Hundred and eleven years ago was born the first great West Indian cricketer to capture public imagination. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the all-round genius of Sir Learie Constantine – on the field of play and in the greater arena of life.
Learie Constantine’s cricket seemed to sparkle with the combination of sun, surf and music of his homeland. And underneath the bubbling and ecstatic spirit simmered the hunger for freedom associated with his people.
On the field he was exciting, ebullient and electric – with the spirit of the adventure throbbing in his veins. He was thrilling to watch as a batsman, banking more on spontaneous invention than manuals of technique. He bowled with a smooth, high, bounding action and could be often genuinely quick. He later developed a supreme slower ball. While fielding, he picked the ball up in the deep while in full sprint and the throw followed like the release of a powerful, coiled spring. Close to the wicket, he was equal to three men in the slips; rubbery, elastic, and by all evidence without a bone in the frame to hinder motion, pouching fast travelling balls that looked certain to be way, way out of reach.
The pulsating life-force of his Trinidadian ancestry came alive in his game. And along with it came more. Standing on the platform of his magnificent skills, he reached for the life that had been denied to his people for generations.
And through cricket and otherwise, he did more to lift his countrymen and race to a new level of respect in the British Commonwealth.
There were reasons for this. According to Afro-Trinidadian historian CLR James, “he revolted against the revolting contrast between his First-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man.”
Constantine was born exactly 111 years ago in Petit Valley, a village close to Diego Martin, Trinidad. His father, Lebrun, was a grandson of slaves, and rose to the position of overseer on a cocoa estate. His mother, Anaise Pascall, was the daughter of slaves.
Lebrun Constantine was also a well-known cricketer who toured England twice with the early West Indian sides – and in 1906 became the first man from the islands to score a hundred on English soil. Learie Constantine’s maternal uncle Victor was also a First-Class cricketer. The family regularly practised together under the supervision of Lebrun and Victor Pascall, and the concepts and importance of fielding was drilled into a young Constantine by his father during these sessions.
In 1923, Leburn and Learie Constantine both played for Trinidad against British Guiana at Georgetown, one of the few instances of a father and son appearing together in a First-Class match.
Kindling the fire
That same year, Constantine was chosen to travel to England with Harold Austin’s team – before West Indies had been recognised as a Test playing nation. He bowled consistently on the tour, batted well in patches, and was breath-taking in the field. However, his main lessons were gleaned elsewhere. Around him he saw a life that was possible, but largely out of reach of the vibrant people among who he belonged. And with it came the conviction that cricket was perhaps his only vehicle to steer past the hurdles of ancient suppression and get there.
Coupled with his unbridled love for the game, this realisation acted as a catalyst – to change brimming potential into a brilliant chiselled finished product. Five years of hard, relentless regime followed and by 1928, when West Indies embarked on their first Test tour of the Blighty, he was the man crowds thronged to watch across the English grounds.
Except for a four wicket haul at Lord’s, he did not shine in the Tests. However, he set the county grounds ablaze with his performances, scoring 1,381 runs, picking up 107 wickets and holding 33 catches, towering above his teammates in each area.
The spirit of thrill he brought into the matches was greedily lapped up by the fascinated spectators. Along with spectacular bowling, hard-hitting knocks and fielding the like of which had never been seen before, he was a showman as well. Wisden tells us of old timers who recalled his favourite parlour trick - when a ball from him was played into the field he would turn and walk back towards his mark: the fieldsman would throw the ball at his back, "Connie" would keep walking and, without appearing to look, turn his arm and catch the ball between his shoulder blades; no one, so far as can be ascertained, ever saw him miss.
It was the Lord’s game against Middlesex that lent the final gloss to his fame, and eventually provided the framework for him to change his fortune.
Middlesex declared at 352 for six, Nigel Haig and Patsy Hendren hitting hundreds. Constantine came in at 79 for five, and blasted 86 out of the 107 scored while he was at the wicket. West Indies finished 122 behind. Then he went into bowl, a furious storm of whirling arms and splintered stumps, finishing with seven for 57 – including a second spell of six for 11. Needing 259 to win, the visitors were 121 for five when Constantine came in again, to score 103 out of 133 in an hour. He cracked two sixes and twelve boundaries, and a drove a ball straight back with such ferocity that it broke Jack Hearne's finger, ending the season for him. West Indies won by three wickets, and Constantine became the dream man in the line-up for every English cricket club.
