The Story of 100 Years of Cricket in Manitoba

by William Weighton

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1974, Volume 20, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Cricket, a traditionally English game that is played widely and held in popular esteem in many countries where typically British institutions prevail, is, paradoxically, virtually an unknown sport in Manitoba to-day. Where, at the turn of the century, the game was played in towns and villages all across the province, it is now all but extinct, and survives only in an enclave in Winnipeg, in a cultural environment that, if not actively inimical to the game’s survival, is certainly indifferent to its fate. Were it not, indeed, for the exuberance and enthusiasm of a small group of migrants from the sunny islands of the Caribbean, the game here would, in all probability, be as dead as the dodo.

Yet the game of cricket has a long and honourable history in Manitoba, having been played in these parts continuously for over a hundred years. Assiduous research has failed to reveal precisely when the game was first introduced into this area, but an educated guess would suggest that it arrived with the earliest British military garrisons who manned the out-posts of empire along the Red River. Certainly, a number of photographs of cricket teams, undated but of considerable antiquity, are to be seen in the old log church at St. Andrews on the Red River. The game definitely antedates the incorporation of the City of Winnipeg, for the earliest allusion to the formation of a cricket club is to be found in Joseph James Hargrave’s book, Red River, published in 1871. This was the North-West Cricket Club, founded in 1864, with the Governor of Rupertsland as its first president.

As may be readily imagined, the cricket played in these pioneer days was of a rather haphazard, not to say rudimentary, character. The early accounts of the game emphasize such interesting peculiarities as the players’ predilection for the consumption of copious quantities of alcoholic beverages during the course of the game. On one occasion recounted by Hargrave in his book, retired chief factor Thomas Sinclair of the North-West Fur Trading Company showed his appreciation of the game by giving the teams a gift of “a gallon of sherry, procured and drunk upon the field.” Hargrave goes on to add that, “before he left the field, the old gentleman very nearly had reason to regret his liberality.” It seems that a ball, presumably struck with more vigor than skill by an inebriated cricketer, “passed so swiftly and so close to his spectacles that he did not see it until a taller friend standing close beside him dropped to the ground with horrible groans and discoloured face, consequent on having received the missile in the ribs.”

If the cricket then tended to be of a somewhat rough-and-ready variety, the surprising thing is, not that it was an unsophisticated form of a highly sophisticated game, but that, in the prevailing conditions, it was played at all. To put the matter in perspective, it is only necessary to remember how recently the area had been settled by British immigrants. The inhabited area of the Colony of Assiniboia, as the settlement was then called, stretched from the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers a distance of some fifty miles west and forty miles north, but at no point extended more than two miles from the riverbanks. The settlement was accessible from the east only by way of the United States and down the Red River from St. Paul. In 1865 a large number of destitute Indians were in an encampment on the outskirts of the town, a source, at once, of acute embarrassment and potential danger to the settlers.

To have found time to play cricket in these conditions was no small achievement, and it says a great deal for the intrepid character of these pioneer settlers that they had no sooner hewn from a hostile wilderness a home and a livelihood than they introduced the traditional game of their homeland into the fabric of their fragile society. As one of the few diversions to relieve the rigors of their spartan existence, the game was evidently welcomed both for the opportunities it afforded for athletic recreation and for its convivial atmosphere of social intercourse.

The first cricket match of which a record is extant was played on 16 July 1870 at Victoria Park in the St. Andrews district of the Settlement, about half way between Winnipeg and Lockport. Three years later the record shows the game also played in Selkirk, and the score book lists teams fielded by the military battalion and the civil service.

From about 1874 on, the game enjoyed widespread popular appeal in Manitoba, and rarely a summer week-end went by without a cricket match to report. The old back numbers of The Winnipeg Free Press, preserved for posterity on microfilm in the newspaper’s archives, contain interesting and colourful accounts of the cricket activity of these years, together with detailed score cards of many of the cricket matches played in that era. Prominent amongst the team members listed are the names of several illustrious personages, like the Hon. A. G. B. Bannatyne and J. H. McTavish, better known for their activities in the arenas of politics and commerce. The names Osier and McGillivray also appear, attesting to the interest shown in cricket by scions of the old pioneer families of Manitoba.

