We sometimes have reason to be grateful for the periods politicians spend in opposition. Roy Jenkins’s Asquith, Anthony Crosland’s reflections on socialism, Richard Crossman’s Bagehot, would hardly have come out of Whitehall, and Michael Manley would not have found time to write a history of West Indian cricket which encompasses the social, economic and regional problems of the Caribbean if he had been engaged in trying to resolve them in their present manifestations. There is no way of separating the history of the sport, in terms of the games played and the talents of the players, from the material and social conditions in which they have been played. The wristiness of West Indian batsmen, according to Manley, and in the earlier years their difficulties in driving and playing on the front foot, had something to do with learning to cope with bad wickets and irregular bounce.
Cricket, observes the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, was born in the England of leisurely weekends and rural environment, rather than of the industrial city. It was a game designed to occupy time rather than to defeat it, and was planted in the West Indies after 1815 by army officers with much time on their hands. Soon the young sons of slaves were required to bowl at the young sons of slaveowners, but the bowlers – the servant class – began to practise batting and got quite good at it. When formal organisation began, the structure of West Indian society – or of its various societies – was closely reproduced in the clubs and boards of control that ran cricket in the Caribbean, a state of affairs which persisted until the 1960s; and Manley deals severely with the short-sightedness and social arrogance which dictated that West Indian teams had to be captained by whites.
The most notorious example was the reappointment of John Goddard to lead the tour of England in 1957 over the obviously superior claims of Frank Worrell. This particular anomaly led directly to defeat, and had its share in the disaster at Edgbaston in the first test, when Ramadhin was required to bowl 98 successive overs while May and Cowdrey put on 411 for the fourth wicket. Sobers, who could bowl fast, reveals that he offered to try taking the long overdue new ball, but Goddard would not take this risk! Ramadhin himself was demoralised and took only five further wickets in the series. It is not generally realised in Britain that this undoubtedly very great partnership was achieved against a crippled attack, and was certainly assisted when the batsmen found that the umpires would never give them lbw if they padded away straight balls by playing well forward. Sobers does not conceal his contempt for these tactics, to which he would never have resorted.
The captaincy was one of the most widely discussed public questions of the late Fifties. It is true that George Headley had been appointed to lead in two matches against England as far back as 1947 (he was unfit to play in the second of them), but no black player had thenceforth been entrusted with this socially significant responsibility. Worrell, a sensitive and proud man, who had earlier gone on a one-man strike by declining to go on a tour of India for inadequate pay, was undoubtedly offended by the exclusion, and it is much to the credit of Gerry Alexander that he declined the captaincy, insisting that it should go to Worrell for the famous Australian tour of 1960-61. A white player serving as vice-captain under a black was at that time part of the education of West Indian society. Sir Frank Worrell, probably the greatest all-rounder of the Fifties, who possessed the kind of natural authority that used to be associated with the idea of aristocracy, soon proved himself to be the greatest leader of any cricketing country since the Second World War. He moulded a cohesive and powerful team out of disparate and explosively individualistic ingredients; leading the tour of England in 1963 at the age of 39, he continued to play an important if no longer a commanding part as a batsman.
In his understandable concern with the progress of the black masses of the Caribbean and their emancipation not only from economic exploitation but from the psychological restraints associated with racial oppression, there is a positive aspect that Manley omits to mention. For despite the ethnic tones of the local clubs, of which C.L.R. James has left us such a fascinating record, West Indian teams were by definition multiracial from the beginning. Whites may have been expected to lead, but white and black players played as equals in representative matches – unlike the gentlemen and players of England, who used different dressing rooms and gates at Lord’s until after the war. Professionals, or ‘players’, did not use the Lord’s pavilion but came onto the field from the building beside it; amateurs, or ‘gentlemen’, were designated on scorecards by having their initials printed before the surname, thus: A.P.F. Chapman, but Hobbs, J.B.
West Indian cricket did serve some bridging functions. It would have been inconceivable for whites and blacks to have mixed in the same sports teams in the Southern states of the United States during the 1900s to 1950s, when this was quite normal in the West Indies. I rather suspect that the appearance of these mixed teams playing together and respecting each other’s abilities may have had some educational value for the British public too. The virtual disappearance of white players from representative West Indian cricket is another aspect which is left untouched, and which in a mixed society is perhaps to be regretted.
Manley, whose social history includes such items as the infant mortality rate in Barbados – an unusual item in cricket histories – emphasises the rise of West Indian national consciousness, which is inseparably connected with the trade union movement, with ethnic consciousness, and with the founding by his father Norman Manley of the People’s National Party, of which the author is now the leader. (If Edward Seaga is interested in Jamaica’s cricket fortunes, the matter is not mentioned here.) It is easy to see that the question of black leadership had a symbolic importance transcending even cricket itself, if such a thing is possible.
The trade union movement plays an important part in the forging of this class-consciousness, which was inseparable from ethnic self-respect. Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism, often dismissed as a misconceived irrelevancy in American black history, is here treated with much greater respect as one manifestation of a rising national consciousness which is class-orientated in principle but inevitably ethnic in much of its content and experience. Meanwhile, apart from its intrinsic values, cricket provided a way to self-advancement for poor boys with nothing to help them but their talent. ‘Cricket,’ says Sobers, ‘provided an exit and a way to make money. There was no finer way for a black boy to make a better life for himself.’ The economic background is constantly in mind among West Indian cricketers, and Manley is notably sympathetic in dealing with the Packer episode: it certainly improved the financial rewards of cricket for individual players, but it was parasitic on national cricket and would eventually have disrupted the whole framework of the international game.
