The original Mr Cricket: CLR James’ classic text, ‘Beyond a Boundary’

BY DANAE BOSLER

Back in 1963 when the ground-breaking book was released, ‘Beyond a Boundary’ was described as ‘the greatest sports book ever written’ (Sunday Times). I repeat, the greatest sports book ever written. In my humble opinion, this remains truer than ever today.

beyond a boundary

CLR James was a cricket player, sports journalist and political commentator from Trinidad. Born in 1901, he spent his childhood playing and watching cricket. He moved to Nelson, England, writing for the Manchester Guardian and then spent over a decade in the United States before returning to his home island to participate in their struggle for independence.

James was – in his own words – ‘a colonial born and bred, a Marxist, declared enemy of British imperialism and all its ways and works’…and yet he was the most passionate supporter of cricket you will ever find. Not just cricket as sport, but cricket with all its traditions, civility, honour, decency and beauty.

It is our contradictions that make us human, I’m sure someone once said.

I could write up a blog for each and every chapter as James covers everything from his love of English Literature and peculiar addiction to ‘Vanity Fair’ (Chapter 2); the history of the ancient Greek Olympics (Chapter 12) and cricket as a pure art form, up there with theatre and music (Chapter 16). But I’ll limit myself – for now – to his thoughts on cricket, the sport and it’s players.

James dedicates lengthy chapters to his greatest cricketers. They are great not just for their sporting achievements, but for their humility, for they are gentlemen of the game.

George Headley

Born in Panama and raised in Jamaica, he was a young 21 year old when he set off on his first overseas tour (to Australia in 1931). James considered Headley one of the greatest batsmen of all time, second only in skill to Bradman. James draws particular attention to Headley’s impressive scores on wet and uncertain wickets (where Bradman struggled). Both on and off the field, James described him as ‘a quiet cricketer’.

W.G. Grace

Now to James, Grace is truly the original Mr Cricket. While Bradman was a batsman, Grace built a whole social organisation, namely cricket as an English institution.

Grace debuted in first class cricket game aged 15 in 1863. By 1871, his average was 78.9 – think about that. In 1876, he made the first triple century in first class cricket during a seven day period where he played three matches and scored a total of 839 runs representing his county, Gloucestershire.

Walked 14 miles each day to school  and back. Uphill both ways.
Walked 14 miles each day to school and back. Uphill both ways.

He was an Englishman of the kind that James loved the most: the ‘pre-Victorian’. Raised in the countryside, he walked a total of 14 miles each day to school and back, and he wielded his ‘bat like an axe’. He played a total of 44 seasons for his home county; England and London County.

Sir Learie Constantine

Constantine was born in Trinidad in 1901, and young James played few games against him in West Indian first-class cricket, although he does not remember Constantine being particularly outstanding at that early stage.

Because he was black and unable to get decent work (and often found himself unemployed), he left the West Indies for a contract playing league cricket in Nelson, England, playing in the Lancashire League. He stayed with the club for nine years, where his average was 37.65 while also a handy bowler taking 776 wickets.

James says Constantine was the first black person in Nelson, and he’s probably right. But he was noted for his community work (James says he was frequently asked to speak at events) and became somewhat of a local hero. He brought West Indian cricket to Britain for the first time, and they suddenly were worthy of recognition.

James described him as the greatest league cricketer of all time. (He still played 18 tests for West Indies so he was no amateur either.) Constantine also served his home country in the years during and after his sporting career: he teamed up with James to write books about West Indian self government and went on to serve for many years as a politician.

Frank Worrell

Most cricket fans know Worrell pretty well: the West Indies first black captain, but James writes about the fight to get him there, and the not-insignificant role he played (he was editor of a Trinidadian newspaper at the time).James explains the situation well here:

‘What was at stake was captaincy in Australia and still more in England. Their whole point was to continue to send to populations of white people, black or brown men under a white captain. The more brilliantly the black men played, the more it would emphasise to millions of English people: “Yes, they are fine players, but funny isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves – they must always have a white man to lead them.”’

Frank Worrell: a better person than you or me
Frank Worrell: a better person than you or me

Interestingly for us Aussie fans, it is in Melbourne that James closes out the final scene of his book. Finally, Worrell is leading the West Indies side in the test series down under in 1961. After the final test, thousands of Melbournians turn out to farewell the team:

‘I caught a glimpse of what brought a quarter of a million inhabitants of Melbourne into the streets to tell the West Indian cricketers good-bye, a gesture spontaneous and in cricket without precedent, one people speaking to another. Clearing their way with bat and ball, West Indians at that moment had a public entry into the comity of nations.’

Such is James’ emotive writing, passion for cricket and for West Indian self-government. If you’re not weeping a little by the end, you’re a heartless prick.

*

Some comments now on Sir Donald Bradman. While James respected Bradman’s incredible on-field successes, he was not a fan. To James, the rise of Bradman coincided with the decline of his much loved, decent and civil sport. Bradman was a product of his time when the sport became more ruthless:

‘No holds are barred [now]. Captains encourage their bowlers to waste time. Bowlers throw and drag. Wickets are shamelessly doctored. Series are lost or believed lost by doubtful decisions and immortal practices, and the victims nurse their wrath and return in kind.’

James discusses Bradman in a chapter pointedly titled ‘Decline of the West’ in which he draws together body-line tactics and the disintegration of a once-honourable sport with global, political upheaval. To him, body-line is just not cricket. It is in this chapter we see his most emotive writing:

‘Body-line was not an incident, it was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket…[But] there is no need to despair of cricket. Much, much more than cricket is at stake, in fact everything is at stake. If and when society regenerates itself, cricket will do the same.’

I suspect James died of a broken heart because to date, society has not regenerated itself and we are all lesser for it. It is today’s society, remember, that brought us Twenty20.

*

But, as mentioned earlier, it is with James’ contradictions that I fell in love. He was a proud Trinidadian, yet lived much of his life abroad. He was a committed Marxist, yet rejected Trotskys’ argument that sport distracts the masses from politics. He loved cricket, yet despised British colonialism. James, however, recognised his contradictions:

‘The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins.’

Despite all the sordid compromises, James found a way to play, watch and write about his passion.

Without a doubt, this is the greatest sports book ever written.

*

‘Beyond a Boundary’ is available at Book Depository for a mere $AUD12. If you don’t go buy it now, you’re a heartless prick.

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