In most state schools, cricket is a dead ball game

The England team is riding high, but most of its stars learned to play in public schools

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

England’s cricketers won a remarkable Test match inside three days in the bearpit of Johannesburg, a victory that put them 2-0 up in the four-match series, with only the final Test to play. It is a remarkable achievement by Alastair Cook’s team because, before a ball had been bowled, most judges expected South Africa, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, to claim another triumph by right.

In particular it was a wonderful tribute to the public schools which sharpened the skills of the star players. Stuart Broad, who took six prime wickets for only 17 runs on that tumultuous third day, reducing South Africa’s second innings to rubble, was educated at Oakham. Joe Root, who scored a superb century to set up the bowlers, was a sixth-former at Worksop College. Jonny Bairstow, who held nine catches in the match behind the stumps, attended St Peter’s York, and James ‘Titch’ Taylor, who held two remark-able catches at short leg, went to Shrewsbury.

Cook, who has made more Test runs for England than anybody, and who has now led England to victory in South Africa as well as India, spent his schooldays at Bedford. Poor old Nick Compton had to make do with Harrow, ‘the dump on the hump’. And there to report on proceedings was the BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, an Uppingham old boy, supported by the evergreen ‘Blowers’, Henry Calthorpe Blofeld, who polished his vowels at Eton.

Nor does the public-school influence end at the boundary ropes. Andrew Strauss, Cook’s predecessor as captain, was appointed director of cricket by the England and Wales Cricket Board last year, and Strauss is a Radley man. As the Oxfordshire school also educated the great Ted Dexter (‘Lord Ted’) 60 years ago, they have certainly done their bit for the summer game.

English cricket has been adorned, if not completely dominated, by public schoolboys for as long as batsmen have faced bowlers. C.B. Fry, the finest all-round sportsman this country has produced, went to Repton before Oxford University. The Albanians offered Fry the crown of their kingdom but he refused it, saying it was ‘a damn bore’. Mind you, he went on, ‘had I accepted it, the Italian invasion would never have happened. There would have been county cricket, and nobody would have dared to invade Albania with county cricket being played. The Royal Navy would have been obliged to intervene!’

Douglas Jardine, the England captain whose ‘bodyline’ strategy (vicious fast and short bowling) in Australia in 1932-33 almost led to a diplomatic breach between the countries, learned his cricket at Winchester. After the war the finest batsmen continued to come: Peter May (Charterhouse), Colin Cowdrey (Tonbridge), M.J.K. Smith (Stamford), and David Gower (King’s, Canterbury). Of recent captains Michael Atherton was a bright boy at Manchester Grammar School, and Nasser Hussain went to Forest School in east London. Mike Brearley, widely considered to be the finest captain of all, passed through City of London School on his way, like Atherton, to Cambridge.

Does all this matter? My word, it does, more than ever. In state schools cricket has more or less disappeared. The game is expensive to play, with all the clobber that participants need, and it takes up more hours than any other sport. Football and rugby are easy work. All you need are two lots of shirts and a teacher with a whistle. Cricket requires far more dedication from schoolmasters and the lads (and, increasingly, girls) who play the sport.

The public schools, with their long-rooted traditions (not least in fixtures against other top schools) and superb playing fields, have a head start in all respects. Many of them also offer sports scholarships to the most gifted boys, which is how Root, who is blossoming day by day into a cricketer of exceptional skill, got his chance. You might say that the victory in Jo’burg was established on the playing fields of Worksop — and Oakham.

These schools have another advantage. Many leading cricketers, including those who played Test cricket, are recruited as ‘pros’, coaching the boys during the summer term and casting a kindly eye upon their progress. Cook, for instance, was coached at Bedford by Derek Randall, once of Nottinghamshire and England. Phillip DeFreitas is the current pro at Magdalen College School, Oxford, and John Lever is at Bancroft’s.

Meanwhile, in the state sector, King Football reigns supreme. Even though we are not much cop at football as a country, compared with Germany or Italy, the game is more popular than ever, or at least more visible. Cricket, once unquestionably the other major national sport, has been pushed to the margins. Club cricket, once so strong in places like Lancashire and Yorkshire, has also declined. There is a widespread struggle to put out teams, and some clubs have gone out of business.

The lack of coverage on terrestrial television has played the most important part in this process of marginalisation. However skilfully Sky cover the game, Atherton and Hussain to the fore, a generation of young people have grown up with cricket playing little or no part in their sporting lives. As newspapers no longer report the first-class game in depth, preferring to throw all their eggs into the basket of Test cricket, there has been a rupture with the past. It is now noticeable that many spectators who attend Test matches have a sketchy know-ledge of the game and those who play it.

So the public schools which have contributed so mightily to English cricket’s past are now entrusted with the responsibility of finding players for the future. It is a burden these great institutions will shoulder manfully. It is also a sad reflection on our national sporting life.

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  • The Red Bladder

    Tragic but true. Oh for the days when one saw three stumps chalked on walls all over the place.

