This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.
The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.
My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.
As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.
For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.
The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.
This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.
Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).
My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.
Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.
The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.
The second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.
I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.
Why do Bollywood distributors make no attempt to sell their films to audiences outside the South Asian diaspora? Kai po che as a title doesn’t mean anything if, like me, you don’t know Hindi. I’ve learned since from a review that the title is “the war-call uttered during kite-flying in Gujarat”. The film is based on a novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, by Chetan Bhagat. I’ve read Bhagat’s five novels and enjoyed them all (his publicists promote him as the biggest-selling English language novelist in India) and I would have been immediately drawn to this film. Not only that but it is an Indian cricket film. Fortunately, sheer chance meant that I read a review so off I went to Cineworld without a second thought.
Kai po che is adapted and directed by Abhishek Kapoor, whose previous success was Rock On!, a film I found to be ‘OK’ but which I know was very popular in India. (Weirdly, Kai po che is exactly the kind of movie I said that I wanted to see rather than more Rock On!s.) With Kapoor and Bhagat as attractions the film has been eagerly anticipated in India, even though there are no major stars in the film. As far as I can see it is proving to be a winner of sorts after only a couple of days on release.
The story is set in Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat. It spans a period of ten years or more and the film narrative is mostly concerned with a flashback to 2000-2. Three young men are attempting to set up a retail business. Govind the maths genius is the sensible one, Ishaan the cricketer is the dreamer and Omi is the one with contacts – notably his uncle who is a local Hindu nationalist politician and the controller of the local temple properties. He agrees to lease the trio a shop space. The narrative drive comes from the different aims of each of the three leads – which represent the alternative goals/dreams of middle-class Indian men: success in business, politics or sport. (The importance of family is, of course, central to the plot.) Govind wants to make a success of the business, but he also falls for Ishaan’s sister Vidya, who he is attempting to tutor in maths. Omi finds himself, against his will, sucked into supporting his uncle’s political ambitions. Ishaan at first is unenthusiastic but then very taken by the amazingly talented 12 year-old Ali who comes to play cricket at the shop’s nets and eventually to accept Ishaan as a coach (Ishaan has played cricket at ‘district level’). This relationship will be one of the triggers for a crisis in the narrative, since Ali’s father is a political campaigner for the local Muslim party in opposition to Omi’s uncle. There are two other major dramatic events which will threaten the strong relationship between the three young men, the prospects for their business and the future of Ali as one of India’s great cricketers – but I won’t spoil the plot.
The adaptation changes the original story in several ways. One whole section is removed and some of the outcomes are attached to different characters. Chetan Bhagat is credited as one of the scripting team so I assume that he approves (whereas his relationship to 3 Idiots is more contentious). The excluded section is the trip the trio make to Australia but that would have been an extra budget cost and it isn’t essential to the story. Bhagat’s presentation of his stories is quite unusual – more like the idea of short stories being ‘told’ to an audience – in his case told to the real-life novelist Chetan Bhagat. This prologue and epilogue device has been cut and overall the narrative has been streamlined and made more ‘feelgood’. I’d have liked to see the original story on screen but I understand why it has been changed in this way. The pluses still remain. The three central characters are quite ‘real’/ordinary middle-class young men and it’s good to see a different city environment (beautifully presented). The performances are very good and the direction and editing deliver an engrossing and coherent narrative drive in just over two hours (running times vary in reviews but the UK certification agency says no cuts in the 125 mins). There is only one ‘song sequence’ – a day out on the coast when the three young men have a ‘bonding session’, including a leap off a cliff into the sea, possibly the only really cheesy moment in the film. I can’t really comment on the rest of the music in the film, which I confess I didn’t really notice.
I think this is going to be an affectionately-remembered film in India and it adds one more title to the emergence of a new kind of popular cinema which is more realist, more interested in social issues, but still ‘popular’ in appeal. If you are close to a multiplex I’d urge a visit – why not avoid the tedium of the Oscars and go see something more interesting?
This is a highly enjoyable film. It couldn’t really fail as a nostalgic celebration of arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But it’s a good watch for all audiences – whether or not you remember the West Indies Test team of the 1970s and 1980s. There is actually relatively little about cricket itself as a game, but a great deal about what it represented as a political and cultural force for Caribbean people in the period.
