Who said that cricket was a rich man’s sport?

Indians-playing-cricket

Lorsque nous pensons au cricket, nous imaginons des gentlemen disputant une partie après une tasse de thé, vêtus de pulls en maille à cols en V et pantalons blancs, réunis sur la pelouse parfaite d’un parc anglais. Mais est-ce vraiment un sport propre à l’aristocratie et la haute bourgeoisie ? Le cricket, sport britannique par excellence, connaît depuis la seconde moitié du XIXème siècle un succès phénoménal, notamment dans les pays du Commonwealth, et en particulier en Inde. Cependant, il reste largement inconnu en France, et peut être surtout incompris: tant pour son principe que pour ses règles. Quelles sont les origines et les évolutions sociales de ce sport?

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Until the 16th century, cricket was played by the lower classes only. But since the 18th century, the British aristocracy, one of the richest in the world, developed an interest for the game, and took it over. It then became a possibility for lower and upper classes to play together on the same pitch. Indeed lords could organize their own teams, and used to compose them with their employees: game-keepers, domestics… In that context it is commonly accepted that cricket played a social role in bringing together two opposite classes, and embodied the social harmony that Britain prides itself on even today.

At the same period in France, a revolution took place that violently opposed  aristocrats to plebeians, which led English historian GM Trevelyan to say that “if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt”.

Despite the fact that a peer of the realm could play in the same team as a peasant, the mixture of classes would stop immediately out of the field: cricketers were divided into two categories by social hierarchy: on one side ‘the Gentlemen’ aristocrats, playing as amateurs, and on the other side, ‘the Players’ from the working class who introduced professionalism, because they needed to be paid. According to the old Northern London Marybone Cricket Club, which established the rules of Test Cricket (pompously called “Laws”), the batsman had to be an aristocrat, and the bowler a peasant. It is interesting to know that the rules of TC have almost not changed since. This kind of hierarchy lasted until the mid-XXth century, and since the Second World War, most of the English Test cricketers were from modest social backgrounds.

Nowadays, even though cricket never fully escaped the control imposed by the ruling English classes, it is shared by all classes, as much in practice as as a show. Almost every town owns a Cricket club, cricket is played in public gardens and in the recreation grounds around the country. You only have to stroll along expanses of grass in the afternoon to realize it. Test Cricket, the national sport is such an institution in England, the second in terms of audience. Which makes current professional cricketers almost as well paid as football players. It also accounts for the second rank in terms of sport stakes, in a country where official stakes (mostly online) can be made on almost everything (even on the next Pope), which is one other unifying face of this sport. But in the last twenty years, the share of cricket spectators has seemed to decrease, for the benefit of football, and test games played in Britain are likely to disappear because of the importance it took in other countries such as India. Indeed Cricket has spread all over the world. It became the national sport in most of the members of the commonwealth and almost the only sport in some countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and obviously India. And Cricket seems to be, bar some trade agreements, the last unifying link of a common culture between the countries of the Commonwealth. The Ashes have opposed England and Australia since 1882, and every year, the countries members of the ICC opposes one another.

Whereas cricket was an instrument for Great Britain to civilize the colonies, nowadays Indian cricket is the most powerful and attractive in the World, and paradoxically enough, Indian Premier League dominates world Cricket. That began when the Indian middle class and aristocracy united to compete with British colonizers and beat them. The goal was to gain respect and gratitude from them.  Still today powerful Indian teams are composed of the best players from all around the world in which players earn exorbitant wages. Indeed recently some players got contracts for more than one million dollars, which can be impressive for a country in which 44% inhabitants live with less than a dollar a day. This is why many young men in India share the common dream to play cricket for their country. That is the challenge of Bruce Adams, an Australian coach, who came to India to offer his help to the poorest children and give them a chance to overcome their social condition. But for cricketers in India’s poor rural communities that dream is often out of reach, and only some lucky ones can fulfill it. Thus cricket is played anywhere, especially in India’s poorest areas because it doesn’t require expensive equipment. Thus it is not rare to see a cricket match on the sand of Indian slums with only some pieces of wood. India is the best example with Pakistan to show hat cricket is not a upper-class sport!

Matthieu BELLEAU & Philippe-Amaury GUSSE

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