“Weh Yuh Ah Seh?”: Transatlantic Anti-Racism in West Indies Cricket, 1976–1995
The history of anti-racism and postwar Caribbean migrants is inextricable. For me, Black Caribbean insurrection against British police and education has long enveloped this narrative, whilst cricket as a tool of anti-racism has been pushed to the sidelines.
Playing cricket since childhood, I have always been interested in the political nature of the sport — but it hasn’t reached the contemporary mainstream in the same way football has. Having written previous articles on Walter Tull in journalism and in academia, racism in football is quite well-known. There is a breadth of Black players now and historically with those experiences we can discuss. Yet, racism in cricket and the history of cricket is still relatively niche, no less than to gain access to cricket in Britain is largely a lottery draw of proximity to whiteness, classism, and privilege.
Since childhood, I have been in the knowledge that the West Indies team dominated cricket for the best part of twenty years (1976-1995). It also gives an image of Black men that contradicts all the stereotypes so pervasive in media. However, on a local level, with what started in 1977, I came to find that United Social Club (USC) were very successful winning nine successive league titles. So, while the West Indies won internationally, there is a local Northamptonshire history of mainly Black Caribbeans doing the same.
Working with my friend and colleague Shereen Ingram through the pandemic, under her community group NorFAMtoN on the Windrush Doorstep Scheme, we saw how vital cricket is to the history of the Windrush in Northamptonshire. The Racecourse park (off the Kettering Road) was their home ground. Yet, there is a history of West Indians playing in Northampton before 1948 as the national team included Northampton in the tour of England in 1900 which I included in a lecture I did last August (2021) — entitled ‘22 Yards of Whiteness: “You Don’t Have to Be Posh to Be Privileged”’.
Something that was originally meant to be a blog has turned into something more — part essay, part commentary, part autobiography — tying Black Lives Matter to 1970s and 1980s West Indies cricket, the Windrush, colonialism, and why this is important today. Enjoy.
Following Sky Sports’ Black Lives Matter broadcast in July 2020, I find it challenging to see how the sports establishment still takes an uncritical view of cricket’s racism problem — as in the “official history” of anti-racism, cricket is manifestly absent in popular media. Though British cricket today acts apolitically, in the 1970s and 1980s Caribbean cricket was a significant tool of liberation politics empowering Caribbean migrants in Britain of their own self-worth and pride. If we considered the role of this West Indies team, we might see them as a catalyst for change throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
For example, Stevan Riley’s 2010 film Fire in Babylon tells a story of West Indies cricket as a tool of anti-racism in the Black Atlantic — that not only had reverberations in Britain but further helped the anti-apartheid movement(s) in South Africa and Black Power struggles in the Caribbean. Whilst it is easy to discuss anti-racism in the context of police violence and education, as well as footballing campaigns (EFDN, 2019; BBC, 2022) — cricket too, could be discussed in such a way tracking a trajectory of Black consciousness around the world. In Britain now, however, we are still fighting racism in the sport.
The Yorkshire Cricket Scandal raised issues at county level showing how institutional racism is upheld (BBC, 2021; Waters, 2021). Furthermore, entry into the sport is incredibly revealing, as 43% of the England men’s cricket team in 2019 reportedly attended private school (Sutton Trust, 2019: 5).
Author’s note, September 2022: In July 2022, findings from an independent inquiry found 448 individual examples of institutional racism within the Scottish game.
The breadth of players coming from private schools reminds me how cash-heavy cricket is. Though I attended these schools (ages 5–16), I remember thinking (aged 8–14) how inaccessible the game is if you do not have that disposable income. Many of my school colleagues’ parents were moneyed, so £250+ for their child’s kit was seen as insignificant. Yet, for working-class families that £250+ means lots more. What I am trying to say is, participation in serious hardball cricket you need access to that disposable income.
Today, with cost of living high, who other than the middle and wealthy classes, has that sort of money, when there are employed workers being forced to go to foodbanks? Whilst it would be unfair to say there are no moneyed Black and Brown people in the UK (there are), we are disproportionately impacted by class disparities (JRF, 2022). So, it’s no surprise to see the lack of Black and Brown players at national and county level — while the private school-to-cricket pipeline further shows the links between whiteness and capital to succeed — familial wealth / sponsorship.
The exclusivity of British cricket revisits access to land. Who owns the lands cricket pitches are situated on? Who is gatekeeping it? Also there is growing debate around Black and Brown access to the countryside amid fears of racism (Fatinikun, 2020; Muir, 2021). Whilst not all clubs are in the country / villages, large portions are. For me in the Home Counties, my options are very limited. Growing up under the Windrush Generation in Northamptonshire, I was always encouraged to play cricket. I did so at (private) school which in my formative years was in the countryside around pastoral fields, war memorials, and English country greens. My access to cricket is implicated in my earlier comments of private schools — empire, colonialism etc etc!
While now cricket is largely treated as apolitical, there is a good reason why teams that play in international tournaments are former British colonies. If the empire project was part of the “official history” of cricket, we might then see a paradigm shift in how cricket is talked about and how it came to be adored by the Windrush. As Manthia Diawara (1990) writes about the island of Trinidad: “Cricket is introduced to Trinidad therefore, as an instrument which will enable the colonized subject to envy and act out Englishness.”
