Do You Have To Be Rich To Play Cricket?

“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.

T20 Blast Attendance – A Boring Maths Post

In the lead up to today’s finals, the ECB released information about attendance in this year’s competition; A total of approximately 800,000, including the sold out Edgbaston crowd. This was compared to 2019’s figures of 920,000, or a decline of roughly 15 percent. I had two questions upon hearing this news: ‘Weren’t there a massive number of abandoned matches in 2019?’ and ‘How much will that cost the counties?’

To answer the first question: Yes, there were. 24 matches were abandoned due to rain in 2019, as opposed to 7 in 2018 and 6 in 2022. In spite of this, 2019 was (and obviously remains) the season in which the most tickets were sold in the T20 Blast. Which led me to think about how it would be possible to account for this factor and correctly gauge how much attendances had really fallen.

As far as I can work out using ground capacities from Wikipedia, there were a maximum of 1.37 million seats available in the 2019 Blast (having subtracted the 24 washouts), and 1.55 million seats in 2022 (without 6 washouts). This allows us to compare the two seasons’ attendances as the percentage of available capacity: 67.2 percent in 2019, and 51.5 percent in 2022. This would mean that the reduction in ticket sales for the 18 counties isn’t really 15 percent, as has been reported, but 23.3 percent from 2019 to this season.

To put it another way: If the counties had sold the same proportion of seats in 2022 as they did in 2019, the total attendance for the competition would have been 1,040,000 instead of 800,000.

Which brings us to my second question, regarding how much this will have cost the counties. The Cricketer magazine published this useful list of county ticket prices, from which you can estimate how much more money each team would have made if they had sold 23.3 percent more tickets. The answer for all 18 counties combined is just over £5,000,000.

Of course, this simplistic conjecture likely fails to grasp the full scale of losses that the clubs are enduring. It does not account for the lost food, drink and merchandise sales from the grounds, for example. What is clear is that it is the clubs which have the largest grounds who suffer the most damage financially in this situation. Worcestershire CCC stand to lose roughly £100,000 this season (23.3 percent of 5,500 capacity * 6 home matches * £20 ticket price), whilst Surrey CCC’s losses might be over a million pounds (23.3 percent of 27,500 capacity * 7 home matches * £28 ticket price). Worcestershire CCC might feel like they are getting a good deal from the £1,300,000 ECB payment in return for supporting The Hundred. Surrey CCC, and the other hosts in The Hundred, might feel otherwise.

It’s hard to tell whether this season’s figures will have worried those in charge of the county clubs. Their chairs recently voted to support a new TV deal with Sky Sports on broadly the same terms as the current contract, including the continuation of The Hundred. This ties county cricket into a similar schedule for the next six seasons, but also presumably guarantees that each team will receive their extra £1,300,000 ‘dividend’ from the ECB. It remains to be seen if this will be a wise choice.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please leave them below.

Daydream Believer

England’s first Test victory of this summer was rather routine. Not in terms of the run chase, because that was impressive. But it was also entirely orthodox, relying on a proven world class batsman – their only world class batsman – leading his team home with a superb innings. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, namely that England were a brittle batting line up, but that if Joe Root got runs they might have a chance. At the time it seemed little more than that, no indication in particular of anything especially different, and apart from Root’s majestic knock, England probably had the worst of the game. So sure, a win, and a welcome one after the dreadful run of the last 18 months, but maybe not a whole lot more. It’s with hindsight it appears to have been greater than that, with it granting a degree of confidence and belief in the next step. Since then all hell has broken loose, the batting performances becoming ever more extraordinary and insane. After the conclusion of today’s Test Ben Stokes said a part of him had hoped India’s lead had reached 450 in order to see what England did about it. And you can feel this team is absolutely itching to have a go at a world record chase just to see if they can do it. It’s a world record for a reason, but after the absurdly easy and routine chasing down of 380 who is to say they couldn’t do it?

