket Council (ICC), the people of Bangladesh still cannot forget the twenty-three tragic years of repression and agony. The victory over Pakistan, India, England and Australia still makes a significant impact on our mindset and we worship our national cricket players as national heroes. As a result, when our players play their home matches in Bangladesh, we flock to the stadium in crowds and automatically become the “12th man” of the team, a popular term used by New Zealand commentator Danny Morrison to demonstrate us becoming one with our national team due to our show of support and creating an intense atmosphere for the away team from the gallery with our chants and shouts. That is why we are glad when Team Bangladesh wins, we are overfilled with joy and whenever they lose, we protest and erupt in anger when we see any unjust decision by the field umpires, third umpires and Decision Review System (DRS) went against us in the game.

As seen in the high voltage semi-final match of the Nidahas trophy in 2018, at the last over of the match, Bangladesh was unjustly denied two no-ball calls against the Sri Lankan bowler Isuru Udana’s first and second delivery. But the field umpires turned a blind-eye to it and went on to continue the match. Shakib Al Hasan, the then T20 skipper, immediately protested against it and threatened to walk-out by calling out Mahmudullah back to the dugout. Seeing this injustice against our national team, we wholeheartedly applauded Shakib for his bravery and determination to not play until justice is served. Even though Bangladesh went on to win the match and performed the controversial “Naagin Dance” in front of the shocked Sri Lankan crown, we still supported and defended our players from the comments of Indian and Sri Lankan supporters in the social media platforms despite displaying such un-sportsmanship attitude. So, our behaviour does not remain just game-centric, we are also being influenced by our nationalism.

Another recent example is the 36 runs all-out incident of the Indian team against Australia in a day-night test of 2021 and our gleeful celebration in social media for India’s humiliating defeat. In this case, we are not only considering the game but also the unequal treatment of India towards us in terms of hegemony, unequal trade policy and border killings. All of the issues impact our subconscious mind.

So, what is the reason behind this happiness? Why do we consider our national players as our national hero? Why we connect a victory against Pakistan with 1971? The answer is we see cricket through the lens of our nationalism that gives us national identity and pride.

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