In search of the unequivocal Englishman
The Henderson affair and the British media
Extracted from Anyone but England: Cricket, Race and Class, 1998.
The Saturday of the Lord’s Test against West Indies, 1995. I was sitting high up in the Mound Stand with my friend, Suresh Grover, perusing the July issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly, which had just hit the news-stands. Keith Arthurton was nursing the West Indies tail, pushing the first innings total past England’s 283, and the atmosphere was somnolent. West Indies supporters were few and far between, as they were to be throughout that summer, driven from England’s test grounds by bans on banners and musical instruments, advance credit card bookings, and exorbitant prices. In the Guardian, drama critic and cricket-lover Michael Billington bemoaned the ‘vaguely apartheid atmosphere’ which had descended upon the venerable headquarters of cricket.
As the full-time Co-ordinator of the Southall Monitoring Group, Suresh spends his days working with people who have suffered racial harassment, domestic violence, or unjust treatment at the hands of police, housing authorities, employers or immigration officials. He is used to standing up to bullies and bureaucrats. And he has never been afraid to speak out against those people within his own community who would divide it along religious or communal lines. Although his parents came from the sub-continent and he grew up in Blackburn, he’s a West Indies fan. Not merely because his experience in this country has led him to subscribe to the ‘Anyone but England’ theory, but because he had been won over by the style, success and cohesion of the great West Indies teams of the 70s and 80s.
David Frith, the editor of WCM, had been an outspoken critic of those teams and their fast-bowling strategy. In the latest issue, reviewing Real Quick, a tribute to the great west Indies pace masters by Alastair McLellan and Michelle Savidge, he disparaged the famous four-prong attack as ‘morally indefensible’. His verdict on the achievements catalogued in the book was tersely dismissive: ‘Holding was usually magnificent – as was Wes Hall before him – and Garner and Ambrose were fortunate to be endowed with such long limbs. That will suffice.’
I had been reading WCM since its launch in 1979. Back then, it was a welcome alternative to The Cricketer, brighter, sharper, and more up-to-date. Sadly, over the years, the magazine had been soured by Frith’s increasingly cranky approach not only to West Indies quicks, but also towards Pakistanis (fans as well as players) and the South African question. Nonetheless I had remained a loyal reader. On my way to my seat, I had picked up a copy of the new issue at the Lord’s shop, noting on the cover headline ‘Racism and National Identity’, and fearing the worst.
Now, as the West Indies tail wagged, I turned to page nine, and found an article entitled ‘IS IT IN THE BLOOD?‘. The author was Robert Henderson (a name that meant nothing to me) and his text was illustrated with photos of Geoff Greenidge (captioned ‘the last white player to represent West Indies’) and Phil DeFreitas (captioned ‘to England at 10’). I read its 2300 words with growing disbelief and when I had finished, went back to the start and read the whole piece again. Disbelief now turned to anger. I handed the article to Suresh, whose head twitched in irritation as his eyes ran up and down the columns. ‘My god, how can they get away with that crap?’ he asked, handing me back the magazine as if it was a piece of rotten meat. We talked for a while about the arguments in the article, why they were pernicious, and what we should do about them. Reading Henderson so inflamed Suresh’ bias against England that he refused to be impressed by Darren Gough’s amazing, near horizontal leap to catch Arthurton at long leg and put an end to the West Indies innings for 324.
The following Monday, England bowled out West Indies to level the series. Dominic Cork took 7-42, the best England Test debut ever, and became the latest in English cricket’s long line of media-elevated messiahs, a burden which would nearly crush him in the coming years. As I listened to Test Match Special, I made photocopies of the Henderson article and sent them, along with a covering letter, to about twenty individuals whom I knew shared a love of cricket and a serious commitment to racial justice. Most were people active in anti-racist organisations or community groups, some were MPs and trade unionists, and a few were journalists. I urged them to write to WCM about the Henderson article, as well as to Mike Atherton (who was a member of the WCM Editorial Board), and suggested it was time we did something about challenging racism in cricket. I also wrote a letter to WCM myself, in which I argued that the article was ‘illogical, ignorant, and bigoted.’ I had no idea that it would prove only a drop in the postal torrent which WCM was to receive in response to the article. Frith admitted it was by far his biggest mailbag ever, running 9-1 against the article.
Later, it was often reported that the Henderson piece had precipitated a furore because it had suggested that ‘foreign-born’ players lacked commitment to England. Frith claimed his critics had not read the article, or had misrepresented it. This was wishful thinking. Those who studied it in its entirety were the most likely to be concerned by the decision to publish it.
