LONDON, JUNE 27 -- It was a recent Sunday afternoon in Bath, that most beautiful of English cities, nestled in the green, curving valley of the River Avon. The sun glowed on the graceful limestone buildings, and church bells pealed in the distance.

The day was made for cricket, that most English of games whose very name is synonymous with gentlemanly behavior and fair play. Much of the city had gathered at the local sporting ground to watch Somerset, the professional home county team, take on visiting Warwickshire.

Aging men, dressed in ties and tweed jackets that they declined to remove in the heat, had the preferred spectator positions in weathered deck chairs around the border of the playing oval, while others sat on the grass or in bleachers. Attention was focused on the field, where a baker's dozen men, all in dazzling white, went earnestly about the game.

Unlike this country's other national game, soccer, cricket is a quiet sport for both fans and players. As usual, the spectator response to notable play was polite applause and an occasional, quickly extinguished "ho-ho" of individual delight.

Scenes like this, repeated across the country on summer Sundays, make it seem certain there will always be an England. Where else would play be interrupted, half-way through the afternoon, for a ritual "tea interval?"

Yet a storm cloud is hanging over this idyllic world of white flannels and club ties. International politics and the revival of an issue that has plagued cricketdom for the past quarter century have once again intruded.

The focus of the controversy is far away South Africa, expelled in 1972 from the International Cricket Conference (ICC), the sport's international governing board, for its policy of apartheid, or racial separation. The expulsion was the final act in a severance that had begun more than a decade earlier, when South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth, the 49-nation group of former British colonies that forms the backbone of the cricket world.

Despite the international restrictions, however, a number of professional English cricketers have kept up links with South Africa. Poorly paid and out of work for the winter months when there is no play here, at least 20 percent, around 70 players, bolster their incomes by coaching or playing for South African cricket clubs.

It is these players who have become a source of conflict. In recent weeks, nonwhite cricket-playing nations, led by the West Indies and India, have called for any player with South African "sporting contact" to be banned from playing on his national team in "test" or international first division cricket.

In addition to the two resolution sponsors, the national teams involved include England, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The English national cricket team is chosen from among the 17 leading county professional teams, including Somerset and Warwickshire. All of them depend for their survival on revenue from annual series of highly profitable international matches, divided among them by the governing Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB). At least two members of the current English team have played in South Africa.Cricket's Color Divide

Like a previous battle over rugby play in South Africa, which kept 19 black African nations from participating in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the cricket war has divided playing nations along a color divide. The "white" cricketing countries -- England, Australia and New Zealand -- oppose the ban as an unacceptable restriction on their national rights.

The nonwhite nations see it as part of a vital effort to pressure the Pretoria regime by isolating it from every possible contact with the rest of the world.

At an emergency ICC meeting here yesterday, the West Indies agreed that the issue be considered by a special, multiracial committee, to report back next March. But although cricket gained some breathing space, and the resolution sponsors pronounced themselves satisfied, no one expects the controversy to go away.

Without the South African restrictions, West Indies Cricket Board Chairman Alan Rae said a week before the meeting, "it would be a hell of a job to keep world cricket together."

Strongly implying that his organization was under pressure from the Caribbean governments whose countries make up the West Indies team, Rae said that "England taught us our cricket and sustained us. We deeply want the {international matches} to continue, but for them to go on, our . . . resolution must be passed."

Jackie Hendriks, the manager of the West Indies national team due to compete at the cricket World Cup this October in Pakistan and India, said, "There has to be a point when the South African matter becomes more cut and dried."

Professional county teams, like Somerset, which provide the stars from which England's national team is chosen for each test match series, could not easily survive without international cricket. Televised across many Commonwealth countries, the international matches earn big money from advertising and gate receipts.

This summer, for example, the Pakistani national team is touring England for a series of five tests with the English nationals, as well as several dozen other rounds with county teams.

According to Tony Brown, a former cricketer who is Somerset's secretary and chief executive, his team received more than $300,000 last year from the Test and County Cricketing Board for its share of the English team's international earnings, "the largest chunk of income we got," and nearly half its total operating expenses.

"But it has to be said," Brown added of the nonwhite cricket nations, that the ban "would affect them more than us." With low revenues from local games, he said, the West Indies teams depend even more on the profits they make during tours in places like England.

"The money is in white cricket," said Mark Boxer, an avid cricket fan and former player, who is editor of London's Tattler magazine, which chronicles the activities of the upper social classes here.Politics Cancels Matches

At the same time, Boxer said, "politically, England has behaved quite well" over South Africa and cricket. He recalled an incident in 1968, when England canceled a South African cricket tour after the Pretoria government said an Asian player for England would not be admitted to the country.

Others, however, recalled 1981, when the entire English team left Guyana after its government declared a player with South African connections persona non grata. Last year, England's "B" (second division) international team withdrew from matches in Zimbabwe and Pakistan when players with similar South African ties were refused entry visas.

According to Eddie Barlow, director of the South African sports office attached to Pretoria's embassy here, the real sufferers from a ban on cricket contacts with his country would be the thousands of South African youths who depend on outside training each year.

The "vast majority" of English players "coach basically nonwhite kids," said Barlow, a former cricketer who was part of the South African team the year it was first banned from international play.

Sport has changed from a decade ago in South Africa when it was legally segregated, Barlow said. "That situation does not exist any more," he said. "There are no laws precluding anybody from participating wherever they wish, against whomever they wish."

Cricket, he said, had been in the forefront of that change. He noted that the current South African national team, still selected every year despite a diminishing number of teams with which to compete, has one "colored," or Asian, player.

"Not until governments got involved, and I certainly do not eliminate the South African government, did this situation occur," Barlow said. "What you have in fact is a void between what the players wish to do and what certain politically motivated administrators are being forced to do."

Still, Barlow said, he was not surprised. "This has been brewing for a long time," he said. "Everybody has been waiting for it to happen."