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Artillery Row

C. L. R. James and the majesty of cricket

The West Indian writer and historian knew that cricket is far more than merely a sport

Next month, the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup will be held across the West Indies and the US before the West Indies test team will tour England. This comes at a time when West Indian cricket is at a low point, which appears all the lower due to the previous heights it reached. Perhaps no team in history is as revered as the West Indies team that from 1980 to 1995 did not lose a test series. 

As well as producing one of the finest teams in history the West Indies has also produced one of the finest cricket journalists, C. L. R.  James, who’s Beyond a Boundary, was claimed by journalist John Arlott to be “the finest book written about the game of cricket.” CLR connects the history of the game to the wider social history of England and Empire illuminating why the game is so important to English national consciousness yet still contains the discrimination which led the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report to conclude it is not yet a game for everyone. CLR also makes the case as to why in face of competition from limited overs cricket, the longest form of the game is worth protecting as a timeless and profound art form.

CLR was born in 1901 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In Beyond a Boundary, he recounts the importance of cricket to himself and his community, not just as recreation but in shaping their moral outlook. He learned teamwork and the subordination of personal inclinations and interests, to the good of the whole. He learned to keep “a stiff upper lip” and not to denounce failures, and “to obey the umpire’s decision without question, however irrational it was.”

After university, CLR played first-class cricket in the Trinidad league. He had to choose from clubs divided by class, race, and skin-tone. CLR writes of his recruitment as a dark-skinned university-educated player to Maple, a club of the light-skinned lower middle class, instead of the black lower-middle class, Shannon club. He tells us “…faced with the fundamental divisions in the island, I had gone to the right and, by cutting myself off from the popular dark-skinned side, delayed my political development for years.” Writer, activist, and CLR’s second wife, Selma James claimed “he saw the game not only as it was played but as it was lived — and for West Indians that meant first of all a colonial society stratified by race and class.” 

CLR understood that cricket reflected the society of its time and influenced society. In the years before independence (Trinidad gained independence in 1962) social and political passions that were denied normal outlets, expressed themselves in cricket as sport was the only avenue that they could be expressed in. According to CLR, the clash of race, caste and class stimulated West Indian cricket. Friend and cricketer, Learie Constantine, would tell CLR that “they are no better than we.” In Test matches and in northern league club cricket in England, Constantine consistently demonstrated this was true. Constantine encouraged CLR to come to England and put him up when he did. CLR helped Constantine write Cricket and I — the first book published in England by a West Indian writing about people and events in the West Indies. Later Michael Holding, a key bowler in that successful team of the 1980s claimed, “I have five million West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so they can walk the streets and be proud.” It was a pride set in the context of years of colonial subservience. Confidence on the pitch fueled the independence movement. 

When Constantine returned to Trinidad in 1954, he entered politics becoming a founding member of the People’s National Movement. He later served as High Commissioner to the UK and served on the Race Relations Board and the Sports Council. 

Those who claim that politics should be kept out of sport lack understanding. The two are inextricably intertwined. CLR highlights that even the choices of sports available to you is the result of wider historical and political forces, recognising that he came to maturity within a system developed over centuries in another land and “transplanted as a hot-house flower is transplanted.” 

The downward spiral of West Indian cricket is mainly blamed on the economic lure of franchise twenty-over cricket. The 15-man West Indies squad for the two-Test tour of Australia this year included seven uncapped players, with many of their best players unavailable for selection due to this (South Africa have also sent a test team to New Zealand without several top players taking part in a domestic twenty-over tournament instead). But the historical analysis CLR deploys sheds further light on cricket’s plight. As the independent Caribbean nations, some now republics, look more to the US than the old empire for cultural influence, the role of cricket as a cultural force has diminished. As wider society’s values have changed the importance of a sport imbued with different values has changed. CLR’s wider analysis which traces the game’s history to its roots takes up much of the middle of his book. 

In all essentials the modern game was formed between the late eighteenth-century and the first third of the nineteenth. It was the product of an England still unconquered by the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), ready to be adopted by Victorian society to help manage the social changes the Industrial Revolution would cause. In villages across the country the cricket pitch ranked in symbolic importance with the pub and the church. The three were intertwined in membership and leadership. The cricket pitch was the place where religious life and pub life met. It was an England that whenever it could, ate and drank prodigiously. According to CLR, it was an England that “was not finicky in morals. It enjoyed life. It prized the virtues of frankness, independence, individuality, conviviality.” Cricket was created by the yeoman farmer, the gamekeeper, the potter, the Nottingham coalminer, the Yorkshire factory hand. These artisans — men of hand and eye — made it before rich and idle young noblemen and some substantial city people contributed money, organization, and status to establish it. 

