Notes on "Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism" by C. Kray

Jerry W. Leach, dir. 54 min. 1976. Closed captioned. VH 1187.  Distributor's website:

Description from distributor's website: "One of the world's best-known and most honored ethnographic films, this classic documentary depicts the many modifications made by Trobriand Islanders, in Papua New Guinea, to the traditional British game of cricket.  The film demonstrates how the islanders have transformed the game into an outlet for tribal rivalry, mock warfare, community interchange, sexual innuendo, and an afternoon of riotous fun.

         "The Trobriand Islands are a small group of coral islands off the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.  The 15,000 inhabitants have one of the most famous traditional cultures in the world, largely resulting from the research and publications of Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of modern anthropology.

         "'Trobriand Cricket' is a fascinating and utterly compelling ethnographic document about cultural creativity among the Trobriand Islanders. The film shows how the Trobrianders have taken the very controlled game of British cricket, first introduced to them some 70 years earlier by Methodist missionaries, and changed it into an outlet for mock warfare and intervillage competition, political reputation-building among leaders, eroticized dancing and chanting, and wild entertainment. The game is a major symbolic statement of the Trobrianders' feelings and experiences under British colonialism.

         "Trobriand cricket players still bat, bowl, score runs, field, and make outs.  The sides, however, are no longer eleven players plus a reserve but are made up from all the men of the competing villages.  Teams average 60 players or more, the main rule being that the sides must be roughly equal. Each team brings its own 'umpire' who overtly declares outs and keeps his  own side under control while secretly performing war magic against the opposition.  The main purpose is not to win by scoring but to put on a fine display.

         "A central feature of the film is the chanting and dancing that are a major part of the repertoire of each cricket team.  Each side has a varied set of chants and dances created and choreographed around its name and symbolic theme.  Intercut film sequences of predatory seabirds, marching soldiers, airplanes, and the preparation of tapioca show the concrete imagery that inspired some of the teams' creations.

         "The performances occur as the teams march on and off the field and as they celebrate each out with a dance between the wickets in the middle of the ground.  The symbolism of these events is heavily laden with double meanings, sexually provocative innuendo aimed at the female spectators, and ritualized insults for the opposing side.

         "The bulk of the film follows an actual game, played between two teams called 'The Scarlet Reds' and 'The Airplane'.  This game illustrates all the basic rules. The film concludes with an exchange of yams and betelnut between the two sides, climaxing the politics underlying the event."


Notes on the film:

         "The Trobriand Islands have a population of 15,000, and a unique way of playing cricket."

         "In British cricket, the parent game, two batsmen take turns to protect wickets of three stumps from the bowler.  One run is scored by one safe crisscross of the running batsman.  A batsman is run out if the ball strikes the wicket while he is outside his safe area, or if he is bowled out, or if his hit is caught, or if he is stumped by the wicket keeper while outside the safe area marked by the crease line.  A team consists of eleven players, plus a reserve."

         "The game originated in England in medieval times."  It was brought to New Guinea during British colonialism.  "Alien institutions were imposed on the people.  Missionaries brought their own moral values… Cricket is played enthusiastically by official rules in many parts of the country…including the obligatory overarm bowling…. But in the Trobriands, the game has undergone a remarkable cultural transformation…including dances and chants that have been specially created for the game."

         Several men discuss why the changes have come about.  At first, people would wear their "mission clothes" and played according to British rules, including the overarm throw.  Reverend Gilmour (Methodist) introduced cricket in 1903.  Previous patterns of warfare between villages were prohibited under colonialism.  New "games were introduced for entertainment, to substitute for warfare, and to introduce new forms of morality."

         One man explained that the "non-political competition didn't last long."  Instead of the twelve-player teams, now any men from the communities can play (as long as the sides are even).  "They made it our kind of competition—kayasa—with ritual display and gifts of food underlying it all."  "Dress became the dress of war.  Players paired off in lines that symbolized their previous formations for war… Competition became ritualized and also political.  Trobrianders call this form of competition kayasa…. Gifts of prestige food underly the politics of kayasa.  A man or group builds reputation in society by organizing and paying for kayasa competitions."

         Trobrianders have changed some of the cricket technology and rules.  "Bats are treated with magic by a specialist to ensure accuracy, similar to the way warriors used to fortify their spears.  Many forms of war magic have been adapted to cricket.  There is magic for protecting wickets, for bowling, for distracting opponents, and for changing the course of the ball.  This magic may be used by spectators, players, or even the umpire."  Most bats are painted in war colors (white and black).

