Major Developments In The History Of Guyanese Cricket

Winston McGowan
Date published: 
Stabroek News

The exact, or even the approximate, date of the beginning of cricket in Guyana is not known. It is believed that this originally English game was introduced into Guyana by British residents in the early decades of the nineteenth century. At that time the area which today constitutes the Republic of Guyana consisted of two colonies: the colony of Berbice and the United Colony of Demerara & Essequibo, which in 1831 were unified into a single entity, British Guiana, the name which it bore until it secured political independence from Britain in May 1966. This article, which will be presented in two installments, will focus on some of the principal developments which characterized the history of cricket in Guyana from its introduction to the present.

Perhaps the most significant development in the nineteenth century was the gradual extension to other races of the game which initially was played exclusively by white British residents, especially soldiers, government officials, plantation personnel and members of the mercantile community. The first groups to be attracted to cricket were the Blacks and Coloureds who learnt the game by looking at Whites.

The involvement of Blacks in the elitist white game was not welcomed initially by some Whites, who viewed Black cricketers with ridicule and scorn and placed obstacles in their way. For example, as late as 1864 efforts were made to prevent Blacks from playing cricket on the Parade Ground, the game's main venue, unless they had a red card signed by one of the town councilors. Eventually, however, these obstacles were removed. Thus in 1869 there was a match on the Parade Ground between the "Black Creoles" and the "Black Barbadians". By the end of the century cricket had become extremely popular among Blacks. As Henry Kurke, who served as magistrate in British Guiana for twenty-five years, wrote in 1897:

"The black and coloured people are madly fond of cricket, every available open space of ground is full of them playing the game in one form or another. Little boys play on the sides of the street with an empty kerosine (sic) oil tin for wickets, and the rib of a palm leaf for a bat. Some of them attain a certain proficiency in the game."

By then all the other ethnic groups in the colony, except Amerindians, had become actively involved in cricket, the Portuguese embracing the game earlier than East Indians and Chinese. This development was noted as early as 1882 in a local newspaper article about the massive turn-out of spectators at a match at the Parade Ground between British Guiana and Trinidad. The writer observed that "the noble game ... possesses an irresistible (sic) fascination for our varied population."

By the 1890s the game had spread to most coastal villages and sugar estates, to the latter mainly through the instrumentality of British overseers who had played cricket in England and Scotland. Owing to this extension, by 1900 cricket was challenging horse-racing for the distinction of being the most popular outdoor sport for adult males of all races and classes. As the twentieth century progressed, however, the game attained an unrivaled supremacy over other outdoor sports where male adults were concerned.

The growing significance of cricket in nineteenth-century British Guiana was facilitated and enhanced by another important development, namely, the emergence of teams and, later, organized clubs, which at first were based completely on racial lines. The advent of teams and clubs gave a major impetus to the local game by stimulating competition which initially, and for a long time after, consisted of "friendly matches". It was not until the twentieth century that organized local team competitions began. It should be noted, however, that for much of the nineteenth century competition was restricted by the ethnic approach to cricket which made teams and clubs, especially white ones, play games only against those of the same race.

One of the earliest clubs to be formed was the Georgetown Cricket Club (G.C.C.) in 1858, with its membership restricted initially to the White elite, especially senior government officials, planters, attorneys and managers of sugar estates, and wealthy merchants, all of whom were British by nationality. The G.C.C. is the oldest surviving cricket club in the Caribbean and until it secured its own ground in Bourda in 1885, it used the Parade Ground for its activities. It secured some of its players from Queen's College, then an elitist white boy's school whose older students practised at the Parade Ground and later at Bourda, even after the school had acquired its own playing facilities in the 1880s.

G.C.C. was the most formidable club in British Guiana until the early decades of the twentieth century. At first its main rival was the Garrison, a club comprised of British soldiers. Other exclusively white teams of British nationals were formed by senior sugar estate personnel on the East Coast of Demerara and in Essequibo. Furthermore, in 1865 the Berbice Cricket Club was established in New Amsterdam with about twenty members. By the 1890s, however, it had collapsed, owing to the paucity of Whites in Berbice and an apparent unwillingness of its members to modify its exclusively racial character.

The 1870s saw the emergence of exclusively Portuguese clubs. The Portuguese, regarded as second-class Whites by residents of British nationality, were excluded initially from membership of the G.C.C. The best known of the originally exclusively or predominantly Portuguese clubs, however, was the Demerara Cricket Club which later became dominated by Blacks.

By 1900 most of the clubs and teams in both the towns and the rural areas were Black. The earliest such clubs and teams emerged in the East Coast of Demerara and the West Coast of Berbice. These teams were involved frequently in matches, especially at weekends and on holidays. In August 1887, for example, there were three friendly games in Mahaica between Black teams. One game was between a team from Ann's Grove and Mahaica for a stake of five dollars and another between teams from Belladrum and Mahaica. Furthermore, in that same month a match took place in Belfield between teams from Victoria and Hopetown for a stake of ten dollars.

The strongest and best known Black teams and clubs, however, emerged later in Georgetown, reflecting considerations not only of race and colour but also of class. Among them were the now defunct British Guiana Cricket Club (B.G.C.C.), later renamed Guyana Sports Club, which was founded in 1896 to cater for Black and Coloured professionals and men of means. In striking contrast, the Malteenoes Sports Club, which was founded in 1902 and was located a stone's throw from the B.G.C.C. in Thomas Lands, catered for working-class Blacks.

This trend of racially based clubs was also followed by the East Indians and Chinese, with their best-known clubs, the East Indian Cricket Club and the Chinese Sports Club, being established in the early decades of the twentieth century.

