Monday, 9 March 2015

A new low for English cricket? Naah, it’s just history repeating itself.

Deservedly, Bangladesh will be credited with ‘knocking-out’ a dismal England side from the 2015 Cricket World Cup. But, as is the way with tournament sport, it was England’s inability to add to a solitary victory, against Scotland, which has seen England eliminated with one game still left to play. How, when we consider population size and the number of professional cricketers at the disposal of England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), may we account for this ignominious performance?

Well it is not difficult, for we have been here before. The foundations of this epic failure lie in the continued self-interest among those who have run much of British sport for the last 150 years – the vast majority of that time under strictly enforced amateurism. Professionalism – in terms of coordinated organisation, world-class facilities and serious training – following the ploughing of lottery millions into a variety of British sports, is something we assume runs through all British sports today, but some sports are more ‘professional’ than others. As the humiliating performance in the World Cup suggests, cricket, which remains tied to the elitist ideologies and an anachronistic structure of the Victorian era, is not one of them.

In a society increasingly riven with class distinctions, the development of British sport from the 1870s was inevitably influenced by such prejudices. As Tony Collins’ seminal work Rugby’s Great Split demonstrates, one sport was even divided (in England at least) upon class-lines (the regionalism involved a lesser, but related, factor). The hypocrisy among middle-class men who controlled the Rugby Football Union in denying predominantly northern working class players’ ‘broken-time’ payments for lost wages, while they were allowed ‘out of pocket’ expenses was shared among those who controlled the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Professionalism in cricket, almost universally a working class phenomenon, was too well established however and, in an increasingly popular and commercialised sport, late-Victorian professionals, such as George Lohmann of Surrey, became some of the very first working class heroes.[1]  

This was problematic enough for the elites, but the presence of ever larger numbers of working class support at grounds, led some of the cricket elites to not only propose the abolition of the County Championship, or the establishment of an ‘all-amateur’ competition,[2] others sought a prohibitive rise in entrance fees,[3] in order to eradicate any working class presence on or off the field.

These reactionary proposals notwithstanding, some, including the cricket author H. V. Dorey, argued that professionals were still necessary as coaches and ground bowlers (indentured servants) to the counties and affluent members of elite clubs. It was these ‘subscribers’ – the members of clubs such as the MCC – men who he regarded as the ‘backbone of cricket, as in everything else’, for whom the game was run.[4] Robert Morris has called such associations subscriber democracies, but there was little democratic about associations which controlled (all-male) membership via personal recommendations, expensive membership (a form of financial apartheid) and, in the case of professionalism, increasingly humiliating distinctions between amateurs and professionals until 1963.[5]

First-class cricket has never been a democracy. Unlike the community-centric meritocracy of the Midland and the Northern leagues, which the MCC and its mouthpiece Wisden reviled, so-called ‘first-class’ cricket in England has never been run for the benefit of the supporters.[6] As it was in 1890, the game is run for a tiny minority of demographically narrow (white, male and over 40) supporters who still pay their membership to the eighteen ‘professional’ counties. Unfortunately, the county clubs still hold the balance of power within the ECB, and turkeys’ seldom vote for Christmas!

In his scorching analysis of English Cricket, Pommies:  England Cricket Through an Australian Lens, William Buckland reveals the way forward. In short, Buckland compares the Australian grade system with the bloated English County Championship (ECC) and comes to a very simple conclusion: There are too many nonviable county clubs employing too many mediocre professionals. The game, he argues, must be trimmed, and less, but more competitive and meaningful cricket played. Player talent would be concentrated, rather than diluted, and the injuries that come with an overly long County Championship avoided.

County cricket survives in England because of the public’s interest in the national side, and yet changes to the game’s structure that ought to bring about their desire for a consistently competitive England team are ignored. Unlike football, where the success of individual clubs in lucrative (and therefore more ‘prestigious’) league or cup competitions such as the Premier League and Champions League takes precedent, the ECC is a cartel kept afloat by Rupert Murdoch’s money. One could examine the serious damage that the ECB’s acceptance of this money has done in terms of public access (a fraction of the 7.4m viewers who watched the 2005 ashes watch Sky's coverage) in more detail, but the point here is that cricket is being run by the wrong people, for the wrong people (themselves). On-field success, as long as the money from Murdoch (or charlatans like Allen Stanford) keeps rolling in, is almost incidental.

The future ascension of Colin Graves to the Chairmanship of the ECB might provide an opportunity for reform. Although Geoffrey Boycott appeared reticent at the end of the Bangladesh match to provide ‘on-air’ solutions to the current malaise, he did reveal that he wished to have a chat with Graves. I’d suggest Graves also talks to Bob Willis and the other members of the Cricket Reform Group, whose sound-headed proposals were assiduously ignored by the ECB in 2003.

The game is at a genuine crossroads. Successive generations of supporters, and indeed players, have been let down by the game’s ‘custodians’. Under their watch cricket’s status as the national game was lost and English cricket’s genuine supporters have had to ‘enjoy’ cyclical success at best, rather than the sustained, planned, success of the Australians. Furthermore, it has become increasingly out of the financial reach of the less well-off who would like to support in person or watch on their televisions. The inspirational effects that followed the ‘free-to-air’ coverage in 2005 now lost, the youth required to maintain the lower levels of the game are absent in the numbers required.

Unless root and branch changes are made, it will not simply be embarrassing international failures that the cricket authorities will have presided over. There is a real possibility – if the current trajectory is maintained – that cricket will have become the boutique pastime that Dorey and his ilk always wanted.

[1] Cricket, 29/12/1892, 508.
[2] Woking News, 23/8/1895.
[3] Cricket, 25/11/1894, 444.
[4] Thompson and Long, Club Cricketers’ Official Handbook, 1913, 12.
[5] Morris “Clubs, societies and associations”, 412-413.
[6] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, 214.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.