AMATEURS ABOLISHED! screamed the headlines in 1962, during cricket’s equivalent of the French revolution. Daily Telegraph correspondent EW Swanton condemned the change as ‘not only unnecessary but deplorable’. Moreover, it meant curtains for the traditional ‘Gentlemen versus Players’ fixture – cricket’s oldest rivalry – in which carefree cavaliers had crossed swords with paid professionals since 1806.
Early duels witnessed the Gentlemen struggle. Though blessed with silky stroke-makers, few noblemen indulged in bowling – a rather tiresome pastime best left to under-gardeners and stable-lads. To compensate, the aristocrats rode roughshod over the rules. One wizard wheeze involving widening the wicket, courtesy of a fourth stump… obviously removed when the toffs batted. The Gents 1836 ‘XI’ took the biscuit, when eighteen swells insisted on having a knock while ringers were routinely roped in, including, occasionally, crack bowlers from the Players’ ranks.
Mortified MCC members spotted the aberration ‘FJ Titmus’, which jarringly elevated the working-class Londoner to amateur status
Etiquette was everything. Victorian Wisdens listed plain ‘Pinder’ or ‘Emmett’ but trumpeted Dr. E.M. Grace or A.N. Hornby Esq. One Kent professional, Richard Mills, missed the boat because his Players invitation, ambiguously addressed ‘Mills’, prompted elder brother George to pull rank – merely bagging a bogus single. On the occasions when a professional’s initials were proffered, they always trailed his surname. A 1950s scorecard howler breached this protocol, as mortified MCC members spotted the aberration ‘FJ Titmus’, thus jarringly elevating the working-class Londoner – and a cockney at that – to amateur status! Well really! After the initial shock, sanity was restored by the announcement “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is an alteration to the Middlesex scorecard: Number 7 FJ Titmus should read Titmus, FJ”.
The nuances of nomenclature remained a social minefield. Gauche Gloucestershire pro Tom Graveney made a frightful faux pas when congratulating varsity centurion DS Sheppard by calling him ‘David’! BO Allen, a former Gentlemen opener, barked “He’s Mister Sheppard to you!” Engaging an Oxbridge fellow by his full Christian name was terribly intimate, straying dangerously close to Brideshead’s Sebastian and Charles territory. Even AJ Raffles’ fawning chum, ‘Bunny’, drew the line at embracing his idol as ‘Arthur’.
The famous fictional gentleman slow bowler went by either Raffles or, in the finest amateur tradition, ‘AJ’ – a la ‘WG’ (Grace) and ‘CB’ (Fry). Nowadays England’s Pietersen, of all people, has revived this arcane practice. The tattooed tonker adopts the moniker ‘KP’, purely, one imagines, because it avoids uttering the odious ‘Kevin’. Of the current crop of Boers, AB De Villiers is known as ‘AB’, though, frankly, it’s best for all concerned if teammate VD Philander sticks to Vernon.
Custom dictated that the breed strolled on to the sward via a dedicated gate, having availed themselves of plush changing room facilities. The Oval boasted wicker armchairs, a dressing table and clothes brushes. Professionals were banished to ‘a bit of a rabbit hutch’ in the Kennington basement. Sartorially the Players were a disgrace. AG Steele, 1888 Gentlemen captain, noted a typical specimen wore thick woollen drawers, half an inch of which was generally visible above the waistband of his rather dirty white flannels. By contrast, contemporary amateurs were decked out in snazzy striped blazers and spiffing caps – MCC, Harlequin and Quidnuncs abounding.
The Lords battle – a de facto Test trial – commanded centre stage, but postwar the Gentlemen relished September seaside sojourns at the Scarborough cricket festival, where hostilities would resume. Decadent match day luncheon arrangements extended to dry sherry aperitifs, wine, the odd gin livener and vintage port. Accordingly, afternoon sessions saw more Stella performances than stellar. Trevor Bailey did manage to bowl Len Hutton a jaffa, though this wasn’t the unplayable delivery but an actual orange!
Gentlemen’s expenses (including hefty hotel bills) often, contentiously, trumped a Players match fee. The Champagne Charlies also made monkeys out of the authorities by trousering wonga for so-called administrative jobs. Off-spinner Robin Marlar risibly purported to be librarian at the Arundel Castle seat of the Duke of Norfolk (who just so happened to be Sussex CC President as well). It wasn’t cricket to countenance paid amateurs – a paradox in itself – and this racket led to jibes of ‘shamateurism’. The gents had somewhat overplayed their hand and by 1962, sadly, the game was up.
So the doors finally closed on this most select of Gentlemen’s clubs, where mere inclusion conferred credentials that spoke volumes for a chap’s character. Certainly the bluff Doctor Watson (portrayed by Nigel Bruce) thought so in Terror By Night. When Sherlock Holmes accuses Major Duncan Bleek of foul play, Watson thinks he’s gone off his rocker, protesting: “What on earth are you talking about? Duncan Bleek! But he played for the Gentlemen at Lords!” Those cricket-mad coves Charters and Caldicott are flabbergasted to discover erstwhile Balliol pal, Randall, swanning around in Nazi regalia – normally, of course, the preserve of Sandhurst Royal princes. Mulling over this queer business, Charters moots that Randall might be batting for the Boche, but Caldicott pooh-poohs such wild talk: “Traitor? Hardly old man…played for the Gentlemen”. “Only once,” demurs the ever-suspicious Charters.