'England cricket team will fail until it represents modern Britain': Interview with Duncan Stone

Duncan Stone, author of Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket tells the Courier what's wrong with English Cricket and how to fix it.

Peter Bath
19th January 2022
Image: Wikimedia Commons
2021 was a rough year for English cricket. Azeem Rafiq's allegations of racism against Yorkshire Cricket Club shook the English cricketing establishment, leading to a flurry of resignations. On the pitch, another disastrous Ashes tour in Australia reinforced the atmosphere of despair and melancholy.

These issues, however, are as old as cricket itself. Duncan Stone, an academic at the University of Huddersfield challenges the orthodox history of cricket in his new book, Different Class: the Untold Story of English Cricket. He spoke to The Courier about what's wrong with English cricket and how to fix it...

When did you write the book?

I don't know how old you are, but this is the end result of thirteen years of research. My book is in the spirit of E.P. Thompson - a history from below. The orthodox history of cricket is always top down, its always written from an elitist perspective, so of course if you're doing that it's pretty obvious where the sources are. But with mine, stuff has been hidden in people's lofts, or lost somewhere in a pavilion gathering dust - those that have survived the various pavilion fires.

Many of the mainstream publishers would be unlikely to touch my perspective with a barge pole.

The one thing I will is say is that yeah I've got a masters, yeah I've got a PhD, yeah I've written this book, but I'm not a natural academic. I don't find this stuff easy. So for me to actually ruminate my thoughts, not just track down the evidence, find interviewees, actually collating it all has been a very difficult process. And then of course it's finding a home for it, and as you said before we started recording, Repeater I think is the perfect home. Because many of the mainstream publishers would be unlikely to touch my perspective with a barge pole.

Was that always an important feature as you were thinking about it, combining a radical politics with an interest in cricket?

I've always been left-leaning, mum and dad were in the Labour Party. I grew up in Guildford in Surrey, which many people regard as the epitome of Middle England. Actually, when I was a kid, Guildford was very industrial. We had the Dennis Brothers factory here which made all the fire engines. My dad grew up in the neighbouring town, Godalming, which had lots of industry, albeit sort of high-end, aeronautical stuff. My dad used to make parts for submarines. We had a Labour mayor in Guildford, it was a very different upbringing.

It was all accidental really. I was stupid enough to ask a question in a seminar on identity when I was doing my masters degree at Leicester University. I asked about regional identity and they said 'nobody does it'. Well, that's a red rag to a bull to me. That's going back 20 years and its been an itch I've had to scratch on and off ever since. Because I was looking from the bottom up, it was almost inevitable that, in comparison to the orthodoxy it would be a radical perspective. Because nobody's ever done this before.

Growing up, most people I saw playing cricket were kids of South Asian heritage playing in carparks or wherever. The disparity between that reality and the England team was always jarring. Is your ambition with the book to counter that?

Initially I just wanted to explain how and why the different regional identities between North and South have emerged. As I then developed that idea into a social and cultural history of English cricket as a whole, I realised what I was doing was important, simply because it was going to correct the record. Beyond reviving the cricketing lives of ordinary people, whether they played or watched, which is obviously important, actually highlighting cricket's orthodox history for the essentially upper class propaganda that it is.

Once I realised what I was doing, it's something that I had to stick with to this point. That's another reason why it took so long. Not all of the value of what you're doing isn't clear at the beginning. It's only after a certain amount of time that dare I say it the importance of what you're doing becomes apparent.

To pick up on that idea of challenging the orthodox narrative, what are the specific ways you do that in your book?

My personal favourite chapter is the third chapter. That's where I go into the social and philosophical origin of amateurism, which still to this day marks the culture and meaning of British sport - that you play something for love. Cricket especially is saddled with these ideas of, you know, 'we never cheat', all of that fair play bollocks.

I like the idea that I've highlighted how the orthodoxy of English cricket, that notion of gentlemanly fair play, wasn't just used as the 'civilizing mission' of the British Empire, it was used to manipulate the working classes at home as well. If you extrapolate that out, it's a superiority complex that a lot of cricket supporters in England have, and with Rugby Union as well - that somehow they are better people than people who follow or play football.

Of course, anyone who knows the real history of cricket is fully aware of all the match fixing, cheating, the 'shamateurism', the racism, the classism. Cricket is just as dirty, if we can use that word, as any other sport. And yet it thinks itself aloof. One thing that my mates will tell you about me is that I love bursting bubbles, and this is arguably the biggest bubble I've ever burst.

This comes at an interesting moment for English Cricket. It's very pertinent after Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations against Yorkshire and then others. Does the book speak to that issue?

As the book progresses, I talk about discrimination based on class. Once I get into the post second world war period that switches to racial discrimination. I've come across - again an awful lot of luck involved and being in the right place at the right time - some quite damning evidence that goes all the way up to Giles Clarke when he was Chairman of the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board), hiding behind institutional structures to stop a predominantly South Asian club from joining the mainstream of English Cricket. So it's from top to bottom, and invariably culture comes from the top. So yes, I do speak to the Azeem Rafiq issue and racism in cricket more broadly. But I predominantly focus on how it manifests itself in what we'd call recreational cricket rather than the professional game.

