Cricket and the politics of class

Whenever I read the novels of (say) Jane Austen or P. G. Wodehouse, that deal with the life of the British upper classes around the dawn of the twentieth century, one thing that always strikes me is that the characters who inhabit those books never seem to do any work. Beneficiaries of a class-ridden feudal system, they seem to live on inherited income and property that enables them to spend their days not having to worry about actually making a living. There is rarely any description of people’s jobs. Work seems to be something that the lower classes do and is vaguely disreputable. Even in Charles Dickens’ novel, which often dealt with characters who were desperately poor, the happy ending usually took the form of the hero obtaining wealth by means of an inheritance or otherwise, and then promptly stopping work and hanging around at home, even if they were still young

These rich people seemed to spend all their time visiting each other’s homes for weeks on end, go for walks, ride horses, write long letters to each other, play cards and board games, and throw elaborate parties. In short, these are rich idle people with plenty of time on their hands.

This kind of life was not entirely unproductive. Some of these people used their time to become amateur scientists, using their freedom from having to earn a living to devote their lives to studying scientific questions, often coming up with major discoveries. Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle was not a job. He was not paid to go to the Galapagos Islands. His was an unpaid expedition, made possible by his lack of financial need. Nobel-prize winning physicist Lord Rayleigh was also somewhat of an amateur scientist. Even now the idea of the ‘gentleman scholar’ is quite strong in England, with people developing very detailed expertise in areas of knowledge on their own purely for the love of it and using their own money.

But many members of the idle rich classes were preoccupied with purely recreational activities and only such a class of people could have enjoyed the game of cricket. After all, who else has the time to play or watch a game that goes on for days on end? International games, called ‘Tests’, last for five consecutive days, six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea. Furthermore, the cricket field requires a large amount of land (an elliptical shape about three to four times the size of a baseball field), with carefully tended turf, and the equipment required to play is expensive, again making it a rich person’s game.

Despite the fact that the economics of the game and the time commitment it required made it hard for working people to play it, it gained in popularity and shortened versions of the game that lasted only one day enabled even working people to play it on Sundays, and eventually people even started being paid for playing the game. Such professionals were looked down upon by the amateurs, those who could play it without being paid to do so because they were independently wealthy. The latter learned the game at the exclusive private schools like Eton and Harrow and then later at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and the ranks of the English national team tended to filled with the products of these elite institutions.

But the class system in England is very strong and even after professional players became part of cricket teams, some distinctions were maintained. In a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow laws in the US (although not nearly as severe in intent or implementation), until the mid twentieth century, the amateurs (who were called ‘Gentlemen’) and the professionals (who were called ‘Players’) had separate dressing rooms and entered and left the cricket field by different entrances. Teams were usually captained by an amateur, even if the amateur was the worst player in terms of skill, presumably so that an amateur would not have to take orders from a professional. (Unlike in American sports where the non-playing coach or manager controls the game and tells players what to do, in cricket it is the playing captain makes all the decisions on the field and his order must be obeyed unquestioningly.) Len Hutton was an exception in that he was a professional who captained the England national team in the 1950s.
This Wikipedia entry shows the state of affairs as late as 1950, in a story about Brian Close who came from a working class background and in 1966 became the first professional (i.e. Player) to captain England after the amateur/professional distinction was finally and formally abolished in the mid-1960s.

At that time class status was still important: professionals, known as Players, were expected to show deference to the amateurs, who were the Gentlemen. Gentlemen did not share changing rooms with Players, and cricket scorecards would differentiate between the two of them, with the names of Gentlemen being prefixed “Mr”, the names of the professionals being styled by their surnames and then their initials. This was a time when it was considered necessary to announce on the tannoy errors such as “for F.J. Titmus read Titmus, F.J.“.

Close did well for the Players and top-scored with 65. When he reached his fifty, he was congratulated by the Gentlemen’s wicket-keeper, Billy Griffith, and in a conversation that now seems innocuous, Griffith congratulated Close by saying, “Well played, Brian”, with Close replying, “Thank you, Billy”. However, Close had not referred to Griffith as “Mister”, and ten days later was called to see Brian Sellers, a former captain and member of the Yorkshire committee, who reprimanded Close for the effrontery.

In societies that practice domination by one class or ethnicity over another, we often forget the important role that seemingly petty indignities play. In order to achieve complete domination over someone, it is not sufficient to just have total legal or even physical control over that person. It is important to also have psychological power and this is done by destroying their sense of dignity and self-worth. The British imperialists understood this well and never missed an opportunity to rub their ‘superiority’ in to their ‘inferiors,’ whether it was the people of their colonies or the working classes at home. People who have little or no dignity or sense of personal self-worth are defeated right from the start and thus easy to control.

This is why developing pride in oneself and dignity-building are usually an important part of getting any group to rise up and organize to improve themselves

The petty practices that arose from such an approach seem bizarre now, and thankfully most of us have not encountered such behavior. But it is sobering to realize that the worst such features were commonplace just fifty years ago and subtle forms still exist.

Next: So what is cricket all about anyway?