And in a tactical and strategic sense, this has an effect. Teams will be wary of setting England a total that up to now will have been considered a safe one, particularly with a time element. Leaving England 300 to get at 5 an over has been something that could be viewed as placing the pressure entirely on an England team that had little intent to go after it and a couple of sessions to survive. Not any more, opponents would be viewing it as a risk to do so. Even 400 plus will be treated as though it’s a feasible target. That isn’t to say for a second that the game has been entirely turned on its head – in such circumstances the bowling team should feel they were in a strong position and not all fifth day pitches will be remotely as accommodating as the ones this summer, but the mind is a funny thing, and the nagging thought that England won’t just go for it, but might well get it will be present in many an opposing dressing room from now on. A similar thing happened with the ODI team, where teams would often be so aware that they needed a big total against an England side that made it abundantly clear they thought they could chase anything that opponents overreached and fell in a heap. Test cricket isn’t white ball cricket, true, but the difference so far this summer has been narrower than ever seen before.

Likewise, the disquiet when building a lead will be entirely about the potential doubt of whether it’s enough. It shifts the pressure onto England’s opponents in a way that has never been tried before in the longest form of the game, or at least not to this extent. It’s why the whole Bazball approach is so extraordinarily fascinating to watch how it pans out over the longer term. England haven’t become radically better as a batting line up overnight, but it is the case that the quite incredible levels of belief flowing through them have raised their level to a degree that’s hard to credit.

There will certainly be bad days, when they fall in a heap and collapse. But they are trying this out from a position where it was hard to see how they could get any worse, with endless feeble subsidence of the batting order under the lightest of pressure. When you’re often 100 or fewer all out anyway, why the hell not? In that they are lucky – because it’s not just that this is thrilling to watch, it’s that they have licence to do it from a supporter base that wants to see something, anything, done to show some sign of life.

Stokes again probably went too far, his last couple of innings were less aggression and more rank slogging. But you can see why and how this happened – he is trying to set a particular tone to the rest of the team that he won’t take a backward step and he wants them to follow his example. That will doubtless be pulled back in to some extent in the months ahead because he’s got a decent cricket brain, and he’s got the buy in from everyone, on and off the pitch to a level he doesn’t need to demand they follow suit. An example of the level of commitment was surely to be found yesterday evening, when the nightwatchman padded up was Stuart Broad. Stuart Broad!

It’s really why this morning and yesterday were so impressive. Although England scored at a preposterous rate, they weren’t going all out for trying to hit every ball to the boundary, it was aggressive, but it was controlled. Jonny Bairstow’s twin hundreds were markedly slower than those against New Zealand, yet still rapid by any standards other than his own. Root’s tempo is little changed, but it suddenly looks like part of a bigger plan than just his own ability, oft mentioned, to score quickly without anyone noticing. The ramp shots though – that is someone not just in astonishing form, but someone who doesn’t fear a bollocking if it goes wrong.

And it will. If there’s a certainty, at some point it will. But there is a difference between it going wrong on occasion due to the high risk/reward equation or doing so on a consistent basis because it’s not sustainable in Test cricket, and it’s that we don’t yet know, and that that will be enthralling to witness. Whether they can play like this away from home, whether they can do it against the likes of Australia (if they’ve done it to India and New Zealand I simply see no reason why not) and so on. But at the moment they are pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with, and it feels dangerous and exciting – not necessarily something people would normally think about Test cricket.

And here’s the biggie: Test cricket has been in real and increasing trouble, as the white ball game dominates the cricketing calendar. If England are to try to play like this consistently, and even more so if other teams follow their lead, then the Test game becomes far more than the one that people have loved for decades, it becomes one to really pull in those younger adherents that everyone is trying to chase after. It becomes an attraction in itself to those who happily go to an ODI hoping to see fireworks. That might not be entirely traditional, in fact it’s rather the opposite. But we have been hoping for a way that Test cricket might not just survive, but even thrive, and who knows, maybe this could be it.

It’s anecdotal, sure, but I’ve had plenty of friends who scarcely pay attention normally talk glowingly about how England have been playing. It is the fours and sixes that do it, and however facile many might find that, it’s not a crime to be practical in the approach to the need for Test cricket to succeed.

It doesn’t mean the challenges have gone away, nor the mismanagement by the ECB. Indeed, it would be a truly delicious irony after the millions chucked at the Hundred if the way to entice people into cricket proved to be the Test team instead, especially as Test cricket is, and always has been, the ECB’s main source of income.

Yet we now have a six week gap to the South Africa Test series as the white ball internationals take over and domestically the Hundred rears it’s controversial head. It’s unfortunate, but we didn’t really expect England’s start to this summer anyway, just the opposite. But let’s put it this way, the England Test team are raising all sorts of questions at the moment. There might not be answers, but they’re really, really good questions. And it’s an absolute blast isn’t it?