A few weeks ago, my eldest daughter and I sat down to a Zoom meeting with my father. We’d arranged that he would answer some questions about his early life and that we would record these answers for posterity. Taking the event seriously, my father insisted on seeing the questions in advance so that he could prepare.
Nevertheless, the topic of cricket arose spontaneously. Amid a discussion of how difficult it was to do his Grammar School homework in a two-up, two-down terraced house with no desks, he began to reflect on aspects of school he particularly enjoyed. He was no gifted sportsman, but he relished a spot of bowling.
This took me back to my own school days. Back then, I was well aware that cricket was my father’s sport and that had an impact. I wanted to play cricket. I guess I wanted to play it well and make my dad proud.
At primary school, we did a couple of weeks where we learnt some of the basics. On my orientation day at secondary school, we happened to play cricket and so I anticipated that this would be a feature of the sports programme. However, once I began secondary school and the first summer arrived, we played rounders and ‘softball’, the latter being an American version of the former with a ball so big that even I could hit it. There was no cricket.
I’m not sure what they were thinking. Perhaps my teachers subscribed to a model of transferable skills where it did not matter what sport we played but instead that we were learning catching or hitting skills or whatever. Perhaps my teachers just did not like cricket. Perhaps it was too much hassle to organise cricket and they couldn’t be bothered with it.
The trouble is: what do you do with softball skills? Where do those skills take you in 1990 in Dudley, a working class area of the English Midlands with no softball clubs to join?
Football remained a winter constant, perhaps because it was so ubiquitous that we could all play and referee our own game without much input. We did have a short stint at other sports. I remember a brief introduction to handball (why?) and hockey. We were given the option of a basketball lunchtime club. We were taught the rudiments of rugby for a few weeks in the Autumn and as a result, a fellow student spoke to his father who introduced me to the local rugby club. I pursued that up to the age of 17 when we merged with the team one year older than us and it all became about shaving off eyebrows, cross-dressing and drinking urine, and less about knocking people over. That was the end of my rugby career bar a brief, violent and glorious one-off performance for the Fitzwilliam College second team (at least that’s how I remember it).
But there was an empty space in my heart for cricket. I remember my dad teaching me how to bowl on holiday in Devon. And my teenage stroppiness, plus that of my peers, must have combined to the point where our teachers relented and let us play cricket during P.E. lessons. Except they simply handed over the gear and let us get on with it. It was down to Shahzad, who played cricket outside of school, to attempt to teach us something, while pulling his punches and doing his best to avoid bowling us out first ball.
And that was that.
I still watched the cricket. The summer soundtrack of gentle thwacks followed by light applause and punctuated by the occasional cheer for a wicket accompanied my efforts at exam revision. I watched the England team, but they were rarely any good. Sometimes, they imported a decent South African batsman, but most of the story was one of batting collapses, disappointment and posh - always so posh - boys fronting up to the press conference to explain the latest disaster.
But I don’t blame them. A sport that few Englishmen play - that draws from a small number of cricketing schools - could never compete on equal terms with countries where everyone plays the game, in the backyards of country towns, in schools both private and public. What did my Australian relatives do after Christmas lunch? They played cricket.
The chinless wonders who inherited the English game, with their trademark rabbit-in-headlights look, did not do so because they pulled up the drawbridge and kept the commoners out. No, the commoners were betrayed by their own kind and English cricket lost.
This post extrapolates from personal experience and my story of English state education in the 1980s and 1990s may not be representative of other schools at the time or of state schools since then. However, consider this 2021 paper, primarily addressing British South Asian participation in cricket that finds ‘socioeconomic and racial biases, predominantly favouring privately educated and white cricketers at both youth and professional levels’. English cricket has a race and a class problem.