Great players like Learie Constantine and George Headley emerged against this background of rising national consciousness and helped the process of a unified identity. Bradman, Hammond and Headley were the greatest batsmen of the age that followed Hobbs. Headley, whose training was much more limited, went to Australia in 1930 with hardly any on-side strokes – a weakness quickly exploited by Grimmett – and so completely overcame his deficiencies that by the end of that tour Grimmett could say: ‘Headley is the finest on-side player in the world.’ (The world, needless to say, included the youthful Bradman.) He actually scored a century for every 3.5 innings he played in first-class cricket. (Bradman, in his much longer career, scored 3.7.)
During the Forties and Fifties West Indian cricket contained several players of genius without ever fully becoming a team. Distance (Jamaica and Barbados are as far apart as London and Florence) and island jealousies made the work of co-ordination arduous: yet, perhaps ironically, it was just as the political Federation was falling apart in the early Sixties, mainly because of Jamaica’s recalcitrance, that the team came together – assisted by jet transport. The people needed their heroes and they found one in Garfield Sobers, arguably the greatest player in cricket history and undoubtedly the finest all-rounder. Manley’s touch is at its best when he pauses to describe Sobers fielding for the first time in test cricket: his feline movement to gather the ball and the power of his throw announced the arrival of something more than a new spin bowler who went in late in the order.
But fame imposed a public responsibility which in turn caused difficulties for so politically unconscious an individual. When Sobers accepted an invitation to play in a double wicket competition in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia he was totally unprepared for the outcry of pain and rage. Manley insists that Sobers apologised. But a reading of the letter, drafted by the late Eric Barrow (then Prime Minister of Barbados), which Sobers signed and prints in his book, shows that he did not apologise for his visit, only expressing regret at the ‘embarrassment’ it might have caused, together with an affirmation of commitment to the dignity of West Indian and African peoples. He had been assured that there was no segregation in sport there, and was ‘not made aware’ of West Indian feelings.
The team that toured Australia under Clive Lloyd in 1975-76 went down to a powerful four-pronged pace attack led by Lillee and Thomson. It was the analysis of that experience that led Lloyd to the conclusion that an all-pace attack of sufficient speed and accuracy would grind down any resistance. The remarkable West Indian ascendancy that began in 1976, and of which Manley’s book is in some senses a celebration in the best conventions of whig history, has been based more on relentless fast bowling than on the consistency of the batting. Michael Holding, who still plays for Derbyshire to pretty deadly effect, emerged in the 1976 tour of England as one of the most devastating bowlers in history, extracting life from a faceless Oval pitch when Roberts seemed to have given up the effort.
Continuous very fast bowling gradually induces fear: Manley denies intimidation, and hedges on the issue of excessive bouncers, but freely acknowledges this principle in the West Indian attack. It also inevitably slows down the over-rate and reduces the amount of cricket that can be played in a day, and therefore in a whole match. Apart from the deprivation experienced by the crowds, this obviously cuts down the batting side’s opportunities to score. Manley is at his weakest and most tendentious when he takes sides with the West Indies in objecting to the argument for the 90-over day. What would he say if all countries decided to adopt the same tactics, train and encourage the young to imitate the heroes of speed, and occupy day after day with nothing but pace bowling? Sobers rightly prefers a varied attack. And it is disingenuous to complain that the successor to Lance Gibbs has somehow not appeared when the young are exposed almost exclusively to the examples of the likes of Holding and Marshall. A great fast bowler bowling fast is exciting; nothing but fast bowling all day long is not. And both Manley and the present authorities might take note that many cricket followers would regard Abdul Qadir as the most interesting bowler on today’s international scene. Were not ‘those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine’ once the subject of a famous calypso? Where are their successors?
Manley’s book is constructed as a series of historical recollections during the intervals of the first test at Sabina Park in the English tour of 1986. The book is a work of genuine craftsmanship. There are ample statistics, sketches of many matches and every series, and many of individual players, and there’s an attractive willingness to halt the narrative for the relish of a particular moment – a late cut by Worrell, a hook by Weekes, or Sobers’s incredible straight drive to the sight screen off Lillee, at Melbourne in the l971-72 tour by a World XI, a stroke that brought Bradman to his feet. Sobers finished with 254: ‘Certainly,’ Bradman says in his foreword, ‘the best innings I have ever seen on Australian soil and I believe the best ever played in this country.’ (But Bradman never saw Victor Trumper!) Beneath the pride and celebration, however, there is a note of anxiety unusual in cricket histories. In the question of whether Richards can carry on the work of Lloyd, of whether the effort can be sustained, more seems to be at stake than the reputation of West Indies cricket. And the forthcoming Jamaican general election may present the author with the opportunity, for the second time, of displaying powers of leadership equal to those of the late Frank Worrell.
Sobers’s writer, Brian Scovell, has given him a chatty, conversational and sometimes inconsequential style in which to recount his extraordinary life. So great a player deserves a more enduring literary monument. He differs at many points from Manley – and, not unnaturally, on the matter of Sobers’s own captaincy, about which Manley is severe. Whatever his human failings – which included staying up all night before making 150 not out in his last test innings at Lord’s, surely a very dangerous example to set before the young these days – Sir Garfield emerges as a generous player as well as a man who enjoyed the highest challenges. He relished the prospect of facing Lillee and Thomson on West Indian wickets. On Sobers’s eyesight, note the unconscious revelation when he remarks that Ramadhin flicked over his wrist so quickly that ‘it was almost impossible to see which way the ball was turning as it left his hand.’ Almost impossible.
Sobers on Marshall deserves the last word: ‘I once played for my Barbados club side, Police, against him and found him a little presumptuous. I believe he still is. I was 40 at the time, and the locals were saying he was waiting for me. I enjoyed playing against him.’ The spirit is that of Trumper.