Whose game is it anyway?

Hugely popular in its other heartlands, why does English cricket have an elitism problem? The author of a new book exploring cricket and class explains why 

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Why does nobody in this country, save for the dedicated, care about cricket?

Sure, cricket has briefly touched the wider public’s heart a couple of times this century, with the 2005 Ashes triumph and England’s World Cup win in 2019, and last week’s test series win over South Africa. These events have marked a revival for the national side and brought some headlines, but like other sports it is swamped by football.

James Anderson and Joe Root might be England’s best ever bowler and best ever batter, but are they household names? If you stopped 100 people in the street, would a single one be able to tell you who the current county champions are?

Despite pretty much everyone swinging a bat in a park or playground at some point as a child, cricket is not really a people’s game in the UK.

“The orthodox history of English cricket bears no relation to the game as it’s played.”

The contention of Duncan Stone’s book Different Class: the Untold Story of English Cricket is that this is no unfortunate accident, but a result of conscious snobbery and a fear of meritocracy among those at the head of the game, dating back more than a century.

“The game’s culture is its own worst enemy,” Stone says. “If we’re ever going to learn from our history, the book provides a blueprint of what not to do. I love the game and I want as many people as possible to be involved, rather than it being a boutique pastime for white middle-class people.

“I needed to correct the historic record, because the orthodox history of English cricket bears no relation to the game as it’s played.”

As well as addressing more recent issues – and race and class-related stories have been everywhere in English cricket these last two years – this is a retelling of English recreational cricket’s history, drawing on Stone’s academic work to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, there is no marked difference in the “competitiveness” of the North and South.

The received wisdom is that recreational cricket in England is either whimsical village green games in idyllic surrounds or hardboiled northern league cricket with thugs spearing down insults with their fast bowling. All rubbish, says Stone, who himself has played in Surrey, Yorkshire and Australian grade cricket.

“It’s just nonsense. I’ve played in leagues in the North that are friendlier and more amenable than any sport I’ve played in the South, where sport is rabidly competitive. Everyone’s chasing the same pound note in all areas of life.”

Different Class was at the printers when Azeem Rafiq testified to the DCMS select committee in November 2021 over the racism he suffered at Yorkshire. It was released early this year.

Yet despite rave reviews from the likes of esteemed Australian cricket historian Gideon Haigh and Lord Hain, who made his name opposing apartheid, it received more of a lukewarm response in some English quarters.

Stone says: “The silence was disconcerting, especially from a few journalists who I’d thought would have taken the opportunity of using a book highlighting institutionalised racism, but there wasn’t a dickie bird. Maybe it’s because I’m not an ex-England captain or a mainstream journalist, or maybe it’s stuff people don’t want to hear.”

Stone’s tale is largely presented in chronological order, so the more recent relatable, scandalous stuff – playing field sell-offs, TV deals, the marginalisation of ethnic minority clubs – comes only after the historic context is set.

If those reviewers did miss the later material, it’s a pity, as there is enough in this meticulously researched book to make it a worthy successor to Mike Marqusee’s 1994 establishment-rattling  Anyone but England.

The charge is that English cricket is too heavily influenced by a narrow coterie of white men with public school and Oxbridge backgrounds, with the tone being set by MCC grandees such as Sir Pelham Warner and former Telegraph scribe EW Swanton.

Stone’s book recieved a lukewarm reception in some quarters. Main image: Joe Root bats for England in last week’s test series win (Matt Impey/Shutterstock).

To precis a large chunk of Stone’s work, the type of men who moved in the same circles as Warner and his ilk were largely responsible for setting the context in which recreational cricket took place in the formative inter-war years.

And while northern league clubs paid professionals and charged entry, even competing in a formalised league structure was forbidden in much of the South, where the all-powerful Club Cricket Conference held sway. Apart from a few cup competitions, this situation continued until only recently.

But as influential as Swanton et al were, this is not just about writers or insular committee men setting local rules. The cold reality of modern politics is here as well, notably the Thatcher government’s selling off of school playing fields in what Stone calls “a peacetime Blitz”. Ten thousand school playing fields were lost between 1981 and 1987 alone, a process that has continued since at varying speeds.

“Selling off playing fields and then John Major doing away with the Sports Council were major events. Also in the 1990s, sports became more beholden to lottery funding, which was aimed at elite sport rather than broader participation.”

As bad as the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have been, broader political events have made life difficult, Stone argues.

The book recounts how Iftikhar Mehmood, a stalwart of Asian club cricket in the South East, accused the ECB of an abdication of responsibility in 2015 over its commitment to making cricket truly inclusive. It’s a view Stone shares.

“In my view, the ECB as it stands should be abolished. The way it dealt with the Azeem Rafiq affair alone showed it unfit for purpose. I don’t think they take racism as an issue seriously. The ECB’s raison d’etre seems to be to exploit cricket’s supporters for money rather than serving the wider interests of the game. Cricket as a participation sport doesn’t seem to be a priority.”

