Cricket's subtle mysteries have always attracted the rich and powerful - John Paul Getty Jr, Allen Stanford and, closer to home, Nicky Oppenheimer, with his fabulous library of unread books. Here in South Africa we've heard of the politicians and patrons once associated with the game, men like Cecil John Rhodes and Abe Bailey, but know less about hucksters who used cricket as a vehicle for their restless ambitions.

One such individual was James Logan, the so-called Laird of Matjiesfontein, who became the sport's major benefactor in the 10 years prior to the Anglo-Boer War. Logan's story is told in Dean Allen's fascinating book, Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa, and it is impossible not to see in the sweep of Allen's tale instructive parallels between cricket then and the goings-on of the current South African summer.

Born in 1857, Logan was one of five children, the son of a railway worker in the Scottish Borders. He was resourceful, good at school and a larrikin, allegedly running away to sea - Allen isn't sure - to escape appearing in court on poaching charges. Whether he ran away or not, Berwickshire couldn't hold him. He was soon bound for Rockhampton in Queensland but his sea legs deserted him by the time he rounded Cape Point. He jumped off in Simon's Town and, being a son of the railways, found his way to Cape Town station. Once there, he worked as a porter, soon becoming stationmaster.

His climb up the corporate ladder was more of the express rather than milk-train variety, and he quickly found himself at Touws River, an important junction before the climb onto the escarpment and into the great Karoo. His new base allowed him to secure land up the line; he bought farms in Matjiesfontein. Under the relentless African sun he fashioned himself a Scottish home, calling it Tweedside. He dug wells, planted trees, imported Victorian latticework. He also laid a cricket oval. His transformation from working-class poacher to the Cape's premier carpetbagger was almost complete.

Matjiesfontein was a fine place from which to observe imperialism's vivid frenzies. The "Star of Africa" was discovered near Kimberley in 1866 and gold was discovered on the Rand in 1886. Supplies and diggers needed to pass through Matjiesfontein to get to both the diamond and gold fields, and, astutely, Logan controlled catering concessions in railway dining cars and stations along the line.

He was also making friends with important people; George Lohmann, the Ben Stokes of the age, came to visit, and tours were arranged. Logan wanted "Krom" Hendricks, the coloured fast bowler - some thought him Malay - to tour England in 1894 but well-entrenched Cape racism forbade his selection. With a combination of business savvy, indefatigable energy and frequent recourse to the courts, Logan became one of South African cricket's major players.

Too many people wear too many hats in South African cricket, leading to compromise and second-guessing. The feeling abounds that people aren't saying what they're thinking or feeling

Not that he was ever disinterested. He wanted, for instance, his mate Harry Cadwallader to manage the 1894 South African team to England, and also sought to influence selection. When the South African Cricket Association rebuffed his offers, he withdrew his financial support. These were early days for administrators, where revenue streams came from subscriptions and gate takings, so cricket's wise men can be forgiven for not knowing exactly where they stood in relation to offers of financial help.

In a more sophisticated system like that of today, the boundaries would appear to be more clear-cut - they aren't. Too many people wear too many hats in South African cricket, leading to compromise and second-guessing. The feeling abounds that people aren't saying what they're thinking or feeling. It makes for bad faith. Worst of all, it makes for cynicism of the every-man-for-himself variety, which is the death of team sports, in which the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. At least cricket politics in Logan's day was relatively straightforward; transparency and leadership are hopelessly lacking now.

It's not insignificant that three England players - Nick Compton, James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow (Steven Finn might be a fourth) - are in the same position with relation to each other. Given a taste of Test cricket for the first time, they failed. They have come back stronger, more resourceful. The pecking order is transparent, cynicism having headed for the hills. Jos Buttler knows exactly where he stands; so does Chris Woakes. Contrast this with the South African team, where all is ambiguity and uncertainty. The selectors are now effectively picking one black African from a player base of two. South Africa decided Quinton de Kock was their best wicketkeeper-batsman last season; in the second Test at Newlands, they came full circle in picking him again. Can they really afford such voyages of discovery now?

Logan, the jingoistic Scot, would have had little time for such subtleties. Then again, what doesn't really come through in Allen's book is the extent to which Logan loved the game. Neville Cardus tells us that WG Grace was "institutional". "People regarded him and discussed him just as they regarded and discussed Mr Gladstone and the National Debt." I cannot readily imagine Logan, sherry in hand, discussing the minutiae of Grace's back play. For him cricket was a means to an end, much like it is for the local power brokers of today.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg