Sir F.M.M. Worrell and the moral value of sport

Sir F. M. M. Worrell and the moral value of sport

Alexander F. Brown

Alexander F. Brown

Alex is an Anglo-Italian with a profound interest in science, the humanities and how they interlink. Having completed a PhD in molecular neuroscience from UCL, he has now moved into the field of scientific writing and is based in Oxford. His articles will focus on his scientific, cultural and philosophical interests. Whether seemingly more abstract or concrete in theme, they will be linked by one thing: a desire to address what really matters in the context of a sometimes impersonal modernity.

In 1960, Frank Worrell became the first full-time black cricket captain of the West Indies following a sustained journalistic campaign organised by the Trinidadian intellectual C. L. R. James. The event itself, as well as the character of the people involved, demonstrate how sport can become a battleground for moral issues, becoming cherished as something more than ‘just’ a game.

After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport… (1)
Albert CamusFrench philosopher, author and, briefly, football goalkeeper.

Cricket, with its slow pace, long duration (a single game can last up to five days) and arcane laws, has been said to resemble the dramas of ancient Greece, where the plays of the Dionysia festival also went on for five days (2). It is also a sport bound up with British colonial history. The West Indies cricket team, for example, selects its players from a collection of politically and culturally separate Caribbean countries: Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Barbados and various smaller islands; brought together by their colonial heritage of cricket. However, through people such as Frank Worrell, cricket was able to transcend its colonial heritage, overstep the unjust boundaries of race, class and empire, and demonstrate the moral power of sport.

Worrell, alongside Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott, formed the ‘The Three Ws’ of West Indies cricket in the 1950s. This trio of batsmen, all born within eighteen months of each other on the small island of Barbados, dominated bowlers and gave the team the first consistent success of their cricketing history. However, none of them was team captain; the greatest of cricketing responsibilities, requiring intelligence, diplomacy and steeliness. This role had always fallen to white men. The evident opinion of the (also white) selectors was that black men, although capable of great talent, were too irresponsible to captain the side. To allow this would seriously challenge the philosophy of colonialism: if black people were allowed to manage themselves in sport, why not in politics?

Inseparable from Worrell’s story is C. L. R. James. A Trinidadian socialist intellectual, his life combined struggle against all forms of colonialism and ‘barbarism’ (to use his favoured word), with a love of cricket and a reverence for the values the game imparted to him, such as loyalty and self-sacrifice. He loved it even after understanding that these values were provided to him through the prism of the British colonial schooling system, designed to take local children and transform them into British subjects, with little to no understanding or respect for their own culture. For James, cricket was not mere entertainment: it was a treasure given to him by his own oppressors, and he intended to use its moral power against them.

In 1958, James began a relentless journalistic campaign for Frank Worrell’s selection as the first full-time black cricket captain of the West Indies. Simultaneously, he continued his political activism regarding ‘The Case for West Indian Self-Government’, a work he had written back in 1933. Both campaigns soon found success, and the selectors had no choice but to appoint Worrell as captain or face intense anger from a public that were already beginning to taste political freedom.

Captained by Worrell, the first black man to permanently hold the position, the West Indies embarked on their 1960/61 tour of Australia as underdogs. When they left, following a five-test series narrowly lost 2-1 (including one game still widely considered as the greatest in cricket history), a quarter of a million Australians turned up to say goodbye:

Commerce in [Melbourne] stood almost still as the smiling cricketers from the West Indies, the vanquished not the victors, were given a send-off the like of which is normally reserved for Royalty and national heroes.” (3)

— Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack: West Indies in Australia, 1960/61

This outpouring of love is especially remarkable as it occurred during a period in which the deeply racist ‘White Australia’ immigration policy was in place, and indigenous Australians continued to be denied rights of citizenship in their own ancestral land. On later Australian tours, other West Indian teams were subjected to barrages of racial abuse. Clearly, the Australian public had not cast off their racism for good in the summer of 1960/61. How were the events of this tour occasioned?

In order to answer this question, we must broaden the discussion of the link between sport and morality. A comparison between sport and ‘high culture’ may seem puerile to many; although French philosopher Albert Camus, when asked whether he preferred football or the theatre, opted immediately for the first. What sport lacks in artistic possibilities, it makes up for with a more radical sense of openness compared to a book or a play. With its events inherently unwritten, the game unfolds with nothing decided until the end, no matter how probable or improbable the outcome. Sport, then, more effectively than any other narrative art, can remind us of life itself, in its emotional texture, its patterns of repetition and predictability, and its inexhaustible ability to, sometimes, surprise absolutely everyone.

