The triumph of calypso cricket

Garry Steckles recreates a Test match at Lord's that made sporting and cultural history

  • Kitchener. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Guardian
  • The 1950 West Indies touring side. Photograph by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images
  • Lord Kitchener, (with guitar), leads a group of West Indies fans onto the pitch after seeing their team beat England. Photograph by Press Association Images

The clue comes in the sixth line of the famous calypso’s fifth and final verse.

The song we’re talking about is “Victory Test Match”, also often known as “Cricket, Lovely Cricket”, and it was written by either Lord Beginner or Lord Kitchener after the West Indies’ momentous 1950 Test match victory at Lord’s; the authorship is something of a mystery, but more about that in a moment.

Its most famous lines, of course, are the refrain “those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine”, a tribute to the spin bowlers who had just taken 18 England wickets between them in the course of the most important West Indies cricket win of them all.

But the words that captured the true significance of that match, and of the far-reaching impact it would have, come just before the end:

West Indies was feeling homely,
Their audience had them happy,
When Washbrook’s century had ended,
West Indies voices all blended,
Hats went in the air,
People shout and jump without fear,
So at Lord’s was the scenery,
It bound to go down in history

“People shout and jump without fear.”

It’s hard to believe, almost 60 years later, given that West Indian cricket fans have spent much of those six decades shouting and jumping, that their exuberance in London that day was noteworthy enough to be immortalised in the words of what would become the most famous cricket song of them all.

But this was 1950 and this was England, an almost exclusively white, implacably racist and thoroughly conservative society. And this was cricket, where spectator appreciation was traditionally limited to restrained clapping, or, if the occasion was truly special, perhaps a murmured, “Well played, old chap.”

And this was a bunch of black people, in the hallowed home of cricket, jumping and shouting the way they would have done in Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados. And doing it all, as the song tells us, without fear.

Cricket would never be the same. And neither, although the country didn’t know it at the time, would England. The seeds had been sown of what was to become cricket’s greatest dynasty and also of a social upheaval that would change, for ever and for the better, the face of the country where the game had been invented. This was something England had never experienced before: it was the first recorded instance of a group of immigrants expressing themselves in their own way, in public, and in any substantial numbers.

The story of the events at Lord’s on June 29, 1950 has its beginnings almost exactly two years earlier, on June 22, 1948, when a stately, German-built diesel-powered ship named the Empire Windrush landed at London’s Tilbury docks. The Windrush had a colourful history. Launched in Hamburg in 1930, she had originally been called the Monte Rosa, and spent her first few years as a cruise ship, often plying the Atlantic to and from Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, before being deployed to carry troops at the outbreak of the Second World War. Seized by Britain in 1945, following Germany’s defeat, she was used as a British troopship for a couple of years, after which she was renamed the Windrush and reverted to carrying passengers around the world.

In 1948, en route to England from Australia via the Atlantic, the Windrush stopped for a few days in Kingston, and picked up almost 500 Jamaicans, along with a handful of Trinidadians, most of whom paid £28 10 shillings for the privilege of crossing the Atlantic on the ship’s former troop deck. Among them were the Trinidadian calypsonians Aldwyn Roberts and Egbert Moore, better known as Kitchener and Beginner, who had been plying their trade with considerable success in Jamaica and were to do the same for many years in England.

The West Indians who walked nervously down the Windrush’s gangplank at Tilbury were the first wave of immigrants, initially from the Caribbean, then from many other parts of the world, who were to have a profound impact on England.

The country they encountered in the summer of 1948 was anything but welcoming. The stodgy, unimaginative chips-with-everything food, the cold, damp weather, the suspicious and often hostile English people, the structured, reserved way of life – all were far removed from everything they’d known in the laughter-filled, sun-kissed islands they had left behind.

Lord Kitchener, who was interviewed by the BBC just after he disembarked, was asked if he’d give Britain a taste of the music he was famous for in the West Indies, and immediately sang, a cappella, a number composed just for the occasion: “London is the Place for Me”. Before long, Kitch would be writing about the cruel treatment he was receiving from English landladies and of his longing to return to the warmth of the Caribbean. The immigrants were strangers in a strange land, and when 16 West Indian cricketers landed in that strange land in the spring of 1950, England’s tiny Caribbean community hoped and prayed that they would have something to cheer them up, something to cheer about.

Not a great deal was expected of the tourists. The West Indies had never won a Test match, much less a series, in England, and a couple of series victories in the Caribbean had been against virtually second-string English touring sides.

The England they would encounter that summer were anything but second string; among the formidable players they would be facing were Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, Alec Bedser, Bill Edrich, Godfrey Evans, Johnny Wardle, Jim Laker and Trevor Bailey, and West Indies’ chances of avoiding a succession of crushing defeats were considered minimal at best.

Two of the least known of the unheralded West Indies party were the young spin bowlers Sonny Ramadhin, from Trinidad, and Alf Valentine, from Jamaica. Each had played in only two first-class matches, much less a Test, and their selection had raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

Both, however, managed to play their way into the side chosen for the first Test, at Old Trafford, and while England won by a more-than-comfortable 202 runs, Ram and Val served notice that they were forces to be reckoned with. Valentine, playing in his first international match, took eight wickets in England’s first innings and three in the second. Ramadhin snared two and two. Then came Lord’s.

