“Cricket is the most elitist sport in Britain” – The introduction to Freddie Flintoff’s Field Of Dreams
Flintoff’s programme on BBC One has prompted many questions and articles about whether one of the the show’s central premises, that working class children have virtually no chance of playing for England, was accurate.
I wrote a post here in 2017 which showed that 62.6% of Test appearances in the previous ten years were by players who had attended fee-paying schools, and this increased to an incredible 93.6% of appearances by batters and wicketkeepers. Of the 27 batters to play for England in that time, the only ones who attended exclusively secondary or grammar schools were Tim Ambrose, Michael Carberry, Adam Lyth, Owais Shah, Mark Stoneman, Michael Vaughan and Tom Westley.
When Michael Carberry (All Saints Catholic School, secondary) was abandoned as England opener after a single Ashes tour, despite outscoring Alastair Cook (Bedford School with a music scholarship, £21,945 per year), it is not unreasonable to think that a player who fit the archetype of an English batter (“Well spoken”, “articulate”, “sporting”, etc.) might have been given more chances by England’s chief selector James Whitaker (Uppingham School, £26,406 per year). That unconscious preference for players with similar backgrounds to themselves might well have continued with Ed Smith (Tonbridge School, £35,067 per year) and James Taylor (Shrewsbury School, £27,930 per year).
As easy (and fun) as it to blame the ECB and its’ selectors for a class bias, the simple truth is that there are very few state-schooled batters anywhere close to England contention in county cricket. That isn’t to say that there aren’t biases to be found in selection, but the real problems begin much, much earlier in the professional pathway.
Wealth confers an advantage in terms of playing professional cricket almost from birth. Purely in terms of forming an interest and love of watching the sport, a Sky Sports subscription (£407.88 per year on Now TV) is virtually essential. One noticeable theme from Freddie Flintoff’s Field Of Dreams was how few children in Preston failed to recognise Flintoff, but were also unable to even name any current England cricketers. Learning to play the game has similar barriers, where many public schools have full grass cricket pitches, former county cricketers as coaches and several hours of sport available every week whilst comprehensives are mostly limited to an hour or two of play with plastic bats and balls (if any cricket at all).
Children typically enter the county system between the ages of 10 and 14. By this point, the kids from wealthy families will have already received a significantly greater volume and quality of cricket coaching compared to their state-schooled competitors. This gives them a huge advantage at any county trials, an advantage which can be extended further through building relationships with the county coaches either via their school or expensive one-on-one coaching sessions.
Meanwhile, children without wealthy parents face a slew of obstacles before even reaching the county sessions. Public schools are significantly more likely to be visited by county scouts than an inner-city cricket club, for a start. This is doubly true for any club which is unable to enter the main ECB-affiliated leagues due to a lack of facilities or failing to gain the acceptance of the existing teams, regardless of how well they perform on the field. Most kids are limited to a couple of hours in the nets plus a single game every week, make do with cheap kit from a discount retailer, and rely on parents (often not theirs) for transport to away matches. All of this keeps a vast number of talented youngsters from even making it to the county trials, which are usually held in a different city or town to where they live anyway.
Those who do make it to the trials soon find that that being a part of the county age group squad is a very expensive business. At most counties, parents are expected to pay for a complete branded county kit, bats and other equipment, and also coaching. They are also strongly encouraged to shell out for expensive remedial one-on-one coaching for any flaws detected in training sessions, and sometimes even tours to foreign countries. Matt Prior (Brighton College with a sports scholarship, £20,490 per year) tweeted a few months ago that the cost for his two children in the Sussex CCC county set up was over £1,000 each.
This high cost invalidates the idea that public school scholarships act as some kind of social leveller which means that the statistics showing the dominance of privately-educated cricketers is unrepresentative. The most commonly used example is Joe Root (Worksop College with a sports scholarship, £14,199 per year). What people overlook is that Root joined the Yorkshire CCC youth system at the age of 11, and it wasn’t until he was 15 that he was offered his scholarship. This is the case with virtually all such scholarships; They are typically only offered after a child excels in the county youth teams and is virtually assured of a professional contract. If a family can’t even afford to attend the county’s training sessions, there is absolutely no chance that they will receive an all expenses paid golden ticket to an independent school.
