In the wake of England’s cricketing humiliation at the hands of Australia (as complete a humiliation, and as abject a surrender, as I can remember in any sport) I thought I might call upon the great CLR James to analyze what has gone wrong. Novelist and orator, historian and revolutionary, Trotskyist and Pan-Africanist, James (whose birthday it would have been yesterday) was also a great lover of English culture, and of cricket in particular. He produced in Beyond a Boundary, perhaps the finest book on sport, a book that blends politics and memoir, history and journalism, biography and reportage, in a manner that transcends literary, sporting and political boundaries. V S Naipaul, not a man given to offering easy praise, described it as ‘one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies’. The book, as I wrote in a 50th anniversary tribute, ‘is in the image of the man himself. Brilliant, complex, contradictory, beautifully observed, deeply insightful, but sometimes also romantic and naïve.’
In this passage from the book, James describes returning to Britain in the late 1950s having been away for almost two decades. He had not in that period watched any English cricket. And what he saw on his return shocked him – a game that now seemed to have foresworn romance and adventure for drabness and defence. The cause, James suggested, lay in what he called ‘the welfare state of mind’. He wrote an essay for Wisden analyzing what had gone wrong, and comparing English cricket of the 1950s to that of ‘Golden Age’ of half a century earlier, an essay he reproduced in Beyond a Boundary:
What exactly is wrong? It seems to me that most of the commentators and analysts do not play sufficient attention to a very important aspect of the game, the way in which at any particular period, it reflects tendencies in the national life. It is admitted that the Golden Age lasted from about 1890 to the beginning of the First World War. It produced men who to this day are names to conjure with, CB Fry, Ranjitsinhji, GL Jessop, Victor Trumper, Frank Wooley. They and their contemporaries were not only men of exceptional skill, they were what the modern mind finds so lacking in contemporary players, men of dazzling personality, creative, original daring, adventurous… The solid Victorian age was breaking up, the contemporary pattern had not yet taken shape, and in the interim, 1890-1914, we have these dynamic explosions of individual and creative personalities expressing themselves to the utmost limit in a manner impossible today…
If the glory of the Golden Age is to be found in the specific mental attitudes of the men who made it what it was, the drabness of the prevailing style of play should be sought in the same place. The prevailing attitude of the players of 1890-1914 was daring, adventure, creation. The prevailing attitude of 1957 can be summed up in one word – security. Bowlers and batsmen are dominated by it. The long forward-defensive push, the negative bowling, are the techniques of specialized performers (professional or amateur) in a security-minded age. As a corollary, we find much fast bowling and brilliant and daring close fielding and wicketkeeping – they are the only spheres where the spirit of adventure can express itself. The cricketers of today play the cricket of a specialized stratum, that of the functionaries of the welfare state. When many millions of people all over the world demand security and a state that must guarantee it, that is one thing. But when bowlers or batsmen responsible for an activity that is artistic and therefore individual are dominated by the same principles the result is what we have.
Yes, there is a whiff of romanticism and wishful thinking about this, but also great imagination and insight. Half a century on, even the the fifties might seem like an era of dash and adventure in English cricket compared to the fare that has been served up over the past two months.
For more on CLR James, see my tribute to Beyond a Boundary, review of his masterpiece The Black Jacobins and essay on ‘CLR James, Frantz Fanon and the meaning of liberation’.
Photo is of Ben Stokes © Andy Brownbill/AP Photo.