For those of us who enjoy our sport, the spring and summer has felt particularly strange. It is therefore cause for celebration as one-by-one, for better or for worse, sport is returning to the television. Boxing came back about a month ago, fighting from a secure bubble in Las Vegas. NASCAR without fans returned at about the same time. Formula 1 sputtered back into action last weekend for a busy summer schedule of playing catch-up. I’ve heard that European leagues have started soccer as well.
This morning, proper test cricket returns with the England vs. West Indies at the Rose Bowl in West End, near Southhampton, England. Since 1963, the two sides play for the Wisden Trophy. The rivalry between the two sides is legendary and dates to before Caribbean independence (the West Indies are a multinational team largely made up of former British colonies). The rivalry intensified in the 1970s as the West Indies behind confident batting and fierce fast bowling became the best side in the world and racial tensions from protests against Apartheid South Africa to the reverberation of the American Civil Rights movement and a growing sense of national and post-colonial identity in the West Indies.
There is something significant about this rivalry being the first test series to take place in a world shaped by both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the global reverberation of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the great Trinidadian intellectual, politician and writer C.L.R. James recognized in his 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, cricket in the West Indies has always been about race. In 1960, the West Indies named Frank Worrell as their first black captain, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica gained self government in 1962, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In the context of the game itself, the mid-1960s were a time of significant change as well. Not only did cricket emerge from a particularly dull spell in the post-War decades, but 1960s saw the emergence of such superstars as Barbadian Sir Gary Sobers who energized both 5-day test match cricket and the emerging shorter form of the sport. As recent commentators on James’s work have noted, the 1960s offered a parallel to the emergence of organized cricket in the mid-19th century and the emergence of the legendary English batsman W.G. Grace in the same decades that saw the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, US Civil War, as well as Dickens and Thackery whose works shaped James’s view of his own life and development and the sport.
One wonders, then, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and focused attention on racial injustice and racism, whether the England-West Indies Test series may once again be about more than cricket. The recently released report on the British government’s treatment of the “Windrush Generation” and the rise of populist and xenophobic politics that contributed to Brexit provides a British backdrop to the racism that still requires our full attention.
For a particularly stirring treatment of the West Indian Cricket in the 1970s, check out the 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon. In 2013, Duke University Press, who have become the leaders in scholarship related to C.L.R. James in the US, published a new edition of his Beyond a Boundary. In the same series, David Featherstone, Christopher Gair, Christian Høgsbjerg, Andrew Smith edited a volume titled Marxism, Colonialism, and Cricket: C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary (2018) which offers a nice historical introduction to James’s work. Kenneth Surin does as well in his “C.L.R. James and Cricket” in A. Batemen and J. Hill’s Cambridge Companion to Cricket (2011).
I woke up around 5 AM excited to see some live cricket, but true to stereotypes of the English summer, rain delayed the start of the match. Eventually, England won the toss and decided to bat. In the second over, West Indies quick bowler Shanon Gabriel took the wicket of England opener Dom Sibley. You can follow the ball-by-ball here.