On 2 September 1882 a notice appeared in London’s Sporting Times after the Australian cricket team defeated England for the first time on home soil:
In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket Which Died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P.N.B. – The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
Thus, the great cricketing rivalry that has come to be known as ‘the Ashes’ was born.
Similar contests were being played out across the British Empire. People from India to the Caribbean may have been under the colonial yoke, repressed and unable to rise up, but on the cricket field everyone – regardless of class, race or creed – was subject to the same laws. It was the one place that assumed an air of equality and democracy. Australia even sent an Aboriginal team to tour England in 1868, where they performed well in their forty-seven fixtures.
Cricket has been embraced by both sides of the political divide, but the greatest book ever written on the subject was authored by a man of the hard left, the late great Trinidadian Marxist writer and historian CLR James. Beyond a Boundary is a memoir that entwines James’ love of cricket with his life’s political struggles and learning.
For James, cricket wasn’t just a sport. It was an art form, but it was also a place where one tested oneself – physically and intellectually – and provided the perfect avenue to learn about hierarchy, class, race and ideology. Cricket came first for the young James, but as he grew up it became inseparable from his politics.
Born in 1901, James grew up during British colonial rule. In Beyond a Boundary he writes how the struggle against imperialism played out on the cricket field:
I haven’t the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. … From the moment I had to decide which club I would join the contrast between the ideal and the real fascinated me and tore at my insides. Nor could the local population see it otherwise. The class and racial rivalries were too intense. They could be fought out without violence or much lost except pride and honour. Thus, the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.
After finishing university James faced ‘a social and moral crisis which had a profound effect on my whole future life’ – he had to decide which Trinidadian league team he’d play for. The choice was between Maple, ‘the club of [the] brown-skinned middle-class’ founded on ‘the principle that they didn’t want any dark people in their club’, and Shannon, the ‘club of the black lower-middle class.’ After much agonising James chose to play at Maple, a decision which he characterised thus: ‘Faced with a fundamental division on the island, I had gone to the right and, by cutting myself off from the popular side, delayed my political development for years.’
By this stage, James’ politics – shaped by his love of William Thackeray and Charles Dickens – were beginning to take form. Like many of the best-known Trotskyists of that age, James was a polymath. His knowledge of the classics is perhaps best represented in his wonderful essay ‘Every Cook Can Govern: A Study in Ancient Greece.’ His love of literature was as much a part of his childhood as cricket. He read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair so many times that he would impress his friends at school by telling them to open the book at any page, begin reading a few lines and he’d finish the passage word-perfect.
Amongst his novels and plays, James also wrote a study of Herman Melville, in which he used Moby Dick to examine the fierce anti-communism in the United States. Arguably his greatest achievement was as a historian of the famous Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, which gave us the magisterial Black Jacobins as well as a play about the revolutionary leader.
By any standard James led a remarkable life. He discussed poetry with Edith Sitwell, art with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and politics with Trotsky (whose idea, that workers were deflected from politics by sport, he rejected outright). But apart from one sentence about the revolutionary leader, these encounters don’t rate a mention in his memoir. It was his long friendship with the great West Indian cricketer, Learie Constantine (who, incidentally, holds the distinct honour of taking the first Test wicket for the West Indies), which floods the book and stands as the most influential relationship of his life.
Similarly, James’ most significant political struggle in Beyond a Boundary is to have Frank Worrell appointed as the first black captain of the West Indies. In 1958, after twenty-six years abroad, James returned to his home island. He was editing a political paper, the Nation, when he took up the campaign. Because of the colour of their skin, the greatest West Indian cricketers – Constantine, Headley, Worrall, Weekes, Walcott – had never been given the opportunity to captain their country. The message was unambiguous: ‘Yes, they are fine players, but isn’t it funny that they cannot be responsible for themselves? They must always have a white man to lead them.’ Despite resistance from the white elite throughout the Caribbean, James’ relentless campaign was eventually rewarded and Worrall led the side for the first time in the 1960/61 series to Australia, which included the famous tied Test.
It’s difficult to know what James would make of cricket today. Whereas some may argue it encourages and provides an avenue for nationalism, James believed that was exactly what the disparate island nations of the Caribbean needed. In every other sport their athletes represent their island, but for James, the West Indian cricket team represented a unique form of solidarity that, if it could be reproduced across the islands’ politics, would strengthen their standing in the world.
Admittedly this was a uniquely West Indian problem. But for those inclined to criticise cricket outright or in principle (and, James would likely argue, uncritically) the author – adapting Kipling’s famous line about England – asked: ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ In other words, cricket shouldn’t be thought about and studied in isolation. For James, it wasn’t out of place alongside the pursuit of art, history, literature, music, religion, politics and philosophy. And in many cases it transcended them.