‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’
Beyond a Boundary, C.L.R. James, Yellow Jersey Press, Random House, first published in 1963, special Indian price £4.75.
Also consulted The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw.
Great claims have been made for (Beyond a Boundary): that it is the greatest sports book ever written; that it brings the outsider a privileged insight into West Indian culture; that it is a severe examination of the colonial condition. All are true.
From the blurb of C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary
Someone who has written virtually hundreds of blurbs knows they are nothing more than self-serving hyperbole but in James’ Beyond a Boundary it cannot be dismissed as so much hot air. Two Nobel laureates have written about it: Derek Walcott called it “a noble book” and V.S. Naipaul rejoiced at “one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies”. But that too is not enough; and to say that it is pifflingly inadequate praise is also not enough because the book goes beyond the concrete details of the game into broader historical and philosophical issues. The themes of the book reach, as the title suggests, far beyond the boundaries of the cricket field and no detailed knowledge of the game is needed to appreciate its implications. (Though if you know the nuances of the game, so much the better.) It is a book that captured the interconnectedness of things and the integration of human experience. It expressed in a fundamental way the elements that constituted human existence, combining as it did spectacle, history, politics; “sequence/tableau, movement/stasis, individual/society.” Cricket was whole.
C.L.R. James was many personas rolled into one: Pan Africanist, Marxist, a Shakespearean scholar, cricket commentator, critic and a writer of fiction. As a Marxist, he was interested in the integration of parts, the weaving of disparate, scattered pieces into a whole, the creation of something new; “make it new” as Ezra Pound exhorted writers, time and again. For us, Beyond a Boundary is nothing strange.
For one thing, it is written in English and grippingly so, for, James writes with a philosopher’s love for exactness. For another, it contains passages that would be familiar to ex-colonials. For example, when James recalls the agony of choosing which cricket club to join in the colonial Trinidad of the 1920s when membership of each club was decided on the basis of colour, we can recognise the self-excoriation in the statement: “I became one of those dark men whose surest sign of having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself”. And when he discusses race and memory — a discussion that has a dig at T.S. Eliot “who is of special value to me in that I find more often than elsewhere, and beautifully and precisely stated, things to which I am completely opposed”. Or, his obsession with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; or tells how his grandfather saved the day for the sugarcane factory, we know where colonials stood under imperialism — nowhere. James seems to say that the answers to the greatest existential dilemmas of life have to be found in literature as he brings to bear his readings “from early Aeschylus, Sophocles, Thackeray, Dickens and later Dostoevesky, Tolstoy and a whole list of others”. But, above all, Shakespeare.
But such literary moments are no more than clearings in a forest. If James expands his cultural references, it is only to return us to the nuances of cricket:
This modern theory that the leg glance does not pay is a fetish, first because you can place the ball, and secondly if you can hook then the life of the long-leg is one long frustration.
He kept the ball well up, swinging from outside the off-stump to middle-and-off or thereabouts.
To the length of the ball he gets back and forces Grimmet away between mid-wicket and mid-on or between mid-wicket and square-leg.
But these are not technicalities that James has thrown in for the heck of it; they are metaphors to describe the portraits of certain cricketers, which in turn become metaphors for the uncertainties of life. (Cricket, incidentally, has several metaphors to illuminate life and its discontents: “take the shine off the ball”, “the first slip”, “silly point”, “in the deep”, “long on”, “back to the pavilion” etc.) For James, cricket simplified is to further inquiry, indeed it is an art on par with theatre, ballet, opera, and dance. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” is the central, famous question asked by the book; and it is a question that by its very terms demands an expansion, and elevation, of our understanding of this sport.
You could laugh off the question as absurd but it is an attempt to upset established cultural hierarchies and categories. And the attempt begins in the first chapter when a six-year old boy stands on a chair by a window and watches black men dressed in white repeatedly organising themselves in mysterious patterns on a green sunlit patch where local men played cricket. The window in question belonged to the James’ family, in a house “superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket” and from where you could hears sounds that not long before had enchanted a schoolboy named Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man):
….and from here and there through the quiet air the sound the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.
It was at this window that James received some of his “strongest early impressions of personality in society”. His neighbour, Mathew Bondman, put down as a no-gooder, found respite from his pitiable existence as an individual because he could bat. The window which opened the doors of cricket led to a stream of windows in which the athletic and political were fused. Schooling in a colonial institution reinforced the Puritan ethos that ensured that “cricket and football provided a meeting place for the moral outlook of the dissenting middle classes and the athletic instincts of the aristocracy”. It was on the college cricket field that he learned never to question the umpire’s decision, never to cheat, never to complain or make excuses. “This code became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me”.
Cricket offered an alternative to the graceless wider world of colonialism. To play cricket properly was to accept the fact that the world was a complex place where there are no easy answers to questions — there were scores of ways to make runs, and scores of ways to bowl the ball, and scores of ways to position the fielders. So, too, in life. Cricket offered modes of self-realisation that were simply unavailable elsewhere in the colonial culture:
Social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games.
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