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Following the money: Youth cricket’s elitism problem

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 10 minute read
Illustration credit: Joe Provis

In this so-called age of social mobility, Phil Walker investigates whether cricket is becoming even more elitist. First published in issue 57 of Wisden Cricket Monthly.

Sorry, hold on a minute,” says Garry Sapsford, momentarily breaking off from our conversation, the voice turning muffled down the phone line. “GEORGE MORGAN! Do you need a slip?!” It’s become apparent that a slip may not be what George Morgan needs. “Sorry. They do love a slip. Yeah, I was saying. You’ve got to have passion for your subject, else you’ll get nowhere.”

Sapsford is one of those people who you’ve probably never heard of who does quietly monumental work in the margins of developmental cricket. I first got wind of him when I interviewed Mady Villiers, the England Women’s cricketer, a couple of years ago. Sapsford had been her PE teacher at Shenfield High School, a central-Essex state school, and Villiers couldn’t speak highly enough of the “legend” who turned her on to the game she now earns a living from.

He’s talking to us from Eastbourne College, where his Shenfield team are competing in an under-14s boys’ tournament. They are the only state school team there. “Yeah, we play private schools most of the time,” he says. “We do county cup games where you play some state colleges and east London schools from the Asian community, but I have to say that overall it’s getting worse.” He says he’s unaware of any state school teams in Essex or east London who enter the National Cup.

In 2012, after a few years convincing his bosses that it was a good thing, Sapsford’s Shenfield Cricket Academy was unveiled. Key to it was the installation of two indoor nets to provide their students with year-round training opportunities. Sapsford had come to realise that without that constant access, especially through the winter months, it wouldn’t be possible to compete – skills-wise at least – on a roughly level playing field with teams from fee-paying schools.

Which is not to say that Shenfield’s facilities bear much resemblance to the manicured lawns up the road at the grand institutions of Chigwell, Forest and Felsted. The indoor nets are in good condition, but the outdoor nets, Sapsford says, are embarrassing.

“I was out there with cable ties the other day. Yeah, they’re pretty poor. The rabbits love ’em.” And yet Shenfield High School doesn’t merely compete against the best. In 2017, the boys’ under-17s team made the semi-finals of the National Cup, losing at the death to Millfield School (where students can benefit from six pitches, a four-lane indoor centre and eight outdoor nets tailored to replicate different pitch conditions around the cricketing world).

You might think that Shenfield would be drowning in praise, but the truth is rather more humdrum. Every inch is fought for. “Private schools see the value of developing teamwork on the sports field – there are so many qualities that are gonna get you on in life, but our schools, with Ofsted on their backs, just care about exam results and league tables, and that’s sad.”

The hubbub of a game in progress burbles away in the background. “There’s so much that these guys get out of it. I find it harder and harder to get trips. I’ve got to give up holiday days for this – but then, if you love cricket, this is the best holiday you can have.”

Being back at Eastbourne, he says, always reminds him of the time that Mady Villiers first shook up the place. “I can remember her playing against their boys’ first team as a 15-year-old, she was bowling seam-up then and we just watched how good she was.

“I’m so proud of her. She’s a working-class girl from a single-parent family, no exposure to cricket through her family, but she picked up something that she was naturally very good at, and she was away. I can’t take any credit for the coaching – she just had this great winning mentality.”

It’s not just the case that if Mady Villiers had gone to pretty much any other state school in Essex, she would never have played for England. It’s that more than likely she wouldn’t have played at all.

***

On the other side of London in Twickenham, James Watson, the PE lead at Heathfield Junior School, is using his lunchtime to vent some familiar frustrations.

Watson, like Sapsford, is fanatical about the game and the benefits it can offer young people, especially, as in Heathfield’s case, kids from tough backgrounds. “People always think of Twickenham as a leafy area of London, but our local food bank is one of the largest in London,” he says. “Our school is from a deprived area.” The cricket programme he oversees, working closely with the legendary Chance to Shine charity, has recently received national acclaim: this year, the school has been shortlisted for two national awards in recognition of its work promoting the game and providing opportunities to children in a sport which, as he says, “is largely recognised as being elitist”.

Heathfield, much like Shenfield, is an outlier, falling in the gaps between two barely overlapping cultures: the thriving independent sector on the one hand, and a barely breathing state system on the other.

A cursory glance at the make-up of professional cricket, dominated as it is by privately-educated cricketers, is proof that the independent sector is “doing its job”, as a prominent county director of cricket once put it to me.

A recent Telegraph Sport investigation by the excellent journalist Tim Wigmore highlighted just how ferociously leading private schools were competing with each other to secure the best young talents. “Sometimes the headmaster will just say we need to get better, so what can we do?” one director of cricket at a top school is reported to have said. “I can probably go to the county age group and find out who’s at a state school and see if we can find them a place. That’s fairly commonplace.” Incentivised offers of “110 per cent-off fees” to the best young players in the country are common, says Wigmore, with parents effectively paid to send their children to elite schools.

