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The “biggest” book about cricket: a tribute to Beyond a Boundary

Five decades ago, in the pages of The Cricketer, John Arlott dubbed Beyond a Boundary “in the intellectual sense… quite the ‘biggest’ book about cricket” ever written. That judgement stands, but it’s almost a disservice to a book that is, among so many other things, hugely entertaining.

CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary remains uncategorisable, a one-off blend of memoir, social history, philosophy, politics and cricket reportage, an intellectual adventure that takes the reader from the Trinidad of James’ youth, through industrial Lancashire, Victorian England, ancient Greece, making a stopover in a cricketless USA before a grand coming home to a Caribbean on the brink of independence. It’s a bravura performance by a multi-dimensional man, whose distinctive voice knits together the disparate elements. James’ prose feels alive, partly because it’s animated by a sense of purpose. Beyond a Boundary was the fulfilment of a lifetime mission, personal and political. He wanted to do justice to the game that had meant so much to him and to the people who played and watched it.

I’ve re-read the book many times and always found it enthralling, even when its arguments strike me as wrong-headed. Fifty years after publication, Beyond a Boundary retains its vigour. It’s an original that has stayed original.

Famously, James asked, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” (a twist on Kipling’s “What do they know of England…?”). His aim was to place cricket in a broader human context, one that embraced past and present, politics and psychology. James challenges cricket lovers to widen their horizons, but equally he challenges historians, political scientists, scholars and activists to widen theirs. Surveying the existing histories of England in the Victorian age, James loses patience: “I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for WG Grace…. the best-known Englishman of the times”.

When James published Beyond a Boundary, universities had yet to discover the sociology of sport or the politics of popular culture. He had to create his own discipline, delineate his own field of study. He describes how he became increasingly aware that there were “large areas of human existence that my history and my politics did not seem to cover.” To understand a society, past or present, James came to believe that you had to look not only at economics and politics but also ideas, motivations and pastimes like cricket. “What did men live by?” James asks, “What did they want? What did history show that they wanted?” He answers: “A glance at the world showed that when the common people were not at work, one thing they wanted was organised sports and games. They wanted them greedily, passionately.”

Beyond a Boundary‘s over-arching theme is the development of West Indies cricket. James begins by painting a vivid picture of early 20th century Trinidad and the game’s relation to the intricate hierarchies of colonialism, class and colour. “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it,” he remarks, “When I did turn to politics I did not have much to learn.”

It’s an epic story with a wonderful cast of characters. James was fascinated by what he called “personality in history” and in Learie Constantine he found his exemplar, a man who “revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third class status as a man.”

It was Constantine, then playing for Nelson and Colne in the Lancashire League, who brought James to England in 1932, initially to help him write his autobiography (the first book by a West Indian cricketer to be published in Britain). Soon they were working together to promote the cause of West Indian self-government. James sensitively depicts Constantine’s complex burdens (on and off the cricket field) and his remarkable relationship with the local community, in those days virtually all white. “I was singularly fortunate,” James writes, “in that my first introduction to England was to the working people of the North, and not to the over-heated atmosphere of London… My Labour and Socialist ideas had been got from books and were rather abstract. These humorously cynical working men were a revelation and brought me down to earth.”

As fast bowler, attacking batsman and the finest fielder of his era, Constantine was famously athletic, a rarity among cricketers in those days. But what English commentators construed as spontaneous and “natural”, James knew to be something more complex. Constantine’s “leg-glance from outside the off-stump to long-leg was … not due to his marvellous West Indian eyes and marvellous West Indian wrists. It was due, if you must have it, to his marvellous West Indian brains.”

First-time readers are often taken aback by James’ veneration of the English public school ethic and Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold, whose regimen inspired Tom Brown’s School Days. The incongruity is stressed by James himself. “I, a colonial born and bred, a Marxist, declared enemy of British imperialism and all its ways and works, was the last person” anyone “expected this sort of thing from.”

James sees a convergence between the high Victorian cricket ethic and what he calls the “puritanism” of his lower middle class West Indian upbringing. The ideals of restraint, discipline, loyalty to team-mates and respect for opponents were for him part and parcel of the West Indian heritage. Like other elements of European culture, cricket and its values could be adapted by West Indians and reshaped to serve their own ends. Even at his most conservative, CLR was always a revolutionary.

Beyond a Boundary recounts not only James’ infatuation with the public school ethic but also his discovery of its limitations. He recalls how “when I confessed I was angry” at the prejudices of the West Indian cricket authorities “even sympathisers balked at this.” It was felt that “anger should not intrude into cricket … According to the colonial version of the code, you were to show yourself a ‘true sport’ by not making a fuss about the most barefaced discrimination because it wasn’t cricket. Not me any longer.”

James felt strongly that he had to make the case for cricket as a serious subject worthy of serious study. The game is, he insists, “first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.” In the confrontation between bowler and batsman “two individuals are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative.” This for James is what drama is all about. But where the dramatist “must strive to make the individual character symbolical of a larger whole” and “may or may not succeed,” in cricket this “dramatic, human relation… is structurally imposed.” As the author of a book on Hegel, James relished the dialectics of cricket: the interplay between individual and collective, moment and process, technical and spontaneous, subjective and objective.

