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Review

The many lives of Fred Rumsey

He was instrumental in the formation of the PCA, and did much else for cricket and cricketers besides, in a life lived well

George Dobell
George Dobell
17-May-2019
Fred Rumsey, the cricketer's cricketer  •  Getty Images

Fred Rumsey, the cricketer's cricketer  •  Getty Images

If the only thing Fred Rumsey had achieved was the formation of the Professional Cricketers' Association, he could look back on his life with pride and satisfaction.
Lots of players can recount tales of the hardships endured - Rumsey slept in the back of his van for a while as a young player - and the wild nights they enjoyed along the way. Rumsey is certainly no exception there; this book contains plenty of both. But not many bother to go back to help the wounded.
Perhaps no single episode in the game's history has achieved more in protecting and enhancing players' abilities to make a living from the sport than the formation of the PCA. Improved pay and conditions, improved freedom of movement, improved insurance cover and improved representation and advice are just some of the benefits. Most concessions were won in the face of stiff opposition. You could make a pretty decent case to include Rumsey among the most influential figures in the history of the game. Every cricketer who has followed owes him plenty.
The inspiration for the union, he reveals in this entertaining and enlightening book, was the poor-quality food served to players at Somerset. During the summer of 1966, when the players realised they were sharing their lunches with "every known caterpillar, fly and bug imaginable", a boycott was organised. They sent their 12th man to the chip shop rather than congregating "in the indoor cricket shed" as was expected. Almost immediately, the club was embarrassed into improving the situation, and within weeks Rumsey was working on the formation of a more formal organisation. In time others, notably Jack Bannister, stepped in to help. But the early steps of the journey were taken by Rumsey alone.
With the game undergoing great changes, the ground was fertile for the seeds of such an organisation. There were, for example, plans to introduce a new competition on Sunday (it was to become the Sunday League), but no plans to pay players more for their involvement. Meanwhile, players had no salary out of season and an income below not just other professional sportsmen but the national average. Combined with the lack of insurance cover - one injury could leave them on the scrap heap - it was leaving players in desperate situations.
"I had been told the rate of suicide in cricket was quite high," Rumsey, who experienced his own moments of something approaching despair, writes, "and I could understand that, as sportsmen grow old twice: the first time when they find they cannot play the game as well as they could and again in the normal run of things."
Given all he has seen and done, Rumsey's words still demand respect. So when he gently but firmly reminds the current PCA executives - who have been accused by some of falling into line with the ECB rather too readily of late - of their role and responsibilities, it may well pay to listen. "It is now the PCA must be strong," Rumsey writes, "making sure they fully represent the players' view in every aspect of the game. After all, that is why they have been elected. I do not believe the game requires major changes; certainly not Fred Karno-style one-day games played in clown suits. If the ECB, who appear to have lost their way, really want to promote the game, get it back on terrestrial television before it is too late."
He comes back to the subject later. "There appears to be a misguided belief among the current organisers of first-class cricket that the greater income they can achieve, the greater the job they have done for the game. Wrong. By selling out to Sky Television in 2006, with their limited coverage in England and Wales, they have certainly obtained more income, but at what cost? According to an ECB survey in 2014, participation in the sport had dropped by 64,000 in that one year and cricket is now hardly mentioned on terrestrial television." He makes a lot of sense, doesn't he?
But the fact that the formation of the players' union occupies only one chapter in this book demonstrates Rumsey's vast and varied experiences in the sport and beyond. A left-arm fast bowler good enough to have played five Tests for England - might he have been the fastest left-arm bowler to have played Test cricket for England since World War Two? - Rumsey was also responsible for the modernisation and commercialism of the sport, the development of public relations at county clubs, and much, much more. The book details his friendship with the anti-apartheid campaigner Donald Woods, his brushes with the South African secret police, his years fund-raising for the Lord's Taverners, and his relationships with, among others, John Arlott, Eric Morecambe, Colin Milburn and David Gower.
And it's funny. Warmth, wit and wisdom pour off nearly every page, interspersed with nuggets of insight into the game's characters and history. Did you know, for example, that as early as 1965, teams were being selected - X Factor style - by means of a public vote? Or that Rumsey was the first man to sign a limited-overs-only contract? He has clearly been a great innovator, but it is the sense of duty to his fellow man that sticks out. "It seemed to be the thing to do," is a typical phrase. "Sense of humour, sense of justice" describes him and his book very well.
Rumsey is well into his 80s now and recently suffered a period of poor health. But as he reflects on a life well led, he may take comfort from the contribution he has made to the game he loves. There may be someone alive who has done more to improve the plight of their fellow pro, but it's not immediately obvious who they might be. Rumsey is the epitome of a largely unsung hero.
Much the same could be said about Stephen Chalke, the publisher of the book. He retires at the end of this year having run Fairfield Books for more than 20 years. In that period he has lovingly produced 40 high-quality books (he has written 17 of them), that invariably offer insight into not just the game and the characters who have played it, but the society from which they came. In an age where ghosted biographies of 20-year-olds fill the shelves at bookshops, he has provided the antidote: thoughtful, honest accounts that deepen our understanding of the game and the characters who populate it.
Cricket has been lucky to have men like Chalke and Rumsey. This book offers the best of both.
Sense of Humour, Sense of Justice
Fred Rumsey
Fairfield Books
256 pages, £16

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo