Cricket: Corinthian Spirit to Greek Tragedy


Gentlemen & Players: The Death of Amateurism in Cricket
by Charles Williams
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012, 202 pages, $39.99

The Last Everyday Hero: The Bert Sutcliffe Story
by Richard Boock
Longacre, 2010, 279 pages, $45


In England, where cricket has since the nineteenth century been played full-time during the warmer months, cricketers were traditionally divided into amateurs (“gentlemen”) and professionals (“players”). Most of the amateurs were educated at independent schools and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, each of which had a cricket team that played first-class cricket against the counties. The counties, and the national Test team, were almost always captained by amateurs. An annual match at Lord’s, Gentlemen v Players, had been played since 1806, and was not only a virtual trial match for the Test team, but also a social occasion, like the annual Eton v Harrow and Oxford v Cambridge matches, which were also held at Lord’s in the same few weeks in July.

Most importantly, the amateurs were supposed to be above money concerns and therefore able to uphold the spirit of the game; they could play to win without fear of defeat. More implicit was that they were from the leadership class, the class that had always provided the officers in the armed services, the higher imperial administrators and the nation’s politicians, and had therefore been brought up to lead. The reality, of course, did not always live up to the ideal, or anywhere near it. There has been no more ruthless, unsportsmanlike captain in Test history than the English amateur Douglas Jardine.

Captaincy in cricket is a demanding role. Apart from making the on-field decisions, the captain is also the public spokesman for the team, and to a large extent (though less so now in the higher forms of the game) he has to manage and organise the team. In cricket, which is both a team and an individual game, the players often require a great deal of management, and the public pressure on a captain can be enormous. The ideal cricket captain would resemble Ernest Shackleton.

But in the 1950s, British society was changing, and had been changing since at least the First World War, when the leadership class had made so many poor decisions with such appalling consequences. The debacle of the Suez crisis in 1956, Charles Williams believes, was the point at which general public opinion finally abandoned its respect for aristocracy.

Amateurism itself was changing. True, it had just had some notable successes, with Edmund Hillary, the beekeeper, conquering Everest, and Roger Bannister, the medical student whose training consisted largely of running from his digs to the hospital and back every day, conquering the four-minute mile. But the young gentleman of leisure had disappeared, and few of the officially amateur cricketers could afford to play for nothing. It was reasonable to expect the counties to compensate the amateurs for travel and accommodation expenses, but many amateurs demanded more.

Some amateurs were employed by their counties in administrative positions. But playing cricket full-time leaves little time for other work, so some of these positions were sinecures, at least in summer. Other amateurs were employed by companies or individuals associated with the county clubs, in a variety of positions. The Sussex captain was employed by the cricket-loving Duke of Norfolk, ostensibly as his archivist at Arundel Castle.

When the professionals began to realise that some of the amateurs were making more from the game than they were themselves, their discontent grew. Before the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1958-59, Jim Laker, the England professional off-spin bowler, worked out that if he toured as an amateur, with the various allowances he would receive, some of them tax-free, he would be better off than if he toured as a professional on a wage. The alarmed authorities rejected his request to do so.

The MCC, the club of amateurs that ran English cricket until the late 1960s, established a committee to look into the anomalies. Chaired by the Duke of Norfolk, the committee met in various shapes under various titles over five years, and despite its heavy pro-amateur bias, it came to recognise that the difficulties of sustaining the distinction between amateur and professional were becoming more obvious and more burdensome. Eventually in exasperation in 1962 they decided to abandon the distinction altogether and allow every cricketer to make whatever he could from the game.

Many observers felt that the game had lost something. Norman Preston, the editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, lamented:

We live in a changing world. Conditions are vastly different from the days of our grandparents; but is it wise to throw everything overboard? … By doing away with the amateur, cricket is in danger of losing the spirit of freedom and gaiety which the best amateur players brought to the game.

Looking back in his memoirs in 1985, the old amateur and Cambridge, Glamorgan and England captain Tony Lewis wrote:

I would not have argued for [amateurism’s] retention, but 20 years later I can see that its best qualities of independence and unselfishness have not been replaced by anything half as good. When amateurism went, cricket then became, in the minds of all eleven men in the team, a cash business. It is the worse for it.

Yet on the face of things, little changed. Of the forty-nine amateurs who were playing county cricket in 1962 (each county’s amateurs were always listed in Wisden), thirty-five continued playing. Of the next nine England Test captains, six had played as amateurs in 1962.

The last of these old amateurs, Mike Brearley, embodied the best of the amateur spirit till the end. A captain of Cambridge and Middlesex, who interrupted his cricket career with an academic career (or vice versa), he was never quite up the standard of Test batsmanship, but his captaincy ability is unarguable. In 1981, at the age of thirty-nine, he was recalled to captain an England side that was one-nil down in the series and demoralised after the Second Test against Australia. With the same players, he led England to famous victories in the next three Tests, and the triumphant regaining of the Ashes.

