August 2004

What happened to the black cricketer?

In 1989-90 England had five Afro-Caribbean players on a tour of the West Indies

In 1989-90 England had five Afro-Caribbean players on a tour of the West Indies. Now there are few in the county game to choose from. Rob Steen investigates

The way it was: West Indian fans at Lord's in the 1980s © Getty Images

"There is a whole generation of us, and perhaps two generations who have been formed by [cricket] not only in social attitudes but in our most intimate personal lives, in fact more than anywhere else. The social attitudes we could to some degree alter if we wished. For the inner self the die was cast." CLR James Beyond a Boundary, 1963

The Oval - or rather the Brit Oval - Friday afternoon late May. Hip-hopping homies and dreadlocked Rastas wander in and out of the underground station: Nike trainered, baseball-cap-the-right-way-round descendants of the Bajans and Jamaicans who began pouring over to Britain in 1948 aboard The Windrush, lured by the NHS, London Transport and a shared heritage. A nudged single from the Hobbs Gates, clusters of trimly-blazered teenagers, Asians, Africans or, primarily, Anglo-Caribbeans, spill out of Archbishop Tenison's.

No school sits closer to a Test venue. Surrey, long the best and most exciting team on the county circuit, are scenting their first Championship victory of the term. Courtesy of West Indies' historic victory here in the Calypso Summer of 1950, and subsequent expressions of trans-generational solidarity and black pride, no British sporting venue is tied so inextricably to Afro-Caribbean identity. To Sobers, Hall and Gibbs, Viv, Curtly and Courtney, it was like playing at home. The silent turnstiles tell their own story: of a culture assimilated and a heritage spurned.

Inside the Hobbs Gates another snapshot of 21st-century Britain. Those combatants qualified to play for England include Mark Ramprakash (Indo-Guyanan father), Nadeem Shahid (Karachi-born), Scott Newman (Indian dad) and Amjad Khan (Asian parents). The sole Afro-Caribbean - a fit Alex Tudor would have made it two - is Michael Carberry, ex-Surrey, now playing for the visitors Kent.

No news there. Among black Britons only Tudor, Ramprakash, Mark Butcher, Monte Lynch and Lonsdale Skinner have operated at all regularly for Surrey. Across the Thames they are supposed to be more cosmopolitan. In the 1980s Middlesex's domination owed much to Roland Butcher, Norman Cowans, the West Indian Wayne Daniel, Wilf Slack and Neil Williams - "The Jackson Five". Paul Weekes alone of the current squad is of Afro-Caribbean stock and the chairman Phil Edmonds was wary, in relieving Owais Shah of the captaincy in June, that the decision might be viewed as racist.

"The preponderance in our Academy are non-white and the vast majority of those are Asian," says the Middlesex secretary Vinny Codrington, "It's disappointing so few play for us. Whether that's because they opt for other careers, discover girls, are on gap years, play in their own leagues - I don't know. We used to have a lot more black people coming to watch. I don't know whether that's changed because it's a generational thing, or Lord's banned musical instruments, or ticket prices or because the West Indies board put a block on their guys playing here [half-a-dozen Busta Cup regulars are on duty this year, down from 19 in 1984]." In the era of two-divisional cricket, he contends, "colour has never mattered less".

Matters are not dissimilar in Birmingham. In 1972 Gibbs, Kanhai, Kallicharran and Deryck Murray helped Warwickshire land the pennant. Today a photo hangs in the Edgbaston members' office of the 1993 squad: four Anglo-Caribbeans catch the eye - Michael Bell, Matthew Robinson, Keith Piper and Gladstone Small. He may be the nicest man ever to bowl fast for a living but, when England last won the Ashes, Small was the urn-clincher. Had body been less brittle, bat a tad broader, tongue a touch blunter, Piper would have kept for England. A Caribbean restaurant still trades a short walk from the Bull Ring but at Warwickshire Piper is now alone.

In Yorkshire welcome mats have not been conspicuous. In 2000 Montserrat-born Lesroy Weekes became the first (and so far only) black Briton to play for Yorkshire. Devon Malcolm had to leave Sheffield for Derby to get noticed. Then again Brian Close did once espouse the novel theory that, "if black families had less children like the whites, then they would be able to afford cricket equipment and lessons". That was not in 1960 but 1990. "One of the dangers," Ben Carrington, a south Londoner then in the middle of a PhD linking racism and cultural identity in sport, remarked in 1996, "is to say `that's just Yorkshire'."

