Revealed: The great private school cricket arms race

Depressing article in The Telegraph highlighting one of the many reasons that No Boundaries Cricket Club was established, to make cricket more accessible at the grass roots to all children.

Independent schools’ desperation to secure the next generation of talent has led to the creation of a football-style battle for talent

The Telegraph

(Underhand) tactic being used include:

  • Offers of ‘110 per cent-off fees’ to the best young players in the country are common, with parents effectively paid to send their children to schools;
  • Bespoke scholarships are being offered to the best junior overseas players, including from India, West Indies and South Africa;
  • Schools are competing with each other to build increasingly high-spec facilities and recruit leading coaches, who can earn over £100,000 a year from schools;
  • Schools have developed close relationships with counties, raising concerns that young players from less privileged backgrounds are being disadvantaged.

The scramble for talent was underlined by one director of cricket at a high-profile public school. “Sometimes the headmaster will just say we need to get better, so what can we do?” he said. “I can probably go to the county age group and find out who’s at a state school and see if we can find them a place. That’s fairly commonplace.” 

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Multiple sources told The Telegraph that several schools now go beyond a package that covers a pupil’s full fees, offering 110 per cent off those costs to the most promising young cricketers. 

“Private schools go to state schools looking for the best talent. If you hear someone that is highly skilled, you’re almost certain that some schools will be making some kind of offer,” said Mark Alleyne, the former England one-day international player who is now the cricket coach at Marlborough College, where fees for boarders are £39,930 a year. “Anything from 100 per cent scholarships to 110 per cent scholarships, with the 10 per cent covering expenses, maybe for the parents to visit or that type of thing.” 

Schools also engage in bidding wars to try and recruit the best young players. Jacob Bethell, who starred for England in this year’s Under-19 World Cup, is believed to have received several offers before taking up a place at Rugby School.

One player who came through the Surrey system in recent years is known to have received four or five offers of a full bursary from schools at the age of 13. 

“It is almost like kids in a candy shop picking what they want,” said Gareth Townsend, who stood down as Surrey’s academy director last year. “We have a lot of private schools that offer scholarships and therefore their recruitment process tracks down and attracts a lot of talented young athletes.”

“The parents are like their agents – they will always go where the best deal is,” added Martin Bicknell, the former England international who is director of cricket at Charterhouse. “Schools can open the chequebook. You know the schools that are doing it. If I was a parent of a talented 13-year-old boy I’d be looking to get him into a private school. I’d know that I could probably get him a full scholarship.” 

Bicknell said that the recruitment policies of some schools had become more aggressive since he started working at Charterhouse in 2006. “It markets the school better if your first team’s successful,” he said. 

‘It’s like a different world in these schools’

The battle for young talent extends beyond British shores. Before the pandemic, Martin Speight – the ex-Durham player who is now director of cricket at £38,000-a-year Sedbergh – would go to Bermuda every year for three or four days to run coaching courses. While in Bermuda, Speight would meet with talented young cricketers and their parents. 

“The admissions department will let them know about scholarships and bursaries and, yes, they tend to apply for them,” Speight said. “If people are considering an overseas education for their child, and they happen to be a very talented cricketer, then obviously I would like to get them because it helps us produce good players and have good teams.” 

Sedbergh are not alone. Bede’s school, in Brighton, have a specific scholarship for players from Barbados, established in conjunction with the Barbados Cricket Association. Players including Shai Hope – who now plays for the West Indies – have benefited from these scholarships. 

Scarborough College have six overseas students in their centre of excellence programme, which covers the best 22 or so players in the school. They have used an agency, Vitae Sports, to help identify potential overseas students seeking to study in an English boarding school.

“We’ve got links to quite a few academies all around the world,” said Darren Long, an ECB registered agent who is the founder of Vitae Sports. “We can just speak to the schools and get the kids opportunities. We’ve had children from India, Australia, South Africa, even USA and Dubai.”

The growing importance of cricket in private schools has led many to invest heavily in facilities and coaching. “It’s almost keeping up with the Joneses – someone builds a brand new sports hall and you think, ‘I’ve got to compete with that’,” said Alleyne. “It’s certainly getting more competitive. People are having to do different things to be attractive.”

