England's rise to No. 1 August 20, 2011

Bopara the flag-bearer needs to succeed

Bar the government cabinet there are few English institutions made up from as narrow a base. Ravi Bopara needs to succeed to inspire future generations

These are heady days to be an England fan. Not quite the mad-cap euphoria of 2005, instead just an Alastair Cook-like calm that these indeed are the best of times. Yet, despite the overwhelmingly proficient performance from a likable side, a nagging discomfort remains. Worse still, it's one only Ravi Bopara can quell.

England, you see, aren't the most representative of 'national' teams. In fact, bar the government cabinet there are few English institutions made up from as narrow a base. Bopara aside, and his contribution has been negligible, the squad that has taken England to the top is almost all exclusively white and privately-educated. Unlike the 93.5% of the school population who are not.

The few - such as Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett or James Anderson - who aren't, have mostly come through the suburbs, the shires or the strong Northern club system. It suggests that adolescence is the period where coaching can make the most significant difference and if that's the case, England's demographics are a problem.

The resources available to £4964-a-term Dulwich College, or Radley, Bedford or Brighton, each of which can claim a member of the England side, are well beyond what state schools can provide. Moreover, with many inner-city cricket grounds sold off over the last 25 years, there is limited scope for clubs to fulfil the development role either.

The isolation of inner-city England from the rest of the country was felt acutely in the recent unrest and the national cricket team is emblematic of a society that struggles to build meaningful connections to masses of its people.

Though Bopara won't like it, his place near the England team is an important symbol. Sportsmen like Bopara or Usman Khawaja - as the one non-white face in the Australia team of recent years - tend to be uncomfortable flag-bearing for anything other than themselves and their team. When Khawaja was called into the Australia squad during the Ashes, he wanted to be seen as an Australian cricketer, not a pioneering Muslim Australian cricketer.

Though unrealistic, it's understandable and all part of the myth of sport. Part of the reason why sportsmen - cricketers especially - appear so instinctively right-wing is that sport is supposed to be the one place where the utopia of meritocracy is possible.

In theory, the best players are blessed with innate ability that gets honed through years of hard work as they rise to the top of the game. There, they compete against other similarly self-reliant individuals. In theory, any prejudice that affects that process would get exposed in performance, allowing only the best - irrespective of class or colour - to succeed. In theory, to regulate against this free competition, as South Africa's positive discrimination quota used to, is a sin against the principle of competitive sport.

In practice, it is rather more nuanced. History shows many occasions of prejudice triumphing over merit. Be it Apartheid South Africa or the 'gentlemanly' rule in England, cricket has never been divorced of the society in which it is played. Though the politics is not nearly as divisive in England now, the separation of inner-city cricket shouldn't be ignored.

So back to the new world No. 1s. English cricket seems in unspeakably good health. The money from the ECB's Faustian deal with Sky allowed huge sums - £24.8million in the last year alone - to be funnelled into Team England and, from James Taylor to Chris Woakes, there is a stock of highly capable players coming through the ranks.

But beneath the national team there are issues that need confronting. County finances are in distress, with only four posting profits in 2010 and, a more lasting concern, many working-class Asian and African-Caribbean people remain too frequently out of cricket's reach.

Which is not to say the ECB is not trying. It funds a number of schemes aimed at getting urban state-school children involved. Alongside a £14million city cricket initiative with Sport England there is the well-established Chance to Shine, which reached 3354 state schools and almost 350,000 children in 2010 alone.

These programmes could yet bare fruit in a decade's time but giving kids exposure to cricket at school may not be enough. If alongside the day of coaching in a Newham comprehensive, for instance, a child could also see in the England side - the world's best side - one of their own, their own journey would seem much more possible.

Blunt as it may be to thrust the responsibility on a single player, Bopara is the only one in place to be that man. He didn't have a turf pitch to learn his cricket on, and until he was picked up by Essex, he practiced in his school's playground in Ilford. Last month, he attended the launch of a £770,000 ECB-funded scheme to reintroduce the sport to the East End's most famous playing fields, Hackney Marshes.

The problem is that after 11 Tests before this one, the first of which was four years ago, he averages just 31.80. He is yet to shake off suspicion that he's mentally fragile and replacements are queuing up. Taylor has made 401 runs at 80.20 in his last five knocks for England Lions and Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Alex Hales are all pushing as well.

Any of those could turn into outstanding England players. Yet, while no cricketer deserves their place over another because of their background, it would be especially sad if Bopara ends absent from England's long list of summer successes.

