Ahead of the Wisden Trophy, the West Indies cricketers announced that they would don the Black Lives Matter logo for the series. Their English counterparts reciprocated. Before the first ball was bowled, the cricketers and umpires “took the knee” in solidarity with the killing of George Floyd and subsequent chain of events in the USA and across the world.
Two things stood out in this. First, the stand of the ICC, who have never been supportive of on-field political messages, whether it was Moeen Ali’s “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands or the accidental revelation of the image of Junaid Jamshed from under Imran Tahir’s jersey or MS Dhoni’s army insignia on his wicketkeeping gloves.
That they have made a conscious effort to change their policy is a refreshing change that one hopes is permanent.
More significantly, however, cricketers of the two nations took their stand together. This may not seem extraordinary at first glance, but the deeper we delve into the past, we will understand why the relationship between England and West Indies are unlike between any two Test-playing nations.
The first intercolonial match in the Caribbean, between Barbados and Demerara (later British Guiana, then Guyana), was played in 1865. At this stage cricket had spread across strata in the White population, but the local Blacks were not a part of these activities.
As with their other colonies, the British set up schools across the West Indies, to train the locals the “British values” including cricket. Soon, Whites realised the incredible cricketing skills of the naturally athletic locals. The switch from Whites-only teams to mixed teams was a gradual process.
However, keeping in tune with the Amateur-Professional split back home, they enforced two unwritten rules. First, the captain of any mixed team had to be a White man. Secondly, the Black populace would need to perform the “unsophisticated” task of bowling, especially fast bowling. Batting, especially in the top order, was considered an art “beyond the capabilities of the dark-skinned people” – though some local batsmen were too skilled to be left out.
Led by Aucher Warner, the first West Indian team toured England in 1900. The first Australian side to tour England, in 1868, was all-Aboriginal with a White captain-coach Charles Lawrence. Subsequent Australian (and Philadelphian) squads were all-White, while the touring sides of 1886 and 1888 consisted only of Indian Parsees.
Thus, this novel mix of British and coloured cricketers generated interest. Several Black cricketers stood out. Lebrun Constantine, whose grandfather and father-in-law were both slaves, scored the first hundred by a West Indian on English soil, Charles Ollivierre got the most runs, and Tommie Burton and “Float” Woods got the most wickets.
However, none of that could prevent casual racism. The Star, for instance, ran a cartoon where a group of pygmies surrounded the towering figure of WG Grace and pleading “we’ve come to learn, sah,” apparently parroting Warner’s words to Grace.
Things went beyond cartoons during the 1906 tour. Burton, leading wicket-taker of the previous tour (he had bowled Grace twice), was sent back home after he played just two matches. The only reason provided was his reluctance to perform “menial duties” (the exact nature of which is unclear) for White teammates. He could not find employment when he returned to Barbados. He had to emigrate to Panama.
Baron Learie Constantine
Learie Constantine was a clerk in a firm of solicitors at Port-of-Spain. There was little doubt that his skin colour would prevent him from rising professionally. On the 1928 tour of England, West Indies played the first three Tests in their history.
They lost all three by an innings. Big hits, fast bowling, and athletic fielding made Constantine a hit. He earned a contract with Nelson in the Lancashire League. With 7,111 runs at 36 and 884 wickets at under 10, he played key role in Nelson winning the trophy seven times in the first eight seasons of his tenure, which lasted from 1929 to 1942.
However, that did not stop the racists. In 1933, he received a letter that started with “Dear nigger”. The n-word and “black bugger” both remained constant throughout his days in England.
On another occasion, two boys, aged six and four, were surprised after shaking hands with him. They had the notion that his black colour would come off during handshakes.
But all that pales in comparison when compared with the ordeal he had to face in 1943, when he had been invited to play two wartime matches in Lord’s and had made a four-day reservation for his family and himself at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square.
The hotel authorities refused him accommodation for over one night (“we are not going to have these niggers in our hotel”). By then a British citizen, he called up the Ministry of Labour, ensured that the matter was raised to the House of Commons, and filed a lawsuit against the hotel, and won.
In 1969, he was awarded a peerage in England. Baron Learie Constantine was the first black person to sit in the House of Lords.
The 1950s: Cricket, Lovely Cricket
In the first Test of the 1947-48 home series against England, George Headley became the first Black man to lead the West Indies, largely due to the efforts of board member “Crab” Nethersole. Headley got injured and did not play in the series after the 1st Test. The mantle passed on to Gerry Gomez, then John Goddard. West Indies won the series 2-0.
This triumph was nothing compared to their 3-1 win in the 1950 tour of England. While the three ‘Ws’ left an impact, the real heroes of the series were two young spinners: Sonny Ramadhin, the first cricketer of Indian origin to play for them, and Alf Valentine. The duo took 59 wickets; the others combined took just 18.
