How C. L. R. James Helped End the Racial Hierarchy of West Indies Cricket

No matter how well black West Indies cricketers played before 1960, they never made captain. When the political winds changed, Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James threw himself into the campaign to transform both the sport and popular consciousness.

West Indies cricketers Frank Worrell (L) and Everton Weekes (R) go out to resume their record-breaking innings against England at Trent Bridge. (Central Press / Getty Images)

In 1961, hundreds of thousands of Australians lined the streets of Melbourne to give a tearful farewell to the motorcade passing them by. The Australian test cricket team had just won the home series two to one, but the crowd wasn’t cheering for them.

The motorcade contained the West Indies cricket team under its first ever black captain, Frank Worrell. The team had played cricket of such quality and excitement that they won the hearts and minds of the Australian public. This spontaneous display of affection was in many ways the culmination of a long struggle for West Indies cricket to banish race from any consideration of its leadership — and reach its full potential in the sport.

The final stretch of this struggle had an unlikely leader. C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual, was often relegated to the fringes of political life, but he was at the center of the successful campaign to transform West Indies cricket. In the process, he demonstrated in action what he had for so long observed in writing: that cricket was a site of deep social conflict within West Indian life, and a site of social resistance.

A Field of Social Passions

Brought to the Caribbean by way of British colonialism, cricket was originally reserved for the leisure of white planters and colonial officials. But slaves were increasingly used to do the hard work of bowling at the sons of slave owners in the hot sun, and the sport soon established deep roots with black West Indians.

The planters and white middle classes formed cricket clubs that lasted after slavery was abolished on the islands. The first intercolonial tournament was held in 1891, between Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana. Black West Indians watched with envy from the sidelines. Eventually, black West Indians went on to form cricket clubs of their own that competed every Saturday in club competitions. Participation was initially restricted to the black middle class, but before long, the black working class threw itself into the sport too.

Local club cricket became an arena where various class and racial tensions were played out. As C. L. R. James, himself a participant in club cricket in Trinidad, explained, “Cricket was a field where the social passions of the colonials, suppressed politically, found vigorous if diluted expression. On the cricket field all men, whatever their color or status, were theoretically equal.”

While, for many, the game of cricket may conjure up images of an aristocratic pursuit, in the West Indies, cricket became a primary expressive outlet for working people. “Individual players of the lower classes, most often black men, became popular national heroes in whom the masses of the people took great pride,” wrote James.

Slowly, a credible West Indian test match team was developed. The team made an impression during its 1923 tour of England, despite losing the series. Two players, George Challenor and Learie Constantine, stood out in particular. Challenor, who captained that series, was a product of the white upper class in Barbados. Constantine was a black Trinidadian from the lower-middle class. He dazzled crowds with his extraordinarily athletic fielding, quick bowling spells, and powerful stroke play.

To shallow observers, Constantine seemed to epitomize the characterization of the West Indies team as “calypso cricketers.” They were fun and entertaining, but didn’t have the discipline to be a consistently great team that could win matches. But Constantine was a fierce competitor and astute tactician. James played against Constantine in club cricket in Trinidad, which he wrote about in his seminal work on cricket, Beyond a Boundary. “No one could appear to play more gaily, more spontaneously, more attractively, than Constantine. In reality he was a cricketer of concentrated passion,” wrote James.

In Beyond a Boundary, James describes the racial and class cleavages that found expression in the various local cricket clubs. In this dizzying landscape shaped by class and social forces, James faced the tough decision of which club he would join. Many were already off-limits to him due to racial or class requirements. His choices were the Maple Club or the Shannon Club.

Maple was the club of the brown-skinned middle-class and was strict about denying access to dark-skinned people. However, due to James’ exceptional intellectual talents, they were willing to make an exception for him. Shannon was Constantine’s club, the club of the black lower-middle class: teachers, law clerks, store clerks, and so on.

James agonized over the decision, and ultimately chose on the basis of his social milieu and his perceived future class position. In the words of a friend who gave him advice on the matter, “Many of these Maple boys are your friends and mine. These are the people whom you are going to meet in life.” 

