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Racial Slur or Misunderstanding?

Racial Slur or Misunderstanding?

Nationalism, and particularly the politics of race, transcends all things and cricket is no exception to that rule. Cricket lovers, on the whole, tend to be ill equipped for political debate and have not always been able to spot the inflammatory and controversial even when it is staring them in the face. One of the most unseemly occasions when this has happened was as a result of an article published in Wisden Cricket Monthly in July 1995 which was written by Robert Henderson. Henderson was 48 when the article appeared. He was a tax inspector by occupation, and a cricket lover who had previously contributed to the magazine. He had wanted to call his article “Racism and National Identity”, although it ultimately appeared under the more eye-catching title of “Is it in the Blood”. The result of the article was that Devon Malcolm and Philip DeFreitas issued libel writs against the magazine. Their actions were swiftly settled, compensation paid and a large helping of humble pie consumed within the pages of later editions. Subsequently further claims were made by Chris Lewis and Gladstone Small and settled, in their cases without the need for litigation.

The starting point for any examination of the episode must, inevitably, be the article itself. Henderson must have had an inkling as to the sort of controversy he would cause as his initial point is to accuse the non-white Test nations of displaying racism themselves in the makeup of the teams that they selected. He makes much of the absence of any white player in the West Indian side since Geoff Greenidge in 1972/73, but he makes similar criticisms of India, Pakistan and Sir Lanka. I recall reading the article at the time and being struck by the fact that empirical evidence must exist to deal with those points and demonstrate whether there was any merit in them. I appreciate that Henderson did not have the Internet in general to research, or Wikipedia in particular, but I find it difficult to believe that the information one can find there was not readily available to a researcher displaying any reasonable level of diligence in 1995. My own mathematical abilities are limited, but I understand how to work with percentages, and on the basis of what Wikipedia told me of the demographics of the Caribbean Islands then they ought to produce one white Test cricketer every 40 years or so. To my untrained eye that would suggest that there should have been no more than one white cricketer playing for the West Indies in the 40 years since Greenidge and this easiest of exercises, open I accept to charges of oversimplification, shows that there has indeed been just one, Brendon Nash now 34 and no longer with a central contract, but he may yet regain his place. Not being a man who enjoys playing with figures I did not go very much further but Henderson’s overall point seems to me to be a poor one, badly made.

Henderson concludes the first part of his article with “The question the cricket world should answer, but almost certainly will not, is brutally simple. If South Africa was wrong to discriminate on grounds of race and culture, why should matches be tolerated between other cricket nations which do not have clean racial hands?” It is an extraordinary question and even in 1995 was wholly inappropriate.

Having dealt with that, Henderson went on to deal with the issue that he is best remembered for, that being whether a man born in one country could ever feel properly committed to the cause of another. There is, of course, absolutely no link at all between the first part of the article and this and while, as I will explain later, I do have a degree of sympathy for Henderson in relation to some aspects of the way he was treated, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that linking those two disparate questions together was at best clumsy and at worst provocative.

Henderson does not help himself by picking on those of West Indian origin in particular. No doubt he did so because in the 1990s the overwhelming majority of non-white England-qualified cricketers were black rather than Asian. An interesting point is why a generation later there are very few black English-born first-class cricketers, but a large number of Asian ethnicity. Henderson had no way of knowing that particular trend would develop but, if a truly balanced article was the aim, then surely more could have been made of the issues relating to non-English white first-class cricketers. Henderson does highlight the fact that he excludes Mark Ramprakash from his criticism as Ramprakash was born in England, but it is an unconvincing comment and I, as with many other readers, was left with the sure and certain knowledge that I had just read a rather distasteful piece of writing.

For me what Henderson wrote simply made no sense, and I cannot see that it would have made much sense to any professional person. The whole essence of a professional cricketer is that he derives his living from excelling at the game and, to take an isolated example, Devon Malcolm would no doubt have played exactly the same way for England, West Indies or indeed the Latvian national side if that were who his employer was. There is nothing wrong with that at all. The whole point of employing a professional is that their professionalism means that they will do their best for their employer whoever that may be, and that simple reality is unrelated to any of the concerns identified by Henderson.

The above being said, and this is why I chose the case of Malcolm, it remains a fact that there are occasions when individuals can raise their performances above 100% in certain circumstances. The Oval in 1994, and Devon Malcolm’s performance against South Africa is one such example. After a patchy England career Malcolm had been recalled to play against the South Africans on what was expected to be the traditional pacy track at The Oval. In the South African first innings he took just one wicket, despite bowling rather better than his overall figures would suggest. In the course of that first innings he had struck the South African batsman Jonty Rhodes on the head. There were serious concerns for Rhodes’ welfare. He was an epileptic, and although the delivery was not particularly short, and indeed Rhodes seemed to duck into it, there was an inevitable feeling of anger among the South African players. The result was that when it was Malcolm’s turn to bat he was mercilessly sledged by the South Africans both before and after the famous delivery from Fanie de Villiers that struck him on the helmet with such force as to damage it. An incensed Malcolm uttered, among others, the famous words “You guys are history” and proceeded to take 9 for 57 in the South African second innings in one of the most remarkable pieces of sustained fast bowling that Test cricket has seen.

I do not think I am doing Malcolm any disservice by suggesting that had that delivery of de Villiers been a good-length ball, just outside off stump, that had taken a nick to Dave Richardson behind the stumps, and he had been sent on his way without the abuse, he would not have bowled as he did in that second innings. That he was so inspired, however, was for wholly personal reasons and unrelated to any nationalistic considerations.

The professionalism aspect aside, Henderson’s argument also fails to make sense to me on another level, that being quite simply that I, and many other people, well know that it is perfectly possible to form a bond with an adopted location that is every bit as strong if not stronger than that with where one was born. I was born in Berkshire of parents who originated from Wiltshire and I have lived in the county of my birth continuously since my late teens. That said, my formative years, between the ages of 5 and 18, were spent in a small village in Central Lancashire where my father’s job took my family. As a child I picked up something of a Lancashire accent, which is long gone now, but I am every inch a proud Lancastrian and cannot imagine for one moment that the depth of my feelings about my adopted county would be in any way different if I had actually been born within its boundaries.

It is no exaggeration to describe what happened after publication of the magazine as an outcry. Not a single writer worth reading, or commentator worth listening to, dared to support Henderson, and in the four pages of the magazine’s August edition that were devoted to the maelstrom only one reader’s letter was of a congratulatory nature, and that only on the basis that the article was so outrageous that it could do nothing other than bring racism itself into disrepute. The August issue also contained a statement from editor David Frith which consisted of an explanation of editorial policy, his own responsibilities, and an unreserved apology to all who had felt offended. It contained articles from former England captains Mike Brearley and David Gower fundamentally disagreeing with the views that Henderson had expressed, and a selection of letters doing likewise.

Henderson badly wanted to respond to the criticism to which he was being subjected, but the decision was made – not by Frith, although he had to communicate it to Henderson – that this was not going to happen. Frith had been the driving force behind the creation of Wisden Cricket Monthly in 1979 and took his journalistic responsibilities seriously. He was well aware of the laws of libel and the need to avoid coming into conflict with them and at the same time, as with all journalists, jealously guarded the right of his profession to freedom of expression. Some of the more outraged commentators at the time seemed to assume that Henderson’s views mirrored Frith’s own despite Frith repeatedly saying otherwise and drawing attention to the statement in each copy of the magazine that the views of individual contributors should not be taken as expressing the views of himself and/or the magazine’s editorial board. That said Frith did feel it was his duty to examine a subject that was being discussed almost everywhere he went in the cricket world.

In Derbyshire, Devon Malcolm and Philip DeFreitas (whose photograph had accompanied the second page of Henderson’s article) were understandably incensed by what they read. Legal advice was taken and while the legal advisers to the Professional Cricketers Association advised that there was no realistic prospect of succeeding in an action for defamation, both players’ own advisers felt differently and, had they wished or needed to take advantage of the offer, those of the Professional Footballers Association, at that stage an organisation fighting a successful campaign against racism in its own sport, were made available to them. Both players were offered the facility to use the magazine as a platform to air their own views, but both chose, or alternatively were advised, not to take that opportunity.

