Cricket lost ground in North America because of the egalitarian ethos of its societies. Rich Americans and Canadians had constant anxiety about their elite status, which prompted them to seek ways to differentiate themselves from the masses. One of those ways was cricket, which was cordoned off as an elites-only pastime, a sport only for those wealthy enough to belong to expensive cricket clubs committed to Victorian ideals of sportsmanship. In late 19th-century Canada, according to one historian, “the game became associated more and more with an older and more old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon elite.”
This elite appropriation played into the hands of baseball entrepreneurs who actively worked to diminish cricket’s popularity. A. G. Spalding, described in the Baseball Hall of Fame as the “organizational genius of baseball’s pioneer days,” was typical. “I have declared cricket is a genteel game,” he mocked in “America’s National Game,” his 1911 best seller. “It is. Our British cricketer, having finished his day’s labor at noon, may don his negligee shirt, his white trousers, his gorgeous hosiery and his canvas shoes, and sally forth to the field of sport, with his sweetheart on one arm and his cricket bat under the other, knowing that he may engage in his national pastime without soiling his linen or neglecting his lady.”
Baseball, in contrast, was sold as a rugged, fast-paced, masculine game, befitting a rugged, fast-paced economic power. Americans of all classes swallowed the chauvinistic line. It was also great business for Spalding. By inventing elaborate baseball gear and paraphernalia, he created a market for his new sporting-goods company.
Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman, “Bowling for Democracy,” The New York Times, May 1, 2005
Much the same was true of 19th-century Australia, at the time a highly stratified colony whose masses were descended from prisoners. Cricket helped antipodean elites cultivate their Englishness, but the size and isolation of their European settlements limited the extent to which they could be truly exclusive. North American-style upper-class appropriation of the game was out of the question. Cricket became a powerful unifying force, and prowess at the game, according to one cricket historian, was “the mark of an amateur gentleman” from any class.
As in the Caribbean, cricket was also a major element in the formation of Australian nationalism. The biennial matches with England solidified the link between colony and mother country even as it fostered Australian national pride when the Australians increasingly came to whip the British at their imperial game.
I like this explanation, since I sort of think the creation of Australian identity has been a negotiation between the nation’s British origins and the something else that is Australianness. But though we’ve been British we’re always fumbling toward that something else that we’ve never fully been.
Note that all great Australian myths are about people who have defied the British and created Australianness in the process. The convicts*, not the soldiers, were the first Australians, because they were forced here, and yet they thrived. Ned Kelly, an Irishman, defied the colonial government. The ANZACS were betrayed by poor British planning. Even the ANZUS treaty resulted because, in WWII, Winston Churchill tried to make our boys fight in Europe rather than defend the Pacific. PM John Curtin turned to the US, and wrote in the Melbourne Herald:
We look for a solid and impregnable barrier of the Democracies against the three Axis powers, and we refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict. By that it is not meant that any one of the other theatres of war is of less importance than the Pacific, but that Australia asks for a concerted plan evoking the greatest strength at the Democracies’ disposal, determined upon hurling Japan back. The Australian Government, therefore regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the Democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces. We know the dangers of dispersal of strength, but we know too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on. We are, therefore, determined that Australia shall not go, and we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the United States as its keystone, which will give to our country some confidence of being able to hold out until the tide of battle swings against the enemy.
Compare to the address Robert Menzies gave to the nation:
Fellow Australians, It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.
I won’t call Menzies “British to the bootstraps.” He did that himself, in exactly those words.
*Whenever Americans bring up Australia’s convict origins, they always seem to think they’ve delivered a stinging insult. Yeah… no.
Back to cricket: I care for neither the game nor the Australian cricket team. But should the Ashes ever be at risk, even I become momentarily and intensely passionate.