Sunday, January 9, 2011

Invitational XIs

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts.

The highest level of cricket in modern history for the most part has been dominated by contests that have called upon the patriotic instincts of both player and supporter. The highest aspirations of modern cricketers remain to represent state, province, or county on the way to national honours, and well they should. However, for lovers of the game, to restrict any analysis or knowledge of the games' history simply to geographical representative matches is to omit many great stories and in fact misunderstand the games' origins entirely.

My interest has been pricked to look into some of the various invitational teams throughout history with the upcoming Australian Prime Minister's XI tour match in the days following the completion of the Sydney test match. The history of this annual fixture we will look at below, but it stands among other matches that have been played throughout crickets history beyond representative sides.

Recently I was alerted to the origins of the Trent Bridge ground in Nottingham, home of Nottinghamshire county cricket club. The ground was founded by William Clarke in the 1830s who, at the time, was captain of a team of travelling professionals who partook in invitational cricket matches for profit. The ground was developed for twofold purposes: one, to give this team a home ground and secondly, to provide commerce to the adjacent 'Trent Bridge Inn' which at the time was run by Clarke's wife, and still exists today.

Early first class cricket in the 18th and 19th centuries was dominated by invitational teams. The idea and formation of geographic representative teams was a much later phenomenon that in many respects grew out of invitational teams such as Clarke's making the decision to create a home ground of their own.

Australian Prime Ministers XI

In October 2011 the 60th anniversary of the first of these invitational matches will pass by. The match has not always been an annual event on the cricketing calendar and likewise the format has changed over time as well. Its original incarnation was as a first-class match, however in later years became a limited over contest.

Modern times have the players invited for the PM's XI being an eclectic mix of young Australian first-class cricketers and retired Australian greats. In the 2010 match the captaincy of the team was given to the then recently retired Matthew Hayden. However in 2011 Australia's reserve wicketkeeper, and in some cricketing opinions the Australian captain elect over Michael Clarke, Tim Paine will lead a side full of potential World Cup tourists and young talent. This is the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard's first match in charge and she probably has elected as priority the bringing of calm to the Australian political scene and handed back the reigns to Hilditch and co..

Where opposition have been summoned from has changed also for the PM's XI over time. The original match was played against the touring West Indian test team but in the following years the Marylebone Cricket Club provided the opposition. Later in the fixture's history it has become more predominate for the touring international team that summer to line up against the PM's XI. For three years during the term of John Howard as Prime Minister the PM's XI competed against the now defunct Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission. Critics of Mr Howard's policy decisions may find a certain irony in such a match-up.

I do not profess to be a political commentator but I believe I am on to something when looking at the relationship between the attitude of the prevailing Prime Minister to this cricketing fixture and time in office. The match's 1951 creator Sir Robert Menzies, its 1984 resurrection leader Bob Hawke and abject cricket tragic John Howard are the three longest serving Prime Ministers in Australian history. One can easily imagine each of Sir Robert, Hawke and Howard locking themselves up in the 'Lodge' away from foreign policy advisors to make the all important decision as to who will bowl first change, rather than drafting a memorandum of understanding between Australia and the United States military.

Compare this to the attitudes of the only other two Prime Ministers to have prevailed over a match, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating. Despite summoning all of his ability as a Thespian, Mr Rudd I don't think could convince the Australian public that he really was a sport, let alone cricket, lover. Mr Keating clearly didn't care. Neither of them saw much time in the office of Prime Minister. The message to Ms Gillard is therefore, ignore this fixture at your peril.

The Gentlemen versus The Players

This annual fixture in the English first-class cricket calendar was a bastion of the aristocratic and class based society that existed within England until the mid 20th century. The 'Gentlemen' were selected from those first-class cricketers throughout England who were thought to be strictly amateur in their involvement in cricket, in reality the distinction of 'Gentlemen' was made on the basis of societies class structure and not just remuneration. The 'Players' were the professionals who accepted remuneration for playing cricket and therefore were considered lesser in the game.

Of course the ability of most of the Gentlemen to play cricket as amateurs generally came from immense personal and family wealth that made payments for playing cricket trivial in the least, and easily foregone. Professional cricketers on the other hand were not just required to play cricket, they were servants of the club and the amateur players and would assist or be responsible for tasks such as pitch preparation and cleaning out the dressing rooms. As well, they were not permitted to enter the club rooms of the amateurs.

The fixture occurred from the early part of the 19th century until 1962 when it was decided that first-class cricket would become fully professional and rendered the fixture useless. Fred Trueman, a regular in the ranks of 'The Players' in the matches final years and not afraid to speak his mind, was delighted when it was abolished.

Despite a clearly discriminatory basis for the match, it was one of the most fervently anticipated and contested matches on the first-class calender during its lifetime. The quality of the cricket played was said to have rivalled test match standard. For the record in the 274 matches played, 80 matches were drawn, one match tied, 68 won by The Gentlemen and 125 won by The Players. As someone who no doubt had a majority of ancestors in the lower rungs of society I take some pride in this record.

The Smokers versus The Non-Smokers

Quite how such a distinction was decided upon to create teams for a cricket match came about I have not been able to ascertain. This first-class fixture was only played twice, once at Lord's (1884) and once in East Melbourne (1887) (though not at the MCG), and included players of both Australian and English extraction. Potentially it was the only means by which the collective group of men could be divided outside of nationalities.

Given the overwhelming evidence and attitude toward smoking that is detrimental to health it is unlikely that in the 21st century or beyond such a concept will be revived. The anti-smoking campaigners will probably be pleased to hear that the first match concluded with a 9 wicket win to the Non-Smokers and the second match ended in a draw but with the Non-smokers again dominant throughout.

Modern Invitational Cricket Matches

With the advent of limited over followed by T20 cricket more recently there have been a number of matches organised along invitational lines. In the days prior to this summer's first Ashes test in Brisbane an All Star T20 match was held between a team selected by voting cricket fans and a team selected by the players (I think the cricket fans were afforded priority over a player selected by both parties).

Of recent there is also a more rebellious nature to invitational teams. The “Stanford Superstars” were a short lived T20 outfit that played a number of matches in October and November of 2008. The team was made up of West Indian cricketers trying to chase greater financial reward beyond what the WICB was willing to provide. Surprisingly Allen Stanford, a Texan billionaire, had a passion for the game of cricket and bankrolled the entire exercise. The concept was short-lived due to Mr Stanford's unique financial management techniques and his current residential status within the Texas criminal justice system.

Curiously Stanford is not the only wealthy American to have acted on a passion for the game of cricket. With his family wealth from oil, the late John Paul Getty was a confessed Anglophile who spent considerable sums of money within the game. This included building a replica of 'The Oval' on his property and inviting many international touring teams to play against his personally selected XI each year until his passing.

The final series of invitational cricket matches were not developed out of any desire for profit, or self interest but to help with raising funds and awareness for the plight of millions throughout Asia as a result of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Although the effect of this natural disaster was not limited to cricket playing nations, parts of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh were severely affected. There were a series of matches played across the world, but the kick-off was the amazingly, given time constraints, organised match, held at the MCG between and Asian XI and a World XI. Invited players and officials receiving no payment.

There have been many incarnations of World XI cricket teams as well as other invitational teams throughout the history of the game, but given the purpose of these contests in 2005 none can be said to have been successful as these organised for charitable purposes only. Hopefully more matches will be organised in the future that have only pure interests at their heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment