If we rank by the ratio of hagiography to performance, Wilton St Hill will walk into any All Time World XI.    Getty Images
If we rank by the ratio of hagiography to performance, Wilton St Hill will walk into any All Time World XI Getty Images

Wilton St Hill, born July 6, 1893, was one of the first black cricketers of West Indies to eke out a long career. More importantly, he was lionised by CLR James to an extent that stretches into the farcical. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career of this popular but less than brilliant cricketer, and tries to peel off the layers of myth endowed upon his persona by Beyond a Boundary.

Stretching beyond a boundary of reason

“In my gallery, [Winton St Hill] is present with Bradman, Sobers, George Headley and the three Ws, Hutton and Compton, Peter May and a few others. To them he is a stranger. But when he takes his turn at the mythical nets they stop to look at him and then they look at one another: they recognise that he belongs.”

Thus writes CLR James in Beyond a Boundary. He already uses the word ‘mythical’ once, and perhaps no other word in the entire book takes on a greater significance. And then a couple of sentences later he adds, “This is my opportunity to make history. Here goes.”

And with these ominous one and a half sentences James launches into a 22-page essay on this cricketer from his native Trinidad.

“No one I have seen, neither Bradman nor Sobers, saw the ball more quickly or made up his mind earlier,” he starts. And the paragraphs that follow are in the same unrestrained vein.

There is a description of the way St Hill played his leg-glance. It supposedly had the same unnatural stamp as that of Ranji. Well, James never saw Ranji bat, but let us ignore that for a while. St Hill could supposedly move forward to a ball on middle-and-leg, putting himself at risk of leg-before, and he would play the ball fine. He would wrist it away as it rose to the leg boundary.

He would sometimes play the short ball outside the off with a slash, but more often would cut it late. And he would hook without getting out of the line of the ball, putting himself at the peril of being smashed in the face in case of a miss. But never would he falter in this, and never would he get caught at long-leg. Sometimes he would sway back and place the ball over the slips, especially if the leg side boundaries were covered.

He was a master of the on-side as well, with a sweep perfect in the combination of violence and placement of execution. His off-drive was fierce. And sometimes he could, when faced with a bowler of rare quality, strategy and field placings, manufacture strokes that left everyone gasping for breath but him.

After this James becomes anecdotal, describing various ways St Hill performed his heroics, how he would overcome bowlers of different varieties of guile and tactic, what various personages would say about him down the years. He ventures into St Hill the man, and the way he lived and played in Trinidad, for the club Shannon earmarked for the blacks in the racially divided cricket scene of the island. He launches into poetry that he penned in St Hill’s honour, the conversations and instruction sessions he had with the man and his followers.

And he ends with further glorified prose, with the words. “He saw the ball as early as anyone. He played it as late as anyone. His spirit was untameable, perhaps too much so. There we must leave it.”

John Arlott called this essay, “the finest portrait of a cricketer ever created in prose or, for that matter in verse or paint either.”

And here I am in a quandary, wondering about how much of it to reproduce without misleading yet another generation of readers.

Because, the account of James was hagiographic enough to not only encroach the realm of ridiculousness, but to redefine the term altogether and stretch it beyond many a boundary.

It is creation of history indeed, as James prophetically forewarned, and that too in a way that defies every record book in the world.

Facts, figures and fan-fiction

Wilton St Hill, the man who supposedly stood alongside Bradman, Sobers, George Headley, the three Ws, May, Hutton and Compton, played 43 First Class matches and scored 1,948 runs at a rather run-of-the-mill average of 27.15.

A member of the first ever West Indian Test team, his 3 Tests got him 117 runs at 19.50 with a highest of 38.

His only England tour saw him score 262 runs at 10.92. Even James had to concede this as “the solitary painful memory of those crowded years”.

Solitary painful memory, indeed!

In the supposedly glorious 1920s, St Hill ran up averages of 12.25 in the domestic season of 1922-23, 10.33 in 1923-34, 9.00 in 1926-27, 10.66 in 1928-29. In his 14 seasons of First-Class cricket his average crossed 40 in only 3 years, 50 once.

Even the flawed-by-definition and age-old-clich of an argument, ‘numbers don’t reflect the true picture’, cannot really shield one against such figures.