The documentary covers the years between the humiliating test defeat of the West Indies in Australia in the winter of 1975-76 up until the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984. This was the period in which Clive Lloyd led a team which was transformed from stereotypical ‘calypso cricketers’ into a honed squad of invincibles, in the process forging a symbol of a unified West Indian identity across the disparate countries of the Caribbean and bolstering the struggle against racism and colonialist hangovers.
The events are carefully narrativised so that there is a conventional story arc. So, the success of the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup in London in 1975 is not included. They beat Australia twice in the one day competition and that wouldn’t have been a good starting point. Instead we get to see them pulverised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. I’d forgotten this and it was quite a shock. Indian commentators have noted that the film also misrepresents the next series they played against India. But apart from these manipulations the story is told in a straightforward way using archive footage and talking heads. The latter are often photographed in a stylised way, in a studio or on location in the Caribbean. As well as the cricketers themselves, the ‘interviewees’ include the great Bunny Wailer and several highly entertaining supporters. Interspersed are performances from a mento band, reggae stars like Tapper Zukie, archive footage of Bob Marley and, my favourite, a song by Short Shirt, the Antiguan calypsonian in the most outrageous costume I’ve seen in a while – I can’t begin to describe the exact colour of his hat and shoes! The impact of these interviews/performances filmed in HD video and with pulsing graphics using the African colours of green, red and gold is all the greater because of their juxtaposition with the archive video footage on a big screen using digital projection.
The strength of the film is its clear connection between pride in cricket and pride in African heritage, emphasised by the comments of Bunny Wailer. It’s always been a sensitive area to comment on the sporting prowess of Black athletes because of the danger of ‘reducing’ Black achievement to physique rather than an overall appreciation of skill and intelligence. The film avoids this, I think, by its careful linkage of the US models (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics etc.) with Clive Lloyd’s leadership and the fantastic individual stars of this great team. How could you not respond to the beauty, grace and power of Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’) surely the most aesthetically pleasing as well as the most lethal sight on a cricket pitch? What could top the sight of Viv Richards ducking bouncers and then sending the next ball to the boundary rope? The filmmakers have chosen the interviewees carefully so that we meet the most articulate and inspiring members of the team. Richards is a commanding presence, Andy Roberts is dry and deadly and Gordon Greenidge (who came to live in England aged 14) is the most dignified. Importantly there is one player whose presence in the documentary cuts through the possibility of too much simple idolatry on behalf of the audience. Colin Croft, one of the four bowling greats, accepted the money to join the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983 when the apartheid regime attempted to discredit the sporting boycott of South Africa. Croft survived the subsequent ban and shame to return as a respected commentator today – but many of the others on that tour had their careers, and indeed their lives, destroyed by the critical backlash. This part of the story, in which West Indian cricketers who were paid very little in comparison with modern stars were tempted by a chance to lift themselves out of relative poverty, is matched by the story of Kerry Packer’s ‘World Series Cricket’ in the late 1970s which saw Clive Lloyd’s team at odds with its own administrators in a bid to get better pay and conditions. The two stories underline the politics of international cricket.
The film works well politically. The focus on Australia, England and South Africa is justified in putting across the symbolism of the defeat of racism and colonialism. English cricket suffered from poor administration and the influence of the ‘backwoodsmen’ who still seemed to feel that they were running the Empire. The decision to make Tony Greig, a South African, captain of England at this time was outrageous. During the desperate days of overt racism in the 1970s and 1980s, most people I knew supported the West Indians unreservedly and to see Michael Holding dismiss Greig twice at the Oval in 1976 is one of my most cherished memories. (For those who don’t know cricket, I should point out that most of these West Indian test cricketers also played county cricket in England and they were heroes to UK crowds as well.)
The film was directed by Stevan Riley, a young British guy who has clearly impressed Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd and gained access to the right people. I hope the film gets seen in the Caribbean and persuades more young people to get interested in cricket so that the Test team can be rejuvenated. It’s great too to hear all the music again and it must be time for more films from the region. Go and see this film or get hold of the DVD – it’s pure joy. I’m off to dig out some Linton Kwesi Johnson whose dub poetry is used in one clip.
Patiala House is clearly inspired by Bend It Like Beckham and the true story of Monty Panesar’s selection (and initial success) as the first Sikh to play cricket for England. In many ways it is sentimental tosh, but I still found it good entertainment and there are several interesting aspects of the film in terms of its depiction of British Asians as viewed from an Indian perspective.
