The past decade has seen the development of professional players’ associations, an equivalent of a union, to represent the views of the cricketers in discussions with the various bodies that administer the game. The late 1990s saw a few threats of strike action, but nothing ever eventuated. However, striking because of concerns about conditions or payment is nothing new. In 1896, a number of English professionals refused to play a test match against Australia as a result of anger regarding payments made to W.G. Grace – an amateur.
The 1896 Ashes between England and Australia was set down for three tests, and leading into the final game, the series was tied at one all. This followed on from the amazing 1894/95 series in Australia that had produced a number of close results, and amazing comebacks. The final and deciding match therefore setup to be a great game, and was to be played at The Oval in Surrey. However, five professionals who were named in the side, refused to play unless their match fees were doubled. The reasons behind this demand were more complicated than a simple pay increase.
W.G. Grace was, almost without argument, the most well known figure in England at the time. His fame and performances were already legendary throughout the cricketing world, surprising for a player who had yet to retire. He was also an amateur, and supposedly did not receive payment for playing the game. This was clearly untrue; whilst his profession was as a medical doctor, Grace gained most of his income from cricket. In 1895, Grace had an amazing summer, becoming the first player to score 100 first class centuries, and also to score 1,000 runs in the month of May. He finished the 1895 season with 2,346 runs at an astounding average of 51, which is even more remarkable as he had turned 47 years old in July. The Daily Telegraph newspaper was suitably impressed by this achievement, and organised a testimonial to celebrate the feat. It ran articles encouraging readers to donate one shilling each to the appeal. As the testimonial gained momentum, the MCC joined in, along with Grace’s home county of Gloucestershire. Grace was the eventual beneficiary of a figure of 9, 073 pounds. Translated into today’s money, it is estimated that this would equate to a payment of around a quarter of a million pounds.
Not everyone was stoked about this. It is fair to say that the professional players of the time were fairly miffed that an amateur player could take a payment of such magnitude without any qualms, whilst they were left slaving away for significantly lesser amounts. What added to the professional players’ disquiet was the fact that whilst they received a payment of ten pounds per test match, they discovered that Grace was actually paid more than that to appear. The resentment started to bubble up, but the professional players took no action until they saw an opportunity to make a statement. And this opportunity arrived in the final test of the 1896 Ashes with the series tied.
In the days leading up to the Oval test, five of the professionals in the team announced publicly that they would not pay unless their match fee was doubled to twenty pounds. In addition, they advised the newspapers of the day that the main reason for their discontent was the double standards associated with the amateur Grace receiving match payments disguised as ‘expenses’. The five professionals, Billy Gunn, George Lohmann, Tom Richardson, Tom Haywood and Bobby Abel, had their bluff called by the Surrey Cricket Club, who hosted the game at the Oval. Surrey refused to pay the additional amounts, and Haywood, Abel and Richardson then backed down on their original demands and agreed to play. However, Gunn and Lohmann both stood by their convictions and declined the invitation to represent England. England went on to win the game in spite of their absence, benefiting from a rain affected pitch that saw Australia dismissed for just 44 in their second innings.
This incident caused a significant divide between the amateur Grace and the professionals. Grace was evidently livid that he had been targeted by them, and argued that he had supported the professionals by appearing free of charge in their own testimonial games. The professionals were still unhappy that the governing bodies appeared to simply cave into Grace’s demands; his presence as the largest figure in cricket allowed him to dictate his own terms. Lohmann never again represented England. His bowling statistics remain to this day the most impressive of any player who has taken over 100 test wickets. Lohmann’s bowling average of just over 10, combined with a strike rate of 34, is astounding even by the standards of the day. The divide and lingering resentment between the professional and amateur player continued for many more decades in England, until the separation was finally abolished at the end of the 1962 season.