This may seem odd. On the face of it there is no shortage of inspiration. Author of the most destructive return for England since 1956? Malcolm. Most first-class wickets among active players? Phil DeFreitas. Matchwinner at the MCG in 1983 when England prevailed in the closest Ashes finish for half a century? Cowans. Only nightwatchman to win a Test with 99 not out? Tudor. Mastermind of arguably one of England's grandest fourth-innings chases? Mark Butcher. England bowler with best strike-rate among those with 50-plus Test wickets that have debuted since 1954? Dean Headley. Catalysts in the last three Tests England have won in Australia? Mark Butcher, Headley, DeFreitas and Malcolm.

And yet. And yet. The 1994 Cricketers' Who's Who featured 33 England-qualified players of Caribbean extraction; only four - Mark Alleyne, Joey Benjamin, Butcher and Headley - had international careers ahead. This spring's edition features 18 eligible. Butcher apart, only Carberry, Tudor and perhaps Mali Richards, Viv's lad, are candidates to play for England in the future. Butcher has been the only Test regular in the five years since Headley's final appearance before back trouble drove him into retirement.

In 1981 Roland Butcher became the first black capped by England. At that point only two (Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham) had kicked a football on the nation's behalf; had Ray Illingworth been more persuasive, Gordon Greenidge would have pre-empted Anderson. Sven-Goran Eriksson regularly fielded seven blacks at Euro 2004; only 12 cricketers of Caribbean birth or blood have followed Roland Butcher. More tellingly, there have been only four debutants since the 1980s. At that juncture, intriguingly, the score was 15-9 in favour of the footballers. The first names of Team England's last four coloured debutants confirms the extent of the sea-change: Vikram, Usman, Owais and Kabir.

Edgbaston, April. Alleyne and Piper are in a small office in the gym, mulling all this over. They are old buddies. Like Alleyne, Piper - who also coaches his club's aspiring black and Asian youngsters - graduated from Haringey Cricket College, a truly remarkable north London enterprise targeting unemployed black teenagers. It has produced more than half a dozen county staffers.

These days Alleyne, England career inked into the books, is Gloucestershire's player-coach, part-time skipper and full-time tower of strength. He has led his unfashionable, unwealthy club to seven trophies in five years, testimony to cricketing acumen, communication skills and a degree in diplomacy. That Frank Bruno, Daley Thompson, Denise Lewis, Tessa Sanderson and Jason Robinson command affection denied to their cricketing kin (with the possible exception of Malcolm) surprises him not a jot. Nor that 30% of professional footballers in England are black. "All teams recognise that pace and power are an important part of football and black players have that in greater proportion than white players, so the managers need them," says Alleyne. "People play a lot more football at school. They recognise they can make it - and it's harder to get into the cricket than the football circle. Most coaches are white and wouldn't recognise the characteristics of black players that black coaches would."

"Cricket's different because clubs still treat you like kids," insists Piper, a man of more militant mien, who claims, regretfully, that the Bears' coloured players seek guidance from him rather than anyone else at the club. "Whereas in football, because you earn millions, you're treated like men."

As so often when discussing the employment of minorities, the question must be asked: is there a glass ceiling? Alleyne is the third black county coach after Derief Taylor (Warwickshire) and John Shepherd (Gloucestershire) but the first since the job's status was elevated in the 1990s. Not until 1997 did Alleyne become the first home-groomed - so to speak - black club captain. DeFreitas is the second. John Holder umpired a Test or two; Gladstone Small is a Professional Cricketers' Association director. The Basil D'Oliveira Stand now adorns New Road, but we still await the first black selector/chairman/president/chief exec/ECB bigwig, even media pundit.

"I think I'm quite good at [coaching] but you feel you only get to a certain stage and then they stop you," says Piper. "Definitely," concurs Alleyne, "but it might not necessarily be because you're black. It may be because of the image of coaches - that you need to be old and grey. You need to educate people how to think, to have a balanced view. You need to inspire the people above you as much as those coming through."

