The Nobs Are Still Winning

Duncan Stone, Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket

Repeater Books, 326pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781913462802

reviewed by David Renton

The conventional narrative of how English cricket works goes something like the following: at the pinnacle of national achievement is the (men’s) Test side, then beneath that are the 18 counties (and their men’s teams). These are the only cricketers worth knowing about, the ones who results are reported in the national press. Beneath them, there are a vast, undifferentiated, blancmange of informal matches, one-off ties, nets, street cricket, etc.

There are two obvious problems with this story. First of all, it does not explain how an individual cricketer might improve and perhaps be noticed, from putting on their pads at school, to what next? Second, it treats with patrician contempt the large majority of cricket actually played in England, including the level which is of greatest interest to Stone, i.e. League cricket, the level immediately below the county sides.

The most famous counter-narrative to the conventional story of cricket is C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary. James travelled to England with his friend Learie Constantine, the most famous sporting celebrity of his day, to write his biography. Constantine found his niche in League cricket because, as James observed, it was better paid than county cricket, with its one-day format earning it a larger and more enthusiastic working-class audience.

Applying the Marxist method in which James’ political activism had trained him, his book portrayed a gathering alliance between the industrial workers of England (who played and watched cricket) and the dispossessed of the Caribbean. His book presaged the glory that was West Indies cricket in the 1970s and 1980s under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards.

Duncan Stone’s new book, Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket, builds on James’s narrative, and takes the story in new directions. It is closest to that model when telling the story of English cricket in the nineteenth century. Stone, like James, is angered by the success that a generation of public-school boys had in insisting that cricket unlike football would be an ‘amateur’ sport, dominated by those who had their own independent incomes and no need for paid employment. He, like James, despises the hypocrisy of a system in which the rich would pay each other small fortunes in expenses, etc, while denigrating the professionals on their fixed salaries.

It is in the chapters on the 20th and 21st century that their narratives split apart. Stone has a much stronger sense than James of how League cricket was established, particularly in his own home county of Surrey. He describes how, all through the 20th century, there were continuous attempts to modernise especially southern cricket and displace the gentleman amateur — whether for the sake of the hundreds of thousands who played cricket or to revive the national team after its various set-backs. (England’s recent drubbing at the hands of Australia is very far from being the first such defeat).

Different Class is a story of social contempt, of patricians complaining that the labouring class which, as one administrator complained in 1921, has ‘never received or extracted a higher price for every service it rendered’. He notices cricket clubs working with local public schools, wooing Conservative associations with invitations to use their pitches, while locking their doors in the face of similar requests from local working men’s clubs.

From the 1980s onwards, cricket’s rulers were just as determined to keep out black and Asian players as they were to maintaining class divisions. Stone recalls the sneering tone with which the chairman of England selectors, Ted Dexter, dismissed his own fast bowler Devon Malcolm, mangling his name, deriding his lack of a 'cricket brain'. Malcolm, Stone observes was a dual outsider — not merely because of his Caribbean heritage, but also because he had reached the top via stints playing in and then for the Yorkshire League. It was in that context that Mike Marqusee and others launched cricket’s ‘Hit Racism for Six’ campaign.

While Beyond a Boundary ended in optimism, Stone tells a story in which democratic advance has failed to transform our sporting institutions. The nobs, he notes, are still winning. The number of South Asian professionals in English cricket has fallen from 36 in 2011 to 22 in 2020; the number of Black British professionals has fallen from over 100 in the 1980s to just 8 in 2019. Between the 1970s and 2017, two-thirds of Test captains and chairmen of selectors were former public schoolboys. The future of English cricket will remain in doubt, he warns, until the game reflects the whole nation and not just a privileged few.

David Renton is a barrister and the author of CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King.