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WLA Coleman uncovers the story of the first tour of England made by a West Indian side
May 5, 2007
Previous visits to the West Indies by English teams had been organised by Lord Hawke, in 1894-95 (the first ever tour to West Indies) captained by RS Lucas, the Middlesex amateur, and in 1896-97 when two teams visited the islands. One was led by Lord Hawke (who had to withdraw in 1894) and the other by Arthur Priestley. Plum Warner, who was born in Trinidad, was the success of Lord Hawke's tour. The success and enjoyment of these tours and the discovery of the West Indies as a new source of cricket led to an invitation from Lord Hawke in June 1899 for a combined West Indian team to visit England in 1900.
Warner's brother, RSA Warner, was appointed captain and a selection committee, representing all the West Indian islands, met in Trinidad in January 1900 and chose the following team: SW Sproston, GC Learmond and WT Burton (Demerara, to become British Guiana, now Guyana), PJ Cox, W Bowring, PA Goodman and F Hinds (Barbados), LS D'Ade, S Woods and L Constantine (Trinidad), MM Kerr and GL Livingstone (Jamaica), WH Mignon (Grenada) and CA Ollivierre (St Vincent), with WC Nock (Trinidad) as manager. The unavoidable absence of HB Austin, a fine early West Indian batsman (who was serving in the Boer War), HA Cole of Barbados and Cumberbatch, the black Trinidadian bowler, prevented the side from being fully representative. Lebrun Constantine (a plantation foreman) was the father of Lord (Learie) Constantine.
The party sailed on May 26 from Barbados on RMS Trent and arrived at Southampton on June 5. Practice was arranged for a couple of days at Southampton and the team came to London for their first match on June 11 against WG Grace's London County XI at Crystal Palace. Their start was not auspicious. Grace had chosen a strong side, scoring 71 himself in a total of 538, and the tourists were beaten by an innings. A further heavy defeat followed at Worcester, and Warwickshire beat them by an innings in their third game. As the counties were playing at less than full strength, the early defeats were disappointing. Nevertheless, as Pelham Warner pointed out, "the team had never played together before, and they were unaccustomed to the strain of continuous three-day cricket". A fourth successive defeat followed at Lord's by MCC but after an innings defeat seemed likely at 132 for 8, Constantine and Burton put on 162 in 65 minutes for the ninth wicket, forcing MCC to bat again. In making the 107 required they lost four wickets (including Grace) for 36. Constantine's 113 was the first hundred by a West Indian in England.
A splendid win followed against the Minor Counties at Northampton. Fifty-five behind in the first innings, Woods and Burton (their two coloured fast bowlers) bowled the Minor Counties out for 54. The next game against Gloucestershire was a total disaster. Wisden indicates that the county put a much stronger team into the field than did most of the other counties, and the result was a foregone conclusion. Gloucestershire's 619 contained three centuries, including Jessop's 157 scored while 201 were made in an hour. In one over he hit six fours, and as Warner recounted in My Cricketing Life, "the black men of the team were so amused (at this hitting) that they sat down on the ground and shouted with laughter at the unfortunate bowler's discomforture!" They suffered their heaviest defeat ever in England by an innings and 216.
[They were guilty of] bad running between wickets ... the worst judges of a run I have ever seen
The tour ended with rain washing out the fixture with Yorkshire at Bradford over August Bank Holiday but the tourists had the satisfaction of winning their last match against Norfolk by an innings. Although the tourists scored only 165, Norfolk were bowled out for 32 in their second innings, Burton taking 8 for 9. The team's record was 17 matches played (they lost the toss on 12 occasions) five won, eight lost and four drawn. There were, however, many creditable performances on this tour. Ollivierre, who later remained in England to qualify for Derbyshire, scored 883 runs at an average of 32, Constantine 610 at 30, Cox 755 at 30. Woods took 72 wickets at an average of 21 and Burton 78 at 21. Six centuries were scored during the tour by six different batsmen.
It is interesting to read the contemporary views. Wisden describes the tour as an "experiment" but, as everyone thought at the time, the programme of matches was far too ambitious. As the tourists became used to English conditions and grounds, however, their performances improved until "in August when their labours came to an end, they were in very good form".
Their performances, however, were erratic, with the batting liable to sudden collapse, and the fielding varied from outstanding to "slipshod and lazy" as Warner put it. He added that "at the beginning of the tour there was a distinct disinclination on the part of one or two members of the side to run after the ball!", but as the tour progressed, this "grievous sin" disappeared. Woods seemed to lose heart very easily but a number of catches were missed off his bowling. Burton, the better of the two fast bowlers, produced a very good yorker, twice clean bowling Grace. The captain, RSA Warner, was taken ill with malaria and missed the last seven matches, Stanley Sproston deputising in his absence. The manager, Nock, seems to have made a very good impression and was popular. Plum Warner summed up the side's weakest points as "absence of a regular wicketkeeper and bad running between wickets - the worst judges of a run I have ever seen!"
Warner concludes that the tour was a success and that by the end the West Indians were quite equal to first-class cricket (the second tour in 1906 was first-class), yet it was to be 28 years before official Test cricket was played between the two countries. In My Cricketing Life, Warner recounts that the West Indians played well below themselves and "the tour attracted little attention". An article at the time in Boys Own refers to the "great novelty of the presence of coloured men playing on a cricket field in England" (in fact five of the team were coloured, 10 were white). Prior to the tour there had been much comment that the coloured players would play "without boots and in very sparse attire, but this was, of course, all nonsense".
This throws interesting light on the prevailing attitudes in the West Indies and how at that time their cricket was dominated by the whites. The manager indicated that the coloured players had apparently "very quickly fallen into English ways" and that "they gave no trouble whatever during the tour. Indeed, they lived in the same hotels and were treated exactly like the white members". Woods is purported to have said "what a lot of white people they have got in this country", when playing at Crystal Palace.
It is a measure of the achievements of West Indies cricketers that they have been able to overcome any racial clouds on the horizon and to evolve over the years into the highly professional and successful multi-racial teams of today. It would be fair to say that the pioneering efforts of these first West Indian cricketers contributed in no small way to this.
This article first appeared in The Cricketer in June 1988
© The Cricketer
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