Frith’s stand-first labelled it an examination ‘from a cricketing viewpoint – of the sensitive matters of racism and national identity.’ The author commences his treatment of a topic he describes as ‘long overdue for honest discussion’ with complaints about the West Indies board’s alleged discrimination against Asians and Whites. Promptly stretching credulity to breaking point, he asserts that ‘those who control the first-class cricket of the white Test-playing nations are drawn from the liberal elites’. Under their aegis, ‘only one public line on racism in cricket is tolerated, namely that only whites may be racist.’ Why was South Africa singled out when so many other nations ‘do not have clean racial hands’? ‘How many non-Muslims have played for Pakistan, or Tamils for Sri Lanka? … How many untouchables have played for India?’ (By the way, the answer in all three cases is a few, but not enough). For Henderson, ‘racially and culturally determined selection’ is ubiquitous and those who deny it are hypocrites.
But does he object to such policies? Apparently not, because the rest of his article tries to make a case for England practising the most rigorous ‘racially and culturally determined selection’. Addressing a WCM correspondent who had argued that it was wrong to lump DeFreitas and Ramprakash in with cricket migrants from southern Africa like Smith and Hick, Henderson boldly nails his colours to the mast:
‘If I were to take the coward’s way, I could point out that DeFreitas came to England at quite an advanced age (around 10) … I could say, of course, I was not referring to Ramprakash … because he was born and bred here. But those would be weasel words.’
Henderson then quotes Matthew Engel’s observation in the 1995 Wisden: ‘It cannot be irrelevant to England’s long-term failures that so many of their recent Test players were either born overseas and/or spent their formative years as citizens of other countries.’ He omits Engel’s crucial caveat (‘It is not a question of race’) and explicitly rejects its inclusiveness: ‘An Asian or a negro raised in England will, according to the liberal, feel exactly the same pride and identification with the place as a white man. The reality is entirely different.’ Most of the rest of the article is dedicated to proving that blacks and Asians, wherever born or raised, can never be ‘culturally’ English and can never feel ‘a deep, unquestioning commitment to England’.
‘Norman Tebbitt’s cricket test is as pertinent for players as it is for spectators. It is even possible that part of a coloured England-qualified player feels satisfaction (perhaps subconsciously) at seeing England humiliated, because of post imperial myths of oppression and exploitation.’
Henderson points to ‘the generally resentful and separatist mentality of the West Indian-descended population in England – doubters should cast their minds back to the riots of the 1980s, take a stroll around Brixton, Deptford, Hackney, Moss Side, St. Paul’s et al, and think of Haringey Cricket College which has had few if any white members … There would seem to be no obvious reason why players such as DeFreitas and Lewis should not share the mentality [of] the general West Indian derived population.’ Worse yet is the negative impact ‘the interlopers have on the unequivocally English players and consequently on team spirit’. Henderson is quite certain that ‘mixed groups’ can never ‘develop the same camaraderie as 11 unequivocal Englishmen.’ In sum, ‘the problem for the England selectors is perhaps similar to that facing England as a nation.’ The establishment has ‘conspired’ to ‘remove any sense of pride or sense of place in the hearts of those who are unequivocally English… Indeed, perhaps even some of the unequivocally English players lack a sufficient sense of pride in playing for England.’ In a closing peroration which should have set alarm bells ringing the moment it crossed the WCM editorial desk, Henderson asserts:
For a man to feel the pull of ‘cricketing patriotism’ he must be so imbued with a sense of cultural belonging that it is second nature to go beyond the call of duty… is that desire to succeed instinctive [Henderson’s italics], a matter of biology? There lies the heart of the matter.”
Later, Matthew Engel described the Henderson article as ‘densely argued’. Dense it certainly was – crammed with small evasions and Big Lies, stereotypes and sneers – but where was the argument? The only logic underpinning the article’s twists and turns, its piling of non-sequitor upon innuendo, was the logic of racism, and the leap in the last paragraph from culture to biology – highlighted in the headline chosen by Frith – was characteristic of the piece as a whole, as of so much far right rhetoric. To me, the article seemed a veritable catalogue of exhausted racist casuistries, bristling with resentment, stuffed with the pseudo-sociological paranoia of the bigot at sea in the modern cosmopolis, and replete with the venerable fascist mantra about the ‘liberal elite’ betraying the national heritage.
