Magazine article The Spectator

What's Wrong with Cricket Today Is a Matter of History

Magazine article The Spectator

What's Wrong with Cricket Today Is a Matter of History

Article excerpt

The cricket season starts with a painful scandal of financial corruption and matchfixing involving the South African captain and Pakistani and Indian players. That does not surprise me. Indeed, it was inevitable once cricket became totally professionalised and dominated by the cashnexus. If only people knew more history, they would not be so anxious to accept `changes', which are often not new at all but a reversion to the bad old past. Cricket emerged from the village level during the late 18th century, a terrible age for gambling. Betting on fiercely fought London games was common. Leading London bookies, including the great Crockford, used to sit in front of the pavilion at Lord's to take bets. In Oxford Street, the Green Man and Still was the headquarters of `offpitch' betting. As all the leading players lodged there, an element of corruption was inevitable. Even the Reverend Lord Frederick Beauclerk, the distinguished clergyman who led the first all-England eleven (they played 22 men from Nottinghamshire), admitted that he made 600 a year at the game.

Cricket was turned into an honest and honourable game - indeed, the hallmark of morality and fairness in sport - by a group of high-minded aristos and gentry who were determined to stamp out betting and skulduggery. Their leader was William Ward (1787-1849), MP for the City of London and a director of the Bank of England. When the Lord's ground was about to be sold off as a building site in 1825, he pulled out his chequebook and bought it for 55,000, an immense sum in those days, and made it over to MCC in perpetuity. Five years before he had scored 278 on the same ground, which stood as the individual record until Jack Hobbs beat it in 1925. Ward's reputation as a player as much as his money and negotiating skills enabled him to take the chief role in improving and codifying the laws. In his campaign to eliminate betting he was spurred on by schoolmasters and dons, who would not allow cricket in their institutions until the gambling element was banned - hence the first Oxford and Cambridge and Eton and Harrow matches date from the 1820s.

At the heart of Ward's campaign was the Gentlemen v. Players fixture, the first of which was held in 1819. The idea behind it was that the best of the gentlemen, who adored the game, had private grounds on their estates, and wanted cricket to be simon-pure, would work closely with the best of the players, who hated the nastiness which gambling brought into the sport, and wanted to keep the game straight, their annual match being played at Lord's to the highest possible standards and with the closest adherence to the strict laws of the game. This particular match, far from being about snobbery, as was later maintained by `reformers', was actually about integrity.

So it continued. The gentlemen and players' alliance made the game so honest that `that's not cricket' became a synonym for fraud, deviousness and crooked behaviour all over the world, and the principle that playing the game was more important than personal success became a vital part of character-training at thousands of good schools. It was still so when I first followed and gloried in this best of all games in the 1930s. The professional players, who were paid a pittance in those days, were even more determined than the gentlemen-amateurs to uphold the laws in their spirit as well as to their letter, and to exact impeccable behaviour, on and off the pitch, from the young lads they recruited. The martinet of that wonderful epoch, the RSM of the game as it were, was Herbert Sutcliffe of Yorkshire. …

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