England Cricket’s Class Divide Hit For Six

WG Grace, bearded, centre, leads the 'Gentlemen' in a match against the 'Players' at Lord's in 1899
WG Grace, bearded, centre, leads the 'Gentlemen' in a match against the 'Players' at Lord's in 1899

by Ray Setterfield


June 11, 1952 — Len Hutton became the first professional cricketer to captain England on this day – by coincidence, exactly a year after another legendary player, Dennis Compton, hit his 100th century.

Cricket, which was to develop as England’s national game, had been played in some form for centuries, the earliest contest being recorded at a school in 1550.

Over the decades and centuries its popularity grew, particularly among England’s expensive schools and universities. A game at the newly opened Lord’s in 1788 was listed as "Gentlemen Educated at Eton versus The Rest of the Schools”.

Opened a year earlier, the venue was originally known as Lord’s Old Ground and was intended to be a private club for “gentlemen”. Although it soon developed into Marleybone Cricket Club (MCC), membership was still restricted to “gentlemen” – however that was defined.

It was not only schoolboys and university students who developed a love for the game; so, too, did gamblers who saw an opportunity of betting other than in the usual horse-racing, cock-fighting or prizefighting fields. So much so that groups of gamblers helped in the formation of famous county cricket teams such as Surrey, Kent and Sussex.

The Duke of Richmond was the patron of Sussex and played sometimes as its captain. “Gentlemen” friends were invited to join in the fun, as they were at other clubs, so establishing the “amateur cricketer” tradition. Men who received a match fee to play were the “professionals” and were often looked down upon by their opponents.

Early players of the game include Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, lexicographer Dr Johnson, poet Lord Byron and writer Horace Walpole, who declared that at Eton College in the 1720s “playing cricket, as well as thrashing [River Thames] bargemen, was common.”

Nothing demonstrated the great class divide in English cricket more than the “Gentlemen v Players” fixture that began in 1806 and was to run until 1962. The Players came exclusively from the working class and needed payment to help them survive, usually in the form of match fees or wages paid by their county clubs. The Gentlemen were upper class, played the game just as a hobby and claimed only expenses.

Inevitably, the Players won most of the matches until the Gentlemen discovered Dr William Gilbert “WG” Grace who captained their team in the late 1880s and brought them unexpected and long overdue success.

Widely considered one of the game’s greatest-ever all-round players, WG played first-class cricket for 44 seasons, from 1865 to 1908. In that time he captained several teams including the Gentlemen and England. Clever and determined on and off the field, he is said to have made more money from cricket than any of the professionals.

Of the 274 Gentlemen v Players matches played between 1806 and 1962, the Players won 125 and the Gentlemen 68. There were 80 draws and one tie. In his book Ball of Fire, famous England fast bowler Fred Trueman wrote after the final game in 1962 that the “ludicrous business” of defining cricketers as Amateur or Professional had been “thankfully abolished”.

He spoke too soon. As England players gathered in Australia to prepare for the 1962-63 Ashes series, four days before the first Test was due to start at The Gabba, MCC issued a statement expressing “the wish to preserve in first-class cricket the leadership and general approach to the game traditionally associated with the Amateur player.”

It went on: “The Advisory County Cricket Committee has rejected any solution to the problem on the lines of abolishing the distinction between Amateur and Professional and regarding them all alike as ‘cricketers.’ They considered that the distinctive status of the amateur cricketer was not obsolete, was of great value to the game and should be preserved.”

But they were fighting a losing battle despite the views of Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s Lord Hawker who was on record as saying: “Pray God, no professional will ever captain England. I love and admire them all, but we have always had an amateur skipper and when the day comes when we shall have no more amateurs captaining England, it will be a thousand pities.”

The appointment of professional Len Hutton as England captain in 1952 was to sound the death-knell for such thinking. His arrival may have caused dark mutterings but in 1953 he regained the Ashes that the Aussies had held for 20 years. And he retained the trophy when he took his team to Australia in 1954-55.

When he was 14 years old in 1930 Hutton was taken to Leeds and sat in the stands at Headingley as Australia’s legendary Don Bradman scored 334 – the highest score ever in Test cricket. It was a record that would be broken three years later by England’s Wally Hammond who scored 336 against New Zealand at Auckland.

Then in 1938 at the Oval Hammond captained England while Bradman led Australia. And in the England side was 22-year-old Len Hutton who, to the amazement and delight of the crowd, looked like he might break the Test score record.

According to cricket writer Nishad Pai Vaidya: “As Hutton moved close to Bradman’s 334, the Australians tightened things. Bradman put men around the bat and he himself stood at silly mid-on.

“As Hutton was on 331, the pressure was intense and after every ball he exchanged looks with Bradman. Those were mind games of that era! Hutton waded through the nervousness and hit a four to move to 335 and eclipse Bradman’s score.”

He went on to make 364, beating not only Bradman but the world record set by his skipper, Hammond. There was no Barmy Army in those days but in honour of Hutton the restrained crowd chanted “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”.

Knighted in 1956 for his contributions to cricket, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack described Sir Len as one of the greatest batsmen in the history of the sport. He certainly played a significant role in ending cricket’s class divide, culminating in 2019 with England becoming world champions. And there was not a single amateur on the pitch.

Published: May 16, 2020

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