Brian Mathews, courtesy of Eureka Street, 26 March 2015, …. http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42517#.VR08yfmUeVM
Growing up in a profoundly Celtic household, I was aware from a very early age of the labyrinth of inoffensive but powerful superstitions that intermittently governed the lives of my uncles, aunts and, especially my grandmother. In Dublin years ago, a cab driver, having confirmed that I was Australian, asked me if I had any Irish lineage, and I said, ‘My grandmother came from Cork,’ and he nodded with weary tolerance and said, ‘Yes, they all do.’
She really did though and, in the crowded house of which she was the benign dictator except when my father came home on leave, she was the source and curator of a whole world of lore that she in her turn had grown up with in Ireland – what to do when you passed a funeral; turning the calendar page early; a picture falling from the wall; dealing with spilt salt; tripping over in a cemetery; and, of course, among many others, Friday the thirteenth.
This is the one I remember best from those days probably because that baleful date really did come round now and then, but I also recall that it was usually a bit of a fizz. The tabloids would make something of it, but as for good, honest-to-God bad luck and evil circumstance, it was rarely up to much – not to the sensation seeking gaze of a small boy anyway. Age and maturity put a lot of healthy superstitions in their place and so numerous Friday the thirteenths have passed me by without a flicker until just recently when, because of some reading I’ve been doing, Friday 13 March 2015 struck a chord. It was the forty-eighth anniversary of the death of Frank Worrell.
One of the greatest of all West Indian cricketers, Worrell was a brilliant batsman, a fine bowler, a quintessential all-rounder. Though he did not have the magnificent natural gifts of his team mates – Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, the other two famous ‘Ws’ – or the outrageously abundant talents of the up-and-coming Garfield Sobers, Worrell was a natural leader, a unifying and inspiring figure towards whom his team felt unshakable loyalty and commitment.
His many obvious qualifications for the captaincy of the West Indies cricket team, however, were seen in the 1950s to be outweighed by one serious disadvantage. He was black and it was assumed that the Cricket Board would re-appoint wicketkeeper-batsman Gerry Alexander as captain on the 1960-61 Australian tour.
But Worrell had a powerful and articulate ally in C. L. R. James whose Beyond a Boundary is one of the finest and most famous cricket books ever written. As editor from 1958 of The Nation, the newspaper of the People’s National Movement party, James set out, in his own words, ‘to dislodge the mercantile-planter class from automatic domination of West Indies cricket.’ For mercantile planters read whites.
The dislodgement program was direct and unequivocal. The argument against Alexander left no room for ambiguity – one of James’s pieces in The Nation was headlined ‘Alexander Must Go’. His argument for change was likewise direct and uncluttered: ‘The best and most experienced [player] should be captain. What has the shade of one’s skin anything to do with it?’
In The Nation for 4 March 1960, James geared up his campaign for Worrell to lead the West Indies tour to Australia: ‘Frank Worrell is at the peak of his reputation not only as a cricketer but as a master of the game. Respect for him has never been higher in all his long and brilliant career.’ With what we can now see as uncanny prescience, James argued that Australians also would want to greet Worrell as captain. ‘Thousands will come out on every ground to see an old friend leading the West Indies. In fact, I am able to say that if Worrell were captain … the coming tour would be one of the greatest ever.’
Well, thousands did come out to see Worrell and his team, it was indeed ‘one of the greatest ever’ test cricket tours, and thousands farewelled them in Melbourne with one of the most extraordinary displays of public affection and admiration ever seen in that highly sports aware city. As if it wasn’t triumph enough for Frank Worrell to have been the first black man to captain the West Indies through a test series, his predominantly black team had transfixed Australians across the country and had, without any missionary intent, struck a resounding blow at the White Australia Policy, which was still in place.
It is a jubilant, exciting story but also, for two reasons, a poignant one. First, only a few years later at the youthful age of 43, Worrell died of leukaemia. And second, is it not poignant, even shaming, to ask – when our government, with the apparent approval of the electorate and the meek endorsement of the opposition, prides itself on ‘detaining’ or turning away refugees and asylum seekers – would such a moving demonstration of international camaraderie and affection be possible in our time?
Brian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.
ADDENDUM: Notions of White superiority coursed through the West Indies as well and the financial clout of the White Bajans, for instance, meant that their upper class (but not the Rednecks), had privileges the Black and Coloured Bajans (Barbadians) were mostly denied. Significantly, when John Godard led his west Indian team to Australia about 1950 the White Windies men were lodged in different hotels to their Black players (info from Joe Hoad, a White Bajan without any trace of colour prejudice).
Traces of such notions lingered on. One repository was Joe Stollmeyer, a white Trinidadian (1921-89). Unfortunately he was the West Indian Board Representative on the International Board marshalled by the MCC in 1977 or 1978 when Pakistan and India moved a resolution favouring the grant of full test status to the old British colony known as Ceylon – now bearing the name Sri Lanka. Stollmeyer voted against the idea. I am not privy to his thinking, but Hoad — who played cricket for Barbados in the era of the three Ws — reckons that he was deep white racist. His leanings would have been towards the pukka sahibs of England in that decade.