Only Australia, it seems, could have produced Shane Warne. A man of the people who became “a citizen of the world”, Warne was a ‘bogun’ as Merv Hughes called him during his beautifully poised memorial service at the Melbourne Cricket Ground: The People’s Ground.
Cricket, in Australia at least, is a people’s game and I couldn’t help wondering, as I wiped tears from my eyes (yet again), if the world would ever have had the pleasure and privilege of witnessing Warne’s unnatural abilities and endlessly generous spirit had he been born in England?
‘Warnie’, as everyone called him, embodied Australia. Leaving aside the treatment of Aboriginals, be they cricketers or not, Australia bills itself as the home of the ‘fair go’. As such, Warnie reflected a society, and a sport, that prides itself on meritocracy. As someone who has been to Australia many times, I was always aware of this, but I’d never really thought about it too much prior to a conversation about another Australian international, David Warner, during a Bucks Party for a South Yarra CC teammate in Melbourne.
Only months after Warner had hit England’s Joe Root in a bar in Birmingham in 2013, my new friend stated that as much as Warner was a bogun (in the UK this roughly translates as an ‘oik’, ‘herbert’ or, at worse, a ‘chav’) he was pleased that a man like him was judged, on the field at least, by his talent rather than his upbringing.
Warner, and Warnie were clearly prodigious talents, but it seems to me, when looking at the history, culture, structure and demographic composition of English cricket that there is a very good chance that neither of these players would – even as white men – have ever made the grade were they born in England.
English cricket has always favoured an ‘old school tie’ and a plummy accent, and the extent that cricket in England has been run by, and for, this class of people is reflected in the game’s literature and cultural orthodoxy. The very image of cricket in England is elitist, but so ingrained are the game’s alleged values – euphemistically condensed into the nebulous ‘spirit of cricket’ – that those this spirit was designed to demean or exclude very often fail to see it for what it is.
This is, sadly, all too evident in the ongoing debates over the future of the County Championship where the terms ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ are bandied about with little or no appreciation of the social and cultural origins of game’s, wholly unmeritocratic, orthodox form, function and meaning.
As C.L.R. James suggested as far back as 1963: ‘what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know’? It seems to me that many of the loudest, or most prominent, voices know very little – even about the game itself – and I would suggest all involved reflect on what they wish for.
The good news is that everyone involved in these debates appears to have the best interests of cricket at heart. However, as a recent edition of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller’s podcast with Jonathan Collett ably demonstrated, the version of cricket that some commentators seek to preserve is that which led to widespread class discrimination and, most infamously, the institutional racism at the heart of the Azeem Rafiq affair.
There is, of course, a good deal of common ground, but this is largely due to the staggering arrogance, incompetence and ignorance of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Although they represent opposite ends of the current debate, Oborne, Heller and Collett’s ahistorical analysis of the current crisis is as unhelpful as the ex-professional Don Topley’s equally blinkered cheerleading of The Hundred. Both, I would argue, are wrong-headed.
Cricket in England must change from its current form, but neither a return to the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s (delete as applicable) or The Hundred is the answer. What cricket needs – has always needed – is, as Warnie’s wonderful career embodied, a meritocratic structure whereby the counties and the players who represent them are there on merit.
In this regard I favour a three-division ‘County Cricket League’ that incorporates all eighteen county cricket clubs. ‘But what if you are in the bottom division’ countless supporters may ask? Well. Maybe, just maybe, the injection of greater jeopardy and more meaningful games will prove (finally!) the catalyst for the counties to look beyond the easy wins of the public schools and the ECB’s recreational mainstream (which also needs to buck its ideas up)?
If this happened, I could only see a brighter future, because cricket will not only be representative of the community that sustains the game in England as a whole, it may even expand. And, should a system be introduced that meant a British-born Warnie (or Warner) will no longer fall between the cracks, this may also mean the end of the all too frequent Ashes defeats against Australia.
© Duncan Stone 2022