If we consider only his era, catering for the ‘in those days things were different’ arguments, we find players like George Challenor, Freddie Martin, Karl Nunes, Clifford Roach, Learie Constantine, George Francis, Herman Griffith and others were considerably more successful West Indian cricketers; to say nothing of George Headley, Manny Martindale and the others that followed.

Comparison to Headley, Sobers and the Ws are laughable in the West Indian context and it is plain absurd to put him beside the likes of Hutton, May and Compton, let alone Bradman.

St Hill was probably a talented cricketer. Perhaps he saw the ball earlier than Sobers and played it later than Bradman. But while the great names did do the necessary, namely getting runs without being dismissed, that was not exactly what St Hill excelled at.

12 fifty-plus scores in 74 innings puts you at par with at most Alan Fairfax or Len Braund, excellent men to have batting for you lower down the order, after one is done with regular willow-wielders but are not yet in the midst of the tail. St Hill was supposed to be a frontline batsman. To put him on the same pedestal as Bradman is not merely nonsensical, it is insulting the intelligence of the reader.

Not that he did not have a high or two in his career. He scored hundreds against the MCC, twice, in 1926 and then again in 1930. Not that the bowling was anything approaching top-quality in the MCC teams that visited West Indies in those days: Wally Hammond was the spearhead for one of the attacks, and a 52-year-old Wilfred Rhodes the main bowler of the second. However, these two knocks were good.

In 1926, Lord Harris gallantly remarked that St Hill was the best batsman of West Indies. One could be expected to make such comments in the days of yore after seeing one batsman bat only once, while neither knowing the rest of the cricket-space in the islands, nor accounting for all those occasions the batsman might have failed in other knocks.

In that season Hill scored two hundreds, the only time in his career he would do so. By all accounts he was a batsman attractive enough to earn the admiration of Harris. Yet, Nunes and Challenor had better numbers that Caribbean season, Maurice Fernandes scored two hundreds as well and with a far better average. Harris could in no way see much of all these players and make an objective assessment. Or it may well have been that his lordship had different opinions in different islands. After all, he had solid grounding in diplomacy.

But highs of this sort was an exception to sequences of ordinary scores that we generally find in St Hill’s figures.

He was not considered good enough to be taken to England in 1923, and James was self-confessedly near apoplexy. However, his scores in the two First-Class matches in the season that preceded the tour were 0, 13, 0, 36 hardly an eloquent statement for inclusion.

James writes, “There were two or three trial matches and he failed in them.” There is no record of such trial matches, and in all probability nothing of that sort took place. St Hill simply did not have the performance to be selected based on the First-Class season.

Of course it is not the only time James is casual in his handling of facts. He speaks eloquently about a 75 scored for All West Indies XI at British Guyana, after which the players supposedly reported that while St Hill was at the crease the short-legs placed for Fred Root’s bowling were apprehensive throughout. St Hill never scored 75 in his career.

The reasons why

That is a minor blemish.

In Beyond a Boundary, James demonstrates such cavalier attitude for facts even when talking about the birth or cricket (“It was created between 1778 and 1830 by the yeoman farmer, the gamekeeper, the potter, the tinker, the Nottinghamshire coal-miner , the Yorkshire factory hand formed by rural and artisan Englishmen who aimed at nothing but the creation of an activity that would disinterestedly express their native artistic instincts” a load of claptrap, cricket was first and foremost played for money, patrons were attracted and professionals engaged because of the massive bets involved).

James had devoured English literature, and had spent most of his adult life wrestling with important questions of politics and society, fighting for the rights of his people. Yet, he had to earn his living as a cricket writer. Hence, we find Beyond a Boundary almost as a prolonged justification for spending a life as supposedly brilliant as his by loitering around cricket grounds.

Therefore the game is elevated into a symbol of historical, political and social ideal, to underline vociferously that it is far more important than just a game, driving home that a renowned Marxist intellectual had every business to spend half his life watching cricket and writing about it. (Keeping true to character James was a Marxist but did not read Das Kapital till late in his life)

There is a lot of theorising about the links of cricket to Greek Olympics, which, to put it mildly, are severely stretched. Walcott, a black man, would never be accepted as a hero by isolated and exclusive bunch of ancient Greeks, no matter how intellectually stirring James makes the hypothetical idea sound.