Charles Williams was himself an amateur cricketer, playing as a batsman for Oxford (captain in 1955) and Essex in the 1950s. He provides vivid portraits of some of his prominent contemporaries and recalls his playing days fondly. After each county match, the amateurs in the Essex team would tell the captain (an amateur) what their expenses had been and he would pay them cash out of a bag he carried around for the purpose, no receipts required, no questions asked. They were gentlemen, after all.

Williams seems to have had an idyllic upper-class upbringing. Living in Oxford, he used to walk past the colleges and parks on his way to school. Later, studying at the university, he played cricket in the same parks. Life wasn’t always easy, however:

Sorting the cigarette cards between “gentlemen” and “players” revealed the dreaded secret that some of the amateurs could not possibly be regarded as “gentlemen” as we knew it … The Australian international players were amateurs … but they did not sound or act like “gentlemen”. It was, as any boy would have said at the time, most perplexing.

He later became a Labour politician. He is now Lord Williams of Elvel, and a noted biographer (of Adenauer, de Gaulle, Macmillan, Pétain—and Bradman). While arguing that “amateurism in the highest levels of cricket became so ludicrous in its presentation and practice that it had to go” (“it had to go” sounds very Labour-ish) he nevertheless is also nostalgic for something lost (in a rather un-Labour-ish way, except for the crack about dinosaurs):

there were features of amateurism—the Corinthian spirit, if you like, as it used to be called, where the only object was to play a game with honour and verve—that we may regret having thrown overboard. Perhaps—who knows?—the dinosaurs may have had a point.

There is another book waiting to be written on that same spirit as it was manifest in cricket around the world. Of the seven principal Test-playing countries, only Australia has never had an Oxbridge captain. The only Oxbridge man to play Tests for Australia was Sammy Woods (in 1888, while studying at Cambridge, he played three Tests for the touring Australians) although in 1963 Ian McLachlan (Cambridge XI, 1956 to 1958) was twelfth man in one Test. The West Indies, in the days when all its captains were white, had at least three Oxbridge captains; the first black captain, Frank Worrell, was a graduate of the University of Manchester. Imran Khan (Oxford XI, 1973 to 1975) captained Pakistan with great distinction and success for several years, which is an achievement not to be underestimated.

South Africa had two captains—Jack Cheetham in the 1950s and Peter van der Merwe in the 1960s—whose batting achievements in Tests were modest but whose leadership brought unexpected success. Both were educated at South Africa’s leading private schools and universities. Between Cheetham and van der Merwe came Clive van Ryneveld (Oxford XI, 1948 to 1950). New Zealand’s captains seem to have been mostly graduates or at least professionals, with a high proportion of school­teachers. India and Pakistan have drawn most of their cricketers from the higher levels of society; India’s captains have included the two Nawabs of Pataudi, father and son, both of them Oxford men.

Few Australian captains have even been graduates. One exception was Ian Craig, unwisely chosen as captain at the age of twenty-two for one series in the 1950s above older and better players such as Neil Harvey and Richie Benaud. The Australian tradition has been to choose the captain from among the best team, and any deviation from this policy has always brought controversy, not least among the other players. The national egalitarian spirit trumps the Corinthian. And, it must be added, Australia has been the most successful country in international cricket history.

Until the Packer revolution of the late 1970s began to pump enormous amounts of money into the game, all the cricket countries other than England were semi-amateur. Their Test players, while on duty, were paid something to compensate for their time away from their normal employment. Otherwise they played their club and interstate or inter-provincial cricket for the love of it.

In his book The Summer Game, Gideon Haigh examined, among other things, the economics of Australian cricket in the 1950s and 1960s as it affected the players. The Last Everyday Hero, Richard Boock’s biography of Bert Sutcliffe, does something similar, if incidentally, for New Zealand cricket in the same period.

Sutcliffe (1923–2001) was one of the few genuinely great cricketers New Zealand has produced. For ten years or so from the late 1940s he was one of the very best batsmen in the world. At the time there were so few Test-quality players in New Zealand that several batsmen were selected for the Test team before they had made even one century in the Plunket Shield, New Zealand’s annual inter-provincial tournament. But Sutcliffe reeled off centuries constantly, and converted many of them into double, and even triple centuries. When he broke his own New Zealand record of 355, he made 385 for Otago out of a team total of 500; there were twenty-nine extras and the other ten batsmen made only eighty-six runs altogether.

But it was not just the quantity of runs he scored, or the ease and speed with which he scored them, or even the attractiveness of his batting—words such as beauty, elegance and grace appear constantly in the assessments by his contemporaries—that made him admired. He appears to have been a man it was impossible to dislike. In the many photographs in The Last Everyday Hero he looks cheerful, usually beaming an open, unaffected smile. Throughout the interviews that form the basis of the book, there is not the slightest hint of ill-feeling towards him. One of his team-mates remembered, “He was quite a magical fellow.”

