A celebration, 1987

MCC - 200 years

E.W.Swanton



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There is no phrase more neatly expressive of the role of MCC in the evolution of the game than Sir Pelham Warner's well-worn description: a private club with a public function. It may well have been Plum, too, who coined the aphorism that MCC reigns but does not rule. In common parlance, while it has been accepted as the final seat of authority, it has not thrown its weight about. Pray notice the change of tense. We must write now in the past tense to the extent that, although Marylebone Cricket Club remains the maker and custodian of the Laws, just as it has been since its formation just two hundred years ago, and although it still provides the ICC, according to custom, with its venue, its Chairman and its secretariat, the Club has had since 1968 no more than a guiding voice in the governance of English game in its various aspects, both amateur and professional.

When at that time Mr. Harold Wilson's Labour administration agreed at last to make Government grants available to sports and games, they could scarcely treat with a private institution, however venerable and respected. Hence, in consultation with Mr. Denis Howell, the Minister with special responsibility for sport, MCC made a voluntary devolution of its tacitly accepted though never explicit powers. The Test and County Cricket Board, formerly The Advisory, would in future manage and control the first-class game, and a new body, the National Cricket Association, would be answerable for all aspects of the amateur game, with special emphasis on the coaching of the young. Both these bodes, along with MCC, would contribute equal representation, a third each, to a court of appeal known as The Cricket Council. The gist of all this is no doubt apprehended more or less by the average devotee of Wisden; but it is an outline perhaps worth defining afresh in this celebratory bicentennial year.

The future of MCC will be what its successive committees make of a wonderful heritage. Theirs is the ground, unique historically, perfectly placed geographically to remain, as it has always been, the natural headquarters of the game. When the spotlight turns on to Lord's this coming summer, it will show an arena better equipped to accommodate members and public than ever before. The handsome new Mound Stand complements and follows the contours of the recently built Tavern Stand, right up to the open decks of free seats at the Nursery End. As the eye moves anti-clockwise, the Grand and Warner Stands continue the line of the boundary round to the centrepiece of the Pavilion, that four-square monument to Victorian self-assurance which seems likewise to be the very emblem of cricket's permanence as a national institution.

Behind the Pavilion (which itself has been greatly modernised within and to which a library of fitting size and dignity has been appended), and contiguous with the tennis and squash courts and the Memorial Gallery, opened in 1950, the TCCB and NCA are now comfortably and independently housed. So, alongside the Harris garden and in a separate building, is the Middlesex CCC. Away on the Nursery ground stands the MCC Indoor School, through which many thousand cricketers of all ages have passed since its opening ten years ago. Add to the picture the modern Tavern alongside the Grace Gates, and it strikes one afresh how greatly over the last two decades the face of Lord's has changed. What we must be truly thankful for is that the transitions have been wrought without loss of character. One cannot visualise further significant building in the immediate future, and so in 1987 Lord's can face the years ahead confidently as it is. Thank heaven it will always be a cricket ground-- surely the cricket ground; never a stadium.

So much for the plant, but what of the men who have made MCC and Lord's what they are today? The gallery is a remarkable one, starting with Thomas Lord himself whom that small band of noblemen commissioned to procure a ground for the club they were about to form. All that is known about Lord marks him as a man of quality. He had, say Lord Harris and F. S. Ashley-Cooper in Lord's and the MCC, a handsome presence and possessed a bonhomie that was almost irresistible. Three grounds he had to find as London extended to the north, finally, in 1814, putting down his roots only just in time on the present site.

In those first days, two men of a very different temper held the stage; the Rev. Lord Frederick Beauclerk, reputedly the best cricketer in England around the turn of the nineteenth century, and the first Secretary of MCC, Benjamin Aislabie, who doted on the game though much too fat to be any good at it. Thomas Hughes portrayed him affectionately on the occasion in Tom Brown's Schooldays when he brought the MCC team to Rugby. In the earliest pavilions (the first was burned down in 1825), Aislabie cast on the scene a benevolence which held the club together, a necessary antidote no doubt to Beauclerk (descended from the union of Charles II and Nell Gwynne), who as a dictator of affairs on the field and off, and a sharp betting man to boot, come across almost as a villain of old-style melodrama.

