The 28th edition of the Wisden Trophy kicks off Wednesday at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, reminding that – among the many awards of Test cricket – only the Ashes have been contested more often.
It is a curious trophy and a fragile one. When I presented it to Joe Root on the Lord’s field after England defeated the West Indies in 2017, I suggested that he clamp it firmly; if not, it could fall apart. Jason Holder had been concerned since the beginning of last year, when the West Indies retaliated in the Caribbean.
But according to former England captain Mike Atherton, no one would care at all. The Wisden Trophy, he says, should be replaced by a piece of silverware that more reflects the shared and troubled history of Britain and the Caribbean and of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It has been suggested that Learie Constantine be honored as part of a rebranding of the Wisden Trophy
He rightly notes that the trophy was inaugurated 57 years ago on the occasion of the 100th edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Then he sniffs, “Can’t we do better?”
Frankly, Atherton makes a good thing, in keeping with the times. After all, no institution, statue or trinket can withstand the winds of change without thinking.
And so, following the Guardian columnist Andy Bull, he suggests the name of Learie Constantine, the great Trinidadian all-rounder who was a grandson of slaves and settled in England, eventually becoming the first black pear in the House of Lords . However, a little more background can be helpful.
In 1963, an enterprising cricketer presented a formal award for the winners of England against the West Indies, and – in mind the centenary of the Almanack – the Wisden Trophy came up.
Editor Lawrence Booth says Constantine’s role in the award should be remembered
The player understood the meaning of the book. He himself had been one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year in 1940, and his caption had appeared on its pages. He was also friends with Ken Medlock, who had helped save Almanack’s parent company John Wisden & Co from liquidation a few years earlier.
MCC initially rejected the proposal, but the player lobbied for the West Indian sign. His perseverance was sufficient: that summer, Frank Worrell became the first captain to lift the Wisden Trophy thanks to a 3-1 win over Ted Dexter’s England.
The identity of the persistent player? Learie Constantine.
Constantine played a key role in the Wisden Trophy approved by the MCC in 1963
Of course, Atherton is right when he says that John Wisden – the 5ft 4in Sussex all-rounder who founded the Almanack in 1864 and once, uniquely, cast all 10 opponents in a first-class match – has nothing to do with England v West Indies.
But Constantine might chuckle if a trophy that owed his existence to his efforts was discarded without any realization of its origin. The Wisden Trophy, it turns out, doesn’t live in a historical vacuum: it says something profound about Constantine’s extraordinary ascent, despite the prejudice he encountered along the way. That is definitely worth celebrating.
All this does not mean that Constantine’s involvement in the story could not have been made more explicit. In some ways, the Wisden Trophy just existed until it became part of the vocabulary: yesterday, Holder as well as West Indian media manager Dario Barthley called it by name. Their words came as naturally as if they were referring to the Axis.
The calls from former English Captain Mike Atherton are compelling, but the context needs to be applied
Likewise, Wisden would have no objection if both the ECB and Cricket West Indies decided it was time for a change. Because the Almanack is more attuned to these questions than some may think.
The editor’s most recent notes – published weeks before the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police turned out to be a tipping point for the BLM movement – accused the English cricket of ignoring the unconscious bias inherent in its structures. Yesterday, ECB CEO Tom Harrison spoke about confronting “awkward truths.”
As the Wisden Trophy retreats to the Lord’s Museum, replaced by a prize whose name recognizes Constantine openly and better reflects a changing world, we will join in the applause. But it doesn’t hurt to recognize that history is not always as simple as it seems.