by David Harris
Beyond A Boundary, that classic piece of literature celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.
It was published in 1963 and was described by the English cricket commentator and journalist John Arlott in a 1964 review for Wisden Magazine as the “finest cricket book ever written”.
Beyond A Boundary is more than a cricket book, it is the story of the relationship between the rise of West Indies cricket and the rise of West Indians in political independence.
It is a comprehensive analysis of the role cricket played in the sociological development in the islands of the English-speaking Caribbean. Its author Cyril Lionel Robert James simply know as C.L.R or Nello to his friends, was a journalist, biographer, historian, and political activist.
He was born in Tunapuna, Trinidad in 1901, in the first chapter of Beyond A Boundary title “The Window”, James described how as a young boy he learned that cricket was more than a game in the West Indies.
His neighbour Mathew Bondman was a vicious character who was always dirty, he would often walk the street barefooted and would not work. Bondman was detested by James’ puritanical grandmother and aunts, his only saving grace was that he could bat.
According to James when Bondman practised on an afternoon with the local club, people stayed and watched and walked away when he finished.
His aunts and grandmother who were uncompromising in their judgement of Bondman often repeated verdict was: “Good for nothing except to play cricket”. This stirred the mind of young James and he often wondered, “How could an ability to play cricket atone in any sense for Bondman’s abominable way of life?” And this was particularly as his grandmother and aunts were not in any way supporters or followers of the game.
There are several reminiscences, autobiographical memoirs and sketches in the book which give the reader an insight into West Indian cricketers of yore.
Wilton St. Hill played three Test matches for the West Indies in the 1920s and 1930s making 117 at an average of 19.50 and yet in his chapter “The Most Unkindest Cut” James transforms this unpromising subject into what Arlott called: “The finest portrait of a cricketer ever written”.
James was a member of the black lower class, his father was a primary school teacher, in the book the picture is clearly painted about the opportunities, obstacles and general circumstances facing people of his ilk in the colonial West Indies in the first half of the last century.
The great West Indian all-rounder Learie Constantine was a childhood friend of James. In Beyond A Boundary, he alludes to the frequent occasions in the 1930s when, in addition to strategies in cricket, they discussed political strategies that could lead to West Indian self-government.
James argued that the West Indian even back then were politically mature, no longer in need of colonial tutelage. He felt that Constantine’s ebullient, charismatic style of batting, bowling and fielding was not instinctive as so many of his fans at Nelson Club in the Lancashire League believed but the product of deep cogitation and patient practice.
Nascitur non fit ( born not made) is the title of the chapter of the book that is dedicated to the great George Headley. Every characteristic of the batting colossal is examined, a vivid picture is painted which shows why the Jamaican was one of the greatest batsmen to grace a cricket field.
Several issues affecting West Indies cricket such as why Frank Worrell was the better choice over Gerry Alexander, the Roy Gilchrist affair, were dealt with in the last stages of the book in “The Proof of the Pudding”.
Beyond A Boundary encompassed a critical half-century in the social and cultural evolution of the West Indies. It provides historical, social analysis along with an evaluation of the process by which cricket in the West Indies became more than a game to the people of the region.
It’s a book with the story of the relationship between cricket and West Indian nationalism. It asks the question: What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows? Fifty years later the question is still waiting to be answered.