June 25, 2021
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Clarke's Class Act And The Birth Of The Urn

Tracing the history of the Ashes -- the first this millennium and the first time when it begins in July instead of the traditional first week June start -- to its working class origins

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Clarke's Class Act And The Birth Of The Urn
The Australian team which won the first ever Ashes contest in 1882
Clarke's Class Act And The Birth Of The Urn

In England, in the June of every fourth year, when the Ashes come calling, shadows of class hegemony are spread out over the fields of history. Shadows which are longer than "the long shadows on county cricket grounds" that find mention in former Prime Minister John Major's definition of his country! ('There will always be an England of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.")

In year 2001, even as the millennium's first Ashes are about to get underway, it was evident to this writer in the course of an engrossing discussion with two fellow researchers at University of Warwick that cricket badly needed a paradigm shift in the land of its birth. To reclaim the space cricket has lost decisively to football among the white working class and the young, the game needed to be redefined in working class terms.

Coming back to my discussion, one of my friends was English and the other was Australian and both were ardent cricket fans and belonging to the political left.

"Just as our colonial governors, rulers and army officers taught you the game in the early 19th century, your amazing team might teach us the game afresh in the early years of the 21st century", my English pal told my Australian mate.

"It is surprising," the Australian responded reflectively, "that right through the last two centuries we played our cricket hard and tough though you guys taught us all that crap about how playing the game was more important than the result you get from it."

The Upper-Class Discourse 

As someone occupying 'neutral' ground when it comes to the Ashes, and more importantly by virtue of being a researcher in sport, I was asked to intervene in the discussion. "I don't blame you guys for the upper class discourse you operate in," I said.

"It has been drilled into you by the agents of mainstream cricket history-the media, the administrators, the secretaries of the amateur clubs, the teachers in the public schools and grammar schools and the father in the family.

"That the Australians have always played tough is no surprise because it wasn't the colonial upper class at all who taught them the game but the English working class, the professionals."

Quite relishing the political import of my intervention -- an Indian administering a subversive cricket history to an Englishman and an Australian -- I continued, "If the English working class were the first teachers, the first learners were not white Australians but the aborigines. 

"Cricket's best known historians, H.S. Altham and E.W. Swanton, maintain a silence on the first Australian team ever to visit England in 1868, a team of Australian aborigines coached by a English professional."

The gaping faces of my friends said it all.

William Clarke and the Working-Class Origins

So effective has mainstream historiography been that even ardent cricket fans have not heard much about the coup staged in 1846 by Nottinghamshire working class professional William Clarke.

And the very few who have heard or read about the event have had access to it through narratives which have divested the event of its political significance. The beginning of the whole of cricket's working class struggles and aspirations over the last two centuries and even the whole of international cricket can be traced to this event.

Clarke's class act set in motion a series of remarkable developments. The Cricketers' Fund Friendly Society was formed in the 1850s. In the early 1840s, Clarke himself introduced the practice of benefit matches for professionals.

The instances of fixed matches reduced dramatically from the late 1840s and stopped completely by the early 1860s. The late 1850s witnessed the first overseas cricket tour and in the 1860s and 1870s Australia made rapid strides as a cricketing nation.

William Clarke and his 1846 All England Eleven. Clarke is seventh and George Parr, who take over from him as captain, second from left

On August 31, 1846, cricket witnessed its first ever revolution when Clarke led his team of eight fellow professionals and two amateurs to the field against a team of twenty-two from Sheffield.

Clarke's team, the All England Eleven, lost the match. But, he used the occasion to declare that professionals would organise their own fixtures independent of the matches organised by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and the county clubs, which together employed all the nine professionals of the All England Eleven.

Clarke's declaration sent shivers down the spines of the members of the landed gentry, who then dominated the MCC and the county clubs though the urban industrialists, the commercial classes and the professional classes -- class formations engendered by the industrial revolution -- had just begun to make inroads into the power structure of the clubs.

The gentry had plenty of reasons to feel threatened.

Clarke, who was born to a Nottinghamshire bricklayer in 1798 and who climbed the class ladder in 1837 by marrying a rich widow who owned the famous Trent Bridge Inn, had not just succeeded in rallying together nine of the best working class professionals in England but had also enlisted the great amateur batsman Alfred Mynn in his coup.

Clarke's team played two more matches that year -- they defeated the 18 of Manchester and the 18 of Yorkshire in September.

In the next five years, the All England Eleven, of which Clarke was both captain and secretary, took cricket to the masses.

In 1848, the Eleven made their debut in Derby, Bradford, Walsall, Coventry, Sunderland, Darlington, Chelmsford and Southampton to add to their debuts in 1847 at Liverpool, Leeds, York, Stockton, Birmingham, and Newcastle.