The Kahlon family has grown so large that they now occupy a whole small crescent of houses in Southall, West London. This small fiefdom is controlled by a fierce patriarch (Rishi Kapoor) who has named it (and his mini-cab business) ‘Patiala House’, presumably after his home town in the Punjab. He does indeed rule his little kingdom, declaring it almost outside UK law. A flashback reveals that the family suffered racist attacks in the 1970s with the death of a leading local Sikh figure in the struggles against racist thugs and the notorious SPG or Special Patrol Group (a controversial Metropolitan Police squad associated with harassing Black and Asian Londoners). The film uses archive footage, I think from 1979, when the New Zealand teacher Blair Peach was killed during a demonstration. Because of this history, the father hates the goras (‘whites’) and several years later he forbids his son Gattu to play cricket for any English team. The 17 year-old schoolboy is shown as an outstanding prospect who has already made his mark.
In the present day Gattu (Akshay Kumar) and his legion of younger brothers and sisters are kept in thrall of their father, all fearful of following their dreams to leave home and do exciting things (beyond the girls marrying approved partners). His siblings are all frustrated by Gattu’s decision to honour his father’s wishes. He still secretly practices cricket each evening but during the day runs a small newsagent’s owned by his father. He’s 34 now and seems resigned to his fate until . . . the appearance of Simran (Anushka Sharma), a young woman who has returned from an abortive attempt to make it in the Mumbai film industry. She has in tow a 12 year-old cricket-mad boy (for whom she acts as a guardian) and when the England cricket team announces that it is searching for new talent after several terrible defeats, it seems only a matter of time before the boy is urging Gattu to ‘come out’ as a cricket talent.
The film is predictable in terms of what happens next – we want Gattu to win a cricket match for England without upsetting his father and to get the girl. It would be a pretty odd Bollywood film if it didn’t at least attempt to reach these goals, preposterous though it might seem. One review I read made the observation that what follows is similar to the German film Goodbye Lenin and that seems a good call. Since Gattu’s success would effectively ‘free’ all his siblings, they are keen to help him keep the truth from his father until his final triumph on the pitch – all they have to do is to nobble all the people who might tell the patriarch about his son wearing an England shirt. Although what ensues has its comic moments, much of it is also quite poignant. Akshay Kumar is an athletic man who, although 42 when filming started, can just pass for 34. (By contrast, Sharma is perhaps too young even if her performance is convincing.) Monty Panesar is a spinner, but the producers have made Kumar a fast-medium bowler and with training by the great Wasim Akram he can pass as a medium pacer – perhaps like Mohinder Amarnath the Indian all-rounder who was the matchwinner when India won the 50-over World Cup in 1983. (Amarnath’s family boasts several test cricketers and since they come from Patiala it is no coincidence that they should be mentioned in the film.)
Unlike some of the mainstream Bollywood films that present only a fantasy London comprising Trafalgar Square and a villa in Hampstead, this film presents a recognisable Southall. The cricket matches utilise the Oval and for the main matches, Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Several famous test cricketers appear as themselves: David Gower, Graham Gooch, Andrew Symonds (as the Aussie who looks like he might spoil the party). But it was the appearance of Nasser Hussain, the former England test captain who was born in India that was most noticeable. His Hindi seemed rather hesitant to me and created some mirth from the South Asian audience in the cinema. I don’t remember Hussain ever provoking any comments about his decision to play for England – he moved to the UK as a 7 year-old I think and his mother is British. Andrew Symonds also has an interesting background as a cricketer. In more recent times three young British Asians of Pakistani background in the North of England, Sajid Mahmood, Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad have joined the ranks of Asians playing for England. It’s interesting to go back to this Observer article written in 2006 when there were media stories about who British Asian cricket fans would support when England played South Asian touring sides in Test matches.
In some ways this film seems the closest I’ve seen to melding a Bollywood approach to a specific narrative with a setting outside India that is more than simply an ‘exotic’ backdrop. (I haven’t seen Shah Rukh Khan’s last US-set film.) I suspect that other producers will study it carefully. Meanwhile, with the Cricket World Cup in India bubbling up nicely and England and India tying a match, it offers an entertaining diversion.