Both men, and non-white cricketers and other sportsmen in England, were understandably concerned at the imputations that the article contained. That said, there were no specific allegations against any individual, and whatever potential libels the article contained the reality is that it received universal condemnation and it cannot have had any detrimental effect on anybody’s career – indeed the contrary is true, and the players concerned received wholehearted public support from all sections of society.

Despite the magazine’s apology and offer of a public platform, both Malcolm and DeFreitas decided to press on with legal action, and writs were prepared and served. It must have been the case, given the PCA’s public announcement as to the legal advice it had received, that the magazine would have had the benefit of its own advice that must have been, in essence, bullish. That said, libel actions, which are generally tried before a jury are, as Ian Botham and Allan Lamb will confirm, the most unpredictable of civil claims, and the advice was doubtless hedged with caution. That is no surprise given that based on the public’s reaction to the article it could safely be assumed that any jury would begin a trial with great sympathy for the claimants.

It also seems likely that the last thing the magazine wanted was a High Court case fought out in the full glare of the publicity which, had they contested the matter, would inevitably have followed. The magazine could not, in anything other than a pyrrhic sense, win the legal battle, and it is this writer’s view that a settlement was well advised. Had the matter gone to trial and the magazine had won in the High Court it would still have lost in the Court of Public Opinion as there would never have been any general approval of Henderson’s comments, and any attempt to ruin the claimants by seeking to enforce any order for costs that was obtained would have brought further criticism. It may well also be relevant, on a practical level, that the financial considerations were not important given that the magazine at that stage was owned by the Getty family. Sir Paul Getty, who enjoyed enormous wealth, had stepped in to buy the Wisden stable of companies in the first place to ensure that they maintained their impartiality and pre-eminence, and that too would have been a powerful incentive to settle.

For DeFreitas and Malcolm the issues were in many ways similar. What they wanted was a vindication of their position and, as individuals, they must have been concerned about the potential costs that they were exposing themselves to if a long contested suit followed. It has never been made clear whether the proffered support from the PFA included a costs indemnity. Frith certainly believes that may well have been the case although Malcolm’s 1998 autobiography, You Guys are History, contains nothing to suggest it was – in any event the case developed with such indecent haste that it may be that its long term funding simply did not need to be addressed.

Did either player have any particular interest in gaining financially from the proceedings? It is certainly the case that of the undisclosed damages they received, rumoured in the press to be between GBP25,000 and GBP50,000 each, sums were given to charitable causes. In Malcolm’s book he seems to be saying that the proceeds of his claim were shared between a coaching centre and Derbyshire Children’s Hospital but it is not entirely clear. Later claims made by Lewis and Small were resolved, with smaller sums, and I believe they, as well as DeFreitas, made charitable donations but I am not aware of any details.

The individuals whose lives were affected most by the furore were undoubtedly Henderson and Frith. There are unlikely to be too many who feel very much in the way of sympathy for Henderson, whose views were so villified. However, he was denied the opportunity of a right of reply that I believe he should have been permitted. Freedom of speech and expression is one of the basic tenets of a civilised and democratic society, and while I disagree fundamentally with what Henderson said I will always vigorously defend his right to say it. There is a difference between expressing unpopular, unreasonable or simply incorrect opinions and inciting racial hatred. The former is a man’s right whereas the latter is a criminal offence and is rightly treated seriously by our law and punished accordingly. Nothing that Henderson wrote came remotely close to an incitement to racial hatred and it is simply wrong that he had no opportunity to respond to the tirade that came his way. Personally I find it difficult to accept that in Fleet Street, or publishing generally, there were no sympathetic ears but, having noted what had happened to Frith, no individual or media organisation was prepared to risk being tarred with the same brush.

