Wine, women and song

On the Corinthian Spirit: the decline of amateurism in sport

D J Taylor <em>Yellow Jersey Press, 1

Alexander Colin David Ingleby-Mackenzie, known as Colin, or more often Ingleby, died earlier this year aged 72. He will be much missed, not least because he was probably the most charming man in England. However, he will be best remembered as the captain of the Hampshire cricket team that won the County Championship for the first time in 1961.

Hampshire not merely won: they did so with a sense of style and fun that remains embedded in the game's mythology. Asked if the team's success was based on wine, women and song, Ingleby supposedly replied that they had rotten voices and he never let them sing. Told by an official that the men should be in bed by 11, Ingleby said that was bloody silly because the match started at half past.

He was an Etonian and thus what was known in those days as an "amateur" or "gentleman", as opposed to a "professional" or "player". The gentlemen had separate dressing rooms, almost always provided the captain, and were called Mr, both in the scorebooks and by the professionals. For obscure reasons, the amateurs' initials came before their names, and the professionals' after. This accounts for the infamous incident at Lord's in the 1950s when Fred Titmus came out to bat and the announcer felt obliged to correct a scorecard error: "Delete F J Titmus; insert Titmus F J."

This being England, the system wasn't just mad - it was hypocritical. Naturally, most of the amateurs were paid, but by devious means: the sinecure of "assistant secretary" was often invoked to get round the rules. But Ingleby represented a final hurrah. In 1963, only 18 months after Hampshire's triumph, the system was swept away and all English cricketers began being paid openly, though not a lot.

That was also the year when Alec Douglas-Home became prime minister. As D J Taylor notes in his thoughtful, elegant and altogether delightful little book, this marked the final gasp of the amateur tradition in British politics, as Sir Alec (Eton and MCC) was defeated in 1964 by the very professional Harold Wilson, and then replaced as party leader by the first Conservative pro, Ted Heath. Taylor does, however, miss a trick here in failing to note just how close Douglas-Home came to winning. In the 1966 general election, Heath was mashed.

This seems appropriate, because the world that has gone was not wholly ridiculous. Taylor's account of it has an elegiac tone - a sense that something worthwhile and irreplaceable has been lost. The old-fashioned boys' stories that provided the sacred texts of the Corinthian cult certainly read absurdly. ("You'll have to go off, old man, I'm afraid," says a team- mate to Taylor's favourite, Strickland of the Sixth, when he is injured scoring an equaliser. "Not likely! Not while I can stand on one leg, anyhow.") But the lessons the books taught - about courage, sportsmanship, comradeship and decency - are not laughable.

In Victorian times, Taylor points out, the word "amateur" did not have its modern connotation of incompetence. And professional did not mean adept. Public-school teams dominated the first decade of the FA Cup, until the mid-1880s. Corinthians Football Club, the embodiment of the amateur spirit, abhorred dull play, dishonest play and pot-hunting - but continued to beat top professional sides into the 20th century.

They had advantages, and not just of breeding: the toffs were taller and stronger than their working-class counterparts. The difference diminished as the century wore on, and the Corinthians' influence declined with it. But one can't help feeling that football would be a better game, and not just a more wholesome one, if a teaspoonful of Corinthian values remained to sweeten the cynicism.

In other sports, the change came much later. Rugby Union's amateurism did not finally wither until the 1990s. And in cricket, people sometimes still argue for a return to the old days. A player like Ingleby, the theory goes, could biff the ball and entertain the crowd without worrying about his average or his contract for next season. It's certainly true that the mechanical dullness of modern county cricket is partly responsible for its marginalisation.

And is Britain any better governed now that MPs are all "professionals"? Don't we wish there were more backbenchers capable of shrugging off their consti-tuency surgeries and dreams of advancement to give them time to consider legislation and a willingness to tell the whips to get stuffed? Wouldn't that actually make them more like professional legislators and less like amateur social workers?

These are tricky concepts. And amateur and professional are not the only words to have changed meaning. My edition of Brewer's says "the loose living in Corinth was proverbial both in Greece and Rome" and defines a Corinthian as "a licentious libertine". That would make Ingleby chuckle.

The 2006 edition of Wisden, edited by Matthew Engel, has just been published

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Wealth and terror