All Random Readers know that I adore cricket. It was not always so. I used to find it dreary and boring and tedious, but that was before I saw the light and now I shriek in horror if anybody uses those words to describe this wonderful game.
I used to work at Camden Libraries many moons ago and we had a chap there who was a cricket fanatic. He was also bone idle and used to drive me mad particularly when the Test Matches were on as he would sit in his office pretending to be busy when, in reality, he was listening to Test Match Special. As we worked for local government hardly anybody got sacked for not doing their job properly, if you wanted to get rid of somebody they were usually promoted elsewhere. I am pretty sure nothing has changed. We just had to grin and bear it and then one day I was working with him and found that I was tuning in subliminally to his radio and I began to ask him what was so special about the game. Well, his eyes lit up and his bored demeanour changed immediately as he started to explain to me why he loved it so.
That was the beginning really and a few months later I was staying with friends in Nottingham and was taken to a one day match by my host who was a member of Nottingham CC. Enormous fun and then later on in the summer he and I were pinned indoors by appalling hay fever and a Test Match was on and Bill explained in minute detail the field settings, the different kind of bowling, the tactics etc and over a period of three days I fell in love with cricket and my love has deepened over the years.
Cricket at the Crossroads by Guy Fraser-Sampson covers ten years in the game when three major crises occurred. The Close Affair in 1967 when Brian Close was relieved of hte England captaincy in controversial circumstances, the D'Olivera affair saw his place in a touring team to South Africa cause a major incident and the birth of the World Series when Kerry Packer arrived and changed the face of cricket for ever.
I followed all these incidents in the papers though this was prior to my conversion and so I must have been more interested than I realised at the time. What I had not realised until reading htis book was just how much the Gentlemen and Amateur status of players entrenched even in the 1960s, I somehow had the feeling that this had disappeared years before. Somebody like Brian Close, a blunt Yorkshireman, who became England captain was regarded as 'not one of us', he was from the North, he was working class.
"it is difficult for a modern reader to appreciate just how tangible and significant was the distinction between the amateur and professional cricketer, or as it was often expressed, gentleman and players. On many county grounds the professionals were not allowed to share the same dressing room (or even pavilion) with the amateurs. They were all expected to call the amateurs 'sir' and refer to them as 'mister'...........the difference had been even more pronounced on tour when the amateurs had travelled in separate cars and stayed in swanky hotels, dressing for dinner, while the professionals had to put up in boarding houses"
Almost impossible to believe now but that was the way it was.
I found this book totally fascinating. My vague knowledge of the three incidents mentioned above has now been expanded by the meticulous narrative and outlines filled in so now I understand what happened. The D'Olivera affair was particularly distressing and, in the end, led to South Africa being banned from participating in International Cricket for years.
One thing that struck me when reading this excellent book was the dithering and faffing about of the selectors. Why is it that this always seems to be a feature of those in charge of selecting the team? Some of them come across as weak, spineless and self-interested and so lacking in authority and interest in the game that you wonder how they got the job. The answer is, of course, that most of them were 'Gentlemen'.
This is not a dry, dusty read. We are given the social and political landscape prevailing at the time and then we are given detailed breakdowns of England's tours in the West Indies, the Ashes, Pakistan and India. Many of the names in these teams are familiar to me though I never saw them play at that time as my interest in cricket was very much in its infancy, but it is fascinating to read with hindsight and my current knowledge of the game and even non-cricket lovers or those not totally involved in the game, would enjoy Cricket at the Crossroads.
While pondering on the Gentleman and Player attitude I could not help but think of the current Test Match Special team which I listened to day in day out this summer. On one side we have Henry Blofeld ('Blowers') with an upper class, rich fruity tone of voice and on the other we have Phil Tufnell, Essex boy, both of whom are great commentators and great fun. Lovely to hear Blowers greet Phil each day with 'Tuffers dear old thing, how are you?' and to hear Phil reply 'I'm ok Blowers old mate, how are you?' Listening to this double act was sheer delight and the real affection between the two came across to the listener.
Seems the old cricketing barriers are now all gone and about time too.