Roland Butcher: England's first black cricketer ...and his debut was in Barbados © Getty Images

It is instructive to relate this to baseball. Even when Jackie Robinson died in 1972, 25 years after becoming the 20th century's first black major leaguer and a few days after refusing to sing the national anthem at the World Series, there had been no black managers. Al Campanis, the LA Dodgers chief personnel officer, caused a furore in 1987 for alleging that blacks lacked the "necessities". Even now the list, as in football here, is still in single figures. Not until the 1980s did an Afro-American attain a prominent executive position in baseball. On that basis, you might say, we are not doing too badly. One suspects, however, that this may be as good as it gets.

Saturday night in Brixton. BC Pires, the Trinidadian cricket writer, is heading for the Backstage bar in south London to watch on TV Brian Lara's first innings since his 400. Clad much as their parents had been 40 years ago, in trilbies and porkpie hats and woollies and floral dresses, a small knot of what Pires calls "old West Indians" cluster beneath the TV. The premises are otherwise devoid of black faces and the choice of music - Motorhead followed by I Shot the Sheriff, Eric Clapton's version at that - accentuates the sense of a world far removed from that experienced in south London by Anglo-Caribbeans in the early 1960s, the same cricket-besotted folk captured so perceptively in the film Wondrous Oblivion, doing brisk business that weekend at the capital's Odeons and UGCs. King Brian has still to take guard when somebody switches channels. Real Madrid are on.

The fact that the generational connection has been severed is endorsed by Gladstone Small. He visits schools all over the country "trying to engage the kids". "They haven't got that history. I got my love of the game from my granddad. My cousins played, everyone I knew in Barbados played. Now we have a generation that doesn't have that history. We need to transfer that education.

"If there's a classroom of 40 kids, there'll be 36 or 37 Asians and, if you're lucky, three or four black kids. That's the crux. Speak to them and they say `I don't like cricket'. It's not just about football - it's basketball more often. Go to the grounds for the West Indies Tests and the numbers of blacks will be much lower than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. You might say that's because of the quality of the West Indies team but this has been going on for a long time."

"The West Indies' decline must have some kind of impact," counters Alleyne. "Dave Lawrence wanted to bowl quick because he saw Michael Holding at The Oval. There must be a knock-on effect."

Piper is keener on psychological analysis. "A lot of black players think, I'm not listening to you because I'm not used to being talked to like that. West Indies players come here mainly to make money. They see the counties and think `they want to use me'. It's not `I'm bloody good at what I do'. People have to be educated to see it that way."

The indoor school at Lord's, late April. Under-13s finals day in the Capital Kids eight-a-side tournament, aimed at inner-city, non-cricketing schools. At Under-11 level 100 nationalities are represented. This, Alleyne believes, is the way forward: "How many blacks attend public schools?"

At least half the 60 boys sitting on the floor in orderly rows are non-white; the Asian-Caribbean ratio is 3:1. Prizes are presented by Mark Butcher, winner of more Test caps than any other England player of Caribbean extraction: cricket's most successful black Briton. Not that this is a widespread perception, even though his maternal grandparents sailed over from Jamaica in 1952. Perhaps it is because he is more readily associated with a mini-dynasty: father Alan also opened for England; uncles Ian and Martin were in county cricket; brother Gary played for Glamorgan. Mark grew up "not really thinking" about his race: "That's because my dad's white and was involved at Surrey and opened a lot of doors for me, and I went to the better schools: I wasn't just this 15-year-old in an Afro who turned up to nets. I'm not black in the way Alex Tudor is."

Elaine, Mark's mother, was born in Camberwell in 1954. Memories are not unsullied. "Alan's mum was quite tickled that I was different but she also had a fear about mixed marriages in cricket circles. It took me couple of years to go to The Oval with Mark. Then there were the dinners; I was so uptight about them. I'll never forget one woman coming up and saying, `Oh, you're not too bad for a black girl.' "Once I realised Mark and Gary had a bit of talent, I really felt they had to go to private school, be in the right circles. Their first headmaster was cricket-mad but it was quite different when Mark went on to Trinity. As punishment they'd drop him, even though he was the best player; I did feel there was a touch of racism there. That was the first time I realised they were going to have to be exceptional to succeed."