Shannon often got the better of Maple when they played each other. James believed that the Shannon team performed with an intensity to match the greater social force that was behind them. He wrote in Beyond a Boundary, “The Shannon Club played with a spirit and relentlessness. . . . They played as if they knew that their club represented the great mass of black people in the island.”

In conversations with James, Constantine expressed the view that the West Indies team needed to play with the same determination and unity as the Shannon Club. By extension, he believed the West Indies captain should hail from a popular social base and not the elite. Despite their poor record against England, Constantine was convinced that the West Indies could match them given the right leadership and circumstances.

Responding to James’s obsession with British culture and cricket history, Constantine said to him, “You have it all wrong. You believe all that you read in those books. They are no better than we.” James attached to this statement a deeper political significance, reflecting in Beyond a Boundary, “It was a slogan and a banner. It was politics, the politics of nationalism.”

Such were the deep roots that the game of cricket had in West Indian society. James thought cricket was one of the few areas of British colonialism that successfully transmitted British cultural values. West Indian children were brought up in schools modeled after the British public school system, seeking to inculcate them in the “public school code.” Inside the school walls these values were only half-heartedly embraced, but on the cricket field they were keenly observed.

Cricket became interwoven with every facet of West Indian life and was a major component of mass popular culture, especially in the dominant cricketing islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and British Guiana. In Beyond a Boundary, James wrote, “A glance at the world showed that when the common people were not at work, one thing they wanted was organized sports and games. They wanted them greedily, passionately.” So it was with cricket and working people in the West Indies.

Everton Weekes, the great Barbadian batsman, was born near the Kensington Oval cricket ground and found it was the only place that could capture his imagination. In his autobiography, Mastering the Craft, he wrote, “There was no museum, no library; just Kensington Oval, a place of legend.”

It was this dense, close-knit network of cricket that allowed the West Indies to produce so many top-class players throughout history. Frank Worrell described the plentiful opportunities he had to hone his skills growing up in Barbados, saying, “The aspiring cricketer has the opportunity of walking, cycling or driving less than three miles on any Saturday afternoon and can witness parts of as many as six matches in progress.”

Young and aspiring players could easily play with and learn from test cricketers at the highest level. James reflects, “All of us knew our West Indian cricketers, so to speak, from birth. . . . A Test player with all his gifts was not a personage remote, to be read about in papers and worshiped from afar. They were all over the place, ready to play in any match, ready to talk.”

Cricket and Working-Class Politics

The 1930s brought winds of change to the islands of the West Indies, and cricket couldn’t help but be windswept.

Across the Caribbean, the working class was organizing, including forming many of the first independent trade unions. In Trinidad, Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani was elected to the legislature in the late 1920s and was helping to build a mass labor movement; by the 1930s, workers in the oil fields ignited massive strikes in the country. New leaders like Clement Payne of Barbados emerged as representatives of a self-confident political bloc of working-class people.

The black West Indian middle classes, increasingly distressed at being denied the more desirable posts in the civil service, kicked into action as well. The intelligentsia began moving in the direction of advocating for self-government, reflected in the establishment of organizations like Ken Hill’s National Reform Association in Jamaica.

It was in this social context that new West Indian cricketing heroes emerged. The greatest of this era was the master batsman George Headley. Nicknamed the “black Bradman” (or, conversely, some call Donald Bradman the “white Headley”), he carried the batting for the West Indies team on his shoulders throughout his career, performing well on difficult wickets all over the world. His excellence on the cricket field expressed the growing confidence and assertiveness of West Indians politically.

Everton Weekes, from the working-class neighborhood of Pickwick Gap in Barbados, deeply felt the connection between cricket and labor politics during this period. Writing in Mastering the Craft, Weekes remembers, “Cricket and politics were at the center of conversations in the Gap. Discussions took many forms but they were always about the need to create greater opportunities for the working people.” For a working-class Barbadian youth such as Weekes, “George Headley was as much a hero as Clement Payne. My childhood was sandwiched between these two twin towers of black struggle for justice.”

But despite these political developments, the captaincy of the West Indies team was denied to black stars like George Headley and Learie Constantine. The selection of the captain was controlled by the West Indies Cricket Board of Control, which was composed of upper-class whites.

No matter the results on the field, the board chose captains that reflected its own social milieu. As former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley explained in his book A History of West Indies Cricket, “the selectors acted to preserve opportunity for their own class.” For example, in 1939, R. S. Grant, the son of a wealthy Trinidadian family, was selected as captain. His vice-captain, Victor Stollmeyer, was the son of plantation owners. Everton Weekes summed up his view of the class-prejudiced board by saying, “The Board was in the hands of the rich and powerful in the region and saw players such as myself in a way that estate owners saw field hands.”

But political breakthroughs on the outside would soon make their way to the West Indies Cricket Board of Control. By 1948, Newton Nethersole, member of Jamaica’s social democratic People’s National Party, was on the board. He waged a battle to make George Headley captain. A strange compromise was made for the 1948 England tour of the West Indies: Headley would captain the first test in Barbados and last test in Jamaica, Stollmeyer would captain the second test in Trinidad, and John Goddard (son of wealthy rum owners) would captain the third test in British Guiana.

Though an awkward stalemate was reached, the underlying tensions were set to explode. That same year, Learie Constantine warned that the battle against racial discrimination would only get more fierce, writing in his book Cricket Crackers, “There may be some rowdy Tests played in the West Indies in the next few years, unless this colour bar business is brought out in the open and wiped out in the game there once and for all; and it must be done soon.”

Cricket Bolshevik

This was the context in which Frank Worrell made his debut with the West Indies test side. Born in Barbados in 1924, Worrell started playing first-class cricket at the early age of thirteen. He was originally put in the Barbados side as a left-arm spinner, but soon his batting genius would be unearthed. In a 1943 match against Trinidad, Worrell was sent in at number four and wound up making a brilliant 188.

He proved this was no fluke by following it up with more big scores that demonstrated his powers of concentration. Against Trinidad in 1944, he scored a massive 308, and in 1946, again in Trinidad, put on a partnership with Clyde Walcott of 559 runs.

Worrell played his first test match for the West Indies during the 1948 home series against England, where Headley was allowed to captain two tests. Scoring 97 in his first test and a maiden century in the third test in Guyana, it was clear that his place in the side was secure.

He developed a reputation as a graceful and stylish batsman. He didn’t hit the ball so much as guide it. Michael Manley described Worrell as “a graceful batsman with the kind of stroke play that begs to be celebrated in verse.”

After one particularly sparkling innings in England, the cricket writer Neville Cardus wrote, “An innings by Worrell knows no dawn. It begins at high noon!” Australian journalist A. G. Moyes said of Worrell, “Here was a cultured stroke-maker of real charm, one who made batting look the simplest thing in the world.”

Worrell also displayed a quiet rebellious streak. He asked to be paid a reasonable stipend for a tour to India and refused to go when the board refused. For this he earned the nickname “Cricket Bolshevik.”

During the West Indies’ 1950 tour of England, he played a critical part in leading the team to its first test series victory there. In the third test at Trent Bridge, Worrell scored a mammoth 261, followed by 138 in the final test at the Oval.

This victory was a defining moment for the West Indies as both a team and a political entity. Former Barbados prime minister Owen Arthur, writing in the foreword to Everton Weekes’s autobiography, wrote that, in this series, the West Indies team “helped to start the process that led to the ‘End of the Empire’ . . . by establishing that the people of these, our West Indian islands could better the British who, at the time, exercised political control over our affairs.”

It was also during this same year that C. L. R. James had a sit-down with Frank Worrell and Everton Weekes, and started to expound his ideas about the role the West Indies team could play in the battle for independence and a West Indies Federation. Weekes remembers being mesmerized by James, saying, “I thought at the time I could sit back and listen to him for 24 hours; he was a very gripping speaker.”

James saw cricket as one of the few unifying forces in West Indian life that could provide a concrete example of the possibilities for a federation.

Riot at the Oval

After the euphoria of the 1950 victory, the West Indies team fell into a rut. For many observers, bad captaincy lied at the root of it. They lost to Australia in the 1951–52 series, where the captaincy of John Goddard came under fire. In 1957, they toured England, again looking to recapture the magic of 1950, but were beaten badly.

