CLR James, cricket, culture and politics

For me, cricket in Guyana always makes me return to CLR James’s masterpiece, “Beyond the boundary”, in which he ruminates on the question “What do they know of cricket that only cricket knows?”
With the CPL Tournament ended, perchance one can share some of his insights, along with his caveat that context is always paramount. Even though the book is autobiographical, and so anchored in events from a century ago, his observations still resonate.
While some purists may sniff that T-20’s showmanship is over-the-top, even back then, when Test Cricket was the only format in existence, he insisted cricket was ‘a spectacle’. “Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.” And like all those art forms, while they may have originated elsewhere, to take root, cricket, on and off the field, had to become integrated into the lived experience of the local society.
James again, “The cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance”. James wrote about a neighbour, seen as coarse and crass by his prim and proper spinster aunts, becoming transformed into a hero as he plays strokes of sublime beauty on the cricket pitch. He uplifts all the spectators, who are mostly from his social strata; they see themselves refracted in his performance, and it offers them hope.
In my village of Uitvlugt, the Community Centre, built in the mid-fifties by Bookers, was a pilgrimage site to which I gravitated every Sunday to view our local sugar workers become transformed from plantation drudges into flannel-clad stars as they battled teams from the surrounding villages on the cricket field. Even as a boy, a total klutz in the game, I could apprehend cane-cutter Fogo whipping that ball off his toes as “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”.
It was for these sugar estate grounds that Bookers hired the great Clive Walcott as a coach, and it was these grounds that produced the flamboyant and unorthodox Rohan Kanhai. James was to describe Kanhai: “In Kanhai’s batting, what I have found is a unique pointer of the West Indian quest for identity, for ways of expressing our potential, bursting at every seam.” It was due to James’s lobbying that Worrell was made Captain of the West Indies Cricket Team in 1960, breaking the colour barrier and validating merit as the criterion for selection of leaders. Independence for Trinidad and Jamaica in 1962 was an expression of that confidence writ large.
In terms of the flamboyant style of CPL Cricket, this is a continuation of the early subversion of colonial cricket by players like Kanhai, who would deliberately fall on his back to hook a ball for four. Along with other WI players, they unhitched cricket from “Englishness” to de- Victorianise the sport that was supposed to usher us natives into “modernity”. The spectacle of the CPL T20 cricket tournament, with its carnivalesque crowds and kaleidoscopic uniforms, creates an indigenous Caribbean identity by using tools that had turned us as colonised subjects into colonised objects. We are playing Caribbean Cricket, and the erstwhile masters can now only try to imitate us in order to catch up.
Coming to the seemingly excessive support by the Guyanese public (domestic and foreign) for the Warriors, James had noted that the cricketers’ success ‘atoned for a pervading humiliation, and nourished pride and hope’. He drew a historical parallel between our euphoric feelings on the excellence of our cricketers and the Greeks’ iconisation of their athletes: “The Greeks believed that an athlete who had represented his community at a national competition and won had thereby conferred a notable distinction on his city. His victory was a testament to the quality of his citizens.” And in like fashion, so was his defeat, hence our national mood of depression following the Warriors’ elimination from the Tournament.
James also connected cricket to a philosophy of West Indian life inculcated in the schools: “I acquired the discipline for which the only name is Puritan. I never cheated, I never argued with the umpire, I never jeered at a defeated opponent, I never gave a friend a vote or a place which…could be seen as belonging to a stranger.”
Would that our politicians had inculcated such values.