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?