C.L.R. James – The Black Cardus?Swaranjeet Singh |
‘What do they know of Cricket who only cricket know. All the world is a stage, all the world, including the cricket-field, and all the men and women merely players.’
CLR James in Beyond A Boundary.
On the 1st of September 1933, there appeared in the Manchester Guardian an article about a game of cricket in the Lancashire league between Rawtenstall and Nelson. Nothing about this game from the minor cricket of the leagues or the unknown writer would have drawn special attention but for the fact that the Manchester Guardian’s cricket correspondent was none other than the legendary Cardus (later Sir Neville). Cardus was struck by the powerful imagery evoked by CLRJ’s ‘prose of unparalleled precision and grace‘. That article has become one of the classics and an oft-printed essay on the immortal S.F. Barnes. Barnes then in his sixtieth year, was playing for Rawtenstall and facing him, as the professional for Nelson, was another great cricketer – Learie Constantine who was to be knighted and made a Baron later.
In that, only the second article of his long and illustrious career as a cricket journalist and writer, CLRJ brings to life the clearly ageing yet magnificently composed master that was the Rawtenstall professional, He introduces Barnes to us as:
To begin with, Barnes not only is fifty-nine, he looks it. Some cricketers at fifty-nine look and move like men in their thirties. Not so Barnes. You can almost hear the old bones creaking. He is tall and thin, well over six feet, with strong features. It is rather a remarkable face in its way and could belong to a great lawyer or a statesman without incongruity. He holds his head well back, with the rather long chin lifted. He looks like a man who has seen as much of the world as he wants to see. . .
He fixed his field, two slips close in and the old-fashioned point, close in. Mid off was rather wide. When every man was placed to the nearest centimeter Barnes walked back and set the old machinery in motion. As he forced himself to the crease you could see every year of the fifty-nine; but the arm swung over gallantly, high and straight. The wicket was slow, but a ball whipped hot from the pitch in the first over and second slip took a neat catch. When the over was finished he walked a certain number of steps and took his position in the slips. He stood as straight as his right arm, with his hands behind his back. The bowler began his run – a long run – Barnes still immovable. Just as the ball was about to be delivered, Barnes bent forward slightly with his hands ready in front of him. To go right down, as a normal slip fieldsman goes, was for him, obviously, a physical impossibility. He looked alert and I got the impression that whatever went into his hands would stay there. As the ball went into the wicketkeeper’s hands or was played by the batsman, Barnes straightened himself and again put his hands behind his back. That was his procedure in the field through the afternoon. Now and then by way of variety he would move a leg an inch or two and point it on the toe for a second or two. Apart from that he husbanded his strength.
He took seven wickets for about 30 runs and it is impossible to imagine better bowling of its kind. The batsmen opposed to him were not of high rank, most of them, but good bowling is good bowling. Whoever plays it. . . .
As the Rawtenstall team came in, the crowd applauded his fine bowling mightily. Barnes walked through it intent on his own affairs. He had had much of that all his life.
CLRJ’s cricket writing is largely about West Indies and its cricketers besides his coverage of Lancashire cricket while he was a journalist based in that county. However, there is enough in it to enthuse lovers of the game from all parts of the world. One has tried to find writings about Indian cricketers but there isn’t much besides an article – A Majestic Innings With Few Peers – on Sandeep Patil’s brilliant onslaught on English bowlers in the Old Trafford Test of 1982. In keeping with his reputation as a knowledgeable and balanced writer he does not go gaga over Sandeep Patil in spite of his unreserved plaudits for that magnificent century and maintains that a great innings, even a peerless one, does not a great batsman make.
I have seen many centuries by great batsmen during the past fifty years. In confidence and power, I have seen few that approach Patil’s century. The peak of this innings arrived with a new-ball delivery that pitched somewhat short, from Willis. Patil, it seemed to me, stepped back to hook but the delivery was on him too quickly. He did not moderate his aggression but from his backfoot played a tennis stroke past the bowler to the boundary. I have not kept count, but I believe he found the boundary on the offside, between point and cover, as often as he hooked to the square leg boundary. Altogether an innings without superior and with very few peers.
