Call it the law of unintended consequences. Three weeks ago I wrote a column about the way in which black activism is intertwined with the history of West Indian cricket. You can’t write about that without mentioning Learie Constantine, and, rereading the details of his life, I was struck all over again by the magnitude of what he accomplished. Constantine was the grandson of a slave who grew up to become the UK’s first black peer. He was the man who fought and won the groundbreaking discrimination case against the Imperial Hotel, the man who wrote Colour Bar, his seminal book about race relations in the UK, the man who was instrumental in passing the 1965 race relations act.
So I wrote that they ought to scrap the Wisden Trophy and cast a new one in Constantine’s honour.
A few days later, Mike Atherton picked up on this idea in the Times. He thought the Wisden Trophy could do with a new name too, one that better reflected the series’ rich history. Constantine would be a good choice, or, if not that, then how about Botham-Richards Trophy? The England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket West Indies agreed. So from now on England v West Indies will be the Richards-Botham series. Which is how, just under a month later, an idea that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement has ended up, instead, with Botham marking the occasion by giving an interview in the Daily Mail in which he explains that he believes “all lives matter”.
This just a couple of weeks after Michael Holding’s brilliant speech during the first Test in which he said: “When people reply to me saying ‘all lives matter’ or ‘white lives matter’ , please, we black people know white lives matter – I don’t think you know black lives matter. So don’t shout back at us about: ‘All lives matter.’ The evidence is clearly there that white lives matter. We want black lives to matter now.” It’s why the players from both sides are wearing a Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts, and why, before the start of every Test, they, and the umpires, have taken the knee together.
Botham obviously wasn’t persuaded.
Well, the game contains multitudes. It doesn’t belong to the one side or the other, whichever one you’re on. The way Botham explained it in the Mail was “I don’t care if a guy comes from Mars and he’s blue. It’s the person you meet and bond with.” That’s his creed, and there are plenty worse. And Richards, grudgingly, it seemed, agreed with him.
By picking Botham and Richards the ECB and Cricket West Indies have, at least, done something to reflect the way the game brings different people together. It’s not just a celebration of two of the game’s great players, and of one of its greatest friendships. A friendship Botham felt so strongly about that he cited it as one of his reasons not to take up a lucrative offer to go on a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa, a friendship which would, in the end, cause him to walk out on Somerset in protest at the way Richards and his other West Indian teammate, Joel Garner, had been treated by the club.
They were rivals too, of course, though that side of their relationship, unlike everything else about it, was pretty one-sided. They played 20 Tests against each other, Richards’ West Indies won 13 of them, Botham’s England just one. So perhaps the trophy could show Richards hooking him for six.
There’s still one thread left dangling at the end of all this. The idea wasn’t to get rid of Wisden’s name, but to do something to memorialise Constantine’s. He was a man who did so much in life that the 18 Tests he played for the West Indies were the least of his achievements. After his playing career was over, he worked in the Ministry of Labour as a welfare officer for West Indian workers in munitions factories, then, in 1954, he qualified as a barrister, then in 1961 he became Trinidad’s first high commissioner in London, then in 1965 he was appointed to the race relations board, and finally, in 1969 he became the very first black or minority ethnic person to be made a peer. Cricket was lucky to have him, so were the countries he moved between.
There is a blue plaque on the wall of his house in Nelson, where he lived for nine years while he was playing in the Lancashire leagues. And there is a bust of him in the National Portrait gallery. But there isn’t a statue of him anywhere, not at Lord’s, and not at the House of Lords. Well, when better to put a new one up than now, in a year when we’re tearing old ones down?