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English cricket has always been a people's game, but that's not what the elitists will have you believe

MCC's U-turn over Eton-Harrow is symptomatic of a sport that has always been run along class lines

Duncan Stone
Pupils watch this year's Eton vs Harrow game at Lord's in June. MCC said the fixture would not be played at the ground from 2023 onwards, to be replaced, in the interests of inclusivity, by the annual finals of boys' and girls' schools competitions, but reversed the decision after protests from members  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Pupils watch this year's Eton vs Harrow game at Lord's in June. MCC said the fixture would not be played at the ground from 2023 onwards, to be replaced, in the interests of inclusivity, by the annual finals of boys' and girls' schools competitions, but reversed the decision after protests from members  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Marylebone Cricket Club's (MCC) decision to backtrack on its announcement that Eton versus Harrow and Oxford versus Cambridge matches would no longer take place at Lord's will no doubt have pleased the traditionalists - including Henry Blofeld (Eton) and David Gower (King's Canterbury) - who protested against the original decision.
It is, however, a decision that does not so much threaten cricket, as incoming MCC president Stephen Fry fearfully suggested, with a "turgid image of snobbery and elitism" but confirm that image has long been in place.
All sports, across their respective regions, are socially constructed, and as far as cricket in England is concerned, the game's "posh" image, like that of football as a "people's game", is no accident of history. The rules (Laws, as cricket insists), cultures and structures of sport are often the result of (in cricket and rugby certainly) hard-fought cultural wars over which group - invariably social class - a sport serves. Sport neither arrives fully formed nor is simply "done".
And yet, to read the orthodox history of English cricket, you would be forgiven for thinking a small cohort of public-school educated "gentlemen amateurs" generously bestowed the game to the British (English) masses and the empire beyond. This is, however, a long way from the truth.
As Mike Marqusee revealed in his classic, Anyone but England (1994): "… one of the things that makes English cricket English [is] the way it lies about itself to itself. The Englishness is in the lie, in the cult of the honest yeoman and the village green, in the denial of cricket's origins in commerce, politics, patronage and an urban society." (The italics above are the writer's.)
Even if Marqusee failed to provide a detailed account, the process that transformed cricket during the 19th century had little to do with MCC, or the various counties and the County Championship (established in 1890) that the gentlemen amateurs controlled. Instead, cricket's growth owes everything to ordinary people up and down the British Isles and the countless cups, leagues and associations they established from the late 1850s. Not for nothing was cricket once regarded as the "national game".
Given the process that allowed cricket to be taken over by the nation's privately educated elites entailed the rejection of meritocracy, it is ironic that the first modern example of meritocratic competition was the brainchild of Charles Alcock (Harrow), the secretary of Surrey CCC, in his capacity as secretary of the Football Association.
The Football Association Challenge Cup established in 1871 was nothing less than revolutionary, and it was this competition that proved the catalyst for an explosion in local and regional associations in both football and cricket - all of which ran similar competitions - and the number of clubs seeking to compete in them.
Tellingly, this expansion in play led to an increase in professionalism as clubs sought to place the communities they represented on the map. In football, this meant teams made up of ex-public-school men, such as Alcock's Wanderers FC, became increasingly uncompetitive as the game moved towards professionalism in 1885. Despite this, the knockout format had serious limitations, as elimination would often leave clubs without any fixtures.
Indeed, it was a lack of regular fixtures that led to the establishment of the Football League in 1888. It was a move that created the world's first objectively modern sport, and the various cricket associations quickly followed suit. But while the game was growing in both scale and popularity at local and regional levels, the men running MCC and the counties recognised - after the events in football - the threat overtly meritocratic competitions posed to them.
Accordingly, the game's administrators sought to restrict or diminish working-class participation in first-class cricket. Beyond calls to double entrance fees and the amateur-professional distinction that remained in place until 1963, the most telling (non) development was the rejection of a three-division County Cricket League in 1889, and the idiosyncratic organisation of county cricket thereafter (the County Championship was not arranged over two divisions until 1999).
Despite this, the game's burgeoning popularity remained a problem for the game's elites, who had come to believe the game was theirs and theirs alone. As the author Alec Waugh (Sherborne) argued in the Cricketer in 1922: "[Richard] Nyren's game is no longer entertained for a few. It has become a part of the national life, and probably, if the Bolsheviks get their way with her, it will be nationalised with the cinema and the theatre and Association Football".
As much as the semi-professional leagues of the Midlands and the north of England acted as a summer equivalent to the Football League, an organisation called the Club Cricket Conference went as far as banning cup and league competition in the South after 1918. While first-class cricket was, according to Sir Home Gordon (Eton), "trapped by its own popularity", the elites' success in running cricket in their own image (or interests) has resulted in English cricket being anything but a "national" or "people's" game today.
But as much as the reactionary elitism of the past was excused by amateur ideology, the avaricious exploitation witnessed since the formation of the England and Wales Cricket Board in 1997 has proved equally elitist, with the game increasingly serving the subscribers of Sky Sports (and ECB executives) rather than the membership of the counties.
MCC's failure to bring Eton vs Harrow matches at Lord's to an end - like the ECB's vanity project the Hundred and interim managing director Andrew Strauss' High Performance Review - confirms both forms of elitism survive. That they do will likely end cricket as an authentically "popular" sport in this country.
Cricket, it seems, does not want to change. Those who have followed "gentleman amateurs" such as Lord Harris (Eton) and Sir Pelham Warner (Rugby), or ECB "spivs" such as Giles Clarke (Rugby), are so wedded to their self-interested ideologies (or is it simply money and power?) that they would rather kill the game than make it truly inclusive.
The Hundred may well be the most prominent elephant in the room. But, with elitism and racism arguably more significant issues overall, cricket has a veritable herd to deal with. Previously docile, county supporters - since the advent of the Hundred especially - have become increasingly mobilised, militant even in some quarters, in calling for reform.
And yet, despite 15 of the 18 first-class counties professing to be "member-owned", they remain a disparate force. Moreover, if past decision-making is a guide, they are unlikely to exert much influence if the corporatism that has marked life in the UK over the last 40 years continues to dominate the ECB's decision-making.
Significantly, the game's (largely unknown) history provides a model for a more meritocratic, and socially and racially open, future. Yet there is little hope that first-class cricket will survive as anything more than a boutique pastime for the privately educated until those at MCC who made this retrograde decision, like those who seem prepared to sacrifice almost every established form of the game upon the altar of the Hundred, either learn from the relative histories of cricket and football, or are replaced.
Rowland Bowen stated as long ago as 1970 that English cricket "has no chance" of shedding its elitist pretentions "so long as the higher administration of the game remains in the hands of people heavily imbued with that background and those ideas". Moreover, as Marqusee highlighted almost 30 years ago, "the revival of English cricket will have to mean a lot more than winning Test matches". In that, meritocracy rather than nepotism, inclusivity rather than exclusivity, must be the basis of English cricket's future.

Duncan Stone is a historian interested in the "cultural war" over the legitimate form, function and meaning of sport, and the author of Different Class: the Untold Story of English Cricket (Repeater, 2022)