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Cricket as metaphor for empire

19 July 2022

5 mins

by Tom Mather

My dissertation focused on the relationship between cricket and empire, focusing specifically on visual representations of two cricketers – the famous WG Grace, about whom a lot is known, and less-well known but nonetheless also very important Prince Ranjitsinhji. The seed for my undergraduate dissertation blossomed quickly from new ideas gained at the start of the final year of my degree. I studied Pete Yeandle’s module, ‘Empire, War and Popular Culture in Britain’. Learning about the British Empire and its effects on popular culture and ideology at home was a new area of learning for myself and I found the module thought provoking. I am a cricket enthusiast, so a dissertation on cricket history and popular imperialism perfectly fitted my personal as well as my academic interests.

I read general histories of cricket at the same time as I learnt more about the debates about imperialism and popular culture from the module. It quickly became apparent that cricket was entwined with the notions of popular imperialism. I decided that it would be fascinating to contrast the celebrity of W.G. Grace and K.S. Ranjitsinhji in the context of the popular imperialism debate. In my dissertation, I analysed media representations of W.G. Grace and K.S. Ranjitsinhji to address the maximalist and minimalist debate – that is, does close attention to how these two cricketers were depicted in the press enable insight into whether imperialism had a distinct influence on British domestic culture? Although there is ample reading material on Grace and Ranjitsinhji and their ties with notions of empire, my focus was a comparative analysis of how they were represented in visual culture. Such an area of exploration allowed the project to be adequately original. In order to undertake this research, I found evidence from digitised newspapers and other online sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Non-textual sources included cartoons, portraits, photographs and advertising and these were studied alongside written accounts.

As a keen cricketer and cricket fan, of course I think more should be known about cricket history. Many key themes in English history can be understood in relation to the great game. The growth of the cricket exemplifies the modernisation of the country but also appeals of tradition. We can explore use Grace and Ranjitsinhji as exemplars to study the cultural phenomena of celebrity and heroic culture. Cricket was understood as an imperial game, and these players were considered imperial celebrities – each signifying different imperial values and allowing comparative analysis of race, masculinity, and national identity. Cricket symbolises a distinctive type of Englishness and, thus, research into values attached to cricket and cricketers can reveal how values and attitudes evolve over time. Cricket was much more than just a game. It was deployed as evidence of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture and ways of life; it was used to represent core values such as respect, character building, physical health, teamwork, and much more. Furthermore, my study found that between the late nineteenth century and the First World War, the national game was saturated in cricketing language – and that cricket could be used to promote imperial values. Cricket was exported across the empire as one perceived mode of “civilising mission”, and it is no coincidence the majority of nations which play cricket in the modern day were formerly part of the British Empire. Cricket was perceived to be the perfect means by which to build a harmonious relationship between the mother country and its ‘sons across the world’. Ironically, cricket later provided opportunity for colonies to find distinctive national identities in the face of the ruling empire.

Working on this dissertation throughout my final year was one of the highlights of my university experience. I feel honoured to have been involved in such a venture at the University. Looking back on the project, I really appreciated the first-rate guidance from the department’s lecturers accompanied with freedom to explore my own research interests. It should fill everyone with great pride to know they have contributed to an area of scholarship or research in their own way.


Holt, Richard. Sport and the British: A Modern History, U.S.A: Oxford University Press. 1990.

Huggins, Mike. Victorians and Sport. Bloomsbury Continuum; Illustrated edition, 2004.

MacKenzie, John M. Propaganda and empire: the manipulation of British public opinion. Manchester University Press, 1984.

Porter, Bernard. The Absent-minded imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain.  Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sen, Satadru. “Enduring colonialism in cricket: From Ranjitsinhji to the Cronje affair.” Contemporary South Asia, 10, no. 2 (2001): 237-249. DOI: 10.1080/09584930120083837

Stoddart, Brian. “Sport, Cultural Imperialism, and Colonial Response in the British Empire” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30, no. 4 (1988): 649-673. DOI:

Washbourne, Neil. “W.G. Grace: Sporting Superstar, Cultural Celebrity, and Hero (to Oscar Wilde’s Villain) of the Great Public Drama of 1895.” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung. Supplement, no. 32 (2019): 186-208.


I studied at Loughborough between 2018-2022, including an industrial placement year. I’m a sport and cricket enthusiast. After graduation, I will be traveling to Asia and Australia before starting a job in recruitment.

Photo by Alessandro Bogliari on unsplash

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