Cricket ball. Photo: Alessandro Bogliari

Its dramatic openness, as any lover of sport knows, can be a tremendous source of delight. Corruption in sport, equivalent to the closure of that openness, can therefore be utterly devastating. For example, during his time in the USA, James was horrified by the casual reactions of his friends to a scandal involving multiple university basketball teams selling games for money from bookmakers. For his friends, many of them impassioned socialists ready to renounce material benefit for their political concerns, sport was irrelevant to their own moral code: why should students put their elders and teachers above what they wanted? What was wrong with manipulating a corrupt system, particularly among the underprivileged and exploited African-American communities that, then and now, produce the vast majority of talented basketball players? What did a game matter (1)?

These questions do not have easy answers, but nor are they novel questions. Similar ones were dramatized by the Roman satirist Lucian, in a conversation between the Athenian statesman Solon and a barbarian. The barbarian asks why the Greeks care so much for their games, which seem to him frivolous pursuits. Solon replies that if he could only see the athletes competing, and observe the valour, courage and ingenuity at work, then he too would be swept up in the emotion. The ancient Greeks, while developing philosophical and political ideas that would shape Europe for millennia, were ‘the most fanatical players and organisers of games the world has ever known’ (1). This cultural particularity can be directly compared to 19thcentury Britain, the birthplace of so many modern organised games.

For James as for Solon, sport was high culture. The idea of morality as an individual code led to corruption and egotism, and sport, with its lesson of submission of the self towards a common purpose, was a precious antidote. In sport, as in life, there was something to ‘get right’, and the tests of the sporting arena were a microcosm of the tests of the moral arena. No loyalty to the team or respect for the opponent, meant no loyalty or respect at all. It is ironic then that these sporting ideals, born out of Western culture, were to eventually be used to combat one of its most shameful, exploitative customs: colonialism.

To return to the question of the charmed 1960/61 tour, it is undoubtable that the quality of the games (all of them finely-balanced and entertaining) helped generate considerable goodwill. Furthermore, a spirit of friendship between the two teams was so successfully encouraged by the captains Worrell and Richie Benaud of Australia, that members of both teams still remark that they never experienced anything similar in their career. Related to both these points, Worrell was not only the first black West Indian captain, but for many experts ‘just about the best of any shade’ in the history of the game (4).

There was extraordinary pressure involved in being not only responsible for captaining the side, but also for presiding successfully over a crucial and historic event. Worrell had all the social ease and grace that other nations were accustomed to from West Indian cricketers. In addition, he exuded a steady serenity that spread to his teammates, and possessed a remarkably intense, questioning mind that often tired his interlocutors (James even remarked that he had only observed a similar intensity of mind in two other people, one of whom was Leon Trotsky), as well as inspiring his team. His devotion to fairplay was total: he insisted his players accept all decisions without showing any displeasure, and there was not a single disagreement on the whole tour. In a later game against India, he gave his blood to save a life after a brutal cricketing head injury. Until his untimely death from leukaemia at the age of 42, he ‘expanded (the) conception of the West Indian personality’ (2) just as it emerged from the shadow of British rule. Had he lived, he could easily have become a beloved expert and commentator of the game like his dear friend Benaud, or even a major politician like current prime minister and former cricket captain of Pakistan, Imran Khan.

What is morality? is a question which remains difficult, if not impossible, to answer. However, there are times when we know it when we see it: and Frank Worrell ‘got it right’. In him, best of all, we can observe morality as inseparable from sport, on the Olympian pedestal where the ancient Greeks placed it.


Alexander F. Brown



  1. Lottman, H.R., “Albert Camus: A biography”, Corte Madera: Gingko Press, 1997
  2. C. L. R. James, “Beyond a Boundary”, 1963.
  3. “Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack”, 1962 edition.
  4. The Cricketer magazine, article by E. W. Swanton on Clive Lloyd, 1984.
Received: 07.12.18, Ready: 21.01.19, Editors: Sandipan Tewary, Robert Ganley.

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