On the other side of the school gate, it’s a very different picture. “I can’t get a fixture for love nor money against local state schools,” Watson says. “Teachers have got so much other stuff on – in state schools now, they’re not even allowing teachers to go out for an afternoon, instead you’ve got to go after school – and cricket takes time. Even a Kwik Cricket game lasts at least an hour.”

Despite many of Heathfield’s kids accessing the game at an entry level and receiving high-class coaching from the likes of former Surrey legend Monte Lynch, they are still lagging behind the big schools in the skills department. “Oh, if we played private schools we’d get murdered,” Watson concedes. “And I fear the gap is just getting wider and wider. They [private-school children] will be playing once during the week during their games time and then at the weekend too, while our Year 6 kids are still stuck using plastic bats and Kwik Cricket balls.

At private schools they’re playing hard-ball at a much younger age. Our kids at primary should be playing with a plastic bat when they’re much younger, not when they’re 11 years old. But because of facilities, because of insurance and issues with equipment- safety and so on, we’ve got no chance of playing hard-ball cricket.”

Aware of the huge leap from using blue bats in the playground to playing hard-ball cricket, and mindful of how quickly a child’s passion can wane, Watson has sought to forge links with local clubs, and with some success. He recently agreed a deal with Teddington CC for the club to offer 10 free memberships to Heathfield pupils, many of whom, from ethnic-minority backgrounds, would otherwise not have been able to afford the fees. All 10 were snapped up immediately, which begs the question why other local clubs in this well-heeled borough appear indifferent to such a partnership. Watson says it’s not for want of trying. “Clubs needs to do more. Why do they need to be charging hundreds of pounds worth on subscriptions? My kids can’t afford that. They’ve got enough private-school parents there, they’ve got enough funding, they can pay ex- pros to play one game a week on a Saturday – but they can’t stump up for some subsidised memberships for our kids?”

Inertia and indifference is a recurring theme. He tells me about receiving funding from the Commonwealth Games to promote cricket in Richmond for kids who don’t belong to clubs. “It was free quality coaching, for two hours, on a Friday evening.” All PE leads in the borough were contacted. “And not one school bothered to send any children.”

Watson has to dash for the post-lunch period but he leaves me with a story. “I got one of our better boys into one of the big clubs in Surrey and he said to me that one of his biggest fears was turning up in the car park and being surrounded by all these 4x4s and BMWs. Even when he went there, his parents told me, there were cliques, all the private-school kids knew each other. He didn’t feel welcomed in until he’d scored some runs and they saw he could play.”

The imbalance is so vast as to be almost comical. Recent academic research from Tom Brown, a high-performance coach at Warwickshire CCC, found that privately-educated white British players are 34 times more likely to become professional cricketers than state-educated British South-Asians.

In January, after England’s latest Ashes humbling, Brown told the ABC: “We looked through all the specialist batters that debuted [for England in Tests] since 2011, and we found that 95 per cent of them have been white, 77 per cent of them have come from private schools. Our research highlighted that you were 13 times more likely if you’re white and privately educated to be selected as a professional cricketer than if you’re white and state educated.”

Wigmore’s Telegraph investigation found that of the 19 players involved in the England men’s under-19 programme over the winter, 16 attended private school – some 84 per cent of the squad. The stats, says the former Sussex cricketer Martin Speight, now director of cricket at £38,000-per-year Sedbergh School, speak for themselves. “If you’re not in the private-school system you are massively hampered. I was lucky, I went to a state school and there was a teacher who took us for cricket and I got into cricket and two years later I got offered a scholarship to go to a [private] school. If I hadn’t got to Hurstpierpoint [in Sussex] I wouldn’t have been a professional cricketer. It’s that simple.”

Harry Brook of Yorkshire and Surrey’s Jordan Clark are just two of a handful of current professional cricketers who attended Sedbergh. Both Brook and Clark were recipients of means-tested bursaries which Speight says are in place “to make the school more accessible to people from poorer and different backgrounds”. The implication is unambiguous. Without this monumental leg-up, they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Sussex’s CEO Rob Andrew argues that the game should be careful not to deride the role that private schools play in the ecosystem. “In the last 20, 30 years, state-school cricket has all but disappeared. We need to understand what happens on the ground. Kids start at clubs now – clubs are the key driver now to cricket in this country. They develop their talent, and then the private schools come along. A lot of these kids who were not private-school educated in the first place then get an opportunity that offers both education and cricket. I see that as a huge benefit to the game.”

***

Chris Grant, an independent board member at Sport England and a champion of the ACE programme that seeks to re-engage African-Caribbean communities in cricket, has been wrestling with his relationship with the game since the days of the notorious ‘Tebbit Test’. In an open letter penned in the wake of the Azeem Rafiq scandal, when the former Yorkshire player exposed deep-rooted racism and bullying at the club, Grant observed a game struggling to break out from its “deep legacy of discriminatory assumptions, practices and behaviours”.

Speaking to WCM, he argues that cricket has been handed a huge opportunity in the wake of the Rafiq scandal. “The game could be a leader in showing how we can have a modern, successful, thriving England. Cricket could within five years turn this situation around. There’s no reason why whole new swathes of society couldn’t get interested in cricket, but in order to do that the game needs to accept that at the heart of the problem are structural issues – and there are some conflicts which need to be overcome.”

