If you spot a reference to ‘furious bidding’ in the cricketing pages these days it’s a pretty safe bet we’re talking about the Indian Premier League.
Killjoys like me will grumble and grouse that the millions spent on players by the various franchises – not to mention Star India’s two-billion-pound broadcasting deal – would keep a fair few hospitals and schools going for a while.
But the tournament’s apologists will point out that those bankrolling it are unlikely to divert the cash splashed on Ben Stokes (a shade under £1.4 million) to KGH, just because this newspaper’s cricket columnist wishes it.
They’re right, of course.
But the phrase I used at the start emanated not from Rajasthan Royals HQ but from Wantage Road. And not last week, but half-a-century ago.
In 1968 the English domestic game bit the bullet and made it easier for counties to sign overseas players.
The new rule allowed one per club to be signed on an immediate registration – without having to qualify by residence – every three years.
The highest-profile arrival was Gary Sobers, who wrote his name in the record books with his six sixes in an over off Glamorgan’s Malcolm Nash on the final day of Nottinghamshire’s Championship visit to Swansea.
Other star attractions around the circuit included Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Rohan Kanhai, Majid Khan and Asif Iqbal.
And ‘attractions’ was the operative word according to Wisden.
‘For too long county cricket has been stifled by dour, safety-first methods,’ it proclaimed.
‘The overseas players by their enterprise and natural approach brought a breath of life into the three-day match.
‘The appearance of Sobers with Nottinghamshire brought out the crowds. At Derby the gate was £1,686, the best for a Championship match in Derbyshire’s history.
‘One of the special features about the cricket of all these overseas players was their keenness and ability in the field.’
So most seemed in agreement that these imports were – to borrow from 1066 And All That – ‘a good thing’.
But where did it leave less-well-off counties like Northamptonshire?
The previous July, secretary Ken Turner told the committee it would be ‘worth the effort’ to explore the possibility of bringing Sobers to Northampton – ‘but it would cost’.
Well, yes, it would – and Notts got there first.
Instead, Northamptonshire signed South African batsman Hylton Ackerman, who struggled for form in his first full English season and averaged just over 25 in the Championship without a century.
Characteristically, though, Turner was looking much further ahead.
At a committee meeting in July 1968 he stressed that ‘good players will have to be paid for with (that phrase) furious bidding between the counties’.
You can imagine the reaction of some of the club’s old guard, possibly still in mourning for the passing of the amateur a few years before.
But the Hon Treasurer, Brian Schanschieff, agreed to raise the ceiling for players’ remuneration to £20,000 – that’s the TOTAL wage bill, which had been just over £18,000 in 1968 – and promptly agreed to accept a £5,000 loss for the next couple of seasons, ‘if by doing so a winning side could be produced’.
In the meantime, the club set about trimming its costs by cutting the amount of Second XI cricket and pulling the Colts team out of the County League.
As usual in those days, the visit of the Australians to Wantage Road was anticipated keenly – not least for its money-making potential.
But the fixture in ’68 fell early in the tour – starting on May 22 – and the total gate receipts amounted to just £491, of which the tourists pocketed around £200.
It was all a bit one-sided too, which didn’t help. The Aussies won by ten wickets before lunch on the third day.
Colin Milburn led the way with 90, including 15 fours, as the County struggled to 203 all out.
But then Mike Kettle – the left-arm seamer from Stamford – reminded Bill Lawry’s men that they were in a proper cricket match.
He had opener Ian Redpath caught behind by Laurie Johnson with 14 on the board, and next ball skittled Paul Sheahan for a golden duck.
Skipper Roger Prideaux crowded new batsman Doug Walters for the hat-trick ball, which he survived, and the Australians totalled 375 – thanks largely to a century from Eric Freeman, later a well-known radio commentator on cricket and Aussie rules football.
Going in again 172 behind, Northamptonshire crumbled to 48 for four (Mushtaq and Peter Willey both out for a duck to off-spinner Ashley Mallett) and despite a battling 57 from Brian Reynolds the end came quickly.
Milburn played in two of the summer’s Ashes Tests, at Lord’s and The Oval, while Prideaux was also called up for the game at Headingley and scored 64 in his debut innings, sharing a century opening stand with John Edrich.
And this is where the story of the summer – and, in the event, well beyond – takes a curious twist.
‘Prid’ would have been an automatic selection for the final match of the series, but was ruled out through illness.
Instead – as Wisden records – ‘(Basil) d’Oliveira was a late selection for England after Prideaux reluctantly withdrew’, and he took full advantage with a superb knock of 158 which looked to have booked his place on the following winter’s MCC tour to his native South Africa.
Which is when the ruckus began.
Originally overlooked amid claims of political interference, d’Oliveira was subsequently picked as a replacement – prompting BJ Vorster’s apartheid government to insist they wouldn’t accept a team containing this coloured cricketer.
The tour was cancelled, as was South Africa’s trip to England in 1970, and the two countries didn’t meet in an official Test until 1994.
Prideaux was named in the original party to visit South Africa and duly went on the ‘replacement’ tour to Pakistan – where he was impressed by, and duly recommended to Northamptonshire, a young pace bowler named Sarfraz Nawaz. No furious bidding there.
So here’s your homework for next time.
Work out the possible ramifications of Prideaux NOT falling sick in August 1968. Write on one side of the paper only…