Short Take: The Return of Test Cricket

Bill Caraher

For those of us who enjoy our sport, the spring and summer has felt particularly strange. It is therefore cause for celebration as one-by-one, for better or for worse, sport is returning to the television. Boxing came back about a month ago, fighting from a secure bubble in Las Vegas. NASCAR without fans returned at about the same time. Formula 1 sputtered back into action last weekend for a busy summer schedule of playing catch-up. I’ve heard that European leagues have started soccer as well.

Yesterday morning, proper test cricket returned with England vs. West Indies at the Rose Bowl in West End, near Southhampton, England. Test cricket is the 5-day form of the sport where teams play for six hours a day interrupted only for lunch and, of course, tea. Each team seeks to score more runs than their opponent by hitting a ball pitched (or bowled) by the fielding side and running between a pair of wickets separated by 20 meters (think baseball with two home plates, two batsmen, and two pitchers arranged opposite each other). To win, one side must not only score more runs than their opponent, but also get all the players on the side out twice by either knocking down a player’s wicket or catching a struck ball before it hits the ground. Failure to get all the opponent’s players out, no matter the number of runs scored, results in a draw. There’s more to the game than that, of course, and the Laws of Cricket have developed continuously over the past 150 years..

Since 1963, the two sides have played for the Wisden Trophy. Their rivalry is legendary and dates to before Caribbean independence (the West Indies are a multinational team largely made up of former British colonies). The rivalry intensified in the 1970s as the West Indies, behind confident batting and fierce fast bowling, became the best side in the world. For over a decade, the West Indies were the greatest team in the sport. They achieved this dominance against a growing sense of national and post-colonial identity in the West Indies and heightened racial tensions from protests against Apartheid South Africa to the reverberation of the American Civil Rights movement.

There is something significant about this rivalry being the first test series to take place in a world shaped by both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the global reverberation of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the great Trinidadian intellectual, politician and writer C.L.R. James recognized in his 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, cricket in the West Indies has always been about race. In 1960, the West Indies named Frank Worrell as their first black captain, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica gained self government in 1962, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In the context of the game itself, the mid-1960s were a time of significant change as well. Not only did cricket emerge from a particularly dull spell in the post-War decades, but 1960s saw the arrival of such superstars as Barbadian Sir Gary Sobers who energized both 5-day test match cricket as well as the shorter form of the sport. Recent commentators on James’s work including the editor’s of the recent critical treatment of Beyond a Boundary have noted that the 1960s offered a parallel to the coalescing of organized cricket in the mid-19th century and the popularity of the legendary English batsman W.G. Grace. These occurred in the same decades that saw the publication of Harriet B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), US Civil War, as well as Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and novels by Dickens and Thackery set amid growing anxiety around industrialization in England. James situated the development of his own abilities and political awareness as following what the editors of Marxism, Colonialism, and Cricket call a “Dickensian version of the bildungsroman” in many Victorian novels. James’s characters achieve early success that gives way to malaise and distraction before they attain their life goals. He also recognizes in the middle of the 19th century a growing public awareness of race and class formed against abolitionism, US Civil War, and fears of industrialization. Racial equality and the political awareness of the working class remain ongoing projects (as E.P. Thompson would assert in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) published in the same year as Beyond a Boundary), but James saw the seeds of these movements in the status of W.G. Grace as a popular hero in England. West Indian cricket in the mid-20th century continued this trend by combining the heroes of a popular game and the establishment of black democracies in the Caribbean. As Malcolm MacLean demonstrated in his 2010 article, James’s understanding of cricket, democracy, and post-colonial politics shaped his own position as a hybrid who through often-ironic colonial mimicry offered a distinctive position for anti-colonial critique.

One wonders, then, against our contemporary backdrop of resurgent populism, a global pandemic, and focused attention on racial injustice and racism, whether the England-West Indies Test series may once again be about more than cricket. The recently released report on the British government’s treatment of the “Windrush Generation” and the rise of populist and xenophobic politics that contributed to Brexit provides a British backdrop to the racism that still requires our full attention.

For a particularly stirring treatment of the West Indian Cricket in the 1970s, check out the 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon. In 2013, Duke University Press, who have become the leaders in scholarship related to C.L.R. James in the US, published a new edition of his Beyond a Boundary. In the same series, David Featherstone, Christopher Gair, Christian Høgsbjerg, Andrew Smith edited a volume titled Marxism, Colonialism, and Cricket: C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary (2018) which offers a nice historical introduction to James’s work. Kenneth Surin does as well in his “C.L.R. James and Cricket” in A. Batemen and J. Hill’s Cambridge Companion to Cricket (2011).

For the last two days, I awoke at around 5 AM excited to see some live cricket, but true to stereotypes of the English summer, rain delayed the start of the match. Eventually, England won the toss and decided to bat. In the second over, West Indies quick bowler Shanon Gabriel took the wicket of England opener Dom Sibley before rain scuttled the first day. On the second, under heavy skies, the West Indies have managed to get 4 more English batsmen out while allowing only 106 runs. You can follow the ball-by-ball here.

~

Bill Caraher is the editor of North Dakota Quarterly and has been a cricket fan for nearly 20 years thanks to his Australian wife.

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