LONGER READ

Storm clouds gather over the English village green

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/English_Village_Cricket.jpg
Summer cricket on the village green. Public domain image.

If you walk across Brighton’s Dorothy Stringer playing fields from the Ditchling Road side, you will notice a series of concrete strips almost swallowed up in the turf, some of them still showing evidence of an unusual green thatching. Not so many years ago, when my boys were at the school, there was still (just) a cricket team and, of an occasional afternoon, you could watch boys and girls playing in the nets here and let yourself be consoled by the traditional thwack of willow on leather.

These concrete strips were the base of those nets. Most of the walkers this way won’t even know what they are now. They are the archaeology of a rapidly fading past.

Sussex has genuine claims to being the birthplace of cricket with children playing it here possibly as far back as Anglo-Saxon times and with proper village matches taking place before the Civil War.

These days, all that is gone. State schools like Dorothy Stringer have no budget for much sport, let alone cricket. Some of them have even had to sell off their playing fields. In a downward spiral, only a few state school kids play the game now and those that are keen, probably as a result of family or tribal loyalties of one kind or another, need to join clubs which themselves are also increasingly unsustainable at the grassroots level.

Cricket slips off its national pedestal

At the top of the cricket pyramid is the England Test team, once a marker of national pride and character and a central element of Sir John Major’s vision of a pastoral and idyllic England. “Fifty years from now,” said the then Prime Minister in 1993, Britain “will still be the country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs…” not to speak of village greens, balmy weather, cups of tea, Spitfires overhead. And so on.

Like this vision, however, the narrative no longer coheres. It doesn’t add up. Things have fallen apart.

When I started this article, the England cricket team was suffering the fallout from one of its greatest humiliations and, four days later, as I finish it, they are being praised to the skies for managing to scrape a draw from the latest self-inflicted debacle. Ringing any bells?

The potential for metaphor here is of course endless: Dunkirk, the surrender of Singapore, Suez, last year’s collapse of Kabul, but, of course, most obviously, Brexit. That other fine Englishman, Dominic Cummings, made a succinct comment on the performance of the Cabinet Office and it works well enough for the cricket establishment: “A total shitshow,” he wrote, in a WhatsApp message to Prime Minister Johnson.

‘Only the English can keep a straight bat’

I am a Scotsman. My tribe are outsiders to cricket. At school it was repeatedly instilled into me and my peers that we would never be any good because, truly, only English people could keep a straight bat and play the game in the appropriate fashion. To be fair, this was said with a wink and a chuckle. It was the same kind of wink that Johnson and Truss use when they tell the credulous farmers and fishermen that only their trade deal with Australia will deliver the sunny-upland prosperous cheese and barramundi industries that were promised, the same uproarious chuckle Johnson used to pledge the NHS a post-Brexit dividend of £350m a week.

Skip Brexit for a moment though and focus back on the cricket, that quasi-mystical game in which England invests so much significance. Unfortunately, as even the sportsphobics among us cannot have failed to notice, unparalleled gloom has descended on the whole national endeavour. Not just humiliation but farce, and an anguish so crippling that existential questions are being asked as to whether Test matches can even continue.

Cricket meshes politics, class and race

And, sportsphobic or not, you cannot live in England and not be aware of the heavy metaphoric load that Test cricket has long laboured under: essentially cricket as an explanatory national narrative. In Beyond a Boundary (1983), one of the best sports books ever written, the great CLR James, Trinidadian historian, anti-Stalinist dialectician and cricket analyst extraordinaire, explores the game in an historical and social context and digs in to how the game meshes with 200 years of politics, class and race. The quality of the writing genuinely attracts readers of all political views and the book sets a frame within which we can better understand the melancholic collapse of English hopes in this current Ashes series.

To my mind this approach also helps build the general resilience we will need if we are to resist the complete collapse in standards and integrity manifest in the gang of chancers currently in power.

For England: a sorry Test record

In case there are any doubters so far, let us just remind ourselves of the cricket situation as of a couple of days ago. Despite two years of detailed planning, England lost the series with Australia at the earliest available opportunity. It took the smallest quantity of cricket ever required, just 852.3 overs, for Australia to win the series. Since the beginning of 2021, England have lost 10 out of 13 Tests. Only once before have England lost more than this in a comparable sequence.

England have also been bowled out for under 150 in eight innings, equalling the most in a year by any team. In the Fifth Test of the series, England lost all 10 wickets for just 56 runs. England have been dismissed for under 200 in 14 innings across 13 Tests. Only three of England’s last 16 Tests did not feature a duck by one of their openers. England’s openers finished with a collective tally of 14 ducks in 2021, a record by a considerable margin.

Storm clouds over the village green. Photo credit: James Joughin

And it gets worse. The Test team may be the most visible element in England’s cricket shop window but it is by no means the only one. Unfortunately, many of the others are also under siege. Three stand out for me.

Inclusivity: Last month, ex-professional cricketer Azeem Rafiq gave testimony to MPs detailing the racism he faced at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, one of England’s most venerable sporting institutions. He spoke about “institutional racism” so bad he was close to taking his own life. The Health Secretary Sajid Javid called for “heads to roll” – and they did. First, the chairman and the CEO of the club resigned, then the club sacked their entire coaching staff, from top to bottom. The fallout is still ongoing but the consequences are enormous across the whole national game.

Civility:  Then, there is the strange and illustrative story of everybody’s favourite living PG Wodehouse character, the lovable chap known to his many admirers as Aggers (it’s a thing in cricket: you have to have a daft nickname to get into the top tier of the pavilion). One suspects the full story has not come out but it revolves around a disagreement between Jonathan Agnew MBE, a man of impeccable pedigree and easy chumminess, and Jonathan Liew, a young writer sometimes of the Guardian. Aggers sent Liew a series of extraordinary messages culminating in the repeated use of an exceptionally vulgar epithet – in capital letters no less – (see this link but please open with care). 

