meIt is not unreasonable to associate cricket with English elitism: the posh English schools of the 19th century played a significant role in the expansion of the game and British imperialism. A large part of the Establishment was and still is a large part of the Establishment.
The longest continuously contested match in any sport is the annual Eton v Harrow cricket match, which began in 1805 and had a slot at Lord’s every year until 2022. There is a record of Westminster playing Charterhouse in 1794 , and Winchester are playing Eton and Harrow. since 1825. These games have always been more than sport. Historian JA Mangan has documented the relationship between games such as cricket, the Victorian public school and its role in imperialism. “Cricket was the most important tool for moral training,” he wrote.
Of course, when Australians look at English teams, they note the significant representation of the privately educated, from Harris and Jardine to Peter May (Charterhouse) and Ted Dexter (Radley) or Colin Cowdrey (Tonbridge) and Mike Brearley (City of London School). to Andrew Strauss (Radley) and Alastair Cook (Bedford School).
We have identified the schools attended by 228 out of 255 (89%) English Speed players in the post-war period. We classified those who began their secondary education at state schools before transferring to a private school (such as Joe Root, who transferred to Worksop College at the age of 15) as state educated, and those who spent the duration of their secondary school careers in independent schools such as. private education. Using these criteria, we classified 33% of England’s Ashes players as independently educated.
The over-representation of private schools is remarkable – on average they were only 7-8% of secondary school children in the post-war era. For UK-educated children, you were six times more likely to play in an England Ashes Test if you went to a private school. At times, more than half of England’s players were private school alumni – in 1950, twice in 1956, and once in 1961.
It was not uncommon in the early post-war years for eight or nine of England’s staff to be educated at private schools or grammar schools, usually with an even split between the two. This all changed in the 1960s when selective schooling in the state sector was abolished. By the 1980s – the era of Ian Botham and David Gower – the majority of British-educated staff came from state schools, which were generally inclusive. A number of foreign-educated players also began to appear. There were only two privately educated players in the Botham Ashes team in 1981 – Mike Brearley and Gower. By the 1990s, England regularly fielded teams that included more foreign-educated than private-school-educated players.
The England team of 2005, which won the Ashes so memorably, was largely the product of the comprehensive system, with a little help from abroad. Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell were the only privately educated players in that England side. Then, starting with the addition of Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, private schools became more important. During the 2010s there were four or five graduates of the private school in every Ashes team; the last time there were fewer than four was in 2007.
In 2013, an ABC article highlighted the “extraordinary” advantage of English cricketers going to elite schools. Journalist Steve Cannane’s piece contrasts the dominance of privately-educated players in England with “the curse of private schoolboy cricket” in Australia and asks “what private schools are doing wrong?” The ABC article talked about a common attitude in Australian cricket: if children educated in a certain type of school are discriminated against, it is against those from private schools who are said to be widely mocked as too soft.
Ed Cowan is an old boy from Sydney’s Cranbrook School, who played 18 Tests for Australia from 2011 to 2013 as a top-order batsman (fees $38,862 [£21,300] for senior day students in 2021). A prolific player in junior cricket, Cowan said the Australian stereotype of players from elite schools lacked rigor was included against him. “Perception is often reality when it comes to choice,” Cowan wrote. “Throughout my career, even as a junior, I’ve dealt with a feeling that a kid who went to a good school and got a degree must be soft as butter. … In Australian cricket, it makes me an outsider.”
“In cricketing terms Ed Cowan comes from a disadvantaged background,” wrote Cannane. “Despite having access to the best facilities and good coaches, cricketers from top private schools across Sydney are up against the country in entering the Test arena.”
When Cowan took his first Test in 2011, the headline in The Australian read: “Ed Cowan breaks through barrier at private school”. The article said, “There were some notable exceptions to the rule – Lindsay Hassett, Ian and Greg Chappell and David Boon spring to mind – but generally the bluebloods of Australian cricket tended to rise from the collar ranks blue .” How many exceptions to the rule were there? We compiled the schooling data for Australia’s Ashes cricketers since 1945. The results surprised us.
Australia has expensive private schools that charge handsome fees, just like England. Many have been around for a long time: The King’s School, Sydney (1831), Launceston Church Grammar School, Tasmania (1846) and Hale School, Perth (1858). Most schools are state funded and non-selective. But there is a third category – Catholic schools. Apart from the religious aspect, these schools may look like the best high-fee schools, but many charge relatively small fees and are administered by the Office of Catholic Education. However, they are definitely a form of private education. Perhaps unsurprisingly, around 35% of Australian children attend private schools, over half of which are Catholic schools. One reason for this is the substantial government funding for schools outside the state system, which has increased significantly since the 1970s.
Accordingly, the share of privately educated students has increased significantly over the past 50 years – from around 25% to the current 35%. The percentage of privately educated children was consistently higher than in England, where it fluctuated somewhat narrowly around the 7.5% level. A significant number of Australian players have recently attended private schools. The list includes Pat Cummins, long ranked as the No. 1 Test bowler. 1 in the world (St Paul’s Grammar School in Sydney, which charges $17,784 a year); James Pattinson (City of Haileybury, Melbourne, $33,560 a year); Cameron Bancroft (Aquinas College, Perth – same school as Australian coach Justin Langer, $17,991 for day students and $24,282 for boarders); the Marsh brothers, Mitchell and Shaun (Wesley College, Western Australia, $25,541); and rising star Cameron Green (Scotch College, Western Australia, $28,600 for day students and $54,600 for boarding students).
Joe Burns, Chris Lynn and Mitchell Swepson can be added to this list (who all attended St Joseph’s Nudgee College in Brisbane within four years of each other, $16,300 for day students and $38,470 for boarders); Marcus Stoinis (Hale School, $26,910 for day students and $51,660 for boarding students); Matt Renshaw (Brisbane Grammar School, $28,230) and Ashton Agar (De La Salle College in Victoria, $12,689). A few players attended religious schools with more affordable fees – Jhye Richardson went to Emmanuel Catholic College in Western Australia, which charges $7,073 a year; Travis Head went to Trinity College in South Australia, $6,930.
But among players from private schools, more expensive and exclusive schools are ahead. Since 1945, 31.4% of Australian Ashes players have attended private schools, barely different from England’s 32.9%. In fact, there are actually more tests where the majority of private school graduates were in Australia – 13 times, compared to England’s four. In 77 post-war Ashes matches (40%), the Australian team had more privately educated players than the English; in another 11%, the proportions were the same.
From 2010 to the end of the 2019 Ashes, 45% of England’s domestically educated Ashes players were privately educated, compared to 44% of Australia’s Ashes players. So much for Australia’s ‘private school barrier’: Australian private schools are now comfortably producing a disproportionate share of international players.
The Australian Test team is less blue-collar than the England team. In both countries private schools are great nurseries of ash crickets. An Ashes series limited to privately educated children wouldn’t look so different to Australians.
This is an extract from Crickonomics: The Anatomy of Modern Cricket by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Wigmore (Bloomsbury, $32.99), out in Australia on August 30.