Cricket in Canada
Cricket: Colonial Keep-sake or Canadian Cast-out?

Introduction  The Sport of Empire  Cricket in Canada  Cricket and Race  Gazette Article 

In modern day India, South Africa, and Australia (among many other former British colonies), cricket is a favourite pastime. More than that, members of national cricket teams are public figure heroes, and games are watched and scrutinized intensely, both live and in broadcast versions. Cricket, in these countries, is a part of the national identity, a national tradition and a point of pride.

Cricket also has a long history in Canada, where records exist of cricket being played by the Royal Navy and the British army, starting from the mid 1700s. The earliest record of a civilian match is a reference to a game played in 1785 at Ile-Ste-Helene, near Montreal.1

The navy, in fact, had an important role in spreading the game of cricket throughout the colonial empire. As Bowen states, "Recreation had to be found for troops and sailors: cricket was an ideal source of it, and the very activity it demanded must often have been welcome to shipboard mariners."2

This was true of cricket in the colony of Vancouver Island, where the Daily Colonist newspaper throughout the 1860s carried the results of cricket matches played between the Navy and the local United Victoria Cricket Club. In Victoria, the gold rush of 1858 had brought thousands of American miners up from San Francisco and beyond, and although early in the 1860s the American sport of baseball was introduced to Victoria, cricket remained an important and socially respectable pass-time. The Daily Colonist of March 2, 1863 reads "The season for cricketing having arrived, our old and new residents seem to be alive to the advantages resulting from the practice of this fine old English game."3

Cricket Team at Beacon Hill Park with Lt.Gov. Cornwall, c.1880s

However, while Canada is a cricket-playing country, and an associate member of the International Cricket Council, cricket here does not have the same following, or significance, as it does in other ex-British colonies. The same is true, perhaps even more so, for the United States. What, then, can account for this lack of overall enthusiasm for cricket in North America?

According to Canadian cricket historian Jon Harris, one important influence on the development of cricket in Canada has been simple geography. "The greater part of the land is frozen for seven to eight months each year," he writes, "which presents challenges for the maintenance of cricket grounds, and the ongoing practice, training, and coaching of players."4 He further cites the general massiveness of Canada as a further hindrance to the development of the game, posing difficulties from an administrative perspective.

However, surely it cannot be geography alone that accounts for the lack of serious national enthusiasm for a sport for which other nations go wild. After all, there is even record of a cricket match being played on the ice near the island of Igloolik, at latitude 3 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, by Captain William Parry and his men, around 1823.5 If cricket can be played at the Arctic Circle, surely the rest of Canada has little geographical excuse....

Victoria’s Daily Colonist from the March 16, 1863, has two articles of interest in this regard. The first is the announcement of the first match of the baseball season:

The first match of the season of this game, was played in Beacon Hill Saturday last, chiefly by Canadians. It is essentially an American game, but was introduced into Canada and has been practised there in various parts of the country for many years. It is somewhat allied in nature to cricket, with the exception that there are no wickets used.... Among those practising on Saturday, there were very few adepts, and consequently not so much interest excited amongst the spectators as would otherwise have been the case. To those engaged in the game there is always sufficient interest kept up to keep them vigilant to get an opponent out. No doubt there will be many trials at this new sport here on future occasions.6
Victoria's Baseball Team, c.1880s

So while there were’t many "adepts" playing baseball, at this point in time in Victoria, it was clear there was enough interest in the sport for the reporter to conclude that there would be "many trials" of the game in the future.

Interestingly, in the same issue, the Colonist decries the fact that there was difficulty in recruiting young men into the game of cricket. There is a decidedly different, highly approving tone to this account of the cricket match, than in the account of the baseball match above:

The lovers of this manly exercise enjoyed themselves on Saturday last on Beacon Hill, in a friendly game. There was some excellent bowling, the wickets of more than one of the best batter present being brought down most scientifically. There was a large number of spectators present during the day, who watched the match with a good deal of interest. We are surprised that a greater number of the young men of the city do not join in this manly and noble recreation. We were sorry to see that the full number required on each side could not be mustered on the ground.7

While the Colonist at this point did not seem to make a connection between the introduction of baseball and the demise of interest in cricket, some historians have. American cricket historian Deb K. Das has traced the development of baseball as having grown out of cricket. Originally known as "townball," early baseball grew out of the challenges provided by the restriction of space in urban America. After 1900, Das writes, baseball took over the American scene, "created its independent mythology, and obviated the sport that gave it birth."8

Further to this, argues Das, the demise of cricket in America was helped along by events within the British Empire; the Britsh, he believes, were not enthusiastic about the prospect of American participation in world cricket.9 After all, when the International Cricket Council was established, it excluded countries from outside the British Empire from any role in its procedings, a move which undercut any movement towards the professionalization of the sport in the United States.10

Victoria, in the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s, had a strong aspect of Americanism, influenced in no small part by the massive influx of miners from San Francisco into the area with the gold rush of 1858. Businesses opened up which lured in American miners with various associations of home, and July 4th was celebrated as a major holiday.

Baseball Game at Beacon Hill Park

Canada, through geography, trade, and a large component of shared culture, has long had a very involved relationship with the United States, and thus, it is no surprise that baseball quickly gained popularity and soon usurped cricket. By the 1870s, writes Canadian historian Keith Sandiford, "Canadians were searching for a national identity less reliant on British models and were becoming increasingly influenced by American culture."11

Canada, of course, developed its own sports -- basketball was a Canadian-founded sport, and lacrosse, the official national sport, was originally an Iroquois game. And, of course, ice hockey has taken its own place in the national sun. National geography, an assertion of identity, and the introduction of American baseball into Canada are all factors which have played a role in the overall lack of fire behind the spread and enjoyment of cricket in the country.

Is cricket obsolete, then? I would personally suggest no such thing -- especially to cricket players, with long wooden bats in their hands....

Introduction  The Sport of Empire  Cricket in Canada  Cricket and Race  Gazette Article