         About the chants, "sometimes the words have double meanings… People are always inventing new chants for cricket, and sometimes the chants ridicule people."  One team calls themselves "Blind Man," and they "enter the field ridiculing a fellow villager who humiliated himself."  They appear to be mocking themselves, but in fact they are taunting the opposing team.  Their dancing formation resembles the marching formation of the soldiers they saw during WWII.  Each team has two dances: entrance dance and dance to celebrate outs.  One team, called "Tapioca," has dances with erotic elements.  "Tapioca is a common phallic symbol, and scraping it for cooking is an idiom for sexuality."  "The erotic aspects of Trobriand society have been criticized by many outsiders."  Some of the dances continue, though, including the Kalibom.  Another is the Bisila.  "Some elements of traditional dancing have been incorporated into cricket."  "One dance, PK, relates the surehandedness of fielders to the stickiness of chewing gum.  PK is also a male term for 'prostitute'.  'I am PK' may mean, 'I can take on anybody'."  Another village with a wartime airstrip calls their team "Airplane" and they dance onto the field mimicking an airplane.  "Their formation is also military, depicting them as soldiers."  Another team enters the field, mimicking sailors in canoes; they exit the field mimicking predatory sea birds. 

         Each game has a center man who organizes it all.  The man organizing this game consults a specialist in rain magic, asking for good weather.  Players wear a traditional pubic covering, from the skin of a betelnut tree.  Early in the morning, the players paint their faces and bodies; the paint is supposed to lower their inhibitions and make them play better (as does covering their body with coconut oil).  They also wear feathers in the hair, some wear wigs, a red belt, armbands, ankle bands, etc.  The visiting team is "Airplane."  "Ankle bands with bandanas have magical associations with lightness of foot and speed of movement."  "The scoreboard is usually a coconut frond." 

         "Under Trobriand rules, the visiting team fields first."  "The antics of the team's colorful mascot add humor to the dance."  Chant: "Oil here, petrol there, all fueled up!  We soldiers have come bringing hand bombs, blowing up wickets.  Pow! Pow! Pow!"  Then, play begins.  An out is made, signaling an out dance.  "The scorekeeper is usually a man of importance from an impartial village."  After another out, a mascot goes onto the field.  "The mascot imitates a white tourist gawking at the people" [dressed in Hawaiian-style shirt with fake binoculars].  A score of six is "called 'nosibol', from the English phrase, 'lost ball."  The umpire is from the batting side.  He takes the role of the specialist in war magic, "using spells secretly against opposing bowlers or to protect the wickets of his own team."  After two hours, all 59 bowlers of the opposing team have been called out and all of the out dances performed; those players then ceremoniously [with dances and chants] leave the field. 

         The home team (Scarlet Reds) "warm up for their entrance."  They enter the field, marching in formation and chanting, and they perform their opening dance.  "With the Airplane team batting, their umpire takes over."  Betelnut is an important part of Trobriand socializing.  "Hitting sixes is the main way a batsman can distinguish himself.  One kind of six is when the ball is hit over the highest coconut trees."  "The score is kept by cutting a palm frond, the same way Trobrianders count yams." 

         "Cricket is only played at the harvest period.  An ambitious man at the head of an ambitious village calls a cricket season as one of the ways of building a political reputation.  The host village gardens an extra amount in prestige foods to provide the surplus which pays for the matches.  Numerous villages come and play against the hosts on different days during the harvest season.  The overriding point of cricket lies in the status gained from the total activity, climaxing in the ceremony of exchanging food."  "The players are usually young or middle-aged men"; older men have roles on the sidelines.  "A catch by the Scarlet Reds is always celebrated by the PK dance."  "In a normal day, each team has two innings." 

         "The total score is not paramount in the mind of the players, but it is significant.  It's understood in advance that the home team will formally win.  This shows respect to the organizers, especially the central men.  Nevertheless, the margin of victory must not be great, or the visitors will be offended.  The visitors may claim informal victory, by saying they played better, danced more skillfully, or cut down their number of batsmen to engineer their own defeat.  Such a claim must not be made publicly."  It rained, the game abandoned, and there was "some suspicion that opponents of the sponsoring political movement had brought on rain with counter-magic."

         Next day: "the ceremony of exchange takes place at the host village.  The center man is mainly responsible for organizing this."  "On the field, a gift from visitors to hosts is presented."  "A counter-gift is made in return" [teams enter the field ceremoniously, with dances and chants, and leave the gifts in the center].  "The dance here is the same as that performed for bringing in the yam harvest to the village."  "Gift and counter-gift go on through several rounds."  "Eventually the center man makes special gifts in betelnut and yams, to outstanding bowlers, the captains, the scorekeeper, and others of his choosing."  "Trobriand cricket has evolved from the parent game over 70 years,...adapting to changing circumstances.  The game is still evolving."