In the late 1970s I interviewed CLR James for a London magazine. CLR was living in Brixton and was close to 80. When I met him he was resting in bed, a shock of white hair, listening to the cricket on BBC radio.
- By Ric Sissons
CLR had been born in Trinidad. For many years a Trotskyist, James had written widely on black politics. But he had also written the classic book on cricket – for many the best ever – Beyond a Boundary. With his friend and West Indian Test cricketer Learie Constantine (later Sir then Baron), CLR ran a strident and successful campaign for Frank Worrell (later Sir as well) to be made the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team. Prior to Worrell the West Indian captain had to be white. There was an interesting parallel with the England cricket team.
Prior to 1952, the England captain was always an amateur. Finally the Yorkshire professional Len Hutton (later Sir as well) was allowed by the cricket establishment to take on the job. Between the 1880s and 1963 the game in England had been divided between amateurs and professionals. Australia never had such problems. Prior to Packer’s World Series Cricket all Australian players were ‘amateurs’. My latest cricket book is The Terror – Charlie Turner, Australia’s greatest bowler. Turner was a cricketing and sporting superstar in the 1880s and 1890s.
Known as ‘The Terror’ he remains Australia’s greatest ever bowler. In 17 Test matches, all against England, Charlie Turner took 101 wickets at an average of 16.53 runs apiece, placing him well clear at the top of the all-time Australian Test bowling averages. Earlier this year, alongside Glenn McGrath, Charlie was finally inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. His recognition was long overdue. Charlie toured England three times in 1888, 1890 and 1893.
For many years prior to the First World War the Australian players organised overseas tours themselves as moneymaking ventures. They selected the Australian side and elected the captain. It was a simple form of direct democracy in action. In the early 1890s the cricket establishment tried – and failed – to take control of the game out of the hands of the players through the establishment of the first Board of Control. Tensions between the colonies led to the Board’s early demise. Following Federation the new Board of Control launched another attempt, which led to vicious public polemics and Australia’s leading six players including Victor Trumper refusing to tour England in 1912.
Cricket and politics have always been bedfellows – Bodyline in 1932-33 and Packer’s World Series Cricket are just the most well-known. As CLR James famously wrote in Beyond a Boundary, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know.’