Michael Henderson

Elite sport

The England team is riding high, but most of its stars learned to play in public schools

Elite sport
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England’s cricketers won a remarkable Test match inside three days in the bearpit of Johannesburg, a victory that put them 2-0 up in the four-match series, with only the final Test to play. It is a remarkable achievement by Alastair Cook’s team because, before a ball had been bowled, most judges expected South Africa, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, to claim another triumph by right.

In particular it was a wonderful tribute to the public schools which sharpened the skills of the star players. Stuart Broad, who took six prime wickets for only 17 runs on that tumultuous third day, reducing South Africa’s second innings to rubble, was educated at Oakham. Joe Root, who scored a superb century to set up the bowlers, was a sixth-former at Worksop College. Jonny Bairstow, who held nine catches in the match behind the stumps, attended St Peter’s York, and James ‘Titch’ Taylor, who held two remark-able catches at short leg, went to Shrewsbury.

Cook, who has made more Test runs for England than anybody, and who has now led England to victory in South Africa as well as India, spent his schooldays at Bedford. Poor old Nick Compton had to make do with Harrow, ‘the dump on the hump’. And there to report on proceedings was the BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, an Uppingham old boy, supported by the evergreen ‘Blowers’, Henry Calthorpe Blofeld, who polished his vowels at Eton.

Nor does the public-school influence end at the boundary ropes. Andrew Strauss, Cook’s predecessor as captain, was appointed director of cricket by the England and Wales Cricket Board last year, and Strauss is a Radley man. As the Oxfordshire school also educated the great Ted Dexter (‘Lord Ted’) 60 years ago, they have certainly done their bit for the summer game.

English cricket has been adorned, if not completely dominated, by public schoolboys for as long as batsmen have faced bowlers. C.B. Fry, the finest all-round sportsman this country has produced, went to Repton before Oxford University. The Albanians offered Fry the crown of their kingdom but he refused it, saying it was ‘a damn bore’. Mind you, he went on, ‘had I accepted it, the Italian invasion would never have happened. There would have been county cricket, and nobody would have dared to invade Albania with county cricket being played. The Royal Navy would have been obliged to intervene!’

Douglas Jardine, the England captain whose ‘bodyline’ strategy (vicious fast and short bowling) in Australia in 1932-33 almost led to a diplomatic breach between the countries, learned his cricket at Winchester. After the war the finest batsmen continued to come: Peter May (Charterhouse), Colin Cowdrey (Tonbridge), M.J.K. Smith (Stamford), and David Gower (King’s, Canterbury). Of recent captains Michael Atherton was a bright boy at Manchester Grammar School, and Nasser Hussain went to Forest School in east London. Mike Brearley, widely considered to be the finest captain of all, passed through City of London School on his way, like Atherton, to Cambridge.

Does all this matter? My word, it does, more than ever. In state schools cricket has more or less disappeared. The game is expensive to play, with all the clobber that participants need, and it takes up more hours than any other sport. Football and rugby are easy work. All you need are two lots of shirts and a teacher with a whistle. Cricket requires far more dedication from schoolmasters and the lads (and, increasingly, girls) who play the sport.

The public schools, with their long-rooted traditions (not least in fixtures against other top schools) and superb playing fields, have a head start in all respects. Many of them also offer sports scholarships to the most gifted boys, which is how Root, who is blossoming day by day into a cricketer of exceptional skill, got his chance. You might say that the victory in Jo’burg was established on the playing fields of Worksop — and Oakham.

These schools have another advantage. Many leading cricketers, including those who played Test cricket, are recruited as ‘pros’, coaching the boys during the summer term and casting a kindly eye upon their progress. Cook, for instance, was coached at Bedford by Derek Randall, once of Nottinghamshire and England. Phillip DeFreitas is the current pro at Magdalen College School, Oxford, and John Lever is at Bancroft’s.

Meanwhile, in the state sector, King Football reigns supreme. Even though we are not much cop at football as a country, compared with Germany or Italy, the game is more popular than ever, or at least more visible. Cricket, once unquestionably the other major national sport, has been pushed to the margins. Club cricket, once so strong in places like Lancashire and Yorkshire, has also declined. There is a widespread struggle to put out teams, and some clubs have gone out of business.

The lack of coverage on terrestrial television has played the most important part in this process of marginalisation. However skilfully Sky cover the game, Atherton and Hussain to the fore, a generation of young people have grown up with cricket playing little or no part in their sporting lives. As newspapers no longer report the first-class game in depth, preferring to throw all their eggs into the basket of Test cricket, there has been a rupture with the past. It is now noticeable that many spectators who attend Test matches have a sketchy know-ledge of the game and those who play it.

So the public schools which have contributed so mightily to English cricket’s past are now entrusted with the responsibility of finding players for the future. It is a burden these great institutions will shoulder manfully. It is also a sad reflection on our national sporting life.