It hadn't occurred to me that one could understand the implications of British colonialism through the game of cricket, but the film Fire in Babylon about the unbeatable West Indian cricket teams that dominated the sport throughout the 1980s has disabused me of my ignorance, at least the beginning edges of it.
It's obvious to say, and it is said in the film, that the export of cricket to the colonies was a way of subjugation. The game, made by public school boys for public school boys, established differences and allowed the English to teach the natives another English thing, a game to make gentlemen of the savages that yoked them to a British social structure where everyone had his place. It also allowed for the expression non-violent forms of oppression that are more culturally destructive than a baton or a rifle butt. Up until 1960, the captain of the all black West Indian cricket team had to be a white man.
Historian and erstwhile Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff once joked that there is something called a "Commonwealth moment" when inhabitants of the Commonwealth countries can share an insight from their common relationship to the British crown. Cricket must be one of those Commonwealth moments that links Pakistan to New Zealand and Australia to Guyana. It's a thread of history that's weaves together billions of the world's people but leaves out 300 million Americans. This is not a bad thing. We can find meaning in the sentiment that he should throw a 3-2 sinker away with speed on the corners. But the idea that the West Indian team had, that's HAD, to beat England in 1976 because London's West Indian immigrants would suffer untold abuse in the workplace if they didn't. Or Nelson Mandela's appreciation to those cricketers who refused apartheid South Africa's huge payout to a touring West Indian team in the early 1980s because their "no" boosted him in his struggle. Or that the current Indian logo for their cricket league derives from the pre-Indian-independence British league and not from some newly designed post-1947 logo -- these kinds of things happen at a level of meaning that Americans would be loathe to try to sort out.
But like film so often can do, Fire in Babylon opens those doors to that world and let's us inside -- to hear the history, see the symbols and to try to decode some of the meaning.