Following Aislabie's death in office in 1842, the affairs of MCC declined to a point which brought press agitation for a cricket parliament to depose the club from its position of authority. It was rescued from the hands of reactionaries such as Robert Grimston-- who greeted with disgust the advent of the mowing machine-- by a character ideally suited to the situation in R. A. Fitzgerald.

Bob Fitzgerald was clearly a popular personality and withal a lively one. Whether it was the magnificence of his swagger, the luxuriance of his beard, the fun that rolled out of him so easily, or the power of his swiping, I do not know, but as regards each he could not escape notice, wrote Lord Harris, who as to the fun tells of Fitzgerald's favourite trick when a wicket fell of pretending to catch a mouse in the grass.

Fitzgerald reigned as Secretary of MCC from 1863 to 1876, having become in that time the first salaried occupant. As an undergraduate, Harris was member of the team which Fitzgerald in 1872 took on a successful pioneering tour of Canada and the United States, the first ever undertaken by amateurs. He also took sides to Paris and Dublin, and flew the flags of MCC and I Zingari in many unfrequented places. (The MCC colours of red and yellow date from his time.) Fitzgerald was both reformer and innovator. Alas, he perhaps drove himself too hard, for his health completely failed and he died young. A tangible memorial to him in the MCC library is a collection of illustrated scrapbooks, donated by a grandson, T. G. Fitzgerald.

If young George Harris was on the threshold of a leading role in the rapid evolution of cricket, an even greater figure was another of Fitzgerald's North American party, W. G. Grace himself, already a rising star. The 1870s saw the dawn of county cricket, wherein the Graces of Gloucestershire led the way, and the game expanded mightily around the ample frame of W.G., who was, let it be said, ever a loyal MCC man. Middlesex began to play at Lord's in 1877, thus providing Londoners with a regular programme of first-class cricket. The following year came the event that popularised the game more than anything else; the first visit of the colonials from Australia and their defeat of MCC in a single day.

Although for some years yet the financial prosperity of MCC continued to depend greatly on the three classic fixtures, Eton v Harrow, begun in 1805, Gentlemen v Players, from 1806, and the University Match, from 1827, the frequent Australian visits, along with the appeal of Middlesex, brought an even wider public to Lord's.

No essay aiming to sketch the MCC story in its bicentenary year should omit mention of the longest-serving of all its officers, Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, whose life was bound up with Lord's almost from his days as a Harrow boy in the mid-1830s until his death in 1915, aged 91. For 36 years he served the club as Treasurer, which was in his time and ever after the key post. Finding only two pictures in the place (admittedly Francis Haymans), he started the now incomparable art collection. Diplomat-- he was secretary to Palmerston-- and courtier, Ponsonby-Fane personified that close aristocratic involvement with MCC which was continuous from the foundation until after the Second World War.

On this point, a word here in parenthesis. Although is beginnings and the close connections with Eton, Harrow, Winchester, the other major schools and the Universities determined the style and pattern of its membership, MCC has not been, at least in living memory-- and contrary to popular belief-- a socially exclusive club. Granted a civilised standard of behaviour, good cricketers have always been welcome.

Next, chronologically, comes a very major figure in the story, Francis Lacey, a barrister by training, who took on the secretaryship at the age of 38 in 1898 and held it until 1926, when he was honoured with the first knighthood for services to cricket. Ignoring the advice of his predecessor, Henry Perkins, to take no notice of the damned committee, Lacey put the club on a sound administrative footing. Where MCC had been loath to involve itself with the international and county scene, Lacey had a keener eye for the game's welfare and the Club's responsibilities. The Board of Control for Test Matches and The Advisory were formed early in his time, while in 1903 MCC (as the Melbourne CC had been urging it) undertook to choose and manage the tours to Australia.

Plum Warner led the first side out that winter and brought home the Ashes, and MCC has been a household name in cricket ever since. In due course, and over a span of 70-odd years, the MCC colours were flown in South Africa, the West Indies, New Zealand, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Pakistan, as well as in many other countries not on the Test match circuit.