Azeem Rafiq. Photo: Dave Morton via Wikimedia

The mood of English Cricket is particularly low now, off the back of another terrible Ashes tour. Do you feel like the kind of social issues you highlight feed into the poor performances of the test side?

Of course. They always have. If English cricket was organised in anyway properly, Australia would never get a look in; look at the different populations. But this is this country all over. We run this country, and institutions such as English Cricket, in the interests of a tiny minority of people: invariably white, privately educated men.

What we're witnessing now, especially in the light of de-industrialisation, privatisation and the attacks on trade unionism post-Margaret Thatcher, is that everything to do with our social, economic and cultural life in this country is in the hands of a very homogeneous group. Now, apart from the fact that you're overlooking arguably 93% of the rest of the population - just imagine the talent that is going to waste - if we allow that to continue life in this country is going to get very stale very quickly. Look at what capitalism has done to our high street. Every bloody town is the same ... everywhere's got a Starbucks, a Greggs. There's no choice. And this is what's happening in English Cricket. The failure of English Cricket to be competitive is as old as the game itself, because the game has always been run in the interest of a minority rather than the public at large. And failure will continue until the England team, in terms of personnel, is representative of this modern, multicultural Britain, and particularly the constituency of people who play cricket.

We run this country, and institutions such as English Cricket, in the interests of a tiny minority of people: invariably white, privately educated men.

The focus of the England Men's team has turned to shorter forms - Twenty20 and One Day. Do you feel like this is part of a growing commercialism or will it make cricket less exclusive?

The ECB superficially made what looked like egalitarian decisions, but the results are always the same: it's about money, or box ticking. They've argued that The Hundred might help to attract more audience and young kids, but what they're talking about between the lines is the South Asian community. This, for me, only highlights how reluctant they are to make the changes that are really necessary.

Apart from the fact they failed to copyright the Twenty20 format and they're pissed off about that because they missed on a big money-spinner, it seems to me that in the creation of The Hundred they'd rather invent an entirely new format than make the social and cultural changes necessary to the existing formats to make South Asian or Black British people welcome. They're kicking it into the long grass and hopefully everyone will have their heads turned by the fireworks and the fact it's back on the BBC, and everyone will forget that they're not doing what they really should be doing.

You've highlighted these issues, but what are some practical steps that can be taken to address them?

If I really knew the answer to that I'd be on a six-figure salary somewhere, wouldn't I?

Like British society more generally, cricket is at its own throat, whether it's Brexit or remain, anti-vaxxers... whatever it is, they're doing a really good job of divide and rule at the minute. Cricket is no different. You've got a hardcore of traditionalists that want County Cricket to be put in a perspex box and placed in a museum and you never touch it. Then you've got the radicals who think that The Hundred is the best thing since sliced bread and the future. Then you've got people like me, who might be described as a pragmatist, who says we need both formats.

The County Championship, even in the 19th Century, was an anachronism. As far as modern life in 21st century Britain goes, it's beyond an anachronism; it's played during the working week, it's one man and his dog. No matter how badly run or badly supported it is, it's a very important cultural artefact and for that reason alone, it needs to be preserved in some shape or form.

What I argue in the book, not explicitly, is that cricket going forward should learn from its history. Or more importantly, learn from the history of football. What was it that made football the people's game? It was open, meritocratic competition. Cricket has never been organised in that way. It's a closed shop of 18 counties who know they're bullet proof. Even if you're at the bottom the second division someone will bail you out. They're so comfortable, I don't feel they're trying very hard at promoting excellence.

They're not looking past the easy wins of picking a ready-made public schoolboy off the conveyor belt.

And in that regard, they're not looking past the easy wins of picking a ready-made public schoolboy off the conveyor belt rather than going into the inner-city, finding an outrageously talented South Asian lad and bringing him through the ranks, the structural racism not withstanding. There's no real motivation for the County Cricket Clubs to do much in the way of talent spotting. What I would like to see, personally, is three divisions in the County Championship, promotion and relegation, and the introduction of an F.A. Cup style competition, where the minor counties and even top level ECB Premier League clubs get to compete against each other.

There must be hidden talent out there. The very name County Championsip is inherently unhelpful, because a County Club is such a Victorian concept.

Yeah, it's one of the only things that's still organised by old Counties

If you had a three division, relegation and promotion structure, who's to say you couldn't promote people into that structure? What you need then, is maybe some sort of, I don't know, South Asian entrepreneur from Luton, Birmingham, Leicester, bankrolling a club, saying: 'Alright, well you lot aren't interested, I'm gonna find all these talented lads and I bet you in ten years we'll have a club that can beat almost any County club.' Give us ten years, and access, and we can beat this lot.

This is all pie in the sky, but if I was put in charge for a year, that's the format I'd introduce, because that's what made football a success. It's what made it professional, and by being professional standards will rise. And it made it popular, because you had more localised clubs competing in an overtly meritocratic pyramid. You know exactly where you stand - in cricket, no-one knows exactly where they stand.

Different Class: the Untold Story of English Cricket is out now on Repeater Books.

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