I had sent the Henderson article to Kevin Mitchell, the Observer sports writer, whom I had met the year before and whose gutsy and compassionate features I admired. Kevin told me he found the piece pretty outrageous, wanted to know who this Henderson bloke was (I couldn’t help him there) and said he was going to do a news story about it the following Sunday. He also told me that the article had caused a stir in the Derbyshire dressing room, and that Adrian Rollins, the county’s opening bat (and Haringey Cricket College graduate), had written an angry letter to WCM. When the story appeared on the Observer’s front page under the headline ‘Cricket world divided by ‘negro’ loyalty row’, I was taken aback. I thought the publication of the article in WCM was important, but not that important, which probably just showed that even I had become inured to the appearance of dubious racial propaganda in the cricket media. Kevin reported that the WCM office had been ‘inundated with calls and letters’. Frith was surprised by the reaction but defended the article: ‘Some people are scared [of this issue]. It’s healthier out in the open…’ Kevin had also sought a comment from Matthew Engel, editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and a member of the WCM editorial board:
‘I can’t go along with everything that Mr. Henderson says, as I’d never heard of him before. but the question of nationality and sport is a legitimate one, as anyone observing Wimbledon or Test cricket can see. There is a problem of how you marry the wider question of race and nationality into the narrow issue of sporting patriotism. I’m not sure it helps if you scream ‘racist’ when someone make a contribution to that debate.’
So far the only public statements about the issue had come from Frith and Henderson. So just who was doing the ‘screaming’? In the next day’s Guardian, Paul Foot (to whom I had also posted the Henderson piece) decried Henderson’s case as ‘quack segregationist ‘science’ of the type which flourished under the Third Reich.’ Responding to Engel’s statement in the Observer, he added, ‘I’m not sure it helps either if liberal journalists respond to the most blatant racialism by covering up for it.’ Extraordinarily, Engel had seen Foot’s column before it went to press and was able to reply in his own column in the same paper on the same day. Here he defended Frith’s right to ‘edit as he sees fit’. The Henderson article was ‘a curious one’. It was ‘strange that he should use the word ‘negroes’, which is now widely regarded as offensive outside far right wing political circles.’ Engel dismissed Henderson’s mutterings about ‘instinct’ and ‘biology’ as ‘drivel’, but went on to argue that there is a ‘difference between team games and individual sports’. Foot had derided Henderson’s claim that a dressing room of ‘six Englishman, two west Indians, two southern Africans and a New Zealander’ could not develop ‘the same camaraderie as 11 unequivocal Englishmen’. Here, insisted Engel, it was Foot who was ‘talking drivel’. He argued that ‘teams that flog their guts out for their country habitually do better than collections of individuals whose sole aim is to further their own careers. This is one of the reasons England cricket teams lose more often than they win.’
For Engel, this failing was one facet of a broader problem with British identity. Recalling the way Michael Slater kissed the Australian insignia on his helmet after scoring his maiden Test century at Lord’s in 1993, Engel declared: ‘It is hard, no, impossible to imagine either Graeme Hick or Phil DeFreitas doing the same – in the unlikely event of them summoning the resolution to produce a similar performance.’ In the Financial Times, Michael Spinaker responded:
‘DeFreitas has lived in England since the start of secondary school. Are these not a cricketer’s formative years? And if it is the years before that are formative, would Engel accept as English a player who had lived in Australia since, say, the age of ten? I doubt it.’
I’ve puzzled for some time over what Engel meant by insisting on this division between individual and team sports. The implicit argument seemed to be that a ‘foreigner’ (however defined) might well succeed in English or British colours at the 100 meters or singles tennis or boxing, but as a member of a football or cricket or rugby team (hard to say where Britain’s 4×400 relay team would fit in) he or she would be likely to detract from the cultural cohesion necessary for victory. The only practical upshot of Engel’s analysis (one which I assume he would oppose) would be a programme to screen out players with insufficient commitment to the national cause. To many people, national identity and national commitment are self-evident phenomena, but the impossibility of devising an unbiased measurement of either quality suggests that, as so often, the self-evident is merely the illusory.
