The issue of class is woven into the history of cricket like no other sport.
As a non-contact game, it was more socially acceptable for the English upper classes to play alongside the working class. It was a shared sporting endeavour but without the potentially awkward physicality of rugby or football.
Thus cricket helped forge the powerful English myth of social cohesion across class divisions: the blacksmith bowling to the Lord of the Manor on the village green.
Unlike the split alongside class lines that occurred between Rugby League and Rugby Union, cricket held together. But this unity was only possible by the enforcement of a division between Amateurs (‘Gentlemen’) and Professionals (‘Players’). In this way snobbery and elitism were baked in to the game.
Amateurs had different changing rooms, different gates to enter the field, ate at different tables, always had their full initials on the scorecard, were addressed as ‘sir’ and had to be captain. And of course, amateurs were not supposed to be paid to play. Except they were: it was just called ‘expenses’.
The division was full of hypocritical nonsense even back in the Victorian era. W.G. Grace, ostensibly an amateur, earnt more money from cricket than anyone. Yet despite blatant ‘shamateurism’ the class division was fiercely defended and was only abandoned in the 1960s.
The issue of class is a significant theme in any book about cricket history. Recently, as a birthday present, I was given a copy of the famous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac 1972, the year I was born. It includes coverage of schools and university cricket, but this means only private schools and only two universities: Oxford and Cambridge.
When I was at Hull University (the third great English university) in the early 1990s, we played up to this history and every year held a ‘Gentlemen v Players’ match: the Gents being from fee-paying schools and the Players from state schools. It was part-fun and ironic but was always a genuinely competitive match (with lots of banter and plenty of inverted snobbery).
In recent years cricket has become more inclusive in some ways: there is more investment in cricket for women, for people with disabilities and in new forms of the game to engage younger people. And despite high-profile problems, I think there is more understanding across racial divides too.
But in other ways the game has become far more elitist. It has become a game almost entirely for children from private schools. Playing fields have been sold off and a lack of investment has meant cricket has largely disappeared from state schools.
In a recent England team, 9 out of the 11 were privately educated. That is 82% of a team representing a country where only 7% attend fee-paying schools.
In addition, the removal of cricket from free-to-watch TV has further insulated the game away from ordinary people.
The decision to put cricket behind a pay-wall was great news for a few and a complete disaster for the rest. This was the worst decision ever made by English Cricket, and no amount of expensive marketing or new formats like The Hundred can breach the gap created.
Flintoff’s Field of Dreams
And it is into this space that former England All-Rounder, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff (who some may know better from Top Gear) has stepped with an inspiring new TV show Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams.
The programme follows Flintoff’s efforts to engage kids from his home town of Preston, Lancashire, to take up cricket. He goes to schools, streets and youth clubs and finds whole rooms of children who cannot name one player in the England team. Names like Joe Root or James Anderson mean nothing to them. In the past, cricket has been popular in these communities but now its just seen as a posh game for rich kids.
Freddie forges a team out of boys who have never played, some of whom have been excluded from school, been homeless and been asylum seekers. It is genuinely uplifting, moving and inspiring.
I know first-hand how much state-school children can love cricket if they are given the opportunity. I took over managing a junior team at Addiscombe CC who only had 5 players at the time. My sons encouraged school friends from Streatham to join and we forged a make-shift team including many who had never played before.
At the start, we got battered frequently and came bottom of the league for a few seasons. We were also on the receiving end of a fair few snobby comments and entitled attitudes from other clubs.
But we had a lot of fun and the team steadily improved. In our final season together, a combination of great performances and luck meant we ended up winning our league. I was gobsmacked. In 35 years of playing cricket, it was my proudest moment by far.
Cricket is an amazing game for all young people to be able to play. And just like he did as a player, Freddie Flintoff is setting an inspiring example for others to follow.
You can read more of John’s work on his blog, Grace & Truth.