A strictly amateur, or dilettante, attitude to the game is evident in the casual approach to competition. Organization was conspicuously absent, and the customary method of arranging a match was by choosing teams arbitrarily and issuing challenges, a method which bears the stamp of hallowed English tradition. These challenge matches seem most often to have been played on high days and holidays, and a good deal of imagination evidently went into the selection and naming of the teams. The newspaper reports show that teams representing the military garrison were prominent, and most frequently successful, and that matches were played between teams comprising bankers and lawyers, but, in addition, there were games played by teams bearing names like All Corners, and Benedicts, the latter evidently a team of bachelors, and led by a clergyman called Beck.

In 1882 a Winnipeg cricket team went east for the first time to play a series of matches in Ontario and Quebec. The tour lasted from 19 July to 5 August and proved a resounding success for the Winnipeggers. They played against Toronto, London, Port Hope, Ottawa, and Montreal, and beat them all convincingly, the margin of victory being quite wide in all matches. The detailed scores appear in J. E. Hall’s and R. O. McCulloch’s monumental work, Sixty Years of Canadian Cricket, first published in 1894 and, although now long out of print, still available in the Winnipeg Public Library.

By the early years of this century, cricket was played in towns and villages from Emerson to Selkirk, and from Winnipeg to Moosomin and Wawanesa. Weekend horse-and-buggy expeditions between neighbouring towns were a common occurrence as rival cricket teams visited each other’s home grounds. The matches were invariably attended by numerous ladies in their summer finery and, if a military team was playing, the match would be made into a gala occasion by the presence and rousing performance of a military band. Military personnel, indeed, played a leading role in the cricket activities of these times, and military establishments were, of course, well equipped to provide suitable grounds and other facilities for the promotion of the game.

Interestingly, too, the spacious and well tended grounds of the hospitals for the mentally ill at Selkirk and Brandon for many years provided ideal cricket fields in pleasant surroundings. This happy connection between cricketers and the Provincial Mental Hospital authorities has, regrettably, been severed in more recent times, although this essayist well remembers having played in the last cricket match held in the grounds of the Brandon Mental Hospital in 1957.

Early in this century, too, wider cricketing horizons began to open up to Winnipeg cricketers. Inter-provincial and international competition became increasingly common after 1908, when a team of C.P.R. employees exchanged visits with a team in Minneapolis. The following year Saskatchewan sent a team to play in Winnipeg, and in 1912 a team came to the city from as far afield as Philadelphia, which was then amongst the most world renowned cricket playing centres. That same year a Winnipeg team challenged Toronto for possession of the John Ross Robertson trophy, then as now emblematic of the club cricket championship of Canada, and won handsomely in Toronto. The first three decades of the twentieth century were marked, too, by the signal successes of the Western Canadian Inter-provincial cricket series. Competing provincial representative teams from the four western provinces met annually for many years, sometimes at such unlikely venues as Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan and Moosomin, Manitoba. This burgeoning was to prove, in fact, the pinnacle of cricketing achievement in the west, a great flowering of the game that has never since been equaled.

In the midst of flowering, decay set in. Times were changing dramatically, and old traditions were being eroded by modern influences. The leisured way of life that had been open to certain fortunate classes in late Victorian and in Edwardian times was disappearing, and the few vestiges of the old, privileged style of life that survived the War of 1914-1918 finally vanished in the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic depression that lasted well into the 1930-1940 decade. The institution of cricket in Manitoba was no exception to the general rule of change in society, and, where the game survived at all, it was irreversibly changed. Pockets of resistance remained, of course, and, in one noteworthy tour de force, Winnipeg cricketers raised enough money even in the depths of the depression in 1932 to bring the world famous Australian team to the city that summer. This Australian team, which played matches against both Manitoba and Canada in Winnipeg, included the young Don (now Sir Donald) Bradman, perhaps the world’s most successful cricket player of that or any other era in the game’s long history. These events were exceptional, however, and the general tenor through the long depression years was apathy. The Second World War which followed decimated the ranks of Winnipeg cricketers, and all but annihilated the game here.