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Awadhesh on August 22, 2011, 20:34 GMT

    "Celebrate the club culture of British cricket, it has, after decades of under-achievement, played a pivotal role in the rise of England to the top of the world rankings.." a study of club culture, and what exactly changed and why it is suddenly the reason for England's #1 position would be very interesting. Take Middlesex as an example. Check out the clubs' demographics and resources - financial and parental time- schools and we may get an answer. Maybe cricinfo could commission such a study? I like articles such as this - in reflects cricket against the broader societal context - afterall isn't cricket a metaphor for life?

  • Awadhesh on August 22, 2011, 19:45 GMT

    Why change a winning position. If private schools provide the #1 team then so be it. But wait, the same system also produce years of mediocre cricket. The article explores whether there is a need for change, to make cricket a less classist system. This may produce even better teams. Take India, Tendulkar and many others did not go to high fee paying private schools; same with the big names in Pakistan and the West Indies. So there is an alternative to welcoming others in. To quote a handful of state school examples is being complacent. I think one could explore what could be done rather than to defend the present system. Over 90% of the audience at Oval are from state schools. Where are their voices in this forum. 10% of the population are Asian or Black (pl check), do they not feel a tinge of patriotism to see Bopara in a winning team? Where are their voices in this article. This article raises interesting questions; we wait of interesting answers.

  • Nick on August 21, 2011, 12:14 GMT

    I find this a somewhat rudderless article, without any real necessity or foundation for its creation. We have has Shahzad and Rashid represent Enlgand recently, as well as Samit Patel back in the One Day fold. To decry England as some sort of upper class Toffs team is patently unfair and wrong. Where is the denouncement of the Australian team for not having any players of Aboriginal origin at the moment?

    I would argue that if you insist on writing articles like this, that would be a better line to take, as they have a "flat" system in Aus, so everyone gets the same chances and there isnt the competition with football/soccer in the inner cities etc. And yet no non-whites on the radar?

  • Alex on August 21, 2011, 8:43 GMT

    A strange and flawed argument. Schools, other than the very richest, have seldom offered any cricket coaching. It is and always been the domain of clubs to provide facilities and opportunities to young men and women to learn the game. Plus, school holidays of six and up to nine weeks mean the amount of cricket played is minimal, as does the cost of equipment when compared to football. Celebrate the club culture of British cricket, it has, after decades of under-achievement, played a pivotal role in the rise of England to the top of the world rankings. Twenty20 world champions as well. Not bad.

  • Martin on August 21, 2011, 8:13 GMT

    @Riingo; A Lennon quote - nice touch - who else could it come from but Riingo!?

  • Rob on August 21, 2011, 7:46 GMT

    England has always had a disproportionate level of public school educated players this is less so now than in previous generations, it is more the ethos of those schools ie cricket and rugby. The working class are predominantly football orientated but a successful England side will hopefully increase interest as the Honeymaster posted. Let us hope this is the case as the positive aspects of cricket on a youngsters development can only be beneficial to society. This article does highlight more of a class than racial issue as England have surely had a more diverse side than any other in the last 30 years, rich kids get better facilities, better education etc. the cycle continues but lest we forget Botham, Flintoff, Trueman....working class heroes, now that is something to be

  • Chris on August 21, 2011, 7:22 GMT

    not sure why this inaccurate and obscure article is still even posted - funny you didn't print my last comment ... too close to home? A little biased?

  • Bheem on August 21, 2011, 5:33 GMT

    I'm not sure Bopara is seen as a flag-bearer, but the private school skew seems to be a valid point. Scyld Berry too wrote a similar article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. Unless kids from less well-off backgrounds are given comparable opportunity and resources to develop their talents, how can one compare "merit"?

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2011, 4:06 GMT

    Where is Owais Shah???????

  • Sohel on August 20, 2011, 23:30 GMT

    It seems journalists have noth much to add about CRICKET from this pretty one sided test series. Well, if u cant talk about indian cricketers playing4indian sides, talk about some1 who struggles 2get his place sealed based on performance, not by his ORIGIN! pretty negative,isnt it?I am also pretty surprised to see no comments from indian fans, who left the forum for this series and more willing to comments on Bangladesh's performance against Zimbabwe..I must admit Bangladesh is performing below par this series, but its not distance past that India was appalling in away series, let alone this one (which the big 3 must want2forget except Dravid).It would be interesting though to see how England would perform in testing grounds( outside their comfort zones) in subcontinent soils..that would be the true test for Bell, Anderson, Tremlett and Broad (I'm pretty confident Bresnnan would be the most successful on those conditions). best of luck-like the spirit and professionalism of this team

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