Simon Hughes’ benefit season might not have left him as enthusiastic © Getty Images
Simon Hughes’ benefit season might not have left him as enthusiastic © Getty Images

1991 was Simon Hughes’ benefit season, and he tried to improvise to maximise the collection. He did get handsome (and assorted) returns, but as Abhishek Mukherjee explains, it was not sufficient to make up for the chasm between cricket and football in England.

Back in 1991, they would have refused to believe that four years down the line Mike Mascarenhas would sign up Sachin Tendulkar for a five-year contract worth INR 30 crores. To provide perspective, that is equivalent to about INR 123 crores (about USD 2 billion) in 2017 — of course, over five years.

Ben Stokes was acquired for INR 14 crores in 2017. Franchise-based T20 leagues pay enough for cricketers to contemplate careers beyond international cricket.

All this was unthinkable in 1991. Decades before that, the amateur-professional bar in England was so prominent that no professional cricketer was appointed full-time England captain till Len Hutton in the 1950s.

Professional cricketers had to opt for off-season day jobs. Some took to coaching or journalism, but there were many who had to seek employment beyond cricket.

Some were fortunate to find patrons. In India, for example, there were kings followed by companies who formed their own cricket teams. And Kerry Packer changed cricket more than anyone else.

But there was another source of income for these men — the benefit season, or in some cases, benefit matches. Cricketers were rewarded by counties with benefits, typically a decade after he got his county cap.

Sometimes they chose their own matches. In such cases the cricketers had to bear all expenses (from paying the cricketers and umpires and scorers who played to arranging for police) and collect all surplus gate money.

There are numerous anecdotes involving benefit matches. George Geary, for example, took 13 for 43 to round up his benefit match so early that he lost out on gate money. Wally Hammond scored a dazzling triple-hundred to salvage Gloucestershire teammate Tom Goddard’s benefit. Clarrie Grimmett bowled Don Bradman out cheaply, settling an old vendetta but ensuring a massive financial loss for Vic Richardson and himself. And poor Bertie Buse’s benefit match got over in a single day.

Sometimes they could go fundraising throughout a season during matches. Middlesex offered that to Simon Hughes in 1991, a decade after he got his cap.

Hughes knew that the traditional way of asking “loyal old supporters” to collect contributions from the fans. He described his method in A Lot of Hard Yakka: “On Sundays at Lord’s during my benefit year at Middlesex in 1991, I took the unprecedented step of persuading flirtatious girlfriends in short skirts to go round with the buckets.”

It worked. Hughes got in excess of £1,000 on an average — accompanied by an assortment of other currencies, and even “fruit-machine tokens and any other shrapnel people happened to have in their pockets”.

MCC typically broadcasted the collection amount over the public-address system after the day’s play. Hughes, among the wittiest men around, insisted the announcement ran thus, causing much hilarity: “Simon Hughes thanks everyone who donated to today’s benefit collection, which raised one thousand two hundred and thirty pounds thirty pence, seventy Canadian cents, fifty pesetas, one Kenyan shilling and two Iranian shekels.”

So far, so good. However, on the same day, Old Trafford had hosted the benefit match of Bryan Robson. When he skimmed through the newspaper the morning after, on Monday, Hughes found out that Robson had got richer by a whopping £340,000.

Yes, that was what the gap between cricket and football used to be like.