Cricket’s bible takes the knee

Michael Henderson says, hats off, everybody, to the troupers of the famous yellow Almanack

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It’s a slimmer Wisden this year, only 1,250 pages, but Lawrence Booth, editor of this celebrated annual publication for the last 10 of its 158 summers, can permit himself a bow in the bathroom of his house in Barnes, if nobody is looking. To bring out a book of record when so much cricket was lost in 2020 to an international plague tested him almost as much as it challenged the cricketers in their Covid bubbles. Hats off, everybody, to the troupers of the famous yellow Almanack.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021 edited by Lawrence Booth Wisden, £55

When you have read some of the contributions, however, you may feel like asking them to put those hats back on. There is a barely-suppressed anger in this year’s Wisden, arising from the Black Lives Matter protests, which seriously impairs the tone of this book of record. Readers are encouraged to believe that English cricket is racist from top to bottom; indeed, they are invited to confess their complicity. Yet it is possible, as many of those readers may reflect, to offer a different view.

In the past century no sport in this land has done more to bring together so many people from different backgrounds. Cricket, uniquely, was played on the fields of the gilded public schools and also in pit villages in the north. In the days of gentlemen (amateurs) and players (professionals), Fred Trueman of Yorkshire shared an England dressing-room with PBH May of Charterhouse, Cambridge and Surrey.

In the past century no sport in this land has done more to bring together so many people from different backgrounds

Those days went in 1962, just as the Beatles were getting going, and a modern pro such as James Anderson, England’s record wicket-taker, live in a world where the best can acquire a wealth beyond the imagination of the likes of Trueman, if not the public recognition that “Fred” enjoyed.

The England team, at Test or one-day level, has been captained over the years by cricketers born in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, as well as Italy, Germany and Peru. Nasser Hussain, one of the finest post-war captains, is a Muslim, born in Madras. He was joined in teams he led, and in others since, by Hindus and Sikhs.

This does not mean that cricket is free of prejudice, which may be found in any area of public life. But it is undeniable that cricket, whether professional or amateur, has done much good. In the case of Learie Constantine, the great Trinidad all-rounder, who played as “pro” for Nelson in the Lancashire League between 1928 and 1937, it can write one of the great stories of racial harmony. Constantine became Sir Learie and was later raised to the peerage, as the first black member of the House of Lords.

In those early days he was joined in Lancashire by CLR James, the cricket-loving Marxist historian, who later taught at Harvard before ending up in Brixton. When Mike Brearley, the former England captain, interviewed James for Channel 4 five decades after that Lancashire experience, he asked him whether he had experienced prejudice. James said no. Constantine had, but rose above it, and triumphed. In our polarised world these are not stories we often hear.

So when Ebony Rainford-Brent, director of women’s cricket at Surrey, and a broadcaster for Test Match Special and Sky Television, writes that in 2020 “cricket finally faced up to its lack of diversity”, she is not telling the whole truth.

County cricket has been full of black and Asian players, whether British or from overseas, for the last 60 years. Furthermore, many of the overseas players chose to live in this country when they retired. Clive Lloyd, the Guyanese captain of the great West Indies team of the Seventies and Eighties, opted to become a British subject. People do not normally choose to live in racist societies.

Rainford-Brent was thrust into the media spotlight last summer after vocal activists shifted the Black Lives Matter protests from America to Britain, a land with an utterly different history. She was joined by Michael Holding, the magnificent Jamaican fast bowler who has become in retirement one of the wisest men in the commentary box.

Holding, a man of rare grace, spoke movingly on television about his experience of racism, and held viewers spellbound. His is an important voice, and it should be heard. Yet Wisden, which seems in thrall to the BLM movement, which has imported American racial politics for its own purposes, has overplayed its hand.

The overwhelming reason why so few yoing people from Caribbean families no longer play cricket in large numbers cannot be attributed to a catch-all excuse like “racism”. After all, many young black men and women excel at athletics. It is because, like their white peers, they prefer to kick a football about. It’s an easier game to play, in the parks or at schools which prefer not to offer cricket as a sporting option.

The traditional summer game consumes time and money, which is not easy to find in modest black (and white) households. It is not racism that has held back young black cricketers, but the shifting of social attitudes and practices over the past generation. We may wish things were not so, but they are.

There are happier essays in the Almanack. Duncan Hamilton, the prize-winning author of many outstanding books on cricket, writes about a summer spent in his Yorkshire home. Patrick Kidd goes back to the war years, and finds out how Wisden filled its pages. Robert Winder also wanders along Memory Lane, to see which young men were anointed “schoolboy cricketers of the year”. There are many familiar names: TE Bailey, MC Cowdrey, MA Atherton and of course PBH. The independent schools always dominated. They had (and continue to have) superb facilities, and like to employ masters who are eager to coach the boys. Girls, too, now.

It is not racism that has held back young black cricketers, but shifting social attitudes

That process of refinement used to be continued at Cambridge and Oxford, who turned out some spanking XIs in years gone by. No longer. University cricket is not a part of the first-class game any more, and something important has been lost. It is another shifting of social attitudes, explored by Derek Pringle, a Cambridge man who was called up for England in 1982 while still wearing the light blue.

The Wisden obituaries always bring cheer, in a melancholy way, for they honour not only the great and the good but also those who made their mark in other fields. Julian Bream, the famous guitarist, who put out his own team, and Tim Brooke-Taylor, the comedian, receive recognition for their love of cricket, while it is interesting to learn that Giles Auty, the Spectator’s former art critic, used to open the bowling for Dorset and Cornwall in the Minor Counties championship.

Along with the lists, the records and the summaries of each county’s doings there are also the oddities that make Wisden so diverting. This year the “errata” includes an amendment of the 1978 Almanack which was somehow overlooked: “In Hertfordshire’s Gillette Cup match against Leicestershire, their No 9 was BG Collins, not BJ Collins.”

That is the authentic tone of Wisden, much-needed in this year of white guilt and communal self-reproach. Take the knee? Heavens, no. Cricket, for its imperfections, can hold its head high.

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