In the summer of 1851, the Eleven played 34 games and for the next twenty years they rarely played less than 35 matches a season. Cricket turned a working class game, with the masses flocking to watch the Eleven in action and also mobbing them when they travelled from one place to another.

The popularity of the Eleven is illustrated from the statement of George Parr of Nottinghamshire, who took over as captain and secretary of the Eleven when Clarke died in 1856, that the team would have had to play three times the number of fixtures to meet the demand.

William Caffyn, the fiery fast bowler who made his debut for the Eleven in 1850, echoes Parr's statement in his autobiography Seventy-one Not Out. Caffyn writes that Clarke was "overwhelmed with letters requesting him to take his team to almost every corner of the United Kingdom".

In fact, the matches between the All England Eleven and its great professional rivals, the United England Eleven -- which was formed as a splinter group in 1852 when a few professionals led by Surrey's John Wisden, who were on the peripheries of the All England Eleven, broke away from Clarke's Eleven -- were called "the most keenly fought matches in the history of the game" by Reverend Holmes in his 1892 book, Cricket.

The matches, which started in 1857 after Clarke's death and continued till the late 1860s, drew a working class crowd of 20,000 over three days in its first year and during the time these contests drew to a close they attracted a crowd of 10,000 over three days.

Ironically, the most famous tribute to the All England Eleven came from the great amateur batsman Dr W.G. Grace, who was quite a willing instrument in the hands of the conservative establishment in re-establishing cricket as an upper class game by the 1870s.

In his autobiography, Cricket, Grace unequivocally states that prior to the establishment of the Eleven a strong professional cricket culture was confined to a few counties. Grace, whose parents were well known to Clarke, writes that the establishment of the Eleven ensured that the catchment area for professional cricketers widened from Cambridgeshire, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Yorkshire to other counties as well and that the social base of the game broadened all over the country.

The establishment of the Eleven was a powerful class statement, the first ever in the history of English cricket. But, it never took the form of class war because many professionals continued to be on the ground staff of the MCC and the county cricket clubs.

A few professionals were also employed as practice bowlers by the universities and public schools, which became a powerful institution in the late 1840s and introduced the amateur value systems which drove cricket till 1962, when the amateur and professional distinctions were abolished by the MCC.

The working class professionals illustrated that a source of monetary gain outside the wages they received from their upper class employers would result in more freedom not only in their alternative venture but also in their workplace.

If the employers, however, became too autocratic the professionals had no hesitation to give up their jobs because the All England Eleven fixtures always ensured a livelihood. In 1854, Clarke, a member of the ground staff at Lord's, got his name removed from the MCC payrolls. Clarke was piqued at the club's insistence that he along with three of his All-England Eleven team-mates should make themselves available for the Gentlemen versus Players match rather than play in a clashing All England Eleven fixture.

The gentrified elite in the club committees turned up in good numbers for the matches organised by the professionals. In The Doings of the Eleven, a work that chronicles the matches and movements of the Eleven, the author, a cricket journalist with a working class background of the time called Felix, states that all matches were watched by the gentry of the town and the local cricket club and their elegantly-dressed wives.

The Birth of International Cricket

If the International Cricket Council were to declare October 20 as the birthday of international cricket, they would not be far off the mark. For, it was on that day in 1861 that a team from England first set sail to Australia to play cricket. The team of English professionals, captained by H.H. Stephenson of the All England Eleven, was a second string outfit drawn from the peripheries of the All England Eleven and the United England Eleven.

Ten of the leading All England Eleven and United England Eleven professionals, including captains George Parr and John Wisden, had turned down the £150 a man plus first class travel, lodging and other expenses tour offer of sponsors Spiers and Pond, proprietors of a Melbourne café. The contention of the professionals was that Spiers and Pond had underpriced their skills.

Incidentally, Spiers and Pond started negotiating with the professionals only after their proposal to sponsor a tour of Australia by Charles Dickens, that master chronicler of Victorian working class life, was rejected by the great novelist.

Despite the squad being a second string one, the tour was a greater success than the first ever international tour in 1859 to the United States and Canada by a full-strength English professional team comprising the leading All England and United England players and captained by Parr.

William Caffyn, who was on the first tour party to Australia, records in Seventy-one Not Out that 4,000 Australians swarmed around the players when they docked at Melbourne on Christmas Eve and 15,000 people watched their first game in Melbourne.

Caffyn, who moved from All England Eleven to United England Eleven in 1854, was part of the second professional team to tour Australia and New Zealand two years later. The 1863 tour was organised by the Melbourne Cricket Club under the initiative of George Marshall, a Nottinghamshire professional who had emigrated to Australia in 1854 and who was employed by the Melbourne Cricket Club as a professional bowler.

