Sean Ledwith shows how cricket can be a site and a symbol of political liberation as well as of racist, imperialist oppression
The First Test between England and West Indies this summer was memorable for a number of reasons. It was the first Test match played in the post-lockdown, new normal that requires players, officials, coaching staff and journalists to exist in a biosecure bubble for weeks in advance. Apart from this limited group, there were no spectators in Southampton’s Ageas Bowl to witness a fine win for the touring team. Far more significant however, were two episodes on the first day, which both occurred before a ball was bowled.
In a pre-recorded segment for Sky Sports, two black former cricketers reflected powerfully on what the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year meant to them personally and, more broadly, what should be the response of the cricket world to the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Michael Holding, fast bowling legend from the 70s and 80s, is already a hugely respected figure in the game but his status will have been enhanced even more by his contribution on that day. As well as recounting his personal experiences of racism in England and South Africa, Holding referred to the recent case of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York who infamously reported a black man to the cops with no justification apart from her spurious paranoia:
She threatened this black man with her whiteness, saying that she was going to call the police and tell them there was a black man threatening her. If the society in which she was living did not empower her or get her to think that she had that power of being white and being able to call the police on a black man, she would not have done it.
Alongside Holding, former Surrey and England woman cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent tearfully described the prejudice and racial profiling she has had to endure in her career:
I have been in team environments dealing with people constantly referring to 'your lot'. When things would happen, like Barack Obama becoming president of the USA, having a paper thrown down in front of my face and saying, 'your lot must be happy'. The constant drip-drip was tough.
Following the broadcast of these moving contributions from Holding and Rainsford, the players from both sides appeared on the field and took the knee in the now universally recognised gesture of solidarity with the victims of racism. Jason Holder, the West Indies captain, took his public protest to the next level by wearing a black glove and raising his fist in a clenched salute, echoing the iconic image of black US athletes at the 1968 Olympics. It is a remarkable indicator of a massive leftward shift in public consciousness that none of these overtly political moments were contested or controversial.
The white England players should also be commended for their unhesitating willingness to participate in the uplifting display of anti-racist sentiment. All involved were deservedly lauded by the media and received many high profile messages of support. Former England captain and Sky commentator, Nasser Hussain, spoke for millions who appreciated the courage of the black cricketers involved:
First, there was the emotion and conviction of Ebony Rainsford-Brent, who has been through it all herself and brilliantly conveyed some of the painful experiences she has endured down the years. Then there was Holding, who spoke calmly and intelligently about the cancer that is racism. He's such a passionate man and it was a privilege to be standing next to him while we carried on the conversation in front of the cameras.
These powerful assertions of cricket’s progressive agenda are particularly striking as in previous eras the game was virtually synonymous with empire and racism, and was perceived as part of the essential cultural baggage of the British ruling class, at home and abroad.
West Indian cricket
The history of West Indian Test cricket, however, has been marked by comparable expressions of resistance, both on and off the field, to the sporting hegemony of the colonial elite. The pioneer of a Marxist analysis of cricket, of course, was the great Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James in his groundbreaking book, Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963. Another seminal radical thinker from the Caribbean, Stuart Hall, identified the crucial insight developed by his mentor regarding the dialectical interplay of sport and politics in the region:
James often remarked that the British said that the Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton and would be lost on the playing fields of Lord’s cricket ground. Just as the British had trained themselves to create the Empire on the playing fields, so on the playing fields they would symbolically lose their Empire.
The white plantation owners of the Caribbean imported cricket from the mother country in the eighteenth century. Inevitably, their bigotry and prejudice blighted the early development of the game there. Batting and bowling were perceived as exclusively white pastimes and black slaves were permitted to participate only to the extent of retrieving the ball from the dense fields of sugar cane when necessary.
Over time, the physical strength that black men reluctantly derived from backbreaking labour turned them into obvious candidates for fast bowling and they were promoted to the central arena of the game. When Tests between the West Indies and England commenced in the early twentieth century, however, sides from the former were composed of predominantly white players with a white captain being a shibboleth of the squad. Team photos from this era bizarrely show the two teams as barely distinguishable in terms of ethnicity.
The battle for equality on the pitch in the post-WW1 era would revolve around two outstanding figures, George Headley from Jamaica and Learie Constantine from Trinidad. The former was nicknamed the Black Bradman due to his prodigious accomplishments with the bat.
Headley scored 176 on his Test debut against England in 1930 and in the same series became the first West Indian to score centuries in both innings of a match. In 1935 he racked up 270 against England in Kingston, and four years later became the first man to score centuries in both innings of a Lord’s Test match. Headley’s significance is that he shattered once and for all the stereotype that black cricketers possessed the physical strength for fast bowling but lacked the patience and stamina to construct big scores with the bat. He was blatantly the most suitable man to captain the side in the 1930s due to his evidently advanced reading of the game, but the racism of the era ensured the position was reserved for a white player. Headley was belatedly awarded the captaincy, but absurdly for just one Test in 1948.
Headley’s teammate in the same Test side, Learie Constantine, commented on the injustice of his friend being passed over for the leadership role in the 1930s:
Cricket in the West Indies is the most glaring example of the black man being kept in his place... The heart of our cricket is rotted by racist politics. I only hope that before I die, I see a West Indian cricket team chosen on merit alone, and captained by a black man, win a rubber against England.
