Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who died yesterday at the age of 67, worked as a cricket columnist for The Scotsman between 1987 and 1991. Here is his last column, published on 26 March 1991.
THE verge of a new season is a curious place from which to send what, by the rules of the journalistic game, must be, for the foreseeable future at least, a final despatch to The Scotsman. It has been a particular privilege to write for the genuine cricket enthusiast: it would be unrealistic, after all, to suppose that those who read about the game in this column are part of the Caledonian majority. If I have got anything right, it might be the fact that I have tried not to comment, let alone pontificate, on cricket in Scotland itself.
That I intend to break that rule at this last opportunity is partly because the new Wisden has just arrived – at a record price of £20, but worth every penny – and, with it, some pertinent musings on the subject of professionalism by the editor, Graeme Wright. His thoughts are pertinent to Scotland, only because there is so much current debate about whether there should be a national league north of the border. One’s initial feeling is that this would make sense mainly, perhaps indeed only, as part of a wider plan to raise the game’s profile with a view, eventually, to having a professional team: “doing a Durham” in other words.
If there were really the will to achieve this, there is no doubt it could be done. Scottish cricket has a solid enough base, and quite enough natural talent for a national team to do more than just hold its own against smaller regions further south, given regular contact with them. In the Benson and Hedges last year, Scotland beat Northamptonshire, nearly beat Nottinghamshire and scored more than 200 every time. This evident improvement would almost certainly be maintained if there were to be a national league in Scotland to which the best players would inevitably gravitate. It would mean, perhaps, a move of location for some ambitious players as the most powerful clubs began to dominate. This would be nothing new: after all, Scots with an eye on a professional career have always had to move south in the past.
Australians from the bush have always had the same problem. From Bradman to Geoff Marsh, who comes from a tiny West Australian farming community called Wandering, they have had to move to the nearest city to be taken seriously as a cricketer. Playing success, however, is not the only criterion. There has to be a widespread and genuine determination to achieve first-class status. At the heart of every decision towards that goal would be the financial viability of the whole project. Durham, representative of a much smaller area, have found this the hardest part of their promotion. They had to get both local councils and businesses on their side in a big way before they could seriously contemplate the complex task of building a suitable new central ground.
Recruitment of a worthy side, with an amalgam of locally produced players (aided by the major indoor cricket centre) and judiciously chosen outsiders will, in some ways, be the easy part. If the will is there, a similar success story in Scotland does not, from this distance, seem impossible. Although further expansion may seem unlikely at the moment, all sorts of changes may have to be made to the structure of first-class cricket in the UK over the next few years. Perhaps the formation of a Scottish national league would be a sensible next step, either towards producing a more regularly competitive national side for the occasional representative matches as at present, or towards a serious attempt to become the 19th “county”. If that were the chosen path, Scottish interest in the greatest of games could only be enhanced.
The question should be asked first, however, of what the goal actually is. There is much to be said for the present wholly amateur structure of cricket in Scotland. Professionalism for its own sake seems an ambition of doubtful worth. Indeed, the English-based system of full-time professionals is unique in the world, and one which some believe to be increasingly anachronistic. The part-time professional who also has another job in some respects gets the best deal. But players of this kind in Australia, just like the leading rugby union players, are finding that an international programme of ever-growing intensity is making it very hard to serve more than one master.
On the other hand, such hybrids have one great advantage over the full-time pro. They play to win, but they are still playing a game. It is not their sole means of livelihood; as a result, paradoxically, they tend to play harder and more effectively than the man for whom even a Test match may be just another day’s work. Even if Scotland does harbour ambitions to permanent first-class status, and I may be imagining them, the amateur who plays the game for fun must never be forgotten. Does he really want to travel miles for a fixture every weekend? The great majority of cricketers everywhere will always be men (or women) for whom the game is just a recreation, albeit a beautiful and beguiling one.
Business, or sport pure and simple, may cricket thrive within “fair Scotland’s strand”.