Cricket Has Always Been Shaped by Class Warfare

Discussing class in the context of cricket has long been taboo. But the maintenance of the class order in England serves as the driving force behind the sport’s development.

The English cricket establishment has made it a priority to maintain class power through what should be a people’s sport. (Getty Images)

English cricket has reached crisis point once again — a place, so Duncan Stone’s Different Class explains, it has never drifted far from. Should popular cricketing books or magazines be believed, the sport has died in England upward of a dozen times before. Each time, the occasion is marked with heated debate, columns penned of the catastrophe as though this, finally, is it. Fans, journalists, and commentators alike all gather to lament the cause: incompetent management, too many or too few first-class counties, the Indian Premier League, and so on.

If you’re lucky, one of these debates might tag on the afterthought of class (or, more likely, the nebulous “elitism”) as one of many small contributing factors which add up to one irresolvable whole. The rest dismiss focusing on the subject as agenda-driven bitterness, an extraordinary disrespect of the hard work undertaken by the ruling class — through their education systems or otherwise — to benevolently bestow cricket on the rest of the nation.

Different Class makes no such concessions in shielding the cricketing establishment from the ugly truth of its own history. Where C. L. R. James’s “aesthetic conclusions” in Beyond a Boundary fall short of the demystification which cricket was overdue even in the ’60s, Stone’s analysis is unmarred, recognizing cricket’s idyllic image as a construction of nostalgia for a past which never existed. His book provides real answers to crisis through what is essentially a dialectical materialist approach — the game analyzed in its historical and material context, freed from mythology and the ever-present haze of the “spirit of cricket” which inhibits so many other publications.

With such pretenses removed, Different Class provides, for the first time, a clear portrait of recreational cricket’s history. Throughout, the most striking pattern is the extent to which the maintenance of the class order in England serves as the driving force behind the sport’s development. The philosophy of “sport for sport’s sake” — to play for moral fulfillment instead of competitive or financial motivation — and the championing of the amateur player were promoted by the bourgeoisie to legitimize their emerging position in society.

By the time their encouraged artificial ideal of Englishness and English cricket was enshrined as a natural fact in the early twentieth century, the sport’s establishment made it clear where its priorities lay: in protecting this hallowed institution from the working class and their Bolsheviks who, if they “get their way with her,” would see English cricket “nationalized with the cinema and the theatre and Association Football.”

This sentiment leads to one of the most interesting revelations in the book: the extent to which anti-communism underpinned the motivations of the cricketing establishment and justified decisions which continue to be upheld. Counties were revered for their preservation of “the spirit of old England — where everyone pulls together undeterred by Communist agitators.” Following journalist Frank Rostron’s “criticisms of the ‘snob Lords of cricket’” in 1955, in which he called for reform in the Marylebone Cricket Club, or MCC, so that it might better represent the wider nation, the cricketing establishment was sent into a frenzy of backlash, including one contribution which emphatically denounced the “evil” of communism in his argument.

In the latter half of the century, this approach was continued under Margaret Thatcher, who decried education as “self-righteously socialist” during her time as its minister. This condemnation extended to sport — particularly the resource-intensive cricket, which was “allegedly encouraged by more liberal PE teachers” and consequently “increasingly criticised by right-wing politicians for being ‘non-competitive.’” The devastating handover of public playing fields to private property developers and the targeted attack of organized working communities (Stone refers to this as a “peacetime Blitz”) under her subsequent government would ultimately doom community and workplace sport, concentrating cricket fields into the hands of private schools that, in some cases, still lay claim to more than their entire boroughs.

In the present, the English Cricket Board (ECB) continues these neoliberal practices as a microcosm of the society in which it was founded, “encouraging the counties to compete against each other for the privilege of hosting international matches” and limiting cricket’s accessibility further by releasing broadcasting rights to the mercy of the free market.

In detailing this side of cricket’s history, Different Class lays out clearly the blatant contradictions upon which the English cricketing establishment builds its reputation. The myth of “the spirit of cricket” is still treated in the mainstream as an ineffable entity of its own creation, as fundamental to the sport as the quark is to matter. Yet it is no more than the manufactured revisionist product of class politics — evidenced most recently by the fact that a rendition of William Blake’s “wilfully misinterpreted” “Jerusalem” at the beginning of matches was first suggested by the Ashes’ corporate sponsor, Npower.

The “non-competitive” form of the game was previously defended tooth and nail as the purest and most authentic, but was inevitably disregarded as a product of the “loony left” when it became convenient justification for removing state-funded facilities. The trend continues today, where older West Indian fans note that their culture of dancing and drinking at matches, previously deemed antithetical to sacred tradition and therefore to cricket itself, is now embraced by the ECB when it is carried out by white, middle-class men in the Barmy Army. The established culture of cricket in England can thus be defined by nothing more than who it excludes, and the lengths to which it will go to enforce this exclusion.

Understandably, despite their truth, these conclusions will not likely be popular with those who have made peace with the institution of English cricket. Stone points out that he anticipates the reception of his book — like Beyond a Boundary and Anyone But England before it — to be reluctant and selective, praising perhaps his depths of research and literary prowess but conveniently overlooking its political foundation.

Despite being the root of most — if not, arguably, all — of English cricket’s present issues, class remains a taboo subject which, when raised, is often met with aggressive defensiveness from those who benefit from its current structure. The instinct to maintain the status quo is still ingrained deep within English cricket — in players, journalists, fans, and executives alike. In many ways, fear of change is the true “spirit of cricket,” the same fear which drove the quashing of sport’s power as “the great social leveller,” and the urge to check for reds under the bed.

Despite this (or, more accurately, because of it), Different Class should be considered essential reading for everyone involved in cricket, at any level. Not just fans but professionals, coaches, and journalists, who would all do well to understand the history of their game and their position within it. Unromantic yet no less powerful, Stone’s analysis may well form the basis for true change to finally be realized within, or in spite of, the ECB and other institutions that have for too long made it their priority to maintain power for their class through what is a people’s sport at its core. Different Class is perhaps the most invaluable contribution to cricket literature of the century; though it may not incite revolution, it may just spur the word “class” into an earnest conversation about England’s latest crisis. In the context of English cricket, that might just be the next best thing.