Radical change is needed to stop young people from being excluded from English cricket because of their race and class, writes Ian Lucas
I had forgotten how wonderful a Test match can be. The fourth day of July’s Edgbaston Test was pivotal: the day began with India in prime position and ended with England having a sniff of victory. A great day was, however, soured with a news story that evening reporting racist attacks in the crowd –something I had not witnessed but which reminded me of the trouble at the heart of the game.
In an overwhelmingly sad article for the New Statesman, Emma John outlines the crisis in English cricket, focusing on the racism which appears to permeate the game, especially at a professional level. Yet, this is just one aspect of the problems facing cricket in this country.
As John points out, the race crisis is matched by a class crisis. Cricket is rarely played in state schools and, as a result, the national team is increasingly reliant on players who attended private schools.
This is a central theme of the eminently watchable BBC series Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams.
Flintoff was a national hero back in 2005, when he was a world-class, all-round cricketer at the beating heart of an England team which wrestled back the Ashes from a powerful Australia, ending decades of domination by the Aussies. His national renown was sealed by his hungover appearance at a Downing Street reception for the victorious England team. He became a national treasure.
Seventeen years on, teenagers from Flintoff’s hometown of Preston have no idea who he is. They are bemused by his love of cricket and efforts to persuade them to play the game. Flintoff is a powerful advocate, his enthusiasm coupled with an endearing personal warmth. He is listened to by the local lads who share his accent.
They know nothing, however, of cricket. Their hazy perception of the game is that it is “posh”, “boring” and, most definitely, not for them.
My own love of cricket was born in the front room of my parents’ Gateshead council house during long summer holidays. Fostered by commentators Jim Laker and Richie Benaud, it was supplemented by listening to John Arlott commentating on Sunday afternoon county games, even when it was raining.
For a County Durham lad in the 1970s, this was the only way to see top-level cricket. Characters like Basil D’Oliveira, John Snow and John Edrich caught my imagination and I began to play myself, in the street.
It is no coincidence that the 2005 Ashes series, in which Flintoff played such a vital role, was the last Test series shown live on free-to-air television. At the time, I was an MP. I met with officials from the England and Wales Cricket Board and pleaded with them to think again about taking Sky TV’s money and banishing Test cricket to subscription-only. I was told that part of the satellite dividend would be used to encourage children to come to the game. I was sceptical then.
If the Sky TV money was spent on reaching out to new young players, it has not, in 2022, reached Preston. On the contrary, working-class access to cricket seems worse now than when I was a child and perhaps even worse than in the days of the legendary Nottingham miner Harold Larwood, whose fast bowling was as feared by Australia in the early 1930s as that of Flintoff in the 2005 series.
What is being lost is plain to see in Flintoff’s admirable BBC series. My mind was cast back to Billy Casper, the tragic hero of Ken Loach’s Kes, by different teenage characters in Flintoff’s team – loners, the bullied, the eccentrics.
Cricket is a game for all sorts. Unlike most sports, it can be enjoyed without requiring the highest levels of fitness and also by those of advanced years. Matching Flintoff’s team with an opposing group of 60 year olds shows how positive cross-generational interaction can be.
My question is why has it taken Freddie Flintoff to give these Preston children the chance to enjoy cricket? What has happened since the golden opportunity presented by the 2005 Ashes series? What has the England and Wales Cricket Board been doing?
One of my earliest cricket memories was of a Gillette Cup game between Lancashire and Gloucestershire in the early 1970s when a packed Old Trafford, and a national TV audience, saw the tensest of games climax in a dramatic victory in the near darkness. I remember the names of the heroes of that day from my childhood – David Hughes, Jack Simmons, Harry Pilling.
Matches like that created the appetite for my lifelong love of the game. The Manchester and Preston teenagers who described cricket as “boring” to Flintoff had never had the chance to see games like this in their living rooms.
I do hope that Andrew Flintoff’s series will convince those who run English cricket that we need radical change and that, as a start, we need live Test cricket back on free-to-air TV. The BBC is, at long last, broadcasting cricket highlights and also 'the Hundred', another version of the one-day game. My conservatism means that I do not watch this latest version of the game. I was impressed by Flintoff’s irrational attachment to cricket 'whites' and see them as one of the game’s unique offerings, rather than something to cause embarrassment.
What is deeply embarrassing is the elitism of the game today – excluding people because of their race and class. Immediate change is needed. I do hope that those who now run cricket will have the sense to see that, in Flintoff, they could have no better advocate for a game many of us love. They should make sure he has a prominent role in its recovery.
Ian Lucas was Labour MP for Wrexham from 2001 to 2019, and a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee from 2017 to 2019, during its inquiry into disinformation and fake news
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