The Empire Strikes Back
In 1984-5, and again in 1985-6, the West Indian cricket team scored a ‘blackwash’ over the English team: i.e. a five – nil series victory. The success was enjoyed by, among others, many West Indian migrants now living in the UK. This was ‘turning the tables’ with a vengeance. It upset the established order of the game. Cricket has always seemed intensely English pastime. Traditionally it is only partially British, played in Wales, but not so much in Scotland. However, it was taken round the British Empire and established there mainly by the colonial rulers. But now the arrival of large numbers of people from the ex-colonies has changed cricket at home.
There are not that many memorable cricketing moments in British film. (Wikipedia has a page on Cricket in Film and Television). However, sport is not generally a dynamic feature in British cinema, For a long time the best footballing feature was Hollywood’s Escape to Victory (1981). Bend it Like Beckham (2002) does offer a successful contemporary footballing story, though it relies heavily on the modern celebrity aspects of the game. When cricket has been addressed in British film the stance has frequently been individual dramas. Thus The Final Test (1951) is centrally about a father/son relationship. Sam Palmer (Jack Warner) is making his final appearance in an English test team, playing the ‘old enemy’ Australia. However, his son Reggie is more interested in writing poetry than watching his father play. So the film also offers an opposition between art and sport. This divide is bridged by Reggie’s poet-hero Alex Whitehead (deliciously played by Robert Morley) who turns out to be a cricket-mad artist. The film is graced by appearances by several famous cricketers, including Len Hutton. Even more beguiling, we hear commentary by John Arlott. However, the bulk of the film is focused on the conflict between father and son: with a sub-plot about widower’s Palmer’s tentative romance with a barmaid in the Local. The central value of the film is patriarchy. Palmer is at first undermined, but finally reinforced in his role as head of the family. And the female interest is clearly subordinate. In fact, a scene, which has Palmer laying down the moral code of the period, feels rather embarrassing today.
The 2003 film Wondrous Oblivion [scripted and directed by Paul Morrison] brings a greater sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity. It takes a parallel situation to that in The Final Test: in this case it is the son rather than the father who is the cricketer. And the film addresses this through the discourse of a multicultural Britain. The film is set in London of the 1960s. David Wiseman belongs to a Jewish immigrant family. His father, Victor, works long and hard at his tailoring business. His mother, Ruth, is caught in domestic repression. David attends a middle class school, but his ineffectual performance on the cricket pitch restricts him the lowly position of scorer for the school team.
Then Jamaican Dennis Samuels and his family move in next door. Dennis’ first act is to erect a cricket net in his backyard. It is here that he develops David’s cricketing skills and lays the basis for a developing relationship between the two families. Denis’ coaching transforms David performance and he becomes a star player in the school team.
But serpents soon disrupt the little Eden. Ruth develops an attraction for the vibrant Denis, and he has to gently dampen her approaches. A more serious snare has David succumb to his schoolmate’s prejudices and snub Dennis’ daughter Judy on the occasion of his birthday party.
Now serious racial prejudice surfaces in the local community. Dennis’ house is set on fire by local thugs: It is David who raises the alarm and saves lives; but both the house and Dennis’ cricket net are destroyed. The neighbours stand idly by and the local police do not treat the incident seriously. Victor is appalled by this passivity, and events also suggest a simmering prejudice against the Wisemans that until now has remained below the surface. David and his family help Dennis rebuild his beloved nets: Victor provides materials and Ruth labour. Other neighbours shamefacedly help repair the damage to the house. The new relationships are cemented at a picnic, which in a reversal of The Final Test, has David missing an important school match.
Clearly, like The Final Test, this film is about fathers and sons. Denis offers a surrogate father to the young David. However, by the closure of the film David’s own family and their relationships have been reconstructed. David has not only improved his cricketing skills but also matured in his handling of these relationships. Just as the film is notably more modern in terms of ‘race’, so its treatment of gender is more modern, David mother’s Ruth has a more prominent role and is able to develop as a person. However, her situation is still subservient to that of the males: it is patriarchy that is central in this film. And there is a class dynamic, though this is not developed fully. At the end of the film, the Wisemans’ are moving geographically to north London, socially upwards. Most notably, we meet members of the current West Indian Test team. But they appear at the picnic rather than in battle with the Empire team at home.