As to what it was that Henderson wanted to say by way of response, he has been kind enough to provide me with a copy of the article that he asked Frith to publish. Prior to reading this I had been curious as to why Malcolm and DeFreitas did not make Henderson a party to their litigation. Having read the article, and some other material that Henderson was keen to forward with it, I am quite satisfied in my own mind that the answer to that must be because they knew he would never settle and would, I rather suspect, have enjoyed his “day in court”. Whatever qualities Henderson may or may not have I have little doubt, from reading what I have of him, that tenacity and stamina are two that he has in spades.

Much offence had been taken at the appearance of the word “negro” in the original article. Henderson stresses that the word was used not to insult but rather to use a more precise label than the somewhat vague “black”. By stating that he would, henceforth, use the word “black” Henderson tacitly acknowledges a mistake, although he makes clear that in writing his article he believed that “negro” was the polite word to use and “black” was the insult. In fairness to him, had he written those words a quarter of a century previously I might have been inclined to agree with him. It is always difficult in these situations to look back and work out when the meanings of words change, but “negro” would certainly be considered an insulting word as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, and I have to say that my recollection is that it had become that by 1995.

Turning his attention to his article’s emphasis on blacks, Henderson complains that some balance was lost by Frith editing out a relatively lengthy passage relating to an Asian-born England cricketer whom he quoted as having told journalist Rob Steen that he was proud to describe his nationality as being from the Asian country where he was born. Frith, a scrupulously fair man, edited the passage out for the simple reason that he had, with good cause, serious doubts as to its veracity. In fairness to Henderson it has to be said that had confirmation of the making of the comment been available then it would have provided something tangible to back up his point of view.

Henderson went on to bemoan the fact that the reactions to his article dealt with only the question of national identity without referring to its other aspect, that regarding racism within cricket in the non-white Test-playing countries. It is certainly true that that is a part of Henderson?s article which is generally overlooked.

The response then goes on to deal at some length with the support that Henderson believed his views had amongst established cricket writers and administrators and lovers of the game generally. He has sent me copies of a number of letters from well-known individuals that do indeed provide, to a greater or lesser extent, support for him. This is where the point I made in my first paragraph regarding the inability of cricket-lovers to understand the way their views might be interpreted in the wider world comes sharply into focus. A classic example of this is that great sporting icon of the 1950s, Denis Compton, whose reputation in his declining years lost some of its lustre by virtue of his supposedly being a supporter of apartheid. The simple reality was that Compton’s thoughts did not go beyond the fact that it was a tragedy that some of the finest cricketers in the world could not play the game at the highest level for reasons wholly unconnected with the sport. Compton was wholly lacking in prejudice of any sort, but unfortunately those who did not know him seized on his words and attributed a meaning to them that simply was not intended.

Nothing however alters the fact that Henderson is right when he says that others within the game had similar views. He attributes three separate quotes to one of England’s leading cricket journalists and now national treasure, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, and on the face of matters they certainly would have had the effect of softening the impact of Henderson’s original writing. The remarks attributed are firstly, on a radio programme, in a tone of profound complaint: “The selectors seem to be obsessed with West Indian-born pace bowlers.” Secondly, in a written article “…there are those who argue that England have not produced their best in recent years because of the racial mix of the team now representing the country”. Finally, and most startling of all, just a year before Henderson penned his article, “we shall not have a consistently successful England team until we produce more Goughs; that is to say English-born, English-bred products of English schools”. As indicated Henderson also provided me with copies of supportive correspondence that he had received from others, some just as well known as CMJ.

Henderson’s proposed response also contained a reminder of a comment in the original article that was almost universally overlooked: “perhaps even some of the unequivocally English players lack a sufficient sense of pride when playing for England” – a comment that, in my view, opens up a genuinely interesting area for debate and one which is as relevant today as it was then.

There is also an interesting conclusion to Henderson’s response when he states: “Let me end by saying that my purpose in writing the original article was not to give gratuitous offence, but to raise subjects which have for far too long been placed beyond the reach of coherent public debate”. Sadly the article most definitely did achieve that which it was not intended to achieve, but that lack of intent was never fully appreciated.

