I'm in Buenos Aires at the moment, researching a history of Argentinian football. Football, of course, is the dominant sport here, the league still attracting the seventh-highest average attendances in the world, despite the poor standard of play and dilapidated stadiums. At least two television channels are devoted to endless discussions of the game, while the logos and colours of the big clubs dot the city.

Football was introduced by the British towards the end of the 19th century, by sailors having kickabouts on the dockside, if you want to believe the romantic version; by teachers pursuing the ideals of muscular Christianity that prevailed in English schools at the time, if you want the truth. The seeds, once planted, soon sprouted. Yet football wasn't the first sport the British brought to Argentina: that was cricket.

Thomas Woodbine Hinchliff was one of those mid-Victorian men who would do anything so long as it was dangerous. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1849. He trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar on completing his Master's degree three years later, but he never practised as a barrister: he was far too busy doing exciting things.

A keen mountain climber, he was a founder member, in 1857, of the Alpine Club, which initially met in his rooms at Lincoln's Inn. That same year, he published his first book, Summer Months Among the Alps: With the Ascent of Monte Rosa, which is referred to in and clearly influences passages of Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad (1880). In 1858, Hinchliff made an early ascent of the Wildstrubel with Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, and two years later the pair would be the first to climb the Alphubel, a mountain in southern Switzerland.

In 1861, Hinchliff visited his cousin Frank Parrish, the British consul in Buenos Aires. Hinchcliff spent several months travelling in Argentina and Brazil, writing about his experiences in his 1863 book South American Sketches. It's an astonishing work of travel and history, and details two cricket matches, both of which illustrate an English sangfroid, a determination to play the game come what may.

The earlier game took place on February 3, 1852 on a notoriously uneven pitch: "swift bowling was apt to inflict wounds," Hinchliff notes. Late in the afternoon, the game was interrupted as shattered Federalist troops straggled past. They were marching from defeat at Caseros, the decisive battle in the Argentinian Civil war that led to the country's first dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, going into exile, ending his days living on a farm near Southampton. The players applauded the soldiers as they passed, and then, once they'd gone, resumed the game, an event of seismic importance in the history of Argentina reduced to a footnote on a scorecard.

Buenos Aires refused to ratify the treaty that followed Caseros, and effectively became independent for the decade that followed, leading to it being besieged in 1858 by Unitarian troops under General Justo Jose de Urquiza. Given the cricket ground lay outside city limits, that was profoundly irritating to the British, so they petitioned Urquiza for safe passage to the pitch. Quite what he thought of the request was unclear but, presumably realising the importance of the British banks to the money supply and recognising the advisability of remaining on good terms with the Anglo community, he granted it.

So, with two opposing armies facing each other in the background, the game was played. "It was," Hinchliff noted, "a very risky proceeding for a few men to spend the day surrounded by such characters as might be expected in the rear of Urquiza's army". But who cared about risk when there was cricket to be played?

Sport was encouraged in the public schools because of a belief that it bred courage and comradeship, the implacable pluck that was such a key element in the British self-image in Victorian times. It may be that it worked. When Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would in 1868 become the seventh president of Argentina and who wrote Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie, a key text in trying to align Argentina with European ideals, was made an honorary member of the Buenos Ayres Cricket Club in 1875, he wrote a letter of thanks in which he suggested it was the discipline of sport that had allowed the British to withstand the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

"When I saw the students of Oxford and Cambridge compete for their famous rowing prizes and the virile cricket matches, athletics and other games that the young in England practise in order to exercise and develop their physical strength," he wrote, "I understood how 20,000 clerks and civil servants in India managed against 200,000 insurgent Sepoys, maintaining British dominion over 150 million inhabitants, until the arrival of the line troops."

There may have been an element of facetiousness or exaggeration in his tone, but the wider point was sound: cricket both developed and became a manifestation of an element of the British character that insisted on taking its customs around the world and enacting them whatever the circumstances. Hinchliff was an Alpinist, intent on ticking off the mountains of the world one by one, but he recognised in the cricketers who dodged the Argentinian Civil War a similar spirit.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here