Who Not Only Cricket Knows

December 3, 2016 § 5 Comments

clr-jamesCricket (James, CLR)

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.


From here…



…To here


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.


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§ 5 Responses to Who Not Only Cricket Knows

  • tskraghu says:

    Brings back memories: Was fortunate to watch Gary Sobers, Kanhai, Lloyd, Borde, the fabled spinners trio, Solkar, Manjrekar, Nawab of Patudi, Jaisimha, Durrani…playing at the regal Brabourne Stadium.

  • psriblog says:

    That would be the 1975-76 series: before my time. Didn’t Clive Lloyd score a double century? And is it true that he hit a ball from Brabourne to Wankhede stadium?

  • theotheri says:

    Fascinating review.
    I did not become acquainted with cricket until I moved with my English husband back “across the pond” in the late 80’s. The West Indians were still an outstanding cricket team and I learned about “fast bowlers” from watching the best.
    I also learned something of the history and politics you describe from my Yorkshire-born husband who was keenly aware of much of what you say. Possibly because he was so close to the class warfare going on in British cricket itself as he watched brilliant Yorkshire players given second-class status next to the upper-class cricketers who were the “professionals.”

    • psriblog says:

      Thank you – you’re very kind, as usual. Yes, the class warfare in English cricket is an equally fascinating story – though from my limited knowledge I suspect that the upper-class cricketers were the ‘gentlemen’ while those who got the short shrift were the ‘professionals’…something very similar has been taking place in India, where the new crop of players is emerging from smaller towns, rather than from the four bustling metropolises, which monopolized the team for the first 60 years or so.

      • theotheri says:

        I told my husband about your description of Indian cricket today, and he filled me in with some background information that you may find relevant to what is happening there. Until the early 1960’s, English cricket was composed of “amateurs” (not “professionals,” as I said in my earlier comment) who were not paid either because they could afford to play cricket without recompense or because they were given no-show jobs. They were all upper class and many of them had titles. The “professionals,” were not permanent members of the team but hired on a ad hoc pro temp basis and were paid. However, they were expected to address all “amateurs” as “sir,” ate in separate dining rooms, were put into different accommodations and could never be captain of the team.

        This is the game that was introduced to India, learned mainly by young men sent to study in English universities like Cambridge & Oxford. They brought cricket back to India as an upper-class game that was played by the raj and ruling princes. Cricket imported initially into South Africa excluded Blacks in a similar class system.

        If I understand your description accurately, it sounds as if Indian cricket and its concentration in key metropolises may still be kicking off some of the early influences of its English class bias. Hurrah! I wish those villagers the very best.

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