Celebrating West Indian Cricket

From Sunday Stabroek
November 10, 1996
by Winston McGowan

This book, written by a Guyanese who is Associate Professor of English at York University in Canada, is the most recently published history of West Indian cricket. It traces the evolution of West Indian cricket from 1928 when the region was granted official Test status to 1966 when it became world cricket champions for tbe first time. Its title is apt for in this period not only did regional crickd develop from childhood to adulthood but also the political status of the leading cricketing territories passed from that of colony to independent nation.

Birbalsingh's book is markedly different from previous general histories of West Indian cricket such as Christopher Nicole's pioneering work, West Indian Cricket (1957) and, more recently, Michael Manley's A History of West Indian Cricket (1988). For example, Birbalsingh's conceptualisation of the chronological evolution of West Indian Test cricket is largely different from that of earlier writers. He divides the period between 1928 and 1966 into six phases which he aptly describes as "The Headley Era (1928-39)", "The Post-War Years (1948-49)", "The Ws Ram and Val ( I 950-57)", "Consolidation-Gerry Alexander (1958-60)"; "Ascension-Frank Worrell (1960-63)", and "Sobers is de King (1965-66)".

Each ol these Six "stages in the development or rise of West Indian cricket" (p.24) is described and evaluated in one of the first six chapters which constitute about half of the contents of the book. However, instead of following the normal practice of giving virtually equal but limited attention to all Test matches and series, Birbalsingh chooses to give a detailed account of 62 specific Tests, selected trom the 109 such matches which the West Indies played between 1928 and 1966. One advantage of this approach is that the reader obtains far greater knowledge of these 62 matches than could be derived from previous general histories of West Indian cricket. The obvious disadvantage, however, is that little information can be secured about the other 47 tests. On the whole, the author tends to treat the Test series against England more fully than those against other countries.

The only two series where all the Tests are described are against England, in 1930 and 1963. The least extensive treatment is accorded to the series against New Zealand in 1956 and Pakistan in 1959 when only one Test is described.

In general, the content of these six chapters is excellent. They contain not only the scores, other statistics and details found in earlier accounts, but also, more importantly, valuable commentary and analysis. In particular, they show how the West Indies gradually became a formidable force in international cricket, culminating in the attainment of world supremacy in the mid 1960s when the regional team defeated its two main rivals, England (in 1963 and 1966) and Australia (in 1965).

The second half of Birbalsingh's book is more original than the first and is at times unique for a cricket book. It consists of four extremely interesting chapters. The first, entitled "Players", presents informative biographical sketches of eighteen individuals who made "significant contributions to West Indian cricket" (p.26) between 1928 and 1966. The players are George Challenor, Learie Constantine, George Headley, Gerry Gomez, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, Robert Christiani, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine, Roy Marshall, Garfield Sobers, Collie Smith, Rohan Kanhai, Gerry Alexander,Joe Solomon and Lance Gibbs. Although the author emphasises that "not every major West Indian player has been chosen" and "the aim is to be representative rather than comprehensive" (pp.25-6), it is not easy to discern the rationale for the exclusion of Wesley Hall, Conrad Hunte and Basil Butcher who all played a major role in the team's attainment of ascendancy in the 1960s.

Chapter Eight, entitled "Writers", reflects the author's commendable knowledge of the historiography of West Indian cricket, one of the strengths of his book and a rarity in previous works. It reviews a selection of twelve books by West Indian writers about regional Test cricket between 1928 and 1966. Eight of these writers - Learie Constantine, Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, Roy Gilchrist, Rohan Kanhai, Jack Grant, Jeffrey Stollmeyer and Wesley Hall - are famous Test players, while the other four, namely, Christopher Nicole, Ernest Eytle, Tony Cozier and Michael Manley are prominent journalists or professional writers.

Even informed cricket lovers will find this chapter very valuable, as some of the books reviewed would hitherto have probably been unknown to them. This is particularly the case with Grant's Jack Grant's Story and Stollmeyer's Everything Under the Sun. Guyanese in particular will welcome the inclusion of the review of Rohan Kanhai's Blasting for Runs, the only one of the twelve books written by a Guyanese cricketer. They will no doubt endorse Birbalsingh's comment that Kanhai's autobiography "captures a flavour of excitement that correctly matches the invigorating style of one of the bravest, most forceful and adventurous of all West Indian batsmen". (p.198).

Chapter Nine, entitled "Test", "Rites", and Beyond a Boundary, is the most novel part of Birbalsingh's book. It is totally unexpected in a work on the history of cricket, but reflects the author's professional expertise as a literary commentator and critic. It is a commentary on the WritiDg on cricket of three distinguished Caribbean authors, the novelist V.S. Naipaul, the poet and academic historian, Edward Braithwaite, and C.L.R. lames, whom Birbalsingh regards as "the first professional West Indian cricket journalist of quality". (p.26).

The final chapter, entitled "Conclusion", and the "Introduction" will probably be described as the most engaging chapters of the book by readers whose primary interest is in the sociology of West Indian cricket. These two chapters focus primarily on the major social forces which have influenced regional cricket, especially colonialism, race, colour, class and insularity. In particular, they devote considerable attention to the vexed question of the long application of racial and colour criteria rather than the principle of merit to the selection of the captain of the West Indian cricket team. The author demonstrates how this practice adversely affected West Indian cricket, especially in terms of the quality of leadership and team spirit, unity and coordination. Furthermore, he illustrates how its abandonment in 1960 with the appointment as captain of Frank Worrell, the first black skipper of a West Indian team for a series, was an important step in the rise of Caribbean cricket to worId ascendancy.

Among the virtues of Birbalsingh's book is his elegant language and engaging literary style which enable him to present a vivid account of four decades of West Indian cricket. The book also profits from the inclusion of a useful set of representative photographs, an informative bibliography, and some interesting appendices. Its value would have been further enhanced by the inclusion of an index and a statistical record of the career performance of West Indian Test cricketers in the period under consideration.

The Rise of West Indian Cricket: From Colony to Nation is likely to occupy a special place in the historiography of West Indian cricket. It will probably now be widely regarded as the finest general history of West Indian Test cricket. Local cricket enthusiasts should look forward to securing a personal copy of this excellent book when it is launched officially in Guyana shortly at a ceremony to be held at the Georgetown Cricket Club.

The Rise of West Indian Cricket: From Colony to Nation
(St. John's: Hansib Publishing, 1996)
Author: Frank Birbalsingh