The slow death of cricket's class divide

Colin Shindler

The old story goes that two cricketers - one an amateur, the other a professional - were talking about batting. "Do you have trouble with a particular number?" asked the amateur. "How do you mean?" replied the professional. "Well," said the amateur, "I always seem to get out on one or 11." The professional: "Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, I do, as it happens. I never seem to get past 189."

Fifty years ago such exchanges became, in theory at least, a thing of the past, when MCC abolished the distinction between the amateur gentleman and the professional player. From that moment on, they would be lumped together and known simply - and, some believed, subversively - as plain old "cricketers". The decision came as something of a surprise: four years earlier, in 1958, an MCC committee had conducted a full inquiry and decided against the social revolution. There remained, it concluded, "the wish to preserve in first-class cricket the leadership and general approach to the game traditionally associated with the amateur." Such status, it was considered, "was not obsolete… but worth preserving".

Yet the recommendation to abolish came in November 1962, the month the innovative satire That Was The Week That Was started transmission on BBC television. That summer there had been only four professionals in charge of county sides: Don Kenyon at Worcestershire, Vic Wilson at Yorkshire, Harold Stephenson at Somerset, and Keith Andrew at Northamptonshire. But the idea of the amateur's financial independence had largely disappeared, and the nominally amateur Trevor Bailey was able to retain the Essex captaincy only by virtue of being paid as the club secretary.

Why the change of heart? "Shamateurism" of the kind practised by Essex played its part but, even in those four years, there had been a significant shift in social attitudes in post-war Britain. Put simply, the era of social deference was over. The wave of consumer-spending encouraged by the Macmillan government; the arrival of the American-influenced ITV to break the BBC monopoly; the rising tide of immigration; and the increasing influence of grammar school graduates - all contributed to Britain's changing public face. And the 1963 season, the first to take place on a socially level playing field, was also the first to include a nationwide 65-over one-day knockout competition, itself a response to the strident calls for "brighter cricket" since the mid-1950s.

The amateur's face no longer fitted, even though one of the great triumphs of its supposed spirit had taken place as recently as 1961, when Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie's dashing captaincy - with significant professional help from Roy Marshall and Derek Shackleton - took Hampshire to their first Championship. Whatever the amateur cricketer was at the time of his abolition, then, he was almost certainly confused. And it may not have helped that the term itself was ambiguous. The Oxford English Dictionary offers two differing definitions. An amateur is either "a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis", or "a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity". Certainly, the history of the game contains considerable evidence for the view traditionally attributed to the long-suffering professional: namely, that amateurs were rarely worth their place in the team, and captaincy was awarded to them because of an accident of birth or success in business.

When county cricket restarted after the war in 1946, Northamptonshire named as their captain Peter Murray-Willis, who quit mid-season with a career batting average of ten and was perhaps best known for once abandoning his pursuit of the ball because his cap had blown off. His replacement, Arthur Childs-Clarke, frequently placed his business demands ahead of the cricket and captained the county to last place in the Championship in both his seasons in charge. Northamptonshire were not the only ones. In 1946, Lancashire appointed as captain Jack Fallows, a 38-year-old club cricketer who didn't bowl and ended up with 171 first-class runs at an average of eight.

But was the amateur by definition a figure of fun? Fallows, for one, suggested not. Despite his batting failures, he was an inspiration on the field and shrewd off it. When only four fresh eggs were available one morning at a London hotel, he awarded them to the bowlers because Lancashire were likely to be fielding all day. His team respected and liked him, and he did exactly what an amateur should: he declared boldly to give the opposition a chance and his bowlers time to take their wickets. The crowds returned to Old Trafford, and the team were slightly unlucky to finish only third.

Do we not recognise in the Ashes-winning England team of 2005 at least a faint echo of the past? The four fast bowlers who did so much to reduce Australian batsmen to mere mortals were doughty lads from unprivileged backgrounds in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Wales

Relationships across the social divide could be more subtle than the use of separate dressing-rooms and gates to enter the field of play implied. Harold Larwood, the professional in excelsis, was abandoned by MCC out of political expediency after Bodyline, but for all his seething resentment he never expressed anything other than the deepest devotion to Douglas Jardine, who heads a list of amateur captains more spiritually inclined towards professionalism.

If "Yorkshire amateur captain" sounds like an oxymoron, the emergence in 1932 of Brian Sellers set the tone for others of a similar social status who brooked no dissent from their professionals. Stuart Surridge's control of the all-conquering Surrey side of the early and mid-1950s was absolute; Walter Robins ruled Middlesex with equal ruthlessness; and Wilf Wooller was master of all he surveyed at Glamorgan. And when Peter May took over the England captaincy from Len Hutton - the first professional to be given the post full-time - and the Surrey job from Surridge two years later, in 1957, it was clear the amateur captain had evolved from the days of Murray-Willis and Childs-Clarke. As cautious as Hutton and as merciless as Surridge, May embodied the old MCC concept of the amateur perhaps only in the stiffness of his upper lip and his trio of initials. Pigeon-holes were too neat.

There was, however, no escaping the resentment often felt by county pros dropped in order to accommodate the availability of amateurs on their summer holidays. They were equally unimpressed by the first-class travel, the better changing facilities and the swankier hotels enjoyed by the amateurs. And on England tours, amateurs were recompensed by MCC for the expense of hiring someone to run their farm or estate back home. As Jim Laker, working-class and proud of it, recounts in his then-scandalous memoir, Over To Me - in which he describes his bitterness at the way he was treated in Australia in 1958-59 by May and the England manager, Freddie Brown - the compensation could amount to more than a professional's entire fee for a six-month tour.