For Henderson the whole affair was a source of huge frustration. He tried via every route he knew to find a platform which would enable him to respond to the storm directed at him, but none were interested in publishing him, and his complaints to the Press Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission fell on deaf ears. Henderson then turned his sights on politicians and corresponded with many, including future Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a development worthy of an esoteric espionage novel, Henderson’s correspondence with Blair had the ludicrous consequence of consideration being given to his being prosecuted for an offence of harassment. The detail of that particular story, which I have to confess offends my sense of fair play and engenders considerable sympathy for Henderson, is beyond the scope of this article but the “Notes on Sources” contains a link to a detailed account of an episode that Mr Blair emerges from with, in my opinion, no credit whatsoever.

If Henderson was treated less than fairly in the furore which followed the publication of his article David Frith was the highest profile victim of “The Henderson Affair”. It might have been different had Henderson been a well-known cricket writer or someone otherwise in the public eye, but he was not, and for some reason Frith seemed, in the eyes of many, to become his alter ego. It was completely wrong for Frith to be treated in the manner in which he was when all he was seeking to do was stimulate debate and uphold the integrity of his profession. In early 1996, with the dust settled on the affair, and the legalities out of the way, Frith was the man who paid the price, with his job as editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. It had been more than an employment for David Frith. As already stated, he had been the prime mover in the setting up of the magazine and had been its editor since day one. Long before the European Working Time Directive came into English law, Frith had been working upwards of double the number of hours he should each week yet he gave those hours willingly in order to do his job as well as he possibly could.

There are those who will say that Frith, as editor, should have foreseen the result of publishing Henderson’s article and that he was therefore culpable. Henderson’s writing was not in the rapier-like style of the intellectual, and was more of a blunt instrument, but in fairness to Frith he was not the first to make his main point, and importantly it had already been made, in April of that year, by another editor in the same stable. In the 1995 Wisden Cricketers Almanack the then editor, Matthew Engel, had written: “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. In the heat of Test cricket, there is a difference between a cohesive team with a common goal, and a coalition of individuals whose major ambitions are for themselves. Successive England captains have all been aware of this. It is not a question of race. And of course there have been many fine and committed performances from players with all kinds of disparate backgrounds. But several of these players only came to England to play as professionals. There is a vast difference between wanting to play Test cricket and wanting to play for England. The overall effect has been to create a climate in which, as The Independent put it, ‘some of our lot play for their country because they get paid for it’.”

Unless I am much mistaken that is just the same point as Henderson’s but dressed up in more eloquent and less polemic clothing.

I suppose I must declare an interest in that I have always enjoyed Frith’s writing, and I was party to the decision to make his Bodyline Autopsy the CW Book of the Decade. On a personal level, I have exchanged occasional emails with him, but we have never met and I would not claim to know him at all well. What I know nothing about, other than what I have read in his autobiography, is his relationship with his erstwhile employers at Wisden Cricket Monthly, but I do not feel my objectivity is in any way compromised. If (which seems likely) “The Henderson Affair” and Frith’s role in it played a significant part in his forced resignation/dismissal then that, all things considered, strikes me as quite simply unfair.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that much the same point as that which caused all the controversy in the first place is still being freely debated in the press and across the internet. There are those that say England should not select so many South African born cricketers as they cannot be fully committed to playing for England. Others say that an English birthplace, or at least an upbringing from a very young age, should be prerequisites to England selection. Is the difference between black and white really the reason why today’s negative opinions are acceptable when Henderson’s were not? Or was it not so much what Henderson said as the way he said it? Had Henderson’s article, like Engel’s notes in Wisden, been couched in more sensitive terms would I have had anything to write about? Would Henderson still be writing for Wisden Cricket Monthly? Would the indefatigable Frith have been able to retire from the editorship on his own terms at a time of his own choosing? If I have learnt anything in writing this feature it is to reflect on the power of the written word, and the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions – and that accordingly it would probably be prudent for me not to seek to answer those questions.


