Cricket and the Politics of Representation

Pakistan-vs-India-2012-2013-schedule-Fixture-and-Time-TableHashim-Amla-001In the current round of the never-ending grind that is now international cricket, there are strong reminders that the game, like sport generally, carries strong social and political symbolism with powerful meaning and resonance within the broader communities involved.
Take the Australia-Sri Lanka series, for example, in which a rebuilding home side is inflicting heavy losses on the South Asian visitors. Just off the cricket pages there are signs that the Sri Lankans may be about to experience what South Africa and Zimbabwe have in the past: a boycott of the cricket team on the basis of domestic politics.
The growing whisper concerns the apparent domination of Sri Lankan cricket by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government that is alleged to have directed the mass killings of perhaps up to 40,000 Tamil civilians towards the end of the bloody civil war sparked by Tamil separatists, and in some quarters is charged with running a current campaign of ethnic cleansing among Tamils. ( Small protests have occurred throughout the current tour, getting good media attention viaTrevor Grant, a former chief cricket writer for The Age in Melbourne and now a leading figure for the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign. Among other things, Grant suggests that the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia is running covert intelligence gathering on protestors ( The fact that the current High Commissioner is Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, a clear product of both the regime and the military, perhaps adds a little credence to that possibility.
The claim that Tamil cricketers are under-represented in the side is a little difficult to substantiate, because they have at least been selected in the past, unlike in the earlier protests that fuelled the campaign against apartheid South Africa where non-whites were specifically prohibited from playing for the national team. Until very recently, the major star in the Sri Lankan team was Muttiah Muralitharan, the genius off-spinner. What is more telling, however, is the connection between the Singhalese players and the ruling government – another former star, Sanath Jayasuriya, is now a member of that government as is Arjuna Ranatunga, a former Sri Lankan captain. Ajantha Mendis, a current new player, is a serving officer in the artillery for the Sri Lankan army.
This story, then, is getting some traction, and demonstrates the powerful interconnections between sport, politics, international relations and soft power diplomacy. For sports organisations this gets uncomfortable: the sport-politics nexus is fine when it is positive, but problematic when negative. The International Cricket Council will be watching this closely and trying to prevent it becoming a major issue, because it has had bitter experiences with South Africa earlier and Zimbabwe more recently ( ).
The on-flow possibilities from such developments are also on display currently in both the England v India and South Africa v New Zealand series. As my brother pointed out to me, in the latter case it was almost South Africa v South Africa, because there are at least five South African-born players in the New Zealand short and long form game squads, and yet another was left back in New Zealand. That is, over thirty percent of the New Zealand squads originated in South Africa – another player was born in Western Australia. That trend began in England during the aftermath of the apartheid protests when disenfranchised, stateless players sought professional homes elsewhere. Current England star and polarising figure Kevin Pietersen effectively left South Africa in protest at the then “quota” system under which a minimum number of non-white players had to be selected. He represents England now against a side whose leading players include Hashim Amla, the Indian Muslim who is among the world’s leading batsmen. Pietersen is joined in the England test team by three other players of South African origin, and yet more again in the one day and T20 squads.
Incidentally, that South African migration to England was assisted substantially at a later point by the Kolpak ruling in the European courts that affirmed the free rights of players to full European Union access if they came from countries having formal agreements with EU members, a clear sports consequence of a political action ( ).
The issue of race has long underpinned many of the potential political and ideological dimensions of cricket. Back in the nineteenth century Sam Morris, the son of black West Indians, played just one test for Australia, and it was not until the late twentieth century that Jason Gillespie became perhaps the first indigenous player to represent Australia. In the 1930s, it is very clear that Eddie Gilbert, probably the fastest bowler in the world at that point, did not play for Australia as much because of his indigenous status as for any other reason. Many of the pre- and even post-independence black stars in Caribbean cricket had difficult careers because of their colour, and the C.L.R. James-led campaign that culminated in Frank Worrell becoming West Indies’ first black captain was a turning point in the evolution of the game there. The South African and Zimbabwe stories followed, and Sri Lanka might well be the next, albeit with a twist. The advent of Usman Khawaja and Moises Henriques reaching Australian selection indicates change there, although the troubled story of Kumar Sarna perhaps suggests there is still some way to go. Born in New Delhi, he came to captain the Australian under-19 team and seemed destined for great things – but he then left his Melbourne club abruptly and went back to India, suggesting that the nature of club culture in Australia unsettled him. He is now in the underworld of league cricket in England and struggling in grade cricket in Australia.
The political dimensions to cricket perhaps come no greater than when represented in series between India and Pakistan. Following the bloody partition of 1947 which saw up to one million people dying during the transmigration of Hindus and Muslims, cricket rapidly became a barometer of strained relations between the two states ( ). For long periods no matches have occurred as the two nations were in stand-offs over major incidents like clashes along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, tensions over missile capability, or passions inflamed by terrorist actions. Inevitably, any thaw in relations has been marked by a cricket series when opportunities are taken to allow a more free passage of peoples between the two countries and to allow politicians to talk more informally. Because of that, these cricket contests are keenly fought, the results carry weight far beyond the cricket arena, and a huge range of readings placed upon those results.
As India went into the recent series, it did so against the background of a serious form slump in which the former top ranked side had suffered substantial defeats to England both away and at home, then against Australia. Drawing the T20 series against Pakistan, among the world’s best at that form, was satisfactory enough, but losing the first two of the three One Day Internationals and then barely winning the inconsequential third sent the country’s media into a frenzy as pundits came from everywhere to demand change for the better, seek inquiries into the state of Indian cricket and assign blame to layers who apparently lacked sufficient patriotic fervour. ( ). The Pakistan team, on the other hand, returned home to large scale welcomes and cries of Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Pakistan) (
The recent series also saw a muted attempt to assess the possibility of staging a similar one between Pakistan and Bangladesh, which would occur against as just a lurid backdrop. It is estimated that during the war in which Bangladesh came into being during 1971, over three million people died and at least one million East Bengali women were raped. It is only now that the war crimes aspects of all this are slowly being confronted ( ). The war ended only with India’s intervention as millions of refugees swamped the country. Over the ensuing years, Bangladesh has slowly risen as a competitive cricket nation, so any match against Pakistan is soaked in symbolic meaning.
For Pakistan itself, contemporary politics dominate its thinking as, for example, it plays almost all its “home” matches somewhere else in the world. That is because its internal security condition is so fragile that, after a terrorist attack on a Sri Lankan team bus in 2009, few if any world teams will venture there. In that respect, Pakistani cricket exemplifies the results of a political condition which ended up seeing Taliban forces within striking distance of Islamabad and Osama bin Laden killed on Pakistani territory ( ).
While there has long been a clear case for arguing that there has always been a sport-politics-ideology nexus, there is possibly an emerging one to suggest that the nexus is gathering pace, at least in cricket, as demonstrated by widening power struggles within the ICC between the “traditional” cricket world and the “emerging” one. Put simply, that is, between the old guard of England and its former Dominions on the one hand, and the Asia/Africa/Caribbean one on the other. If that is so, then the ICC will struggle to deal with it unless its policies and practices become far more insightful than they have been to date, even in wake of the sweeping Woolf Report that is to usher in a new governance approach ( ).

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