It was not all glamour, and in the last year of the amateur cricketer, he was recompensed by a mileage rate of 6d and a cleaning allowance for his flannels of £1. But the war meant social attitudes were already changing, for there were plenty of professional cricketers who had fought the Germans and the Japanese, survived death marches and POW camps - and were not going to be intimidated by cricketing authorities. When Walter Hammond, who became an amateur in order to ascend to the England captaincy, was allowed to travel by car on the 1946-47 tour of Australia, this did not go down well with his team-mates, stuffed as they were on to a coach.

There may, though, have been pragmatic reasons for the class divide: one of the key components of the belief that the amateur brought something to the game that the professional could not was the fact that his private income would keep him free from interference by the committee. If he didn't like it he could just walk away. Yet the experience of Bob Barber suggests this argument was deeply flawed. Barber was an outstanding schoolboy cricketer and made his debut for Lancashire in the opening match of the 1954 season while still at Ruthin School. After Magdalene College, Cambridge, he rejoined Lancashire and was appointed captain when Cyril Washbrook, the first professional to skipper the county, retired at the end of the 1959 season. Barber was astonished at his treatment by the committee, which was composed of 30 or so individuals, many of them tired and emotional during selection meetings after a morning of gin and tonics, an acceptable lunchtime wine and a post-prandial brandy and soda or three. Although they called him by his surname, which at least put him on a par with the professionals, they also instructed him to stay in a separate hotel from all the players to avoid "a problem".

In August of his first season, with Lancashire top of the table and looking to claim their first outright title since 1934, Barber was inadvertently caught up in controversy after Colin Cowdrey, then captain of England as well as Kent, ordered his team not to chase Barber's inviting declaration on the last afternoon of a Championship match at Old Trafford. Ken Grieves, the Sydney-born middle-order batsman who would go on to captain Lancashire, duly aired his anger in the press, which prompted the committee to order Barber - who had done nothing more than indicate a vague approval of Grieves' sentiments to John Kay of the Manchester Evening News - to issue a humiliating public apology to Cowdrey.

Almost certainly influenced by Washbrook, the committee then refused to renew the contract of Alan Wharton, a talented allrounder who had never seen eye to eye with Washbrook but had enjoyed some success in 1960. Matters grew worse. The following year, with Brian Statham playing for England and Tommy Greenhough injured, the Lancashire committee ordered Barber to drop Ken Higgs from an already weakened attack, and at the end of an unhappy season, they sent a telegram to TN Pearce, then managing Barber on MCC's tour of India and Pakistan, asking him to inform Barber that Lancashire had decided to bestow the captaincy on Joe Blackledge, an amateur who played for Chorley in the Northern League and a partner in a cotton-manufacturing business. The Times noted drily: "It is some time since a county appointed a captain so little known."

Lancashire duly finished the 1962 season second from bottom, losing 16 matches, after which Barber fled to Warwickshire, where, under MJK Smith and a refreshingly supportive committee, he blossomed into the attractive batsman and clever legbreak bowler we more readily remember. The privilege of amateur status had granted him no favours at all. As an amateur at Lancashire, Barber had been weighed down by the chains of office. At Edgbaston, he started to play with exactly the freedom of spirit that had theoretically been legislated out of existence: his Test place returned. With the abolition of technical amateur status, Barber flourished as an amateur in the very best sense of the word.

Peter May hands the Man of the Match award to Bob Barber, Warwickshire v Worcestershire, Gillette Cup final, Lord's, September 3, 1966
Peter May hands the Man of the Match award to Bob Barber, 1966 Gillette Cup final: they were two players far more professional than their amateur status reveals © PA Photos

Cricket, though, took its cues from society at large. Class stratification would not - could not - simply disappear overnight. Thus, two years after the abolition of the divide, Ted Dexter (Radley and Jesus College, Cambridge) was succeeded as captain of England by MJK Smith (Stamford School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford). The class interloper Brian Close lasted a mere seven Tests, winning six of them, before alleged poor behaviour during a county game at Edgbaston cost him the captaincy. MCC restored it to Cowdrey (Tonbridge and Brasenose College, Oxford, which he left, like a gentleman, without bothering to obtain a degree). When Ray Illingworth took over - Cowdrey had snapped an Achilles tendon - and regained the Ashes in 1970-71, it seemed as though, finally, the hard-bitten Yorkshire professionals had enjoyed the last laugh.

But had they? A few decades on - in our enlightened, egalitarian, supposedly classless society - what is left of the old ways? Do we not recognise in the Ashes-winning England team of 2005 at least a faint echo of the past? The four fast bowlers who did so much to reduce Australian batsmen to mere mortals were doughty lads from unprivileged backgrounds in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Wales. If the captain Michael Vaughan was a northerner with the toughness and acuity of Illingworth, he nevertheless embodied something of the officer-class bearing that has always gone down so well with the English cricket establishment. Matthew Hoggard's occasional attempts to bowl something other than line and length were - by his own fond admission - greeted by Vaughan's injunction to "get back to the shop floor". And can we honestly say for sure that no old-timer would have derived perverse reassurance from the respective efforts of Andrew Flintoff and Andrew Strauss - peas from very different social pods - to retain the Ashes in 2006-07 and four years later?

If professionalism is these days intended as a compliment rather than a denoter of social status, then it may be that the insidious British class system has never quite deserted our game. The nature of the old amateur-professional divide was not quite as clear-cut as some liked to imagine, but neither has its abolition produced a sport that is entirely devoid of the stratification that lends English cricket part of its unique flavour.

Colin Shindler is an author, lecturer and television producer who has retained his amateur status throughout his playing career

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