Sunday, November 03, 2013

Book Review: “Gentlemen & Players–the death of amateurism in cricket”


Charles Williams was a First Class cricketer and after retiring from the game in 1959 he had a distinguished career in business and public service. He became Baron Williams of Elvel in 1985 and a Privy Councillor in 2013.

“Gentlemen & Players, The death of amateurism in cricket”  is a concise (just 200 pages) but thorough record of the extraordinary story of the attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to end the divide between amateurs and professionals in cricket which had endured for over 100 years. It is written with style and panache and with a real sense of Lord Williams leaning over to us and whispering “You're not going to believe this but…” ! It is a story of the English class system, of privilege, of Victorian cricket administrators still alive and well in the post war era and doing harm by neglect and ignorance. It is a story of hypocrisy and mendacity, of meetings behind closed doors, of the establishment looking after its own and of deceit. And yet, as Williams generously says at the end of the book, the guilty men (my description!) were really “…honest men doing what they honestly believed to be in the best interests of cricket”.  Well maybe so but these were the same “honest men” who connived to try and keep England's planned tour to Apartheid South Africa in 1968 alive – the D’Oliveira Affair – and who fought tooth and nail against Kerry Packer in 1977.  And that particular brand of conservatism is still alive today in that same MCC Committee whose predecessors feature in Williams story.

That in the second decade of the 21st Century England’s finest cricket ground, Lord’s, is owned by a private members club and that this Club, the MCC of course, is still responsible for the “Laws of Cricket” may seem absurd. But back in the early 1960s this same club actually ran English cricket and a fair proportion of world cricket as well. The distinction between amateurs and professionals only existed to any significant extent in the English First Class game because MCC wanted it to - and by the mid 1950s (if not earlier) it was obvious to many others that it was an anachronism. It was hugely offensive. The amateurs were “Gentlemen” but the professionals were not - they were “Players” and paid for their labour. The amateurs were the Officer Class, the players the other ranks. The amateurs had been to Public School and University (usually Oxbridge) – the professionals had not. And so on. This was about class and the venal presumption that our leaders had to be the “right sort of chap” – especially those who could deal with the serfs. The top amateurs were mostly batsmen whose cover drives were sublime Raman Subba Row, MJK Smith, “Lord” Ted Dexter, Denis Silk, Tony Lewis, Colin Cowdrey, Roger Prideaux were some of the leading amateur batsmen in 1960. In the same year the bowling averages were dominated by professionals –Statham, Moss, Trueman, Larter, Illingworth, Shackleton, Higgs, Titmus… On the scorecards the amateurs had their initials before their names “M.C.Cowdrey”. The professionals had their initials after their names “Statham, J.B.” And the Captains were mostly amateur but in 1952 the Yorkshire professional Len Hutton had been appointed Captain of England, a role he preformed with conspicuous success. His county continued to appoint amateurs though – as did most of the others.  

The offensiveness of the amateur/professional divide in the post-war era seems self evident to us from today’s standpoint and it was offensive to some at the time as well. Hypocrisy abounded. The amateurs in many cases weren't true amateurs anyway, Some has sinecures at the Counties as “Secretary” or “Assistant Secretary” – roles which involved them in not doing very much at all and being paid for it. So long as they turned out and played for the County for the season of course! And on tours these  “shamateurs” received compensation for loss of earnings and often made considerably more money than the professionals who were honestly paid! It was these anomalies and the surrounding complexities of trying to maintain a system which was plainly unworkable which was finally to lead to the end of the amateur/professional divide in 1962 when all cricketers became just that – “cricketers”. But before this happened there were years of bungle and confusion with an MCC committee actually being charged with pronouncing whether specific individuals were really amateur or not.

This book, as well as telling the story of the end of amateurism in First Class cricket, also includes some wonderful pen portraits of players of the era. Williams knew them all and he quite rarely describes individuals pretty honestly warts and all. I found his descriptions of, for example, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May particularly revealing.

This is a book about change and a record of how when a necessary change involves the removal of privilege and a challenge to established conventions in Britain it is likely to take a very long time to happen! It is not really a story of “Heroes and Villains” – there were good men on both sides of the debate. But in the 1960s, as it is sadly still so today, the life of the progressive, the people who point to the absurdities of part of our system, is likely to be made uncomfortable by the men in the better suits.    

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