No more than three months after the historic tied Test at the Gabba in Brisbane, Australia, CLR James would aggressively insist that Frank Worrell should not be named West Indies captain for the tour of England scheduled for 1963.
Worrell had been made captain for the 1960-61 tour to Australia and that appointment had been even more aggressively sought by the same CLR James, himself a great cricket writer. Even before the equally historic tour of England in 1950 and the famous victory at Lord’s, Worrell had been seen as natural leader of the West Indies cricket team. Yet this organic development would have to overcome the tradition of white leadership and, as in all battles over power, it faced tremendous opposition, especially as the incumbent class was the ruling elite in the West Indies.
So CLR pulled out his arguments in favour of meritocracy—all the while keeping the vehement race card in his back pocket, just in case. When Worrell was named to lead the team to Australia, it would be a vindication in every possible way for all that CLR had argued.
The tour remains perhaps the most celebrated in the history of cricket for what it accomplished, apart from the first tied Test. It infused a renewal of spirit into a game that had been wilting into boring bouts of attrition devoid of the excitement and effort of true competition. Together with his opposing captain, Richie Benaud, Worrell declared his intention to play exciting cricket, and that was exactly what both teams did.
Fierce as the cricket was, neither animosity nor crassness cast their vulgar shadows over the proceedings. So much so that the Australian public fell in love with the West Indians who had come to their shores and won their hearts with supreme sportsmanship. At the end of the series, a perpetual trophy was commissioned by the Australian Board and designed by jeweller Ernie McCormick. It incorporated a ball used in the December tied Test and was named the Frank Worrell Trophy, in tribute to the man who had recaptured the spirit of the game.
So why on earth would CLR James write that he was “absolutely and militantly opposed to Frank Worrell being made captain of the 1963 team to England”?
An analysis of CLR’s statements in support of his call for Conrad Hunte to lead the team instead reveals several factors. It was in no way connected to any disappointment over the performance of Worrell as leader, as cricketer or as West Indian.
Rather, it was designed to shield a treasured heirloom. CLR first made the point that Worrell himself had stated that his physique was no longer fit for Test cricket. Worrell was just approaching 37 (and if you haven’t got there yet, know that it is a time of great vitality and power: just look at Brian Lara), and there was no evidence that he knew of his fatal condition of leukaemia; but it is possible that the disease had begun its insidious journey through his marrow. Worrell’s peak as a player, as part of the famous triumvirate of the three W’s with Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes, had been from the late Forties throughout the Fifties. If Worrell stated he felt unfit, it would not have been a statement lightly or evasively made. Worrell was a man of iron will and commitment and not one to shirk his duty.
What CLR went on to say was that the world had seen enough of Worrell to know who he was and, note how he puts it: “Worrell has shown what we are capable of.” To CLR, Worrell embodied the highest levels of West Indian attributes. He represented the qualities idealised by CLR as he had made his “Case for West Indian Self-Government” nearly 30 years before. What were these qualities?
CLR identified him as a man of very strong character, with grace, dignity, and a passion for social equality. “It was the men on his side who had no social status whatever for whose interest and welfare he was always primarily concerned. They repaid him with an equally fanatical devotion,” he wrote in 1967 for The Cricketer magazine.
This devotion was one of the binding forces that created a team out of the formerly disparate individuals of West Indies cricket. Worrell’s egalitarian outlook was significant in smoothing the transition of leadership from within entirely white echelons towards meritocracy.
The conditioning of white supremacy was deeply instilled and the change required a leader of principle with equal measures of strength and diplomacy. Roy Marshall, a highly rated batsman, admitted in his autobiography, Test Outcast, that, “Being a white West Indian myself, the son of a planter and living a fairly sheltered life, I suppose I did grow up with slight racialist feelings,” but credited Worrell for changing this.
“I lost all such feelings and impressions when going on tour—and the man I have to thank most for this was Frank Worrell. When I started touring I was only 19 and Frank was six or seven years older. He had already travelled fairly extensively and knew the way of the world. He held no such views. To him every man was entitled to equal consideration, whatever the colour of his skin. Being around with Frank and seeing how he treated everybody, you could not help but come to the same conclusion,” he wrote.