In his zeal for the dignity of cricket, James makes some large claims. For him cricket is an art form, both dramatic and visual. He declares that we will be able to answer the question ‘What is Art?’, “only when we learn to integrate our vision of Walcott on the back foot through the covers with the outstretched arm of the Olympic Apollo.” Here, James falls prey to what cricket historian Derek Birley identified as the ”aesthetic fallacy”. In sport, beauty is an incidental by-product, not the purpose of the exercise, which is to win. However well-rehearsed, cricket remains at root unpredictable, unlike the theatre or the ballet; the result (and therefore the meaning) cannot be pre-determined.

There are admirers of Beyond a Boundary who see it as a triumph over the author’s avowed Marxism, a case of literature (and cricket) trumping dogmatic politics. James would smile wryly at the notion. From the start, his was an anti-Stalinist Marxism, fiercely critical of the Soviet Union and western Communist parties. Over the years, he had developed his own brand of democratic revolutionary politics, based on a vision of a socialism “from below” rooted in the creativity of ordinary people, which he saw exemplified in cricket.

In 1958 James returned to Trinidad after an absence of a quarter of a century. The independence he’d long championed was around the corner, but exactly what shape it would take was uncertain. As editor of the independence movement’s newspaper and a key advisor to its leader, Eric Williams, James promoted West Indian unity and opposed the US base at Chaguaramas. When Williams opted for a pro-western policy, James found himself frozen out. By the time Trinidad achieved independence in 1962, James was back in exile.

It was in the wake of this disappointment that he sat down to complete his long-gestated book on cricket, which is very much an optimistic portrayal of West Indies’ destiny. “We West Indians are a people on our way who have not yet reached a point of rest and conciliation… We are moving too fast for any label to stick.” Though this process might have been stymied in the political arena, in cricket it was gathering pace. As James notes, history blessed him with the perfect ending for his story in the “grand and glorious campaign to make a back man, Frank Worrell, captain of the West Indies team to Australia” and “break the discrimination of sixty years”

Here James’ love of cricket came together with his anti-colonial politics. (Only James could describe Worrell as both the heir of Thomas Arnold and the equal of Trotsky as a conversationalist.) Worrell’s much-praised leadership of the West Indies tour of Australia in 1961 provides Beyond a Boundary with its triumphant conclusion, in which James describes how West Indies “clearing their way with bat and ball, at that moment had made a public entry into the comity of nations.”

As it turned out, Worrell’s team were merely forerunners of the great era of West Indies cricket supremacy, from the mid 70s to the early 90s. In the team fashioned by Clive Lloyd, a team of diverse talents and strong personalities, James’ prophetic view of West Indian cricket was fulfilled. Like Bob Marley, the cricketers projected a modern West Indian identity on to a world stage, briefly making these economically marginal islands a centre of global culture.

What would James have made of the long decline that has followed? He wouldn’t be satisfied with a one dimensional answer and he’d insist on setting the fallow years in their broader context. He’d note in the fall of West Indies cricket the absence of those factors that had made for its rise, among them, the anti-colonial movement. Later cricketers, emerging from a West Indian society battered and fragmented by a globalised economy, could not match the ambition, creativity and commitment of a generation determined to liberate themselves from a colonial and racist order.

James recounts the way even the most celebrated West Indian cricketers of his day mingled with the general population and shared its reference points. That easy intercourse is long gone, even in the West Indies. Sports celebrity as it’s lived today, in a world of gated communities and five star uniformity, precludes the formation of the kind of links lovingly examined in Beyond a Boundary.

James talks about a future of the game based on “the return of the cricketer to the community.” It’s hard to imagine anything further from that ideal than the world of the IPL, which may or may not prove to be, in James’ phrase, “the future in the present”. James saw cricket as a public institution, the property of the community. He’d note that the IPL’s private ownership model was something new in cricket, though long established in other sports, and was bound to have an effect on the way the game was played and watched. He would also note the contrast between the transient loyalties of the IPL franchises and the kind of feelings evoked by club sides in Trinidad or the long-established football clubs of the English Premier League, the ostensible model for the IPL. For James this would be an example of the hubris of capital, its belief that there’s nothing it can’t package and sell.

James would be a staunch defender of Test cricket and its classical virtues against the upstart claims of shorter versions. For James it was precisely “the long hours (which so irritate those who crave continuous excitation)” that make Test cricket a stage where “human personality is on view long enough in sufficiently varied form to register itself indelibly.”

In Beyond a Boundary, James expresses his horror at the very idea of match-fixing and contrasts his “puritanical” response to the more relaxed attitude of American friends. He would have been indignant at the scandals of recent years and not at all satisfied with blaming everything on a few morally flawed individuals. He would insist on tracking the various incidents to their common origin: in a world of deregulated finance and new technology, where transactions cross borders instantaneously and unaccountably.

In a television documentary filmed in the mid-80s, the elderly James was shown revisiting Nelson and meeting up with a local who knew him back in the Constantine era. “I guess you’ve mellow since then,” the local observes. After a pause, James replies drily, “No, I have developed.” In his life and work, he defied “that categorisation and specialisation, that division of the human personality,” which he considered “the greatest curse of our time.” It was this that enabled him to enrich cricket with a unique masterpiece.