Amid the turmoil of Covid-19 came the demise of first-class status for university cricket. Almost unnoticed, Cambridge beat Oxford by 249 runs at Fenner's in early September. And that was it. Few mourned the declassification, though its passing was brutal. O my Cowdrey and my Dexter long ago… Oxford and Cambridge had been playing matches now described as first-class since the early 19th century, predating most of the county clubs. But the ECB's decision was no surprise; most wondered why it had taken so long.
The answer probably lay in the stranglehold over public life enjoyed by their alumni. When you have dominated every corridor of the Establishment for centuries, it is easy to keep old and ailing friends at the feast. Wisden had been among the first to question the true merit of university cricket, removing its traditional list of Oxbridge Blues in 1993. Matthew Engel, the editor, was widely condemned; one critic tartly observed he was a "political scientist from Manchester University". But Engel, with some justification, felt the roll call had become the "biggest anachronism in the book". He added: "Even the Oxford Mail and Cambridge Evening News stopped sending reporters."
A Blue had once denoted more than a first-class career: it opened doors. A job at the Sudan Civil Service, for instance, required either a first-class degree, or a Blue plus a second - which is how Guy Pawson, Oxford's captain in 1910, got in. Nor had the cachet shown any signs of abating after the Second World War. Years later, The Guardian recalled: "In 1948 the Varsity Match was in its high summer. It was a social occasion to match Henley, Wimbledon and Royal Ascot. From early on Saturday, the toppers and morning coats paraded through the Grace Gates, and all day Lord's overflowed."
Even if the pandemic had not kept spectators away in 2020, there is little chance Fenner's would have overflowed (the match had not been at Lord's since 2000). Reasons for the decline are several, starting in the 1960s, with the gradual disregard for sporting excellence from admissions tutors more concerned with league tables of an academic kind. The number of universities was now expanding, spreading the cricket talent more thinly. Then, when most colleges became mixed in the 1970s and 1980s, came a reduction in male students. And with no empire to administer, perhaps the focus shifted to winning Nobel prizes. Certainly, Oxford captains were no longer considered quite the catch they once were. As John Claughton, captain in 1978, prepared for life on the outside, The Guardian noted: "The one firm offer he has received is a job with IBM." He later taught at Eton.
You could almost understand the prejudice against sporting types if it were true that playing games depresses grades. But a recent study by the University of Cambridge Sports Service showed that students who play sport generally gain better degrees than those who do not, and most enjoy better mental health. As if to prove the point, six of the 2019 Oxford team took firsts. Despite that, a good university cricket team went from being a priority to an ambivalence, and finally an encumbrance. This seemed more the case at Oxford and Cambridge than elsewhere, as Steve James, also of Glamorgan and England, discovered in 1989, when a Combined Universities side including him, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain reached the quarter-finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup. But whereas Durham University allowed Hussain - and wicketkeeper Martin Speight - to sit a finals exam a day early in order to play Somerset, Cambridge did not afford the same courtesy to James, who missed the game. Atherton took four wickets with his leg-breaks, and Hussain scored a century, but the students lost three wickets in the final over, bowled by Peter Roebuck, and the game by three runs.
It is easy to forget that Oxford had their own team in the 1973 B&H (beating Northamptonshire), and Cambridge in both 1972 and 1974. One former headmaster, an Oxford Blue, told me that sporty Oxbridge candidates from his school were advised "not to mention the cricket". Rowing is still indulged, because of the global publicity brought by the Boat Race. But other sports are woefully under-resourced, with recent Oxford XIs having to raise funds to pay groundstaff their overtime. In my time at Cambridge (1979-82), players had to buy their own lunch at Fenner's. The bill - and bar tab - had to be settled at the end of term.
And yet it would not have taken much to improve the cricket of recent university sides. For the past two years, I have coached the pace bowlers at Cambridge, and been impressed by their quality and commitment; perhaps half would have won Blues in other eras too. What the team have lacked are two or three cricketers of county standard. But even if admissions tutors suddenly became sympathetic, talented schoolboy players might still be lured by a county. Alastair Cook was offered a place by Cambridge and Durham, but preferred Essex CCC.
Academic work was more or less voluntary for the university sportsman of yesteryear, but today's students are expected to clock up 45 hours a week. Imagine Ted Dexter worrying about that as he teed off at the Gog Magog golf club near Cambridge. Dexter had joined Jesus College in 1955, supposedly to read French and Italian, but later changed to English, which he felt offered a better chance of "scraping through". He admitted: "I was to distinguish myself by failing to attend one lecture all the time I was there." He left without a degree (but with a foot in the door at Sussex).