Both David Frith and Robert Henderson, somewhat to my surprise, allowed me to pick at old scars, and provided me with otherwise unavailable material for the purposes of my research for this feature. They also provided answers to all of the questions I asked. I am extremely grateful to them.

As for the printed word, the editions of Wisden Cricket Monthly for July and August 1995 have inevitably been invaluable. The affair cannot be fully understood without reading them.

David Frith’s autobiography, Caught England, Bowled Australia, published by Eva Press in 1997, was of great assistance as well. I also read the relevant chapter in Devon Malcolm’s autobiography, You Guys are History, published by Collins Willow in 1998.

I have quoted from Matthew Engel’s editorial notes in the 1995 edition of Wisden Cricketers Almanack.

Finally I have also read an article written by Sean Gabb entitled “Robert Henderson versus Tony Blair” which can be accessed at www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/polin/polin154.pdf


Fascinating article, fred. Must admit that the furore rather passed me by or at least hadn’t snagged itself on some cormer of my memory. I was a student in 1995 tho, so my recollections of contemporaneous events may be slightly compromised by certain lifestyle choices.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Frith but he was perhaps badly advised in publishing an article from a chap described in the article you linked to about his correspondence with Mr Blair as “a political writer”. That the article was published by The Libertarian Alliance possibly betrays Mr Henderson’s political leanings.

Comment by BoyBrumby | 12:00am BST 1 April 2012

Prior to ‘joining’ Cricket Web, I spent several years being part of the same internet chat-room as Robert Henderson. From the start, he was keen to air his views about this and related matters, as well as his grievances about his treatment in 1995. I was equally keen to point out that his arguments, supposedly based on statistical analysis, we actually statistically flawed, as well as being morally dubious. Although he makes some fair points about qualification criteria for English sporting teams, any prolonged discussion made his political leanings clear enough. For instance black players are, by definition, not English. When pushed about whether this extended beyond guys who moved here at a young age to born & bred players such as Mark Butcher, he opined that the latter was disqualified due to ‘duff parentage’.. For all his supposed love of free debate, intellectually strong arguments against his point of view were simply ignored. After a while, it became clear that I was better spending my time elsewhere.

Comment by wpdavid | 12:00am BST 1 April 2012

Anyway, serious piece, that, Martin. Terrific stuff, well written and well researched. Many thanks.

Comment by zaremba | 12:00am BST 1 April 2012

Good article Fred, and I’d be interested in seeing a bit more of the story followed up (be it from a primary or secondary source… if he trusts you to pass on his messages)

However, why has it taken 2 years for the article to be posted? Surely you’re not that slow a typer?

Comment by cpr | 12:00am BST 3 April 2012

1. Brendan Nash is not white – his parents are of mixed race. See http://www.espncricinfo.com/wiveng2009/content/story/389064.html.

2. I’m not sure how Robert Henderson could be expected to forsee a selection policy that picked Nash in 2008 when he wrote his article in 1995.

3. In fixating on Nash you ignore the apparent disappearance of Asian players from the West Indies team from the mid-1980s onwards. The number of Asian players appearing for WI in the past ten years makes this fallow period all the more difficult to explain.

Comment by bradburn | 12:00am BST 4 April 2012

Terrific analysis, not least because of the depth to which you have dug, your unstinting efforts to be balanced and the way you point out the contradictions and unfairness, especially to DEJ Frith. As you imply, another time, another place.

To challenge you on one aspect, however, I feel obliged to point out that, in the interview that sparked Robert Henderson’s first letter to me, Nasser Hussain told me in 1989 that, when he contemplated playing for England, his heart was Indian but his mind English, and it was the latter that mattered.

He was very young at the time, and his mother complained volubly to the Telegraph when the article appeared, but I know what he said, however ingenuously/naively he said it.

We met and talked many times thereafter, and worked on the same paper for years. He even posed with my son for a photo once. Never in all that time, even when he was swearing down the line at me prior to the start of an Ashes series, did he deny he had said what I quoted him as saying.

Comment by Rob Steen | 11:40am BST 13 October 2021

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