AS SECRETARY of MCC from 1962 to 1974, SC Griffith was at the heart of English cricket at a time when the game altered course and character.
A man of charm and tact, conservative by nature as became the institutions he served, Billy Griffith sought to maintain a steady hand on the helm as cricket raced before the winds of change into uncharted waters. His warning in 1964 - that interest would be maintained only if 'we appreciate that cricket has, for most Britishers, a unique image, quite different from any other sport . . . nothing must be done which will damage that image in any way' - is no less relevant almost 30 years on.
In 1969, when it emerged that Griffith himself was involved in an episode damaging to that image, he considered resigning 'in the best interests of cricket', only to be dissuaded by the MCC committee. The previous year he had been party to a decision to withhold from the committee advice that South Africa was 'extremely unlikely' to accept England's 'coloured' Test cricketer Basil d'Oliveira as a member of the MCC team due to tour South Africa in 1968- 69. The hope was that D'Oliveira would not be selected 'for cricketing reasons', and initially he was not. When he was later included, South Africa withdrew its invitation. A further blow to Griffith, a staunch believer in maintaining links with the republic, came when South Africa's tour of England in 1970 was cancelled.
After four years in the XI at Dulwich College, Griffith went up to Cambridge in 1933 and with some impressive displays as wicketkeeper won his Blue in 1935. He toured Australia and New Zealand with MCC in 1935- 36 - a tour designed to heal the wounds of the bodyline conflict - and was selected for the 1939-40 tour of India which was cancelled owing to the outbreak of war. So it was February 1948 before Griffith played in his first Test match, his England debut at Trinidad coming not as wicketkeeper but as an opening batsman when the side was beset by injuries. Curbing a natural impulse to hit out, he batted just under six hours for 140, not only making a Test hundred on his debut but also his maiden first-class hundred. His two other Tests were in South Africa in 1948-49, where he kept wicket ahead of Godfrey Evans at Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
During the Second World War Griffith flew as a glider pilot at the Battle of Arnhem, attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was awarded the DFC in 1944. Before 1939 he had mixed schoolmastering at Dulwich with cricket for Sussex, but after the war he turned his attentions fully to cricket, first at Sussex, as captain (in 1946), secretary and player, and then at Lord's. In 1952 he became one of two assistant secretaries of MCC and in 1962 succeeded Ronny Aird as secretary. This was a time of potential penury for county cricket, and in Griffith's opinion it was not helped by counties playing most contracted players after the abolition of the amateur-professional distinction in 1963. He eloquently advocated the case of the part-time cricketer as an alternative; insisted English cricket looked for a panacea in commercial sponsorship, overseas players and the illusory prospect of state aid. In 1968, to facilitate Sports Council funds, MCC relinquished its traditional authority by establishing the Cricket Council and its subsidiary bodies, the TCCB and NCA. Cricket was committing itself to a new age.
It was not Griffith's age. Nor was the period of 'player power' which burgeoned. In 1965 MCC had sent Griffith to Australia as manager of MJK Smith's side. 'People overseas expect to see cricket played on the right lines,' said Doug Insole, the chairman of selectors. 'Griffith's job will be to see that England do this.' Yet only five years later the Cricket Council had to express its concern about incidents on Illingworth's Ashes-winning tour, warning all cricketers that conduct 'which is contrary to the spirit and tradition of the game and brings it into disrepute will not be tolerated'. It was this spirit and those traditions which Billy Griffith represented and defended.