Defining the boundary

Anu Lakhan on A Nation Imagined, by Hilary McD. Beckles; The West Indies in India: Jeffrey Stollmeyer’s Diary, 1948–1949; and more

West Indies cricket team

Anu Lakhan on A Nation Imagined, by Hilary McD. Beckles; The West Indies in India: Jeffrey Stollmeyer’s Diary, 1948–1949; and The Glory Days: 25 Great West Indian Cricketers, by Tony King and Peter Laurie

 

A Nation Imagined: First West Indies Test Team — The 1928 Tour by Hilary McD. Beckles (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-162-8, 145 pp)

The West Indies in India: Jeffery Stollmeyer’s Diary, 1948–1949, ed. Kenneth Ramchand with Yvonne Teelucksingh (Royards Publishing Company, ISBN 976-8185-24-4, 257 pp)

The Glory Days: 25 Great West Indian Cricketers
by Tony King and Peter Laurie (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1270-6, 132 pp)

Here are three books about the game of cricket as played by West Indians.

Game. Cricket. Played. West Indian. What a lot of contentious words in one small sentence. But then, the Third World is always deconstructing. These are all books about imagining a nation that could be the West Indies. These stories of men and teams and ideals and efforts are ongoing descriptions and inscriptions of West Indian identity. As texts, they provide a necessary primary level of documentation of our achievements. Their greater significance lies in showing us the choices made about this community that we still dream about.

As if in a pan-Caribbean effort to prove the verity of clichés, these three books remind us that the past is always with us. An account of the West Indies Test debut — in the days when the English were English and the West Indies merely an idea; a detailed journal kept by a legend of the legendary first tour of India — an opponent with whom this region has had a complicated and passionate affair; and a round-up — the greatest hits, as it were — of West Indies cricket. Historiographically obsessed? Maybe, but forgivable. To speak of our cricketing present would as soon end in tears as in brawls — and, following the wisdom of “If you’ve nothing good to say, say nothing,” it would be a very, very short book.

A Nation Imagined is the fourth book about cricket edited or written by historian, UWI-Cave Hill principal, and Centre for Cricket Research director Hilary Beckles. It is an admirably adequate book as far as match reports go, and, unlike Beckles’s other publications, this does not ostensibly set out to be much more. The result is an accessible commentary on some complex proceedings illustrated by actual (and often entertaining) game reportage of the day. Without the didactic tone that sometimes frustrates his readers (if not his arguments), Beckles introduces the team that got us playing with the big boys, and alights on the nascent character and consciousness of West Indian-ness.

The book commemorates the 75th anniversary of the inaugural West Indies Test tour against England in England. The visitors lost 12 matches (including the three Tests, by an innings each), won five, and drew 13. The English public was underwhelmed, and not afraid to say so. As far as the press was concerned, there was praise for Learie Constantine; and it appears there may have been some other lads on the team.

A Nation Imagined is really two books in one: Beckles’s and the “1928 Archives”, comprising newspaper reports and match summaries compiled by journalist Vaneisa Baksh. The unorthodox layout, dividing the material between facing pages, is a little awkward at first, but it’s amazing how quickly one can adjust to reading only left-hand pages (wherein lie the narrative) then coming back to read the archival material.
 

This book’s title is an appropriate opening for considering the Stollmeyer and King-Laurie volumes also. In a sense, all nations are imagined. They are not incontrovertible truths. They may share histories and cultures and struggles; they may occupy more or less defined spaces; their politics, economics, languages, and codes are the stuff of nationalistic debates that exceed the scope of this review (and this reviewer). What nations most certainly are not is static, and because they are not, they are constantly revising and re-inventing their delineations. That is the work of imagination: the mental exercise of charting what cannot be clearly or definitively known.

The campaign for Test status and the 1928 tour of England made a definite break from the “cousin” cricket that was the previous context of the West Indian game. More than thirty years before independence, the region was ready, or at least willing, to challenge what history had laid out for it. Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad, separated both by miles of ocean and by psychological insularity, brought together a multiracial, socially diverse team to rival their colonial masters. That the tour was something of a disaster for the tourists, or that the multiracial project was incomplete (the team would not include a player of East Indian descent until Ramadhin in 1950), hardly condemns the enterprise. And it gave the West Indies its first real superstar: Constantine.

Skip a couple decades to 1948, and Jeffrey Stollmeyer’s West Indies in India — the text of the actual diary kept by Stollmeyer during the first tour made by a West Indies team to India — a tour of particular historical interest. Both Guyana and Trinidad have significant East Indian populations. Up to the present day, an Indian side visiting the West Indies has the astonishing gift of a very supportive home audience. The ties that link West Indians to their ancestral homes are still evidently able to scupper the dream of West Indian-ness.

The introduction, by UWI professor emeritus Kenneth Ramchand, is a bit of a tease; like having a brilliant conversation with someone at a first meeting, and walking away thinking, if that was the ice-breaker, the really good stuff is still to come — only to find that they used up all the good material on the first impression, and there’s little to follow. Ramchand is comprehensive to the point of rendering the journal otiose. He supplies not just a summary of the contents but useful contextual information, and an understanding of the social and political circumstances of the time.

It is 1948. There are black players on the team, but the captaincy is still white. Veteran George Headley might have been the obvious choice for captain — as he was for exactly one match in the 1947–48 series against England in the West Indies. (Apparently fed up with playing under captains chosen for something other than merit, Headly elected to extinguish himself in India.) There is yet no Indian player. Only two of the three W’s are on the tour, Walcott and Weekes — Worrel absent on account of the cricket board’s refusal to negotiate a reasonable stipend with him (official reason: disciplinary action for tardiness). Jamaica’s Noel Nethersole is on the West Indies Board of Control, actively challenging the position that property ownership endows one with the characteristics of and right to leadership. The work of imagining a West Indian nation, or at least a West Indian cricketing nation, is still very much in process.

“The flavour isn’t bad but nothing to write a book about,” Stollmeyer writes on 19 December, 1948. He is describing a Nagpur orange of vaunted reputation. Fortunate orange that has the honour of the diarist’s dismissiveness; the rest of the sub-continent does not fare quite so well. Everything and everyone in India is squalid, stupid, and dishonest. The country offers only pox, dust, and the odd chance to buy a good rug.

Hard to imagine someone being so crotchety all through a spectacularly triumphant tour. In all, the team played 24 matches, losing only one. But everything in context: a well-to-do young man from the colonies, travelled and educated, must have some vent for the frustrations of touring such a disagreeable land where inconveniences, louts, and dinner engagements are pressed on him at every turn. The introduction makes it very clear that this diary was meant for his close personal relations: his wife and parents. “As a writer, Stollmeyer benefited from having a clear sense of an immediate audience whom he trusted and who were sympathetic to him,” Ramchand says; in the editing, he admits, some comments had to be toned down or omitted. Alas, this sort of intimate encounter with the renowned batsman does little to endear him to his fans.

While Stollmeyer may not have known how to remedy India’s inadequacies, he had quite a few ideas about how a team and tour should be handled. Throughout the journal, he keeps a close eye on Barbadian captain John Goddard — everything from his tendency to shirk public speaking duties (which then fell to Stollmeyer) to his field placements. Where Goddard comes across as not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Stollmeyer’s own clear and intelligent analysis emerges. It would not happen until 1952, but in India he is already thinking like a captain.

The tour seems to have been poorly managed from the start. Alarming, really, how little has changed: arrangements were often unsatisfactory, communication wanting, remuneration of players disproportionate to their efforts and gate proceeds. Doubtless it was a harrowing time. The team was away for about six months, a saga of ships, trains, planes, and heat. More than one extempo calypso mentioning “perspiration” was composed. To their credit, the players did not just sit back and grumble. They united — players black and white, wealthy and working-class — to defend their interests, and one of their champions turns out to have been Stollmeyer. Perhaps there is something to Ramchand’s claim that he was “more open-minded than many West Indians of his generation.”

From the early 1920s, even before Test status was accorded the West Indies, Trinidadian Learie Constantine had emerged as the region’s shining star. In a discussion of West Indies cricket (which cannot help but be about West Indian identity), Constantine’s name comes readily to the lips. In The Glory Days, Peter Laurie quotes the English cricket writer Neville Cardus on the great all-rounder: “Constantine is a representative man: he is West Indian cricket . . . When we see Constantine bat or bowl or field, we know he is not an English player, not an Australian player, not a South African player.” Looking over all three books, it’s clear Constantine was a very good start, not just to our cricketing potential, but to the growing sense of what it means to be distinctly West Indian; not other, but something unique and precise in its definition of itself.

Co-authored by Barbadians Tony King and Peter Laurie, Glory Days opens with a spirited, if unconventional, introduction in the form of a conversation between the authors. “Half the fun,” says King, “In selecting a top 25 is provoking discussions over who to include and who to leave out.” The authors’ exchange is intelligent and enlightening, with much quoting of C.L.R. James (in this context one can hardly go wrong with James) and other cricket writers. But for all the carefully managed linearity of their conversation, what they share is very much in the tradition of good West Indian “old talk” — a highly evolved art of conversation designed to incite debate, if not madness and mayhem. The five sections that follow identify the epochs of our cricketing history:

• 1923–39: The Early Years: Challenor, Constantine, and Headley.
• 1947–60: The Post-War Years: Walcott, Weekes, Worrell, and Ramadhin.
• 1960–74: The Worrell-Sobers Era: Gibbs, Hall, Hunte, Kanhai, and Sobers himself.
• 1975–95: World Supremacy: Ambrose, Dujon, Garner, Greenidge, Haynes, Holding, Kallicharran, Lloyd, Marshall, Richards, Roberts, and Walsh.
• 1995–present: Lara.

A history lesson in brief. Headley as first black player to sort-of-captain the team. Ramadhin as first Indian player on the team. Along with Alf Valentine (who didn’t make the top 25), one of the region’s first great spin bowlers. Worrell as first black series captain. Other firsts, greats, and pivotal moments are recorded.

For non-cricketing nations, as for cricket non-fans within Test countries, the game is like reading Dante: you are told that it is beautiful, riveting, eloquent, but it appears endless and impenetrable. Forced to endure it, let alone read about it, other Dante-esque thoughts come to mind — something about circles and descent. The Glory Days may be the Cliff Notes that weaken such perspectives. Concise enough for the attention-deficient, it is also a thoroughly delightful read. The narratives show the subtlety and art of the game that has inspired generations of cricket writers to some of the most gorgeous, profound sports analysis. Cardus is quoted as saying, “Worrell never made an ungrammatical stroke.” The batting of Viv Richards is described as “cultured violence”. England’s first defeat by the West Indies in England was “a declaration of independence by the colonies.” The trailer may seem better than the movie, but it does get you into the theatre.

Trinidadian calypsonian David Rudder, who gave us the cricket anthem Rally Round the West Indies, appeals to something fundamental in the West Indian, not because he is a pie-in-the-sky idealist, but because he keeps holding out to us an ideal that, in the face of difference and divergence, we want to believe in. This is much how we feel about our cricket. These three books remind us that while we may not have absolute faith in the people who call the shots, we believe in the people who make them — the athletes — and we believe in our belief, in our vision of a West Indian identity.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.