However, even when he tries to keep his theorising in check and present basic facts, James comes up way short of accuracy. He maintains Grace was a player in the spirit of the game and a crusader for a game least spoilt by vice! He says Bradman saw Hammond score 905 in Australia as a boy of 18 (sorry, he was 20).

So, when he talks of St Hill, it is quite expected that he would lionise his childhood hero, a fellow black man from Trinidad he himself played with. He would steadily build him up as a symbol for his people, manufacturing non-existent brilliance in the image, writing as he did in days before facts and figures became available at the click of a button.

In fact, his hagiography outdoes the works of the other great cricket chronicling charlatan Neville Cardus, reducing the Cardusian hyperboles about Emmott Robinson and Johnny Tyldesley to the realms of also ran. Cardus catered only to his aesthetic aspirations by making a mockery of facts. James additionally had political motivation.

Yes, St Hill was a black man in Trinidad.

“[He was] one of us, performing in excelsis is in a sphere where competition was open … Wilton St Hill was our boy,” writes James.

The writer, with the soul of a political activist, reduced by circumstances to write about cricket, but realising the potential of cricket as a political propaganda machine, did the obvious of taking a black Trinidadian cricketer of decent merit and building him into an iconic figure.

St Hill was a decent cricketer, and not the one to be faulted. James was a bad historian and certainly should be. And he remains responsible for duping generations of cricket followers with his con-artist prose.

Perhaps we can wonder whether some of the deeds of St Hills performed for Shannon registered in the mind of a young James as the miracles of the divine. James himself once wonders, “How good was he exactly? Doesn’t your memory enshrine a striking figure with an enhancing haze?” But he is quick to add “Perhaps. But I don’t think so.”

I definitely think so, and have already extended my hypothesis that with time this romanticising was coloured in the writer’s mind due to more complicated reasons.

St Hill played for Shannon because that was the club where black people were accepted. There is an anecdote about his being told that Maple, a club where people with lighter skin tones could become members, would welcome someone as talented as him. St Hill supposedly answered that Maple would perhaps accept him but not his brothers. Indeed, his brothers Cyl and Edwin played for Trinidad, and Edwin went on to play Tests for West Indies as well.

However, the source of the anecdote is James himself, and so one has to take it with a bucketful of salt.

St Hill became a salesman in a departmental store and that was the work he did all his life. He loved his cricket and enjoyed a long career. But that is about all. The rest of his greatness was manufactured by the fertile and politically motivated mind of James.

One can of course argue that there was perhaps real merit in his batsmanship. In the writing of Learie Constantine we find this fantastic piece about the man:

“He was smoking as he walked out; he took his stance, still smoking, glanced idly around, threw away his cigarette. George John one of the most formidable fast bowlers who ever handled a ball. Thundered up at the other end and sent down a red lightning flash, atomic if you will. But the slender boy flicked his wrists and the ball flew to the boundary faster than sound. The next ball went the same way. The boy batted from his wrists, he never seemed to use any force. I don’t believe he had the strength even if he so desired. His was just perfect timing. Wilton St Hill became famous later, but I never saw him or anyone else play a more heart-lifting innings than he did that day.”

But then, much of Constantine’s writings were ghosted, by a loyal West Indian writer whom the legendary all-rounder supported. The great cricketer put this writer up in the Lancashire town of Nelson and literally made him famous. Constantine paid for the publication of this writer’s first book, Life of Captain Capriani.

In case you are wondering who this writer was, it was a man called, well, CLR James.

Wilton St Hill was most certainly not one to be mentioned in the same breath as Bradman, Sobers, George Headley, the three Ws, Hutton, May and Compton. Perhaps one has to haul him up by several levels to allow comparisons with even honest hardworking stalwarts like Gus Logie, Wavell Hinds or Darren Sammy.

But he does have one lasting contribution to cricket and the chronicling of the game.

His career, coupled with the piece penned by James, should serve as warning as to how seriously misleading accounts of reputed and biased historians can be.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)