Since it is always helpful to blame the government for most things, it might be some consolation to those of us who sat shellshocked at Lord's last weekend, and watched South Africa obliterate England, to reflect on how politics has brought about the decline of English cricket. Such an analysis will bring no short-term comfort to those who must prevent further thrashings of the national side; but only by understanding the causes can we hope, in due course, to eliminate the symptoms.
Class is at the heart of the problem. For various reasons, few state schools engage in serious competitive sport any more, and cricket has suffered especially. It requires more time than most games, and that is in short supply thanks to the National Curriculum. The timing of GCSE and other examinations early in the summer terms further limits the opportunities for organised sport in the cricket season. The kit – all those pads, bats, balls – is pretty pricy. The playing fields have been sold off. And teachers' contracts now limit the time they can devote to supervising games after school or at weekends. There are youth schemes run through local clubs, but these are stronger in some parts of the country than in others. The result is that fewer and fewer boys get a chance to play cricket, and even those who do get the opportunity to turn out for a club youth team have usually started cricketing much later in life than would be ideal. This means they have had less exposure to high-class coaching and practice than their counterparts in countries with really successful Test teams, like Australia, South Africa or Pakistan.
Despite these handicaps, men who have not been to independent schools – where the opportunities to play cricket are better than ever – get into county sides, and these days form the bulk of the Test team. Nasser Hussain, who recently resigned as England captain, went to a private school and Durham University: his successor, the excellent batsman Michael Vaughan, went to a Sheffield comprehensive. However, the proportion of privately educated players who end up in the England side has often, in recent years, exceeded their proportion in society as a whole. Vaughan, like Graham Gooch before him, is palpably of the right stuff despite not having had a privileged upbringing, and is helped by a rare and conspicuous natural talent. Too many of his team-mates have less ability, less character, or a fatal combination of the two. That the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, could have observed that his players did so badly at Lord's because of 'complacency' vividly illustrates the character weakness. Since only the weather saved England from an ignominious defeat in the Edgbaston Test that finished three days before Lord's, it is hard to conceive of what the team had to be complacent about.
One of the few serious sports in which England does lead the world – rugby union – exemplifies the point even more sharply. A high proportion of England rugger players have been to independent schools, then turned professional to make serious money. If cricket paid better, perhaps more of the excellent schoolboy cricketers who turn out each season, or more of those who play for university sides, would take up the game professionally. Instead, they head off to the city or to other lucrative callings, and the first-class game has to make do with people who have in many cases had much less of a grounding in cricket. The other problem – as the erudite former editor of Wisden, Graeme Wright, pointed out some years ago in a thundering editorial – is that cricket simply has too many restrictive practices. The all-professional structure means that gifted players with lives outside the game cannot come and go, in the way that, say, Ted Dexter or David Sheppard (who ended up as Bishop of Liverpool) did 40 years ago. Cricket thought that when in 1962 it abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals – Gentlemen and Players – it was striking an early blow for the classless society. Instead, by insisting that first-class players all had professional terms, it cut off a huge pool of talent who had, as they saw it, bigger fish to fry.
So the first task for those who would rescue the game is to deregulate first-class cricket. Since the insistence on professionalism would be literally unaffordable by many first-class counties without big subsidies from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), the return of the amateur, or at least of the non-full-time player, would have other benefits. The ECB hands out cash from Test match receipts, television fees and sponsorship deals to keep counties afloat. It also thereby severs the link between effort and reward which ought to be essential to the creation of genuinely good county teams and genuinely good Test players. A little less subsidy, and a little more effort to find talented players with the right attitude, such as is commonplace among some of our cricketing rivals, would be no bad thing.
The second task has to be to ensure that more children have the opportunity to play cricket at an early age – as in Australia, South Africa or on the subcontinent, or in English prep schools – thereby acquiring some of the athleticism and ball skills that other nations take for granted in their youth but which are becoming increasingly rare here. To be fair to the ECB, it has pumped money into local grass-roots initiatives: but it is still not enough. It is particularly unfortunate that so little is done to take black youths off inner-city streets and on to the cricket field, where their considerable natural talent and athleticism could be exploited to their and the nation's advantage.
The third task has to be to try to create the mental toughness that pursues victory and learns from defeat. Again, there was much in the old public and grammar school systems that did this for an earlier generation of cricketers, and, indeed, in the school-of-hard-knocks system at the other end of the scale, under which fast bowlers were whistled up from the bottom of coal mines. Now the whingeing cricketer has become a caricature: whingeing about his pay, about all the travelling he has to do, about the strains on family life, about having to play too much cricket. Earlier generations performed infinitely better, by and large, despite having been less well-paid, away from home for far longer periods, with no wives flown out to tour with them, and playing far more first-class cricket than is the case today. Cricketers may be paid worse than footballers, but they still get better rewards than they could earn in any other trade for which most of them might be qualified: manual labour or junior office jobs. It is time some were acquainted with this reality and saw how lucky they are.
Mr Blair's touchy-feely society – with what Peter Lilley called 'the something for nothing society' thrown in for good measure – appears to be undermining cricket by reconciling it to mediocrity, just as it is doing in so many other walks of life. Cricketers do not just find excuses for failure; they also expect – rather like some FTSE 100 bosses – to be rewarded for it. If the government cares about competitive sport for children and young people, it must not only endorse it, but also make funding of the facilities for it a priority, or we shall simply never be able to compete with other countries. It must be as enthusiastic in this regard about cricket as it is about soccer. And the ECB must show goodwill by restructuring the game and providing the financial incentives for cricketers to improve. Otherwise, at this rate of decline, it will not be long before an England side takes the field in a Test match and looks around the stands to find that hardly anyone is watching.
Simon Heffer is a Daily Mail columnist.