Counties claim that they have little choice but to charge parents. Sussex CCC’s chief executive, Rob Andrew (Barnard Castle School, £15,498 per year), said:
“We all want the game to be as accessible as it can be. We all try to keep the costs reasonable. Where there is genuine hardship, we offer bursaries. We have genuine applications every year. The key thing for me is that in the end there is a significant cost to the counties to run these programmes. In an ideal world, we would offer all this coaching for free. But how do I pay for it? It would cost the club £250,000. We can’t afford to do that. Maybe some of the bigger counties have more resource, but we have to cut our cloth accordingly. If we’re forced to make it free, my fear is that the pathway programmes will get slashed.”
This begs the question: How much are Sussex CCC’s “pathway programmes” costing them now? The surprising answer is that, according to their own 2021 accounts, they are actually making a £17,000 profit from them (£499,000 income minus £482,000 expenses). Far from being a burden, or an investment necessary to improve the quality of the team, Sussex CCC seem to regard their age group squads and academies as a source of revenue to help fund other aspects of the club (such as, for example, their chief executive’s wages).
To put this figure of £499,000 in perspective: Sussex CCC’s combined ticket and membership sales in 2021 totalled £530,000. That season admittedly had reduced attendances due to COVID-19 (whilst the 2022 season has had reduced attendances due to the new scheduling), but even in 2019 they only managed to accrue £953,000 from people actually watching them play.
Squeezing parents for every penny they can is good business, but no way to run a cricket club. It is surprising to many outside observers that there are any costs to the parents at all. After all, why would a team exclude vast swathes of people without £1,000+ in their pockets when they are scouring their region for the best cricketers in their region? One reason is a total lack of consequences. Whether Sussex CCC develop all 11 England players or not, whether they use homegrown players or not, whether they gain promotion to Division 1 or not, the amount of revenue they receive is virtually unchanged. So why try?
This is a very different scenario to football, where the rewards for unearthing a star player are so lucrative (either through transfer fees or promotion) that clubs will bend over backwards to ensure any talented youngster signs for them. The idea of charging kids for this, potentially losing millions of pounds by allowing someone to be poached by a rival team, is anathema.
Sussex CCC could easily find ways to reduce expenses if they chose (or were forced) to not treat talented kids like a cash machine. They could just not have a uniform at all and have everyone play in their club/school whites for example. They could use their contracted players to help out in sessions rather than having so many dedicated coaches. It’s even possible to argue that children with access to professional-level cricket coaching and facilities at their (very expensive) schools don’t need to receive any coaching from the counties at all.
If we take the Sussex CCC chief executive’s estimate that completely free youth academies would cost them £250,000, then the total cost for all county cricket might be approximately £4,500,000 (18 x £250,000). The ECB’s Director Of Men’s Cricket, Rob Key (Colfe’s School, £19,125 per year), has proposed that profits from The Hundred should be used to fund age group county cricket in order not to “price half the people out of the market”. This is an interesting suggestion for a number of reasons: The first is that it is the contention of the ECB that The Hundred is already making a profit of roughly £11,000,000 every year. In that sense, the money is already available for this purpose. It has also been reported that the total budget for in-ground entertainment at The Hundred (fireworks, dancers, bands, etc) is over £6,000,000 per year. It is certainly worth questioning whether that is the best use of the ECB’s money.
This does nothing to absolve the counties of any blame, of course. Each county has received an extra £1,300,000 in annual funding from the ECB in exchange for their support of The Hundred, some of which could easily cover free youth coaching. Every club had a choice on what to spend that money on, and almost all of them have chosen not to spend it on their youth programmes.
The former ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison (Oundle School, £27,075 per year), certainly never took any steps to address these issues. Even when it was raised as a potentially racist policy which had the effect of preventing British Asians from becoming professional cricketers, it was just Yorkshire CCC rather than the ECB which acted. It remains to be seen whether the interim chief exectutive, Clair Connor (Brighton College, £20,490 per year), or whoever takes the role next will fare any better.
So to answer the question in the title: Perhaps you don’t have to be ‘rich’ to play county cricket, but you certainly won’t make it if you’re poor.
Any comments or questions about the post, any of the cricket being played, or anything else, leave them below.