C.L.R. James, “Beyond a Boundary” (1963) – God help me, I do not understand cricket. People have explained the rules to me numerous times and they just don’t seem to stick in my brain. It sounds like a combination of bowling and that baseball training game “pickle” (which honestly is a lot more fun than baseball itself, especially played with a larger bouncy ball) with some extras… but the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Why then, you may be forgiven for asking, did I read a whole book about cricket? Because it turned up on a library free pile and was written by one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century: the Trinidadian historian, novelist, and radical C.L.R. James. James had one of those crazy twentieth century lives that just seemed to be everywhere and do everything, even though he wasn’t especially long-lived. Migrating between Britain, the US, and the West Indies, he was one of the intellectual godfathers of post-Garvey pan-africanism, started and led one of the major Trotskyite tendencies in the US, and was a major figure in the Trinidadian independence struggle. He launched the historiographical reappraisal of the Haitian Revolution. He wrote one of the definitive interpretations of Moby-Dick while sitting in a detention center within sight of the Statue of Liberty, waiting to be deported from the US. He was the first black Caribbean novelist published in the UK.
He was also a fan of and writer about cricket. “Beyond a Boundary,” one of James’s last books and published posthumously, is partially a memoirs of his own experience with the game and partially an informal history of the game in the West Indies. It’s one of those books that could be called “belle lettres,” i.e. respectable but unclassifiable literary productions. We hear about James’s struggles between the aspirations put on him by his status-conscious lower-middle-class family in Trinidad and the young Cyril’s desire to play cricket and read novels rather than bother with placement exams. Trinidad being small and at the same time one of the great producers of cricket talent, James (and seemingly any interested Trinidadian) could get to know some of the great cricketers of the world.
And that’s a problem, because I do not know the name of any cricket players other than Tendulkar, a contemporary Indian cricketer who is at least half-seriously regarded by some Hindus as a worthy addition to their pantheon, and C.L.R. James, who played fairly seriously at the amateur level. James is enough of a great writer to get me to care about these people who are just new names to me. But he also assumes the reader knows who they are, who are the points of comparison in terms of cricketers past, and most of all, cricket terms. Even to the extent I understand the rules, I don’t know the terms for the plays and techniques etc, and naturally, in a finely-grained discussion of the game, that’s going to come up a lot. It was pretty confusing even as I could tell James was writing about it masterfully.
Of course, being a political figure and a radical, James tied cricket back into politics, and I somewhat got that. Cricket was the game of the imperialists, still mostly played in the old Empire. Even when imperial possessions — first white dominions like Australia, then out and out colonies like India and the West Indies — started beating England, it was still beating them at literally their own game.
The game brought with it a value system — roughly, the variant on stoic sportsmanship common in English public schools at the time — that James feels serious ambivalence towards. On the one hand, as a radical he rebukes England, the empire, the bourgeoisie, the racial politics that warped the West Indian cricket world for some time. On the other, James can’t lose — doesn’t want to — his attachment to aspects of the code that came with a space of conflict that is as hard-fought as the tooth and nail of class struggle but without rancor, granting honor to the other side and respecting adjudication from referees. The struggles he lived for — the overthrow of capitalism, black liberation — couldn’t be that way. But there’s something beyond escape to another, nicer plane that the code has to offer. I just wish I could parse more of his cricket examples so I could tell what he thinks they are. ****