Comparison is the cricket fanatics’ incurable practice. Matthew Arnold once said that one should learn very well certain classic pieces of poetry and that this would help in the writing of poetry. I instinctively apply a similar principle to great innings by great batsmen. . . Patil’s innings was a great one but that does not make him a great batsman in the historic sense of that noble term. . . . To reach it he will need many repetitions of what took place at Old Trafford last June.
He is supposed to have written an article comparing Botham, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev in the same year, 1982, the year in which India and Pakistan shared a summer touring England and all three great all-rounders appeared to be bent on outdoing the others in what has come to be known as the ‘Summer of the All-rounder’. Unfortunately, the article seems to be as yet unpublished. What would one not give to be able to read it.
Another of his articles that fascinates me is one he wrote, as early as 1963, comparing Dexter and Sobers as batsmen in the context of their countries and the attitudes of those around them. In this he describes Dexter a victim of the dour and dogged nature of English batsmanship that surrounded him and which affected the brilliance and genius of his own batting.
Dexter is a man more sinned against than sinning. (At Lord’s) he did not merely drive the two fast bowlers, or hook them. He hit them so that you (and probably they) forgot that they were fast bowlers. . . He does not make centuries because he has the habit of losing ‘concentration’. Blessed word. If the other players on his side bore names like K.L. Hutchings, A.C. Maclaren, F.S. Jackson, C.B. Fry and he were playing against Victor Trumper, Clemont Hill and Vernon Ransford; he would make his centuries and perhaps a double century or two. He is a Cavalier amongst Roundheads. He plays not only against opposing batsmen but against the very soul of the age.
He is playing his innings in the style of a master expressing a personal vision. Like Macartney, Dexter, a new Governor-General, is intent on hitting the ball, and hitting the bowler, to the boundary. Then suddenly it begins to dawn on him that this is a Test match and that, worse still, he is the captain of England. He begins to concentrate – on that. The result is what happens to those who try to sit between two stools, or to be more precise, a good man fallen among people whose morals are not his own.
I see Dexter as engaged in a constant struggle for free individuality in a conformist age. . . . I saw him in the West Indies in 1960. . . Periodically would appear the strokes of a batsman who hit the ball as if it were placed on a tee, but watching himself.
Everything about Dexter marks him as a cavalier of 1895-1914. Writing in 1957 of the men of the golden age, I made bold to say, ‘Not only their cricketing styles but the personal careers of men like Ranjitsinhji and C.B. Fry outside the cricket world show how restless was the spirit that expressed itself in their play.’ Dexter has shown recently that he is of the same breed. It is not that Dexter is not dependable. It is that the other players of the day are too dependable. They inhibit him. In his observations of the game, all aspects of it, he bears the stamp of a man in conflict with his age.
These two (Sobers and Dexter) are not the souls of our age but they certainly are the applause, the delight, the wonder of our stage. In every stroke they shake a lance.
Where are cricket writers today who will see batsmanship of men like Lara and Tendulkar in the context of their age, time and place in history?
CLRJ was very close to Learie Constantine. They played club cricket together as youngsters back in Trinidad and then when he ran into financial troubles he moved in with the legendary all-rounder while the latter was playing in the Lancashire league. In fact, it was with Constantine that he went to see Barnes when he came to know that the sixty-year-old legend was going to play in a league game against Nelson for whom Constantine was the professional. He was so moved by the experience that he came back and wrote that article on Barnes and when he showed it to Constantine he suggested to CLRJ to send it up to Cardus at the Manchester Guardian.
As a youngster in Trinidad he had developed close friendships with many West Indian cricketers from their pre-Test cricket days like George John -‘one of the most formidable bowlers who ever handled a ball‘, Piggott – ‘one of the world’s great wicket-keepers between the wars‘ and Telemaque ‘not a great player but he was good’ to George Headley and Constantine. He was highly respected by latter day cricketers like Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Sobers etc. He made friends with cricketers and writers from Australia and England and sent the manuscript of his book to some of them like Fingleton for a critical appraisal and also asked for assistance of people like John Arlott to help find a publisher for it. Arlott tried and failed and then wrote to CLRJ that the book wouldn’t sell enough copies to break even.
