As most Europeans know, this year marks the 200 year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Of course, a huge amount has been written and said about the famous battle and the major impact it had on the future of Europe. But considerably less has been said about a game of cricket that the English played just before the battle. Who would have imagined that any army just about to do battle with as mighty a foe as Napoleon would prepare by playing a sport? And yet that is exactly what the English did back in 1815. The Brussels Times looked into why the match was played, other historical aspects of it and how the game is developing in Belgium.
For most Europeans, cricket is a pretty complex and undecipherable game which they know relatively little about. Whilst they probably do know that it’s a big part of English sporting culture that takes a long time to play and involves drinking lots of tea, how many would make a connection between the game and one of Europe’s most famous battles?
It sounds very unusual and improbable that a country that was just about to take on another country in a major battle would play a sport not long before hostilities began but that is exactly what happened.
The match, which was between English soldiers, turns out to have been the first recorded game of cricket in Belgium. Disappointingly for statisticians, the result is not known as, in those days, results were only recorded when a bet was placed on it. A thousand guineas was the going rate at the time. Ironically, things seem to have turned full circle as now cricket is full of stories of allegations of illegal betting and involving sums a lot larger than a thousand guineas.
It took place in Engheim, west of Brussels, where a garrison of English guards was stationed. That means that his visit to Engheim would have had a practical use as it gave him the chance to discuss battle preparations and issue instructions against the quiet backdrop of a game of cricket. Wellington had a reputation for great calm in battle and was greatly respected by his troops. Throughout the battle and while his infantry were under intense pressure from French attacks, he would ride up and down the ridge with an outward display of indifference. The idea of organising a cricket match seems to fit into that mindset of keeping calm in the face of great adversity, a characteristic of British national identity.
An interesting parallel could be made between the game of cricket played before the Battle of Waterloo and the historical image of Drake finishing his game of bowls before taking on the Spanish Armada. “The match was probably played to allow the guards to relax and pass the time while they were waiting for the battle to start. It was like a show of the officers’ nonchalance at the impending dangers of battle and a kind of ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude. The message was that everything is under control,” said Nick Compton, Chairman of the Royal Brussels Cricket Club.
The match, which took place on 12 June, was organised by the Duke of Richmond, who was at the time one of the best players in England. His wife was to organise the famous ball ahead of the Battle of Waterloo three days later on 15 June. There is also an interesting connection between the duke and Lords, the home of English cricket, as it was the Duke of Richmond who provided a financial guarantee for Thomas Lord to create the cricket pitch at Lords.
The match itself will be re-enacted on 18 June at the Royal Brussels Cricket Club between a team of serving English guards and a team picked by the chairman of the local cricket club. Matches have taken place in 1965 to commemorate the 150 year anniversary and again in 1990 for the 175 year anniversary.
Whilst the cricket match was the first one in Belgium, perhaps not so surprisingly it took a while for the game to catch on and even then it was mainly played by British delegations rather than Belgians. A big development came fifty years later when, in 1865, Brussels Cricket Club was born. It was given a pitch on the Bois de la Cambre in 1866. Antwerp Cricket Club was founded in 1880. But even then, right up until after the Second World War, the game was mainly played by the English. That has gradually changed with growing numbers of cricketers from mainly Commonwealth countries such as South Africa or Pakistan. There are now some 22 cricket clubs in Belgium with around 600 players registered and a Belgian national cricket team. Efforts are being made to encourage Belgians to play more too. A club full of Flemish players called the Meise Wolverines has been set up in recent years.
Belgian cricket is still in its infancy. The country did not play in the World Cup in March this year. But who knows if they will some day in the future. England have famously lost to cricketing minnows such as Ireland and, most recently, to Bangladesh. Maybe it could be Belgium’s turn one day. At the very least wouldn’t it be great to see Belgium take on England somewhere near Waterloo some day?
By Julian Hale