Social commentary, Sport

Pure Class: Flintoff’s challenge to cricket’s elitism

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.

Snobbery

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’.

Hypocrisy

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).

Inclusive

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.

Unrepresentative

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.

First-hand

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.

Proudest moment

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.

5 thoughts on “Pure Class: Flintoff’s challenge to cricket’s elitism”

  1. Just reading your article and was happy to find out that you were at Hull University early nineties 😊.. I too was there from 89-92. Was an amazing time and have fond memories of the place. Just started reading your articles this past year.. been a pleasure 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jane – thanks for reading and commenting! I LOVED my time at Hull so much. I was there 1991-94 and then stayed an extra year, working for HUSSO in the Student Union. I have written a few times on Hull related themes:

      About HUSSO: https://gracetruth.blog/2021/01/06/how-husso-volunteering-changed-my-life/

      About some rugby club related mayhem: https://gracetruth.blog/2018/01/26/im-not-surprised-at-the-presidents-club-scandal-its-just-like-my-university-rugby-club/

      And when they got awarded the City of Culture: https://gracetruth.blog/2013/11/20/a-hull-of-a-culture/

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  2. Really enjoyed your article and you/Flintoff do highlight huge issues in the English game regarding inclusivity. There are so many areas that need addressing that I have seen at different points in my life. One of them is the whole state v private school dichotomy that exists. There are plenty of state school youngsters at club cricket – possibly more than private school from what I’ve seen. But that is because the private schoolboys (I don’t know enough about girls cricket to comment…I’m not being sexist) play more school cricket than club. This leads to a seperate development route based on what type of school you go to imo. And it matters even more when you see that some counties have stronger links with private schools than they do with local clubs. Allied to that is the fact that private schools just have more resource to develop their players (by bringing in top coaches etc) than a lot of clubs do. Also clubs tend to spend more on their 1st XI which will only have a small % of the best young players in it.
    When you add in the divide that also exists between smaller counties and larger ones, you see that future England players all come from a handful of counties…Surrey, Middlesex, Kent, Yorkshire and Lancs. This funnelling of talent is totally constrictive for the game.
    I haven’t even touched on the lack of opportunity for ethnic minority kids from state schools to get into the club game due to social barriers….that’s a whole different subject…but as I say, there are so many areas where the game and its development of talent can improve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ranvir – I agree with all your points. I remember going to a Surrey U19 trial at a prestigious private school in Surrey and feeling such a fish out of water because the overall culture was so private school.

      And you are right that a few counties dominate because of their status as Test venues means their income is far, far higher than smaller counties. I think the County system will have to change and have less first class counties, a better regionalised approach to talent development and locally clubs being incentivised to develop talent from boys who do not play at school.

      Many of the private school boys we played against in our league were playing twice or three times as much cricket as state school kids so no wonder they were miles ahead. Ironically, one of the reasons we won the league was because rain meant some fixtures were delayed which meant some of the private schools had already broken up and therefore some key players had already gone on holiday with their families! Sometimes it works the other way around!

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  3. It’s not just the attitude towards players that clubs need to address. My patner plays cricket and has played for the same club for a number of years.
    I went to the club one day with him and when I was on my own some woman looked me up and down and gave me a dirty look. I’ve been told maybe it’s because I’m an outsider. So yes snobbery and lack of inclusion exists in cricket and not just for the players My partner still plays cricket for the club, but my experience of my one and only visit to the club and being an outsider means I’ll never go to the club again.

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