Beyond a Boundary #
Beyond a Boundary is a book on cricket by C.L.R. James.
I recently finished reading Beyond a Boundary by Trinidadian writer and thinker C.L.R James, which has been referred to as the best book on cricket, and possibly the best book on sport, ever written. I really enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sport of cricket, and its history, or just anyone who wants to get a look into the workings of a very unique and interesting mind.
The first half of the book consists of James reminiscing about his childhood in Trinidad, his exposure to cricket from an early age and dabbling in the game as a player. He writes about his interactions with famous West Indian cricketing figures, in particular Learie Constantine, who after a successful Test cricket career went on to have a significant political career in England, winning major political and cultural battles for the nascent black rights movement in the U.K. It’s all very precisely written and gives you a little window into a world you probably don’t know much about.
The second half of the book, which I personally found even more interesting, is a defence of cricket as an art-form both through a cultural analysis of its creation and most important founding player, W.G. Grace, and an analysis through the lens of art criticism, where James very explicitly makes comparisons between cricket and the dramatic and visual arts.
This really resonated with me, as someone with fairly non-sport interests in general, as a potential explanation for why I have always loved cricket. Of course there’s an element of childhood nostalgia, of memories of playing cricket with my Dad, or talking cricket with adults and trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about, of fake-it-till-you-make-it literacy in a small part of the real world. But the thing that has stuck with me about cricket in my adult life is the astounding gamut of detail available to the spectator of the game, and the pure aesthetic pleasure of it all. As James puts so well:
The total spectacle consists and must consist of a series of individual, isolated episodes, each in itself completely self-contained. Each has its beginning, the ball bowled; its middle, the stroke played; its end, runs, no runs, dismissal. Within the fluctuating interest of the rise and fall of the game as a whole, there is this unending series of events, each single one fraught with immense possibilities of expectation and realization.
I was thinking when I read this part of the book, in particular the parts on batting style, fluidity of movement, comparisons to ancient Olympians, about what James might have had to say about former Australian captain Steve Smith. So recently touted as the next Bradman, maybe even better than Bradman, Smith’s fall from grace was astonishing, and his form since his return has not (yet) reached its former heights. Even during his best days, there was much talk of Smith’s aesthetic style as a player, with many old-school orthodox players finding him ugly, albeit brutally effective, to watch. I personally don’t think James would have thought as highly of Smith as many do, or did, and this perspective has made me start to re-evaluate my own feelings about Smith.
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the simple pleasure of reading the well-organised thoughts of an autodidact explaining thoughts he has accumulated over his long and interesting life in an eloquent and unpretentious way. James’ language is clear and evocative and precise, and he uses it to build a convincing case for the appreciation of cricket as art.