Guest Post: What Chance Have You Got Against A Tie And A Crest?

Whilst that annoying little thing called work has got in the way of writing this week, one of our resident commenters, Topshelf, has kindly written a piece around the lack of appeal and meritocracy that is so ingrained in English cricket.

As always, we are extremely grateful for people putting the time and effort in to write for us, especially on a subject the other editors don’t have personal experience of. As with all of our guest posts, please bear in mind that for many of our guest writers, publishing on the blog is a new experience for them, so please afford a bit more respect than some of our usual rants.

Over to you Topshelf…..

On the 5th of January, David Hopps commented on Twitter:

“There are 8 private schoolboys in this England XI, some from overseas, even including Yorkshire who like to feel they spread the net wide. Well, well done the private sector for backing cricket. But the net is narrow. That’s all you need to know.”

Lizzie Ammon replied :

“Don’t get me started on county age cricket. The least meritocratic system on earth.”

On the 7th of January, on the way home from the first borough training session of the year, my county age-group son said: “Dad, I reckon I’m the only state-school boy at training now.”

Given that pretty much every conversation I’d just had with other parents had begun “So where’s X going to school?” it seemed he was probably right. (One of my simple pleasures in life is enjoying the moment of blinking panic as other parents try to work out why they haven’t heard of my son’s minor public school, before I put them out of their misery – “It’s just a state school, it’s 5 minutes from my house.”)

Of course, on the 8th of January, England’s 8 private schoolboys finally succumbed 4-0 to Australia.  The predictable blame-game began, and the usual suspects took aim at the county system, bemoaning the lack of true quick bowlers, the emphasis on white-ball cricket, the scheduling of championship cricket, all of which no doubt have a detrimental effect. George Dobell aimed wider, saying:

“The talent pool on which the game relies has grown shallow and is absurdly over-reliant upon the private schools, Asian and ex-pat communities.”

As if to rub it in, we’ve just seen another 10 public schoolboys in England kit capitulate dismally against Australia and a very good leg-spinner, Lloyd Pope’s extraordinary 8-35 sending them spiralling out of the U19 World Cup.

So, putting on my best Peter Moores hat, I thought I’d have a look at the data.

Firstly, a quick comparison. The last time England won the U19 World Cup – in 1998 – only 3 squad members attended fee-paying schools, compared to the 11 Daryl Cullinans this time. England’s best Ashes team of recent times, the 2005 squad, contained just 4 “posh nobs”, while even the 2011 3-1 team only had 6 by the final test. Of course, as is the way with data-mining, things soon expanded. I’ve now looked at every Test debutant since 1990, and every currently contracted county player. I know far more than I ever expected to about the sports scholarship system, and will probably be getting ads for private schools on my laptop until the end of time.

It will surprise no-one that cricket is a sport that favours the public schoolboy. Of 141 players to make their debuts since 1990, 48 (34%) attended at least a private 6th form. For context, 18% of pupils in England do the same, so a recent Test cricketer is almost twice as likely to be privately educated. As you would expect, given the number of state playing fields sold off by successive governments since 1979, the trend is definitely upwards. The 90’s saw 14 private school debuts of 59 (24%), the 00’s 14 of 44 (32%), while this decade has seen 20 out of 38 (53%) so far.

So far, so predictable. Cricket is an expensive sport that requires open spaces to play, and a big sacrifice of parental time. It is hidden behind a paywall, and rarely played in state schools. Much like rugby union – where, amazingly, around 60% of English Premiership players are ex public schoolboys – its appeal to the “working class” is diminishing. It’s little wonder that it risks becoming a niche sport for the privileged few. That is borne out by the fact that of 313 currently contracted and English qualified county players, 138 were privately educated, which is 42%, well over twice what demographics would predict. (Worth noting also that there are another 86 players who are out of the England picture, which is nearly 22% of the total. But that’s another story.)  Many of these schools are more sporting academy than traditional educational establishment, although no doubt they would stress their academic credentials as well. The school that provides the most cricketers, Millfield (with 10), not only has great cricket facilities, it has a golf course and equestrian centre. The school claimed in 2015 to have around 50 former pupils playing international sport every year. Like many others, it has an extensive sports scholarship system in place, and is able to hoover up a great deal of promising talent.