Marshall negotiated with his old Nottinghamshire and All England Eleven pal, George Parr, and as a result a full-strength professional team comprising the best players of the All England Eleven and United England Eleven and one amateur, Dr E.M. Grace, elder brother of W.G., set sail in April. The tour was an even bigger success with crowds in excess of 25,000 watching the team's matches in Sydney and Melbourne.

The most important result of the tour was that Caffyn decided to stay back in Melbourne and coach the emerging working class talent in Australia. Caffyn was merely following in the footsteps of Charles Lawrence, the professional in the 1861 tour party, who decided to stay back in Sydney at the end of the tour. Caffyn initially coached at the Melbourne Cricket Club and later moved to Sydney where he was with the Warwick Club.

The coaching of Caffyn and Lawrence and the two professional tours are responsible for the working class cricket explosion in Australia. In a matter of just 15 years Australia were able to defeat England by 45 runs in the first ever Test match between the two countries in Melbourne in 1877, a result which was duplicated, margin et al, in the Centenary Test at the MCG in 1977!

The result at Melbourne was not a freak one. In 1878, the first official Australian team that toured England defeated a strong MCC side that included W.G. Grace. In 1882, in the first ever contest between the two countries for the mythical Ashes, the Australians, inspired by the fast bowling of pace twins Frederick 'Demon' Spofforth and Harry Boyle, defeated England by 7 runs at the Oval. The English professional fast bowler George Tarrant, who was part of Parr's tour party, inspired Spofforth and Boyle in their early careers. Caffyn coached Charles Bannerman, who scored a century in the first ever Test between the two countries in 1877.

The Australian tours of 1878 and 1880, when it played its first Test in England and lost to Lord Harris's England team at The Oval, caused unrest among the English professionals. Led by Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, five Nottinghamshire players revolted against the Nottinghamshire county committee, asking for a better deal.

Shaw, who dropped out of W.G. Grace's amateur-dominated team that toured Australia in 1873 protesting against second class travel facilities given to the professionals and who along with Shrewsbury organised three professional tours to Australia in the 1880s, functioned as the spokesperson for the professionals.

Shaw and his fellow players sought a formal contract of employment guaranteeing an automatic benefit for the professionals after completion of a stipulated number of years in the county. They also demanded the right to organise their own matches. Shaw, who was an ardent admirer of William Clarke, stated that the financial conditions under which the Australians had played in England in 1878 and 1880 were inconsistent with the value placed on the services of the English professionals whose cricket was of a better quality than that of the Australians.

The Cricketing Annual of James Lillywhite wrote in 1882 that the Nottinghamshire professionals believed that their demands would be met just as those of the Australian managers made on behalf of their players had found favour with the English county clubs. The Nottinghamshire committee, however, banned Shaw and Shrewsbury for the season though they were lenient with the three other players.

Ironically, the Cricketing Annual version of the 1881 professional revolt would have given the Australian working class players plenty to laugh about. For, the 1880 team captained by Billy Murdoch had found itself without any competitive matches when they landed in England and they had to go to the extent of advertising in the newspapers that they needed a match!

It needed the best efforts of W.G. Grace and Surrey secretary Charles Alcock to convince Lord Harris, then the potentate of cricket and the MCC as well as the England captain, that the Australians were 'civilised opponents'. Only the previous year, Lord Harris's team, which was touring Australia, was caught in the middle of a rioting crowd in Sydney.

If Lord Harris, in 1880, was prejudiced against the Australian tourists on grounds that they were 'uncivilised', many in England thought similarly about the first cricket tourists from Down Under who came a full decade before the first official Australian team to England defeated the MCC in 1878.

In 1868, the Aboriginal Blacks of Australia, coached by Lawrence and Tom Willis, an Australian who was the pupil of Sir Thomas Arnold in Rugby Public School, toured England and performed creditably too, avoiding defeat in all but 14 of the 47 matches they had to play in 120 days. They won as many matches as they lost, all against cricketers who were much more experienced than them.

Wisden documented the all-round skills of aboriginal cricketers Mullagh and Cuzens. But, the Australian media ignored the tour and the English media treated it more as a cavalier event than as a cricket tour. Conservative cricket histories, such as Sir Pelham Warner's Lord's, a history of the MCC and the matches played at Lord's, mention the aboriginal tour, but in a patronising and exotic manner.

Warner, whose father was part of the colonial administration in Trinidad, writes only about the boomerang hurling and spear throwing skills that the aboriginal players displayed during lunch intervals! Interestingly, Warner's liberal credentials are well documented by mainstream cricket history! He is known as the person who opposed the racist selection policies prevalent in Barbados and Demerara (now Guyana) in the first decade of the twentieth century and for being the conscientious manager of the 1932 Bodyline tour when he didn't approve of captain Douglas Jardine's Leg Theory.

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