To be observed by a coach, £75, with another £20 to participate in trials. To play in a festival, £455. Up to £3,000 more to go on a tour. These are the hidden costs of breaking into a boys’ county academy, documented in the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket’s report.
Sixteen of the 18 first-class counties in England and Wales charge fees for various elements of the pathway. In some cases, they make a profit from their programmes. In 2021-22, Sussex earned £537,000 from theirs – and spent only £519,000, making a profit of £18,000 that could be invested elsewhere. Former Sussex and England player Matt Prior lamented last year that it cost him over £1,000 a year for his two children to be in the county set-up.
Such a scenario “creates two categories of participants, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, stigmatising those from poorer backgrounds”, says the ICEC report. Educationalists often describe “lost Einsteins”, who were not given an outlet for their intelligence; cricket’s stratification means that the English game cannot know how many talented players have been lost.
“Cricket’s a very expensive sport,” says Phil DeFreitas, the former England Test cricketer who is academy bowling coach for Leicestershire. “All you’re getting is the ones who can afford it.” And, so, recommendation 36 of the ICEC report, nestled away on page 229, is among its most significant. It advocates that “participation in the talent pathway should be made entirely free of direct costs charged by counties so that no player trialling for or participating in the 2024-25 pathway needs to pay”.
Yet the fees charged by counties are merely one of the costs facing aspiring cricketers. A subtler, more invidious, issue is of county academy coaches offering separate private sessions. Faced with a borderline selection for the Under-15 side, it is not hard to see how a coach might plump for a boy whose parents pay £50 a week for a one-on-one session over one whose parents do not.
“There is clear evidence that coaches’ conflicts of interest and biases (conscious or otherwise) are operating to the detriment of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” the ICEC writes. It also outlines how parents often face pressure to pay for extra coaching supplemental to the talent pathway.
“You shouldn’t be doing one-to-ones because it influences your selection,” says DeFreitas, who has worked with the London Schools Cricket Association. “Since I’ve been involved with Leicestershire, I’ve not witnessed it. But I’ve had parents tell me it happens everywhere else. If you’re employed by a pathway system, you can’t use that to your advantage. You shouldn’t be doing your private coaching and influencing the selection of kids in your age group.”
In many cases, the county pathway system does not equalise opportunity but opens up a new divide – on top of one that already exists. Telegraph Sport last year outlined the cricket arms race between leading private schools. Millfield School opened a £2.6 million indoor cricket centre in 2020, which includes a speed gun and nets replicating Australian fast wickets and Indian turning tracks. Some schools now pay former internationals £100,000 to work as coaches.
Meanwhile, most state schools no longer offer any meaningful cricket: state-educated children are now 2.5 times less likely to play the game. For many counties, private schools serve as a crucial part of their scouting network; the school coaches – often former first-class players – develop and recommend players. Especially in the south of England, such interdependence between state schools and counties is altogether rarer. One county analysed by the ICEC has links with 16 private schools but only two state schools. There is, the report says, “a pervasive web of patronage networks, which have a significant bearing on decisions around talent ID and selection”.
In a sense, the headline figures on England’s reliance on privately educated players – 58 per cent in 2021 – is a little misleading, because of schools’ use of scholarships, including the case of current Test player Harry Brook. Yet the importance of such scholarships handicaps players who are not spotted by schools, do not want to go or simply develop later. The England and Wales Cricket Board told the ICEC report that the importance of scholarships “is hampering the bigger picture of the talent pathway”.
Brook’s own view of his scholarship at Sedbergh is: “If I hadn’t have gone there, I definitely don’t think I would have been anywhere near as good as I am now.” These dynamics especially affect batsmen. Compared to bowlers, for batsmen nature matters less than nurture – facilities, equipment, coaching, and simply balls to face. And such nurture appears to be becoming increasingly important: barring Ben Stokes, all of England’s top seven at Lord’s, spent at least some of their educations at private schools.
Of England Test batsmen born since 1986, 40 per cent spent most of their secondary education at private schools, compared to 20 per cent in the previous 20 years, Stefan Szymanski calculated in Crickonomics. Research last year from Tom Brown, an academic and talent development researcher, showed that early access to the pathway was particularly important for batsmen.
Among white British players in county academies, Brown has found, those at private schools are 13 times more likely to become professional cricketers. And yet, for all the introspection about how cricket has excluded too many people for too long, there is also reason to think that the game’s crisis will be the catalyst for real change. Yorkshire now bar academy coaches from offering private one-on-one sessions. The All Stars programme has galvanised the game among children from all backgrounds; both the MCC Foundation Hub and Chance to Shine are expanding their work in state schools.
Remarkably, since the South Asian Cricket Academy was founded last year, with an annual budget of £55,000, seven players have signed professional contracts with counties. Saca’s tale is both a damning indictment of cricket’s historic failures and something altogether more heartening: a sign of the talent that already exists in the game. If the ICEC report is a painful reminder of the financial and cultural barriers that remain in cricket, it also offers pointers to building a sport in which a player’s prospects will be altogether less dependent on the size of their parents’ wallets.News