South Asian communities are just about the only section of English society where cricket participation is holding up, yet the last quarter century has seen frustration after frustration in trying to integrate clubs and players for the betterment of all, not least of all a more harmonious society.

Stone quotes the Guardian’s Rob Steen, who in 1999 called the informal apartheid that denied clubs promotions for spurious reasons “as self-defeating for English cricket as it is morally repugnant”.

Since that time the ECB has seen several leaders come and go, the latest chair starting in post this month.

Despite more recent leaders at least looking modern, Stone believes English cricket to be so mired in its mythology that its leaders simply can’t conceive of another way to do things.

With tempers already running high in the game over reform and the polarising Hundred tournament, the upcoming release of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report – to which Stone has submitted evidence – could be another storm in a year that has already seen not just mass departures and boardroom shake-ups at Essex and Yorkshire, but the board of Cricket Scotland resign en masse after the body was found to be institutionally racist.

Stone says: “I suspect the ICEC report will make the aftershocks of the Scotland revelations look like small potatoes.”

The ECB is currently looking to reform its competitions, and in one proposed solution, going to three divisions, there’s an echo of a system denied in 1889, perhaps the first great missed opportunity for cricket to be the people’s game.

The Football League had started a year earlier, but MCC bigwig Lord Harris declared that, for cricket, “honour and glory” rather than “prizes” ought to be enough. And this, as Stone relates, the chance to be an “objectively modern sport” like football, was squandered.

“My view is that cricket needs to follow the model rejected in 1889,” says Stone. “Cricket needs an overtly meritocratic structure, where the pursuit of excellence is rewarded. Too many counties are treading water, knowing there will always be a bailout.

“The irony is that a lot of people angry at those running the game are defending a system deliberately put together to exclude them. County cricket has been undemocratic and unmeritocratic since the 1890s.

“The game needs more jeopardy and more meaningful cricket. It might lead to clubs not relying on the public school conveyor belt, because clubs lower down will have to go into inner cities and Asian leagues.

“The talent is out there – it’s just often playing for the ‘wrong’ clubs, or they might have the wrong background in skin colour or class or culture.”

The second big missed opportunity was immediately after the Second World War, when it seemed for a time as if wartime league competitions might remain and a more egalitarian approach to leadership might prevail. Until, as Stone says, “an elite of cliques insider-dealing while claiming to represent a broad consensus” jealously guarded their own fiefdoms.

This section of the book is replete with examples of villages where the well-connected clubs with the best facilities prosper, and those from the wrong side of the tracks struggle. The decline of works teams is also a factor.

Stone draws a line directly from this era to the self-defeating decision to end free-to-air coverage of test cricket just as the England team reached its modern-era zenith, winning the 2005 Ashes.

By 2009 and the next home Ashes, shown exclusively on satellite TV, viewing figures had halved. The ECB, having promised to invest the TV rights windfall in grassroots cricket, failed to hit participation targets.

“The sport alienated four million people in those four years, so how many has it lost since?” asks Stone. “It feels like cricket’s never been less relevant to so many people, I believe it is already a minority sport.”

England defends its title as champions in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in Australia next month. But with its stars hidden behind paywalls, many simply never see them, while there’s not much cricket in state schools. And so the “posh game” narrative builds. In 2020, 37.6 per cent of England players were privately educated, despite only 6 per cent of the population being schooled privately.

Stone says: “The English game has painted itself into a corner. What would help is going back to basics and asking: ‘Why is football known as the people’s game?’ At some level, there’s a meritocracy that cricket has never had.”

Nostalgia fixation

Those who know a little of cricket history will not be surprised to find short shrift given to establishment gatekeepers such as EW Swanton, RC Robertson-Glasgow and Sir Pelham Warner, but Stone also pulls no punches with a favourite son of Manchester, Neville Cardus.

Cardus, for whom an annual lunch is still held at Old Trafford, is a legendary figure, a man who rose from a poverty-stricken, fatherless upbringing to become the foremost chronicler of cricket in the first half of the 20th century – and a renowned classical music critic on the side.

As the senior cricket writer at the Manchester Guardian, it was Cardus who gave a big break in journalism to legendary Trinidadian CLR James, author of the book widely recognised as cricket’s finest, Beyond a Boundary.

However, even Cardus fans acknowledge the embellishments and exaggerations in his work, and his fixation with harking back to the game’s 1890-1914 “golden age” he witnessed in boyhood. English cricket has never shaken off its nostalgia fixation.

Stone says: “They’re often the worst kind of snobs, aren’t they – those who rise up? And we have to give Cardus some credit for giving CLR James his break.

“But Cardus, along with Swanton and Warner – their perpetuation of these elitist narratives and myths – have been detrimental to cricket ever truly being a people’s game, and it all leads to the situation we find ourselves in now, dominated by public schoolboys who might not be particularly competent.”

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