For a sport consumed by a desperately sad race scandal, it’s easy to forget the outstanding contribution that black and Asian players have made to England’s test side. In light of recent events their achievements seem all the more remarkable given the routine provocation they must have faced. To wear three lions on their chest should be the pinnacle for any English cricketer. But how much harder must it have been for the pioneers – the multi-cultural lions who first broke down the barriers?
The first Asian player to represent England was the splendidly titled Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, later His Highness The Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. Ranji made his test debut against Australia during the Ashes in 1896. He was the first of two Indian princes to represent England and set a number of records during that first match at Old Trafford. He became the second batsman after W.G. Grace to score a century on his debut; and was the first player to score a hundred before lunch. Ranji compiled an unbeaten 154 but could not prevent a three wicket defeat. It was the first of 15 test appearances which at the time was quite an achievement as selectors were fond of experiment.
For Ranji it was a towering achievement in the late Victorian era when the British Raj was at its peak. His selection for England was unsurprisingly controversial and polarised opinion. An impressive first season for Sussex put him in contention for a place in the Ashes series. However, the MCC Committee omitted him for the first Test at Lords. A decision probably influenced by Lord Harris who had just returned from a period of colonial duty in India. Ranji continued to play well and found support for his inclusion in the press. A different Committee was responsible for selection in the 2nd Test and he was placed at number 3 in the batting order.
Nevertheless he felt bound to seek the blessing of Australian captain Harry Trott. Ranji would only play if the Australian team had no objections. Trott happily agreed, but there was no reason for him to do otherwise. Unlike England the Aussies already had a precedent. In January 1885, Samuel Morris opened the innings for Australia against England in his only test appearance. Morris was born in Tasmania to West Indian parents and became the first black Test cricketer.
Ranji enjoyed a spectacular test career and more than earned his reputation as a stoke playing big-hitter. With a batting average of almost 45 he recorded a top score of 175 against Australia in 1897. He did so while still recovering from a bout of quinsy (severe tonsillitis). The stoical Jam Sahibs of Nawanagar had another cricketer lurking in their gene pool. Ranji’s nephew Kunwar Shri Duleepsinhji was an immensely talented batsman whose career was cut short by illness.
Like his uncle Duleep played for Sussex and had a nifty line in dazzling stroke play. He made his test debut against South Africa in 1929 and compiled an impressive average of 58 in 12 tests; among the highlights was a scintillating 173 against Australia in 1930. The Cambridge Blue scored over 15,000 runs in first class cricket despite regular bouts of sickness. He once scored 333 runs in five hours against Northamptonshire and topped the county averages for six consecutive seasons. Sadly, Duleep was forced to retire from cricket at the painfully young age of 27. Ill health had robbed England of a fine batsman just approaching his peak.
Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi had the rare distinction of playing Test cricket for both England and India. He was crowned the Nawab of Pataudi in 1931; that very same year at Oxford University he scored 1,307 runs with an average of 93. He later joined Worcestershire and gained selection for the Ashes tour of Australia in 1932/33. It was the infamous Bodyline series and Captain Douglas Jardine’s aggressive use of leg theory. In the first Test at Sydney he scored 102 in a 10 wicket victory for England. However, he famously defied Jardine and refused to take up position in the leg side field. The captain acidly observed ‘I see His Highness is a conscientious objector’ but Pataudi had made his point. He was dropped after the second Test and appeared once more in 1934. Whilst Pataudi was an outstanding cricketer his impact was more prosaic. He became the England team’s conscience during the Bodyline tour, which obscured his more obvious talent.
The post war years were a lean period for black and Asian players at county level, which made their chances of representing England an even more remote prospect. It was nothing new in the domestic game and the barrier was broken early. Aside from the Indian trio, Charles Ollivierre became the first black player in county cricket from 1901. The native of St Vincent enjoyed a six year career with Derbyshire compiling a top score of 229. However, progress was slow in the 20 years following the end of World War II.
