John Arlott has a lot to answer for. In his review in the 1964 Wisden he declared this to be "the finest book written about the game of cricket", with only John Nyren's 1833 classic and Hugh de Selincourt's fictional The Cricket Match (1924) challenging it. On the strength of that heady recommendation, and despite all that has joined the market over the past 40 years, John's words have prompted hordes of cricket enthusiasts to read the book in one of its several editions. Most will not have been disappointed, especially if their taste is Caribbean cricket, its flavours and its characters. But an ongoing source of amusement derives from meeting people who, having asserted that this is indeed the finest book, confess - when pressed - that they haven't yet quite got around to reading it.
"CLR" was extremely tall and he had the thinnest and most persistent of voices. He was a Marxist, but had been greatly influenced by the writing of William Thackeray, and passages here could have been penned by the most conservative of observers. "A British intellectual long before I was ten," was how he described himself. His friendship with the great allrounder Learie Constantine served both of them well, and although James travelled widely, and dwelt for many years in England, it is Trinidad that cradles his most tender memories. Well-read from childhood, he was colour-conscious from an early age, and bridled at the apartheid in local club cricket.
Two of the key characters portrayed in loving detail are George John, a superb fast bowler, and Wilton St Hill. The latter was, in James's view, fit to rate alongside Bradman, Sobers, Headley, the three Ws, Hutton, Compton and May. Poor St Hill averaged 19.50 in his three Tests. Romantic stuff.
"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Although there are countless words which might be substituted for "cricket", this aphorism, deserving of digestion, is a trademark slogan tied inextricably to this book.
From the book
The old Shannon Club of those days is a foundation pillar of this book. A man's unstated assumptions, those he is often not aware of, are usually the mainspring of his thought. All of Constantine's fierce and sustained attacks against the way West Indian cricket is managed stem from his Shannon experience. He believes that the real West Indies team should be the team that would play with the spirit and the fire, the spontaneous self-discipline and cohesion, of Shannon. With such a West Indian side as he has always visualised he would throw down the gauntlet without fear to a world eleven of Graces, Bradmans, Ranjitsinhjis, Spofforths and O'Reillys. Between the wars he never ceased to argue with me that after [H.B.G.] Austin in 1923, the West Indies team being what it was, the captain should be a black man. I opposed him with the idea that the captain should be the best man. He was not concerned about the colour or social status of any individual. He was confident that such a team as he had in mind would make all types play the cricket he wanted, as confident as he was that Shannon could have made me into a good cricketer. The view of that great master of batting, George Headley, is not very different. Who would guess that George's ideal captain, the man he would have liked to play under, is Jardine?
Beyond a Boundary
by CLR James
Stanley Paul, 1963
David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly