Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

There are certain things everyone holds to be true. They are rarely challenged, and when they are, the views tends to disappear into a hole and be forever ignored. It’s therefore with no expectations at all that I decide to take on a known truth in cricket and argue that it doesn’t hold up. Namely that the major problem in cricket development is the lack of cricket in schools, and that things were so much better 35 years ago. It’s something you hear from every quarter, a lament for a golden age of youth cricket that has disappeared, to the detriment of the game overall and preventing the young from taking up the sport.

It’s a complex matter, open to debate, and isn’t, or shouldn’t be, clear cut. Yet it is always stated that the loss of schools cricket is a fundamental causal effect of cricket’s problems with engagement and rarely challenged. So I will.

I went to a state school, but one that played cricket. Even in those days that was fairly unusual – it was certainly the only school in the town that played, and matches were against others in the wider county rather than anyone in the immediate vicinity. Many of those were state schools, but by no means all – the idea that cricketing schools were a common thing isn’t true. Matters have got worse in the intervening years, that is not in doubt. Equally, the prevalence of school cricket varies dramatically by region and by degree of urban area. Yet in no sense in the state sector can it be argued that things have got better, cricket in schools is a much rarer sight than it was in the 1980s. To what extent that can be applied in an overall discussion of the state of play is a more complex matter.

Individual experience is not indicative of a wider truth, and nor is the plural of anecdote data, so when arguing any case it must always be borne in mind that experiences differ, and differ significantly. But it is also the case that the regular media commentary on schools cricket is driven by the fact that cricket journalism is driven by a largely privately educated reporting base. Their experience of school’s cricket is fundamentally different to that of the wider public, of whatever generation, and their fondness for their memories of their own experience is significantly out of kilter with the 93% not privately educated. It is simplistic to translate their own experiences and ethos to the wider topic, yet when they do so it is rarely argued with on the basis that it is stemming from a false premise.

While the private education sector often has exceptional facilities, focused coaching and the desire to develop ability, state schools are more prosaic about what is on offer, if anything. Teachers have neither the time nor (often) the skills to coach, and nor should they be expected to do so. In that supposed golden age of the 1980s school’s cricket it amounted to the odd session in the nets and representing the establishment in games. Little more. But the difference then was that relatively few clubs had an organised colts set up either as an alternative or a supplement. In my own case, when starting out only one club in the area had any kind of formal youth structure, and they played very few games a year. I saw the change happening – at 12 years old it was that one and only club in the area, by the time I was 19, there were half a dozen in the immediate vicinity, all with a youth section. For me, in order to play cricket, school was essential, the club exposure amounted to what will be a familiar process to many of starting out in the Sunday 2nd XI playing against men rather than regular age group cricket.

One area to note where school’s cricket did have a huge importance though, is that it was then the means for being put forward for the county age groups. Clubs were almost entirely ignored as a route into the county structure until eventually, in Kent at least, a structure was set up to allow that to happen.

This is entirely different to the position in the 21st century, where thousands of clubs provide a quite exceptional level of youth development, and also a pathway for the best into the county structure. Club coaches were non-existent 35 years ago, they are now widespread and able. To put it another way, and given that teachers were not filling that gap then or now, the standard and availability of coaching is so much better now that it barely qualifies as a debate. Equally, the number of youth games, whether internal to a club or against others, is vastly higher in 2020 (with allowances for Covid-19) than was ever the case when I was growing up. Equipment, always an expensive element of the game, is relatively plentiful and of good standard, compared to a school kitbag – if it existed at all – that was usually a relic from a decade or more earlier. And on a personal note, finding anything left handed was nigh on impossible.  If left-handers, or wicketkeepers wanted to play, they needed to beg their parents to buy them equipment.

By almost any measure you care to choose, for those who do play cricket, the clubs in the modern era offer a vastly superior experience than state schools ever did in the past. It therefore cannot be the argument that the nostalgia for some kind of golden era of cricket in schools was based on a better playing incidence, it has to be something else.

Cricket has faced a challenge in inspiring youngsters to take up the game in the first place, and it is here that the schools argument is on stronger ground. By exposing children to the game in the first place, it is suggested that more were inclined to take it up and to become cricketers, potentially life long ones. But although a firmer argument, it remains relatively flimsy when set against the opportunities now available. In my own case and those of my school team-mates, school didn’t introduce us to cricket, it was a pre-existing interest that school provided an outlet for. For children with that pre-existing interest, clubs now offer that much higher quality offering, but even for those who didn’t go on to play for either school or club, their initial exposure was less a matter of an organised games session and more a matter of using a bat and a tennis ball in the playground, the park or for those lucky enough, the back garden. The role of education in firing that initial spark of interest is a very open question. Even in my cricket playing school, organised activity for the wider pupils was highly limited; it did exist, but it couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be compared to sports like football or (in my case) hockey, which were established school activities. This will clearly vary from school to school, and personal experience to personal experience. Yet there are grounds for scepticism when even an established cricket playing school such as mine (and they still play, incidentally) didn’t provide the grounding for an introduction to the sport in any meaningful sense, only a focus for that wish to play.

With the truth that the number of schools playing has declined dramatically, one way that the clubs have attempted to pick up the slack is to go into state establishments to introduce the game to pupils. Where the question lies is whether this is because of a lack of opportunity, or because the game has become invisible with the retreat to showing the sport behind a paywall. Most surveys have indicated a general lack of awareness of cricket, but it is a leap to suggest that the primary reason for this is the lack of potential to play while being educated, it may be much more about the lack of access to seeing the sport at any kind of meaningful level to instil that first curiosity of cricket. And therein lies a related point, that even those in favour of subscription-based television coverage accept that free to air is a highly effective way of reaching people and inspiring interest, in their case, the argument is about the revenue loss involved were free to air to be the choice made. That being the case, while an argument can be made for hiding the game to generate income can be made, it is only acceptable if allied with a large scale push to create interest at youth level, and that has been entirely missing. The ECB continue to invest a relative pittance in youth cricket.

There is ever the temptation to see the past through rose tinted spectacles and assume a time where a particular circumstance was better. Times and our society has changed dramatically in the intervening years, but a simplistic view of where the problem lies doesn’t help anyone, particularly when the chances of that specific perceived flaw changing are minimal. Clubs have not only filled the gap, they have expanded the range of options exponentially. Anybody intrigued by cricket has a much greater chance to play, and more particularly, the range of abilities catered for is significantly enhanced beyond the position of around 13 people in a year group being given the chance to play.

A further objection to this hypothesis is the degree to which the professional ranks are increasingly drawn from the private schools, and particularly so in the case of the batsmen, with that being evidence of the impact of lack of state school cricket. Perhaps. But it may also be a matter of the overall increase in a focus on coaching per se, with the private schools being the only education outlets to provide for that. In other words, it is less about the state school coaching offering, which hasn’t changed at all in the last decades and more a matter of a substantial uplift in private coaching provision, alongside the increasing coaching focus of the game more generally. If that were to be true, then a trebling of the coaching levels in the clubs would still be a relative drop when matched against a quadrupling of the same in the public schools.

Cricket does have a lot of problems, but the increased interest over the last 12 months thanks to a World Cup win and the current England team’s apparent ability to pull off successful but preposterous run chases has helped enormously.  Yet it cannot undo several decades of malign indifference. This piece gives no answers, and only asks questions, but it seems reasonable enough not to simply accept a truism purely because it is widely held. Very few complex matters invite simple solutions, and perhaps this is an example of that.  This is an argument made from a position of powerful uncertainty, Strong disagreement with the case being made here is welcomed, because this is a subject that needs considering more deeply than it has been if we are to find a way of bringing the game back to the young, and to provide the next generation to fall in love with cricket.

10 thoughts on “Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

  1. metatone Aug 9, 2020 / 7:05 pm

    I’m generally in agreement with your piece, the evidence I’ve seen suggests it’s the flight to Sky more than the changes in schools that has reduced the pool of kids interested. There is a general decline in kids participating in sport that does match the curriculum changes and selling off of sports fields in the 80s, along with changes in society. It’s only later that cricket starts to do worse than other sports in terms of participation, engagement, etc.

    That said, I do feel the class issue needs some examination. There are an awful lot of kids who will basically never get the chance to pick up a bat, ever and taking cricket out of state schools has not helped that at all. The stats suggest that even if your’e interested, if your family is struggling on the money front the odds of you ever going to a cricket club at a young age are much reduced. I’m not even looking here to think about pros coming from something other than a private school background, for the health of the game we’re looking at fans coming from something other than a private school background – and the trends are a bit worrying.

    That said, when it comes to most people, the removal of cricket from schools is a step forward. It’s a rubbish sport for kids when it comes to exercise and an hour standing in the outfield on a windswept grey day surely put off more people than it ever attracted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dannycricket Aug 10, 2020 / 6:44 am

      Standing around on a windswept grey day is also pretty much the experience of kids playing 11-a-side football in PE lessons for the most part too, I think.

      Getting cricket in schools is purported to have three benefits: Increasing the number of cricket fans, increasing participation numbers, and increasing the overall quality of junior (and in the long term, all) cricket. The first of these is, to me, nonsense. Playing rounders in school did not create a generation of baseball fans. Hundreds of thousands of kids attend ballet classes every year but virtually none become avid ballet watchers as adults. There seems to be no correlation between kids’ participation in activities, enforced or not, and what they go on to enjoy watching and spending money on as adults.

      With the other two benefits, there is at least some logical basis. If a child enjoys or shows an aptitude for cricket in PE, they can be directed to a local club. The question then becomes whether this is the best, or most cost-effective way of achieving this. Chance To Shine is a charity which aims to bring cricket into schools, funded by a combination of Sport England, the ECB and private fundraisers. They say that they reach around 500,000 kids each year, including approximately one-fifth of primary schools, from a total budget of £6m per year. We might therefore surmise that in order for them to reach every primary school in this way, it would cost around £30m per year. On one hand, the ECB could afford that fairly easily with the new £220m pa TV deal. On the other, that amount of money might be better spent elsewhere.

      For example: Let’s say there are 3,000 ECB-affiliated clubs with junior sections (the ECB don’t release official figures, so I have no idea if it’s accurate), then the £24m extra needed for Chance To Shine would amount to around £8,000 per club. Imagine what clubs could do with £8,000 per year. Hire minibuses to transport kids to games, buy new equipment, hire extra coaches, advertise locally, subsidise junior fees. In terms of boosting long term participation, all of these seem to have a more direct impact than funding Chance To Shine.

      Chance To Shine also doesn’t seem effective in terms of improving the quality of junior cricket by encouraging kids with potential to join their local clubs. If you look at the end product, Chance To Shine themselves have only claimed one success story where they had a direct role in someone eventually becoming a county cricketer: Sukhjit Singh. He was a bowler for Warwickshire 2nd XI for a couple of years before being released in 2018.

      Of course, this might not be Chance To Shine’s fault, nor evidence of it not improving the quality of club cricket. We know that independent schools dominate English cricket, and the kids Chance To Shine helps won’t have that advantage when it comes to county recruitment. Perhaps some money from the ECB could be ringfenced for counties to spend on training, equipment and other expenses of kids with potential who don’t have the benefit of private schooling. This wouldn’t improve the quality of junior or club cricket, but could have a large impact on the quality of county cricket.

      But all of these require huge sums of money to achieve, because they all require direct personal contact. Sending a person to every school, or financing every cricket club, costs a lot of money. The ease with which children were attracted to the game when it was on BBC or Channel 4, both as fans and players, now has been replaced with an expensive and labour-intensive slog to achieve the same things. It’s massively inefficient. The ECB hope that The Hundred will achieve the mainstream awareness that Test cricket once had, and the benefits that entails, without costing the ECB money. I think it’s fair that most people reading this here will be sceptical of that.

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  2. James Smart Aug 9, 2020 / 8:35 pm

    Wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of this. Where I live none of the state schools offer any real cricket but there are 4 clubs within 5 miles offering youth cricket and they are heavily oversubscribed up to u15 and are doing a great job in increasing participation and from what I have seen coach well. The private schools though will continue to dominate the production of first class players. The boarding school that I teach in has 14 pitches (the 1st XI pitch is county standard) a full time cricket coach, 1 ex professional on the staff, 3 Blues, 2 minor county players and 3 or 4 members of staff who played Club premier league standard and everyone is at least ECB level 2 standard. This means that players in the A teams get high quality coaching for 2 terms and the top end get coaching throughout the year, in a highly technical game like cricket this is going to have a huge effect ( you see the same in theatre). The point is that by concentrating on the social make up of professional cricket the role of the clubs in producing the next generation of club players and spectators is overlooked.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thelegglance Aug 10, 2020 / 3:06 pm

      Apologies your post took a couple of days to appear, it got stuck in spam for some reason.

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  3. Aden Biddle Aug 10, 2020 / 3:04 pm

    Very good piece. I find as a club cricketer the demographic of club cricket is wide and has been for many years but the backgrounds of professional cricketers appears to be more aligned to privately educated.

    I remember going to a comp with no cricket at all and then playing county age groups with boys from private school I hope that system has changed since the early 00’s when I played many kids I played with in the competitive world of Black Country junior cricket didnt have the ability to go to training a long way away in Evesham or Worcester their parents worked or only had one car plus there was the expectation of buying the kit etc. I would say more of the boys in the second category still play cricket now as opposed to ones in the first.
    I am keen to promote inclusivity in cricket at every opportunity when I lived in the South East the demographic was different but then so is all parts of society down there.

    In The Midlands, The North, North East, Wales and the West Country cricket is still a diverse game played by people from all social and economic backgrounds and ethnicities but I always find it sad that their respective local first class sides don’t necessarily reflect this, I’m not involved in this aspect of club life so would be interested to know what other think and what counties are doing different to my few unsuccessful county age group games over 15 years ago now.

    Club facilities are excellent now but big 5-6 adult team focus clubs have become more exclusive and the demands on costs, equipment and coaching means some of them now rival county age groups for demands on their participants, where I now live it is no surprise the biggest and most successful junior age groups are these style clubs both situated in more affluent parts of town.

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  4. Mark Aug 10, 2020 / 7:34 pm

    I agree that state schools are not responsible for the falling off of people coming into cricket. There wasn’t a golden age of state school cricket. I discovered cricket through the BBC. Free to air, and then wanted to play, and went from there. But there was far less choice in activities in those days than today. Kids have so much else to discover and try. From other sports to computer games. Also a lot of things are more individual. Cycling has boomed in the last decade. How many people watch cycling? But they like riding their bikes.

    As to the ECB….I’m not at all sure they give a stuff about promoting participation in cricket. What they want is new customers for their expensive product. Either through tv subscription or over priced test match tickets. Participation does not automatically lead to being a customer. I can’t play the guitar or any musical instrument but I like watching and listening to good musicians.

    You could make an argument that even the private schools have not been able to supply enough real talent over the last thirty years for the national team. Which is why England have had so many players who were born and brought up in other parts of the world.

    I also wonder if someone like Michael Atherton, who went to a good university would choose to go into cricket today. University Education is now very expensive , and leaves most people with a lot of debt. Atherton’s game was not cut out for the modern crash bang wallop 20/20 of today. If you have a good degree could you take the risk when more attractive careers beckon? Players like Nasser, Strauss, and Cook, made it to the top, and then stayed in cricket through broadcasting or administration. A thirty five year old county player with little job experience in any other field is not a great prospect. Even with a degree.

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  5. Grenville Aug 10, 2020 / 7:49 pm

    For my money Cricket participation is declining because it is no longer part of national life. It’s a niche interest. That, it seems to me, is down to two factors: the sell off of school playing fields (and the resultant removal of cricket from schools) and the paywall. My family were not cricket fans, but my brother and myself fell in love with the game because, I think, it was the summer sport. In my 8 year old head, you played rugby and football in the winter and cricket in the summer. That’s how the newspaper, tv and school (a private one) made it look.

    What I’m saying is that it isn’t about the quality of coaching, it’s about the bare fact of it belonging to you. My guess, as someone outside cricket in more ways than one, is that cricket seems a private passion to a whole generation of children. Maybe some have caught the bug, maybe some have not, but both will think it something you happen to like. That’s a change. My big sister, who hated cricket, still associates beaches in the summer with the game and still remembers Devon Malcom’s 9 for because it was part of the fabric of the summer. That’s what cricket not being part of school life loses.

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  6. waikatoguy Aug 11, 2020 / 2:02 am

    I don’t know why the English have this obsession with schools and cricket. Why expect the education sector to support your sporting intrrest.

    In New Zealand and Australia its the clubs that bring in the youngsters into the game not the schools. Its always been that way, at least in my life time it is (I’m 60).

    In NZ my kids first played in the junior development programmes (5 to 10 years old), run by the clubs with promotion done by Cricket NZ and the major sponsors. It was different when I was young but broadly similar.

    It Australia it all seems very well organised. Woolworths bankroll the promotion and the clubs run the programmes. I assume Cricket Australia is involved somehow and try to link it all up to support for the Big Bash. or is that visa versa.

    Oh and P.S. the private schools in England could very easily lose interest in cricket. The parents pay big money to the schools to get their kids into the top universities, and judge them on that basis not on sport. That’s a historical handover that could easily disappear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dannycricket Aug 11, 2020 / 7:31 am

      Yeah, the Australian system is a thing of beauty compared to the ECB’s monstrosity. They have three schemes working together between schools and junior clubs which are all branded the same and funded by Cricket Australia and sponsorship (Currently Woolworths, before that Milo). Here, we have All Stars (which has been running for a few years), Dynamos (due to start this year, tied to The Hundred despite sessions taking place before the competition would have launched) and Chance To Shine (an underfunded independent charity which has been going about 15 years). None of them are sponsored, none of them particularly effective and there’s little integration between them.

      Not unlike with The Hundred copying aspects of the Big Bash League, the ECB are taking bits from Cricket Australia’s successes in participation without really understanding what made them successful.

      Liked by 1 person

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