Ashes and Imperialism

The Ashes represents one of the greatest sporting rivalries in the world. The shared Imperial history between England and Australia creates a political undercurrent that adds a certain frisson to the contest. This represents cricket's unique ability to transcend the boundaries of the field and influence a nation's politics and culture.

The Ashes series between Australia and England is an important feature of the game of cricket as a whole. In many ways, both this particular Test Match series and the international game represents more than mere sporting contest. Its roots are deeply imbedded within British Imperial history, and the cultural and political significance of the game is felt around the world. No other sport has permeated worldwide in such a politically, and indeed militarily, driven way. Nor has any other game done as much to promote cultural and political unity within nations whilst helping to improve, or degrade, international relations between sporting and political rivals.


The Ashes: Personifying a Shared History

The latest Ashes series between England and Australia will reaffirm cricket's unique ability of eliciting themes that transcend the game itself and of also showing intense rivalry between two closely linked countries that are also ISAF partners in Afghanistan. Australian armed forces are currently replicating the current Ashes series with their own 'Afghan Ashes' in Helmand, taking on their British counterparts at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Budwan. [1]

Ashes series have regularly been played out by serving British and Australian forces; the Light Dragoons and the 2nd Australian Cavalry Regiment marked the 2005 series by playing each other in a series of games during July and August that year. Both were serving together at Al Muthann, Iraq, with the role of restoring essential infrastructure and providing security. To mark the 2006-2007 series, an Australian Army XI comprising a variety of units that formed the Mulit-National Division South East beat an English team in Basra, Iraq on 25 October 2006. In September 2007, the 'Ashes in the Desert' saw the Overwatch Battlegroup West 3 from Darwin, Australia defeat the British Army's 1 Mechanised Brigade in Tallil, Iraq.

The virtues of military sacrifice and national honour have been utilised by contemporary cricketers, most notably the iconic Australian captain, Steve Waugh, who took his squad to Gallipoli enroute to England for an Ashes series in May 2001, a trip which was aided by General Peter Cosgrove, the then Chief of the Australian Army.

Cricket has an enduring link to the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, with the famous picture of Australian light horsemen playing on Shell Green, a rare stretch of level ground held by the Anzac troops on the Turkish peninsula. The game itself was of some tactical importance, a ruse to divert Turkish troops, whilst preparations were being made to evacuate over 100,000 men in December 1915. It was an effective ploy - an act of ingenuity that was well executed ‑ convincing the enemy that the Anzacs were still entrenched, allowing a retreat with minimal casualties.[2]

Steve Waugh's visit was derided as a publicity stunt in some quarters, but it was a genuine act of respect and reverence that has since inspired others, including the England cricket team to visit Flanders before the 2009 Ashes series. This reinforces the high levels of admiration for the armed forces and a respect for the act of remembrance. 

The trauma of the Gallipoli campaign is seared into the Australian consciousness and is central to the nation's remembrance proceedings and what can be deemed as 'foundation myths'. Visiting is an attractive proposition to inspire an Australian team as Gallipoli folklore encompasses an enduring theme of the First World War: that of 'lions led by donkey's'. In this context, Gallipoli typified British military incompetence and callousness as interpreted to a wider audience in celluloid by Peter Weir's 'Gallipoli' in 1981. Gallipoli also crystallised heroic traits that were easily absorbed by Australian sporting figures in the inter- and post-war years, to show strengthened resolve and to be straight-backed against the 'mother country'.


Promoting and Healing Diplomatic Rifts

Certainly, a diet of military heroism has been used to nourish sporting success but incendiary acts on the cricket field have also led to diplomatic contretemps.  

The recent few series involving England and Pakistan, the Douglas Jardine led 'Bodyline' Tour of Australia in 1932-33, the Basil D'Oliveira affair and England players on 'rebel' tours to apartheid era South Africa. All of these events were controversial in the public eye and on the international stage.

India has also used cricket to great political effect in the past. As a staunch anti-apartheid campaigner, it was only fitting that India was the first country to host South Africa in the 1991-1992 season, following the lifting of an international sporting ban.


The Importance of Cricket in South Asia

Even the Indo-Pak relationship can be viewed through the prism of sport, with the so-called 'cricket diplomacy' resulting most recently in President Musharaff and Prime Minister Singh watching both countries play each other in Musharraf's birth-place of New Delhi in 2005. The resumption of matches thawed the frosty relationship between both countries during that period, along with the ground breaking step of allowing visiting fans. However, following the Mumbai attacks, Pakistani cricketers were banned from the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) and this was viewed as a form of punishment towards Pakistan.

