The Vanishing Sport

I took my kid to winter nets last weekend. He has turned ten now, and this marks his first exposure to a hard ball. To ease them in gently the coaches intersperse the hand-smacking cherry with a tennis ball and one of those “Incrediball” things. They swing so much that even I can project one with the “Sultan of Swing” menace of a slightly older Jimmy Anderson. Give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Of course, this being the home-counties, I had to buy all the gear in advance. Not that I minded; it has been a long time since I have had the joy of perusing the Aladdin’s Cave that is the Morrant catalogue (now obviously available online). Back in the old days it was to get my Dad to buy me a new bat. Now the wheel has turned, and it’s me weighing in with the cash, albeit on my own terms, for now, at least. I was surprised that there was no kit bag though. Perhaps, unwarranted nostalgia for that murky old canvas expanse of stuffing-spewing buckled pads, dirty left handed gloves and pink emmental boxes.

But the cost of the gear and the price of the coaching set me thinking about how accessible our game really is. I can afford it but how many others can’t and are alienated from it by either a lack of opportunity or even the sport’s lack of visibility?

The hall was full of eager kids of varying standards. Some quiet and embarrassed and others equipped with frightening levels of self-confidence. Understandable, matey, cliquey group bonhomie ensued amongst kids who mostly knew each other from a couple of local independent schools. Some of them had already developed decent well-coached techniques whilst others still struggled with the most basic rudiments.

For a kid to walk into this it can be intimidating, but mine was terrific. Better than I would have been back in the late 80s. But, as I watched the thought continually persisted that if it wasn’t for me planting and developing the seed of interest, there is little chance that he would have been there at all.

The game in some parts of the country is as remote and alien to many kids as croquet. Not available on free-to-air television, and not played in many schools, the creep of inaccessibility is gradually strangling the summer games hold on the public consciousness. For example, my old Sunday league used to host 80 teams back in 1999, and is now struggling for survival with just 15. This summer they have made the decision to make it a T25 competition to attempt to drum up some last desperate interest.

For the majority of state school kids cricket is largely outside of the orbit of competing or available influences unless they have a parent with an active interest. With this backdrop it is hard to see how the game can grow and it is tempting to think as other interests take hold that it is doomed to contract. It is easy to despair for its long-term future in England outside of the Independent school sector and the keen as mustard Asian community.

However, it is also useless and unfair to decry the influence that private schools have and the resulting over-representation of this sector at first-class and international level. They have the resources, time and energy to commit to the game in a way that it is almost impossible for state schools to match. Without their continued focus the game’s future really would be in a parlous situation. Equality of outcome between state and private school is unrealistic when matched against the markedly disparate levels of input. It is unrealistic to expect cricket to be any different to any other sphere of life.

But for England to be successful – without the requirement of swallowing up an endless stream of international talent – then it is vital that the game does more to extend its reach. There is a risk that as a sport it becomes more insular and ultimately swallows itself.  Played, administered and watched by a narrow and unrepresentative minority. A single face locked in an immovable lens. The likes of Rugby School educated Giles Clarke unconsciously (I hope!) referring to “the right kind of family” do little to dispel this narrow and unwelcoming view.

I wonder what the former-chairman of the ECB would make of David Warner’s family? Would he like the cut of their jib? The sad reality is that if he was English, there is every possibility that Warner could have gone through his entire youth without ever picking up a bat. Great talent cannot be unearthed where nobody is looking and the means to get involved does not exist. How many Pietersen’s, Trott’s or even Ballance’s have never even been able to bloom due to a chronic lack of opportunity.

To top it all off, my boy was run out from the only ball he really middled. On the back foot an almost-pull in front of square scurried past the fielder and thudded into the netted partition. An easy run; he got free-quarters of the way down the pitch only to be loftily told by his partner to “stay”.

“Stay” where, precisely? It is a small man that mocks children, so I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that this felt like a General Melchett moment from Blackadder Goes Forth.

Basically, I want him and others to have something of the collective if imperfect opportunity that I had. Cricket – really anything but football – was none too popular at my school either. But we had a Deputy Head that was mad keen on the game. A track suited man with a dodgy 80s moustache that would lecture us before every after-school session at our middle school on the sheer wonder and joy of leather on willow. We rolled our eyes and didn’t really understand. Only later did I get it and am grateful for the time that he spent indulging us kids and encouraging us to get involved with local clubs.

I fondly remember him driving us to the first round of a county cup match in our knackered old mini bus. No seat-belts or even basic adherence to safety measures, in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated by teachers or parents today. We played on the manicured lawn of a distant Prep school. Some of their lads wheeling coffins and wearing helmets – the still obvious mark of serious players.

