How class in the gentleman's game hamstrung English cricket

BY Paul Kaye

30th Nov 2023 Sport

5 min read

How class in the gentleman's game hamstrung English cricket
To their opponents' dismay, English cricket teams were once split between professional players and elitist amateurs—with the amateurs ruling the roost
In his new book, Cotton, Cricket & Football—Billy Cook, the Life of a Lancashire League Legend, Paul Kaye charts the remarkable life story of his great-grandfather, a professional cricketer and footballer from the early part of the 20th century.
This extract covers Billy’s first-class debut with Lancashire CCC and his first experience of the prejudice and class discrimination encountered by working-class professionals within the elitist environment of county cricket.

A first meeting with Lancashire captain A C MacLaren

Cricket players from Lancashire team
Old Trafford, 27 July 1905
Billy had taken the train from Preston to Manchester and walked the rest of the way from the station to the ground. He introduced himself to the gateman who pointed him in the direction of the pavilion.
Billy had seen pictures of MacLaren in the newspapers and although he had never met him in person, he recognised the Lancashire captain immediately. He entered the dressing room to introduce himself, but was quickly rebuffed.
"Who do you think you are? This room is reserved for the gentlemen of Lancashire County Cricket Club," barked MacLaren.
"Sorry Mister, I’m Billy Cook. I received a telegram asking me to report here."
"Well Cook, the professionals’ dressing room is in the basement. Be on the ground in 30 minutes and don’t be late," and with that he ushered Billy out of the room.
"This was, lest we forget, the era of 'gentlemen and players'"
This was, lest we forget, the era of "gentlemen and players". Not only did the paid players have to change in separate rooms from the amateur gentlemen, they also often had to enter the field of play through a different gate and eat at separate lunch tables, and they were addressed by their surname.
Only "gentlemen" could use the titles "Mr" or "Esquire". The fact that Billy was also a professional footballer also counted against him. The cricketing establishment took a dim view of the Football League and didn’t consider it "a game for gentlemen".
Lancashire, like many other counties, had an ambivalent view of professionalism within the game. The batsmen were largely gentlemen from wealthy backgrounds but paid professionals were often recruited to do the lion’s share of the bowling and ensure that the team was competitive.
This was particularly important for Lancashire during this period, as they sought to end Yorkshire’s dominance.

The Old Boys’ network in cricket

Professional cricket player George Lohmann
The levers of power within cricket were very much pulled by the gentlemanly class who had played the game at the top public schools and universities (principally Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge).
These men dominated both MCC, which from 1903-4 onwards organised all England tours, and the committees of the first-class counties. An old boys’ network was in charge of English cricket and had no intention of handing over the reins.
They also looked down on the northern leagues and the people who supported them. As Brian Dobbs put it in Edwardians at Play (1973), "To the country-house set, the very concept of a league had all the connotations of the northern masses swaying, cheering and booing at football matches."
"An old boys’ network was in charge of English cricket and had no intention of handing over the reins"
The social segregation that the narrow-minded authorities imposed was a source of resentment and rancour for many professionals. The "dressing room" was originally purely an amateur privilege and professionals were expected to get ready in windowless pavilion basements or huts, sometimes at the opposite end of the ground to the amateurs.
George Lohmann, a socialist-minded professional cricketer at Surrey, expressed his frustration in an interview in Cricket in July 1896 that in many grounds, although admittedly no longer at The Oval, professional changing rooms were "so arranged that if a Player wants to watch a match he has to go out among the crowd".

A different approach Down Under

Austalian team in 1902, including Joe Darling
The approach in less stuffy Australia at this time was far more egalitarian, with facilities for all players superior to England. The Aussies took a dim view of the social apartheid that prevailed in England.
Joe Darling, who appeared regularly for Australia against England between 1894 and 1905, wrote in his memoirs, "I have heard some English captains speak to their professionals like dogs."
"The Aussies took a dim view of the social apartheid that prevailed in England"
Australia’s tour manager of 1899, Ben Wardill, even thought the reason for their victory that year was down to their "more democratic views on captaincy and the rejection of the debilitating philosophy of gentlemen and players."
Umpire Jim Phillips, who stood in 15 out of 16 Ashes Tests between 1893 and 1898, shared this assessment:
"In general-ship the Australians are easily first. They play more in unison, they exchange views in the dressing room, and their captain is thereby assisted materially in many of his plans…Off the field an Australian captain receives the benefit of the opinions of his comrades as if he were chairman of a board of directors."

Professionals opinions not valued

Phillips could easily have been referring to Archie MacLaren when he went on to say:
"The average English captain is more of an autocrat. He rarely seeks advice from his men. If a consultation be held it is invariably confined to the amateurs and the batsmen, not the professionals and the bowlers.
"I can recall instances when I have been standing umpire when able and intelligent professional players on an England side have seen the fallacy of some plan of their captain, but nothing has been said by them, no suggestion made, to remedy the mistake.
"Surely, if a man is good enough to play on the same side, he is good enough to dress in the same dressing room"
"Surely, if a man is good enough to play on the same side, he is good enough to dress in the same dressing room. It is there most useful hints and ideas are exchanged when a game is in progress, which cannot be done so well on the field."
Many professionals at the time were also enraged by the way they were treated financially, especially when playing for England.
A board of control was established in October 1898 with the task of arranging all aspects of home Test matches, including deciding the number of matches, allocating venues, dividing profits and appointing a panel of selectors.

Lack of diversity

Lord Hawke, cricket player poses with cricket bat
The original board of control comprised several MCC members (one with a casting vote), an earl, two lords and one soon-to-be lord, a knight and eight others from the amateur class.
There was not one single professional in sight. England had only ever been captained in home Tests by one of the amateur class, and it was clear from the board’s original guidelines that this was not going to change anytime soon.
As one historian observed, "The upper middle class had hijacked cricket at the highest level."
The Old Etonian Lord Hawke, of Yorkshire CCC, spoke for the establishment when he said, "Pray God, no professional shall ever captain England."
Banner credit: OllieClissold, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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