In the age of the Indian Premier League, it is hard to believe that the English distinction between gentlemen and players was abolished only in 1962. That is staggeringly recently. Bob Dylan released his first album in 1962. Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962. It is not even one full generation ago.
Before 1962 amateurs were not allowed to earn a living from cricket, professionals were second-class citizens, and one of the highlights of the cricket season was the Gentlemen v Players fixture at Lord's. English cricket, as David Kynaston notes in this superb exploratory study, was riven by "class apartheid".
The old divisions seem almost comic now. In a normal county match, the fielding side did not even walk on to the field together - the amateurs emerged from the pavilion, the pros from a side gate. Wally Hammond had to renounce professionalism to become England captain. Others who began as amateurs couldn't afford to remain so and exploited the system as "shamateurs", taking secret match fees without renouncing their amateur status.
The greatest of all shamateurs was W G Grace. In other words, one of the great heroes of the Victorian age sat right on the fault line of the English class system, living as one thing while pretending to be another. In W G's Birthday Party, reissued 20 years after it was first published, Kynaston uses the 1898 Gentlemen v Players match to tell a much broader tale of class and hypocrisy, establishments and Englishness.
Kynaston sometimes cannot resist taking sides. He points out that the Players beat the Gentlemen seven times between 1901 and 1914, "demonstrating again", he writes, “that fine cover drives do not always butter the parsnips".
How the wheel has turned. Cricketers today, whatever their class background, play for unprecedented riches. The pros have hit the jackpot. As the Duckworth Lewis Method put it on their whimsical Ashes album last year: "Always denied entry/By the English gentry,/Now they're driving Bentleys/Playing Twenty20." But it would be a grave mistake to think the amateur age was followed by a gradual ascent towards perfect meritocracy - either in cricket or in English society. There are still deep divisions; they simply fall along different lines.
The unexpected consequences of the pro-fessional-amateur divide have been deeply ironic. The two words have almost completely swapped meanings. Where amateur used to mean unsullied, it is now a synonym for sloppiness and disorganisation.
Professionalism once meant grubbily self-serving. Now everyone with a job is a "professional", as if by right, no matter how incompetent. Professionalism is a concept that has been endorsed to the point that it no longer means anything. We aspire to it without knowing what it is, a badge of honour that people never risk taking off. But does it make people any better at their job? Do ultra-professional teachers educate better, are ultra-professional businessmen more innovative, do ultra-professional sportsmen play any better?
I'm not so sure. Professional training regimes and resources have inevitably made today's sportsmen fitter and stronger. But the cult of professionalism has created huge problems - especially in Britain. As the last to cast off the amateur fetish, we now take perverse pleasure in harbouring a deep grudge against it. Anything that approaches amateur territory must be rejected on principle. Sadly, that includes joy, self-expression and individuality.
Consider the contrasting careers of the Englishman David Gower and the Australian Mark Waugh. Each batsman was blessed with glorious touch and finesse. Both played more than 100 Tests at an average of more than 40. But Gower increasingly found himself on the wrong side of the English professional zeitgeist. His languor was misinterpreted, almost deliberately, as diffidence. In contrast, Waugh faced less pressure to conform to a template. He languidly scored his runs, nonchalantly caught his catches, and amused himself by beating his team-mates at cards in the dressing room. It is a perfect summary of the English disease: Gower almost had to apologise for his grace and elegance; the Australian could just be himself.
Sadly, much that passes for professionalism is just time-serving dressed up as self-sacrifice, keeping up appearances masquerading as progress. In truth, amateurism, for all its silliness and hypocrisy, grasped a kernel of truth. Many sportsmen play at their best when the game is only part of their life. Obsessive monofocus might suit Geoffrey Boycott and Tiger Woods (or so we thought) - but it doesn't suit many other players.
This is a paradox that professional sport is unable to accommodate. It demands all or nothing. The result is an inevitable drain of talented people who cannot tolerate the strictures and boredom of the ultra-professional mantra and lifestyle.
The apartheid between gentlemen and players still casts a long shadow. In cricket, as in British life, the victory of the professionals was pyrrhic in the extreme.
W G's Birthday Party
Bloomsbury, 176pp, £9.99
Ed Smith played three Test matches for England. He is a leader writer at the Times