Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Full quote: “I did some hard thinking, and not only some thinking but some acting too. I set to work at my cricket.”
By: Learie Constantine, sometime in early 1928.
As mentioned elsewhere, of the first six Test-playing nations, India were the only team to field team comprising entirely of indigenous. Of the others, England, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, were essentially Caucasians, mostly of British (or other European countries) origin.
The West Indians were not. The difference between the whites and the coloured was stark in the islands. The whites came from privileged backgrounds. If they did not own industries or fields, they occupied the highest ranks at workplaces.
In contrast, the blacks formed the chunk of the blue-collar spectrum. Professional promotions were restricted. Their raw talent, immense power, and natural athleticism, however, meant that they were indispensable when it came to sport, including cricket, which is largely responsible to bring the islands under one bracket.
It seems incredible, how two classes – racially and financially – worked together on the cricket field for representative West Indian XIs. Consider Lebrun Constantine, who toured England in 1900 (when he became the first West Indian to score a hundred on English soil) and 1906. His grandfather and father-in-law were both slaves.
One wonders, which was more phenomenal – Constantine’s astonishing rise through the ranks or his ability to adapt to the circumstances, especially in England, where racism was still prevalent.
Of course, there was a prominent division of labour: the whites were almost always batsmen, and the fast bowlers were invariably black. And a black captain was unthinkable.
To make things worse there was inter-island politics, which is yet to be put to rest.
But West Indian cricket thrived despite the odds, and that is an understatement. The first English team that toured there in 1894-95 won 11 matches but lost 2 – though, to be fair, Slade Lucas’s side was not the strongest.
In 1896-97 something bizarre happened. Lord Hawke and Arthur Priestley led separate teams to the West Indies. Led by “Plum” Warner’s brother Aucher, an All-West Indies team beat the latter, at Trinidad. The rout was led by Clifford Goodman (5 for 72 and 4 for 53) and Archie Cumberbatch (4 for 66 and 5 for 67).
That was how it started. Unlike New Zealand and India, West Indies played the Englishmen several times, both home and away, before they earned Test status.
It obviously took them time to get acclimatised to the near-alien conditions in their first tour, in 1900. They lost their first four matches as a result, but things improved as the tour went on. They finished with 5 wins and 8 defeats and stayed undefeated in their last seven matches.
The 1906 tourists fared worse, winning 7 and losing 10. Only two of their wins came against county sides. In the first, Richard Ollivierre (7 for 23) and Sydney Smith (3 for 27) bowled unchanged to rout defending champions Yorkshire for 50 in the first innings. The tourists won by 262 runs.
In the other, against Northamptonshire, too, Smith took 6 for 39 and 6 for 60. He stayed back in England and played for Northants till before The Great War, even leading them towards the end.
This was a tour when Tommie Burton “was sent home after refusing to carry out menial duties for white members” (Martin Williamson, ESPNCricinfo). Burton had been their leading wicket-taker in 1900.
But things would improve, both on the field and off it.
The first big turnaround came in 1910-11, when MCC lost their first three matches (two against Barbados, one against all-West Indies). They also lost twice to Trinidad and tied once with Jamaica; they finished with 3 wins and 5 defeats. At this stage, they were certainly stronger than South Africa.
All this paved for a three-match series between all-West Indies and MCC in 1913-14. MCC won the “Test series” 2-1 in front of packed grounds. Before that, they lost to Barbados twice. George Challenor, who had had a decent tour in 1906, scored 118 and 109 and took five wickets in each match.
But it was the 1923 tour that really turned things around. As had become the norm by now, they lost 3 of the first 5 matches but only 4 of the last 23. In all, they won 13. In History of West Indian Cricket, Michael Manley hailed the tour as “the first great turning point of West Indian cricket”.
The tour witnessed the rise of Challenor, the first outstanding cricketer in their history West Indian. WG Grace marked him out as a future star. “His admirable batting did much toward raising cricket in West Indies to Test match standard.” Wisden would later write. He scored 1,556 runs (at 51.86), almost a quarter of the total aggregate by the tourists.
The Father of West Indian Batting, they would call him later.
In 1926, where, to quote Hillary Beckles, “a small group of wealthy individuals” met at Bridgetown. The minutes of meetings are not documented well, but it is generally accepted that the meeting helped form the West Indies Cricket Board of Control. Harold Austin, who had led the West Indians on 1923, was named the first President.
WICBC became an ICC Affiliate Member on May 31. They were invited to the ICC meeting that year along with their counterparts from India and New Zealand. All three teams were awarded Test status.
New Zealand toured England the next year, though they did not play a Test. West Indies were scheduled to play three Tests the year after that, at Lord’s, Old Trafford, and The Oval. Unfortunately, they lost all three by an innings. They won 7 and lost 12 of their 36 matches.
“Whatever the future may have in store, the time is certainly not yet when the West Indies can hope to challenge England with a reasonable hope of success,” concluded Wisden.