It was Nelson who absorbed him for the Lancashire League. Constantine played 10 seasons for them, working like the philosopher’s stone for the gates. Heart, mind and circumstantial necessity combined into performances, he managed to earn enough to survive and study Law in England. Nelson won the championship on eight occasions in those ten years, riding on his brilliance mixed with the desperation to live a better life, the confluence of Caribbean flair and the after-effects of generations of repression.
The torch bearer
His commitments to Nelson, including a rather stringent contract, kept him from playing too many First-class matches. However, when he did get to play, he did not do too badly, scoring 4,451 runs, scalping 424 wickets and pouching 138 catches in 119 games. He also missed a few Tests because of League fixtures, and in the few he played for the fledgling cricketing nation, he was not phenomenally successful. His returns were meagre when measured against his enormous storehouse of skills – just 641 runs at 19.42 and 58 wickets at 30.10.
But he did play the pivotal role in two Test match victories. When West Indies beat England for the first time, at Georgetown in 1930, Clifford Roach got a double hundred and George Headley did the star turn with a century in each innings; but Constantine’s nine wickets proved to be the difference between the two sides. At Port of Spain, four years later, he orchestrated another win. Apart from scoring 90 and 31, and taking two for 41 in the first innings and three for 11 off 14.5 overs in the second, he also delivered the final blow during the riveting last moments, getting an obstinate Maurice Leyland leg before with the penultimate ball of the match.
In between, in 1930-31, he toured Australia and was again the most popular cricketer in the West Indian side. Although he achieved little success in Tests, his fielding was hailed by the press and The Sydney Mail described him as the fastest bowler seen in Australia for years. In the Sydney Sun, Monty Noble described an innings of 59 runs as sensational and one of the best played in Australia since the war. During the tour, Constantine scored a century in 52 minutes against Tasmania, and took five wickets thrice in First-Class matches. In 1950, Don Bradman described him as the greatest fielder he had seen
In 1933, during the second Test at Manchester, Constantine was granted leave by Nelson to turn out for West Indies – the only Test he could play during the three match series. That Test managed to provide another glimpse of the all-round genius of the man. He was fast and furious with the ball, combining with Manny Martindale to subject Douglas Jardine and his men to the same Bodyline treatment they had meted out to Australia the previous season. And in the second innings, he batted patiently for 64, preventing England from snatching a win. That was the only Test of the tour that West Indies managed to draw.
In the final Test that he played, eventually the last Test match before the Second World War, at the age of 37 at Oval, Constantine returned figures of five for 73 and then scored 79 to enable West Indies take the first innings lead.
Almost as importantly, he gained acceptance in the community of Nelson, where many had never seen a black man before. With wife Norma, he settled down, enjoying a life made possible by his phenomenal cricketing talent.
During the Second World War, he stayed back in England as a Ministry of Labour Welfare Officer with West Indian workers. Besides, according to Wisden, he fought discrimination against his people with a dignity, firm but free of acrimony. In 1944, he was refused admission and lodging at the Imperial Hotel in London on account of his colour. He went on to fight a historic case against this prejudice and won the verdict, forcing the establishment to pay the damages.
England honoured him well – as much for his cricketing skills as for his glorious credentials as a statesman. He was awarded the MBE in 1945; but the greatest tribute came his way when he was elected by fellow players – all white men – to lead the Dominions team that beat England in the magnificent end-of-war match at Lord's in 1946. Almost 45 by then, he combined in a thrilling partnership with the swashbuckling Keith Miller in the second innings; and, despite conceding a heavy first innings lead, managed to win the match with minutes to spare through some shrewd tactics.
After his cricketing life, he was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1954. On his return to his homeland, he was elected an MP in his country's first democratic parliament. In later years, he held the posts of Minister of Works in the government and subsequently High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago in London from 1962 until 1964. In 1962, he was knighted and seven years later, in 1969, he was inducted into peerage by being made a Baron.
Baron Learie Constantine passed away in his beloved London in July 1971. Doctors had warned him for long that his lung condition could prove fatal if he did not move back to the warmer clime of the Caribbean. However, he had little desire to leave the country where he had earned his laurels and used his success to elevate the status of his countrymen.
In 1971, he was posthumously awarded him the Trinity Cross by the Government of Trinidad, the first sportsperson to be bestowed with the country's highest honour.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)