The compression of history


It’s a generalisation but the history of most of the world’s sports goes something like this:

1. The English spot a grass-roots pastime
2. We codify its laws
3. We create a professional league
4. We encourage the natives of the colonies to play and applaud patronisingly when they achieve some modest standard
5. When the overseas nations create an international competition, we decline to take part on the basis that it would be unfair to the other participants
6. We belatedly notice that there could be some money in it
7. We join in and realise that oops, British teams are not quite as good as we thought

This history is largely true for football, rugby, cricket, skiing, lawn tennis, darts and conkers. And I am being quite careful about my use of English and British, for the record.

This sporting lifecycle has achieved its ultimate expression in Twenty20 cricket. The game that you and I play on Wednesday evenings has suddenly become a major international sport. The examples listed above took between 50 and 100 years to play out, but for Twenty2o cricket the whole story has taken place in four years. The game where we beat Australia by 100 runs in the second ever international has now developed so that England occupy their traditional place in the pecking order: at the rear of the peloton.

CLR James writes eloquently about the cultural importance of the Victorian sporting code and its effect on the countries that adopted it. Now, while the English are still able to innovate we can no longer claim to be in a position to export anything other than raw ideas for others to develop.

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2 Responses to “The compression of history”


  1. 1 Dominic Sayers September 21, 2007 at 10:25

    A good list, thank you El. I pretty much agree with you that the sport story can be extended to other areas of innovation but I didn’t want to make such a sweeping statement without thinking about it some more.

    It would have been interesting to see what progress on computing would have been made if Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and collaborator of Babbage’s, had lived beyond the age of 36. She appeared to have a much wider vision of what the difference engine could become.

  2. 2 El Director September 18, 2007 at 15:33

    Add to the list of British innovations that were developed abroad:

    Tilting train (APT)
    Cars with front wheel drive (Mini)
    Jet engine (Comet)
    The computer (Charles Babbage)
    The World Wide Web (www)

    And this is just off the top of my head.


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