    • oldasiahand

      Go to the Indian subcontinent. That’s the future. It’s everywhere in the streets, in the fields. They even play it alongside archery and falconry in Bhutan, deep in the Himalayas.

      • The Red Bladder

        So I have heard and from the top to the bottom of society. Oh that twere the same here.

    • samhol

      Blame the tyranny of the grey class. How many local residents would want neighbors’ children playing anywhere near their newly waxed BMWs?

  • Patrick

    What is this ‘cricket’ thing you talk of ? is it like baseball, but without the crowds?

    • The Red Bladder

      No, over here that game is only played in girls’ schools.

      • Mary Ann

        Doesn’t alter the fact that Baseball is rounders.

        • The Red Bladder

          That is exactly what I meant.

    • Jambo25

      Baseball is rather like ‘Rounders’ but without the skill or good sportsmanship and I, actually, do like baseball.

  • MillionaireSocialist

    No. Hope this helps.

  • MikeSmith8828

    Cricket is a stupid game. Possible injuries to fingers, eyes and teeth.

    Is this blasphemy ?

    • Dancing Paul

      It is.

    • Hamburger

      That excludes almost all sports then, including tiddlywinks.

  • Ed

    Death of cricket in state schools is a result of lack of pitches. It’s been in decline for 40 years.

    I believe the sellout to Sky has done us great damage. Without the TV exposure, we’ll get far fewer kids into cricket. It’s a great shame as it’s a wonderful sport that players can enjoy at many levels, and can play into their 50’s.

    All youth cricket now depends on local cricket clubs (like mine). The county / district coaching setups are still shamefully amateurish. It would be hard to believe that cricketing ability, and sporting talent in general, is the preserve of public schoolboys. How many good players are we missing because they have no exposure to the game or opportunity to play it?

  • john

    Some British traditions deserve to fade away. CofE, monarchy, House of Lords, public schools, cricket to name a few.

    • IainRMuir

      And chippy oiks.

      • john

        Brilliant, well argued response!

  • King Kibbutz

    On all cricket pitches, cricket is a dead ball game.

  • rtj1211

    I’m afraid the UK submitted its application to be a sporting colony of the USA years ago.

    The BBC, when announcing swingeing cuts to its coverage of plenty of real British sports, like F1, darts, snooker etc etc, quietly keeps expanding its NFL coverage which 90% of the UK public have no interest in. The NFL is a huge organisation that can use commercial channels for its coverage like ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5. But no, the BBC decides that the British want American football rather than real British sports. Who took that decision and why?

    The Americans, you understand, are too primitive to allow sports to have a draw. They are too primitive to let any game last longer than 3 hours. And for their culture where the only sport hitting a fast moving ball is baseball, the need to turn cricket in a glorified form of baseball is extremely strong.

    The concept that the Americans should realise that the British are far more sportingly refined than they are, that the British actually invented most of these sports and don’t need thick Americans telling them how to change them to attract American audiences (when the changes in the game have actually come from innovations in Australia and the Indian subcontinent anyway) is anathema to Americans.

    They have the money after all. And because of that, they have the power, the arrogance and the right to tell everyone what to do.

    Don’t they??

    • Skyeward

      What a rant. Did you know that cricket teams are proliferating here as well as coverage? Do you even know an American? Personally, I don’t get the fuss over cricket. Everyone knows golf is the greatest game of all.

    • Mary Ann

      Perhaps American Football is cheaper than cricket, simply because it doesn’t have a large following in this country, but people object to paying for the BBC and we can’t have something for nothing.

  • Roger Hudson

    Only one small mention of the real issue, grounds. I went to schools with lovely grounds for cricket ( the summer game) and union rugby ( the winter game). Now silly housing estates , with garages you can hardly get a Smartcar in.
    Both government party governments were to blame.
    Like physics and chemistry experiments cricket will soon be played ‘virtually’ by pupils stuck in front of computers, the workings of which they are ignorant.

  • seangrainger

    The Nottingham Post has two pages of local club cricket, keep up mate.

    • tjamesjones

      oh well in that case

  • Tamerlane

    Do we really want riff raff playing the hallowed game? Come now, some things will always be sacred.

  • carl jacobs

    She: “Is that some kind of performance art?”
    He: “No. It’s a Cricket Test Match.”
    She: “Oh.”

    She: “Do they ever move?”
    He: “Some people seem to think so.”

  • Ipsmick

    It probably doesn’t help when the playing fields have been flogged off – we managed six cricket pitches at my state school, and we played on them if we could get the dinosaurs to move. And of course our deeply inequitable education system more generally means that we’re failing to identify and capitalise on various talents amongst most of the population.

