Episode 77: Class and the myths of English cricket analysed by historian Duncan Stone

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

The sports historian Duncan Stone has written a thoroughly irreverent book about English cricket. Different Class destroys many cherished myths about his history. It smashes many icons of English cricket writing. All this has a moral purpose, to tell the true story of English cricket and strip it of the class-based ideology that has stunted its growth as a national game. He explains this to Peter Oborne and Richard Heller as the guest in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Duncan outlines the central theme in the book: how the culture of English cricket, originally socially open and highly competitive, was subverted by southern élites, especially after the Great War, to become a genteel non-competitive pastime played by the right sort of people in “the right spirit.” This (he argues) became the template of the entire national game, achieving paramountcy over other popular forms of cricket and scarcely acknowledging their existence. As a performer himself in social non-competitive cricket he does not deny its practitioners the right to play it: he objects to their self-proclaimed right to declare it the apex of the game, to control cricket clubs and associations – and to go on selecting themselves for sought-after fixtures over more talented players. 1-5 minutes

He suggests that amateur élites not only in cricket but also other sports learnt from the professionalization of association football: they came to view meritocratic competitive leagues as a threat to their control over sports and as a model for working-class empowerment. He cites especially the long resistance of the Club Cricket Conference to competitive cricket and the splits in southern villages between amateur-controlled middle-class clubs with élite fixtures and working-class competitive ones. He was shocked by the intensity of middle-class fear of meritocratic competition in sport, expressed in the clampdown on professionalism. 5-9 minutes He believes that most of those who ran English cricket from 1870 and after were actually determined to make it less popular. 40-41 minutes

Duncan does not deny the paramountcy in skill and content of three-day and Test cricket (developed to suit the mealtimes and habits of wealthy and landed Victorians) over shorter forms of the game, or object to the space which longer forms occupy in cricket history. But he criticizes cricket historians and writers who have perpetuated the amateur élite narrative and virtually denied the existence of successful competitive leagues in the Midlands and North. 12-14 minutes He has some stern words about myth-making literary figures, especially Neville Cardus, and about privileged writers of self-mocking narratives about their own incompetent performances. He reflects on the contribution of popular children’s literature in establishing the image of cricket as a game for public schools and players with public school values. 31-39 minutes

He attacks the “shamateurism” which had to sustain the County Championship as the apex of English cricket, especially after the Second World War, and the general myth that the best cricket was played by gentleman amateurs. He traces the critical importance of the greatest “shamateur” of all – Dr W G Grace – in establishing the Championship and the myth, with the help of prolific sporting media. Without him, the already anachronistic Championship might have collapsed and yielded to the League cricket which was far more accessible to a working-class audience. 15-19 minutes The model of association football in professional leagues was always a more realistic one for cricket and, in Duncan’s view, it remains so. 20-21, 43-45 minutes

A major theme of Duncan’s book is the impact of Thatcherism and free market economics on cricket. He argues that they restricted access to cricket for poorer people particularly through pressures for longer and more flexible working hours and through losses of local authority and state school playing fields and those of privatized companies and others who decided to  develop their playing fields as commercial assets. The disappearance of workplace cricket was a particular loss to minority ethnic players. Thatcher’s successor, the cricket-loving John Major, reinforced these trends with the abolition of the Sports Council and its credo of sport for all. Poorer people also lost access to cricket as spectators by its removal from free-to-air television. 25-31 minutes

He also gives a full and almost up-to-date account of the racial crisis which has engulfed English cricket. Without underplaying the pervasive influence of overt and covert racism, Duncan still believes that issues of class and inequality remain the dominant threats to the future of English cricket. 51-59 minutes

Duncan Stone’s Different Class is published by Repeater Books. https://repeaterbooks.com/product/different-class-the-untold-story-of-english-cricket/

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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