By 1837, the year that marked the beginning of the Victorian Era, they had evolved a highly complicated game, popular in origin, yet attracting the leisured and educated classes. It was a time of profound social change. The countryside around the growing industrial cities was emptying, and by 1851 over half the population lived in settlements of 2,500 or more, by the 1890s it was eighty percent. There came into existence an enormous urban public, proletarian and clerical lower middle class. With the Factory Act of 1847 they gained freedom on Saturday afternoons. The Victorians wanted to fill this free time with not just entertainment or recreation, but something as much spiritual as sporty, that embodied all that was noble in the English character. Whilst the decade of the 1860s saw the rapid growth of multiple organized sports, cricket was the paradigm of this nobility. In a nationalistic era, Englishmen regarded cricket, an exclusively English creation, as proof of their cultural supremacy.

The Victorians set about cleansing the game of its Georgian impurities, removing gambling and corruption to purify it (bookies had sat before the pavilion at Lord’s openly taking bets). The Victorians glorified the game as not just a sport played for fun but as a perfect system of manners, ethics, and morals that would provide spiritual and mental regeneration. The Victorians developed a form of muscular Christianity which suggested there was something godly about strength and power if it was not exercised cruelly against the weak. Conversely, physical frailty was a manifestation of moral and spiritual inadequacy. It needed to be overcome by prayer, moral living, and exercise.

The spread of cricket at home and throughout the empire came to be seen as key to creating social cohesion

The relationship between cricket and religion was reinforced through education. Many headmasters of the time were believers in muscular Christianity. None was more influential than Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841. He introduced reforms that were widely copied by other public schools. CLR believes that Arnold influenced “one of the most fantastic transformations of education and culture.” The Victorian ruling classes accepted Arnold’s methods, but took on less of his focus on the cultivation of the intellect focusing more on the role of organized games, with cricket at the head of the curriculum. Cricket and also football, were both seen as not merely useful substitutes for undesirable activities — like fighting and inappropriate sexual activities — but vehicles to instill positive virtues. Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays published in 1857 based on Arnold’s Rugby was instantly popular and helped take glorification of this cult of athleticism to the masses. The concept of the chivalrous knight was revived and transformed into the Christian cricketer. The playing fields became the centre of school life as they would later be for CLR thousands of miles away. As CLR notes, “The proof of its validity is its success, first of all at home and then almost as rapidly abroad, in the most diverse places among peoples living lives which were poles removed from whence it originally came.” 

The spread of cricket at home and throughout the empire came to be seen as key to creating social cohesion, between classes and between the ruled and rulers. Revd. G. J. Chester in a sermon delivered in 1859, saw cricket as well as promoting the purity of life, being able to “break down barriers which unchristian pride has built up between class and class, and to cement bonds of goodwill and brotherly feeling.” Despite this many clubs set high membership fees to price out lower classes. As we have seen, when the colonial administrators eventually let locals play, clubs would discriminate on race, into the twentieth century. Whilst it was hoped that crickets might spread a unifying morality, whose shadow persists in the common usage of cricket terms and phrases, used to describe moral approaches or ethical quandaries (straight bat, sticky wicket, bowled a googly, simply isn’t cricket) across the cricket playing nations, it was not a unification of equals. 

Indeed, there were significant differences in how cricket was viewed within England. In the northern leagues in particular, working-class players began to see cricket as a potential avenue of economic advancement. Emerging cricket purists feared that sportsmanship departed when cricket was played so seriously. But, as Arthur Thomson noted, northern cricket with all its seriousness, was a mirror of northern life at the time, in the wake of the great cotton slump of the 1860’s. The character of northern cricket reflected harsher realities. In southern England an aristocratic amateurism prevailed, based on the public school system, in contrast to a northern professionalism focused on club cricket. Stereotypes from this era have persisted. There is still intense debate over incidents where the “spirit of cricket” is seen to be desecrated, such as the Australians’ dismissal of England’s Johnny Bairstow when he thought the ball was dead last summer. This spirit is the ghost of the Victorian ambition for the game. More and more the spirit of cricket gives way to actions that give the professional advantage.

