Hole & Corner remembers the don of cricket journalism
There's a brilliant clip on YouTube of the late Trinidadian writer, historian and social theorist CLR James.
In it, he gently chides the West Indian poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Michael Smith – taking particular delight in correcting Smith when he pronounces the greatest playwright in the English language as ‘Shaka-Spear’, as if he’s a Zulu chieftain. Cricket fans will probably know him best for a more recent screen appearance, in the 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon, in which James delivers a definitive summary of the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s – the perfect mix of awe and righteous indignation.
His classic book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, casually references Thackeray, Coleridge and Dickens while articulating the particular hold the game has on him – while using it as a metaphor for everything from colonisation to his theories on dialectics. If that sounds a little heavy, he also conveys the excitement of watching cricket in words so pure and simple it makes you wonder why anyone else bothers. For instance, in describing a local village player with a perfect cut shot, he describes him addressing the ball ‘as a woodsman puts his axe to a tree’. That's James in a nutshell: he makes you rethink an everyday phrase as if it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it. He makes you consider sport as political statement; emancipation through not only the menace of a fast bowler but the undisputed culture of a defensive stroke. He preaches socialism through team ethic. While other academics hide in cold theory, he met Trotsky to discuss the plight of the African American. He is cricket's greatest writer. He laughed at youngsters for deliberately mispronouncing Shakespeare. He is the don.