Sporting Notes: Cricket as the mirror of England

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SINCE VICTORIAN times cricket has been celebrated as symbol of England and Englishness. It has had a key role in how the English, and particularly those with social and economic power, have imagined themselves. A cricket game on the village green against a backdrop of parish church and country inn is still one of the images most widely employed to evoke a sense of England. In the 1990s cricket has been seen as a game pervaded with snobbery, sexism and racism which has led it to be described as a mirror of the national malaise.

For much of the 20th century cricket was esteemed an expression of English moral worth. While it is not difficult to uncover instances of cheating in cricket, its standards of sportsmanship and fair play were believed to be higher than those in other sports. The adulation of village cricket meant that cricket was viewed as an essential element of English pastoralism, which saw the rustic as morally and aesthetically superior to the urban, a cultural assumption shared by those on the political left and the right.

Assumptions about cricket being an expression of a distinctively English form of morality were a creation of the Victorians but they were felt with a special intensity between the wars. In most parts of England more played and watched association football than cricket, but no other team ball sport drew support from across such a wide spectrum of society. Claims about the moral significance of cricket stemmed primarily from the wealthier social groups but many working-class followers subscribed to the view that cricket had higher standards of morality than other sports and that cricketers had a duty to observe them.

Cricket can provide unique insights into the nature of social relations in England between the wars. It was riddled with hierarchy and social distinction - in county cricket the gulf between amateurs and professionals was drawn very much on class lines. Few working men became members of county clubs. The MCC, the dominant power in cricket, and the committees of the county clubs were recruited from the political and economic elite. County sides were usually captained by amateurs. Amateur authority was defended on the grounds that amateurs could afford to play in a more swashbuckling style than professionals and so added to the spectator appeal of cricket.

Even more importance was placed on amateur captains being needed to protect cricket's tradition of sportsmanship, the kernel of which was selflessness, putting the side before oneself. Commitment to sportsmanship may have been partly humbug but it can be argued that it helped to convince the elite that they should be trusted with power because they would exercise it with concern for others.

Cricket made social distinction highly visible. Some professional cricketers such as Cecil Parkin, the Lancashire bowler, who felt that he was hounded out of the game for criticising the England captain in the press, were critical of amateur captaincy but hardly any professionals, even when retired, called for cricket to become an entirely professional game. The predominant opinion among professionals seems to have been that amateur authority was a fact of life.

There were very few calls between the wars for even a moderate reform of cricket's structure of authority. It seems to have been taken for granted that the MCC would continue to be the supreme power in cricket. Cricket suggests that in inter-war England there was an awareness of political and economic inequality, but that this was not accompanied by a great sense of resentment and antagonism. When looked at through the prism of cricket, England seems to be a society largely at ease with itself. This may help to explain why support for political extremism in England was so very limited when parliamentary government collapsed in so much of Europe.

Jack Williams is the author of `Cricket and England: a cultural and social history of the inter-war years' (Frank Cass, pounds 37.50/pounds 17.50)