Despite being a global cash cow and projecting India as the leading cricket financial powerhouse, the IPL has been plagued by corruption and financial irregularities, a microcosm of India's greater failings. The 2009 IPL was relocated to South Africa due to India lacking the security infrastructure to hold both the IPL and the national Parliamentary elections. Resources were prioritised and channelled towards upholding democratic institutions. [3] The game is wired into the Indian psyche alongside the British bequeathing of railroads and democracy and the post-colonial surge in cricket's popularity has led the social and political commentator Ashis Nandy to exclaim that 'cricket is an Indian game accidently discovered by the English'.[4]

Outwardly, cricket is a valve for countries like Pakistan and India to posture and strut on the international scene, with the crack of leather on willow being used to play out their regional rivalry by other means.


An Increasingly Alienated Pakistan

The terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lanka cricket team in Pakistan in March 2009 has had profound repercussions.

The consequence, that international cricket will no longer be played in Pakistan in the foreseeable future, merely amplifies the sense of isolation the country currently faces, whilst also exacerbating internal discord.

Cricket has helped to project Pakistan to the outside world; a legacy of British imperialism initiallyproviding a means of national unity, especially after the traumas of partition. Most recently, the overt religiosity, which seeped into the Pakistan national team under the captaincy of Inzamam-ul-Haq from 2006-2007, highlighted the current fractured nature of the Pakistani polity, with the Kemal Ataturk inspired, and more secular-minded, President Musharraf expressing his concerns to the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Any goodwill Pakistan generated via cricket is, however, diminishing, further sullying its international reputation. Previous allegations of ball tampering and match fixing have left a sour taste over the years. The fallout of the recent match fixing scandal involving Pakistan, and the unhinged counter-claims made by the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Ijaz Butt, against the England team, reflect the Machiavellian machinations that are endemic within the Pakistani political system. That Butt is a political appointment is symbolic of the corruption and nepotism that grease the wheels of Pakistani cricket.

The death of the Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer during the 2007 Cricket World Cup in the West Indies prompted an initial murder investigation, with press speculation fuelled by the nexus of illegal bookmakers and gangsterism that seeks to influence Pakistani cricket for its own ends.


Creating Closer Ties

The participation of Afghanistan at the 2010 20/20 Cricket World Cup was heartening, and the development of an infrastructure (aided by the MCC amongst others) is a positive sign. The team themselves reflect the recent history of the country, the majority of whom having been brought up in the refugee camps of Pakistan, first escaping the Soviet occupation and then the Taliban. This was recently exemplified in the film Out of the Ashes: The Rise of the Afghan Cricket Team. From Refugees to the World Stage.

The British Embassy has also used cricket as an effective way of communicating with the local populace in rural areas. It brings to mind a comment by the character Chuck Ramkissoon in Joseph O'Neill's novel, Netherland: 'people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket'.

The links between cricket and the military run deep, stemming from the important role British soldiers played in spreading the game throughout the Empire, as shown by the excellent Combat Cricketers Exhibition at the National Army Museum. Due to this imperial heritage, cricket can be a useful barometer of integration in the UK. In particular, the England team can, at present, assemble a squad consisting of an overseas-born contingent (South Africa, Ireland) along with British-born players of Indian and Pakistani descent, a feat they should be proud of.

The rise to prominence of players with links to the Indian sub-continent can only continue to help dilute the acidity of the 'Tebbit Test' as a way of gauging the loyalty of Asian ethnic minorities to the UK. As seen already with India and Pakistan, cricket has been integral to the post-colonial experience, helping to extol the virtues of unity, identity and self determination. The West Indian experience has also been a similar one, the dominant team of the 1970s and 1980s helping to unite the Islands and give a sense of empowerment to Caribbean communities in the UK, especially against the backdrop of social and racial tension that was examined in the Scarman Report of 1981.[5] Cricket has the ability to transcend the boundaries of the pitch and, due to its unique imperial and military conception, the sporting contest between various countries, such as England and Australia, will always be loaded with historical baggage. Even in this contemporary setting, it is always worth pondering CLR James' oft-quoted question: 'What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?'

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not the views of RUSI but are the views of the author*



[1] UK Ministry of Defence, 'Australian and British Forces Compete for 'Afghan Ashes',, 26 November 2010 <>

[2] Australian Government Department for Veterans' Affairs, 'The Last of Anzac - Overlooking North Beach at Walker's Ridge', last modified 23 July 2010, <> accessed 1 December 2010

[3] Kate Sullivan, 'India Chooses: Cricket or Democracy?', Opinion Asia, 27 March 2009, <> accessed 1 December 2010

[4] Ashis Nandy, The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games, (New Delhi: OUP India, 2000), p.1

[5] BBC News, 'On This Day: 1981: Brixton riots report blames racial tension',


Avnish Patel

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