The Imran row has pin-pointed it, but it's not just cricket. Sport has always been a game of them and us - the toffs keeping the plebs out. But things are changing. Oliver Bennett explains the new rules of play
his week, the Royal Courts of Justice saw a peculiar squabble, forged in the Indian sub-continent, yet belonging to an England one had thought was lost in time. Imran Khan's brickbats against his fellow cricketers Ian Botham and Allan Lamb - that they were racist, uneducated and lacking class - inspired them to sue him for libel. And though the result of the trial is due next week, the sport once renowned for its division of gentlemen and players has again emerged as a class-ridden institution.

Indeed, while we might imagine that sport in the 1990s takes place on a level playing field, the spectre of sporting snobbery continues to haunt the land. "Snobbery is rife in sport, especially in those dominated by the blazerati,'' says Tony Mason, a social historian at Warwick University, who has written and edited books on sport and history. "Sports such as tennis, cricket and golf don't want to let hoi polloi in. That's why they are organised in clubs that remain places to meet 'people like us'."

As Mason says "sporting bodies do not like talking about class" and most will insist that they are democratic and accessible. "They've given us all that before," Mason says. "All these clubs are all run by the same old blokes."

Not fair, respond most professionals involved. "Cricket reflects a huge cross-section of the country," says a spokesman for the Test and County Cricket Board, "it spreads into all social classes." Others can see hierarchical traces in the game. Dominic Malcolm of Leicester University, who has written a research paper on the sociology of cricket, says: "Cricket is probably the most class-distinctive of all English sports, and it used to be split between the upper-class amateur batsmen and the working-class professional bowlers."

While this distinction was officially ditched in 1962, some sections of the cricketing establishment have remained in a reassuringly archaic bubble. Recently, the MCC was refused pounds 5m of lottery money to tart up Lord's. The Sports Council not only found that its scheme was not cost-effective, but did not like the bar on women members. Soon to be launched is the English Cricket Board, which may moderate the MCC's central role. Meanwhile, female cricketer and sports pundit Rachael Heyhoe Flint sees the MCC "softening" and she cites a working party set up by the MCC to "look at women".

"We're trying to defeat snobbery in cricket clubs, especially against youths and women," says a spokeswoman for the Sports Council. "Playing sport - supposedly - breaks down barriers. We do not allow any bias and sport has to be open to all." She has seen a number of cricket clubs that have opened their doors, but there have been reports that some golf clubs are restricting applications for membership in order to preserve their exclusivity.

Indeed, golf clubs can be somewhat masonic. "Snobbery is rife in golf, but it is difficult to pin down," says Bernard Pendry of the Golf Club of Great Britain. "Part of the problem is that when someone gets turned down by a golf club you never get a reason. But if you're a bricklayer, I doubt whether you'd be let in to the tried and tested clubs. And you don't see many black faces, either."

Meanwhile, spectator sports such as football and horse racing, which both have strong class allegiances, have been targeting women and families in recent years in order to broaden their appeal. "Horse racing has changed a lot in the last 15 years," says a racing writer "and going to a race meeting is much more comfortable these days."

Football, too, is less plebeian than it was. "It's going upmarket, helped by big money from television deals," says Tony Mason. "It is concerned about its image, and is therefore trying to keep out the young males who might damage it." He adds that motor racing has become more downmarket, attracting the kind of chauvinistic ''supporters'' that football is trying to leave behind.

Surely of all the sports, polo is the poshest. "Look somewhere else," thunders John Crisp of the Hurlingham Polo Association. "It's often described as elitist and that simply isn't true. Of course, there's a royal association, but anyone can learn to play." Might there be a prohibitive cost? "Well, if you ask Kerry Packer, then yes. But there are different levels. I met a chap in Somerset who was part of a syndicate, it costs him pounds 1,000 a year and he plays four times a week." He adds that there are children coming in through the Pony Club, and it has even reached some state schools, although this is somewhat rare.

It may be some time before inner-city children are comparing chukkas, but the schoolchild factor has certainly levelled the hitherto nob-infested ski-slopes. "It started snowballing in the 1970s, when schools started taking groups of children,"says Tessa Coker of the Ski Club of Great Britain. Package deals also contributed, and now, she says: "Few people think of skiing as a toff thing." Nevertheless, she thinks there may be class differences in the approach to skiing. "The middle classes tend to see it as a sport rather than a holiday," she says. "The lower end are just as interested in the discos." Not for them the pleasures of going off-piste at Klosters.

Despite the old divide between League (working-class, northern, professional) and Union (middle-class, southern, amateur) rugby is classless, so says a senior member of the Rugby Football Union. "All of the perceived antagonism has long gone," he says. "League and Union sides even play each other. Fifty years ago, Rugby Union was Oxbridge, but now all sections of the community play, and players are chosen on merit."

Others sports deemed terminally gorblimey may also be upwardly mobile. "In the Middle Ages greyhounds were only allowed to be owned by the landed gentry," says Frank Melville, chief executive of the National Greyhound Racing Club. "In the 1920s it became a working men's sport: it was the first spectator sport that the general public could take part in." The dogs, however, were still owned by the upper crust: now there is a complicated irony in people such as arch-mockney Damon Albarn owning a mutt called Honest Guv.

However, attempts at making the "noble art" of boxing more respectable have failed. "All this lords, ladies and gentlemen rubbish," says Mason. "It's an ignoble business, not a noble art."

The hunt, which one might imagine to be unspeakably plummy, has vernacular fellows yomping in its wake. "There's a lot of landed gentry on horseback, but the majority of people who hunt go on foot," says Lucinda Greenwood of the Field Sports society. "People are often surprised at the range of people." Even the sabs are lower-class these days, says Greenwood. "We think that they're less the liberal intelligentsia, more rent-a-mob." She adds, for the record, that Imran Khan shoots, Ian Botham goes flyfishing (more upmarket than the declasse coarse fishing) and Allan Lamb hunts and fishes: gentlemanly pursuits all.

Tony Mason believes that a lot of sports snobbery is fuelled by a misplaced nostalgia about ''gentlemanly'' virtues that never truly existed. Perhaps. And if sport is, as George Orwell said "war without the shooting" then the class struggle is still with us - even though the rules of engagement are constantly changing.