Television, which has featured slightly more outings for the game. seems to mirror this approach. Thus an episode of Inspector Morse features the hallowed game in ‘Deceived by Flight’: Morse is essentially about a surrogate father/son relationship. In this drama Morse’s Sergeant Lewis has to play in the ‘old boys’ team. And during the play he is clearly seeking Morse’s approval. As usual Morse is distracted by a woman: in this case two, the traditional woman and the devious femme fatale.
A rather different focus emerges in a number of films made in the context of the colonial discourse which, whilst retaining overtones of father and sons, have more directly addressed and criticised the Imperial master. So films from colonial and ex-colonial territories frequently offer intriguing dramas.
In the 1970s Australian Television produced a mini-series on the notorious Bodyline controversy. (There is a fairly detailed account of this 1932-3 British cricket tour of Australia in Wikipedia). In 1930, the Australian cricket team had toured England with the great Don Bradman. He averaged over a 100 and Australia won the series. The English team captain Douglas Jardine noted that Bradman was not that good at dealing with short balls. Short pitch bowling tends to bounce up directly at the batsman, who can be hit on the body by a ball that may travel at up to 90 miles an hour. Most of the modern protective gear, like helmets, was not available in the 1930s. Jardine worked out a strategy with his fast bowlers, which involved balls directed at the batsman, who was faced with either being hit or possibly nicking a ball which could be caught by a fielder. The tactics had an impact during the tour of Australia both on and off the field. A famous scene includes the lines: “There are two teams out there. One if playing cricket. One is making no attempt to do so.” The row became so bitter that it involved diplomatic exchanges and spontaneous boycotts of goods by fans in home countries. It remains the most controversial event in the history of international cricket.
The mini-series rather sensationalises history, but produces a powerful dramatic retelling. Central to the narrative is the conflict between the superior imperial British and the ordinary colonial Australians. This conflict is about class, but also about colonial dominance and resistance. The Imperial strand is evident early on in Part One. This presents the upbringing of the young Douglas Jardine. A key scene, set in the Indian Raj, has Lord Harris (one-time England captain, MCC President and Governor of Bombay) presenting the young Jardine with a cricket bat. The rich mise en scène emphasises the power and affluence of the Raj. Later, when Jardine joins the English cricket side there is a clear divide between the players like Jardine, who are comfortably upper-class, and the professional, like the fast bowler Harold Larwood, who comes from a mining community. There are also indications of Jardine’s ruthless streak. In one match he instructs his bowler to stump an over-eager batsman out of his crease. This is technically legal, but hardly within the much-vaunted ‘spirit of cricket’. The actual contemporary spirit of the British game is well shown in that Larwood the bowler became the scapegoat after the tour, he was never selected for England again.
The second part of the series follows the actual Bodyline matches. The varied scenes include actual match play: responses by both spectators and journalist: and behind-the-scenes discussions among administrators and politicians. Especially potent are the crowd scenes. These emphasise once more the more proletarian style of the Australian colonials. There are also running gags, one being a fan who smuggles his sheepdog into every game in a Gladstone bag.
All these different scenes emphasise the distinction between English ruthlessness and Australian sportsmanship. When the conflict reaches a climax we see the British government using economic power to face down the Australians. At this point the Australian team consider refusing to play another test: (a sort of prequel to the action by Pakistan players in 2007). Then in a key scene they decide to soldier on and face the British barrage. This is the point at which they acquire heroic status, becoming the representatives of Australian fair play and courage. Clearly in this drama the British are ‘not playing cricket’.
In fact, what is probably the best British film on cricket is Playing Away (1986). The 1980s were a decade when the problems of racist Britain were glaringly visible for all to see. This was a factor in the new, pioneering Channel Four, whose Film Four International produced the film. It was also the decade that saw the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies publish a collection on “race” and racism under the title The Empire Strikes Back (Hutchinson University Press, 1982). As an anti-racist poster of the period put it, “We are over here because you are over there.”
The film was scripted by Caryl Phillips and directed by Horace Ové, both important Black British artists of the period. Ové migrated to Britain in 1960 from Trinidad at the age of 20. Phillips was born on St Kitts, but most of his upbringing was in the UK. Both have produced important bodies of work that address the experiences of Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain.
