Sport and culture: An evolutionary tale

Sport has always transformed to the demands of culture and changing societal needs
Last Updated 19 September 2021, 04:23 IST
3x3 Basketball has also found huge success and even a spot at the Olympics. Reuters
3x3 Basketball has also found huge success and even a spot at the Olympics. Reuters

In 1975, Jerry Leach and Gary Kildea released a documentary titled: Trobriand Cricket.

It showed the cricket played in the Trobriand Islands. The chassis was clearly the gentleman’s game but the rest, had just echoes of it. The local culture and values had seeped into game as it became appropriated into a style that is, if not unique, certainly unusual to the outside world.

Transculturalisation or transculturation of sport - where a sport changes as it moves into new spaces due to the societal and cultural influence - is nothing new. Often the changes are subtle, marked by how society identifies and imbibes the sport. Trobriand Cricket is just one example, an extreme one.

"Games are always changing," says Orin Starn, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. "Rules are modified, styles of play too. So it’s not that surprising that a very different version of cricket played in the Trobriand Islands has emerged. It’s unusual for a game to be transformed so radically. It had a lot to do with the power of Trobriand culture, and the way the rules of cricket were bent to local ways of doing things."

As part of the local culture of inclusion, Trobriand cricket has no restrictions on the number of players. They have changed the bat, ball and wickets; the players are dressed in war paints and treated with oil - symbolising a change in their personality and inhibitions much like warriors heading into battle - and war magic is used. The game itself is a proxy for war. There are chants and dances for team entrance, exit and outs. These chants - rude, sly and often funny - shed light on the history of the island as they range from airplanes, sailors, predatory seabirds to chewing gum. The competition is ritualised and the overriding point lies in the status gained by the hosting village, climaxing in exchanging food. The results are largely irrelevant.

To understand the change, one must understand the journey of the sport in the island. Cricket was brought to these shores by the British in the early 1900s. As part of the Imperial rule, it was common for the Colonial power to use sport to educate locals and maintain control. Horse racing, tennis, polo and many others were used by the Empire but cricket was perhaps most influential. It was distinctly English and shows the British values of behaviour, standards, and moral codes at its best.

"The game came as part of the British empire teaching European type behaviour," says Brian Stoddart, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

"What the pacific islands did was to turn it on its head. They took European activity and incorporated local practices. They saw the original game, didn't like it and adapted it to their own culture, incorporating traditional practices to give the game meaning.

“Trobriand islands were isolated and cricket evolved. There were not many Europeans there to make them stop. No one contested the rise of the local game. It was a way to reject the foreign game, for the society to keep their identity," says Stoddart.

There are similar changes to cricket in another pacific island - Samoa - refashioned as Kirikiti.

Here it evolved differently, not as isolated as the Trobriand Islands, Samoa had German and American presence as well so the British couldn’t keep the game under their hold. Introduced in 1879, it mixed with the politics between Samoan clans and foreign settlers. The protective garbs were left out as an extension of their masculinity, three-sided clubs were used as bats and the duration of the game, particularly with a big number of players, was used as a form of resistance against the concepts of work and time imposed by the Westerners.

"Cricket has a strange hierarchy and class in the game. There were already some fixed ideas and social structures that led itself into the hierarchy of cricket in Samoa. For example, for a long time people didn't play rugby in the pacific islands because the idea of a Samoan chief being tackled was insulting," says Benjamin Sacks, Research Fellow at University of Western Australia and writer of Cricket, Kirikiti and Imperialism in Samoa.

These are extreme examples and cricket has few others as well, but society has always influenced sport. Within that spectrum ranging from the original cricket - born on the lush green fields in England - to the variations in the Pacific Islands, there are a myriad of cultural influences and differences.

"On the scale of cultural impact, the Trobriand cricket is on the far end. There are others who where it’s small changes like India historically producing great spinners," says Stoddart, author of Cricket and Empire as well as Sport, Culture and History: Region, nation and globe among many others.

Or like in the West Indies, known for their flashy and adventurous swagger, big hits and deep roots in Calypso and rum.