‘There is a point at which a book breaks even and our experts in the matter can not see your book achieving it. Both John St John and I are extremely sorry. . . I do hope you have better luck with it elsewhere.’
It is ironic that the same book, Beyond A Boundary, is now regarded by most critics as the finest cricket book of all times and one hasn’t come across a single one who does not place it amongst a short list of the finest of all time.
CLRJ was very critical of modern cricket journalism, particularly after the advent of the television. In an article in 1985 on the decline of English cricket he touches on the subject and as he would invariably do, he supported his criticism with very valid and logical arguments. Its difficult to disagree with any of what he said a quarter of a century ago; writing today he would have only used stronger language and justifiably so.
. . . today the kind of analysis that you got from the masters and the reports of the journalists have disappeared. They have disappeared first because of television and the fact that after two or three overs, two or three people are on television saying what happened and giving causes.
You cannot analyse a five-day cricket match or five five-day cricket matches in that way. The result is that we have a series of front page observations, dramatic moments, astonishing successes, astonishing failures – everything or nothing, governed by the remorseless claims of the television audience waiting for the (single) event that will summarize the day’s play or the morning’s play. . . .
The press and the older cricketers had the feeling of responsibility for going below the surface. Today. . . there are journalists who must catch the passing event and seek the pregnant phrase. I am not attacking a body of men for not doing what they ought to do. I am saying that the modern means of communication, the pressure by other sports on cricket space, photography, love for scandals and the general absence of strategic thought (and not merely on cricket) have deeply damaged cricket reports. I do not say the reporters do harm to cricket but that cricket in the present age does great harm to reporting.
Finally, he was easily the strongest supporter of West Indian cricket and West Indian cricketers amongst all the great writers. To the extent that one would be tempted to say he was just that wee bit biased. But that is a minor failing in so skillful and gifted a writer. He invariably wrote of West Indian cricketers in the context of their lives and the socio-economic conditions of the coloured people of the Caribbean. He seemed to realize it himself when he wrote:
Writing critically about West Indies cricket and cricketers, or any cricket for that matter, is a difficult discipline. The investigation, the analysis, even the casual historical or sociological gossip about any cricketer should deal with his actual cricket, the way he bats or bowls or fields, does all or any of these. You may wander far from where you started but unless you have your eyes constantly on the ball, in fact never take your eyes off it; you are soon writing not about cricket, but yourself (or other people) and psychological or literary responses to the game. This can be and has been done quite brilliantly, adding a little something to literature but practically nothing to cricket, as little as the story of Jack and the Beanstalk adds to our knowledge of agriculture. This is particularly relevant to West Indies cricket.
One could not, however, accuse him of not keeping his eyes on the ball and ignoring writing about the cricket. His heavy usage of the ‘historical and sociological’ context only enhanced his work and gave it a unique flavour. However, this aspect of his writing does come out rather strongly in his writings, particularly in the longer format, which in his case is basically his celebrated cricket book – Beyond A Boundary. It has been called by many as ‘the best cricket book ever‘ and some have gone to the extent of labeling it ‘the greatest sports book ever written‘. In fact the Guardian went on to write that ‘To say ‘the best cricket book ever’ is pifflingly inadequate praise‘ while another leading English paper advised its subscribers ‘Anyone who has not encountered (Beyond a Boundary) should seize the chance now‘
So where does he stand in the pantheon of cricket writers? When George Headly was scoring Test runs at nearly seventy per innings the world sat up and took notice not just of him but of West Indian cricket itself. Something the West Indians were clearly craving for and when someone called him a Black Bradman, the cry went up in the Caribbean that it might be more appropriate to dub Don Bradman as the White Headley. That last bit of tongue-in-cheek repartee apart, Headley did get the label of the Black Bradman tagged on to him and one wonders if CLRJ deserves a similar celebration as the Black Cardus or should we indeed call Sir Neville the White James?
