© Getty Images

Moeen Ali’s appeal is widespread, most obviously among British-Asians. Ben Stokes is less complicated: there is no more watchable sportsman in Britain. © Getty Images

Moeen Ali grew up in Sparkhill, Birmingham, played in the parks and went to a large comprehensive, where two-fifths of pupils receive free school meals. Ben Stokes, son of a nine-fingered rugby league coach from New Zealand, landed up in Cockermouth, Cumbria, and learned his cricket at the local club. Today they bowl right-handed, bat cack-handed, chase wide ones and go after short ones. They’re an unlikely double act in England’s middle order – Stokes’s inky sleeve to Ali’s “Save Gaza” bangle – yet dazzling to watch. But of England’s top seven for the First Test against India at Rajkot, where both hit centuries, they were the only two who completed their education at a state secondary school.

These days we may not be too keen on all that hidebound stuff about class. But the problem with the idea of meritocracy, noted the British sociologist Richard Hoggart in 1989, is that “class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.”

In 2013, All Out Cricket magazine carried out some research for Chance to Shine, the charity focused on reversing the decline of the game in state schools. Of 413 county players, they found that 207 were educated by the state, and 119 privately (the other 87 abroad). In other words, 36% of county cricketers educated in the UK had attended private school, against just 7% of the overall population. That year, The Economist published its own research into the changing social make-up of England Test teams, using schooling as a “broad measure of class” to reveal a growing trend towards privately educated players: while state-school kids had comprised at least 60% of every England team between 1960 and 1990, that figure had dropped to a third in 2013.

Wasim Khan, Chance to Shine’s chief executive at the time – and another to have emerged from a working-class area of Birmingham to play professionally – stressed that the charity were “striving to bring the standard of cricket in state schools up, not independent schools down”. But the reality was stark: fewer working-class people were reaching the top of the English game than at any other time in its history.

Some argue that the specialist cricket scholarships offered by certain private schools to handfuls of kids from modest backgrounds skew the stats. Joe Root attended King Ecgbert secondary school in Sheffield before receiving a scholarship from fee-paying Worksop College; Haseeb Hameed, a workingclass lad from a Bolton estate, earned one from Bolton School. There is truth in the argument. But while these gifted cricketers get access to top facilities and professional coaching, what of the mates they leave behind? All they have gained is a lost inspiration, and another reason to kick a football around. A few success stories speak of little but the largesse of private money.

Cricket may be among England’s “most cherished institutions”, as Derek Birley wrote in A Social History of English Cricket, yet it is “freighted with extraneous moral overtones” embedded through centuries of deference. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1952 that a professional, Len Hutton, was considered capable of captaining England. Writing in The Times, Geoffrey Green (Shrewsbury School) seemed to sound a warning: “In an age of so-called equal opportunity for all, the professional player has at last attained his fullest stature, and it is now up to Hutton to prove not only himself but also his colleagues worthy of the new principle which has been established.” The Financial Times saw Hutton’s elevation “as quietly cocking a snook at the cricketing Establishment”, concluding with a sentence that’s barely gathered moss since: “Cricketers in England had, for as long as anyone could remember, been divided by social hierarchy.”

Ian Botham was a stateschool boy with an unignorable talent at a county. © Getty Images

Ian Botham was a stateschool boy with an unignorable talent at a county. © Getty Images

In truth, it wasn’t quite Hutton’s style to cock snooks; he preferred to suppress his Yorkshire accent for the job in hand. Others have stayed truer to their roots. Botham, Flintoff and Stokes have presented earthiness as a roguish virtue – and been cheered from the rafters for doing so. Botham was a stateschool boy with an unignorable talent at a county, Somerset, keen on recruiting from private schools. But where his strident anti-authoritarianism did rather more to advance his everyman credentials than his country pile or grouse shoots, his latest heir takes a more straightforward approach. “I started off saying what I thought people wanted to hear,” says Stokes. “But now I just say what I want.” Perhaps despite itself, English cricket has always had fun with its working-class heroes. They refresh the parts other cricketers can’t reach.

Stokes and Ali, then, should be perfect for their time and place. Ali’s appeal is widespread, most obviously among British-Asians – now around 40% of the known recreational playing force – but also in the hearts of romantics, who weep for leg-side flicks, and of progressives, who salute a Muslim in an England cap. Stokes is less complicated: there is no more watchable sportsman in Britain. And yet not enough have been watching – or listening, reading, thinking or playing

When, in 2014, the ECB carried out their own research, they uncovered some chilling trends. Among children aged 7–15, only 2% ranked cricket as their favourite sport; asked to name ten sports, three in five made no mention of it. Those figures, combined with the number of recognised club players dropping from 908,000 to 844,000 in a year, caused shock waves at the ECB. The voices which, a decade earlier, had cracked with despair when live TV coverage of England’s home matches was sold to Sky, could be heard once more. After years of complacency from a central governing body – with their faith in a top-down approach relying on the marketing power of a paywalled England team – came an equation of devastating simplicity: extrapolate those numbers across a generation, and the game becomes irrelevant.

This is the message rammed home by Matt Dwyer, urgently appointed in 2015 as the ECB’s director of participation and growth. Dwyer, an Australian, had initially been employed by Cricket Australia in 2011 to adapt his sales and marketing expertise to a model for cricket that could, in CA’s words, “win the battle of the schoolyard and inspire the next generation”. The programme – founded at the inception of the Big Bash, and what Dwyer calls an “unashamed focus on kids and mums” – has helped reinvigorate interest in Australian cricket, and persuaded the English game to get him on board.

“There are some very good people at the ECB,” says Simon Prodger, managing director of the National Cricket Conference, which represents 1,100 clubs across the country. “But I think they’ve taken a long time to admit the truth about certain things. They used to be very instructional: ‘This is what you will do!’ Because they thought they were the owners of the game, they thought they could just dictate to you, without understanding the collateral effect.”

The ECB have bolstered their ranks by the addition of Lord Patel of Bradford – Kamlesh, to those he meets – as an independent director. Until recently chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission, he hopes his experience will feed into his other passion. “The new [ECB] leadership have a tough job, but they’re doing it for cricket, not for personal gain. I don’t mean they weren’t before… but it felt like it.”

Matt Dwyer

Matt Dwyer, an Australian, had initially been employed by Cricket Australia in 2011. © Getty Images

Patel comes up with an analogy. “If you look at the NHS over the last ten years, we’ve disinvested, so now we find ourselves in a catastrophic state. We don’t have enough nurses, people are living longer, demand is outstripping supply: we’re in big trouble. Cricket has done it gradually. And it’s not just been cricket – councils and schools have not had the money. It’s much cheaper to cut cricket than football. It’s expensive for councils to look after pitches and keep the groundsmen going. We’re fortunate there’s a group of people, largely from South Asia, who are used to playing in the backstreets.”

There is another group of cricketers, even more hidden. From the Bangladeshi restaurateurs playing at sunrise, to the taxi-drivers grabbing a couple of hours in a floodlit east London car park, self-made worlds of taped-up tennis balls, rudimentary kit and boundless invention throb in the nooks and crannies of urban life. And it’s not limited to particular communities. The Last Man Stands leagues – post-work, eight-a-side, 20 five-ball overs, get changed under a tree – have gained traction too. “I love these leagues,” says Prodger. “Cricket can be played in so many different forms – that’s the beauty of it.” Belatedly, the ECB have recognised these vast untapped markets, offering funding support to bring them into the fold – not least because an increase in registered players means more favourable funding from Sport England.

“I think the ECB are the only sporting organisation in the country that can tap into that massive [South Asian] population,” says Patel. “Take Bradford, where 30% of under-10s are overweight or obese. In 15 years, they’ll all have diabetes or heart disease, and yet we don’t do anything. Cricket has the potential to change that. The door is open.” And the delicate question of community friction, particularly in working-class areas? “There are stories, yeah. I work in the inner city, and cultural tensions spill over on to the pitch. You’ll get the odd gripe afterwards – ‘They’ll bugger off without having a pint,’ and so on. But that’s society, not cricket. Cricket is just one small vehicle that potentially can help with health, mental health and community cohesion.”

One evening about a decade ago, Scyld Berry, then Wisden editor, asked Angus Fraser where all the inner-city non-white cricketers had gone. “Owais Shah was basically the only non-middle-class person on the Middlesex staff,” says Berry. Thus the Wisden City Cup was born, for 16–22-year-olds. “It’s designed to create a perception, so people feel there’s a pathway to the top, to get on to the county staff by some other way. In the first year the team were so good they beat the Middlesex Academy.” Berry contends that the City Cup, running since 2009, is now an established part of a growing number of schemes designed to revive cricket in the inner cities. “Between Matt Dwyer and Kamlesh Patel, they’re constructing a pyramid, a pathway, connecting all the various projects. Those two have the vision, particularly for Asian cricket, to blend it into the mainstream. Until recently, official cricket was happy to ignore them, but now the numbers are so great they cannot be ignored any longer.”

The most celebrated project is Chance to Shine. Conceived in 2003 by Mark Nicholas, Duncan Fearnley and Mervyn King, appointed governor of the Bank of England that year, to address the mess of state-school cricket, the charity have so far provided sessions for over three million children, and are closely aligned with the ECB, who now contribute £2.5m a year. The ECB’s new strategy Cricket Unleashed will be rolled out in 2017, with a key aspect the entry-level All Stars Cricket programme, produced in conjunction with Chance to Shine. A series of eight-week sessions directed at under-9s to be staged at clubs across the country, All Stars has already received a huge take-up from clubs who know a thriving colts section is their best hope of future security.