Constantine himself combined all-round brilliance on the field with anti-racist activism off it. CLR James’ journalistic career in England was largely based on reporting Constantine’s exploits in the famous Lancashire League that used to draw huge crowds on Saturday afternoons. The two men would frequently speak together on Labour Party platforms in the North West and lead demonstrations to improve the situation of black immigrants. Constantine was probably the best all-rounder in the world in the 1930s and demonstrated that there was no aspect of the game that West Indian players could not master. James wrote of him:
Constantine’s leg-glance from outside the off-stump to long-leg was a classical stroke. It was not due to his marvellous West Indian eyes and marvellous West Indian wrists. It was due, if you must have it, to his marvellous West Indian brains.
Constantine’s status in the game was illustrated in a match at the end of WW2 between England and a Dominions side. Constantine was the only black player among the later but the rest of the team insisted that he should captain them. His modest Test average of 30 runs does not reflect the wider significance of his contribution to promoting the popularity of West Indian cricketers among the northern white working class, and consequently undermining racist attitudes in England.
Despite Constantine’s evident brilliance and first-class cricket brain, the growing demand for a black captain for the West Indies continued to be ignored by the colonial satraps who governed the Caribbean game in the immediate postwar era.
Calypso cricket and the blackwash series
Nevertheless, three black batsmen, memorably nicknamed the Three Ws sustained the legacy of George Headley and showed that Caribbean players were as capable of building big innings as any Englishman or Australian. Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes and Frank Worrell scored heavily throughout the 50s and participated in the first series win in England at the start of the decade. The stereotype of West Indians as being fit only for intense but short spells of fast bowling was conclusively demolished.
The notion that a black player lacked the strategic ability to captain the side remained intact. By the dawn of the 1960s, however, the pressure for change from below became irresistible. A synergy of rising class struggle by industrial workers in the Caribbean, regional aspirations for political unity among the islands and the campaigning journalism by CLR James intersected to force the white-dominated West Indies board to submit and appoint Frank Worrell as captain for a tour of Australia at the start of the decade.
The subsequent 1960-61 series was such a triumph of attacking, high-quality cricket on both sides (including the first ever tied Test) that the board had no choice but to extend Worrell’s initially provisional captaincy. From that point onward, a white captain of the West Indies became unthinkable.
One of the stars of the Australia tour was upcoming all-rounder Gary Sobers. The young Bajan had already hit a record individual Test innings of 365 against Pakistan two years earlier and over the following decade would ascend to becoming indubitably the world’s best player. His evident love of the game and carefree, free-hitting style were an integral part of the final acceptance of the West Indies at the top table of world cricket. As a captain in the late 60s, however, Sobers’ commendable instinct to gamble on potential defeat in pursuit of possible victory backfired occasionally and unwittingly encouraged the ongoing quasi-racist trope of calypso cricket - that is to say, the belief that teams from the Caribbean still lacked the required organisation and resilience to finish off opponents.
This lingering prejudice from the colonial era was the context for the rise of the much vaunted, four-man pace attack of the 1970s and 80s. Clive Lloyd, one of Sobers’ successors as captain, was determined to nail the myth of calypso cricket once and for all. Having been pulverised 5-1 by Australia’s equivalent in the form of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975-6, Lloyd jettisoned spin and medium pace options and brought a tranche of exclusively fast bowlers on the tour to England the following summer. Andy Roberts, Wayne Daniel and Vanburn Holder joined Michael Holding in a four-pronged attack that unleashed a torrent of raw pace on a shell-shocked England team that wilted in the long, hot summer of ‘76.
The political dimension to the series was Tony Grieg’s hubristic comment beforehand that he would make the tourists ‘grovel’. Lloyd and his team needed no further incentive to terrorise the home team after hearing a white South African-born England captain make such a misjudged remark. The spectacle of black fast bowlers terrorising English batsmen with a relentless cannonade of bouncers in the same year as the Battle of Lewisham and the Soweto uprising made for some potent images. Britain’s black community, harassed by both the National Front and the Special Patrol Group, were further inspired to resistance by the sight of West Indian batsmen such as Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge smashing the hapless English attack out of the ground.
Stevan Reilly, director of a brilliant 2010 documentary on this series noted its political significance:
What emerged was a story of West Indian emancipation through sport. The WI team carried the ambitions of the Third World and the entire black diaspora. Their success was a wonderfully defiant response to prejudice and racial injustice in the Seventies and Eighties and remains one of the great sporting and political epics of the twentieth century.
Although the 3-0 series victory that year was a much-needed morale-boost for the second generation of West Indian immigrants, just three years later the rising tide of racism in British society would achieve its apotheosis with Thatcher’s elevation to power. West Indian cricketers, however, would continue to provide some degree of sporting solace to Britain’s increasingly besieged black minority in the last two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the so-called blackwash series of 1984 and 1985-86 in which England sides were comprehensively crushed.
Despite the impressive actions of Holding, Rainford-Brent and the players of both sides before this summer’s first Test, bigotry has once again reared its ugly head in the game. England fast bowler Jofra Archer has recently been subjected to online racist abuse following his omission from the second Test for a breach of biosecurity. Cricket’s capacity to act as a vehicle for emancipatory agendas will obviously need to be called upon many more times in the future.