The empire strikes back: Aamir Khan in 'Lagaan' (2001)

The boundary in the frame: how movies deal with cricket

Filmmakers tend to grapple with the cultural and social implications of this imperial sport
July 19, 2023

Despite the ubiquity of the Ashes this summer, cricket in England has long been on the back foot. Its problems are many: shrinking crowds at county matches, fewer state schools offering the sport, players opting for the better-paid white-ball format. Then, in June, the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), convened by the England and Wales Cricket Board, published a report declaring that “racism, class-based discrimination, elitism and sexism are widespread and deep rooted.” Said its chair Cindy Butts: “The game must face up to the fact that it’s not banter or just a few bad apples.”

It’s often said that cricket isn’t suited to the screen. How can it be possible for matches to go on for five days without producing a winner? Breaks for tea?! And yet, notwithstanding the criticisms the report has received (“profoundly Marxist,” huffed the Daily Telegraph), the issues it raises have been anticipated and elaborated by filmmakers over the course of decades. 

A particularly shrewd example is Mike Dibb’s documentary Beyond a Boundary (1976), which gets its name from the beloved 1963 book by the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James. Dibb, best known for directing the John Berger-fronted series Ways of Seeing, was compelled by James’s social framing of the sport. 

The pair of them travelled to Trinidad, where James, by then in his seventies, recalled how cricket at his childhood public school was a technology of discipline and deportment, a gateway to becoming “an Englishman”. They went to Preston in Lancashire where, in 1932, James had boarded with all-rounder Learie Constantine (later to become a British life peer)—an experience that fuelled his belief in the importance of class as much as race. James even went to Lord’s, the “home of cricket”, the core of its spiritual Englishness, where, earlier this summer, English supporters barracked Australian players.

James believed that cricket and imperialism are intertwined. Indians do too. They’ve never forgotten that 19th-century English administrators imported the game to the subcontinent as a form of soft power. (One club team was named Gladstone.) Ashutosh Gowariker’s stirring drama Lagaan (2001) is set in 1893 in an Indian village brought low by drought and high taxes. The locals—led by Bollywood hero Aamir Khan (pictured)—are challenged by a haughty British army officer. If they win the match, their debts will be written off. But if they lose, their taxes will treble. The catch: none of them have ever played cricket before. All they can go on are their experiences of a local stick-and-ball game called Gilli Danda.

Lagaan is a classic David and Goliath story that writer-director Gowariker transfigures into an anticolonial epic. It celebrates tradition, village life, sport as an arena for collective struggle. Here Sikhs and Muslims and Hindus can thrive together. Nearly four hours long, the film features a rousing score by AR Rahman and sun-baked location shooting. Khan, in a career-best performance, convinces us that cricketers can also be freedom fighters. Intriguingly, the film’s box office success coincided with cricket’s centre of gravity moving eastwards. These days, Asia, not north London, determines the game’s future.

Underlying the ICEC report is a belief that cricket needs to be closer to its cities than to its shires or, as characterised by former prime minister John Major, “the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beers, invincible green suburbs…”. This tussle—racial as much as it is geographical—was teasingly explored in Horace Ové’s Playing Away (1986), in which a team of mostly Jamaican amateurs from Brixton are invited to a picturesque Suffolk village as part of its Third World Week festivities.

The early 1980s were a particularly golden period for cricket on film. Michael Apted’s P’Tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982), Jack Gold’s Good and Bad at Games (1983) and Freddie Young’s Arthur’s Hallowed Ground (1984) are still fondly remembered today. But Playing Away, scripted by novelist Caryl Phillips, is by some measure the most sardonic. It could easily have portrayed the south London-based Conquistadors as objects of rural snobbery. Or as righteous underdogs about to speak cricketing truth to power.

The Conquistadors, led by Willie Boy (an endearing Norman Beaton), are no one’s idea of a model XI though. Their members are feckless, pig-headed, often sexist. They can’t muster a full line-up for the game. The villagers too come across as lonely, haunted by their pasts, divided between oiks and toffs. Playing Away, for all its humour, finds conviviality and hope in the mutual melancholia of the black and white teams. While that may not be the stuff of policy documents, it does make for a quietly winning film.