Cricket Mercenaries

Published: 1987
Pages: 162
Author: Lemmon, David
Publisher: Pavilion Books Ltd
Rating: 3 stars

Cricket Mercenaries

The use of the term ‘mercenaries’ in the book’s title hints at a somewhat negative bias on the part of the author against the influx of ‘foreigners’ in the British domestic cricket as do a few turns of phrase here and there in the book.

One such is when he quotes C.E Greene, a vociferous opponent of such imports, talking of preventing county cricket from “ever becoming merely a gate money business affair, which the engaging of outside ‘star’ players to strengthen a county side must ultimately cause it to be”. In the very next sentence, the author claims “Greene had vision” and “fought a balanced and visionary campaign” (on the subject matter).

I don’t have a problem with Lemmon possibly being against the ‘foreigners’ playing in England but more that he does not make a great case to support such a view. You can sense that he is with those who resented such a policy but can’t see the logic of it. If Lemmon has put that logic somewhere in the book, it is done in such an incoherent and fragmented way, I missed it completely.

Lemmon does, however, bring out the extent of resistance to such a policy and how firstly individuals and later county managements kept flouting the existing laws to bring us to where we are today. It is also clear that people formed their views based on whether their respective counties needed and were going in for the services of such ‘mercenaries’ or not.

What also stood out for me is the complete lack of reverence for test cricket amongst the early international cricketers. Clearly the international contests had not been raised to the iconic status they have acquired over time hence the complete disregard of the possible ramifications on their test careers of a move to England by the concerned players from ‘foreign’ lands. They just came for the money and what happened to their international careers was, apparently, of very little consequence.

The money may seem a pittance with the haze of time – a solitary pound for week games and three for those involving weekends but it was clearly an attractive enough sum and far more than what theywould have made back in Australia from where most came initially.

One also gets to understand the importance some professionals of the time gave to the leagues where the money was not bad, bonuses were linked to performance and longevity was considerable. No wonder some of the legends of the game preferred the apparently less-demanding environments of the leagues and giving much less importance to the first class game and in some cases even to international cricket.

Also some of the early cricket, particularly in the leagues, was played for private stakes which were ‘princely’ sums if converted to today on purchasing power parity. Clearly the games ‘patrons’ were as divided then as they are today between those who are in it for ‘just the love of the game’ and those who stood to ‘benefit financially’.

Its fascinating to see how varied (not always consistent or logical) were the arguments given against the ‘importation’ of foreigners by the different opponents of the practice. Here are some samples:

1. Professionals versus Amateurs – Initially the opposition was only towards ‘professionals’ who deprived ‘home-bred’ cricketers of their livelihood while amateurs were accepted as ‘gentlemen pursuing their sporting interests amongst other gentlemen.’ I laughed as I read this but I am sure it wasn’t a laughing matter once.

2. Country of Birth – ‘Bird of passage’ Ranji – considered unsuitable being an Indian by birth and better suited to lead a team of Indians to tour England in the future.

3. No allegiance to the ‘Empire’ – Albert Trott – because ‘he had no true allegiance to the county’ and who had ‘no more right to play for Middlesex at cricket than Stalin had to lead the Guards Brigade into action.’

4. Colour of Skin – Charles Olivierre – Bill Storer of Derbyshire had reservations playing alongside Caribbean ‘importation’ Charles Olivierre because of the colour of his skin.

5. Protecting the interests of the Greater British Empire – Ted McDonald whose inclusion was opposed on the grounds of protecting Australia’s interests who had ‘ only a limited number of players to draw on and there (was) such a thing as thinking Imperially’

6. Unfair Advantage and relations between counties – EHD Sewell proclaimed that it would be ‘detrimental to county cricket’ and ‘relations between county clubs’ if some of them resorted to the ‘unfair performance of buying of a ready made Test cricketer’ who was far superior to those playing in the county circuit.

7. Okay for poor counties but not for the rich ones – Sewell also argued that it would be understandable if a struggling poor county got a rich patron to finance their imports of foreigners but was reprehensible when the bigger richer counties did this!

The book itself is a tedious reading experience which is a first for me with a Lemmon book. Not surprising, however, since the others were anthologies! It does not hold your attention for long spells but has plenty of information about past eras and cricketers which made me go through it anyway.

There are many informative tit-bits as there would be in an account covering a period over a hundred years ago. For example, I wasn’t aware in 1896, the England ‘test’ teams were selected by the county at whose ground the match was to be played!

Probably the best part of the book is some beautiful sketches of the early imports. There are fairly exhaustive accounts for a book of this size of some legends of history which are not that easy to come by.

Albert Trott the mighty Australian hitter who was “full of drollery and too apt to take his batting lightly” and who, when it came to temptation, “resisted none” is one of these – as is the magnificent Aussie fast bowler, EA McDonald whose ‘skill and dreadful beautiful energy ennobles the game’ the spark of which ‘belongs to life immortal and ‘kindles imagination’s fires’.

For these sketches alone, if not for crystallising one’s opinion on the subject matter, the book was worth a read but I can understand if most of the modern followers of the game wanted to give it a skip.

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