Beginning as a tool to subjugate the formerly enslaved, we do not speak of cricket’s two juxtaposed / contrasting histories of liberation and oppression, but as a “gentleman’s game” that’s “slow to watch.” In this thought, we need to consider about who in the Global North was originally constructed — in the social sense — as a “gentleman.” As Maya Goodfellow writes
“Whiteness was not simply a descriptor; it was used to give anchor to the idea that Europe was the place of modernity and civilisation. White Europeans — in particular white upper-class men — were thought inherently modern and sophisticated; their black and brown counterparts, the opposite. The former, human; the latter, not. These ideas live on, subtly drawing a line between the developed and the developing, the advanced and the backward.”
For those that grew up with the Windrush Generation, the politics of cricket may not be that new to you. But for those of who didn’t, what cricket means to many people from the Caribbean of that age will be beyond comprehension — because as the British Black Panthers spoke truth against power in the 1970s, cricketers like Viv Richards also boycotted the West Indies’ 1983 tour of South Africa in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement. As CLR James argued in Beyond a Boundary, how difficult it is to understand cricket, if we do not also see the game through the pervading social politics of the day.
From 1948 with the Nationality Act to the 1971 Immigration Act and into the 1980s, Caribbean people migrated to Britain in their thousands. My maternal and paternal great-grandparents came from Jamaica and Grenada arriving in the early 1960s. With numbers here in Britain during the 1970s, the success of that team brought them joy in the face of daily racial abuse. So, while cricket did oppress, the way the West Indies played changed the game forever empowering Caribbeans as a form of liberation — at the same as co-occurring anti-racist discourses against education and police violence continued.
West Indian dominance that (un)arguably started from their 1976 win over India (where the Indians surrendered the test match on the grounds of intimidatory fast bowling!), would be sustained to as late as 1995. Here, Viv Richard took over the captaincy from Clive Lloyd in 1984. And with five consecutive test match wins, their 1976 series against England saw the West Indians defeat these white Englishmen at their own game. A game the English created to subjugate colonised people in a post-slavery Caribbean.
Sean Ledwith writes
“The white plantation owners of the Caribbean imported cricket from the mother country in the eighteenth century. Inevitably, their bigotry and prejudice blighted the early development of the game there. Batting and bowling were perceived as exclusively white pastimes and black slaves were permitted to participate only to the extent of retrieving the ball from the dense fields of sugar cane when necessary.”
In the years following ‘emancipation’, the British used the values of cricket to (re)colonise Black people who had been ‘freed’. They would not think of themselves as West Indian, but as Englishmen who happened to live in the West Indies. As historian Ray Costello (2015) writes “… by the First World War, black West Indians had come to see themselves as black Englishman, in spite of the existence of a … class system based on race in the Caribbean” (p69). Yet, in the early 20th century most of the players playing for the West Indies were white and could not be differentiated from the Englishmen showing how white supremacy exists as a sociopolitical system (Mills, 2003).
Following the Murder of George Floyd in May 2020, numerous organisations made ‘solidarity’ statements to show their ‘commitment’ to anti-racism. In my opinion, one of the most thought-provoking was from Sky Sports. I was greatly enriched by the discussion lead by veteran West Indies cricketer Michael Holding and former-England women’s cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent, speaking about their experiences of racism in the game.
Holding also talks about George Floyd saying
“You could see life slowly ebbing out of the man … the look on the police officers’ face … if this man dies [they] would think ‘it’s just another Black man’.”
With a spotlight placed on cricket, later on I began to think about what Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent discussed, but in relation to the challenge Black Lives Matter protesters brought to colonial statues (Whitehead, 2021). Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe further reminded me of how education and policing are mainstream in anti-racism discourse. Yet, while not all responsibility should be placed at the feet of McQueen and colleagues, what Small Axe does is remind me how establishment broadcasters continue to uphold the status quo by telling one kind of story that stays uncritically focused on police and education.
Historical figures like Walter Tull are part of Black History Month campaigns and racism in football is something that has been discussed regularly in media — while cricket, the original sport of the British Empire still exists on the fringes. I believe in dominant popular narratives, there is an ignorance to the history of anti-racism in cricket due to how it is viewed now — and how the propaganda machine has a told narrative that has been decontextualised.
During the 1970s and 1980s, cricket in England was lauded more than anything else. In Fire in Babylon, Viv Richard says: “England would rather lose a battleship than a test match.” With the West Indies winning so consistently, running parallel with anti-apartheid in South Africa and Black Power in the Caribbean and civil unrest in Britain — those at the top of the establishment were nervous about this ruckus damaging centuries of white supremacy.
The West Indies used cricket to speak, making statements about politics and society. Members of the Windrush Generation then felt empowered because they could now boast about the success of the West Indies team. Veteran fast bowler Andy Robert states that England was the place West Indians “… struggled more … than anywhere else.” Tony Grieg’s comment — “make them grovel” on the eve of that 1976 tour of England — acted as a further catalyst for them to defeat their old masters, thus giving the Windrush Generation “something to hold on to” putting the term Black Pride into practice.
CLR James framed cricket as something with political meanings. The way cricket has been framed in Britain as a “gentleman’s game” for white men is a disservice to this history at a time when cricket was being talked about in the same breath as other cornerstones of UK political activism — including Saturday Schools, the Apartheid Struggles, and the Brixton Uprisings.
By considering the cricket field as a further site of anti-racism we will be able to show people that the sport is not in fact boring, but a site of political insurgency that has had repercussions all around the world. Despite football making the careers of many Black players (like John Barnes and Marcus Rashford), we must also discuss how West Indian cricket has historically been a tool of activism subverting and reworking a game that was also originally used to subjugate and oppress through the tools of colonialism.