Sutcliffe’s courage and team spirit were at times heroic. On a damp pitch in Johannesburg in 1953-54, South Africa’s fastest bowler was getting the ball to rise sharply and dangerously. Several New Zealand batsmen were struck severe blows. Two were taken straight to hospital, including Sutcliffe, who had been knocked unconscious by a blow to the head. At the hospital, when some idiotic doctor gave the swelling a rough prod, Sutcliffe fainted from the pain. But he returned to the ground the same afternoon, resumed his innings with his head wrapped in bandages, equalled the Test record for hitting sixes, and was still there not out when his last team-mate was dismissed.

Two years later New Zealand toured Pakistan and India, which in those days were hazardous places for visiting sportsmen even before they got onto the ground. Illness and the living conditions wore the players down. For most matches the team was selected on the basis of whoever showed up at breakfast on the first day. Sutcliffe played in every Test and as usual led the batting, but the effort told: when he returned home he had lost two stone from his already trim build and was suffering insomnia and the after-effects of dysentery.

In the Test series against the West Indies that followed the team’s return, Sutcliffe struggled through the first two matches then had to drop out on medical advice. After losing the first three of the four Tests, New Zealand won the fourth in Auckland. It was the country’s first-ever Test victory, after twenty-six years and forty-five matches. The convalescent Sutcliffe could only listen to the radio commentary at his sporting goods shop in Dunedin; but typically, when interviewed by the local paper, he described New Zealand’s victory as the biggest moment of his cricketing career.

In 1959, at the age of thirty-five, he retired from Test cricket. He was still one of the two best batsmen in the country, but he could simply no longer afford to play. His business had struggled in his frequent absences, and his debts had mounted. A couple of years later he was advised to declare himself bankrupt, but he refused, determined to pay off his creditors. He accepted an offer to work as a salesman for an ice-cream company in the North Island, and sold his house in Dunedin to settle his debts. On the eve of his departure the Dunedin cricket fraternity staged a one-day benefit match in his honour, and most of the New Zealand Test players took part, the sun shone, the crowds came, and Sutcliffe scored a century and received the gate takings of £1300—which was virtually all his family had when they got to their new home.

He continued to play successfully in the Plunket Shield, and in early 1965, when he was forty-one and his prowess had begun to decline, the selectors asked him to join the touring side to India, Pakistan and England that year. They hoped his experience would help the mainly young side. He accepted, and scored a century against India. But in the First Test in England he was struck on the head by a fast lifting ball and had to retire hurt. Still in pain, he returned in the second innings and made 53 in a partnership of 104 with a nineteen-year-old team-mate that averted an innings defeat. But the injury kept him out of the rest of the series, and not surprisingly he retired from Test cricket for good. Many of the young players of the 1965 team went on to form the nucleus of the successful New Zealand sides of the 1970s; Sutcliffe’s presence may have had just the influence the selectors had hoped.

One of the drawbacks of an amateur cricketing organisation is that the amateurism can manifest itself in undesirable ways. The selectors, for example, were not always successful with their plans. Lacking the money that might have enabled them to travel around the country and study every potential player, they often resorted to theories. In choosing the 1953-54 side to tour South Africa they decided fitness was paramount, and left several of the best, if a little plump, players at home; for the 1958 tour of England they decided to go for youth ahead of experience, and chose several young batsmen who were simply not ready for Test cricket. New Zealand lost each of those five-Test series four-nil.

Another consequence of amateurism was clear on the tour to Pakistan and India in 1955-56. There was enough money to pay for medical consultations, but not enough for constant medical supervision. One of the team, Matt Poore, failed to take his gastric medications correctly, and one day went to sleep standing up in the field. At another stage of the tour, after being bitten by a stray dog he was trying to remove from the ground, Poore was prescribed a course of precautionary injections; over the next fortnight his team-mates took turns administering the daily injection into his stomach. Many of the players, Sutcliffe among them, took years to recover fully from the tour; some never recovered.

Sutcliffe was a qualified PE teacher, and was able to provide some training and fitness guidance to his team-mates that they would otherwise have had to go without. And having taught himself to play the piano, he also led the regular singalongs that helped to maintain team morale.

For all his efforts, in his forty-two Tests between 1947 and 1965 Sutcliffe never played in a winning team. But he always played the game in a spirit that was beyond reproach—in the finest amateur tradition. In fact the New Zealanders, who played because they loved playing cricket, and then went on with their careers, appear to have had a unique esprit de corps at the time. The other countries tended to be either too concerned about winning and losing, or too riven by the social tensions in their countries and teams, to share the New Zealanders’ spirit.

When they won their first Test in Auckland in 1956, the New Zealanders invited their opponents to join in their joyful celebrations. Interviewed for this book, one of the West Indians recalled:

had we not lost that day, we wouldn’t have been party to this magnificent celebration. If we’d actually won, it wouldn’t have been half as good … In those days, if you lost a Test match it wasn’t the end of the world … The most important aspect was that you tried to win … [but] it was just a game. I don’t know when it started becoming something else.

George Thomas is deputy editor of Quadrant.



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