It seems fair to say that cricket in England has always been a class-based affair. For almost 200 years there was a separation between the independently wealthy amateur gentlemen and working-class professionals. It was only in 1963 that amateurism officially ended in English first-class cricket. There has always been a sense that English cricket is a game for aristocrats which the proles can only play at their sufferance and on their terms.
Even in recent history, there has been a bias toward people from privileged backgrounds. In the last 40 years, public school boys have accounted for 80% of the ECB/TCCB chairmen, 67.5% of the chairmen of selectors, and Test captains in 65% of the games. To put these numbers into context, in 2016/17 the percentage of children attending public schools in the UK was 7.9%.
Considering the over-representation of the well-to-do in the higher echelons of English cricket, you will be unsurprised to learn that this pattern continues in the selection of the England Test team. In the past 10 years there have been 126 England Men’s Test matches featuring 61 cricketers. Players who attended fee-paying schools make up 56.2% of the appearances in this period.
This was higher than I expected, but the real shock came when I looked a little deeper. If we divide the players into two groups, batsmen and wicketkeepers versus bowlers and allrounders, there is a massive disparity between the two. “Only” 26.5% of appearances by bowlers were by public school boys, and Stuart Broad’s 109 games account for 17.2% of them. Conversely, 81.7% of appearances by batsmen were from public school boys. That is a patently ridiculous figure.
The question this begs for me is this: “Why are people from ‘the right kind of family’ more likely to be batsmen than bowlers?” The most likely answer that I can give is coaching. People who attend fee-paying schools probably receive a higher level of cricket coaching from a younger age than people who go to comprehensive schools. It’s possible to train someone of average height, average strength and average speed to become a decent batsman, and wealthy people have the ability to make that happen.
The same is not necessarily true of bowling. There is an old adage in coaching: “You can’t teach speed”. I mean, you obviously can, but every person has a limit beyond which they can’t get any faster. One thing you definitely can’t train is height, which is also an advantage when becoming a fast bowler. No matter how much money you throw at it, you can’t make a posh boy grow 6’4″ tall and be capable of bowling at 85 mph. Bowling is therefore a significantly more representative and meritocratic discipline in English cricket.
I suspect that when counties scout their local clubs and schools, children from public schools would appear to be superior choices. Having received better coaching from a younger age, they will be playing closer to their potential abilities. This would however mean that counties overlook kids from less affluent areas who might have lesser abilities but greater potential.
There are, I suspect, other reasons. As I’ve pointed out at the start, senior roles in the ECB tend to favour people from privileged backgrounds. Public school boys have a reputation for intelligence, confidence and leadership ability. You only have to look at other areas of public life which they dominate like investment banking or politics to see how quickly these stereotypes fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, but nevertheless they are considered “well-spoken” and “the kind of boy you hope your daughter marries”.
This disparity angers me for several reasons, not the least of which is that we as a country are probably losing multiple potentially great Test batsmen from the game simply because of the circumstances of their birth. It also has a massive long-term impact on the game. Most of the off-the-field roles in English cricket are taken by former players. Administrators, coaches, selectors, journalists, commentators and pundits are all likely to be former players. If the majority of players are from public schools, that means that they will also dominate all of the other aspects of English cricket.
So what can be done about it? Fortunately, there is already an example of a country whose cricket was also dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite but have reversed that trend in recent years. Of course, that country was South Africa.
Obviously the two situations aren’t even remotely comparable. Black South Africans had faced over a century of institutionalised racism in all aspects of society, including cricket. Even after reinstatement into world cricket and the election of the ANC, there were relatively few cricket clubs in black communities. One of the solutions to this issue has been the use of quotas, requiring minimum numbers of black and coloured players in their international and first-class teams.
This approach is not without its downsides. I’m sure most people on this blog will be aware that Kevin Pietersen cited CSA’s policies as restricting his chances of playing in his home country. Several Kolpak players in county cricket have also suggested this, although a more cynical person might suggest that for most it seems like a straightforward financial decision. I don’t think this would be as strong an issue as it is in South Africa.
The current system in South Africa allows 5 white players in any first-class team, and there are only 6 first-class teams. This means that there are essentially 30 professional contracts available to white South Africans, which does seem somewhat restrictive. If similar quotas were enforced for privately educated players in county cricket, there would be 90 spots for them because English cricket has three times the number of teams. This seems like an eminently workable number, allowing room for both experienced professionals and developing future stars but without allowing a wealthy minority to dominate the sport.
A quota system would force counties to look beyond the low-hanging fruit of public school cricketers and encourage them to help promote mainstream youth participation in their regions. If the privately educated became minorities on the cricket field, hopefully that would also filter through over time to all of the other facets of the game. Indeed, if English cricket ever weans itself off rich entitled men being in charge, perhaps they will finally close the divide between those Inside and Outside Cricket?
As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments below.