English cricket’s public school revolution

The Telegraph, 17/04/15, independent schools continue to make massive contribution to UK cricket. HMC member schools Dulwich College, Harrow School, Magdalen College School, Whitgift and are referenced.

As the White Rose pairing of Joe Root and Gary Ballance piled on a century partnership in Antigua this week, it was tempting to reach for the old cliché: “When Yorkshire are strong, England are strong.” Tempting, but inappropriate. While Root might have arrived at this point via a traditional pathway — as a teenager, he blunted Yorkshire League attacks alongside father Matt and brother Billy — Ballance is a very different beast.

Born in Harare, he represented Zimbabwe at the under-19 World Cup, aged only 16, before moving to England that same summer when offered a scholarship by Harrow School. One of his contemporaries on the school circuit was Chris Jordan, who had followed a similar trajectory from Barbados to attend Dulwich College’s sixth form.

If a nation is shaped by its institutions, then today’s Britain is increasingly dominated by the products — and recruits — of our elite public schools. Once, their influence used to be limited to square and stuffy fields like politics, finance and the law; now, it reaches into cooler cultural disciplines like acting (see Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston) and pop music (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine).

But it is in sport that the imbalance is most obvious. Seven per cent of British children are privately educated, and yet the figure in this week’s England Test team stood at 73 per cent. Only three players — James Anderson, James Tredwell and Ben Stokes — broke the pattern. Whereas if we rewind 10 years to the immortal 2005 Ashes, it was the other way around: nine of the 12 players used in that series went to state schools.

How, then, have things changed so quickly? A lack of televisual exposure must be a factor in cricket’s decline from national summer sport to niche pursuit. The exclusive deal with Sky Sports also began 10 years ago, and while all those millions may have kept the creaking county structure intact, they have drained the game of much of its resonance.

Meanwhile, the provision of cricket at state schools has dwindled until it is all but non-existent, despite the best efforts of the Chance to Shine programme. “I have been saying it for years: it won’t be long before everyone in the England side is privately educated,” explains Phil DeFreitas, the Ashes-winning bowler who is now cricket professional at Magdalen College School, in Oxford.

“There’s no arguing with the facilities and the coaching: and the reality is that you have to pay for these things now, whereas I grew up playing for Willesden High School [which also produced Chris Lewis]. At MCS, we are very proud of what we offer our pupils, but I do feel for those who miss out on the opportunities I had as a boy. Now Willesden is an academy, and it certainly doesn’t have a cricket field any more.”

While many amateur clubs are finding it harder and harder to put out 11 players at the weekend, some of our leading public schools have that many people on their support staff. Millfield can offer 12 different teachers coaching its 15 squads, led by another Ashes-winning bowler in Richard Ellison. They also have a performance analyst, two strength and conditioning coaches, a sports psychologist, two physios, and nutritionists on call. It is a roll-call that few counties could match.

International blow-ins like Ballance and Jordan fit a pattern of their own, for 35 per cent of private-school boarders now hail from overseas. Like young tennis starlets flocking to American universities, talented schoolboy cricketers see a British education as a win-win situation: even if they don’t end up with a professional contract, the likes of Whitgift School or Wellington College still look good on your CV.

So while the state of our cricket nation may be inequitable, it is hard to see how it can be reversed. Today, a more accurate axiom might be “When public school cricket is strong, England is strong.”

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