The Making of a Legacy

Guyana Chronicle
June 11, 2003

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Today, ACROSS THE BOARD presents the first in a series of articles on the early history of West Indies Test cricket. Today's article is by Prof. Beckles, a respected cricket historian, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and Principal of the UWI Cave Hill Campus.

1928 was home to the first grand all-inclusive West Indian celebration.

Seventy-five years ago, a people with no previous opportunity to express a common imagination, found fulfilment in celebrating the historic event.

Socially divided by a turbulent past, they rose in triumph with a single voice. The achievement of Test status by West Indian cricketers in 1928, then, gave shape to a new phase in the political imagination of a fractured community. Finally, West Indians had built a monument to tower over their legacy of divided identity.

The team selected to travel to England that summer to engage the English in the inaugural Test series was understood in the West Indian world as the prime symbol of a nation imagined. They were emissaries of a national consciousness slow in the making and long deprived of form by persistent colonialism that still gave no sign of a final retreat.

The emerging national society called its cricketers to represent it in an international arena distinguished for nearly a century by its considerable prestige and symbolic cultural power. The West Indians had arrived at gates already entered by Australia and South Africa, though not as yet by India.

Compared with its predecessors, the West Indian team was as different as the nature of imperial relations. The team of 1928 was not sent to England to play "cousin" cricket, but to represent a mentality that was determined to break free of the colonial scaffold.

It was also put in the field to set out in clear terms the infrastructure of something unprecedented in modern history - a multi-racial nation built upon the principle of social equality and the unencumbered rule of merit.

As clearly imagined as the nation was in 1928, the team, as an early symbolic representation, indicated that considerable social work was still required to meet public expectation. Its leadership still resided in the hands of the traditionally privileged group whose performance on the field fell far short of the rule of merit.

The startling exclusion of players from the Indian community concentrated in British Guiana and Trinidad spoke as loudly as the inclusion of players from the scattered African community. The nation was only partially imagined, but there was intense social and political pressure focused on full attainment.

The use of a quota system in the team selection process was already an established part of the West Indian method. It secured pride of place for the major sugar-producing societies: British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. There was no doubt that the cricket fraternity was a social product of the "sugar elite".

This gave Barbados, the place with the purest pedigree in the plantation business, the greatest influence. The Leeward and Windward Islands, where the planter-merchant elite did not emerge from the emancipation process as an empowered political class, were kept at the periphery and treated like newcomers. Representatives of the "big four" met in Barbados and settled matters relating to the journey to England.

Learie Constantine of Trinidad was the young rising star of the new dispensation, as was George Challenor of Barbados, the elder icon of the old days. Between these two pillars, a mixture of old and new ways embarked on the "enterprise of the Indies".

The journey to Test status began at the end of the 18th century. It was a part of the discourse that puts in clear focus the making of the contemporary Caribbean as one of the greatest projects of modernity.

As a magical moment in West Indies cricket history, the 1928 tour certainly deserves a major socio-cultural analysis. There is wealth of empirical data to support such a study. It is important that we continue the intellectual discourse so successfully championed by the late C.L.R. James and Michael Manley. (WICB).

(This year, the West Indies Cricket Board celebrates 75 years of West Indies entry into Test cricket. The anniversary celebrations were launched on June 7 at Kensington Oval with a parade and brief ceremony.

A number of other activities are planned to mark this important milestone, including the launch of a commemorative book, "A Nation Imagined" by Prof. Hilary Beckles, a photographic exhibition, presentations, ceremonies, newspaper supplements and quizzes.

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