The first thing you notice when looking at recent England test players is a truism. Batsmen go to public school. Bowlers, especially quick bowlers, don’t. It’s the modern-day equivalent of Gentlemen and Players. Of the 46 batsmen to make debuts since the 1990, 26 (57%) were educated privately. Conversely, of the 62 fast bowlers and fast-bowling all-rounders, only 13 (21%) went to private schools. This makes a sort of sense; more and more public schools are recruiting cricketers using sports scholarships, which aren’t cheap, for school or pupil. Often counties are involved in referring promising players, and it’s a lot easier to pick a batsman, whose numbers are usually pretty clear. For a start, they’re allowed to bat long enough to get big scores, while young bowlers are ham-strung by ECB guidelines restricting the overs they can bowl. Bowlers also mature later, and are prone to injury. Very few schools (and counties, who are known to contribute as well) are going to commit tens of thousands of pounds to a promising bowler who might stop growing or develop stress fractures. And I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about how counties treat the attrition rate of their young fast bowlers anyway – one county reportedly considers it a success if 1 in 6 of their late teen quicks makes it to adulthood unscathed.

It also becomes clear that going to a private school gets you a longer Test career as a batsman. Of those 46 batsmen, the private school players get on average 37.3 Tests, with half playing over 15, while the state school boys get only 27.6, with half playing under 7. At this point it would be easy to cry foul, and assume that the likes of Downton (Sevenoaks), Whitaker (Uppingham) and Strauss (Radley) favour their own. However, the truth is probably simpler. A public school batsman has very likely already been selected for his ability – for example Joe Root and his Yorkshire-arranged scholarship to Worksop College – at an early age. He will have had access to years of high-class coaching, bowling machines, and, most importantly, many many more matches than his state counterpart. It’s no surprise that they perform better overall. And having had a good look, I can’t find anything that suggests worse players get more of a go if they come from the right sort of family. Albeit a bowler, the final word on obvious bias should be Mark Wood, alumnus of Ashington High School, who is apparently still in the Test reckoning after 26 wickets in 10 tests at an average of 40.65.

At this point it would be easy to shrug – how could any state school compete? –  and hope that the holy grail of the City T20 being intermittently on free-to-air will miraculously enthuse a new generation of kids. Who’ll still have nowhere to play, and lack the money for kit and coaching. The lucky few will still get a cheap ride through a private 6th form, assuming they start, or, more importantly, keep playing in the first place. Perhaps they can consult The Cricketer’s helpful Top 100 Schools Guide – state schools up to 9 this year…

But state-school participation matters, massively, not only for the obvious social and participation reasons, but also for the future success of the England team. Put simply, if state-school cricketers don’t make it to the top, England’s Test team will be a team of batsmen only.

In county cricket, public school batsmen make up 53% of their total, while quicks are only 30%, the smallest proportion. Nowhere is this disparity clearest than at Middlesex, which has 5 of 7 privately educated batsmen, but only 1 bowler of 8 who’s familiar with an apple-pie bed. Nor is stacking your team with posh boys any predictor of success. Essex won the Championship with only 3 players from the private sector (none bowlers, shock, and the fewest in the division) and a core of locally educated boys. Middlesex were relegated with 13 of 24 posh boys, while Sussex languish in Division 2 with a staggering 15 of 17 privately educated English players. God only knows what Tymal Mills must make of that dressing room.

