West Indies in Lancashire, a home far from home
Every other Saturday, give or take, I get the train from Rectory Road up to Enfield Town to see a football team of the same name. Should I choose to get off a stop early at Bush Hill Park, I can walk up through a stretch of aspirational suburbia and past a cricket ground on my way to the match. In August and September, I sometimes stop off to peer over the fence and take in a few overs. Attendance is sparse, single figures, always including a man with a flask and a scorebook, whether from obligation or a sheer love of recording data it’s genuinely unclear. It’s a humdrum scene, and it’s strange to imagine that not long ago, the best players in the world were playing in similar surroundings at this level.
League cricket has always been stronger in the north of the country, and probably the most famous and significant of these was, and is, the Lancashire League. The BBC’s ‘Race and Pace: The West Indians in East Lancashire‘ followed the influx of West Indian cricketers into the league, beginning with Nelson CC, on the verge of bankruptcy, deciding to gamble on bringing a black man in as their professional player in interwar Britain. Learie Constantine signed in 1928 for £500 a season — making him most probably the best-paid sportsman in the country, according to his biographer Jeff Hill — and guided the side to seven titles in nine seasons, drawing 7,000 in one game against Todmorden, and later becoming Britain’s first black peer.
Proponents of cricket have generally put a lot of stock into the idea that the game is improving. Not as in getting better itself — Race and Pace makes a fairly strong case that it has, at least at league level, gotten far worse — but as in improving the people who play it and subsequently their environment. It’s a slightly exaggerated notion, which has interestingly ambiguous political implications. This is why you can read CLR James or John Major on cricket and know that neither is writing fraudulently. Race and Pace highlights cricket’s value as a social cohesive, positioning Constantine as an important figure in the integration of black immigrants into Britain, laying some of the groundwork in the pre-Windrush years.
Once Constantine had broken the duopoly of South African and Australian professionals in league cricket, many more followed. Wes Hall (Accrington), Charlie Griffith (Burnley) and most famously Sir Viv Richards (Rishton) are all dealt with here. It’s a story not just of England’s slow — and incomplete — acceptance of the West Indian people, but also of their struggle to acclimatise to life in cold, grey Lancashire. Wes Hall eventually became the best fish and chips eater in the North West, but you get the sense Viv Richards didn’t get much out of his mushy peas and pie experience.
Over the years, the list of West Indian cricketers playing in the Lancashire League is formidable. In the 50s and 60s, 12 of the 14 clubs had a West Indian professional. Sir Garfield Sobers (Radcliffe), Sir Clive Lloyd (Haslingden), Michael Holding (Rishton), Joel Garner (Littleborough), Weekes, Worrell, Walcott, Headley, Roberts, and more, all came to bat or bowl against postmen from Manchester’s satellite towns.
These days, both West Indian cricket and Lancashire League cricket are in steep decline. It’s obvious how beneficial Viv Richards arriving by helicopter to play for Rishton CC was to the league, but less explored in Race and Pace is the effect of the Lancashire League on the West Indies. Young men living in a foreign country, bearing the weight of being the professional — that is, the one expected to bring in crowds and win games. The experience toughened them up and made them into the greatest side in the world. League cricket has reverted to its traditional South African and Australian tendency, though not with anyone of note, and one can’t help but feel that cricket is a poorer place for it.