May 25, 2008

Island stories

Cricket and writing are more closely bound together in the West Indies than elsewhere



CLR James' Beyond a Boundary gave a 'base and solidity to West Indian literary endeavour' © Getty Images

About a decade and a half ago, one of Trinidad's best known sons, VS Naipaul, said to me, "You will not enjoy the West Indies. They are a bunch of small islands in every sense - you can walk from one end to the other before breakfast...", and more in that vein. Yet Trinidad has produced two Nobel winners in literature, Naipaul himself and Derek Walcott. Barbados was home to some of the biggest names to have played cricket: Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, and the greatest of them all, Garry Sobers.

Although "the West Indies" is a single cricketing unit, the Trinidadians, the Bajans, the Jamaicans and so on are distinctive, as Alec Waugh commented in his book on the West Indies, A Family of Islands. "I have come to recognise their separate identities," he wrote of the islands. "When I began to write their history, I felt I was engaged upon a family saga that covered a succession of generations; I was tracing the fortunes of the various branches of that family, with first one branch in the ascendant, then another."

Naipaul's reaction tells us about the man, Waugh's about the place. Throwing a bridge across the insensitivity of the native and the objectivity of the outsider are the works of CLR James, a Trinidadian who campaigned for the elevation of a Bajan, Worrell, as captain of West Indies, and wrote Beyond a Boundary, surely the greatest book on cricket.

James helped Learie Constantine write and publish, in 1933, one of the earliest books on West Indies cricket and politics, titled simply Cricket and I. The two of them, wrote James, were conscious they were making history and initiating the West Indies renaissance "not only in cricket but in politics, in history and in writing". Even allowing for the exaggeration that pioneers bring to their work, it was a startling claim, made more startling by the fact that it was possibly true. No other country can claim such an intimate connection between cricket and writing.

Naipaul has identified James as the first of the emigrant West Indian writers, and Beyond a Boundary book as valuable for giving a base and solidity "to West Indian literary endeavour".

 
 
Constantine and James were conscious they were making history and initiating the West Indies renaissance 'not only in cricket but in politics, in history and in writing'
 

Beyond a Boundary was published in 1963. In 1995, Liberation Cricket, a textbook on West Indies cricket culture, was dedicated to James and the new area of study, post-colonial literature. Edited by the historian Hilary Beckles, and Brian Stoddart, it brings together essays on popular culture. According to Viv Richards, who wrote the foreword, "This book is important in that it tells us how generations of West Indies struggled to become world leaders in a game that was once dominated by our former colonial masters and which has now become a social and political way of life for us."

When he wrote that, West Indies were dominating cricket. From 1976 to 1991 they won 59 and lost only 16 of 122 Tests played. From such heights they have fallen. The true lover of cricket will be saddened by their decline.

Many of the stars of those victories have put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or speech into recorders. Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Richards, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Brian Lara, among them. Among non-players, the Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley has written a history of West Indian cricket, as has the commentator Tony Cozier. Trevor Bailey's biography of Sobers remains a classic, while Anna Grimshaw, a former assistant to James, has edited a collection of his writings.

I picked up a book at the hotel in Faisalabad where the Indian players and journalists were staying on the 1989 tour. On the cover is Kapil Dev swivelling and hooking Ian Botham. A sign, if one were needed, that the quintessentially West Indian writer now belonged to the world rather than to a small corner of it.

A History of West Indies Cricket by Michael Manley; Andre Deutsch, 1988
Liberation Cricket edited by Hilary Beckles and Brian Stoddart; Manchester University Press, 1995
Beyond a Boundary by CLR James; Hutchinson and Co., 1963
Cricket and I by Learie Constantine; 1933
Cricket by CLR James (edited by Anna Grimshaw); Allison & Busby, 1986
Sir Gary by Trevor Bailey; Collins, 1976

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in the print edition of Cricinfo Magazine in 2006