Football in Brazil - the famed Joga Bonito - is free-spirited, joyous, inventive and playful with onus on individual skills, born out of the cultural inclination. In countries across Europe, the game is imagined differently - regimented, power, speed and tactics. The Latin Americans even came up with a shorter and dynamic version - Futsal - which has now reached the world and taken multiple forms like cage football, 5 and 7-asides. The latter two are particularly prevalent in Kerala where South American giants enjoy huge support.

The 3x3 basketball, now an Olympic sport, developed back in the 1970s among congested cities in New York and Michigan where cemented driveways and backyards birthed a variation of basketball out of societal demands.

"In a busy world, there’s been a general embrace of quicker, simpler forms of some sports, which is true of 3x3. It doesn’t demand many people or a full court," says Starn.

The world of racquet sport has seen padel (a mixture of tennis and squash) and pickleball (played in a court half the size of a tennis court) to name just two that have popped up to cater to the demand of the society.

Sport has always changed as a product of its environment. It changes and reimagines itself.

"Time is key. Cricket started when time was measured in seasons. Now you can't retain a crowd for five days and that brought in the ODI, T20s and now the Hundred. These are cultural changes. The crowd you find in Chinnaswamy stadium, for example, for a Test, is not the same for an IPL match," Stoddart says.

The advent of television has already had a major impact in sport. The American leagues are tailor made to ensure maximum advertisements and sponsorships. Sumo wrestling - a traditional Japanese sport - no longer has the poles at the four ends to ensure a better viewing experience. In India, Kabaddi has been repackaged and given a second wind by the Pro Kabaddi League while the IPL sparked a revolution and countless copy cats.

Not to forget, five-day Test is a "condensed" version of 'timeless' Test which was played until one of the two results (win or loss) arrived. The lengthiest recorded 'timeless' Test lasted for 10 days, with the eighth day rained off, between England and South Africa in Durban from March 3-14 in 1939. It had to be abandoned apparently because the ship taking the England team home was due to leave.

Interestingly, it would seem now, the change in sport is perhaps driven more by commercial and practical accommodations than cultural. That said, it has to find the embrace of popular culture.

"The drive can come from a change in popular taste also. Society and finances are on a continuous circle. World Series of cricket in 1977, was complete anathema. That was all about the money. But that transformed and struck a chord with the people and how they saw the game. Coloured shirts, celebrations and that pushed cricket to where it is now. Money will only be made if there is cultural taste for it," says Stoddart.

The rise in popularity of cycling and its myriad of competitive forms is foreshadowed by the increase in recreational cyclists and the uptake in the green movement. Mixed Martial Arts, a radical departure from boxing, wrestling and other combat sports, have become one of the quickest rising sports at a time when true crime shows and violence on television is commonplace. The gladiatorial element of it also weighs in heavily.

All of this begs the question, where do we go from here? There are no right answers. But there is a trend towards sports that are less constrained and controlled.

"The traditional sport has become obsessed with records and statistics. To have the same conditions for competition. That is where perhaps they are lagging behind a bit. Freedom sport - like Esports, speed climbing and other adventurous sports - is taking over regimented ones. It's about individual expression and setting your own parameters, just like in esports where you can opt to play within your levels," says Stoddart.

Esports is already a major player, even getting the nod from the International Olympic Committee, and looks set to rule the roost. The Olympics have added freedom sports like sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding while heritage sports like wrestling and Equestrian are hanging by a thread. The Games are adapting for cultural and generational demand to stay relevant in a world saturated by sport and alternative entertainment, all competing for increasingly precious time and resources.

Even Trobriand cricket, to bring this back to a full circle, is not immune to the touch of globalisation. It’s a strange echo of the past, different yet similar. The game itself was an external addition. Leach’s documentary in the 70s already had an umpire sitting calmly - possibly casting spells - with a blue Adidas bag. The mascot during the Trobriand cricket game was a foreigner taking pictures. Art imitating life.

"About three years ago cruise ships companies started putting passengers on the island," says Stoddart who visited the islands nearly two years ago. "Now they do a demonstration of Trobriand cricket. Not the real thing but like their T20 version because Trobriand cricket is not time dependent. But you can see the original things like war clubs for bats and small stumps. Modernisation has come into the islands in some form or other. So it will be interesting to see how it evolves."

With society changing, sport has always adapted, sometimes contributed. The evolution is constant.

(Published 18 September 2021, 17:01 IST)

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