By 1900, however, some change had begun to occur in the racial character of the colony's cricket. A few clubs began to have teams which were ethnically mixed. This was first evident in the Police team which by the 1890s consisted of white senior officers and Black constables.

By 1900 also, some teams had begun to play matches against teams from other ethnic groups. For example, there was a famous match between the G.C.C. and a Chinese team which challenged the premier club and suffered a heavy defeat. Eventually all teams began to play against other sides, regardless of considerations of race, colour or class.

Nevertheless, ethnicity continued to be prominent in local cricket throughout the colonial period, resulting in many ills, including favouritism and prejudice in the selection of national teams and captains. At least one obvious aspect of it, however, was greatly modified in the post?independence era, owing to pressure from the government. As a result of this intervention, clubs were forced to alter their membership criteria to exclude, or place less emphasis on, considerations of race and colour.

This modification was reflected partly in changes of nomenclature, East Indian Cricket Club becoming Everest Cricket Club and the Chinese Sports Club being renamed Cosmos Sports Club. The most obvious change, however, was witnessed in the membership of the G.C.C. which finally abandoned its long-entrenched policy of predominantly White membership (British nationals and later Portuguese) and opened its doors to other ethnic groups. This momentous change helps to explain why players such as Carl Hooper, Reon King, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan can presently belong (and, even lead) a club from which their forebears would have been debarred. It is also reflected in the administration of the club which in recent times has had non-White presidents.

The second installment of this article will focus on other developments, including cricket grounds, changes in the game, and Guyanese participation in first?class and Test cricket.

This installment will focus on developments in the playing venues. Initially grounds on which cricket matches were played left much to be desired. In the absence of regular ground staff and adequate equipment, pitches were poorly prepared. Often they were uneven and irregular in pace and bounce and were never covered to protect them from rain. Furthermore, the outfields were uneven and grassy, adversely affecting fielding and making the scoring of boundaries from strokes along the ground difficult, unless the batsman hit the ball very hard.

Such conditions favoured bowlers immensely. As a result, individual and team scores were low. Before 1900 it was extremely rare for any team to score more than 150 runs in any match in the colony. Rather it was common for both teams to be dismissed for a total of less than 100 runs, especially in friendly games.

Such low team scores also occurred on several occasions even in first?class inter-colonial games. For example, in the first two such games, which British Guiana played against Barbados in 1865, its innings totals were 22 and 38 and 82 and 146 for the loss of 8 wickets. In its next inter?territorial game against Trinidad in 1869, British Guiana scored 68 and 83.

These low team scores explain why the innings of 123 by Edward Wright, British Guiana's captain and star batsman, against Trinidad in Georgetown in 1882 was regarded as a phenomenal achievement. This was the first century scored by a Caribbean batsman in first-class cricket. Until then the highest score by a Guyanese in an inter?colonial match was 65 by C. Rawlings against Trinidad in Port of Spain in 1869 and the best score by any batsman in a regional first-class game was 75 by the Trinidadian middle?order batsman, E. Agostini, in 1876 against British Guiana in Georgetown in 1876.

The prevalence of low scores is very evident in any analysis of the 13 inter-colonial games which were played in the first phase of regional competition between 1865 and 1891. In the 24 innings in these matches the highest team score was 168 and in fifteen of them the side was dismissed for less than a hundred runs.

These low scores were a clear reflection of the playing conditions, which were unfavourable to productive batting. This indisputable fact was emphasised in reports about matches in the local press. Typical of such reports was one, which appeared in the Daily Chronicle in September 1887 on a practice game at Bourda in preparation for a visit by the Wanderers Club of Barbados. The reporter observed that "the state of the ground was unfavourable for the making of large scores and in fact no large score was made. He was correct, for one team was dismissed for 50 runs and the other for 91.

Initially the only venue for first?class cricket in Guyana was the Parade Ground, located in Georgetown opposite the Promenade Gardens and so named because of the parades and other military activities conducted there. This ground, renamed Independence Park after the colony gained its freedom from Britain in 1966, was owned by the Town Council. From its formation in 1858, the exclusively white Georgetown Cricket Club (G.C.C.) was given permission to use the Parade Ground for its activities by a special arrangement.

All inter-colonial matches in British Guiana until 1882 were held at this ground, renamed Independence Park in modern times. On such occasions special benabs were erected to provide accommodation for spectators, while the pavilion was reserved for the two teams and members of the G.C.C. and the general public viewed the proceedings from the roads north and east of the ground.

Because of the dual purpose and use of the ground, it was often not clear who was responsible for its general maintenance and for the preparation of inter?colonial matches. Consequently, its condition was not always satisfactory. As a newspaper reporter observed in 1882 shortly before a match between British Guiana and Trinidad, "we hear loads of complaints on all hands about the Cricket Ground and there seems to be a general agreement that it is decidedly unfitted to be the scene of an inter?colonial contest for supremacy. At present, it is as rough as any piece of macadamized road in the colony". In particular, the venue suffered from a grassy, uneven outfield, late preparation of the pitch and inadequate accommodation.

This unsatisfactory situation eventually prompted the G.C.C. to seek its own facility, now the famous Bourda Ground, which it secured in 1885 and where the first inter-colonial games were played in 1887 - a historic occasion when British Guiana defeated Barbados, its most redoubtable opponent. This ground, which developed a reputation of "batsman paradise", remained the only local venue for inter-colonial cricket until the 1970s when a few matches began to be played in other venues, initially Skeldon but later also at Rose Hall and Albion, also in the Corentyne and then at Hampton Court in Essequibo.