With a couple of exceptions, we couldn’t even muster our own whites. Turning up with our PE kit we were given permission to keep on our school trousers, to ward off the cold on what was a blustery and freezing early summer’s afternoon. Not surprisingly we spent our time chasing the ball to all parts as batsman after batsman retired.

When it came to our turn, we shelled eight wickets in the first six or seven overs. An endless cast of disconsolate batsman trudging back to the pavilion in white PE tops, black school trousers, ancient pads and those old cotton green spiked gloves, that were popular in Wally Hammond’s day. For my part I saw it out like an early Matthew Hoggard proto-type with a dour 8-not out as we closed on 31-9 from our 20-overs. I just got on the front foot and blocked because I didn’t know how to do anything else.

But I am at the same time all too aware that the past is a dangerous and unreliable place. We have a habit of remembering things with our own spin and then moulding these experiences with a self-styled interpretation that unknowingly drives the narrative of our future unconscious prejudices. The past taking on an air of the Alan Sillitoe when actually it was easy and bloody good fun.

Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the different neighbourhood where I live now. Perhaps it’s my own dissolution or delusion but I think the game is slipping away from vast sections of our society. Beyond the sphere of the tireless, unpaid helpers, does anyone in officialdom care enough or have the ability to do anything about it?

Garry White

@LWOSGarryWhite

2018-02-02T17:06:46+00:00 February 2nd, 2018|Talking Points|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Simon Sweetman February 2, 2018 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    This is so true. I have taken my grandson for the last couple of years (though I fear he has lost interest). The club tries very hard, but the better players – the ones with any experience – are from independent schools or of south Asian origin. Where they come from the local schools it is usually because dad is a keen cricketer himself

  2. Marc Evans February 2, 2018 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    I have never been an advocate of school cricket in the state system. Even in my youth, 50 years ago, it was crap. There was little enthusiasm amongst staff, poor equipment and facilities and few schools to provide any competetive opposition.
    They key to recruiting youngsters is in club cricket, where enthusiasm and facilities are already available. Many clubs run youth teams and you are surrounded by people who want to be there. I know that’s where I began and have stayed ever since.
    I live in Birmingham, where there are still many good clubs always keen to give youngsters a try, as they are the future.
    You would not have far to travel here to find a niche for a keen youngster.
    The back pages of local newspapers are as full of cricket reports in summer as they are soccer in winter.

    • AndyB February 2, 2018 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      Being in Birmingham you will be aware that it depends on how you define state system. I went to KE Five Ways in the 70s; it was and still is very much a state school with no fees although being part of the King Edwards foundation. It provided an excellent standard of cricket, producing (in my time) an England schools opening bowler and his county colts partner. So I would hate to generalise about schools, although I take your point about many. My fondest memory of schools cricket is my first year and achieving what seemed to be impossible when opening the batting for the U12 side; I carried my bat for 0*, spending most of my time resting at the non-strikers end whilst we were dismissed for 11. Despite that we went on to much success.

      I agree much of the future lies with the clubs. In Surrey, where I now live and play, even most village clubs have some colts activity and my village club has ties with local primary and secondary schools to encourage all to come along and try the game. Probably half of our 1sts and 2nds have come up through this route, and apart from 2 are all state school products. However, there is a big threat on the horizon. The enthusiasm for running the clubs (and the colts sections) lies with older players (many of whom are parents). They favour league cricket based on timed or longer (45 over) limited over games. The idiots at the ECB are encouraging local leagues (through the county structures) to consider moving to 20/20 format. The rationale? To encourage the transition from colts to senior cricket. That is all very well but has 2 problems. Firstly, how do you produce players for the first class game if all they know is baseball? And secondly, who is going to run colts sections if older players abandon the game as it is no longer the cricket they love?

      • Cricketcricketcricket February 2, 2018 at 10:29 pm - Reply

        ‘The enthusiasm for running the clubs (and the colts sections) lies with older players (many of whom are parents). They favour league cricket based on timed or longer (45 over) limited over games. The idiots at the ECB are encouraging local leagues (through the county structures) to consider moving to 20/20 format. The rationale? To encourage the transition from colts to senior cricket. That is all very well but has 2 problems. Firstly, how do you produce players for the first class game if all they know is baseball? And secondly, who is going to run colts sections if older players abandon the game as it is no longer the cricket they love?’

        Finally.. someone else who gets it.. all the talk is always nice about how we have to pander to youth, how we need shorter formats.. as above.. who runs clubs ??who does the wickets ? Etc… yeah, mostly th guys who want to play longer for st stuff and draw Cricket etc..

