Wednesday, 4 April 2012
W.G.'s Birthday Party, by David Kynaston
This is the best book I have ever read on the history of cricket. It is centred round the occasion when in July 1898 a match was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth birthday of Dr. William Gilbert Grace (universally known simply as “W.G.”), the greatest sportsman of the later Victorian era. The match was the traditional annual contest at Lord’s cricket ground between the “Gentlemen” and the “Players”; that is, amateurs versus professionals.
One of the most notable features of the second half of Victoria’s reign was the extraordinary growth of spectator sports, with huge crowds turning up especially to watch football and cricket. In this development the role of Grace was central. A superb athlete, he could no doubt have excelled at any sport, and he had dominated cricket ever since he burst onto the scene as a teenager. Attendance at any match where he was due to play was guaranteed to be massive. For years he had been one of the most famous men in the country, and his trademark beard made him a gift to the cartoonists; instantly recognisable to all. He always particularly enjoyed the annual Gentlemen vs. Players fixture, and on the minority of occasions when the amateurs won, it was usually as a result of his contributions. It was thus most fitting that his birthday should be honoured in this way. He would, of course, captain the amateur team.
The book gives a detailed report of the match (in which Grace himself, though handicapped by an injury, remained undefeated at the end, but could not prevent his team from losing), but there is much more to it than this. Kynaston investigates every participant in the match, including even the umpires, and tells us about their future careers, how long they lived, and even how much they left in their wills, and in this way he gives us a snapshot of late Victorian society.
Cricket was a unique sport in one particular respect. The main tennis and golf tournaments of the time were exclusively amateur, and so were the Olympic sports. Football had by this time become dominated by the professional teams, and rugby was shortly to split into the two codes of Union (amateur) and League (professional), separated by a strict apartheid. But in cricket amateurs and professionals played side-by-side, and had done so ever since the game was first organised back in the 18th century. (Nor, incidentally, was there ever any colour bar in English cricket. The Indian prince, Ranjitsinhji, played his first match for England in 1899 and was universally hailed as a genius. By the 1920s the England team was playing matches against the West Indies, where most of the star players were black and often from very humble backgrounds. My mother, who was brought up in Yorkshire at that time, once told me that the first black man she ever saw was a professional cricketer from the West Indies). True, the county teams were always captained by amateurs; amateurs and professionals stayed in different hotels, changed in different rooms, and were even indicated differently in the scorebooks; but despite all this, the Honourable Alfred Lyttleton, the son of a nobleman and himself a future cabinet minister, and Richard Barlow, the Lancashire factory-hand, played together in the England team, and this could not have happened in any other sport at the time.
Professional sportsmen of the time were invariably drawn from the working classes. (Indeed, before the coming of free universal education, professional sport was practically the only way in which a boy of real talent could find a route out of the slums). A professional cricketer, footballer or boxer could expect to earn higher wages than a skilled artisan, and those who reached international standard would be well rewarded (though with nothing like the immense sums received nowadays), but sporting careers were beset with hazards. A bad injury or loss of form could mean that income suddenly stopped, and even the best players would pass their peak while still comparatively young. Top sportsmen were, and still are, always under temptation to spend freely whilst earning well, only to wind up penniless later in life. A really good professional cricketer might continue to earn a decent wage into his forties, but what then? The best he could hope for would be that, provided he was presentable enough and behaved himself, he might be taken on as a coach at one of the great independent schools or colleges. Professional sport, therefore, was a purely working-class matter. (When in an early novel by P. G. Wodehouse, "Psmith in the City", his hero, Mike, an ex-public school boy, is so extremely bored with his job in a bank that he seriously considers resigning and becoming a professional cricketer, this is intended to show how desperate he was to escape. And, as we might have expected from Wodehouse, a sudden stroke of luck enables Mike to avoid the grave loss of caste resulting from such a step)
Despite Grace’s enormous fame and prestige, his position was ambiguous, for he was a notorious “shamateur”: that is, whilst retaining the status of an amateur, he actually contrived to earn far more out of his cricketing career than did any of the professional players. Also, he was hardly a “gentleman” in the normally accepted sense of the term: he was not a product of the traditional independent schools and universities (he had qualified as a doctor only after twelve years of part-time study); he was too unwashed, too much a Gloucestershire yokel, he was without any intellectual or cultural interests, and his keenness to win frequently verged on outright cheating or intimidation of umpires. It was perhaps for these reasons that he was only occasionally invited to captain England. But at the same time, he was always kind and encouraging to youngsters, and always did his best to help the professionals; so as well as being admired for his talents, he was also liked and respected by his fellow-cricketers.
It comes as no surprise to learn that, of all the men who played in this match, the amateurs as a class lived longer than the professionals, and also died richer, but there was still a significant overlap. Two of them, one amateur and one professional, committed suicide by shooting themselves (for some reason, there has always been a significantly high suicide rate among cricketers). One of the professionals died completely destitute, and two others became bankrupt and dependent on the help of friends. On the other hand, one of the amateurs left only £137 at his death, whereas one of the professionals became a successful businessman, leaving over £57,000; a very considerable sum for the time. W. G. Grace himself finally retired from first-class cricket in 1906, and even after that he continued to play in local club games up to the outbreak of the First World War. He died in 1915 at the age of 67, leaving a disappointing £7,278, despite a lifetime of high earnings. After the war, the Grace Gates were erected at Lord’s as a memorial, with the simple inscription (suggested by F. S. Jackson, a member of Grace’s team in the 1898 match, but now Sir Stanley Jackson, chairman of the Conservative Party and future Governor of Bengal); “The Great Cricketer”
In January 1963 the cricket authorities finally announced the abolition of the distinction between amateurs and professionals, and the annual Gentlemen vs. Players match thus ceased. It could long have been seen as a ridiculous anachronism, but many people, including some illustrious old professionals, were sad at its passing.