When Learie Constantine first came to Nelson in 1929, the rag-and-bone man was the only other black man living in the town. Little kids from the school over the road used to peep in through the windows of Constantine’s house, trying to steal glimpses of their local cricket club’s new pro. They pointed at him in the street, asked him if he’d been working down a mine, whether he could wash it off with soap.
Hard as it was, Constantine decided that most of the racism he faced grew out of ignorance rather than spite. Most, but not all. As he found out when he met Jim Blanckenberg, the South Africa all-rounder he had replaced.
Blanckenberg had quit Nelson to take up a better offer from East Lancashire. There are stories about Blanckenberg. Like how, when they held a testimonial for Jack Iddon, Blanckenberg refused to drink with the great Jamaican batsman George Headley. “Where I come from,” he said, “we don’t fraternise with you fellows.”
In Constantine’s first year that first game between Nelson and East Lancashire was the one for which everyone was waiting. A crowd of 10,000 came to watch. With everyone looking on, Constantine offered Blanckenberg his hand and Blanckenberg turned his back. Constantine – “hurt, insulted, and above all furious” – armed himself with the best weapon he had ready, the new ball. He bowled as fast as he could, shorter than he should – “bodyline,” he said, “before the term was invented”.
Blanckenberg was hard. He had made 77 before Constantine got him but his teammates didn’t have a chance. East Lancashire were all out for 127 and Nelson won by four wickets. After the game, Blanckenberg came into Nelson’s changing room. He was wearing a raincoat, which he opened to reveal a patchwork of black and blue bruises.
“Look what that bloody pro of yours has done to me.”
Constantine didn’t apologise.
On Monday, West Indies announced they will wear the Black Lives Matter logo on the collar of their kit during the Test series against England. It’s a good time to read about Constantine, this most extraordinary man, the grandson of slaves, the son of a plantation overseer, who rose to become the UK’s first black peer. The man who fought, and won, the groundbreaking discrimination case against the Imperial Hotel, the author of the seminal book Colour Bar, and an architect of the 1965 race relations act. The teams will play for the Wisden Trophy. They ought to cast a new one in Constantine’s honour.
History rhymes and variations on that one story run right through the past 100 years of West Indian cricket when, the academic Anthony Bateman has written, the game was both an instrument of colonialism and of resistance to colonialism. The afro-Guyanese poet John Agard put it another way in Prospero Caliban cricket: “Prospero batting / Caliban bowling / and is cricket is cricket in yuh ricketics / but from afar it look like politics.”
You hear it in the outrage at Constantine’s use of bodyline bowling against England in the summer of 1934, the very same sort of bodyline bowling England had used to beat Australia six months earlier (“Prospero invoking the name of WG Grace / to preserve him from another bouncer to the face.”) You hear it in the arguments to get Frank Worrell appointed as the team’s first full‑time black captain, 60 years after their first international tour, 32 years after their first Test. And you hear it in Clive Lloyd’s anger at the way the team were stereotyped as “calypso cricketers”, that, in the words of Lloyd’s biographer Simon Lister, they were “simple, spontaneous, incapable of insight, planning or tactical subtlety”.
It was there in Viv Richards’ batting (“My bat was my sword, I like to think I carried my bat for the liberation of Africa and oppressed peoples everywhere”) and it was there in Michael Holding’s bowling (“It made me understand and appreciate why the West Indies cricket team’s performances mattered so much to black people in the UK. They could walk with their heads held high to their workplaces the next morning. They could look into the eyes of their colleagues and feel ‘I know I am as good as you’.”) And it was there in the way in which that bowling was condemned by English commentators, just as Constantine’s had been 50 years earlier.
Look with the right kind of eyes and you can see its legacy in the global structure of the game, a hierarchy in which England gets the benefit of Caribbean-born cricketers in our leagues, and even in our national team, but which leaves West Indies so underfunded that many of their best players are compelled to leave to play elsewhere.
The England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, has spoken about the “massive debt of gratitude” England owe West Indies for coming on this tour during the pandemic, even though three of their key players felt so uneasy they pulled out. Let’s see how the ECB pays that debt back.
Both sides deny the decision to tour had anything to do with the interest-free short-term loan the ECB made to the cash-strapped West Indies board this year. Johnny Grave, Harrison’s counterpart, wants ECB support in his campaign for a fairer distribution of ICC revenues. From afar, it looks like politics. Now it will be there for everyone to see in close-up, on West Indies’ shirt.