The saddest aspect of the Engel analysis is its assumption that diversity – racial, cultural, national, even linguistic – is an insuperable obstacle to the forging of a common purpose on the field of play . Across western Europe all the big football clubs are not only multi-racial, but multi-national, and often polyglot. This has not inhibited them on the field nor has it diminished the fervour of supporters. The great West Indies sides of the 70s and 80s comprised players from as many as seven different countries, as well as players with diverse racial, cultural and religious associations. Of course, there were tensions among them. But when the tensions were transcended, the unity in diversity of the team was clearly a source of inspiration. It has been to the West Indies team’s advantage that it represents an aspiration towards West Indian unity, a desire to fashion a broader, more inclusive identity. It has been to the England team’s disadvantage that just about the only time English national identity is invoked, as in the Henderson Affair, it is with the purpose of excluding someone because of his colour or country of origin.
Engel insisted that the ‘legitimate debate’ he sought was one arising from professional sportspersons competing under flags of convenience, people like Greg Rusedski, Zola Budd, Graeme Hick or Robin Smith. ‘Like many people in cricket, I am concerned that it is too easy for players to choose which Test team they will represent, even if their connection with the country is marginal.’ But by yoking together DeFreitas and Hick, Engel himself blurred the critical dividing line between these two very different ‘debates’. And it was surely telling that in the ‘debate’ which ensued there was not a single specific proposal for an amendment to the existing eligibility rules. In the absence of such a proposal, what was the point of this ‘legitimate debate’?
Personally, I think it’s a shame people give the Lambs, Smiths and Hicks such a hard time. Certainly cricket fans have no reason to complain. They came to England because of the exceptional conditions which faced top class southern African cricketers in the 70s and 80s. Out of loyalty to their families and a natural desire to make the most of their talents, they committed their working lives to England. Mostly, they did so without fanfare or false ardour. They escaped the personal consequences of the international boycott of apartheid, but, unlike the English players who travelled in the opposite direction, they did not break sanctions or aid the apartheid regime. South Africa’s loss was England’s gain.
Of course, there is a fundamental distinction between these ‘mercenaries’ and DeFreitas or Malcolm or the vast majority of Asian and black cricketers earning a living in the English first-class game. These players were either born in Britain or came here with their parents as children. They did not come to England to play cricket. But as soon as ‘Englishness’ is defined not by simple quantifiable rules of birth or residence, the line dividing these two groups gets blurred. The search for ‘cultural cohesion’ opens a Pandora’s Box, releasing an army of demons. And the demand that the England Test team show itself to be truly English (and for some commentators the only way they can do that is by winning more often) merely succeeds in saddling English cricket with yet another sentimental-cum-moral burden.
As someone who had relished Engel’s sardonic coverage of cricket’s South African imbroglio, I was disappointed with his apparent inability to grasp the malice and menace implied in Henderson’s article, and aghast at his efforts to justify its publication in a cricket magazine. I wrote a piece in the Guardian saying as much, and Engel retorted that I had ‘distorted his views in order to have a simple target …’ I am afraid I remain convinced that the confusions permeating Engel’s views on race and nationality were his own responsibility, not mine. The simple target would have been Robert Henderson, but I was more concerned with the real question raised by the article: how such dangerous, divisive and downright silly ideas had come to be treated with respect within the cricket world.
Outside that world, condemnation of Henderson’s views was virtually unanimous. Black sports stars found nothing ambiguous in the article, and could see no justification for printing it. ‘It’s not part of a legitimate debate,’ said Victor Ubogu, ‘It’s crap.’ Rightly, they saw no reason why their commitment to the sides they played for should be questioned or why they should have to prove their national loyalty. Even Norman Tebbit was quick to draw a clear distinction between Henderson’s views and his cricket test, whose aim was to promote national integration. He called Malcolm and DeFreitas ‘nothing but a credit’ in their efforts for the national side. In an editorial, The Times deplored the ‘ugly article’ and ‘the irresponsibility of the magazine’s editor’ in giving credence to an analysis as ‘impoverished and execrable’ as Henderson’s.
Within a week of the Observer article, Henderson’s tortured logic had been dissected and denounced across the political spectrum. Malcolm and DeFreitas threatened to sue for libel. Mike Atherton told journalists during the truncated third test at Edgbaston (on an uneven pitch, West Indies bowled England out twice within two days) that he had resigned from the WCM Editorial Board. ‘I disapprove not only of the views expressed in the article but also its inclusion in the magazine.’