The post-Great War years saw the formidable Treasurer-Secretary partnership of Harris and Lacey, and it is fascinating if profitless to speculate whether, if old Lord Harris had lived another year or so, he might have scented the coming bodyline trouble in the late summer of 1932 and either scotched it at birth or at least apprehended the situation more swiftly when the first warning signals from Australia came wafting back. The bodyline message for cricket's rulers, so far as Test cricket was concerned, was to beware the sudden onset of unruly passions. There were storms to come, all right, but not yet. MCC was soon marking its 150th anniversary with three very successful matches and a celebratory dinner of many courses and toasts of which the writer, recently elected, retains only a blurred memory.

Through the Second World War-- as distinct from the complete 1914-18 shut-down-- MCC kept the flag flying admirably with a regular programme of cricket each summer, culminating in the Victory Tests between England and the Dominions. More people (413,856) watched cricket at Lord's in 1945 than in 1939-- an augury fulfilled by the vast crowds, in the first post-war years, of people anxious to dull the thought of past horrors and present shortages and discomforts.

MCC was more active than ever before in the period between the war's end and the transitions of 1968, presiding over ever more frequent Test exchanges, setting up enquiries at the behest of the counties-- five of these, achieving much less than their labours deserved, sat within 30 years-- and, especially, turning its attention to encouraging the young. The present comprehensive structure of School Associations' coaching and competitive cricket must be traced back to the foresight and energy in 1948 of G. O. (now Sir George) Allen and his subsequent partnership with H. S. Altham. Their MCC Cricket Coaching Book, regularly updated, has sold 100,000 copies.

Altham and Allen, successive Treasurers, apart from a single year, from 1950 to 1974, both steeped in all aspects of the game, served MCC in the Harris tradition, if using a softer touch, in harness with three Secretaries of contrasting personality but equal dedication, Colonel R. S. Rait Kerr, R. Aird and S. C. Griffith.

An extension of the hierarchy must be mentioned here. The modern President is expected-- indeed obliged-- to play a far more active role than ever before. What until the late 1940s was almost a sinecure has become a highly demanding post involving many hours a week, dealing with the complexities of both MCC itself and the ICC (of which the President of the day is the automatic Chairman), and the evolving relationship with the new bodies.

Whereas in the 40 years prior to the 1939-45 war only eight Presidents had been first-class cricketers, over the last 40 years the figure is 28. Most of these have brought to the job wide experience in cricket administration. When, however, a President has named as his successor a man of distinction outside the game-- Lord Caccia, the late A. H. A. Dibbs, and the present Chairman of Finance, Sir Anthony Tuke, are recent examples-- the Club has been invariably well served. It is easy to be too close to the game's problems and even to be insensitive to public opinion.

The most unfortunate instance of this was the D'Oliveira Affair when the Committee had to withstand, in the fateful year of 1968, a vote of no confidence-- albeit fairly comfortably defeated-- at a Special General Meeting. The Club, in the persons of the Chairman of ICC and its representatives, had come much more favourably from the throwing crisis of 1960. Harry Altham and Gubby Allen were chiefly involved here, ultimately with the decisive backing of Sir Donald Bradman.

When Kerry Packer's intrusion threatened to tear cricket apart in 1977, the ICC were lucky to find as their Chairmen two patient negotiators prepared to travel the world in search of a settlement in D. G. Clark and C. H. Palmer. Who shall say that the business might not have been brought to a less damaging conclusion by them on behalf of ICC than the subservient long-term accommodation suddenly accepted by the Australian Board?

These are waters under the bridge, and the concluding question to be asked is how well equipped is the MCC of 1987 to fulfil its more limited but still crucial stewardship of the game in the future? Writing on the eve of the bicentenary, I take the mood to be of competence and self-confidence. The Club today is a unique sporting institution with a value and annual turnover measured in many millions, run by a President and committee wherein cricket and business expertise are combined in a fairer mix of the generations than in some earlier days. It has 18,000 members and a waiting-list of embarrassing length. We are at the outset of a year marked by an ambitious series of large-scale events: a ball, dinners at Lord's and the Guildhall, a luncheon on the site of the original ground at Dorset Square, and more besides. Much imagination has gone into the programme, and the news is that everything is over-subscribed.

There remains the culmination of the festivities: the match between MCC, its team drawn from current county players regardless of nationality, and the Rest of the World. On this may Providence look kindly: fair weather, a good match worthy of the occasion, and-- dare one hope?-- something distinguished in the way of English participation.

© John Wisden & Co