      • Marc Evans February 3, 2018 at 12:33 am - Reply

        My partner has worked at King Edward’s in Edgbaston for almost 20 years, so I see a lot of the sport there, as she does a fair amount of their catering. I would say that the facilities are excellent, but the quality of play, through cricket, rugby and hockey are generally not all that impressive, despite all the coaching. I played club cricket, and hockey as a teenager and would have walked into most of their teams and I considered myself averagely talented.
        Whether this is typical of fee paying private schools I don’t know, but during my period of teenage trials and representative cricket for Warwickshire almost all my teammates came from that sort of background, yet the first team was known locally as West Indies Shire. Only Andy LLoyd and Steve Perryman made the grade from the dozens who passed through the system then. Not a great recommendation.

        • AndyB February 3, 2018 at 11:13 am - Reply

          I know what you mean about the system for bringing players through in those days. Of the 2 bowlers I mentioned, one went on to open for Old Hill for many years whilst the other turned down a Warwickshire vacation contract as he preferred to become an architect and take 100+ wickets per season in the Central Warwickshire League and similar level games. Like you I came through the system but lost my way after 15 when I was coached by Alan Oakman circa 1970. He insisted I bowl side on (rather than the Mike Procter approach I preferred) and I went from being fast to military medium!
          I am sorry to hear KE High sports standards have slipped. In the 70s they had some serious players of all sports – although none rivalled the occasion we played them at chess and I found myself opposite the late, great Tony Miles, a couple of years before he was second in the world juniors.

  3. Comte February 2, 2018 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Quite a depressing article which exposes a basic truth – that cricket is rarely for for the poor unless parents are extremely dedicated. I think Mo Ali had a lot to thank his family for, but the majority of cricketers come from backgrounds where cash is plentiful.
    The other basic truth is that cricket is a cruel game. The example of the writer’s son being run out will resonate with many. One chance and that’s it – finito. That’s why the real intro to cricket has to be via quick cricket derivatives where the game is played with plastic bats and stumps and no expensive kit and everyone gets a chance.
    I loved my cricket at grammar school years and years ago. What I hated was having the share the summer months with bloody athletics.

  4. Dave February 2, 2018 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    If I hadn’t been hooked by watching Botham and Willis on council TV as a 10 year old back in ’81 I would be doing something a bit more useful than reading a cricket blog right now. If you showed a picture of Root, Broad or Anderson to most of my sons’ friends, they wouldn’t have a clue who they are.

    • AndyB February 2, 2018 at 3:47 pm - Reply

      It could be worse. 20 years ago, if you had shown a picture of Tufnell to Tufnell, he wouldn’t have had a clue who it was. 🙂

  5. Cricketcricketcricket February 2, 2018 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Simple truth his article but one those who run bigger clubs, schools, leagues and the ecb will neither agree with or care. They really getting instant fame and riches so who cares what the little man says.

    Personally I had no Cricket in school and so never played a game until 2009 (even then it was only the 2005 ashes that got me interested).. 2009 I wasn’t really given a bat (all I had wasn’t power and an eye and zero technique) and wasn’t given a bowl (tbf I couldn’t land it regularly straight).. so, after the season I was going to walk away but a mate bowled at me for 60 mins every week and taught me the basics.. given I have a tendency to want to improve I did.. rather quickly.. 2010was wiped out with a bad knee injury (so I went from running 10miles 6 times a week to not allowed to run to this day) and 2011onwards I resolved to learn to bat.. 1000+ runs each year later and still learning ,

    I still see clubs (especially bigger ones) who treat kids and adults like cash cows and so don’t care about game time etc.. it’s no wonder we lose a lot of the few who like the OP above even give the game a chance.

    Sad to hear their sundays are going to T25’s too.. I would bet money on it failing to change the demise.. probably accelerate it

    Good article

    • AB February 6, 2018 at 2:27 pm - Reply

      Sundays are a funny day for cricket. Most semi-serious cricketers prefer to play league cricket on Saturdays, and very few people nowadays are able to spare both days of the weekend.

      Which leaves Sundays basically for people who either aren’t good enough or don’t have the time to spare to play Saturdays. Which is normally fringe players like youngsters and their dads, and a few older social players who can no longer get into a league XI.

      We polled our club about what format they would ideally like to play, and the answer came back (resoundingly) as 30 over cricket. The reason being, that it was a good stepping stone for teenagers between the 20 over cricket that they play in the youth leagues, to the 40 over cricket played on Saturdays. Given the generally low standard, it also gave plenty of time for players to get a slowish 50 and for bowlers to get a decent spell of 5-6 overs, but as you can turn round a 30 over game in a little over 4 hours, it meant busy dads could fit it into the schedules.

      30 over games tend to play out as sensible cricket at 4-an-over for 20 overs, followed by a 10 over slog to get up to around 150, which is often a winning score.

  6. Cricket-Now February 11, 2018 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    yes, cricketing equipment is far too expensive.

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