Frith found himself at the centre of a national controversy, his editorial policy under a type of scrutiny with which he was entirely unfamiliar. On 7th July, in a statement issued through the Press Association, he admitted publication of Henderson’s article was an ‘error of judgement’ and offered ‘unreserved apologies to all whose sensibilities have been offended’. He had hoped the article would be ‘a springboard for beneficial debate’ and blamed the furore it had caused on ‘distortions in certain sections of the media’. He told Kevin Mitchell, ‘I’ve been up there like a dart board on Henderson’s behalf and I’ve had enough of it.’ The August issue of WCM included two pages of letters critical of Henderson and articles by Brearley and Gower debunking Henderson’s unreal view of top-class sporting competition. ‘The unconscious is a hybrid and elusive beast,’ wrote Brearley, ‘Mr. Henderson’s attempts to expose it in others reveal more about his than theirs.’ Gower was equally derisive. ‘Without being unpatriotic, I think the notion of ‘national pride’ has been over-rated… Motivation comes from many sources, and a player’s determination to do well is an individual quality’.
Frith’s editorial was headlined ‘Who needs ancestors?’ (a reference to Voltaire: ‘Whoever serves his country well has no need of ancestors’). It struck a defensive posture from the beginning and never abandoned it. ‘Robert Henderson’s article did not place a question mark beside foreign-born England cricketers. It was already there. Reservations have rumbled round the cricket grounds and in the sports columns of the newspapers for several years.’ His purpose in publishing the Henderson article, Frith now claimed, was to ‘dismiss’ these reservations so that ‘so that cricketers and other sportsmen could be cleansed of suspicion about commitment.’ He attributed the negative public reaction to ‘the somewhat cold nature of Mr. Henderson’s language’ and blamed the press for shifting ‘the grounds of debate from national identity exclusively to race’ (though it was Henderson himself who had told the Evening Standard, ‘Personally I would not select Asians or blacks. It is a particular problem with team sports.’) Frith then quoted with approval Bill Deedes, the high Tory former Daily Telegraph editor, who had loftily declared that commentators had all got ‘the wrong end of the stick’ in the Henderson affair. Sounding increasingly like a Private Eye parody of himself, Deedes explained, ‘It is cosmopolitanism, not colour, which dilutes loyalty.’ Neither Deedes nor Frith seemed to be aware that ‘cosmopolitanism’ was the charge levied by Nazi propagandists against Jews and leftists, whose loyalties, they claimed, were not exclusively to the German nation-state.
The Henderson Affair fascinated the media. It had all the elements: race and national identity, Englishness and cricket, the hallowed name of Wisden. Pundits had a field day. Within the cricket world there was shock and confusion. No one wanted to be associated with Henderson, and very few were prepared to defend Frith’s editorial choices. But the overall tone was defensive. Many writers, commentators, administrators and players were deeply uncomfortable at the sudden and unexpected spotlight thrown on their little world, a world in which assumptions about race and nation had hitherto remained unexamined. Tim Rice turned apoplectic when he received an appeal from Hit Racism for Six, a group founded in the wake of the Henderson Affair to campaign against racism in cricket. Rice accused the group of creating a problem where none existed. Cricket, he claimed, was ‘one of the least racist features of British society.’ Most cricket correspondents I spoke to during that summer were at pains to insist that Henderson was merely an aberration and had received far too much attention.
So how did ‘Is It In The Blood?’ end up in WCM? An indefatigable correspondent, Henderson had for some time been bombarding the good and the great of the cricket world with essays expounding his views and statistical tables purporting to support them. According to Henderson, it was Frith who had first made contact with him, after seeing one of his broadsides, and had asked him to contribute to WCM. The result was an article, published in 1991, entitled ‘A Fundamental Malaise’, in which Henderson argued that cricketers ought to possess ‘an instinctive allegiance to a culture’ and questioned Nasser Hussain’s right to play for England because of a statement he had made to the effect that he felt ‘Indian’. Responding to a letter of complaint from Nasser’s mother, Shireen Hussain, Henderson explained, ‘It is essentially an aesthetic judgement. The inclusion of south Africans, west Indians and an Indian in recent XIs offends my sense of rightness or proportion, just as a badly-drawn picture or self-conscious acting performance does’. In 1993, he sent out an analysis of ‘England Qualified Interlopers Test records’, sub-divided into ‘colour players’ (Cowans, DeFreitas, Hussain, Ramprakash, Small, Malcolm, Lawrence) and ‘white players’ (Caddick, Hick, Lamb, Smith). He provided a further county-by -county breakdown of ‘foreign personnel’, among whom he classified ‘White players with little or no British childhood experience’ and ‘those with Negro or Asian blood wherever born’ (he was also careful to segregate ‘white south African’ from ‘coloured south Africans’ (Nigel Felton and Damien D’Oliveira). I suspect if most people found this sort of material in their letter box their response would not be to write to Henderson politely expressing ‘interest’ or ‘sympathy’ with his arguments or averring ‘I agree with you up to a point’. But that is exactly what a surprising number of cricket writers and commentators did.
