From 1960 to 1990, at least 60 per cent of the England team had been educated at a state school. In 2013, this figure had dropped to a third
Ben Stokes, the England all-rounder suspended from the Ashes for decking some bloke outside a club in Bristol, has returned to cricket this week in the one-day series against New Zealand. While I welcome this — heck, he shouldn’t have even been suspended in the first place — I am uneasy about the hype that surrounds him. While I can’t deny he’s a wonderful and watchable cricketer, the unconditional enthusiasm for the man is a symptom of a sport in crisis.
Cricket in 2018 does not mean as much as it meant at the turn of the millennium. The last team that mattered was Strauss’s Ashes winners in 2010/11, but the last team that really mattered was Vaughan’s in 2005. The reasons for this erosion of importance include (but are not limited to) the decline of the West Indies, the bastardisation of the game in the form of Twenty20, two-match Test series with no narrative, the devaluing of all but four Test-playing nations, and a steep decline in youth participation only partly offset by immigration from South Asia.
White working-class involvement in cricket is at crisis point. Between 1938 and 2006, Test cricket was the preserve of either the BBC or Channel 4. Since then, Sky Sports — and more recently BT Sport — have kept the game behind a paywall, preventing people from falling in love. In 2014, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s own research showed that, among 7-15-year-olds, only 2 per cent ranked cricket as their favourite sport.
None of the England side in 2018 has ever played Test cricket on free-to-view television. It is in this context that Ben Stokes must be understood.
Ben Stokes has defied the odds to get where he is, but it will be even harder for working-class kids growing up now to make something for themselves from cricket. The only reliable route nowadays is a private scholarship, but this is hardly an efficient system — and what of the friends the recipient leaves behind? Councils and schools have been under a lot of budgetary pressure, and it is easier to cut cricket than it is to cut football.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the effect of this is. From 1960 to 1990, at least 60 per cent of the England team had been educated at a state school. In 2013, this figure had dropped to a third. Cricket is being turned into an aristocratic sport; probably, that’s what they want.
But you don’t need me to tell you this because you know it. Ben Stokes is the flickering embers of the post-war social-democratic dream, of social mobility and class pride. And while we should, of course, celebrate him, we should not let him distract us from the crisis that makes cricketers like him few and scattered. The most recent Ashes series was a chilling vision of our future — posh, boring, inept.