Meanwhile, the Fenner's pitches have grown faster and bouncier, which is a double whammy for students: county batsmen and bowlers prefer such conditions to the old featherbeds. Without the protection of what one county bowler used to call "Cyril Coote's slow nothings" (Coote was the legendary groundsman at Fenner's from 1936 until 1980), the gap grew.
It was not always thus. One hundred years ago, Cambridge - captained by Gilbert Ashton, the eldest of three brothers in the team - had one of the strongest sides in England. That season, they won nine of their 12 first-class matches; one of their two defeats was by Warwick Armstrong's Australians, who claimed that summer's Ashes 3-0. Pitches were uncovered, so the students might have caught opponents on a wet or drying surface. But you don't beat Lancashire, Yorkshire or Warwickshire (twice) by fluke, or count two players - Hubert Ashton and John Bryan - among Wisden's Five. Of that team, Percy Chapman and Charles "Father" Marriott both played Test cricket for England; a third, Tom Lowry, for New Zealand. Chapman captained in 17 Tests, and oversaw a 4-1 triumph in Australia in 1928-29; Marriott won a single cap, taking 11 for 96 with his leg-breaks against West Indies at The Oval in 1933. Eight of the other nine regulars enjoyed distinguished first-class careers.
There have been two other heydays at Cambridge: 1878-82 and 1949-52. The first could even claim to be a golden age, since they twice beat the Australians. Oxford did so in 1884, but lost to them in 1886: needing 64 to win at the Christ Church Ground, they managed 38, with Frederick Spofforth taking 15 for 36. Back then, Cambridge fielded Edward and Alfred Lyttelton, Ivo Bligh (recipient of the original Ashes urn), Allan Steel, and the Studd brothers, Charles and George, who became missionaries. Five of the six had gone to Eton (Steel attended Marlborough), and only Edward Lyttelton did not play Test cricket. If the 1882 team were predominantly public school, so was Cambridge's intake. This had not changed by the early 1950s, when the university could last claim some of the best cricketers in the land. David Sheppard, Peter May, Hubert Doggart and John Dewes, all privately educated, played for England while undergraduates. (So did team-mate J. J. Warr, a grammar-school boy - and a bowler.)
Today's Oxbridge teams are mainly drawn from public schools too, despite the universities' drive to become more egalitarian. Cricket in state schools, however, has all but vanished. It has not been the only imbalance. While batsmen have racked up over 1,000 Test caps, bowlers are in the low hundreds. Oxford and Cambridge Cricket, by Doggart and George Chesterton, contains a statistical section on great Oxbridge batsmen, but nothing on great bowlers, despite the likes of Imran Khan (who attended Oxford after Cambridge turned him down), Trevor Bailey and Phil Edmonds. Yet bowlers win matches, especially in three-day cricket. In 1950, with Warr their only bowler of consistent quality, Cambridge won just once against county opposition. But they lost only once, too, because their batting kept them out of trouble: in five seasons, Sheppard, May, Doggart and Dewes scored 37 hundreds between them.
Those post-war sides, at least until 1960, possessed another advantage: players who had already completed National Service, and were older, stronger and mostly wiser than the undergrads who followed. Men versus men gradually became men versus boys - the more so once gap years fell out of fashion. And, after amateur status ended in 1963, younger students also had to face all-professional county sides, who could no longer afford to cruise: come the season's end, with contracts at stake, a hundred or a five-wicket haul at Fenner's or the Parks might just stay the axe. (Not that Mike Procter, Gloucestershire's South African captain, was fooled: on studying the averages, he discounted anything against the students.)
Wins over counties became scarce. After 1960, when each won three games, Cambridge have recorded just 12, and Oxford 17. Captained by Alan Smith, who also led Warwickshire and played six Tests, Oxford were bolstered that year by the Nawab of Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig from India, and Pakistan's Javed Burki. Through Rhodes scholarships, a legacy that no longer dares speak its name, talented cricketers from former colonies, such as South Africa's Murray Hofmeyr (captain in 1951) and Australia's Alan Dowding (captain in 1953), strengthened many an Oxford side.