The main plot mechanism is a cricket match held in the Suffolk village of Sneddington to round off a week of fund raising for the Third World. The village team is to play the Brixton-based Conquistadors in a Sunday league fixture. The film opens on the Friday evening as the two captains marshal their sides and preparations. Sneddington’s captain Derek (Nicholas Farrell, reprising elements of his character in Chariots of Fire, 1981), is a middle class migrant to the rural haven, where he has lived for 5 or 6 years. The Conquistador captain is Willie Boy (a typical Norman Beaton characterisation), He is a Jamaican migrant whose wife has already returned to the island, but who has not quite managed this himself. Horace Ové, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1987) comments: “It is not the same for their parents – that generation of West Indians who came over in the 40s and 50s. They were encouraged to come here, like Willie Boy in Playing Away. They thought life was going to be great, they worked hard but today they feel outside the gates of society and many of them question what they are doing here and want to go home to the Caribbean. I’ve lived in two worlds ever since I’ve been here.”
The film immediately sets up a series of oppositions as it cuts between Sneddington and Brixton. Clearly there is the contrast between urban and rural culture. But there are also oppositions of “race” and ethnicity, class, gender and a generation gap. These contradictions are not just between rural Suffolk and urban London. They are within both communities. Derek, his wife and best mate Kevin, (the team fast bowler), are marked off from the more proletarian village natives (or Oiks). And Willie Boy has an argument with Errol (Gary Beadle), the young, virile team member who is also dating Willie Boy’s daughter Yvette (Suzette Llewellyn).
In fact, there are a number of sub-plots concerning personal dilemmas and problems. A key character is Godfrey (Robert Urquhart), whose wife Marjorie (Helen Lindsay) is clearly the main organizer of this event. Godfrey and Marjorie have travelled abroad and sojourned in Kenya for a time. However, Godfrey’s knowledge of and sympathy for the Afro-Caribbean communities is slyly undercut in the film. A slide show for the village members with pictures set in Africa clearly includes a still where Godfrey is standing in front of a matte rather than an actual place. (Much clearer in a 35-mm print than on video). Such subversions recur regularly in the film. Some of these character and plot mechanism appear rather like those of television soaps, a genre that Ové also worked in. The development of the sub-plots brings some members of the two groups together, but also exacerbates other tensions. These come to a head in the final match.
Sneddington bat first and score 105. The Conquistadors chase this total but lose six wickets in the process and are clearly struggling. At this point two LBW appeals are turned down by the umpire, Godfrey. (The filming suggests Godfrey’s decision is possibly not impartial). The bowler Ian, (one of the Oiks) storms off the pitch, followed by five of his village mates. The pitch is now set for an easy Conquistadors victory. This is achieved by the partnership of Willie Boy and Errol. Errol, surprisingly, suggest that they take is easy and ‘make a game of it’, but Willie Boy scornfully counters that he is always ‘soft on the white man’.
Thus by late Sunday the Brixton West Indians are more united whilst Sneddington is in disarray. Charles Barr (In Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1987) made a good comment on this point in the film. “In his classic History of Cricket (1938, and much reprinted), H. S. Altham remarked that West Indian teams were handicapped by ‘temperamental weaknesses” when playing away, on tour in England; through all the shifts of on-and-off-field power that have occurred since, the stereotyped opposition of volatile black visitors and phlegmatic white hosts has tended to linger on.” Playing Away subverts it exuberantly, as the hosts from the picture-postcard village of Sneddington, heading for victory over their Brixton visitors on cricketing merit, blow the match through temperamental disintegration.”
Barr clearly identifies the way that the film subverts traditional sporting and media stereotypes. And this extends through the various subplots and characters. Playing Away is a work rich in contradictions. And it is rich in an irony that is usually lacking, not only in UK cricketing films, but UK sporting films more generally.
India seems to have produced more cricketing films than other countries playing the game. The titles include Awwal Number (1990) which combines a one-day series against Australia with a terrorist threat to spectators: and Iqbal (2005) which follows a rural deaf-mute boy who achieves cricketing prowess and a place on the national team. With Lagaan (2001), a major critical and commercial success, a larger dimension has been addressed. The film offers a historical, almost mythic confrontation between the British Empire and the subjugated Indian villagers in the form of a classic cricket match. The film is a star vehicle, produced by as well as featuring Aamir Kahn: plus a guest appearance by superstar Amitahb Bachchan as the film’s narrator. There are star ‘playback’ singers like Lata Mangeshkar, and the music is by the star composer A. R. Rahman.