Henderson claimed that ‘two thirds of all the national newspaper cricket writers’ shared his views and was enraged at what he saw as their pusillanimity in not coming to his aid in his hour of need. Of course, he was wildly over-eager to snatch at any sign of approbation or even mere forbearance as proof that his views had been endorsed in full. Nonetheless, the inability of so many educated people to spot a rank racist crank when confronted with one was testimony to the myopic insensitivity that still afflicts the cricket establishment, especially when it comes to issues of race or nation.
In 1994 Frith had written to Henderson: ‘How can a true Englishman ever see this as his representative side despite all the chat about the commitment of the immigrant?’ As Frith himself has noted with some irritation, this sentiment was by no means confined to contributors to WCM. Reporting England’s victory over West Indies in the Lord’s Test, the Independent commented: ‘What made it additionally pleasing was that England’s attack did not for once look like a United Nations strike force. Not since the Old Trafford Test of 1989 … have England fielded five bowlers (or any amount come to that) with undiluted allegiance to the country they were representing.’
The vexed question of allegiance swirled around the six-hitting exploits of young Gloucestershire batsman Andrew Symonds throughout the summer of 1995. Symonds, black and Birmingham-born, had moved to Australia at 18 months of age. Under ICC rules he was eligible to play for England, but earlier in the year he had told British journalists, ‘I’m a fair dinkum Aussie.’ There was much debate about whether he should or should not be selected to play for England. Graham Gooch, that part-time patriot, was vociferously opposed. Symonds had no commitment to ‘the English way of life’, unlike Gooch’s friend Lamb, whose commitment was evinced, Gooch argued, by his love of fishing and hunting. Symonds wanted to keep his options open (not least so that he could continue to play for Gloucestershire, which would become difficult if he were reclassified as an overseas player), but by selecting him for that winter’s England A-tour, Ray Illingworth forced him to choose. The Guardian’s cricket writers described the choice as a matter of ‘conscience’, as if it would have been somehow immoral or dishonest for Symonds to opt to play for England. Once again a player’s inner motivations, his sense of self and his social identity were being scrutinised from the outside in a search for impurities. In the end, Symonds rejected Illingworth’s offer and returned to Australia. In December, the TCCB altered its eligibility rules. From now on players with dual nationality would have to sign a declaration that they had no ‘desire or intention to play cricket for any country outside the European Community’.
In the face of a globalised economy and migrant workforces, loyalty oaths are unlikely to resolve English cricket’s self-induced crisis of national identity. But the cricket authorities were not alone in seeking to re-enforce the line of divide between the English and the not-English. Even as the Henderson Affair was swirling through the sports pages, the National Curriculum chief Nick Tate was voicing concerns about the dilution of British national identity. ‘We’ve become apologetic about the majority mainstream culture … we belong to one country and if membership of it is to mean anything we have to have a common culture’, a culture which in his view was explicitly Christian. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of schools, agreed. ‘A clear sense of national identity gives a country collective strength’. Like Henderson, Bill Deedes and many others, Woodhead proclaimed himself strongly opposed to ‘some watered-down cosmopolitan mish-mash’. As in cricket, so in politics: the quest for national identity merely revealed national insecurity. Tate, Woodhead, Frith, Deedes (not to mention Henderson): none of them could grasp the underlying truth that the unresolved conflicts within the nation are the nation, and the only vigorous nation is one that is in formation, merrily borrowing from all and sundry.
During that summer of 1995, West Indian pace bowlers were variously described by British newspapers as ‘muggers’ and ‘savage’. Glyn Woodman, then Surrey’s Chief Executive, explained why he expected relatively few black faces at this year’s Oval Test, in decades past West Indies’ home away from home: ‘Twenty years ago parts of this ground were almost no-go areas. They could sit wherever they liked and all get together and they can’t do that now because of pre-selling of tickets.’ At the Test itself, private security guards confiscated miniature flags and whistles from West Indian supporters while allowing white spectators to bring in champagne bottles. During the Headingley Test, commentator Henry Blofeld referred on air to people watching the match from buildings outside the ground as occupying the ‘Jewish seats’ (he apologised and was officially reprimanded). At the NatWest semi-final between Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, Anil Kumble was subjected to prolonged and raucous racial abuse (which, a steward reported, emanated as much from the executive boxes as the notorious Western Terrace).