Learie Constantine had taken 37 wickets at 22 on the 1923 tour, though his batting average stayed under 16. However, there was little doubt over his third discipline. Plum Warner hailed him as the greatest fielder in the world. Years later, even Don Bradman would agree.
In 1928 he scored 1,381 runs at 35 and claimed 107 wickets at 23. In all First-Class cricket, his numbers read 4,475 runs at 24 and 439 wickets at 20. The numbers are impressive but not unbelievable. In Test cricket he had ordinary numbers – 635 runs came 19 and 58 wickets at 30. But then, his 28 catches came at 0.965 an innings – the third-best in history for outfielders with a 25-catch cut-off.
But Constantine had greater ambitions in mind when he had left for England. He used to work as a clerk for Trinidadian solicitors before realising – correctly – that his complexion would restrict his rise through the ranks.
In fact, he had to quit his 30-shillings-a-week job at Llewellyn Roberts to travel to England in 1923. By 1925 a broke Constantine had to move in with his parents, Lebrun (mentioned above) and Anna.
He married Norma in 1927 and became a father nine months later. Around this time he had taken up cricket – his greatest skill – professionally, and what better place was to do that in 1928 than England?
He obviously knew what he was doing: “I did not want to do as so many other West Indians had done – be forced into a position where I did neither thing to the best of my ability. When I landed in England I was as fit a man as I have ever been in my life.”
By the time RMS Camito docked at Avonmouth, Constantine had already made up his mind about leaving Trinidad to play league cricket in England.
It was not an easy decision, but as CLR James wrote in Beyond a Boundary, “the restraints imposed upon him by social conditions in the West Indies had become intolerable and he decided to stand them no longer … he revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man.”
The flavour of Constantine was as West Indian as they made them (though Manley wrote that he was “more particularly Trinidadian than West Indian”). Peter Mason, his biographer, wrote how he “had laid down the template for the black West Indian cricketer – fast bowler, hard-hitting batsman and electric fielder.”
He caught the imagination of the English cricket fraternity, but he still needed that one performance that would push a club to extend a contract.
That came against Middlesex at Lord’s. In A Spinner’s Yarn, Ian Peebles, who bowled Constantine in the first innings, described the performance as the greatest he had seen. In Cricketers of My Time, EW Swanton hailed it as among the greatest in history.
The tourists were 79/5 after Middlesex had declared at 352/6. Then Constantine launched a furious assault, reaching fifty in 18 minutes and eventually scoring 86 in less than an hour. The follow-on averted, he ran through the Middlesex innings with 7/57.
Constantine appeared again with the West Indians on 121/5 in pursuit of 259 and smashed a hundred in an hour. One of his shots broke Jack Hearne’s finger, ruling him out of the rest of the season. In Slipless in Settle, Harry Pearson wrote of “one blow off the back foot that flew over cover point and ricocheted off the Old Father Time vane on the roof of the North Stand.”
There was no doubt anymore. Even Wisden shed off their cautious self: “His movement was so joyously fluid and, at need, acrobatic that he might have been made of springs and rubber.”
Nelson signed him up for next season. He played in the Lancashire League from 1929 to 1942. The result was instantaneous: in his first nine seasons Nelson won the League seven times and were runners-up twice.
The performances are too many to list, but some numbers stand out. He took 884 wickets at under 10 during his stint. His 799 League wickets are still a record, as are his 79 five-wicket hauls; he also remains the only one to take five-fors against every club. His 7,111 runs came at 36.
So attached did he become to the club that even during World War II he refused to leave England for the relative safety of Trinidad (“I would have felt like a rat deserting a ship”).
But he also had battles to fight, for he played in an era when racism was prevalent in English society. His mail included letters addressing him as “dear nigger”. He was called “black bugger” on the field. When little boys shook hands with him, they were astonished to see that the colour of his skin had not come off on theirs.
Constantine featured in the wartime cricket matches. Two of these, in 1943, were scheduled at Lord’s on consecutive days. Constantine, by then a British citizen working at the Ministry of Labour and National Service, booked two rooms for four days at Imperial Hotel, Russell Square.
But he was denied entry. When he raised it to Arnold Watson at the Ministry of Labour. When confronted, the hotel manager responded point blank: “We are not going to have these niggers in our hotel.”
It is to be noted that Constantine was to represent British Empire XI and Dominions in the two matches – in other words, he would represent English sides.
None of that mattered. He checked in at Bedford Hotel. Then he sued Imperial and won. Throughout the process, he found tremendous support from the Government and his fans. The case set a precedent, for this was the first of its kind in England.
The case also triggered a chain of movements that led to the historic Race Relations Act being passed in Britain in 1965, which deemed any discrimination on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” as illegal.
Constantine had been Knighted three years before that. He became the first black peer of UK in 1969.
There have been greater cricketers in the history of West Indies, several of them. But nobody before him made the West Indian brand of cricket more mainstream before him.
And certainly, no one put the black man on the global cricket map as firmly.