Samir Chopra February 22, 2010

Small mercies: Cricket in the time of war

War remains a bloodthirsty pursuit

Australian cricketers recreate the famous image from the 1915 game at Shell Green on a visit to Gallipoli in 2001 © Getty Images

Sports, war, what's the difference? Not much, or so it would seem, if one were to go by the language of sports-writing: crushing defeats, campaigns, humiliations, pitched battles, offensives, assaults, and so on. And of course, defeats in sporting contests can take on the significance that normally afforded to a besting on a military battlefield (depending on the insecurity of the concerned parties); witness the obsession over India-Pakistan cricketing games.

But cricket and war can be run together even more directly. The most famous instance of this came during the Gallipoli campaign, when on 17 December 1915, a game of cricket was played on Shell Green by ANZAC troops. In the now legendary photograph of this game, Major George Macarthur Onslow of the Light Horse is batting (and rather unfortunately, for the major, is in the process of being dismissed). The game, played while artillery fire continued overhead, was an attempt to distract the watching Turkish troops from the departure of allied troops.

(The Australian Light Horse also featured in another less-known cricket game during war, that between English and Australian soldiers on 25 October 2006 in Basra, Iraq. The match was put together to commemorate the soon-to-be-played Ashes series and in a sign of things to come, England made 109 for 9 off their 30 overs, and then watched as the Aussies ran up 113 runs off 27.5 overs.)

This sort of connection of cricket with war is considerably more benign than the linguistic one I began this article by noting. But the two can come together, nowhere better exemplified than that during the siege of the town of Mafeking during the Boer War. Here, a British garrison (and a motley crew of civilians) led by Robert Baden-Powell (the original Boy Scout, if you will) held out for 217 days (October 1899 to May 1900). The Boers, led at various times by Piet Cronje and J.P Snyman, mounted several offensives of varying intensity, supplemented by a shelling campaign from a variety of artillery pieces.

Amongst Baden-Powell's tactics for maintaining the spirit of the military and civilian residents, was (besides the regular publication of newspapers and the staging of evening variety concerts), the organization of a regular game of cricket on Sundays. That these games could be staged at all was due in no small part to the fact that at the beginning of the siege, Cronje and Baden-Powell had agreed there would be no fighting on Sundays! (Such Christian sensibilities clearly didn't extend to the idea of not fighting at all in the first place).

As the siege dragged on, the Boer President Paul Kruger decided enough was enough, and sent his grandson Field Cornet Sarel Eloff with reinforcements to bring an end to the siege. Besides fresh troops, Eloff was possessed of a sense of humor as well, and on arriving at Mafeking and hearing of the Sunday games of cricket, sent in a note to Baden-Powell on 30th April, suggesting a match between the troops on either side.

Two hundred days of the siege had passed. And so, Baden-Powell wrote back, saying that the Mafeking garrison had already scored 200 not out against Cronje and Snyman. Eloff was not in the least upset by this rebuff, and instead, amusedly remarked, that it was "tough, but true enough."

The Boer War was a pretty vicious affair; reading its history (I can heartily recommend Thomas Pakenham's excellent The Boer War) can sometimes be a pretty depressing business. In the midst of that grimness, this little anecdote provides just a little relief.

Not too much, for war remains a bloodthirsty pursuit. And we should be thankful that sport is not even a bit like it, despite what over-eager journalists might suggest.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here