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.