The win was as impactful off the field as much on it. For the first time, a touring team other than Australia attained such respect in England, impressing cricketers, pundits, and fans alike. This tour brought much-needed boost to the Black population in England who had been at the receiving end of racism.
Cricket, Lovely Cricket, Lord Beginner’s calypso written to celebrate the win at Lord’s, achieved iconic status, particularly its famous couplet, “with those two little pals of mine/Ramadhin and Valentine.”
England had lost their dominions like India and Sri Lanka after the Second World War. The struggle for freedom had already begun in the Caribbean. Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago would gain Independence in 1962, and British Guiana and Barbados in 1966. The 1950 win provided much-needed moral impetus.
England did well to regain the Ashes in 1953. Their tour of the West Indies that winter was billed as the “unofficial world Test championship”. The series, while keenly contested, was eventful in many ways, from an assault on the family of umpire Perry Burke and a bottle barrage, both due to decisions the crowd did not like.
Things reached a low in the fifth Test, at Kingston, when Len Hutton returned to the pavilion for the tea break during his nine-hour 205, an innings often considered his best. An exhausted Hutton missed shaking hands with Alexander Bustamante, the local nationalist leader who would later become Chief Minister.
Soon afterwards, a six-foot-five man entered the England dressing-room and lifted player-manager Charles Palmer off the ground, marking the incident as a “crowning insult”. Hutton later issued an apology. It took two days to sort things out amidst much criticism of Hutton in the local press.
To understand the significance of this incident, one needs to compare it with the relation between the two classes from half a century ago. The West Indians were no longer hesitant to look at the British, even a Test captain, into the eye.
Worrell creates history
By the turn of the decade, the call for a Black captain to lead West Indies had become stronger. Frank Worrell, who had stayed on even after Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott had retired, was the choice as the next captain in lieu of Gerry Alexander.
During the 1959-60 home series against England, CLR James wrote a letter to The Nation (Trinidad): “The idea of Alexander captaining a side on which Frank Worrell is playing is to me quite revolting ... Show me one individual who will come out and say I believe Alexander will be a better captain than Worrell for such and such reasons.”
Two days after the Trinidad Test, The Nation ran the headline “Alexander Must Go, Make Worrell Captain”.
Alexander had been West Indies’ most successful captain until then. Under normal circumstances, he would have stayed on, but the greater cause was too overwhelming. Worrell led West Indies on the 1960-61 tour of Australia, and Alexander agreed to stay on as vice-captain. Within fifteen years, the White cricketer as good as disappeared from the West Indian Test side.
Greig and Grovel
Ahead of the 1976 Wisden Trophy in England, home captain Tony Greig caused a stir at a television interview: “The West Indians, these guys, if they get on top are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”
Even under normal circumstances, it would have been unacceptable. What made it worse was Greig’s South African ancestry and the word “grovel”, an unintentional reference to the days of slavery. It did not help that Greig had caused much anger three seasons ago when he ran out Alvin Kallicharran at Port-of-Spain after the last ball of the day had been bowled.
England paid a heavy price for Greig’s comment. The West Indians came heavily at the English batsmen. Their batsmen, especially Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, and Roy Fredericks, tormented the home bowlers. Fast bowlers Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, and Vanburn Holder were all over the English batsmen. After drawing the first two Tests, England lost the series 0-3 – a blow they took nearly a quarter of a century to recover.
The West Indian dominance over England peaked during the mid-1980s, when the West Indians inflicted consecutive 5-0 sweeps, first in England, then at home. Members of the jubilant crowd put up a banner that ran BLACKWASH, challenging the concept that all good things are necessarily white. So psychologically shattered were England after the two defeats that they were forced to use four captains during the 1988 home series.
By the 1970s, the relationship between the two cricketing nations got better, with most English counties signing up West Indian cricketers as overseas professionals – a trend that would rise over the next decade. The tides began to turn.
In 1980-81, Roland Butcher became the first Black cricketer to play for England. The Middlesex squad of the 1980s consisted of the Jackson Five, a quintet of Black cricketers – Butcher, Wilf Slack, Norman Cowans, and Neil Williams, all of whom played for England, and Daniel, their overseas professional.
By 2000, Monte Lynch, Phil DeFreitas, Gladstone Small, Devon Malcolm, Chris Lewis, and Alex Tudor had all played for England. Chris Jordan and Michael Carberry, among others, followed suit in the 21st century. Just ahead of the 2019 World Cup, ECB took a liberty or two to make sure that Jofra Archer was included.
Make no mistake. The poignant narrations by Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent were reflective of what the average Black person has to endure in England. However, the wheels are in motion. It may take time, but at least there has been a start.