C.L.R.James’ classic book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, is considered by many (including cricket writers of today) to be the seminal work on the game – even the best single book on cricket ever written.
He was a man who, in his ability to express in beautiful prose the beauty and drama of cricket, ranked with men like Sir Neville Cardus. “Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle” he once wrote “It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.”
Social and Cultural Role
As a schoolboy in Trinidad, where he won a scholarship to the prestigious Queen’s Royal College, James honed his innate cricketing skills – but unlike many cricketers he was also well versed in literature and the classics. Moreover, he could see from a wider perspective the social and cultural role this very English game was playing in the far-flung outposts of Empire.
As the the former slaves and indentured labourers of the Caribbean, the conquered heathens of the Indian subcontinent over whom the British Raj held sway, and the “lower classes that got away” (as Douglas Jardine contemptuously described the Australians) took to the game of cricket and began to outplay their English masters, it was only a matter of time before these underdogs would shake off their colonial yoke. Just as the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, so too was the British Empire lost on the cricket pitches of the colonies.
Cricket as a Cultural Influence
James once observed that Cricket was one of the greatest cultural influences in the 19th century. “The cricket field is a stage” he wrote “on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance. The central action which characterises all good drama, from the days of the Greeks to our own, is that two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal – but no less strictly representative of a social group.”
First Black to Captain West Indies
As a popular and respected cricket writer, James was instrumental in the appointment of Frank Worrell as the first black man to captain the West Indies. Until that time, the West Indies team used to consist of players from the major cricketing clubs of the Caribbean Islands. Just as in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) there were clubs based on ethnic divisions like the Singhalese Sports Club, the Burgher Recreation Club and the Tamil Union, in Trinidad there were four major clubs – Queens Park, Maple, Shannon and Stingo. Which club you turned out for generally depended on which section of the social spectrum you came from and your degree of “blackness”.
The West Indies team, initially made up of expatriate Englishmen, over the years came to include highly talented darker skinned members of the population – but was traditionally captained by a fair-skinned man, who was usually not referred to by his first name by his dark team-mates, but formally and respectfully as, for example, “Mr. Alexander”, “Mr Atkinson” or “Mr.Goddard”. It was only after active journalistic action by James that the West Indian selectors finally appointed Frank Worrell as captain in 1960 – and what a success that turned out to be, with Worrell welding the various islander factions under his command into a team of world champions.
Reading James’ book encourages the reader to reflect on the social changes that have been wrought by cricket. It was the cricketing victories of Don Bradman’s teams that allowed Australians, so used to supplying cannon fodder for Britain’s wars and feeling subservient to the British, to hold their heads up as equals.By proving themselves superior to the English at cricket, they felt they could be accepted as equals.
First West Indies Win in England
James himself had prophesied that national consciousness would not be shaped and West Indian independence achieved until the cricketers from the Carribean had beaten England at home at the game they had invented.
On June 29th 1950, the West Indies defeating England in England for the first time gave Carribean folk in England greater confidence and assertiveness, nurtured the seeds of West Indian independence and sowed the seeds for the future success of West Indian cricket – and the British Empire was never the same again.