To the outsider, cricket is a bafflingly genteel game. But those who know the game, know also that few sports so seethe with political tension.
In the nineteenth century, MCC Secretary Lord Harris called cricket ‘the building block of Empire’. As governor of Bombay in the 1890s, Harris introduced cricket to India to teach ‘moral lessons to the masses’.
In the twentieth century it became a vehicle for forging anti-imperialist consciousness and a sense of national pride. And nowhere more so than in the West Indies. As Trinidadian-born CLR James, Marxist and historian, novelist and orator, philosopher and cricketer, observed in Beyond a Boundary, perhaps the greatest of sports books, where the English had ‘Drake and the mighty Nelson, Shakespeare and Waterloo’ to help ‘constitute a national tradition’, the peoples of the Caribbean had ‘none that we know of’. The ‘three Ws’, he wrote, helped ‘fill a huge gap in their consciousness and their needs’.
The ‘three Ws’ were Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, three outstanding batsmen who graced the West Indian middle order from the late 1940s, and helped transform Caribbean cricket. Last week Weekes died, the last of the three Ws – Worrell passed away in 1967, Walcott in 2006.
The three Ws were all born in Barbados, within seventeen months of each other, and all within a mile of the Kensington Oval. It was said that the same midwife delivered all three.
Weekes was born into extreme poverty. His father was forced to leave to work in the Trinidadian oilfields when Everton was eight, remitting money to his family; it was more than a decade before has was able to return.
Weekes left school at 14. He was barred from playing for his local cricket club, Pickwick, as it was whites-only. He volunteered to be a member of the ground staff at the Kensington Oval and joined the Barbados Defence Force, which allowed him to play a high standard of cricket.
Weekes made his Test debut for the West Indies against England at the Kensington Oval in 1948, a team in which Walcott was also a debutant. Worrell had played his first Test three weeks earlier.
Weekes was perhaps the best batsman of the three, described by Australian spinner and commentator Richie Benaud as the closest to a postwar reincarnation of the peerless Don Bradman. The year of his debut, he became the first Test batsman to score five Test centuries in consecutive innings. It’s a record that still stands (it might have been six in a row but for being controversially run out on 90 in the fourth Test against India in Madras). He passed 1000 Test runs in 12 innings – one fewer than Bradman; no one has reached that milestone quicker. In 1950 the three Ws anchored the first West Indian team to beat England, both in a game and in a Test series.
But Weekes’ significance, as that of all three Ws, lay not just on the cricket field. ‘West Indians crowding to Tests’, James wrote, ‘bring with them the whole history and future hopes of the islands.’
Race, politics and cricket were inextricably intertwined in the West Indies. The status of Caribbean cricket clubs was defied by the skin colour of the players – the all-white teams, such as Pickwick, at the top, the all black teams at the bottom, and the ones in between sorted according to the shade of skin possessed by most of their players. The number of black players in the West Indian team was restricted, and the captain had to be white, however ill-suited he was, and however many better-suited black players there may have been.
In the 1950s, James, as editor of The Nation, Trinidad’s pro-independence newspaper, waged a fierce campaign challenging the insistence that the West Indies captain had to be white. It was a success. In 1960, Worrell became the first black captain (Weekes had retired from Test cricket two years earlier because of persistent injury). It was a defining moment in Caribbean political consciousness as well as in cricket.
It is difficult at this distance to recognize how politically important cricket was in helping forge a Caribbean consciousness, and how even more important was having a black captain. ‘I haven’t any doubt’, James wrote, ‘that the clash of race, caste and class… stimulated West Indian cricket… In those years political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket precisely because they were games.’ There was, he added, ‘a whole generation of us, and perhaps two generations, formed by cricket, not only in social attitudes but in our innermost personal lives.’ The passing of Weekes is also the cutting of a link to that defining generation.
A shorter version of this is in my Observer column, 5 July 2020.