Ron Headley moved to England aged 11 and became the second of three generations to play Test cricket. Good genes were assured as son of the legendary George Headley. The Jamaican born opener had a long and distinguished career at Worcestershire. He was awarded his county cap in 1961 and went on to score 21,000 first class runs. Headley was eligible to play for England and his father discouraged him from opting for the West Indies. Headley Snr felt players were treated badly by the West Indian Cricket Board. Nevertheless, Headley Jnr’s only test appearances were for the West Indies in 1973.
The next major milestone arrived in 1966 when Basil D’Oliveira was selected for the 2nd Test against the West Indies. A 44 test career was overshadowed by apartheid and the crisis triggered by his selection. Dolly was born in Cape Town with Indian-Portuguese heritage and became the pawn in a stormy political debate. But another taboo had at least been broken and challenged. The 1970s were a fractious time for cricket and sport in general as the poison of apartheid seeped through. Rugby was dogged by the British Lions tour of South Africa in 1974; two years later the Montreal Olympics was boycotted by 28 African nations. Action triggered by the All Blacks tour of South Africa was proof that political statements could be made through sport; but apartheid continued for another 20 years.
As the 80s dawned, Middlesex had a trio of players ready to take up the cudgels. Roland Butcher was born and raised in Barbados and made his county debut in 1974. He quickly proved an excellent middle order batsman, fielder and occasional wicket keeper. Butcher made history in March 1981 when he became the first black player to represent England at Test level. Ironically, his debut came at Georgetown, Barbados. Local media playfully made the most of it as headlines beamed ‘our boy, their bat’. Despite his aggression and ability Butcher’s test career was brief. In 3 Tests he averaged only 14 with a top score of 32. Inconsistency would cost him dearly but he will always be the ‘first’.
Norman Cowans’ career trajectory followed a similar path to Roland Butcher but enjoyed a much longer Test career. Born in Jamaica he quickly emerged as a pace bowler with raw power. He was selected for Ashes tour of 1982-83 but his inexperience was obvious. Captain Bob Willis could be seen pacing out Cowans’ stride pattern during a match; but on-the-job-training soon paid dividends. Flash hit devastating form when he took 6 for 77 in the 4th Test at Melbourne. This performance secured a 3 run victory for England and a man of the match award. However, Cowans was cursed by inconsistency and took only 51 wickets in 19 tests at a costly average of 39.
The final Middlesex player to break the glass ceiling was Wilf Slack. The left handed opener from St. Vincent made his county debut in 1977 but failed to fully establish himself. It was only when Mike Brearley was recalled to the Test side in 1981 that Slack got his chance. He scored a shedload of runs including an unbeaten 248 against Worcestershire. Although he had toured Sri Lanka with England B, it was an injury to county colleague Mike Gatting that would give him his chance at Test level. But a 3 test career would not see Slack capture his county form at international level with an average of 13. His tragically early death at 34 was a shattering blow; but to be buried in his England blazer was a measure of the immense pride he must have felt as an England international.
The mid 80s appeared to be something of a turning point as Gladstone Small and Phil DeFreitas made their Test debut in 1986. They both enjoyed substantial international careers with DeFreitas winning 44 test caps. David Lawrence became the first English born black cricketer to play test cricket for England in 1988. The pace bowler had tremendous potential but his career was ended by a truly horrific knee injury sustained in a game against New Zealand. Devon Malcolm became the ultimate shock trooper and gave rise to the immortal line ‘you guys are history’. During a match against South Africa he delivered the perfect retort after receiving a bouncer from Fanie de Villiers. Malcolm ripped through the South Africans with a devastating 9 for 57.
The following years saw the frequent representation of players with West Indian and Asian heritage. Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash forged successful test careers, but recent times have seen fewer black players make it to test level. Jofra Archer seems to be an increasingly rare exception to rule. One might construct all manner of explanation and racism is central to the discussion. But there is a possibility that young black players might simply choose football over cricket as a more lucrative alternative (although racism is rife in both sports). In contrast, players with Asian heritage are arguably more likely to favour cricket, if and when they make that decision. No assumptions can be made about such a complex subject, of course, but we can conclude that there is still a long way to go.