Who Not Only Cricket Knows
December 3, 2016 § 5 Comments
CLR James was a 20th century Caribbean journalist and writer on history, politics, literature…and on the game of cricket. His 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, is hailed by some as the best cricket book of all time. The book under current consideration is an anthology of his essays, letters and published articles on cricket from 1933 to 1985.
Now I haven’t read the non-cricket books for which he is famous – his writings on Trotsky, L’Ouverture, and Kwame Nkrumah – but I doubt that he wove in any elements of cricket in them. His cricket-related writings, however, drip with history, politics and literature. He debates Shakespeare’s King Lear with John Arlott; he evokes Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads while writing about Gary Sobers; he quotes the great English dramatic critic William Hazlitt while writing about Learie Constantine and Matthew Arnold while writing about Sandeep Patil’s 129 at Old Trafford in 1982. But literary eloquence aside, what stands out most in James’ work is his passionate post-colonial nationalist politics.
One of the earliest essays in the book narrates the story of the first team from the West Indies to tour England, at the end of the 19th century. They didn’t do shabbily, but were rewarded with a cartoon in The Star newspaper, that depicted Dr. WG Grace, ‘huge, towering, bat in hand, while around him crouched six black men all shedding tears, and saying to the doctor: “We have come to learn, sah!”’ Fittingly, one of the last essays in the book chronicles the famous 1984 “Blackwash”, where David Gower’s abject England were hammered 0-5 at home by Clive Lloyd’s swaggering stalwarts. James’ cricket essays trace the arc of history from the first event to the second.
That arc, James says, began around the Boer War at the apogee of the British Empire of Haggard and Kipling, with the introduction of British cultural values, cricket included, in the colonies. It was the age of Plum Warner, a white man who was born in Trinidad but who chose to captain England.
From there we went through a Great War, and into the world of JM Keynes, a world dominated by the Australian Don Bradman, but also inhabited by George Headley, whom they called ‘Black Bradman’ with a mix of admiration and condescension, and Learie Constantine, who played much of his cricket in English leagues, but opened the bowling for the West Indies test team, and dared to bowl bodyline at Douglas Jardine.
Another crippling war, and the Empire was on its knees, and the proud flames of nationalism spread around the world. When we emerged from its ashes, we had Frank Worrell, the first black man to captain a West Indies test team; and soon the arc was complete with Sobers and Kanhai and their rollicking style of calypso cricket, a joyous, uniquely West Indian signature that had nothing to do with anything copied from the erstwhile masters. From there to Viv Richards and Andy Roberts was a tiny step.
Poignantly and perceptively, James writes, about Worrell’s 1963 team that won hearts and matches in England,
“[the West Indies team] undoubtedly registered the West Indies as a national personality in the British consciousness…Frank Worrell for the British is more than a cricketer; he is a person….it was not that the British people had accepted the West Indians; it was far more than that. The West Indians had accepted, recognized themselves, and once you do that, other people always welcome you.”
In those words, I recognized the familiar pattern of the Indian experience with test cricket. I have always felt that Ajit Wadekar’s famous wins at Port of Spain and at the Oval in 1971 registered India as an equal among equals in their own consciousness, a necessary precursor to being able to cast off the mental shackles and tortured complexes of a century of colonial slavery.
James, like so many Indians of my grandfather’s generation, was both fiercely proud of his national identity and steeped to the hilt in traditional British values. I suspect he would not have loved cricket as it is played today. Here he is, in 1953, commenting on how cricket has changed since 1938:
“Far more interesting than the changes in the players on the field are changes off it.…The spectators applaud more. Listening to them and watching them, I am doubtful as to whether they really know …much about the intricacies of the game …I saw many who seemed to enjoy being present at a great event even if they did not follow everything….”
No doubt he’d have seen the modern game as an extension of the same deplorable trends. And if that makes him sound like a crusty old curmudgeon, I am afraid he is a bit of that. Nowhere was that more obvious to me than when he bristles at the suggestion that Clive Lloyd’s 1984 West Indians were the best ever to tour England. Nonsense! sputters James. Think of the team of 1957, comprising Worrell, Asgarali, Sobers, Walcott, Weekes, Collie Smith, Kanhai, Alexander, Dewdney, Ramadhin and Goddard! Admittedly, in the 5th test at the Oval, that team collapsed for 89 and 86 after England made 412, but even so!
Now I was barely a teenager when the Blackwash series took place, and I can still tell you (without the least bit of help from espncricinfo) that Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes opened the batting, followed by Larry Gomes, Vivian Richards and Clive Lloyd; Jeffrey Dujon kept wickets, and Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Andy Roberts terrorized batsmen like no other quartet of bowlers.* I thought at the time that they were the greatest team ever, but I realize now that such pronouncements are puerile parlor games. A post-colonial historical scholar, of all people, should beware of absolute superlatives!
James died in 1989. I wonder what he’d have made of the heart-rending decline of West Indian cricket with its petty, public squabbles, its flashily talented cricketers and their repeated failures as a Test team, or of the continued evolution of Indian nationalism in the 21st century, where the Virat Kohli generation gives and asks for no quarter, and carries no vestigial scars from colonial times, and of the sight of champion players from around the world queuing up patiently for a chance to play in the Indian Premier League. But either way, it is instructive to look back occasionally and see how far we’ve come, and what our fathers and grandfathers endured, and what we can lose if we aren’t careful.
CLR James on Cricket isn’t always infallible on the cricket itself, but he absolutely nails it on the history and politics underlying the game. And what do they know of cricket, who are unschooled on those aspects?
* I later did take a sneak peek at espncricinfo’s archives. It turns out that Andy Roberts didn’t play that 1984 series. The less intimidating Eldine Baptiste did in his place. My point about the fallacy of old memories and the impossibility of objective comparisons across time is actually reinforced.