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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

If the home team always wins, is it really sport?

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The bowler, dressed in feathers and war paint, steps onto the pitch. With a keen eye trained on the batter, he bowls his home-made ball underarm. It meets the bat with a resounding 'crack!' and flies into the air, above the treeline. Cries escape from the waiting fielders as they scramble for the ball. One man jumps into the air, beating the others to a catch. In excitement, the team bust into a chorus of 'PK are my hands!,' suggesting that the catcher's palms are as sticky as PK chewing gum. The umpire, who is from the batter's team, rules the batter out.

At first glance, cricket in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea doesn't much seem to resemble its professional Commonwealth cousin. There's no limit to how many people can be in a team, players dress up in traditional costume, and scoring is completely different, with six runs being given for a lost ball.

In fact, whether it even counts as a sport is a matter for debate. While the game is played seriously and runs are counted, the hosting team always wins at the end of the day, celebrating their win by putting on a feast for the visiting team.

So, what's the point of Trobriand cricket? As the classic 1979 film by Garry Kildea and Jerry Leach explains, cricket was introduced by the British in 1903 as a substitute for ritualised warfare between tribes. British missionaries decided that rather than throwing spears at each other, the locals would be better off working out their differences through competitive sport. In other words, cricket was meant as a replacement for physical violence.

However, the Trobriand Islanders didn't adopt cricket in the way that the British intended. It was an instant hit, but rather than stick to the white man's rules, Trobriand Islanders mixed together the style of cricket with the aesthetics and rituals of warfare. Over time, they invented new chants–many of them lewd–and transformed the game into a social event with plenty of food and drink.

In other words, when Trobriand Islanders mixed a British sport with their own cultural practices, they invented backyard cricket. If we think about it, this mixture of imported and local culture happened pretty much anywhere people play cricket casually.

But Trobriand cricket also has more in common with professional competitions than you might think. All sports, whether social or professional, involve rituals as well as rules.

A still from the film "Trobriand Cricket," by Garry Leach and Jerry Kildea (1979)
A still from the film "Trobriand Cricket," by Garry Leach and Jerry Kildea (1979)

In the Trobriand Islands, teams will perform their tribe's song and dance. At international matches, the opposing teams will sing their national anthems before the game begins. What teams choose to wear is also determined culturally rather than practically: there is little reason why white cotton clothing makes for a better game than war paint and feathers.

In the end, then, it seems that the only major differences between Trobriand cricket and professional cricket is that in the latter, the rules are more complex and it is played competitively. Compared to backyard cricket, though, differences subside. This leads me, then, to just one question: Is backyard cricket really a sport?

British missionaries decided that rather than throwing spears at each other, the locals would be better off working out their differences through competitive sport.

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Trobriand cricket in action. Still from the film "Trobriand Cricket" by Garry Kildea and Jerry Leach
Trobriand cricket in action. Still from the film "Trobriand Cricket" by Garry Kildea and Jerry Leach