Sticky wicket?

With exams now the dominant feature of many school’s summer terms, is schools cricket in peril? John Claughton has some solutions

This article is meant to be 750 words long, it’s easy to consume 250 of those words on the clouds that have gathered over cricket in independent schools in the last decade.

We all know that, whereas once upon a time, exams were a major part of the summer term, they now simply are the summer term. In most schools, three year groups – in some, even four year groups – are engaged in exams at GCSE and AS and A2, and we persist in telling our pupils (and their parents) that each one of these exams is of life-saving or life-threatening significance. Should we be surprised or disappointed that they take us at our word?

Nor does the timing of these exams help. The Department of Education may give nil points to IGCSE in their league tables, but the vast majority of independent schools think otherwise and offer a mixture of IGCSEs and GCSEs, so that the exam season stretches for most of us from early May to mid June. For lots of schools, that means two weeks of term before exams and two after – not material from which to create great sporting seasons.

However, the impact of all this is not uniform. Boarding schools may find it easier than day schools to hold things together, schools with deep commitment and strong fixture lists fight on, and the best players still want to play: but the real decline lies in B and C teams and 3rd XIs. It’s no fun for anyone to try to run a team with only five fixtures, when two of those games are called off the night before.

As I said, these are an easy 250 words to write, but these words are not the end of the story nor the end of this article. There are solutions out there, and those solutions are to be found at both the beginning and end of the season.

For example, if the exam season keeps on starting earlier and earlier, then maybe cricket may have to do the same, as long as grass growth and rainfall allow. Some schools are organising early-season festivals or tours before term starts, and not just to exotic and distant places. In the same way, there is undeniable scope for similar events, or a high density of fixtures, after the exams storm has passed.

In the last 25 years, some of the best schoolboy cricket has been played in highly competitive festivals like these, when the players have no other cares in the world. And there are still plenty of overseas touring sides eager to play our schools. There are also those who would advocate September cricket, although I am not sure that many of those advocates are rugby coaches – or groundsmen.

Perhaps it is more important that our schools form close links with clubs so that our players actually play after July 1: in my youth in the early 19th century, I seem to remember playing almost every day of the summer holidays.

However, these are only partial solutions, and school cricket simply won’t survive a six-week mid-season break. So, we must devise some means whereby exams and cricket can enact a symbiotic relationship. With a bit of solidity and a bit of flexibility, that can be done. I do reckon that we should be standing firm and telling our pupils (and their fretful parents) that cricket and academic success can co-exist: we don’t have to surrender all of our fundamental educational values, and Heads have to stand up and say so.

However, if we are to do this, we need to be sensible and creative. I don’t think that we can justify a 1st XI fixture that takes 12 hours in mid-May or June. Nor can we expect every boy to turn out for every game, but does it matter if our 1st XI isn’t exactly our first eleven? Why don’t day schools get on with it and play 2nd and 3rd XI T20 matches on a Saturday morning, or even at 5.30 on a Friday evening?

I have this funny feeling that the 2.30 start on a Saturday is still left over from the days when we had Saturday morning school. We may also have to provide more exciting opportunities for our pupils before the exam clouds gather. King Edward’s School Under 15s are fortunate to play in a wondrous festival at Magdalen College School, Oxford in late June: four T20 matches in two days. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive!

So, I have 500 words of solution and only 250 of problem, so everything is bound to be just fine. And it may just be that the return of linear A levels will give at least one more year of freedom from the shackles of exams. Nil desperandum.

John Claughton is Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham and chairman of the HMC Sports Committee.

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