As always, it is impossible to understand events in the backwater of cricket without considering the broader ebb and flow of the times. And during the summer of 1995 the Henderson Affair was only one among many reminders that racism is alive and well in modern Britain. In May, Brian Douglas, a black man, died after being struck on the head by police using new US-style batons in Kennington, not far from the Oval. In June, Asian youths in the Manningham district of Bradford took to the streets for three days following the wrongful arrest of teenagers playing a noisy game of football. An enquiry later blamed the riot on the ‘arrogance and ignorance’ of local police. In July, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police singled out black youths as ‘muggers’, relying on statistical evidence nearly as spurious as Henderson’s, and launched Operation Eagle Eye – a police sweep explicitly aimed at a particular section of the community, defined by colour. The Tory Government announced yet another crackdown on illegal immigrants and launched their Asylum and Immigration Bill, which sought to deny welfare benefits to asylum seekers. According to the British Crime Survey, there had been a 50% increase in racial incidents over the previous five years. A TUC report revealed that blacks with university degrees remained twice as likely to be unemployed as whites with the same qualifications, and that 66% of black employees were being paid a lower hourly rate than white workers doing similar jobs. Another report showed that black children were being excluded from state schools at a rate six times that of whites. Meanwhile, Childline, the children’s charity, revealed that racial abuse was a common experience for children from ethnic minority backgrounds, and a major cause of mental illness. It seemed that all over the country, an awful lot of people were paying a heavy price for not looking like Robert Henderson’s idea of an unequivocal Englishman.
Frith’s half-hearted apology did not deter Malcolm and DeFreitas, and in September WCM‘s lawyers read out a statement in court in which they apologised for printing the article, disassociated the magazine ‘entirely from the allegations’ made by Henderson, and agreed to pay ‘substantial damages’ to both plaintiffs. Damages were also subsequently paid to Chris Lewis.
David Graveney, Secretary of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, had advised Malcolm and DeFreitas not to sue. Undeterred, the two players sought and received assistance from the Professional Footballers’ Association, a body both more independent of management and less frightened of the issue of racism than the PCA. ‘I felt strongly that this sort of thing must be brought out into the open and dealt with before it takes root,’ said Malcolm. ‘Look at the problems football has with racism. I had a chance to do my bit to stop that happening in cricket. Too many things have been swept under the carpet in the past but the problem is, eventually the bump under the carpet gets so big you fall over it.’
Malcolm started playing cricket seriously only after his move from Jamaica to Sheffield at the age of 15. Not surprisingly, at every stage of his subsequent career, he has been a late starter. Thanks to Sheffield’s Caribbean Sports Club, he was able to progress into the local leagues, but because of Yorkshire CCC’s ‘Yorkshire-born only’ rule, he ended up signing for Derbyshire. His 9 for 57 against South Africa at the Oval was often cited during the Henderson Affair as some kind of scientific and therefore decisive refutation of Henderson’s arguments. But the triumphant flourishing of Malcolm’s match-winning effort raised more questions than it answered. It still harked back to the quaint notion that people’s loyalties can be tested and proven, as if by some inquisitorial trial: throw him in at the Pavilion end and see if he takes wickets. If he does, he’s a loyal black, but if he doesn’t? Is the ‘Englishness’ of those who fail to deliver on the big occasions somehow ‘equivocal’?
As so often in this debate, people were desperately seeking some measurement, some standard, of that notorious will o’ the wisp, national identity. And as ever, when people seek certainty in a realm of ambiguity, their attempts to impose standards merely reveal their own prejudices. In his autobiography, Frith agrees that at the Oval Malcolm ‘was totally committed to England’s cause, even though he was Jamaican born and even though he told The Cricketer in an April 1995 interview that his heroes were Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Richard Hadlee, and that his favourite music was rhythm and blues, soul, funk and reggae.’ The latter preference, of course, is one Malcolm shares with millions of white English youths, and Frith’s assumption that it was somehow alien to Englishness merely confirmed what a poor view of contemporary reality you get from the comfort of a cricket press box.