Worrell seemed to be distracted from the game and had a dip in form. He pursued a degree in economics from Manchester University and missed more test matches. Undoubtedly, he was stung from being overlooked as captain despite his very clear qualifications. For the 1958 tour of Pakistan, Gerry Alexander was chosen as captain. Unsurprisingly, the president of the board at that time was the very wealthy Sir Errol Dos Santos of Trinidad.

West Indian cricketer Frank Worrell acknowledges the cheers upon reaching his two-hundredth run in the test match against England at Nottingham, 1950. (Central Press / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Other players in the side could see the injustice of this as well. Worrell was viewed by many younger players as the elder statesman and an unofficial leader. The Barbadian fast bowler Wes Hall wrote in his autobiography, Pace Like Fire, “Even when Gerry Alexander was skipper it was Frank who solved every player’s problem, negotiated his league contract and advised on his play.” For the 1959–1960 series against England at home, even Gerry Alexander told the selectors it was time for Worrell to be captain. But they refused and persisted with Alexander.

That year, Worrell seemed to be reinspired with his cricket. Almost as if to make it clear to the selectors he wasn’t finished yet, Worrell made 197 not out in a brilliant partnership of 399 with Garfield Sobers in the first test. But the series won’t be remembered for that.

On January 30, 1960, an incident took place that demonstrated the tensions that were ready to boil over. Playing at Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, the West Indies had collapsed to 98–8. Local hero Charran Singh was given run-out by the umpires in a controversial call. The crowd exploded, throwing bottles and almost instigating a full-on riot.

James believed the crowd’s anger at the umpire, who was from Trinidad, was symbolic of their belief that there were enemies internally that were working to undermine West Indies cricket. The denial of the captaincy to Frank Worrell was the clearest expression of this dynamic.

The Worrell Campaign

James decided this was the moment to spring into action. He had returned to Trinidad in 1958, after twenty-six years away in England and the United States. Upon returning, he became editor of the People’s National Movement Party (PNMP) newspaper the Nation. He used the paper to wage a struggle to make Worrell captain for the upcoming tour of Australia. This fight represented, for James, an attempt to “dislodge the mercantile-planter class from automatic domination of West Indies cricket.”

James fired the first shot with an article boldly titled “Alexander Must Go, Make Worrell Captain.” He wrote, “It is bad captaincy that is causing us to be scrambled, everybody is whispering and shrugging shoulders. . . . This fooling with the West Indies captaincy has gone on too long. It has to stop and the time to stop is now.”

James believed the issue was all the more glaring in the context of decolonization taking place across the Caribbean, saying, “The exclusion of black men from the captaincy becomes all the more pointed when the prime minister of the West Indies and chief ministers all over the islands are black men.” This issue of the Nation was sold out within a day.

The next article was aimed at cricketers who refused to say what everyone was thinking, with the headline appearing in all capitals, “TEST CRICKETERS SAY SOMETHING.” James exhorted them: “Enlighten the public. They are deeply concerned, worried and angry at what they consider the deliberate rejection and humiliation of Frank Worrell.”

The campaign had touched a nerve with the people of the West Indies. The question of Worrell captaining the West Indies team dominated discussion in bars, workplaces, and radio stations across the islands.

The board was due to meet in April 1960 to select the captain for the Australia tour. James issued a final warning in the March 4 issue of the Nation when he wrote, “The Board should know that the eyes of the world are upon them. Not to select Worrell, and to put Alexander in charge of the most difficult of all tours… that would be a declaration of war.”

The board, perhaps thinking about the violent scenes at Queen’s Park Oval, relented and made Frank Worrell captain for the entire 1960-61 tour of Australia. Throughout so much of his political life, James had written about the need to wage campaigns that had mass popular support, though he often did not succeed in doing so himself. Now he finally had.

In Beyond a Boundary, James wrote of the effort, “Considered opinion is that the campaign for Worrell was the most popular cand the most effective campaign of all the Nation campaigns.”