“When we first started, the ECB supported us with half a million a year,” says Chance to Shine’s Fabian Devlin. “It was a leap in the dark for them, but the fact was they weren’t doing anything in schools. It was almost a case of them giving us some money and letting us get on with it. Now there is a much tighter partnership.” In 2016, Chance to Shine delivered sessions for 434,094 state-school children, of whom 46% were girls. Tellingly, the ECB’s own research has found that, of pupils who play cricket in school, 58% like the sport; in schools where there is no cricket, it is 1%. But the charity is no panacea: only 3–4% of these children end up in a local club. “What we’re still missing is white working-class boys and girls from white sink estates,” says Patel. “I still don’t think we’re there. I know Chance to Shine are doing things, but I’ve worked in lots of white working-class areas, and it’s a tough life. We’re constantly focused on black or South Asian kids, and rightly so, but there’s a group of kids we’ve left behind, say from mining villages. We need to realise the potential there.”

Getting talented kids from secondary schools into clubs, and keeping them there, remains vital. © Getty Images

Getting talented kids from secondary schools into clubs, and keeping them there, remains vital. © Getty Images

Pockets of hope can still be found among the white working class. Five years ago, Ciaran O’Sullivan and his mates were discovered by a Chance to Shine coach playing cricket in a park in west London, and persuaded to join the charity’s White City Estate street project. Cricket hadn’t really been a thing at O’Sullivan’s school (“We’d just play during lunch to pass the time”), but the project fired a passion that propelled the boys to Shepherd’s Bush CC and, in O’Sullivan’s case, a Level 2 coaching badge and a place in the first team. “Cricket, for me? It’s done a lot!” he says. “I used to be really quiet. I wouldn’t talk. I’m more confident now. When I joined Shepherd’s Bush, I didn’t know about cricket – it was just something to do to get me out the house. But then I got integrated into the club.” And what do his non-cricket mates from White City make of it? “Nah. They just think it’s a waste of time standing around in a field all day…”

Getting talented kids from secondary schools into clubs, and keeping them there, remains vital. To that end, Susan Brealey is a woman on a mission. “That so many come from 7% of schools seemed to me completely ludicrous, especially when 40 years ago the reverse was true,” she says. In 2011, Brealey launched the first MCC Foundation cricket hubs, with a view to providing high-class coaching sessions, free of charge, to promising state-school-educated cricketers aged 11–15. Local comprehensives nominate their best athletes for a trial, with sessions at nearby independent schools. Six pilot hubs were set up in the first year, and there are scheduled to be at least 40 in 2017. “It’s only 1,500 children a year at the moment,” says Brealey. “But if you start multiplying that out, you develop something significant.” She wants 200 hubs in place within five years.

What’s more, it’s a competitive environment: hub cricketers get to represent their region in organised matches, and need to perform to be retained. The most notable result so far came when the Langley hub from Slough beat Eton’s B-team. Tom Walsh, meanwhile, a promising fast bowler, recently graduated from the Taunton hub on to Somerset’s emerging player programme. “I don’t think I’d have got anywhere near as far as I have [without the hub],” he says. “It’s given me that time with great coaches that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And we’ve been able to use these amazing facilities at King’s College, which are completely different to what anybody has seen before.” And the unity it fosters? “Massive. Totally. Everyone had the same background. No one was coming in with a brand-new bat every five minutes. We were all equal, you know? So when we go and play King’s, or Taunton School, my mates are like: ‘We’re not being beaten by this lot.’ We have just as much raw talent as them.”

Brealey says she would love to find an England cricketer one day. “But what I really want to do is to help clubs. If you can get to children at state schools, then you can connect them with clubs.”

With fewer good cricketers coming through the leagues, such initiatives are crucial. “Clubs are beginning to lose second teams,” says Andy Compton, master in charge of cricket at Bolton School, Hameed’s alma mater, as well as the key co-ordinator of the Bolton hub and a stalwart Lancashire League player. “The standard is not as good, and so there’s scrabbling around to pay players to come and play. You just aren’t getting the same number of cricketers, so they will migrate to the better clubs, or the ones that are throwing money at them.”

This concentration of talent in the richest clubs echoes societal patterns, and risks more have-nots going to the wall. “Not enough central money is given to the amateur game,” says Prodger. “The big beef I’ve had with the ECB is that 99.98% of participation in this country plays recreational, not elite, cricket, yet 95% of all money goes to the elite game. To me, the recreational game needs to be celebrated in its own right, not with a pretence that it’s a pathway to becoming a professional cricketer. That’s bullshit: it doesn’t happen any more, and it hasn’t for a while.” Prodger and others have been sparring with the ECB for years; at least now, he says, “there’s more of a listening ear”. And Patel sounds optimistic: when he says “a significant sum of any lucrative media deal we get in the coming years will go into working-class grassroots cricket”, there is a sense that he speaks for all.

As the club game drags itself into the 21st century – an age of funding crises, council cuts, volunteering crunches, time-poor families, weekend work, crumbling bar revenues, red cards for player behaviour, and an umpiring exodus from a game that goes on too long in an individualistic culture at odds with even the idea of team – it’s tempting to pause and wonder how much further it can go. And then, in the next breath, to stand in wonder at how far it’s come.