Beyond the Pale: Early Black and Asian Cricketers in Britain 1868-1945

Published: 2019
Pages: 312
Author: Carter, Andy
Publisher: Matador
Rating: 4 stars

It seems strange to suggest that a title that begins in the nineteenth century and ends in the middle of the twentieth should be so relevant today, but recent events have brought the topic of Andy Carter’s Beyond the Pale into sharp focus. As cricket restarts, with players taking to the field wearing Black Lives Matter logos on their shirts and Ebony Rainford-Brent and Michael Holding opening up on the racism they experienced, this is a book whose time has arrived.

Published late last year, it started life as a podcast, part of an academic research project, and has been deftly turned into a book that is relatable and enjoyable for a wider audience. It is a social history of more than just cricket. The book opens with a brief history of the origins of cricket and how it spread around the world with the expansion of the British Empire. It is this relationship between race, empire and the game prior to World War II that Carter sets out to examine, mainly focussing on touring sides and illustrious cricketers.

Beginning with the Australian Aboriginal tour of 1868, the book moves in mostly chronological order, though the first Parsee touring sides from India, to the early visits of the West Indies. Each of these chapters follow roughly the same formula; recounting the history of cricket in that country up to that point, detailing how the tours came about and the sides were selected, a synopsis of the tour itself and the aftermath and impact upon the cricketers’ return home. It is paced well, so the reader is not bogged down with statistics and reports of every game, though this might disappoint some cricket tragics. (The results of all tour matches are detailed in the appendices) Notable incidents and characters are given space, with a few myths exploded along the way.

Entire chapters are devoted to the best known Asian and Black cricketers of the era; Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji, Learie Constantine and the Nawab of Pataudi. Their influence on the game at that time, as well as the wealth of material already written about them, makes it natural that much of the attention is devoted to them. Contemporaries, who were just as much pioneers but whose names were either never widely known, or mostly forgotten, such as Alfred Holsinger and Manek Bajana are given their due. The author acknowledges that it is not a comprehensive study of all Black and Asian cricketers, so those hoping for a broader catalog of players lost to history will be let down.

A recurring theme is the reception given to the Black and Asian players in England. It is the case they were often accorded better treatment in England than in their home countries. Carter does not use this to whitewash the fact that they were still rarely greeted as equals, but rather to highlight how colonial rule imposed upon the colonies created and reinforced prejudices there.

The middle chapters deal with India’s rise to test status. This is mostly told through the stories of the Indian princes, but Manek Bajana’s exploits at Somerset and Sabdharatnajyoti Saravanamuttu at Cambridge also feature. The struggle for control of Indian cricket itself during this time plays out as the era of the princes draws to a close.

Cricket’s complex relationship with class blurs the lines between racial and other kinds of prejudice. Carter tells us how attitudes to cricketers of different castes from India, and colour, from the West Indies, made those players’ breakthroughs in England even more unlikely. A title opened some doors for Ranji. It appears establishment figures became colour-blind if one had the right education and connections. This was not the experience of most however, and Carter cites racist attitudes held by Cecil Rhodes and Lord Harris as examples of those for whom skin colour always trumped learning or social-standing.

The final chapter is devoted to Learie Constantine, whose feats on and off the playing fields are worthy of entire books by themselves. Although the scope of the project only includes cricketers who played before the end of World War II, the influence of Constantine extends beyond that, and his long and varied career is used by Carter as a bridge to include impact of Caribbean arrivals from the Empire Windrush and even to cricket in the 21st century.

Conclusions are drawn about cricket and its relationships with imperialism, class, racism and national identity, but there is plenty of food for thought for the reader. As Carter writes many of the events recounted here have long since faded into obscurity but they played a key part in defining Britain’s place in the world and the shape of British society today.

Despite the weight of its subject matter, it remains an enlightening and enjoyable read throughout.

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