One day, I received an email from someone I did not know, a cricket writer, who told me that he had just completed the first draft of a manuscript on England’s tour of the West Indies in 1954. There was a section in it that looked at the aftermath in the West Indies, and he wondered if I would have a look at those chapters to verify the information.
I was intrigued, given the controversial nature of that series. I also had a chapter on it in my yet-unpublished Frank Worrell biography. I readily agreed and he sent the manuscript.
Naturally, I began from the beginning, intending to skim my way towards the relevant ones. That plan skittled itself; I could not stop reading until I had reached the very end.
His language was engaging, his descriptions vivid, and the background that he brought—especially to the stories behind the scenes, particularly from the English end—was riveting.
My chapter had focused mostly on the West Indian perspective and his account helped to bring a more nuanced understanding of that tour.
The depth of the research was striking; the sheer volume of detail was all the more impressive because of how deftly it was presented. It was scholarly without being dense.
It is not surprising given that David Woodhouse, author of this brilliant work, Who Only Cricket Know: Hutton’s men in the West Indies 1953/54, has an academic background. He’d done his PhD on Lord Byron, which explained the literary gentility. He was always cricket mad, and the years of academia enabled the fascination with detail.
When he sent me a copy of the printed version, I read it all over again, and in the section where he records each day’s play, I found myself hanging on to the events as if I were a live spectator.
It was so odd (especially as I had read it before), that at one point I asked myself if it was a sign of my own mad interest in cricket, or if it was because he had summarised it so vividly.
Here’s day two of the fifth Test at Sabina Park, after tea:
‘[…] The anticipated duel between [Frank] King and [Denis] Compton duly materialised. Compton was too early on King’s first bouncer, which hit him on the back of the glove. He got hold of the next one so well that it flew through the wire netting at long-leg into the crowd.
‘King responded with another bouncer described as ‘colossal’ by Charles Bray. Compton was caught in two minds, tried to back away, got his bat tangled up in his pads and cracked the back of his head on the hard wicket as he fell over.
‘When he came to his senses, he discovered he had been given out. A bail had been dislodged…’
I had been divided about reviewing it. But in mid-April, the publisher, Fairfield Books, sent out a press release announcing that it has been named as the Wisden Book of the Year 2021, and that it had already been given that accolade from the Cricket Society and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). I thought it should be brought to the attention of those interested in our cricket history.
There are so many gaps in our West Indian narratives, mainly because of our lack of archival resources, that regional historians who ought to know better have taken fabulous liberties in the way they tell us about our Caribbean selves. On the other hand, in the past our histories have often been excavated by only one kind of shovel.
Even when West Indians attempted to tell their stories, they did it through (mainly) English ghost writers, and I have seen some ‘autobiographies’ that used language and observations that seemed alien to the people supposedly expressing them.
Woodhouse strove to present a balanced account, based on his extensive probing, and ended up with a book that is a worthy result of the years he spent compiling it.
At first, he had leaned towards a heavily academic distillation of his findings, but he soon realised this would not enable him to capture the excitement he’d found from footage and news reports. Instead, he brought a refreshing approach to describing a series, reminiscent of another brilliant take from Rahul Bhattacharya in Pundits from Pakistan.
In the Afterword, describing the MCC ethos as ‘subject to ridicule’, he spoke of the hypocrisy of its inner circle, which, in the will to win, drove them to ‘countenance manoeuvres that were clearly ‘not cricket’ when it suited them’.
‘More importantly, and more insidiously, MCC and the West Indies Board of Control proclaimed that class and race feeling had no place in the ‘fellowship’ of cricket only because their own social and racial attitudes were so embedded.’
The first part of the book deals with the build-up to the series: the selection processes, the captains and the teams. The second is a detailed account of the tour as the players went from Bermuda to Jamaica, Barbados, British Guiana, Trinidad and back to Jamaica. The third looks at the aftermath and its impact on both teams and their cricket culture.
Everything is covered in detail that could have been tedious, but the author managed to find such an exquisite balance in its presentation that one comes away edified and entertained by the account.
It is certainly worth the read.