Whilst cricketers have always been poorly remunerated in comparison to other sportsmen, primarily footballers, they have been rewarded well compared to other employees.
Skilled workers were earning £2 a week against the £250 plus expenses paid to the 1863-64 tourists to Australia. An impressive figure, maybe, but considered alongside a £7000 profit for the hosts and a reduction to £150 plus £20 expenses ten years later.
These sums are for top professionals who were invited to tour overseas for the winter. For most cricketers there was no winter pay, no winter work and a wage without an expense account. Dudley Baxter’s survey of national income, published in 1867, allocated a lower middle-class family an income of between £100 and £300. Very few professional cricketers had an income that warranted inclusion in this social rank.
Playing cricket, though, avoided the harsh realities of industrial life.
However, it did not mean an escape from poverty’s shadow. John Jackson, whose first-class career spanned 12 years, was one of the fastest bowlers in England in the 1860s died in the Liverpool Workhouse.
William McIntyre, the Lancashire bowler who headed the first class averages in 1872, 1873 and 1876, died in the Prestwich Asylum, whilst his brother Michael who played for Notts, died in the Nottingham Workhouse.
Julius Ceasar’s last years were in destitute and he was found dead 11 years after retirement at the Railway Tavern in Godalming. Without a trade or provision for later life the retired professional was soon forgotten by his club.
Following the Second World War, a Surrey first eleven professional would have earned between £500 and £550 per annum, compared to male annual earnings in the manufacturing sector of £370.
Rewards were never commensurate with the monies being made from cricket. In 1953, for example, the profit from Australia’s tour to England was £130,000, from which only £6,000 was paid in fees and expenses. As a memento of the series the players were given a silver mug.
By the 1970's many cricketers had to make conscious decisions about whether they could afford to make a living out of playing sport. The average professional in 1977 earned no more than £2,500 for five months hard labour in the County Championship, to which Lancastrian David Lloyd commented, “You would be far better off staying down the mine.”
Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket led to a number of innovations that included the top players being paid better. The downside is a growing commercialism, though there are still no county cricketers who earn in a year the figures Cristiano Ronaldo and John Terry make in a week.
England’s elite cricketers now stand to make £500,000 each for a regular one-off contest against a West Indian side. Sport’s richest prize actually challenges conceptions of "sport."
The "international" contest will not be for national prestige but to enrich a number of individuals, leading Simon Barnes of The Times to compare it to reality TV.
Cricket as entertainment, rather than sport, plays into the hands of the huge corporations like those who back the Indian Premier League and exploit their position for self-promotion. Indian commentator Harsha Bhogle hopes “that cricket be slowly corporatised so that first all limited-overs cricket and in course of time, all cricket is run by franchises.”
One fears for the longer format of cricket in a corporatised world. The English Cricket Board is already looking to rejuvenate the county structure—again—to allow for more twenty overs cricket. Is this in the long-term interests of the sport or the short-term demands of the profiteers?
To some this is cricket in the post-modern era, shorn of its modernist tendencies such as local and international affiliations. Personally I’m reminded of Marx’s warning about capitalism in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
A few players stand to benefit from Allen Stanford’s millions but at a cost that further cedes power to business interests and threatens the format of the sport and hence its long-term stability.
Alongside a few winners there will be many more losers.