Sport //

Bowling out the bourgeoisie

Dom Ellis examines who goes in to bat.

Illustration by Julia Zhu Wei.
Illustration by Julia Zhu Wei.
Illustration by Julia Zhu Wei.

For a lot of people, cricket offers little more than a visual supplement to the blokes-and-beer culture of the Australian summer. When I was growing up though, it was pretty serious business. Kids like me would put aside three or four afternoons a week for some variation of training.

Nevertheless, private-schooled as I was, there were constant reminders that if I really wanted to “make it” I’d need to ditch the trite school system and play for a local club.

There are certain expectations that come with every sport. If you play rugby union, you surely attended a private school. If you fancy AFL (or aerial ping-pong), you’re probably in the wrong state. And if you want to make it in cricket in Australia, you grew up working class.

For the most part, this expectation of cricket derived from the defining Australian players of the past decade, with Waugh, Clarke, Lee, McGrath and Ponting — who left school at the end of year 10 so he could work as a groundsman at a private school — all growing up in relatively low-to-middle class families.

It’s become increasingly apparent that there’s a dichotomy between the backgrounds of these immensely talented players, and the financial base and elite in cricket. Interestingly, there is also an equalising presence in the game.

For all the vast wealth funneled into North Shore private schools like mine, and for all their comprehensive sporting programs, these elite institutions have spat out no more than a handful of Australian test cricketers in the last decade. As an example of this, Sydney GPS private schools have produced just 10 Test cricketers since 1877, compared to 132 Wallabies.

And this theory isn’t limited to schools either. On the international stage, cricket has proven an avenue for war-torn and developing nations. A few weeks ago Afghanistan beat Australia’s side in the Under-19 Cricket World Cup. The up-and-coming stars of Australia’s favourite summer sport came up short against a ragtag team with a fraction of the funding and resources, and who had only ever won four matches together previously.

And the Afghan team would win again, qualifying for the quarterfinals where they lost to eventual champions South Africa. Though the Australian loss was undoubtedly a tragedy among cricket devotees like myself, it fits nicely into the social paradox of the sport.

Afghanistan’s involvement in the game is no fluke though. For years now cricket has been an avenue for tolerance and opportunity amongst what the annual Afghan Cricket Report admits is a “traditional, conservative state”, offering opportunities for persecuted minorities, children living on the street, and the disabled. Without spruiking the game too much, it offers both a viable avenue and something of a social shelter.

However, this relationship between cricket and class is by no means ubiquitous. In England the trend is very much the opposite. Only 10.2 per cent of England’s runs in 2012 were scored by batsmen who came from state schools, compared to the 80.5 per cent a decade earlier.

One of the Australian private school test cricketers is batsman Ed Cowan, who, when he originally edged his way into the team, was perceived by the media as something of a breakthrough for Australian cricket.

Cowan not only went to a prestigious private school in the Eastern Suburbs, but he also studied at Sydney University where he attended everyone’s favourite den of privilege, St Paul’s College. The Australian had no trouble shaping him as the second coming:

“University educated, articulate, cultured even, Cowan is without doubt one of the most well-rounded cricketers to come into the Australian team in decades.”

And yet, for all the snobbery and bourgeois bias of the Australian media, there’s no indication that this is a trend, but rather the opposite. Australia’s middle class cricketers continue to dominate their private school rivals.

SCG membership may cost a small fortune, but cricket— the sport, not the institution— has proven a force that rewards commitment rather than capital.