Cricket Team at Kildonan Park

Cricket team at Kildonan Park (1915)
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection #1074, N5788

There was, it is true, some sporadic activity during the war. Australian and other Commonwealth aviation cadets took time from their flying training to help keep the summer game alive on the prairies but, when the war ended, only three cricket teams still existed in Winnipeg, and none elsewhere in Manitoba. Post-war immigration from Britain, and the re-opening of the flying training schools during the Korean War brought new cricketers to the area and ensured that the game would not become extinct, but cultural assimilation caused many of the newcomers to abandon cricket in favour of more socially acceptable recreations, like golf. Not until the arrival of a new wave of immigrants, this time from the Caribbean islands, in the 1960s, did the game once again begin to enjoy a resurgence of popularity and to attract considerable numbers of participants and greater public interest.

Even during the long doldrums, of course, the game continued to provide ample attractions for an initiated and devoted minority. The long tradition of cricket as an essential feature of the sports curricula of the big private schools in Ontario and British Columbia—the game was introduced at Upper Canada College, for example, as long ago as 1837—has done much to maintain the game in these provinces and has also provided an impetus for its promotion elsewhere across the country. In the past 25 years the game in Winnipeg has received repeated stimuli from a continuing series of inter-provincial competitions, international matches, and a never-ending stream of visiting teams from abroad.

The modern inter-provincial series started in Toronto in 1947, when the game in Winnipeg was strong enough only to send a corporal’s guard of cricketers to carry the Manitoba colours as a contingent of a combined Prairie Provinces team. The following year at Vancouver, however, and again at Edmonton and Calgary in 1949, Winnipeg cricketers appeared in force, and, by 1950, the year of the last disastrous Red River flood, they were able to stage the week-long series at Assiniboine Park. Manitoba cricket was back on the map. The events of these and other competitions of the 1947-1955 era were recounted in Cricket Our Weakness, published by the Manitoba Cricket Association in 1957.

In 1960, the Manitoba Colts, a team of Winnipeg schoolboys ranging in age from 12 to 18, travelled to Vancouver where, although considered underdogs in the competition, they astonished their opponents and, winning five of their six matches, emerged at the end of the week worthy winners of the Canadian Junior cricket championship.

The following year, 1961, Manitoba’s adult cricketers made a brave attempt, at Calgary, to emulate the achievement of their younger counterparts. Capably led by a New Zealand expatriate, the Manitobans finished worthy runners-up in this series.

Amongst the more frequent visitors from abroad during this period, the most popular are the teams of amateur, sheep-country cricketers from Tamworth, New South Wales, who, travelling under the aegis of the Emu Cricket Club, come to Winnipeg every fourth or fifth year. The Marylebone Cricket Club, domiciled at the famous headquarters of world cricket at Lord’s Ground in the heart of London. the club that started the modern game and that is charged with responsibility for carrying England’s colours and reputation abroad whenever a touring, representative team travels, has also several times played in Winnipeg, the most recent occasion being 1959.

The pinnacle of post-war cricket achievement in Winnipeg was, however, reached in 1970 when, to mark the occasion of the centenary of Manitoba’s entry into Canadian Confederation, Assiniboine Park was selected as the site and venue of the annual match between Canada and the United States. It is not commonly known that cricket is widely played in the United States, nor that the Canada-v-U.S.A. cricket match is historically the oldest international sporting event in the world, having commenced in 1844. The entire series has been recorded by John Marder in his book, The International Series, published in 1968.

In the match played here in 1970 the Canadian team possessed a commanding lead at the close of play on the first day, but were foiled by a torrential downpour which occurred on the second day and prevented the match from being played out to a decision.

Although it would be foolhardy to conclude a capsule history like this with a prediction of the future of the game in Winnipeg, it is probably fair to say that the game will survive. The Manitoba Cricket Association is a prosperous, non-profit corporation, incorporated under the Companies Act of Manitoba, and the game has achieved a modest measure of public recognition and support as well as tolerant and genuine, if polite rather than enthusiastic, responses from press, radio, and television. Winnipeg’s two hundred active cricket players look, with some confidence, to an auspicious beginning to the game’s second hundred years in Manitoba.

Page revised: 9 April 2014