The England U19 squad’s stand-out bowler has been Dillon Pennington (Wrekin College and Worcestershire), who lets it go at about 83mph. He looks a very decent cricketer, but compared to the Indian opening pair, who both touched 90mph, is a bit pedestrian. No doubt he has been very well coached, but one wonders how much progression he has left in him. If I were a county coach I’d much rather see a raw state-school bowler who has not had his opportunities, and probably has a much greater upside. But therein lies the problem. If state-school cricket continues to decline, and counties continue to outsource the training of their top youth cricketers to the private schools, how will a promising quick bowler ever make it far enough to be spotted? And how will England’s batsmen ever face high class bowling growing up if they all head off to private school to play each other? Does it really matter to the counties if long-form bowling standards drop as long as they drop uniformly? After all, the likes of Tom Curran, with plenty of T20 “skills”, are much more useful in white-ball cricket, where he doesn’t need the raw pace he’ll never have. And we all know that T20 is where the money and the future lies. The men’s Test team clearly struggled against real pace, while the U19s seemed never to have seen high-class leg-spin before. Which, to be fair, they probably never had. I know that Mason Crane exists as a product of the private system; he is an outlier though, lucky enough to be coached at Lancing College by Rajesh Maru, a proper spinner in his day.

So is there hope? The charity Chance to Shine has shown cricket to over a million primary school kids, and Sukhjit Singh, a left-arm spinner at Warwickshire, is the first boy to have been discovered by the programme to make it to a professional contract. The ECB’s All Stars programme is trying to attract the young primary pupil. And in researching this, I discovered the existence of The MCC Foundation Hubs, another charity which aims to provide free coaching to promising state secondary children not yet in the county system. There are already 54 of them, and they have ambitious plans to roll out all over the country. Sadly, I’d never heard of them, and nor had my club, which is something of a worry. And their promotional video has a representative of Eastbourne College proudly talking about the children they have picked up from the scheme as sports scholars!

I occasionally play cricket in a local park early on a Sunday morning. When we arrive the pitch is usually being used by local Afghan families playing a break-neck version of T20 they’ve started at dawn. Everybody from 14 to 50 bowls as fast as they can, spins it as hard as they can, and hits it as far as they can. Maybe if we can get these kids into club cricket through the likes of the MCC Hubs we’ll be able to tap a fabulous resource, and we’ll get our own Rashid Khan, or at least Shapoor Zadran, one day. If we don’t make the effort soon, I really fear for the future of test bowling in this country.

As for my son, well, he’s a bowling all-rounder, with plenty of growth left in him. No private school is going to be coming for him yet. So we’ll continue with club cricket, probably playing more adult matches, hope to keep his place in the county system, and carry on saving up for 6th form…

Once again, many thanks to Topshelf for putting this piece together for what is our 900th post in just under 3 years. As always, if you fancy writing a guest post, please send it to any or all of us. Our email addresses are listed in the ‘contact us’ section.


20 thoughts on “Guest Post: What Chance Have You Got Against A Tie And A Crest?

  1. dannycricket Feb 1, 2018 / 9:51 pm

    Thanks for writing this post TopShelf, this falls almost entirely in my main field of interest regarding the ECB. Their failure to maintain interest in cricket amongst the general population and their inability to develop an even vaguely representative percentage of players from non-privileged backgrounds genuinely anger me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Feb 1, 2018 / 10:36 pm

    It’s worth noting that Australia has the overwhelming majority of its cricketers drawn from state schools.

    If Warner and company seem a little rough around the edges then it’s because they are.

    The usual reason for this is that the grade competition is conducted on a Saturday, state school kids can attend, private school kids do Saturday inter school sport and never toughen them selves against the beat competition.


  3. Michelle Benato Feb 2, 2018 / 8:14 am

    Fantastic article. Last July the U14 boy’s Southern Festival was held in Taunton before the state schools had broken up for Summer. State-attending boys were only able to compete if their schools permitted them a week’s absence. How is this even allowed?

    Liked by 2 people

    • LordCanisLupus Feb 2, 2018 / 9:02 am

      Welcome Michelle. Looks like a first comment on here.

      Glad Topshelf’s post has resonated.


  4. dannycricket Feb 2, 2018 / 8:19 am

    Regarding Chance To Shine’s sole representative in professional cricket Sunny Singh, I have to say I’m less than impressed. For a start, Chance to Shine was launched in 2005, Singh was identified by a cricket coach at his school in 2009 and he joined Warwickshire 2nd XI in 2014 at the age of 18. It’s now 2018, and as far as I’m aware he remains the only professional cricketer who is touted as being in any way affected by Chance To Shine. Given that he’s been with Warwickshire for 4 years, that would suggest that he may be the only player to come through from the scheme’s start in 2005 to four years after his experience with it in 2009.