The West Indies made a solid start, batting first for 326 all out, with the opener Allan Rae contributing a century, the peerless Everton Weekes 63 and Frank Worrell 52.  The next indication that this West Indian team were no pushovers came in England’s first innings: the powerful hosts were dispatched for 151, with Ramadhin claiming five wickets for 66, Valentine four for 48 and not a single batsman – not Hutton, not Washbrook, not Edrich – managing to make as much as 40. The tourists piled on another 425 in their second innings, which included a memorable 168 by Clyde Walcott, and, with an insurmountable lead, the spin twins went back to work. Ramadhin took six for 86, Valentine three for 79,  England were all out for 274  and, as Beginner (or was it Kitch?) would gleefully write, After all was said and done, second Test and West Indies won.

In the words of the late John Arlott, the revered English cricket broadcaster and writer, the West Indies, with that one win, had “established themselves as a major cricketing power”.

Just as significantly, as Arlott also wrote, “above all, the West Indian supporters created an atmosphere of joy such as Lord’s had never known before”. The lofty Times newspaper described West Indian supporters as providing “a loud commentary on every ball” and, after the last English wicket had fallen, invading the field armed with “guitar-like instruments.” In Jamaica’s Gleaner, the match report noted that West Indian fans had been “beating out time on dustbin lids” and that “one enthusiast scraped away on a cheesegrater with a carving knife.” Not surprisingly, “bottles of rum were produced like magic,” reported the Gleaner, while England’s Daily Telegraph and Morning Post ran a story under the headline “Calypsos sung at Lord’s”.

Decades later, Kitchener would share his memories about what happened at Lord’s, and, later, in the heart of London, Piccadilly Circus:

“After we won the match, I took my guitar and I call a few West Indians, and I went around the cricket field singing. And I had an answering chorus behind me and we went around the field singing and dancing. So, while we’re dancing, up come a policeman and arrested me. And while he was taking me out of the field, the English people boo him. They said, ‘Leave him alone! Let him enjoy himself. They won the match, let him enjoy himself.’ And he had to let me loose, because he was embarrassed.

“So I took the crowd with me, singing and dancing, from Lord’s into Piccadilly in the heart of London. And while we’re singing and dancing going into Piccadilly, the people opened their windows wondering what’s happening. I think it was the first time they’d ever seen such a thing in England. And we’re dancing Trinidad style, like mas, and dance right down Piccadilly and dance round Eros.”

They were dancing in the Caribbean, too. Public holidays were declared in Jamaica and Barbados, and the celebrations continued when the West Indies went on to prove Lord’s was no fluke, winning the next two Tests, at Trent Bridge and the Oval, by ten wickets and an innings and 56 runs respectively.

Valentine and Ramadhin took a staggering 59 wickets between them in the four Tests, 33 for Valentine and 26 for Ramadhin. The series was also notable for the feats of Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, the Barbadians who would be immortalised as the Three Ws. The triumphant tourists sailed back to the West Indies in September 1950, leaving behind a country that may have seemed, on the surface, to be the same as the one they’d arrived in a few months earlier. But, almost imperceptibly, England had changed. Immigrants had found their voice, a sporting triumph had given them a vehicle to express themselves, “without fear”, and that voice was not about to be silenced.

While all this was happening, calypso cricket would go on to triumphs that not even the jubilant fans who sang and danced around Lord’s with Kitch could have envisaged.

The West Indies dominated cricket for much of the second half of the 20th century, mainly with the teams led by Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards.

Somewhat ironically, considering the role Ramadhin and Valentine played in the series that started it all, much of that success has had pace – generation after generation of lightning-fast, unrelentingly aggressive bowlers – as its foundation stone, complemented by some of the most accomplished batsmen ever to play the game.

Two of those legendary West Indians, Sobers and Richards, were chosen among the five greatest players of the 20th century by a panel of 100 experts polled by Wisden, the bible of cricket, at the end of the last millennium. The other three were the Australians Don Bradman and Shane Warne, and England’s Jack Hobbs, but at least another half-dozen West Indians must have been well in the running.

The Windies’ most dominant era of all was from 1980 to 1995, when the sides led by first Lloyd, then Richards and, for the final few years, Desmond Haynes and Richie Richardson, didn’t lose a Test series, and won 20 of the 29 they played.

Along the way, countless calypsoes have been written celebrating the deeds of the West Indies, many of them by the official bard of Caribbean cricket, David Rudder, one of whose memorable lines just about sums up those golden decades – now, sadly, a memory, but this is neither the time nor place to dwell on that – in a few words:

Them rude boys going to bring you to your knees, here come the West Indies.

Which brings us back to “Victory Test Match” – and who actually wrote it. There’s no question it was recorded by Lord Beginner, and he’s also given the songwriting credits on both the original 45 and the version included a few years ago on a CD titled London is the Place for Me, a wonderful compilation of calypsoes written and recorded in England in the early and mid-Fifties by Kitch, Beginner, Roaring Lion, Invader and Terror, all of whom were based in the UK at the time.

But at least one of the West Indies supporters at Lord’s on June 29, 1950, says Kitch was definitely in on the act. Sam King, a World War II veteran who came to England on the Windrush and went on to become the first black mayor of the London borough of Southwark, recalls that he was about to go home after the game when a bunch of his friends told him no, he had to stay at the ground because Kitchener was about to compose a song. “We sat down on the grass,” recalled Mr King, “and Kitchener says, ‘Cricket, lovely cricket’, and someone said, ‘Put Ramadhin in, man’, and he put Ramadhin in and he went over it and in 30 minutes he wrote the song: ‘Cricket, lovely cricket, at Lord’s where I saw it, Yardley won the toss but Goddard won the Test, with those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine.’ I was there. That was history.”

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