  • not_an_overthinker

    I’m not sure of the purpose of this article. Was waiting for a little twist given I’ve loved Michael’s writing down the years. Cricket has always been the sport for all in England. It’s the biggest leveller of them all. Played in every town by people of every background and we should embrace how people from all backgrounds provide our talented cricketers. Different upbringings maybe but each path brings different aspects to our game. Interesting that it references many attendees at Test matches have a sketchy knowledge. I simply don’t buy that. Perhaps on a Friday at Lord’s or on the western terrace at Headingley but the crowds here know their onions. And as the country that flies the flag for Test cricket with brilliant crowds at Tests this is a very odd point.

    This article doesn’t acknowledge the role of clubs, league cricket and county clubs. Assumes it’s dying outside of public schools. Like football clubs in the winter they’re the heartbeat of many a town and village in the summer. They pull in the cricketers at local state schools. Junior teams and then into the men’s teams. I know the author went to prep school then Repton, but as a Bolton lad you might think he knows a thing or too about Lancashire league cricket! You have to remember that in England we can only play cricket or net outside for 5 months a year. And to maintain outside facilities takes time and investment. Public schools provide amazing facilities as they have funds and staff to do so. Their kids are also at school for longer (or board) so getting them on a field is easier. Clubs do with volunteers. State schools just don’t have the means for creating or maintaining facilities, or holding day Saturday fixtures like Public Schools.

    Fascinatingly, of the leading 25 English Test wicket takers, only 2 went to public school – Broad and Panesar. Broad is an anomaly here. Public schools provide exceptional coaching (often ex county pros), the lads are drilled and tightly coached. Fielding is superb and techniques are pure. But it’s no accident that our greatest bowlers have learnt and developed away from this environment. Room to define their own, natural, often raw, style and that’s what’s made them exceptional. Just think Marshall, Croft, Garner, Holding, Lillee, Tommo, Waqar who all had distinct and natural techniques.

    Public school and young club cricketers have different learning experiences of the game, and we should embrace and rejoice in them all. A 16 year old making their first XI debut at a public school and another making theirs in the Birmingham league with points at stake, men and pros are very different experiences! Just remember Gary Neville said that whilst football was always his path, he always played against his peers. Cricket made him a man (he opened the batting with Hayden in club cricket).

    Think I’m qualified to comment here. Never played a single game at my state school, played men’s club cricket from 13, played at Uni, and then in my mid twenties became an MCC playing member and have enjoyed playing at clubs and schools across the land.

    The make-up of this England team is not important or reflective of anything. The lads in the team certainly won’t be thinking it. We have a rich heritage of different backgrounds in our game, joined Players and Gentlemen, didn’t split like rugby and Test cricket is loved here. We should cherish this all.

    • Jambo25

      I’m Scottish and absolutely love cricket. I’m a big supporter of the England team. So is my son. He’s just moved to a medium sized town in the Midlands with its own cricket club and I think he’s putting his membership application in for this year. Hope he does as I wouldn’t mind taking in a couple of matches when down visiting.
      If I was asked to give a description of Heaven one possibility would be sitting in Worcester CC ground looking towards the Cathedral on a warm Summer day watching a match. Cricket is one of England’s great gifts to civilisation and the game and its traditions should be cherished.

      • Peter Simple

        Worcester is a lovely ground and has many fond memories for me. I hope that your son gets to play there and you get to watch him

        • Jambo25

          Sorry but I think I expressed myself badly. My son’s Scottish but is in business and lives in the East Midlands. He’s going to join his local cricket club mainly as a social member and as a bit of a ‘hacker’ if they have a duffer’s team. He does attend test matches whenever he can. Living up here in Scotland I have little opportunity to attend any kind of matches but I get down to England occasionally. However, my opportunities to attend matches down there really revolve round Leicester CCC as that’s where my ‘better half’ comes from. Worcester is the prettiest ground but Grace Road is the one I’ve been to most. I’ve got a potential few days away with a friend who works for a company from the Worcester area and a few of us from the Edinburgh area are probably going down there for a couple of days during the Summer. Hope it comes off.

          • Peter Simple

            You expressed yourself, as ever, very clearly and my comment was an attempt at mild humour. If your “hacker” of a son does find a place in a duffers’ team, let’s hope that you get to see him hack and that you can take in a few days’ cricket at Grace Road too.

          • Jambo25

            Happy cricket watching to you too, Sir.

  • pobjoy

    Who sold the playing fields, Michael? And who will buy them back?

  • Peter Simple

    The chap in the photograph at the top of the article is demonstrating a fundamental technical flaw, whether he knows it or not. His top hand is on the wrong side of the bat handle and his pupils, if they follow his example, will never be able to execute a cover drive properly. Nice blazer, though.

  • JSC

    Although cricket can be a drawn out game, non-stop (continuous) cricket can be played in an hour or so and is a very entertaining substitute for the real thing.

  • Will Cowling

    Interesting article but not true. 5 out of 6 of current England test side did not go to private school and Joe Root only went to a private 6th form because Worksop wanted to win a few games. In fact Joe Root went to King Ecgbert School, the same school as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who might give your fellow old boy C.B Fry a good run for the finest sports person this country has ever produced.