    Chance To Shine claim to have brought cricket to 2m kids through school programmes from 2005-2015, and yet literally just one kid has made it to the professional game? That is a unfeasabily low return.

    The story is hardly that inspiring either. Sunny moved to England at the age of 10 from India, and at the age of 12/13 the cricket coach running the Chance To Shine sessions at his school noticed he enjoyed cricket and suggested he join the local cricket club. What gets me about this story is that a cricket-mad kid lived there for at least 2 years and no one had told him before. That’s just a failure on so many levels.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. AB Feb 2, 2018 / 9:19 am

    It sounds draconian, but I think a lot could be achieved by simply excluding private school players from the county age group programme until, say U17s. They have such good quality school cricket, they don’t really need the county programme, but we’re missing a hell of a lot of talent by ignoring the talented but under-coached and inexperienced state school kids who can’t currently get into the programmes.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. metatone Feb 2, 2018 / 10:41 am

    Excellent post! We all owe you a debt for going through the data. Really puts the debate into perspective.

    One thing I’d like to add (without much data!) is on this topic:

    “The talent pool on which the game relies has grown shallow and is absurdly over-reliant upon the private schools, Asian and ex-pat communities.”

    I’m part of the Asian community and I don’t have data to hand, but I’d like to highlight that while things are much better than they were, we shouldn’t think it’s as good as it should be.

    So, things *are* much better than when I was a kid:

    a) We have role models who have made it to the top, we had an England Captain called Hussain, Mo and Rashid are in the team at the moment. (I have hopes Hameed will bounce back too.)

    b) I faced plenty of blatant abuse and racism as a kid bouncing around cricket 30 years ago, all of that is very rare now (at least according to the people I know.)

    But, I think the problems that remain are worth looking at as they reflect some similar issues about the openness of the structures of the game.

    a) In 2014, it was shown that about 30% of grassroots players are from an Asian background, but only 6% of county players.

    b) The Asian British population is about 3 million and cricket is pretty much still the number one sport, although of course football is rising. If you travel around the scene a bit, I’ll say (a bit hyperbolic perhaps) there is the talent there to compete with a Test nation like New Zealand (pop. 4.8 million, but primo sport by a long way, Rugby Union).

    So I suppose I kind of object to the Asian community being lumped in with private schools, because it certainly isn’t integrated into English cricket the way the private schools are. Indeed, the problems look a lot more like those of non-private school cricket kids. (Not surprising, since most Asian kids are in state school.)


    • Topshelf Feb 2, 2018 / 11:49 am

      Thanks. I’m very interested in your view. Currently I think there are 23 county cricketers you could call British Asian, which is 7% of those qualified to play for England, nowhere near the 30% there “should” be. Of those, 8 went to private school.

      From my own experience, a large proportion of the kids involved in the early age groups of county cricket are Asian, probably well over 30%. That goes for lots of clubs as well.

      However, those Asian kids who make it to borough/county level are overwhelmingly privately educated, just like their white peers.

      From talking to a few Asian parents, it seems there has been a change in attitude recently. The improvement in treatment and the decrease in racism is a big part I’m sure, but the success of the IPL has definitely had an impact.

      Cricket is now seen as a much more plausible career by parents, whereas 30 years ago I think (sweeping generalisation alert) that many Asian families would have much rather their child aimed for doctor/lawyer etc than aim to be a cricketer.

      Of the kids I see, the ones with the best kit, private coaching and most driven parents are almost all Asian. Some of the kids are damn good players too.

      So while I’m hopeful that we’ll see a real impact on the English team soon – it’s frankly criminal we haven’t already save the odd player here and there – I’m also pretty sure that we’ll see them break in from the private sector.

      Which still leaves a massive section of players unrepresented, and plenty of very talented players missed.


