Hampshire’s moves for Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw mark a new chapter in the eternal tug-of-war over cricketers’ labour. At least no one got kidnapped this time
From Midwinter to today’s money-men
News the England and Wales Cricket Board is planning to tighten regulations to prevent county sides becoming flooded with Kolpak imports marks the start of another skirmish in the never-ending battle between domestic cricket’s governing body, the counties and the international sides the latter would like to plunder.
The words of Haroon Lorgat, chief executive of Cricket South Africa, when Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw announced their moves to Hampshire in January were particularly striking. “We invest huge sums of money in every individual,” he said, “and if you take Rilee, by way of example, in the last I don’t know how many months we’ve been treating his injuries, we’ve been investing in him. Sadly there’s no return for us in the years to come.”
Rossouw’s situation has also been angrily addressed by one prominent English cricket official. “It is a great pity that monetary considerations should be put forward to take [him] away from his country and from international cricket,” he said. “My sympathies are entirely with South Africa. To say the least, a player under such circumstances can only have a very doubtful welcome to English cricket, and I question whether he should be permitted to participate in it – in spite of previous precedents – when obviously it is his duty to be loyal to his own country and those who have done so much for him.”
The English official who said those words was Lord Hawke, and give or take a few weeks it is precisely 90 years since he said them. The quote has been changed only by the substitution of Rossouw’s homeland for Australia, for Hawke was talking about Bill Ponsford, who in early 1927 had agreed to turn his back on Australia in order to make a more lucrative move to Blackpool, a spell in the Ribblesdale League and a presumed long-term future with Lancashire (he was eventually convinced to stay at home after considerable local fundraising).
But this is a skirmish that started long before that. It is after all exactly 140 years since Billy Midwinter, a Test cricketer for Australia but born in Gloucestershire before moving in early childhood, arrived to play for that county in a team that included the three Graces, GF, EM and WG. And exactly 139 years since his county captain prevented him resuming his international career by kidnapping him from the Lord’s dressing room, where he was preparing to open the batting against Middlesex, and ferrying him to the Oval for the start of a game against Surrey.
This has become one of the most famous tales of WG’s outrageous behaviour. The Sporting World in London printed a fairly comprehensive description of events. “Midwinter, as usual, was about to take his place at the wickets to do battle for the colonies, when, lo, appears Mr WG Grace on the scene, and demands that Midwinter shall forthwith proceed with him to the Oval and do battle for Gloucestershire against Surrey.
“At this arose great consternation in the colonial ranks, to whom Midwinter has during his sojourn among us been a very tower of strength. They pleaded Midwinter’s engagement to them; Mr Grace pleaded Midwinter’s engagement to his native county, and finally Mr Grace prevailed; the huge subject of debate was borne off in a cab, and the colonials had to do as well as they could without him, which, by the way, seems to have been pretty well. The unfortunate part of it is that the dispute has bred bad blood between Mr Grace and our visitors, and the latter, I hear, vow they will play in no match again in this country in which Mr Grace has part. The great man seems to have lost his temper, and used language to our guests more pagan than parliamentary.”
One member of the Australia side allowed the letters he sent home to his family that summer to be published in the Freeman’s Journal, after they were suitably redacted to maintain his anonymity (though David Gregory, the captain, seems the likely author). Amid entertaining talk of the player’s bad form (“Our batting is all to pieces. I cannot bat a little, can’t even get a run off wretched bad bowling. I believe that it is the tea-total business that’s knocked all the batting out of me”) and England’s bad climate (“It is always raining in this country. The climate is damnable: one day as hot as an Australian midsummer, next day as miserable as a wet day in July in Australia. In this kind of weather we are bound to suffer”) came his story of the kidnap.
“Grace, who with others had backed Middlesex to lick us, came up to Lord’s, and Midwinter went off with him, notwithstanding his agreement with us. Midwinter was getting £20 per week from us and expenses. We have done with him. As he intends to go to Australia soon he will not be received, I fancy, in a very enthusiastic manner. We have refused to meet big Grace on account of his boorish insulting language to Conway, Boyle and myself.” On which subject another account asserted that “Grace does not seem to be one whit less the boor now than he was when in these colonies”.
A decade later the Guardian lamented that “most of cricket’s griefs arise from importation”, reeling as we then were from “the news that more Australian cricketers are on the high seas en route for England”, that “another Indian prince – a splendid cricketer” was Sussex-bound and “a whisper that Bert Vogler is not satisfied with his lot in the Transvaal and that another season or two may see him playing for an English county”.
That report was published in March 1908, a month after a meeting of the advisory committee of the MCC saw the counties “virtually gave their bonds that no more colonials were to be qualified”, a promise they kept to for all of a fortnight. “Those who are very jealous of the honour and genuineness of county cricket are its best friends, and these best friends want a stop put to importation of every description,” we wrote in February. The most controversial individual of that time was Frank Tarrant, an Australian who had moved to England and joined the Lord’s ground staff in 1903, eventually representing Middlesex with distinction. After the 1907 season he returned to his homeland where he spent the English winter playing for Australia against, among others, the MCC. “It was ludicrous that a member of the Middlesex XI should go to Australia and play against the side sent out by his employers,” we raged. “It was not cricket.”
It must already have felt like a tired debate when the Guardian’s revered cricket correspondent Neville Cardus, inspired by Lord Hawke, asserted in 1927 that “every lover of the game shares an abhorrence of importations” and praised “the great stream of Yorkshire cricket, pure and undefiled”.
“International cricket will be hurt severely if the Australian game cannot hold firmly to its resources,” Cardus continued. “But we must be realists. Sentiment is excellent in its place, but cuts little ice in a world where economic values rule most of us. An Australian cricketer has as much right to regard his skill as a commodity as the next bricklayer, candlestick-maker or violinist. Though none of us relish talk in cricket about the labourer and his hire, it is difficult to see how we can shut our ears to it.”
In another article the Guardian wrote that “this filching or tempting of Australia’s Test Match men, players of great skill, is something that we, who call ourselves sportsmen, cannot condone. Such a desertion should be made impossible, and the inclusion of any cricketer from overseas in a county team should be rendered much more difficult than it is.”
And here we are, 90 years on, with the counties still filching and the ECB once again attempting to render it much more difficult than it is. The battle continues, and ever will.
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