This behaviour from one of England’s national treasures – very much more nasty Roderick Spode than Bertie Wooster, lovable English buffoon – was so revealing that the media seemed to look away, uncomfortable and wrong footed. It was almost a full category error, but then isn’t that the takeaway? Isn’t that the England of today? 

Happier days. Photo credit: James Joughin

Fairness: And if you think those stories are bad, here’s the proverbial pachyderm in the room. Of the 336 men educated in this country and playing county cricket in 2020, 45% come from a private school background, as compared to only 7% across the whole population. It is something when the Daily Telegraph reports that the national cricket team was among the top 10 professions with the highest independent school attendance.

A year or so later and the team had climbed to No 1 – ahead of High Court judges, the House of Lords, the diplomatic corps and the Armed Forces. That’s a tough pitch to defend when you are trying to tout ‘inclusivity’. The ECB’s strategy document for 2020-24 is titled “Inspiring Generations”, and one of its six priorities is to reach a new audience through its ‘elite’ teams. This is problematic when those teams are so unrepresentative of the audience they are trying to attract.

Of England’s 55-man cross-format training squad selected earlier this summer, 24 were educated by the state and 26 privately, with five schooled overseas. This has been reflected in the corridors of power in men’s cricket: Andrew Strauss (Radley), Ed Smith (Tonbridge) and James Taylor (Shrewsbury) follow in the well-heeled footsteps of James Whitaker (Uppingham), David Graveney (Millfield) and Peter Moores (King’s Macclesfield). Unconscious or not, does this persistence at the top of the game lead to an old boys’ bias gently swirling through it? A drop of ink in a glass of water?

Cricket as national metaphor: the feedback loop

Racism, private schooling and the “playing fields of Eton”, PG Wodehouse, historic levels of failure, incompetence and denial: the ringing of bells is surely deafening now. Come in Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Piccaninny Watermelon Bumboys Wall-Spaffer Big-Girl’s-Blouse Get-Brexit-Done Johnson, our man at the top of the pyramid. Only four years ago, most people agreed he was not fit for high office. Then he graduated to Foreign Secretary and national embarrassment. Now, at least at the time of writing, he is top dog. He is a man who has spent his life auditioning to be a PG Wodehouse character when actually he is, as brave Eddie Mair said to his face, just a “nasty piece of work”, and a proven serial liar

But, getting back to the cricket, if the sport can operate as national metaphor then it is an easy enough jump to seeing the Test scores as some kind of karmic feedback loop. What goes around comes around and, I submit, the crimes of Johnson have now become so excessive that they are pulling down a reckoning on some of England’s most treasured institutions. 

Could this be a punishment on Brexitland for inflicting Johnson on the rest of us? Because what better target for the Gods than cricket, middle England’s favourite pastime? What more deserving divine punchbag than Aggers? And dear old Athers as well. And Rooty and Cooky and Straussy, and Broady and Belly and Beefy. And Stokesy, Wokesy and Blokesy. And Harmy and Swanny and Trotty and the lovable Boycs. 

Failures longer than England’s batting collapses

The thing with buffoonery is that eventually the joke wears off and the audience stops laughing. The entertainer is left high and dry, the crowd shuffles nervously away, and everyone is left with a sick taste in the mouth. As an exhausted Johnny Rotten famously asked, at the conclusion of the Sex Pistols’ only US tour, as the myths and the bodies were piling up around them: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
And, should you doubt any of the karmic potential manifest here, don’t forget the long list of Johnson’s egregious failures – longer even than the list of England’s batting collapses.

Let’s quickly summarise: calamitous and fatal delays in introducing lockdown; £37 billion-plus cost failures in the Test and Trace system; discharging of patients from hospitals into care homes; 150,000 deaths from Covid; misleading the Queen over unlawfully suspending parliament; lies about building 40 hospitals by 2030; throwing away the COP26 opportunities; wilful destruction of the UK foreign aid sector; Brexit’s four per cent long-term hit to the UK’s GDP. Then there are the ongoing ‘gates’: Christmas partygate, wallpapergate, Arcurigate, Allegra Strattongate, Lord Geidtgate, Lord Brownlowgate.

For me, almost as dispiriting as all this is recognising that many voters still love Johnson. Like Trump or Berlusconi, there are some for whom he can do no wrong. I’ve just heard Tim Ashton, chairman of the Boston and Skegness Conservative Association, defending Johnson’s partying on Radio 4’s World at One news programme. “We’ve got a Prime Minister that I have absolute confidence in and knows exactly what needs to be done,” he said. 

Karmic retribution – and not just for cricket

What? Have these people no shame? This is the kind of remark that actually provokes karmic retribution. And this time it’s not just the cricket team I’m worried for. 

As the daily news broadcasts make only too clear, Johnson’s charge sheet goes on and on, and, in its immensity, seems almost to paralyse us. But we know, from a million historical examples that, as with the Dorothy Stringer Cricket Department, the roof may suddenly fall in and the whole edifice be swept away. Even as I write, what looks like a tsunami of loathing and disgust is gathering force, ready to sweep Johnson into history. 

Of course, we need to be careful what we wish for. The opposition is not yet ready to face the Tory machine. It needs time to get stronger and more focused because, if it cannot mount a convincing challenge at the Brexit gang’s time of greatest weakness, we may find the rough beast that slouches in after Johnson goes is even worse than what went before. And that will be the cruellest karmic kickback of all.

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