Scarborough now employ four former international cricketers as coaches – England’s Craig White, Ryan Sidebottom and Stephen Parry, and Zimbabwe’s Piet Rinke. All do one-on-one sessions with leading players. In 2019, Mark Ramprakash, the former England batsman, turned down a job offer to become the head coach of Sri Lanka to take up a position as Harrow’s director of cricket instead. 

In 2020, Millfield School opened a new £2.6million indoor cricket centre, complementing their pre-existing six pitches and eight lanes of outdoor nets. The indoor centre has five nets – including ones specifically designed to replicate fast wickets in Australia and to imitate turning wickets in Asia – and a speed gun. 

Pre-season training starts in October. As well as what their counties provide them, Millfield players on county age-group programmes have 10 hours of cricket-specific training a week at the school during the winter, including three 55-minute one-on-one training sessions a week and a personalised strength-and-conditioning programme.

The facilities at schools like Millfield are considered better than in some Test nations. Ireland prepared for a series with Zimbabwe last summer with a camp at the school, while international women’s sides have also regularly used the school.

“It’s an outstanding facility – we have nothing like that in Ireland,” said Ireland captain Andy Balbirnie. “It’s like a different world in some of those schools.” 

How state schools are being left behind

The strength of private-school cricket is reflected in the make-up of the national age-group teams. Of England’s 19 players involved in their men’s Under-19 programme over the winter, 16 attended private school – 84 per cent of the squad. Only around 10 per cent of English schoolchildren attend private schools at any point during their education. 

Yet the number of England Under-19 players to attend private schools also illustrates how prevalent scholarships and bursaries are for the best young cricketers. At the age of six, 14 of those 19 England players attended state primary schools. When they first moved school – normally to a new secondary school that started at 11 – seven of the group of Under-19 players attended a state school; four of this group subsequently moved to independent schools. 

This year, Millfield have 58 girls and boys in county age groups; 12 current professional cricketers attended the school, including three members of England’s Under-19 World Cup squad in 2020. During the 2019 season, six alumni of Bede’s – which charges £37,350 a year for full boarders – played for either the Sussex 1st or 2nd XI. In recent years players including Jason Roy, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley, Laurie Evans and current young Surrey stars Jamie Smith, Ryan Patel and Nico Reifer have come through the set-up at Whitgift.

Townsend believes that, while private schools can make a positive impact upon players, their role producing players can be overstated. “I believe going to a fee-paying school is not necessarily going to make the be-all and end-all difference. Dominic Sibley didn’t become a Test player because he went to Whitgift. It helped him train a lot more but it was Dominic’s talent and ability that got him to where he was.” 

Many private schools have strong links – both informal and formal – with county age groups, ensuring that their most promising players are seen by coaches in county academies. Wiltshire use the facilities at Marlborough College; in turn, Wiltshire have close links with Gloucestershire, the nearest first-class county. “The advantage for us is hopefully some of the players who are aspiring to play pro cricket have an entry level on the pathway,” explains Alleyne. 

There are growing concerns, however, that young players who do not get the financial support to attend private schools are being locked out of the professional system. 

Townsend believes the extra investment in cricket at private schools means that county pathways need to be more proactive. “If you’re good and talented and have no access and opportunity into cricket you’re at a disadvantage. Your system has to be good enough to ensure that talented players don’t slip through the net because they’re not at a private school. 

“Your talent identification programme needs to look as deep and as thorough as it can to provide opportunities for those not necessarily in the system.” 

He is particularly concerned about the growth of a ‘pay-to-play’ model in county academies, under which young children at many counties have to pay for kit and to have coaching sessions. “If you’re in a county U14 elite training squad why do you have to pay to get coached? It’s ridiculous. The county pathway has to be accessible. Between the counties and ECB there’s an underfunding in the pathway area.”

Alleyne believes that the gap between the cricket programme at state and private schools is widening. “If all the best talent keeps leaving the state schools you then don’t build up that competition at the state schools to keep it going,” he said.

“There’s a complete imbalance between state and private education. I’ve read an awful lot about it and I totally agree it is very unfair,” said Speight. “It’s not right. But if you could afford it or you have an opportunity with a bursary or scholarship – we would all do it for our kids if we could.”

As girls’ cricket continues to grow, Speight believes that the fight for young cricketing talent is extending into a new area. “It is going to become similar to how the boys have been where a lot of young girls are gonna go: ‘I want to be good, I need to go there.’”