Grant recalls sitting in the reception of a city-based county club and leafing through its yearbook, which gave a spread to each age-group team. The youngest groups “looked somewhat like the population of the city”. As he turned the pages, he saw fewer and fewer kids who weren’t white. By the time he arrived at the first team, “I don’t need to tell you what I saw”. Of the torrent of statistics which have tumbled out in recent years, the most damning is the one about a recreational playing force which stands at 30-35 per cent South-Asian heritage, shrinking into a professional game where only around 4-5 per cent make it through.

All the pieces matter. In January this year, the former England and Sussex keeper Matt Prior provoked a media squall when he spoke out about the cost of sending his two children through the Sussex pathway system. Prior said that the average cost was in the region of £1,000 per child each season: £400-450 in coaching, a minimum of £300 on kit, and then travel. “In simple terms you are not selecting the best, most talented cricketers, you are selecting the ones that can afford it,” he told BBC Sport. “You are ultimately narrowing down your base and the number of kids that will have the opportunity to go on and work on their potential.”

Rob Andrew says it’s more complex than that. “We all want the game to be as accessible as it can be. We all try to keep the costs reasonable. Where there is genuine hardship, we offer bursaries. We have genuine applications every year. The key thing for me is that in the end there is a significant cost to the counties to run these programmes. In an ideal world, we would offer all this coaching for free. But how do I pay for it? It would cost the club £250,000. We can’t afford to do that. Maybe some of the bigger counties have more resource, but we have to cut our cloth accordingly. If we’re forced to make it free, my fear is that the pathway programmes will get slashed.”

Prior, incidentally, was responding to a tweet by Rob Key (then a mere media man), who said that age- group cricket at county level should be free. With Key now ensconced in his new role, it will be interesting to see if greater sums of money can be dispersed from HQ to help county clubs achieve what he’s asking for.

***

While deep structural inequalities persist, the county academy set-ups I spoke to are conscious of the need to make cricket more accessible for the best young talents. The cliche of a loftily indifferent game is outdated.

Examples are plenty. Two years ago, Glamorgan, aided by a partnership with the tech firm Spark, removed all costs to families of kids in their pathway system, at significant but necessary expenditure to the club. Mark Wallace, Glamorgan’s director of cricket, says: “We represent the whole of cricket in Wales. In parts of Wales we’ve got lower socio- economic demographics than in other parts of the UK, that’s the reality of it, and Wales is a big place. So to expect people to travel and pay large amounts of money to actually play was something we wanted to remove. We also pay travel expenses and we give them the playing kit as well. We want a pathway that’s accessible to all and to give the players a really positive experience to maintain and fall in love with the game that hopefully lasts for the rest of their lives.”

Glamorgan’s values find an echo in those of Essex, a club born to buck trends, of whom 14 of the current men’s squad solely attended state schools and where the explosion of passion in urbanised east London has become a rich source of talent for the club, with various subsidies in place for disadvantaged families whose children are good enough to get onto the pathway. “The last six rookie contracts have all come from ethnic minority backgrounds,” says Dan Feist, Essex’s cricket operations director. “It used to be about two per cent of girls from east London in our academy, but that’s now shot up to 35 per cent. And around 60 per cent of our academy boys will always have come from inner London.”

And then there is Yorkshire, with a rousing story pulled from the wreckage. In January, James Martin was appointed by the new chair Lord Patel as head of the boys’ performance pathway, with an instruction to broaden out the talent streams in line with the club’s renewed sense of purpose.

“We went immediately out to parents and players to do some listening,” Martin explains. “We wanted their thoughts on how we could improve our performance pathway programmes to make them more accessible. Something that came out was that children felt part of a system, but not a club. When we heard that, we knew that we needed to develop in these children a long-lasting connection with the cricket club. From there, we asked the question: how can we open up that gap and make it more accessible?”

The club spoke with over 500 parents face to face, and received more than 1,200 responses via an online survey. They widened their performance ID to cover anyone from any cricketing background and any walk of life. “Rather than putting barriers in place, we are asking: how can we alleviate them?”

The club has since found a 40 per cent increase in engagement from cricketers in the West Yorkshire region. “Astronomical,” says Martin. What does he put that down to? “Our communications. How we communicate to different communities in different areas. We went into the heart of these communities and shared this new info with people. Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Rotherham, Kirklees, we went out and circulated that information, appreciating that language barriers could have been a problem in the past and that we were no longer just taking for granted that people would have access to digital documents on smartphones. Our guys were actively filling out the forms for the cricketers and the community. That was a massive step for us.”

In February, the club signed off on another massive commitment – scrapping match fees for county age- group players, delivering a free coaching programme at regional and county level from this winter, and providing free kit for the first time. “At regional and district level that’s the neck-end of 440 cricketers. It’s just been a massive investment from the club.” Before that, he adds, parents could be expected to fork out up to £300 for one child’s playing kit alone.

These stirring developments are reflective of a club which is coming to terms with its problematic past. “We must be accountable to our people,” Martin says. “In the end, that’s what we need to be.”

First published in issue 57 of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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