Whilst even today, it is not uncommon to use quasi-religious references when referring to Lords, the home of cricket, the Victorians could not quite purify the crowd of the Georgian habits, as much as they could not purify wider society of its pre-Victorian virtues of frankness, independence, individuality, and conviviality. The tension between the bawdy pagan England and the urban, urbane, buttoned up, now secularised, muscularly Christian, England was never resolved. It is still witnessed on any given day at a test match. Expensive seats in members pavilions are for club ties, respectful applause, and tutting at those on the terraces, who over-indulge in all-day drinking, in an array for fancy dress and undress, soaked in increasing conviviality as the day unfolds (and as money and corporate interests are now arguably more important than class, the best seats are within the expensive corporate boxes, where the over-indulgence is screened off from view). Grounds north of London in the cities of the industrial revolution — Edgbaston, Headingley, and Old Trafford – are still more celebrated for their rowdier, partisan crowds. The cricket pitch continues to be the place where a secularised version of church culture meets pub culture, as oil meets water. In England, however, these packed stadiums remain as captivated as CLR always was, by what unfolds on the pitch. Without a final product on the field worthy of the profound values the Victorian were trying to install their project would not have worked. 

CLR claims, “Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with theatre, ballet, opera, and the dance.” He discusses the aesthetics of movement and form referencing Bernhard Berenson’s writings on Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture. But he believes that the closest parallels are with Greek tragedy. The similarities extend to both on and off the pitch. Tragedies were often performed as part of a festival that would last the whole day. Staff would patrol the aisles to keep the rowdiest members of the crowd under control. The theatre was free, but your seat was determined by your status. The rich had cushioned seats at the front, while the peasants, artisans and women were forced to take seats at the back. After a full day of drink, Greek audiences would hiss and groan to show discontent and even launch projectiles stage-wards. Such a scene has much in common with my experiences of sitting in the Eric Hollies at Edgbaston — the cheapest seats in the rowdiest stand — as the noise level increases throughout the day in direct proportion to beer sales. 

On the pitch, CLR, finds similarities with the very structure of the game and tragedies. Cricket is “so organized that at all times it is compelled to reproduce the central action which characterizes all good drama from the days of the Greeks to our own: two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is so strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group. One individual batsman faces one individual bowler. But each represents his side.” While dramatists strive for their characters to become representative, the batsman facing the ball, does not just represent his side, he is his side. In cricket, no matter the individual achievement, its “ultimate value is whether it assists the side to victory or staves off defeat.”

Test cricket is a test of the mind as much as the body

Its structural enforcement allows ebbs and flows and battles within battles. “The total spectacle consists and must consist of a series of individual, isolated episodes, each in itself completely self-contained.” Each has its beginning, middle and end. The ball is bowled, the shot is played, runs are scored, or wickets fall. “Within the fluctuating interest of the rise or fall of the game as a whole, there is an unending series of events, each single one fraught with immense possibilities of expectation and realization.” Behind these events is the intense pressure in the minds of the players. Test cricket is a test of the mind as much as the body. Intense concentration over long periods is required alongside psychological robustness to cope with the sledging, mind games and battles within battles. A test batsman may not know the psychological torment of Oedipus, but he can relate. 

Whilst this is all true for the longer form of the game, limited over cricket, particularly twenty over cricket has a shallower narrative arc and rarely has time to develop so many subplots. It is as a YouTube short is to a Shakespearean play. 

Shomit Dutta, whose play Stumped imagines real life cricket lovers Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter waiting to bat, highlights the way cricket reminds us of life’s contingencies, “The weather in cricket is a determining factor and is rather like those mysterious forces you find in Greek tragedy.” Tragedy teaches us that there is much out of our control. Mortal actions are subject to forces that transcend, no matter how hard we attempt to defy prophecies or the unintended consequences of our actions. Cricket’s endless variables that can influence the result reminds us that luck plays as much of a role in our lives as hard work and skill. It starts with the toss of a coin. The nature of the pitch and the changing weather over the days can make it better to bowl at some stages than others. The interaction of the tight structure and the chaotic elements, weaving an unpredictable arc through battles within battles to an often-inevitable end gives a grandiosity and metaphoric quality to cricket that rivals that of the tragedies. As we have mined the tragedies for moral lessons, we are able to do the same with cricket. 

The penultimate chapter of Beyond a Boundary returns to the West Indies with CLR after 26 years away. The West Indies had always been captained by a white man. CLR now editor of The Nation led the campaign for Frank Worrell, to be captain. He was a great batsman and cricketing mind, but also black. The campaign was successful and emblematic. CLR claimed he learnt all he needed to about politics on the pitches of Port of Spain. He places cricket as “part of the historical movement of the times.” His explanation of cricket’s history helps understand who we are and the tensions within that, that remain. Cricket is one of the greatest gifts England has given the world, but we were not entirely altruistic in our donation. This gift came from a very specific set of political and socio-economic circumstances. Those circumstances have changed significantly. Then India was part of the empire, now India’s economy is greater by GDP than the UK’s. They have more influence over the future of cricket than the country of its birth. Times change but the past still influences. Cricket is now as much “theirs” than “ours.” Its future is not ours to determine alone, but if we protect it together, we will continue to enjoy something more than just a sport.

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