    • AB Feb 2, 2018 / 12:33 pm

      I guess its a good sign that I had to think really hard about which of the kids in my junior set-up are British Asian. Its just not something I really think about other than when filling in pointless Sport England diversity forms. I think its about 30%, which makes us fairly representative of grass roots cricket as a whole.

      One thing I do notice, is that every single new cricketer than joins us has a dad who also plays or played cricket who got them into the sport. It appears that kids like me, who got into cricket purely from seeing it on the telly, simply don’t exist anymore.


  7. stephenfh Feb 2, 2018 / 10:49 am

    Thanks for writing this, raising participation levels ought to be not very far behind winning Test matches in the order of priorities.

    I think the decline in state schools playing cricket dates back to the 1980s (if not before) and has some general causes that go way beyond the game. If there has also been a decline in private schools, slower, starting later maybe, then the changing relative proportions of players from state/private schools will be reflecting different rates of decline.

    As for TV deals and the exposure or lack of it and the effects it has, if the pay at the top of the ECB was deferred and linked to participation levels five years hence it might help concentrate minds.


  8. Topshelf Feb 2, 2018 / 12:16 pm

    I replied above about British Asian participation. There is an obvious issue when only 7% of county cricketers are of Asian heritage when you would expect 30% by playing levels.

    I’m sure we’ll see those statistics improve in future, but as I said above, as the system is set up I think we might just swap Asian private schoolboys for white ones.

    If English cricket as a whole is not to lose a generation of talent, it needs to find a way to access and inspire the state-school kid to play cricket, regardless of their heritage.

    The counties need to pull their fingers out and actively encourage that sort of player, rather than take the easy route of using public schools as outsourced finishing schools.

    Tom and Sam Curran will be playing together for England tomorrow, which is heart-warming in its way, especially considering the sad loss of their dad in 2012.

    But for me they are perfect examples of the sort of player the counties are likely to produce: identified early as promising, scholarships organised to a posh school (Wellington in this case), very well coached, and full of exciting T20 skills. They both have multiple slower balls, reverse sweeps, scoops etc. Which is fine on a Friday night.

    They have great attitudes too. But does anyone really think either of them will make it as Test players?


  9. AB Feb 2, 2018 / 12:26 pm

    Went to our county youth AGM last week. I’ve seen the youth participation figures before, but they still shock me. Figures went back to 2001. Story in our county is that they were fairly stable at around ~3500 kids playing youth cricket, this started going up after 2005 and peaked in 2007 at ~4500, before dropping off again. By 2010, we were back to were we started at ~3500, and last year for the first time ever there were less than 2000 kids playing cricket – apparently no-one can remember things ever being this bad before.

    and this is despite there being more coaches, more volunteers, more recruitment drives and youth initiatives than ever before.


  10. metatone Feb 2, 2018 / 12:30 pm

    Couple of random thoughts:

    – In some counties, the relationship between the County and the various club cricket leagues is quite good and could be built on to do better at talent spotting and investment. But in some counties things are far less organised. And of course, the reality is that the County structure is far from covering all the country.

    – I think we do need to come back to money in this discussion. “Money for the grassroots” is always wheeled out as a justification for the Sky deals down the years, but there’s little sign of investment or organisation when it comes to talent spotting and development. There are problems with every model of course, but you can look at how hard Tennis has worked at broadening (a very narrow) talent base or the fearsome focus British Cycling has put on youth identification (not just leaving it up to the commercial teams!) and wonder what exactly has the ECB done that really builds a pathway for a young teenager with fast bowling potential?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Mark Feb 2, 2018 / 12:38 pm

    If you were to start out with a blank piece of paper, and start from scratch you could not come up with a much worse outcome than that which has developed over the last 30 odd years.

    To start at the top…..the two political ideologies have been a disaster for both cricket and sport in general. The left, particularly at local inner cities level is deeply suspicious of competition in all aspects of life , and therefore completive sport. Hence why they have been unconcerned at the slow death of public funded school sports. They have introduced “Every one gets a prize” school sports days so no one feels left out or unwanted of the competitive process. The left wing politicians and local councillors quite often hate sport, and so are not that bothered. The Right on the other hand has been dominated by free market ideologues who believe the market should decide everything. So a school playing field is worth far more as a building plot to a supermarket chain to build a new shop and car park than to a cash strapped school. Most of their supporters send their kids to private schools with rolling acres so they don’t give a shit either.