After winning the apology and damages from WCM, Malcolm set off with the England party to South Africa, where he was lionised in the townships and greeted by Nelson Mandela with the words, ‘So you are the destroyer.’ But the man most feared by the South African batsmen fell out with Ray Illingworth and bowling coach Peter Lever, who staged a press conference by the side of their hotel pool to tell the world that ‘the destroyer’ was useless. Apparently they had been trying to change the bowling action with which the 32-year old Malcolm had already taken more than 100 Test wickets and were peeved at his resistance to their directions. Dropped from the side for most of the series, Malcolm was called back for the final match at Cape Town, where he was expected to come up with the goods at a moment of crisis. Unable to dismiss the tail-enders with the new ball, he was blamed for England’s loss of the Test and with it the series. ‘If you can’t bowl out the last pair with the new ball you don’t deserve to win,’ declared Illingworth, but surely the point was that if you can’t score more than 153 runs on a good pitch in the first innings of Test, you ought not to blame your bowlers for losing the game.
Having endured what he later described as ‘the worst three months of my life’, Malcolm aired his grievances in the Daily Express. For the first time, he wondered aloud (as had many in the black community) whether his shabby treatment by the England management might have anything to do with his colour. The cricket media – which had been appalled at Illingworth’s inept man management, and had largely defended Malcolm against Lever’s charges – now turned as one to dismiss the idea out of hand. David Gower suggested that Malcolm had been ‘got at’ by people from outside the game. No one stopped to ask why the usually cautious Malcolm, hitherto highly reluctant to discuss the question of race in public, should feel driven to make such a statement. And nobody paused to answer the serious question he posed: would he have been treated the same if he were white? Neither the cricket authorities nor the press was prepared even to consider the possibility that the answer might be ‘no’. Certainly, Dermot Reeve’s account of the South African tour, published some months later, would have done nothing to relieve Malcolm’s suspicions:
‘All I can say is that Illy referred to Devon as ‘Nig-nog’ in the nets in Port Elizabeth. It came after Devon had bowled out of turn. It wasn’t directed at Devon, but I heard Illingworth utter the word in exasperation. That may appear a racist comment when set down on paper, but possibly Illingworth didn’t realise the significance of what he was saying. He is not a subtle man.’
It should go without saying, but in the cricket world it doesn’t, that allegations of racism ought to be treated seriously and investigated objectively; and if any truth is found in them appropriate action should be taken. Instead, Malcolm was punished by the TCCB for breaking the gagging clause in his contract, as was Illingworth when he responded to Malcolm’s claims.
Malcolm’s up-and-down career with England seems to have endeared him to fans of all colours. Like Phil Tufnell, he is seen as fallible, vulnerable, and something of an outsider. When Northamptonshire signed him up for the 1998 season, in one of the highest pay deals ever secured by a county cricketer, club officials justified the expense by explaining that Malcolm was now ‘the most popular cricketer in the country.’
In January 1996 Frith was sacked by the WCM management. In his autobiography he portrays himself as the victim of ‘a collaborative manoeuvre’. As one of many individuals singled out for rough treatment in this pained and profoundly aggrieved book, I’d like to make clear that I think it’s a pity the cricket establishment effectively embargoed it, refusing even to review a major effort by one of the game’s leading historians. However, the autobiography does confirm the obsessive character of Frith’s self-declared ‘fascination’ with questions of national identity. He proudly quotes from the letter of complaint he sent me in the midst of the Henderson Affair: ‘My father and two uncles fought the Nazis, while German bombs fell close to my childhood home. Your native land was still pondering the options.’ I had replied that since I was born in 1953, I could hardly be held responsible for the vagaries of US foreign policy 1939-41! The obvious point – that the merits of an argument do not rest on the national (or racial or religious) background of the individual who is making them – seemed to be lost on Frith. Bizarrely, he speculated that I may have conspired against him with my ‘compatriot’, J. Paul Getty, WCM’s proprietor.
In his editor’s notes to the 1996 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (also owned by Getty), Matthew Engel reported that WCM had ‘made the mistake’ of publishing Henderson’s article. Nonetheless, he still insisted that ‘it is reasonable to believe that not everyone who has chosen to regard himself as English has done so out of any deep patriotic commitment.’ Therefore, ‘the qualification rules should be tightened’. He did not say how. As for Robert Henderson, who felt he had been crucified merely for saying what others were thinking, in early 1997 he was investigated by police for sending ‘race hate’ letters to Tony and Cherie Blair. Officers from the Met told the Mirror, ‘the language is very basic, direct and insulting.’