Cricket has boasted few more remarkable life stories than that of Learie Constantine.
Born into a cricketing family in Trinidad, he quickly made a name on the island as a genuinely fast bowler, hard-hitting batsman and outstanding cover fielder. After two successful tours of England with West Indies in the 1920s, Constantine signed for Nelson in the Lancashire League, becoming the first West Indian to play in the League. Weathering much prejudice from an initially hostile and suspicious population, he became in the end a much-loved local figure, raising Nelson’s crowds from around 1,500 to 14,000 and playing for the club from 1929 to 1942. After the war he combined a career as a barrister with politics - he was elected as an MP, served as a Government minister, then was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Constantine, the first black peer in Britain.
So much lay ahead of Learie Constantine when he took part in West Indies first full Test tour in 1928. So much of it might not have happened had he taken medical advice before the match against Middlesex beginning on 9 June. One month into the tour, Constantine had already had a heavy workload and he arrived at Lord’s with one knee swollen and painful. A doctor advised rest, but Constantine knew all too well that crowds up to then had been poor and the tour was running up debts. The last thing the West Indians needed was their star man to be missing from a key match at Lord’s.
Constantine bore the pain and took the field. He claimed an early breakthrough with the wicket of Harry Lee, but it was only when the West Indians replied to Middlesex’s total of 352 for 6 declared that he really began to make an impact on the game. The West Indians were struggling at 79 for 5 when Constantine came to the wicket. He smashed 86 in less than an hour, utterly dominating Middlesex’s strong bowling attack and a sixth wicket partnership of 107 before he was bowled by Ian Peebles. Middlesex took a lead of 122 into the second innings, but it soon looked paltry once Constantine got to work on them. He cut through the Middlesex batting like a scythe, taking 7 for 57, five of them clean bowled. Middlesex slumped to 136 all out, setting the tourists a target of 259.
It was touch and go when Constantine came to the wicket again. The West Indians were 121 for 5, still needing 138. One hour later, Constantine had hit 103 of them. He fell to Lee with only five runs still needed, having secured a stunning victory against a Middlesex side packed with stars like Patsy Hendren, Gubby Allen and Jack Hearne. The Lord’s crowd had also seen the emergence of a new star, the first truly great West Indian cricketer. Learie Constantine would never look back.