Everton Weekes reflected in Mastering the Craft, “Only a man with the stature and reach of James could have effectively launched and won the struggle.”

Trinidadian prime minister Eric Williams, in his address to the Fourth National PNMP Convention of the party, said that James gave “expression not only to the needs of the game but also to the sentiments of the people.”

Worrell as Captain

Worrell’s performance as captain demonstrated that if the campaign was good for West Indian politics, it was perhaps even better for the game of cricket.

He entered the captaincy at a time when test cricket was in crisis. Matches were becoming boring affairs where both teams adopted defensive attitudes, more concerned with avoiding defeat than chasing victory. Run rates plummeted as batsmen preferred to shove their pads out to the ball instead of using their bat.

Arriving in Australia, Worrell promised to play exciting, attacking cricket that would please the crowds. Australian captain Richie Benaud met him halfway, and together both teams produced one of the most exciting test series that has ever been played.

On the first day of the first test match in Brisbane, the West Indies scored 365 runs, including a glorious 132 from Garfield Sobers. Crowds were not used to seeing so many runs scored on the first day. This test ended in the most exciting way: the first ever tied test match. Australians still talk about it to this day.

Throughout the nail-biting match, Worrell managed to provide a calm and dignified leadership. He had a knack for saying just the right thing at the right time. In the tense final over when the scores were level, Worrell said to fast bowler West Hall, “Remember, Wes, if you bowl a no-ball, you’ll never be able to go back to Barbados.”

The West Indies lost the series 2–1, but who won or lost didn’t really seem to matter. The Australian public were so delighted with the quality of cricket played that they created the Frank Worrell Trophy in his honor. Of this series, James wrote, “No wonder half a million people turned out in Melbourne to bid Worrell’s team goodbye. They realized that something which had been lost was now restored to the game.”

Meanwhile, the Caribbean Congress of Labor was formed in 1960 to agitate for a West Indies Federation. Ultimately, the West Indies Federation failed as a political project, but Worrell succeeded in a project that had a similar symbolic effect. He brought the various players from different islands together into an effective unit of the greatest quality. Garfield Sobers, widely regarded as the greatest cricketer to ever play the game, said of Worrell’s captaincy, “Sir Frank was the first captain to bring the players of the countries of the Caribbean together and mold them into a team. . . . There were no cliques. He would not allow them.”

Worrell captained the side for two more series. The West Indies crushed India in the 1961–62 series 5–0. Worrell led the averages with the bat, and, despite being in his late thirties, appeared to be reinvigorated now that he was captain.

In his last series, the West Indies toured England and won 3–1. Like the 1960–61 tour of Australia, the series featured compelling cricket that the spectators adored. Commentators at the time said that not since the days of Donald Bradman had a touring side captured the imagination of the British public.

Another feature of this series was that the West Indian contingent in the crowd had grown in size, confidence, and enthusiasm. It seemed to mirror the growing assertiveness that West Indians were displaying in both cricket and politics. In A History of West Indies Cricket, Michael Manley said of the West Indian crowds in England, “It is a component that has transformed the business of watching Test cricket, bringing to it the self-indulgent, emotional energy of the masses to challenge the languid good manners of the aristocracy.”

The West Indians were so popular that there was public outcry when it was announced that they wouldn’t return to England until 1968. The authorities were forced to change the schedule so that they would return in 1966.

Worrell retired at age thirty-nine. He played in fifty-one tests and scored 3,860 runs, for an average of 49.48. He returned to the West Indies a hero. The government of newly independent Jamaica appointed him to the Jamaican senate. Today his face appears on the Barbados five-dollar bill.

In a last stroke of genius, Worrell had the foresight to choose Garfield Sobers as the next captain. Sobers would go on to lead the West Indies to victory in his first three series as captain, including one against Australia that allowed the West Indies team to claim the mantle as the best in the world. Worrell correctly believed Sobers would carry out the mandate Worrell had given himself: to play attractive, aggressive cricket.

There is no better example than the Worrell campaign of how correct C. L. R. James was when he said, “Cricket in the West Indies has expressed with astonishing fidelity the social relations of the islands.”