Seriously, one likes to resist the temptation for using such appellations for they tend to somehow diminish the one we are trying to put on a higher pedestal by denying them their own place in history and the scheme of things. Even if one is not inclined to call CLRJ the Black Cardus, the fact remains that he was more different from Sir Neville, one suspects, than was Headley from Sir Donald and even the difference between those two great batsmen is considerable. One does not say this to put either of Cardus or CLRJ higher than the other but to emphasise their inherent difference as writers and more fundamentally as cricket writers.
While the images Cardus’s prose evokes are steeped in the romanticism of a schoolboy, the writings of CLRJ evoke images that are more solid and life like. It’s the work of a consummate professional who understood both the finer points of the game and the understandings of human beings and relationships between individuals. One could say that they, Cardus and CLRJ, with their writings, represent their people and also reflect the respective positions of their nations in the power grid of the world. Cardus was an Englishman writing at a time when Britain was still at peace with itself although the ’empire’ was close to its final decades. His writings thus evoke a gentle, easy going life of rural English countryside; even when the individuals involved were mere workers in the fields. A sense of calm prevails on the cricket fields of Cardus while James’s cricketers seem to be straining to break free of the shackles of centuries of bondage. It also reflects his own very strong views on the condition of his people – it was the subject on which he wrote with even more passion than he did on cricket. When I read CLRJ I can feel the tension of the writer whereas Cardus transports me into the English countryside and actually helps relieve me of any tensions of my own.
I personally do not consider CLRJ as a cricket writer in so much as I do not consider Beyond A Boundary as a cricket book. It is a book about the Caribbean, which uses cricket as the backdrop for the social milieu of the Trinidad of his youth and provides us ‘a unique glimpse of the human forces and struggles‘ of the times. The young boy from Port of Spain who seems to have his life completely engulfed by cricket and cricketers was also living amongst his people in appalling conditions, not just economic but worse. The divisions of status and more strongly of colour were not taken as fate or destiny or karma by this impressionable young man who from childhood had been exposed to British writings in the form of books and magazines literature and poetry. One can see how he was slowly but surely being transformed into a social and political thinker and activist and it is this aspect of his personality which, for me at least, dominates and strongly radiates through his writings even when they are supposed to be on cricket. This does, however, lend his writings a very strong character and make for compulsive and very absorbing reading, which is educative of much more than the cricket and cricketers who form the main characters on stage, as it were, in Beyond A Boundary.
It is as a cricket journalist during his stints with Manchester Guardian and Glasgow Herald that one sees pure cricket writing without social and cultural overtones and he does a fabulous job. But then that should not surprise us since he had all the qualities of a great cricket writer. He wrote beautifully and movingly and he loved the game. More importantly he understood the finer aspects of the game as the best English writers of the times did. Examples of his knowledge and understanding of the game abound in his writings but there is one particular article by him on Winston St George, which I love to read again and again.
CLRJ states of W. St. Hill that ‘No one I have seen, neither Bradman nor Sobers, saw the ball more quickly, nor made up the mind earlier.‘ One may or may not agree with that assertion but there is absolutely no doubt that in the chapter called The Most Unkindest Cut in his book, he brings the batsman that W. St. Hill was, alive and present before you through a complete and detailed word-image of his batting. It is a fascinating piece of cricket writing. It is a twenty-two page long essay portraying a player one had heard so little about, and yet read the chapter and you will feel as if you watched W. St. Hill bat right before your eyes.
This is a quality that Cardus’s writing also has but, as I have written before, Cardus’s portraits and images are less disturbing than those of CLRJ’s who was not just writing about the glorious days spent playing cricket but of the tensions, the struggles, the pent up frustrations of a people exploding in the only place they were legally allowed to – the cricket field.
No CLRJ is no Cardus (and Headley was no Bradman) but then Cardus wasn’t CLRJ either. So if by calling him the Black Cardus we are trying to show our respect for a great writer who also wrote of cricket and cricketers who am I to complain.