This collection of letters, columns and contributions by CLR James is back in print after 10 years, welcome as rain on parched fields. His voice is unmistakeable. No one wrote with such heart and soul, passion and contention. The collection spans the 1930s to 1980s and the only thing that seems dated is his high expectation of the reader.
He does not ask you to sit and nod. He argues with you, lays down the law but invites challenge. Cricket is a mirror of history, he believed, a reflection of past, present and future civilisations and nationalities. His advocacy is passionate, learned, fiery, classical. His language is spun from a golden fleece of reference, Homer, Hazlitt, Hegel, that makes history, language and literature open adjacent doors to sport. He would have today's sub-editors scratching their heads and Googling madly. Here he is, as a contributor to John Arlott's collection The Great All- Rounders in 1969: "Garfield Sobers, I shall show, is a West Indian cricketer, not merely a cricketer from the West Indies.
He is the most typical West Indies cricketer that it is possible to imagine. All geniuses are merely people who carry to an extreme definitive the characteristics of the unit of civilisation to which they belong and the special act or function which they express or practise. Therefore to misunderstand Sobers is to misunderstand the West Indies, if not in intention, by inherent predisposition, which is much worse."
The style is rich, its aim unerring. The particular joy of this collection is seeing his connecting themes across the years. Captaincy is one, linked as it is in James' mighty thesis with class and nationality. And then there are orthodoxy (its value and limits); analysis (its necessity); those players (Sobers, for example) who exceed analysis; unobtrusive, masterly skill (Worrell) and its greater value than unpredictable brilliance (Botham). Both the need to learn and the imperative to understand are memorably preached and brilliantly exemplified. When he describes a bowler's style or a batsman's approach it is from long observation and close consideration. A decline in performance, whether of a team or a player, is studied under his microscope of accumulated experience. This is a book no cricket lover should be without, every social historian should read. It is not, however, an unalloyed joy. For all the gold of the words, they are set down in ugly typography on horrid paper. This must be for sound economic reasons but it is a shame. James deserves better.
This article was first published in the October 2006 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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