Fast bowler Wes Hall refers to the nurturing quality of Worrell’s leadership in his autobiography, Pace Like Fire: “Even when Gerry Alexander was skipper it was Frank who solved every player’s problem, negotiated his league contract and advised on his play.”
Hall felt that the combined leadership of Berkeley Gaskin (manager) and Worrell created a family atmosphere: “They nourished, and coaxed, and sweated until they achieved their ambition—an atmosphere where there was absolutely no need for disciplinary action. No one would dream of letting them down.”
Worrell also helped to foster a mentoring programme by dismantling the practice of senior players remaining aloof from the newcomers. “Normally junior members of any touring party automatically refrain from mixing with the experienced Test players, partly because they are overawed by them, but Worrell and Gaskin wiped away this distinction,” wrote Hall.
Another distinction that Worrell worked to remove lay within the realms of remuneration. He was dubbed a cricket Bolshevik for refusing to tour India in 1948 without proper pay, a stance described by commentator Tim Hector as a meeting of “nationalist politics and West Indian cricket.”
In an essay titled “West Indian Nationhood, Integration and Cricket Politics,” Hector wrote that “Worrell’s great stand was an indication to the Board, that is, to Privilege and Power, that the ordinary West Indian cricketer like the ordinary people in the West Indies [was] serious about liberty, equality and fraternity. And if these were not possible in society, certainly they were not just to be wished for, but fought for on the cricket field.”
In many ways, Worrell broke tradition and established a new paradigm for West Indies cricket. He brought players together as never before.
Interestingly, from 1960 to the present, Worrell to Lara, there have been no white captains of the West Indies team, and players are nothing short of belligerent in pursuit of their financial and contractual arrangements. What Worrell would make of the way things are managed 40 years after his death at both player and administrative levels makes for interesting speculation. The spirit he embodied has retreated from contemporary cricket. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect this model of his ideal West Indian that led CLR to protest Worrell’s 1963 captaincy—he headlined this article: “After Frank Worrell, what?”
As it turned out, Worrell did lead the side triumphantly to England in 1963, again injecting life into the game that had fallen off during the preceding tour to Australia by the MCC. The English knighted him after that tour in 1963, endorsing CLR’s view that Worrell’s were the qualities to be admired and emulated.
CLR’s earlier fears that a Worrell not at his best faced the risk of undoing the immaculate image he had presented of West Indian capability were all for naught.
“He can add nothing to our and his reputation. But he can lose a lot of both,” he’d written worriedly in March 1961. “Confining myself strictly to play on the field, I say that if you send Worrell, and he does not immediately strike form, or obviously tires at the end of the day, you strike a serious blow at the morale of the whole team. The players will begin to wonder whether Frank wasn’t right in saying that he didn’t think he could stand the strain. Hammond put a sad end to one of the greatest cricket careers in history by failing both as batsman and captain in Australia in 1946–1947. Send Frank as manager; send him as special correspondent for the West Indies press; send him as Ambassador or Special High Commissioner to the Court of St James. But not as 1963 captain, thank you. We must have a new slogan. Here it is: ‘Worrell not for captain.’ You have to get up very early in the morning if you want to save yourself sleepless nights.”
At least sleepless nights produce no nightmares. Sometimes what emerges from the imagination is more devastating than reality. Worrell’s failure would have been a terrible blow to the West Indian psyche now opening to new images of self. But Worrell lived up to every expectation of what could be…and created others. Thus we might mourn his passing at such an early age, until we reflect on how perfectly poised he forever remains.
So it is that sometimes fate intervenes to allow us to preserve memories and characters at their finest. Images of icons withdrawn from their earthly presence remain powerful and vivid because they have been frozen in our consciousness at their primes. Bob Marley, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Malcolm Marshall—we remain enchanted by the spells they cast in the fullness of the blue moons that sent them amongst us. So too Frank Worrell. His life was short, but full; and his legacy worth celebrating and embracing 40, 50, a hundred years from now.