Tuesday 29 January 2013 

Jamaica, Headley And The Heyday Of Costa Rican Cricket

He may have lacked diplomacy but Clarke had a point. Times were even harder in Jamaica. Huge sugar estates in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic had driven down the price of sugar and the level of wages. Marcus Garvey drew on the prevailing discontent to found the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and in 1929 the People’s Party. As in Costa Rica Jamaica was still controlled by a mainly white, landowning class and for the black population George Headley shone like a light in difficult times.

The building which once housed the old British Consulate in Limon

The building which once housed the old British Consulate in Limon

In fact Headley shone all the brighter because of earlier disappointments. The Jamaicans in Limon had taken Garvey to their hearts. He had visited Costa Rica in 1911 working on a banana estate and on a local newspaper before moving on eventually to the USA. UNIA set up a Limon branch in 1919 and Liberty Hall (built in 1922) still exists to this day.  When he set up his “Black Star Shipping Line” in 1919 and purchased an old British ship, the SS Yarmouth, this was followed with fascination in Limon (although the stated intention of returning the Afro-Caribbeans to Africa was taken with a pinch of salt).

When the Yarmouth (renamed the Frederick Douglas) docked in Limon in April 1920 the quays were thronged with celebrating onlookers. When a sister ship berthed the following April United Fruit actually transported workers to the docks as part of a tacit agreement that Garvey would not incite any strikes. However the “Black Star Line” dream quickly evaporated amidst financial difficulties and allegations of fraud.

George’s career had continued to blossom. In 1933 after the match in Limon he had toured England scoring 169 not out in the Second Test. When England returned to the West Indies in 1935 he scored 93 in the First Test, 53 in the Second and a monumental 270 not out in the Fourth on his home ground at Sabina Park. This remained the highest West Indian score against England until 1974. When the West Indies visited England again in the summer of 1939  Headley made 106 and107 in the First Test, 51 in the Second and 65 in the Third before the team had to return home early because of concerns about the imminent war. Indeed had it not been for the Second World War Headley would probably have sealed his rightful position as greatest Test batsman after Bradman. In Limon he was the greatest sporting hero until Pele emerged in the 1950s.

Before their next tour there was a major dispute in Costa Rica in the finest tradition of West Indian cricket. In the domestic league for the Frank Sheehy Cup (named after a senior executive of United Fruit Company) Excelsior SC (the winners in 1935 and 1936) and Pathfinders SC finished equal top with 4 points each. For some reason the other 4 sides in the league declared Pathfinders the winners instead of insisting on a play-off as had previously occurred. One positive aspect of this dispute was that some additional Excelsior players were included in Pathfinders next tour, including Sam Smith (an opening batsman) and Simeon Maxwell.

In April 1938 Pathfinders SC returned to Jamaica, this time bringing an orchestra amongst 60 tourists.  On the cricket field they played twice as many matches.  Stanley Dixon captained the side again but came in for heavy criticism even from Longfield for his field setting and the handling of his bowlers. Longfield added, for good measure, that both the press and the Pathfinders’ opponents had pointed out these deficiencies “but without any noticeable improvement” as the tour wore on.  However Longfield did notice significant improvement in the quality of cricket.  The main revelation was Simeon Maxwell, a slow left arm bowler “as good as any of the left hand bowlers we have in Jamaica”, who took 48 wickets on the tour at an average of only 11.12.  His best performances were 8 for 71 against West India Cold Storage, 5 for 10 versus Puros, 5 for 42 versus Wolmers and 5 for 5 against The Unknowns. There was also significant improvement in Ruben Brown’s batting which included scores of 58 and 44 not out against Railway and 40 against Wolmers.  S Campbell showed promise both with the bat and as wicket keeper.

There remained in Costa Rica a strongly partisan following for Jamaican cricket.  Cleveland Clarke commented to The Gleaner that the initial failure of the West Indies selectors to name Leslie Hylton in the1939 touring party to England “caused broken friendships and in some cases fisticuffs” in Port Limon.

Hopes ran high when Pathfinders made a third trip to Jamaica in April 1939.  However cricket in Costa Rica had suffered a serious reverse. The local government in Limon had decided to erect a hospital on Limon’s only cricket ground, The Oval.  In fact Pathfinders had only played one match since returning from Jamaica in May1938.  They were fighting hard to get a new ground and were hoping for the support of the United Fruit Company.  It is hardly surprising therefore that the Pathfinders performed poorly and were never to tour again.  The planned tour to Cuba in 1940 was called off. The Second World War ended tours in both directions and by 1945 even George Headley (by then suffering from a back injury) was no longer the toast of the Atlantic Coast.

One irony of this sudden decline is that Costa Rica’s best cricketer (with the possible exception of Simeon Maxwell) was playing for Christiana Sports Club in Jamaica prior to returning home to Costa Rica.  This was Lance Binns, a graduate of Farm School and a worker for Unifruitco.  In one celebrated match against the British Garrison at Up Park Camp in April 1939, he took 8 for 18 including the hat trick and then followed it with “a forceful knock of 111” thereby inflicting a defeat on the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Binns was still playing a good standard of cricket in the 1980s and 1990s both as batsman and bowler.

Costa Rica would never have become a test playing nation. There were rarely more than 20,000 Jamaicans and others of Caribbean origin on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica in the 1920s and 1930s.  However, without the intervention of the Second World War, and the denial of cricketing facilities by Spanish-speaking officials who knew and cared nothing for cricket, Costa Rica might have become like Guyana; a mainland offshoot of West Indian cricket or, at the very least, have supplied the occasional cricketer (like Maxwell or Binns) for the Jamaican team.