English cricket has always been a popular game, but that’s not what the elitists will have you believe

Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC) decision to reverse its announcement that Eton v Harrow and Oxford v Cambridge matches would no longer take place at Lord’s will no doubt have pleased traditionalists – including Henry Blofeld (Eton) and David Gower ( King’s Canterbury) – who protested the original decision.

It is, however, a decision that does not threaten cricket so much, as new MCC chairman Stephen Fry fearfully suggested with a “turgid image of snobbery and elitism”, but confirms that this image has long been in place. .

All sports, in their respective regions, are socially constructed, and as far as cricket in England is concerned, the ‘posh’ image of the game, like that of football as a ‘people’s game’, is no accident. Of the history. The rules (laws, as cricket insists), cultures and structures of the sport are often the result (in cricket and rugby certainly) of bitter culture wars over the group – invariably the social class – that a sport serves. The sport does not arrive fully formed nor is it simply “done”.

And yet, to read the orthodox history of English cricket, you would be forgiven for thinking that a small cohort of state-school educated “gentlemen amateurs” generously offered the game to the British (English) masses and the empire in the -of the. This is however far from the truth.

As Mike Marqusee revealed in his classic, Anyone but England (1994): “…one of the things that makes English cricket English [is] the way he lies about himself to himself. English is a liein the cult of the honest yeoman and the village green, in the denial of cricket’s origins in commerce, politics, clientelism and an urban society.” (The italics above are those of the author.)

Although Marqusee did not provide a detailed account, the process that transformed cricket during the 19th century has little to do with the MCC, or the various counties and the county championship (established in 1890) that gentlemen amateurs controlled. Instead, cricket’s growth owes it all to ordinary people across the British Isles and the countless cups, leagues and associations they created from the late 1850s. It’s not for nothing that the cricket was once considered the “national game”.

Given that the process that allowed cricket to be taken over by the nation’s private elites led to the rejection of meritocracy, it is ironic that the first modern example of meritocratic competition was the idea of ​​Charles Alcock (Harrow), Surrey CCC Secretary, in his capacity as Football Association Secretary.

The Football Association Challenge Cup established in 1871 was nothing short of revolutionary, and it was this competition that was the catalyst for the explosion of local and regional football and cricket associations – all of which held similar competitions – and the number of clubs looking to compete.

Tellingly, this expansion of the game led to an increase in professionalism as clubs sought to place the communities they represented on the map. In football, this meant that teams made up of former state school men, such as Alcock’s Wanderers FC, became increasingly uncompetitive as the game moved towards professionalism in 1885. Despite this, the knockout format had serious limitations, as elimination would often leave clubs. without any fixing.

Indeed, it was a lack of regular fixtures that led to the creation of the Football League in 1888. It was a move that created the world’s first objectively modern sport, and the various cricket associations quickly followed suit. not. But as the game grew in scale and popularity locally and regionally, the men who ran the MCC and the counties recognized – after the events of football – the threat that overtly meritocratic competitions posed to them.

As a result, the game’s administrators sought to restrict or diminish working-class participation in first-class cricket. Beyond calls for double entry fees and the amateur-professional distinction that remained in place until 1963, the most telling (un)development was the rejection of a county cricket league in three divisions in 1889, and the idiosyncratic organization of county cricket thereafter (the County Championship was not organized into two divisions until 1999).

Despite this, the game’s growing popularity remained a problem for the gambling elites, who had come to believe that the game was theirs and theirs alone. As author Alec Waugh (Sherborne) argued in the Cricketer in 1922: “[Richard] Nyren’s game is no longer entertained for the few. It has become a part of national life, and probably, if the Bolsheviks are successful with it, it will be nationalized with cinema and theater and association football.”

Although the semi-professional leagues in the Midlands and North of England acted as a summer equivalent of the Football League, an organization called the Club Cricket Conference went so far as to ban cup and league competition in the South after 1918. – class cricket was, according to Sir Home Gordon (Eton), ‘trapped by its own popularity’, the success of the elites in running cricket in their image (or their interests) made English cricket anything but a “national” or “people’s” game today.

But as much as the reactionary elitism of the past was excused by amateur ideology, so the avaricious exploitation seen since the formation of the England and Wales Cricket Board in 1997 has proved equally elitist, with the game increasingly serving Sky Sports subscribers (and executive ECBs) rather than county members.

MCC’s failure to end Eton vs. Harrow matches at Lord’s – such as the ECB vanity draft, the Hundred and acting chief executive Andrew Strauss’ high performance review – confirms that both forms of elitism survive. What they do will probably end cricket as a genuinely “popular” sport in this country.

Cricket, it seems, does not want to change. Those who have followed “gentleman amateurs” such as Lord Harris (Eton) and Sir Pelham Warner (Rugby), or ECB “spivs” such as Giles Clarke (Rugby), are so attached to their self-interested ideologies (or is is it just money and power?) that they would rather kill the game than make it truly inclusive.

The Hundred might just be the most important elephant in the room. But, with elitism and racism arguably bigger issues overall, cricket has a veritable herd to manage. Formerly docile, the supporters of the county – especially since the advent of the Hundred – have increasingly mobilized, even militants in certain circles, to demand reforms.

And yet, despite 15 of the 18 first-class counties claiming membership, they remain a patchwork force. Moreover, if past decision-making is any guide, they are unlikely to wield much influence if the corporatism that has marked life in the UK for the past 40 years continues to dominate the decision-making of the ECB.

Significantly, the game’s (largely unknown) history provides a blueprint for a more meritocratic and socially and racially open future. Yet there is little hope that first-class cricket will survive as anything more than a boutique pastime for the privately educated down to those in the MCC who have made this retrograde decision, such as those who seem ready to sacrifice almost all established forms of the game on the altar. of the Hundred either learn relative stories of cricket and football or are replaced.

Rowland Bowen said as early as 1970 that English cricket “stands no chance” of shedding its elitist pretensions “so long as the top administration of the game remains in the hands of people strongly imbued with that background and those ideas”. Moreover, as Marqusee pointed out almost 30 years ago, “the revival of English cricket will have to mean much more than winning Test matches”. In this, meritocracy rather than nepotism, inclusiveness rather than exclusivity, must underpin the future of English cricket.