    As to the ECB, as I have said before they are not the governing body of English cricket. They are a private club who has high jacked the sport and run it for the benefit of their members. This is now deeply engrained into the system. The “right types” are elevated above others. It’s a jobs for the boys environment and the whole thing is geared for the big two Lords Test matches each summer for their elite show case. They have also cut off cricket from the average public punter. Anybody under the age of 30 has probably seen very little cricket if they don’t have a Sky sports contract. A friend of mine who is not a cricket fan said to me recently “what has happened to cricket?” I was taken a back, and thought maybe he was up to date with the England team. But no, it turned out he had just vaguely noticed that you never see it these days. It has vanished. Even people of my generation who don’t like cricket have noticed it has disappeared.

    As to County cricket they have been run by people who seem very blinkered, and spend most of their time begging for handouts from the ECB. They are sitting on major facilities that could be far better incentivised and used. They make no effort to sell county cricket. They never try to promote it. Or encourage those local state school kids to get involved. The whole thing is about importing players from abroad or the private schools system. There is also the impenetrable coaching wall of endless clipboard and lap top carrying experts that you have to get through. “Analysis, paralysis.” Face fitting. It’s a mess.

    And on top of that the game is not even sure what it is any more. There are 3 flavours, 20/20, ODI, and Tests, and nobody has a clue how to manage and promote them. In addition, I believe that 20/20 will eventually dispense with bowlers in 20/20 format. Ten batsman plus a wicket keeper is all that will be required. Bowling machines will replace bowlers so no need to worry about the loss of state school fast bowlers.

    The game in England is dying. It will be like Croquet or Polo soon. Played by a small elite and nobody watches.


  12. Topshelf Feb 2, 2018 / 12:49 pm

    After watching the first T20 in 2003 I told my work colleagues that if I ever had kids I’d tell them never to become bowlers (that didn’t work out), and predicted that bowling machines would be the future of T20.

    Give the captain a “total miles per hour” allowance for each over, and limits on how much the ball can spin/swing etc. Say 325mph for a “spinner’s” over, and 540 mph for the “quick” overs. Be interesting to see a batsman deal with a 100mph yorker -from a “spinner”!

    Can’t be worse than actually going to a live T20 match…


  13. Sri.Grins Feb 2, 2018 / 2:04 pm

    :-). Nice article. I disagree with your T-20 views however. Without the IPL, the finds coming up for India of late from junior ranks would not have happened or been limited to players from big cities.

    Just compare the time when Bangalore and Mumbai contributed the most cricketers to India to now.


  14. Topshelf Feb 2, 2018 / 2:27 pm

    Oh I don’t mind T20. I just don’t like going to matches in England, where the cricket comes very much second to drinking/singing/Mexican waves etc etc. I go because my kids like it, although they actually prefer going to 50 over stuff, where there is a bit more time, and they can have a wander around the ground. I’m quite happy to watch T20 on TV, and I’d absolutely love to go to an IPL match.

    My point about the IPL effect in Britain is that it has made cricketer a much more attractive job for a British Asian. Which is a good thing in the same way as you point out it has been in India.

    The downside is that we risk producing players who only have T20 skills.


    • Sri.Grins Feb 3, 2018 / 5:36 am

      Difficult to predict if it will affect test playing skills but isn’t a similar process happening with FB , Twitter, Whatsapp? Most of the times we get rubbish and forward rubbish. Many posts are made up, All of us seem to be spending a lot more time on smart phones than with people. But, what can anyone realistically do? you can say that we are becoming people with little huma interactions and only technonology driven.

      Noone can reverse this change.


  15. Sri.Grins Feb 3, 2018 / 9:29 am

    Well though we missed the women’s WC against england, made up for it in u-19 vs oz. Easy win in the end and India is not going to have issues in finding LOI batsmen and bowlers. Test batsmen ? those have been in short supply for years and not just after the IPL 🙂


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