"When I was a kid and Sylvester Clarke, Monte Lynch and Lonsdale Skinner were playing for Surrey," recalls Mark, "we had this hard core of West Indians in the crowd, maybe 10 of them. Always came to the Tavern and chatted to the players or threw balls at Gary. That's gone.

"I often drive through Brixton on my way to The Oval and it baffles me: there's this teeming mass of West Indian-ness and none of them want to play for us or watch us. I once told the Mayor of Lambeth about my amazement that there were no signs in Brixton saying `Oval this way' or `Home of Surrey Cricket ahead'. Put up a few reminders like that and something might just click."

So, are we talking alienation? "Without doubt black players get a different message. It's difficult now, not so much because of any barriers in county cricket but because those that want to play tend not to integrate. Club cricket is worse than first-class cricket; it's stuck in a timewarp."

"Cricketing apartheid has become accepted practice [at club level]," reinforced Matthew Engel in the 1999 Wisden. He also referred to segregation operating, "informally", in Yorkshire and Essex. "This is a moral issue," he concluded. "But, for English cricket, it is also a question of self-interest."

"Cricket just isn't very cool anymore," laments Butcher. "For an 11- or 12-year-old there's nothing less cool." "Kids' minds," asserts Piper, "are geared towards the easiest way to make money - football, music, robbing. Unless they have a parent who knows how to be. I don't think black people are attracted to cricket." "They work out the sums," chips in Alleyne. " `All day [playing cricket] for that, as opposed to an hour and a half a week for all that?'"

"To play cricket you've got to really love it," says Piper. "With football you can think, `I can make a million even if I don't love it.' You have to have that desire to play cricket." Alleyne nods his assent. Sadly.

The reluctance to give black achievers their due has exacerbated that sense of dislocation, of not belonging. The media reach for the stereotypes. Tudor? Soft slacker. Cowans? Mouthy slacker. Chris Lewis, the most gifted "New Botham" of all? Daft slacker. Lack of emotion is seized upon, inferring a concomitant shortfall in commitment. DeFreitas always believed he was the most convenient scapegoat in town, in part because of his body language.

"That's where the major point is," stresses Alleyne. "They don't understand the cultural background. Just because you don't have that British bulldog thing on the outside doesn't mean you don't have it inside."

Keith Piper: 'You have to have that desire to play cricket' © Getty Images

"I spoke to Chris [Lewis] a lot," notes Piper. "A lot of it he brought on himself. It started because he saw what white players were getting away with while he was getting a hard time for doing the same things."

"If he had had the support Harmison has had ... " says Alleyne, momentarily composure-free. "He wouldn't have been given the opportunity to come back that Harmison has. He's not the only player to suffer from migraines. He just needed support. I'd have loved to have him in my team."

Piper cuts to the chase. "Racism goes on. We have to be aware of it. One reason black players aren't progressing as fast as Asians is that we haven't learned how to not be like these people, haven't found a way to act in front of them."

Two wounds left deep scars. On the eve of the 1995 series against West Indies DeFreitas finally "responded" to racial provocation, when Wisden Cricket Monthly published an article headed "Is it in the blood?". DeFreitas, Malcolm et al, the writer Robert Henderson opined, were not "unequivocal Englishmen". (In 1990, shortly after bowling England to their first Test win in the Caribbean in 16 years, Small and Malcolm had been similarly typecast by Norman Tebbit.) DeFreitas and Malcolm, then Derbyshire confreres, sued and settled out of court. Malcolm's justly gotten gains made his cricket school in Sheffield a reality. "He suggested [we] were interlopers," recollects DeFreitas, perpetrator's name forgotten more efficiently than the fury he provoked. "That was so out of order, so wrong."

Then Devon met Nelson. Late that year, as England began their first tour of South Africa for 31 years, the party were greeted by Nelson Mandela, who got on famously with Malcolm, cast by some as cricket's Frank Bruno. At last, thought Dev: respect. Before long manager/coach Ray Illingworth and aide Peter Lever were dismantling his action and decrying his attitude. According to Illingworth, Malcolm, who had skittled nine South Africans for 57 at The Oval 15 months earlier, had "no cricketing brain".

A Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, jabbed back. "In football, by and large, it's the fans that are racist but in cricket it's the establishment. It's institutionalised racism. The smell of imperialism is in your nostrils all the time."

