The 28th edition of the Wisden Trophy begins at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl on Wednesday, bringing with it a reminder that — among Test cricket’s many prizes — only the Ashes has been contested more often.
It is a curious trophy and a fragile one. When I presented it on the Lord’s outfield to Joe Root after England had beaten West Indies in 2017 I suggested he clasp it tightly; if not, it was liable to fall apart. Since early last year, when West Indies took revenge in the Caribbean, that concern has been Jason Holder’s.
Yet, according to the former England captain Mike Atherton, it should be no one’s concern at all. The Wisden Trophy, he has argued, should be replaced by a piece of silverware more reflective of the shared and troubled history of Britain and the Caribbean and of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ex-England captain Mike Atherton has called for a rebrand of the Wisden Trophy and he proposes the name of Learie Constantine (above), the great Trinidadian all-rounder
He rightly notes that the trophy was commissioned 57 years ago to mark the 100th edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He then sniffs: ‘Surely we can do better?’
In fairness, Atherton makes a good case, in keeping with the times. After all, no institution or statue or trinket should unthinkingly resist the winds of change.
And so, echoing the Guardian columnist Andy Bull, he proposes 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 peer in the House of Lords. A little more background, however, may be useful.
In 1963, an enterprising cricketer suggested a formal prize for the winners of England v West Indies, and — the Almanack’s centenary in mind — came up with the Wisden Trophy.
Wisden editor Lawrence Booth presents Joe Root with Test cricket prize three years ago
The player understood the book’s significance. He himself had been one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, back in 1940, and his byline had appeared in its pages. He was also friends with Ken Medlock, who a couple of years earlier had helped save John Wisden & Co, the Almanack’s parent company, from liquidation.
MCC initially rejected the proposal but the player lobbied the West Indies board. His persistence did the trick: 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.
Atherton is right, of course, to say that John Wisden — the 5ft 4in Sussex all-rounder who founded the Almanack in 1864, and once, uniquely, bowled all 10 opponents in a first-class game — has nothing to do with England v West Indies.
In fairness, former England skipper Atherton makes a good case, in keeping with the times
But Constantine might enjoy a chuckle if a trophy which owed its existence to his efforts were cast aside without any awareness of its origin. The Wisden Trophy, it turns out, does not inhabit a historical vacuum: it says something profound about Constantine’s extraordinary ascent, despite the prejudice he met en route. That, surely, is worth celebrating.
None of this is to say that Constantine’s involvement in the story could not have been made more explicit. In some ways, the Wisden Trophy has simply existed until it became part of the vocabulary: on Tuesday, both Holder and the West Indies media manager Dario Barthley mentioned it by name. Their words came as naturally as if they were referencing the Ashes.
Book of record: 1940 Wisden featuring Constantine
Equally, Wisden would not object 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 imagine.
The most recent editor’s notes — published weeks before the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police proved a tipping point for the BLM movement — accused English cricket of ignoring the unconscious bias inherent in its structures. On Tuesday, the ECB chief executive Tom Harrison spoke of confronting ‘uncomfortable truths’.
If the Wisden Trophy is retired to the Lord’s museum, replaced by a prize whose name openly acknowledges Constantine and better reflects a changing world, we will join in the applause. But there is no harm in acknowledging that history is not always as simple as it seems.