The film is set in an ordinary village in the ‘heart of India’. It is 1893, the height of the rule of the British Raj. The film’s title, Lagaan, refers to a tax on the harvest of the villagers: officially paid to the Rajah, but mainly expropriated by the British, to whom the Rajah is subservient. And this year the hardship caused by the tax has been aggravated by the two seasons of the little rain. The conflict is embodied in the two leading characters: Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the brutal and arrogant British commander, and Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a villager living with his widowed mother. Bhuvan is a typical Hindi hero, as central to Bollywood films as the ‘all-American action hero’ is to Hollywood. The film is also conventional in other ways, featuring six large-scale song and dance numbers; a traditional Hindi mother; and Bhuvan’s romance with fellow villager Gauri (Gracy Singh).
However, the plot also has distinctive elements. Captain Russell challenges Bhuvan and the villagers to a cricket match, and wages three years free of lagaan against a triple lagaan payment for the current year. Bhuvan’s task becomes to persuade the village to fight the challenge and to build a team capable of taking on the British. In the course of building the team Bhuvan constructs a representation of an India united against the British. So there are both Hindus and Muslims, and a Sikh member who has traveled to join the team in their fight. Finally, Bhuvan recruits a dalit or ‘untouchable’. Kachra has a withered arm, and (referencing more recent cricket?) has the ability to bowl almost unplayable spin. His recruitment sparks protests from the prejudiced villagers. However, Bhuvan rallies the team and village with a powerful speech: and a song and dance number gives expression to their new unity of purpose.
Bhuvan and the team are also assisted by Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Initially, she helps the villagers out of a sense of fair play, but it is soon apparent that she is smitten with Bhuvan. This provides a romantic sub-plot, which brings in more conventional references, this time to the mythic story of Krishna and Radha; star-crossed lovers. There is another plot strand when the villager Lakha, jealous of Bhuvan and Gauri, works as a spy and saboteur for the British.
The village team members are subordinate to Bhuvan in the plot, but do develop individually. Like Kachra, most of them have particular cricketing skills. Deva, the Sikh, has played cricket before in the British army. Bhura, who spends his time chasing his chickens is a fine fielder. Bagha, who plays the drum before the village shrine, is a fine batsman. The contrast with the British is also one of class, as that team is composed solely of officers. At one point a vital and dazzling song and dance in the village is contrasted with the cool, formalized and affluent ballroom of the British.
The film climaxes in a three-day match between the British and the Villagers, watched both by the British colonial establishment and a mass of rural Indians. The match is commented on and explained (for both audiences) by Ram Singh, Elizabeth’s servant. The game runs for about 80 minutes of the overall film. And whilst the production has gone to great lengths to produce convincing period detail, the plot also plays on contemporary cricket lore. So, aside from Kachra’s spin. a British bowler indulges in ‘bouncers’ and ‘beamers’. Several village batsmen are injured, including Ismail, who is allowed a ‘runner’, This is the village youth Tipu, who is stumped in a similar fashion to the incident in Bodyline. There is frequent ‘sledging’ by the British officers. And in a moment of rage Captain Russell trashes the British dressing room.
Predictably, the villagers win, but the result is in doubt till the last ball. In fact this is a ‘no ball’, saving the wicket of Kachra, last man in. This enables Bhuvan to hit the winning six. He has, also, carried his bat through the innings. So whilst it is a team effort, the prime focus remains on Bhuvan the hero. The victory enables Bhuvan to win Gauri, and leaves Elizabeth to return to England sadder and wiser. Captain Russell is banished to the ‘Central African desert’, and one hopes that there are not more benighted villagers there to suffer his brutal domination.
The film not only uses the conventions of Hindi cinema, but also subverts those of the Empire cinema. It has a native hero who rallies the ‘troops’, aided by a lovelorn maiden, but a white maiden. And once more it is the British officers who show the least regard for the ‘spirit of cricket’.
These ‘colonial’ films clearly mirror the changing hierarchies of international cricket. But they also consciously dramatise cricket as a metaphor for the larger social and political conflicts.
The Final Test, Playing Away and Lagaan are all available on region 2 DVDs. Bodyline is available on a Region 4 DVD.