Leading up to the recent coronation of King Charles III, indigenous leaders and politicians from across the Commonwealth demanded, as The Guardian reported, a “formal apology for the effects of colonisation.” The mere mention of the word ‘colonialism’ in today’s hypersensitive woke culture requires its very own trigger warning, the popular assumption of many — alas, far too many — is that it is the direct equivalent of genocide, Hitler, slavery or, maybe, all three rolled into one.
Call me an optimist, but there are encouraging signs the tide is on the turn, with a growing body of academic literature demonstrating that the colonial project, while mixed, actually achieved much which was good. See, for instance, Nigel Biggar’s excellent new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (reviewed here) as well as the seminal essay, “The Case for Colonialism” by the Canadian professor of political science Bruce Gilley.
One of the modern manifestations of the colonial legacy is the prominence — and in many places, utter devotion to the game of cricket. Throughout the Commonwealth, cricket is promoted and played with a passion greater than that for many religions. Be it Pakistan, India, South Africa, the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia or even England, where it all began, cricket continues to be a shaper of cultural consciousness.
Would it be practiced today if not for British colonialism and its legacy? Of course not! Just like religion, sport — and this sport in particular — transcends the disparate cultures and creeds in which it has been planted, taken root and blossomed. The rules of the game mean that anyone can play and anyone can win. The commitment to this colonialist relic is in no way abating; if anything, the current zeitgeist is for greater inclusion. Just look at the rise of women’s cricket over recent years.
So why does cricket continue to be so popular? Granted, not everyone enjoys the game and a significant minority of malcontents delight in despising it (to whom I direct a decidedly non-racist “Boo!”). In Australia one of the background sounds of summer is cricket commentary on radio and TV. This is, admittedly, a purely subjective appraisal, but the voices of commentators filling the gaps between overs with memories, anecdotes and trivia is, to my ears, a truly beautiful thing.
There is an etiquette, even chivalry, to cricket that is worth exploring. With its emphasis on sportsmanship, the game is the great social equalizer, where the commoner can compete as an equal on the same field as the lord. And whether it’s the all-white Test dress code or the positioning of players as pieces on a chess board, there is a tradition and morality to cricket which is greater than the game itself. We even have a popular saying for those moments and incidents when the norms of acceptable behaviour are violated, “It’s just not cricket!”
C.S. Lewis in his essay “On the Necessity of Chivalry” crystalises the values espoused by cricket. Lewis, an expert in medieval literature at Oxford University, saw in chivalry the perfect alignment of the twin virtues of humility and courage. A good illustration of what Lewis was thinking can be found in the words of Sir Ector over the body of Sir Lancelot:
Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever-put spear in the rest.
On the surface, the traits of ‘meekness’ and ‘sternness’ would appear to be contradictory and mutually exclusive. But Lewis understood them to be profoundly complementary. And nowhere was that moreso than in that personification of chivalry, the medieval knight, or as we might say today, the person playing cricket. A man who was a living manifestation of the chivalrous ideal through both his strength and compassion, especially in the way he treated a member of the opposite sex and his opponents in battle. We don’t see it often, but every so often a batsman who knows he is out will leave the crease of his own volition. Do we see such honesty and reverence for traditional values in other sports? Not at all, as the late Diego ‘Hand of God‘ Maradona demonstrated in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarter final ‘win’ over England. Contrast his fans’ jubilation at such blatant cheating with the disgust that marked the exposure of the Australian Test’s team’s covert use of sandpaper to gain an advantage. Chalk and cheese.
Significantly, Lewis also saw the chivalrous ideal as being profoundly theological, grounded in nothing less than the person and work of God. Jeff McInnis has written an insightful book exploring this particular theme in Lewis’ writings, titled, Shadows and Chivalry: C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald on Suffering, Evil and Goodness . McInnis summarises the essence of Lewis’ thought in this regard as follows:
The great Act of which the ideal of chivalry is an imitation is at once tender and severe. Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross is at once God in meekness and God at battle: meek submission but also fierce gallantry in a man who is also God.
What Lewis says about chivalry has a great deal of practical relevance for life in the 21st century. In particular, it challenges men to relate to women with the timeless qualities of humility and strength, compassion and courage. Which means, in practice, being willing to put a woman’s needs before one’s own, while at the same time having the courage to lead and protect when the moment requires it. For instance, in her book, The Mark of a Man: Following Christ’s Example of Masculinity (Fleming H. Revell, 2007), Elizabeth Elliot writes:
…courtesy is sacrificial symbolism because each act is a very small sign that you are willing to give your life for hers. When you pass the salt to her, you’re saying, “You first.” When you help her on with her coat, you’re not saying, “You’re too weak to do it yourself”: you’re saying that you’re willing to take trouble for her…Sir Walter Raleigh’s putting down his cloak in a puddle for the sake of his queen was an inconvenience, to say the least. Love is willing to be inconvenienced.
Indulge me as both a keen follower of cricket and a man of the cloth to make the connection: it means not only putting the team before oneself while also showing respect for one’s opponent when in a position to act otherwise.
All this as a result of colonisation! Perhaps it wasn’t as evil as many claim.
Mark Powell is a Presbyterian pastor