How cricket reflects and reveals the Commonwealth legacy like no other sport

By Joe Wilson & Rasheed SpeedeBBC Sport
2022 Commonwealth Games
Hosts: Birmingham Dates: 28 July to 8 August
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV with extra streams on BBC iPlayer, Red Button, BBC Sport website and BBC Sport mobile app.

This summer cricket is part of the Commonwealth Games. For the first time, eight women's teams from around the world will compete for the gold medal.

But cricket has always been part of the Commonwealth, or to give it another name, the Empire.

Like no other sport, cricket reflects and reveals the legacy of that part of British history.

"If you're a batter, and you're out, you don't question the verdict of the umpire," says Dr Prashant Kidambi of Leicester University, an expert in Indian colonial history.

"That's a very good way of thinking of the relationship, as the British saw it, between the colonisers and the colonised.''

Kidambi's book Cricket Country examines the origins of the game there, especially in modern Mumbai where Lord Harris was the British governor in the 1890s.

"As the Empire grew, and cricket began to be taken up in different parts of the Empire, people like Lord Harris believed that was a sign of the success of the British civilising mission," adds Kidambi.

"Cricket could be a metaphor for the Empire itself; ideas of hierarchy, obedience, of playing by the rules. But sport was also, right from the beginning, terrain upon which communities and societies articulated their own identities.''

If cricket began as a means of making colonial subjects in India feel 'more British' it has now become the most visible and vibrant way of demonstrating Indian national identity.

The same is true elsewhere.

For example, on the former British slave colony of Antigua. Here, while covering England's first Test against West Indies in March, we spoke to the man who embodied independent black pride like no other cricketer - Sir Vivian Richards.

"I was pretty strong about that, so maybe that's why some folks would look at me at times and say, 'Wow, what an arrogant guy, the way he walks out to bat' and stuff like that," said Richards.

"No, it isn't arrogance. I just believed in human beings, that's the most important thing. I class myself as a human being, the same as any other colour on earth.

"We as a people have given this world a lot - a lot.''

Richards, like many in the Caribbean, urges greater recognition of the legacy of slavery.

"Tell the generations and the kids, let them know how some obviously gained their wealth," he said.

"We played a huge part, without being paid. So, we hear a lot now about reparations. That, to me, is a good call.''

That's an issue of huge significance on many of the islands where cricket is just one legacy of colonial rule.

But in Britain itself deep issues of representation and accountability have been raised through cricket.

The testimony of former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq in particular exposed flaws, frustrations and deeply disturbing instances of racism. Cricket here has made promises to change.

Edgbaston is hosting the Commonwealth Games cricket competition. As journalists we've seen first hand the work Warwickshire have done there to try to engage the diverse Birmingham population, especially the Muslim community; a Ramadan indoor cricket tournament with matches beginning after fasting, two thousand people attending Eid prayers at the ground.

These initiatives pre-date Rafiq's revelations but have become even more significant since. The alleged racist behaviour by members of the crowd during July's Test match between England and India was hugely frustrating for those at the club who are committed to inclusivity.

The Commonwealth Games offers another opportunity to make progress.

"I truly believe cricket has the power to influence and set the example of how to be inclusive," says former England international Isa Guha.

"There are so many different communities involved in cricket and that's how everyone is connected.

"Unfortunately, we've gone through a period in the last couple of years which has been really uncomfortable. And it's been hard for everyone involved in cricket. We're all having to take a look at ourselves and be better.

"Sadly, the band aid had to be ripped off to uncover these uncomfortable truths to then be able to move forward. But cricket has the power to do that, through the Commonwealth as well."

There is also great enthusiasm among organisations like the Chance to Shine charity that the Commonwealth Games, as a women's tournament, will spur another wave of female participation. The tradition of cricket is innovating.

Kidambi believes that's true of the Commonwealth too.

"Politically, there's been a fragmentation of the Commonwealth," he says.

"Britain's role as a political player has diminished. Now, if you think of the Commonwealth you think of educational exchanges, sporting events like the Commonwealth Games.

"As the world becomes more polarised, the Commonwealth offers a zone where countries can come together. Someone will win and someone will lose. But you've taken part in a common exercise. And that is valuable."

Well over a century after the British promoted cricket as a 'civilising mission', that notion of common purpose and common identity remains.

This summer, that may be a legacy of the Cricket Empire we witness in Birmingham.

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