So, have attitudes changed? "I think they did but they're going back," says Alleyne, wearily. "In life in general I've felt as uncomfortable in England over the past two years as I've ever felt, because of the immigration debate, people questioning, regaining national pride because they feel threatened." Piper nods. Alleyne believes dressing rooms are now far more "sensitive" to racial differences; DeFreitas thinks politicians should drop in and learn something. "But when you've got a joker who's a white person and one who's black," reasons Piper, "the white one is accepted as - allowed to be - the joker."

Alleyne has already seen one black team-mate use prejudice, perceived or actual, as a crutch. Now he fears an encore. "James Pearson is a good cricketer, England Under-19. He's struggling. He comes in, puts the CD on and he's just waiting for someone to say, `that's rubbish'. And he loves Lara and West Indies. The more he goes on about them, the more he's going to be isolated."

For many, Alleyne warrants, the struggle - for acceptance, for recognition - is too arduous. "To get through the system, to get past that `you're lazy' stuff, is really hard work. By the time you've done that you've done more than most players have by the time they reach the first team."

Mike Edwards has long been at the sharp end of all this. Since opening for Surrey with John Edrich in the 1960s and 1970s the Cambridge graduate has tilled the soil, working tirelessly with local schools and clubs, encouraging all races, a member of the ECB Working Party on Racial Equality. Cricket is the only sport to reach the intermediate level in Sport England's laudable scheme to improve matters. "We're working towards the advanced level," he states proudly, then proffers a wise rider. "Whether it will prove effective in Burnley, say, is another matter. Until this season Yorkshire hadn't fielded a homegrown Asian or black in their first XI. Last year there was not one black or Asian player on the books at Lancashire or Durham, though Sajid Mahmood has changed that. Out in the Surrey sticks, in Guildford and Farnham, they still talk about `coloured boys'."

The club game is still seen as the root of all (or most) evil. Engel's charge of inhospitality came in the wake of a 1998 report, Anyone for Cricket, by Ian McDonald and Sharda Ugra from the Roehampton Institute's Centre for Sport Development. Based on questionnaires sent to 450 cricketers in Essex and east London, it concluded that blacks and Asians were perceived as too competitive and aggressive, and hence ostracised. Edwards castigated the study as restricted in scope, the work of "prejudiced and ill-informed academics".

"Unlike Essex," he argues, "there are few purely black or Asian clubs in Surrey - 80% of Spencer CC are black and Asian - and certainly no leagues of that nature. The best players play in the top two divisions of the Surrey championship. One lad in the Surrey Academy, Chris Thompson, came through that route." Cricket, he is convinced, "is more sensitive to the individual than other sports, especially football." Writing to McDonald, nevertheless, he acknowledged that "racism is endemic in British society", a state of affairs "sadly reflected within cricket from the grass roots to the top administration".

"Does the will exist to recognise, respect and resource cricket in all of our communities?" wondered McDonald and Ugra. In certain quarters, yes. Middlesex's Paul Weekes is involved with an inner city project in Hackney. Across Vauxhall Bridge, Lambeth Council is working with community clubs, schools, Surrey CCC and Channel 4 to turn Kennington Community Cricket Ground into "a focal point for all cricket development" in the borough. There are three grass pitches and one non-turf at Kennington Park, now home to Kennington United CC. Symbolically - pragmatically - a basketball wall was removed to accommodate a football pitch.

While rising to the most powerful rung any black British cricketer has attained, had Alleyne felt obliged to keep head tucked below parapet? "No. I was lucky enough when I came to Gloucestershire that Courtney Walsh was there. He set the perfect example, found that balance between aggression and non-rudeness. That was the way I wanted to play. All the West Indians of that era were like that."

"In hindsight," reflects Piper, "I probably should have watched my ps and qs a bit more ... " But no more, surely, asks Alleyne, "than any chirpy white wicketkeeper"?

"I'm half-caste, my daughter is quarter-caste," replies Piper. "I tried to learn from an early age to be black and white, but one thing society teaches you is that you are coloured."

Alleyne is beyond that. "I say to the guys, `I don't have to prove I'm black - I am black.' I'm very proud of it. Now let's get on with what we came here to do."

This article was first published in the August issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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