Were university cricket a business, accountants would have closed it down long ago. But matches against the counties served a purpose. Cambridge's 1977 side, for instance, included eight who had played, or would play, at first-class domestic level, and two who would represent England. Mike Howat, who opened the bowling that year, reckons the addition of three overseas players, as some counties had that season, would have made them competitive in the Championship (and, he happily admits, squeezed him out of the team). Back then, if you switched subject - as I did, from geography to land economy - you could wangle a fourth year. Although contracted to Essex in my gap year, and for the second half of each university summer, I was in no rush to join the club full-time. They were a settled side, difficult to break into. Rather than languish in the Seconds, I extended my time at Cambridge, where my cricketing education, against county and Test players, advanced far more quickly. Had I been at Essex, I could have hidden behind the likes of John Lever, Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch and Ken McEwan. At Cambridge, I had to take responsibility, and stood out to the extent that I was picked for England in 1982 - the first undergraduate to be selected since Peter May, against South Africa in 1951.
It was a bold gambit by the chairman of selectors - May. In my first year at university alone, I played against nine county sides, encountering David Gower, Clive Rice, Kepler Wessels and Geoff Lawson. In my second, I faced the great West Indians, batting against Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall and Colin Croft, and bowling to Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and Lawrence Rowe. These days, "privilege" has become a dirty word, but as expert tutorials go it was unbeatable, especially as some opponents dispensed their knowledge afterwards in the bar.
Yet with no points - or prize money - at stake, most pros saw the matches as glorified nets. Certainly, the question of why they needed to play the universities arose every year at the county captains' meeting. But timing was everything. As Lever, Essex's premier bowler of the era, put it: "Spending five to six hours a day in the field early season was ideal to get match-hardened. It was better than nets. But going to the Parks in June, say - that was a waste of time."
During my time at Cambridge, we beat Lancashire in 1982, and might well have added Glamorgan had I not miscalculated the run-rate at a crucial juncture in the chase (maths was not a strong point). The victory over Lancashire, by seven wickets, was seen by a large crowd, as word got round town that something was afoot. The night before, as we met our opponents for a drink, Lancashire's Frank Hayes had me in a headlock, and instructed me not to blow our advantage. Not everyone saw the funny side. David Lloyd, deputising for Clive Lloyd as captain, was hauled before the club committee. His response: they hadn't lost any Championship points, and nobody had died. He didn't lead Lancashire very often after that. In my final year, I was offered the captaincy of both Glamorgan and Worcestershire, which I felt sure wouldn't have happened without the Cambridge connection.
England players continued to emerge from university cricket after the early 1980s. Atherton, James, Tim Curtis, John Crawley, Ed Smith and Zafar Ansari all played Tests between 1988 and 2016 after attending Cambridge; Oxford's sole internationals in that time were Jason Gallian and Jamie Dalrymple. Atherton captained England in 54 Tests, a record until Cook overtook him. Of England's 81 Test captains, 34 have been to Oxford or Cambridge - among them Douglas Jardine, May and Mike Brearley. While no Oxbridge cricketer has held the office since Atherton, Durham University has filled the breach, thanks to Hussain and Andrew Strauss. They could be the last graduates to do so.
With standards continuing to slide, attempts were made at the start of the century to justify first-class status. Oxford and Cambridge merged with the former polytechnics in their cities, and the hybrid sides played as University Centres of Cricketing Excellence. Others formed at Durham, Loughborough, Leeds/Bradford and Cardiff - a safety-in-numbers approach to camouflage the fact that Oxford and Cambridge had retained their rank. The move, essentially an Elastoplast before an amputation, was not welcomed by all. Graeme Fowler, the former England opener who coached the Durham students, felt first-class status would be "a stick for critics to beat university cricket with". He fears for its future under the auspices of the ECB. The emphasis, he believes, "seems to have shifted from excellence to participation".
In 2004, MCC took over sponsorship of the UCCEs, later rebranding them MCC University teams. The prestige of first-class status, though not a stipulation, did persuade MCC to fund the enterprise, to the tune of £7.5-8m over 15 years. Around 150 UCCE and MCCU players went on to county cricket, with a dozen appearing for England - most recently Rory Burns and Jack Leach (both Cardiff) and Sam Billings (Loughborough). By that measure, the enterprise was fairly successful. But MCC felt there were better uses for their money. The ECB have now agreed to fund each of the six university centres £50,000 a year, though the sums are not guaranteed, given the enormous cost of the Covid-19 pandemic - which also robbed the MCCUs of their final first-class matches - is yet to wash through budgets. With the original sum insufficient to sustain even a full-time coach, you have to worry whether every student team will be able to operate a fixture list, let alone return to the glory days when the Varsity Match packed out Lord's.
In 33 first-class games for Cambridge University, Derek Pringle scored 1,929 runs at 50, and took 79 wickets at 25. When he led them to victory over Lancashire, he had match figures of 45.1-20-87-9, and hit 24 and 61 not out. He still lives a quick stroll from Fenner's.