Cricket, Darts, England, and Class: Should Darts be the New National Sport

19/12/2023

Ethan Reuter asks with the decline in class and the movement to a new understanding of England isn't darts more representative than cricket of who we truly are?

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By Ethan Reuter

THE POEM ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, by William Blake finishes on the line, “In England’s green & pleasant Land”. You may know this line, most famously from the hymn, ‘Jerusalem’. ‘Jerusalem’ has become a rugby hymn, and whilst sung at other sporting events it’s most commonly associated with Farrells and Vunipolas. It’s known as a hooligan’s game that’s played by gentlemen, whilst football’s a gentleman’s game that’s played by hooligans. Cricket, England’s game, on those “green and pleasant” lands, is a gentleman’s game that is played by gentlemen.

That was the way it has been for all these years, cricket, played in cotton whites on the fields of Great British institutions is deemed our national sport. The values which have been nurtured down the generations have diffused through a cricketing filter to make better men and richer culture. To play with a straight bat means honesty and respectfulness, decency and sportsmanship, as much as that’s not cricket means the antonym of these upstanding English virtues. The vernacular of cricket has been injected into our vocabularies. It’s built and centred around the idea that cricket’s values are England’s values and our language is their language.

Cricket paints in beautiful brushstrokes a picture of all that England was seen to be, and how it wanted to be viewed. A portrait of rolling hills, tranquil villages, Cotswold stones, and picturesque perfection. An impression inspired by the universities, the schools, and stiff upper lips. A watercolour of privet hedges hiding crisp, manicured lawns, and heartwarming food. A romantic ode to an England of old, built on the backs of great men, driven by a culture of public service, and united in the pursuit of a better England. A cricketing England is an England of moth-ridden libraries and Scruton’s conservations, of poetic prose and upstairs living.

It’s all a very traditional, rosy look through the passage of time, ignoring the inconvenience of history and class, that view of cricket. The IPL isn’t quite the quiet claps around the village green on plastic chairs, nor is Christopher Martin-Jenkins the right fit for the Barmy Army and Edgbaston wouldn’t work with the Lords Pavilion as a stand. The idea of cricket as England’s game, belies a heighted tale of history, of what cricket was then, and what cricket is now. It ignores the worldwide appeal of cricket, and how that worldwide appeal came to be. It ignores the way cricket is played in format and in style, neither Bazball nor the Hundred live up to such formalised expectations. It ignores the purpose of cricket as a social tool and for what purpose cricket is watched: entertainment and enjoyment. Such a view, rigid and unflappable in its class and hierarchy, may still be called England’s game but it devalues what cricket has become and what England has become most importantly.

The upstairs downstairs, class based view of society which this nostalgia driven idea of good cricket draws on as its northstar has gone long ago. In the formalised sense, England’s class system died when introducing the 1958 Life Peerages Act, allowing anyone to be a member of the ‘upper house’ of British Parliament. In swings the 1960s, a time when progress music is played and heard by the vast majority of the country, signalling the first car, the first foreign holiday, the first signs of a new era. From this point on a class-based system experiences successive humiliations as opportunities for all open up and social movement eases. The writer Martin Amis notes, money has won. Money stretches boastfully as the defining signifier of success because society wants your bank accounts not birth names. Class must put its hand down for now, no longer called upon to give the initial answer when asked, and so too should England as cricket. The new boy has arrived at the gates and shaken up the batting order, old boys be damned.

This upstart isn’t so much high tea and Hurlingham Club polo but rather araspier, grittier side to England, a side that’s more in tune with its character and backbone than cricket could’ve ever been. Played not on “green and pleasant” lands, surrounded by detached houses with gravel driveways and village shops, but in halls and wet-led pubs to a backdrop of cacophonous noise and sunk pints. It’s the art of darts, signifying all that cricket clings to and more in its poetic richness and beautiful meritocracy.

Cricket has a high barrier to entry, requiring large green space, consistent manicuring and investments in both instruments and time. It is by no means golf, nor motorsport in stratification, however, it is inaccessible for a percentage of the country. Eton’s 19 cricket pitches dwarfs an inner city comprehensive, monuments to England’s disparity and inequality. Darts, in contrast, hold no such problem. Pubs litter the land, themselves having either a darts board or a pool table if you look hard enough on 99 percent of occasions. The difference serves as a reminder of where England was and where England is now. We are no longer so upper crust focused but allowing all to participate if they wanted to.

One of my friends turned to me, while we were watching the darts, and said “there’s a quick trick to earn money fast”. No, he’s not actually trying to sell me his course, again. Instead, he said, pointing with his Beavertown glass, pick the largest person competing and put a fiver on them. Why, you may ask, and I did, because they’ll have spent longer time in pubs, drinking, competing, laughing, improving. “It has never failed”, he claimed. Call it dumb luck or anecdotal evidence, the larger Englishman wins.

Watching darts on TV, the fantastic spectacle of it all, it’s England encapsulated. Since 2008, the venue for the WDC has been the West Hall of Alexandra Place, holding 3,200 in all their glory, or to give it its colloquial name, Ally Pally. Setup in long wooden tables covered with drunk pints fans hold 180 signs aloft to pulsing music. The atmosphere is festively electric, inspired by a positively British drinking culture and energy. Nowhere else could it be the same. The Southern Europeans drink moderately over long lunches and evenings, Americans have a few bottles at the dive bar. Only here, on this island, with this weather, could there be this intoxicating intoxicated love of the stuff. Darts is the epitome of the most British of pursuits, a celebration of a drinking life.

It starts with the walkout music, itself selected by the players, Nathan Aspinall, from Stockport, plays ‘Mr Brightside’, an invariable stamp on the minds of every Englishman (and woman) from Carlisle to Lands End. Joe Cullen, from Bradford, after quitting his job as a postman to focus on darts, plays ‘Don’t look back in Anger’ by the Mancunians, Oasis. It isn’t just Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge anymore, there is variety in this country’s sports and a three dimensional nature full of distinct and different character.

This contrast, in this green and pleasant land, stands so stark. The end of class and the emergence of new societal signifiers, that don’t care where you’re from. In the distinction between cricket and darts, we can chart our history. The romanticism and expanse of a forgotten era through our own revolutions and reformations. The end of nationalisation and the closure of the pits and the ability for anyone to go to university. The change is in the notion that England claps politely in village halls to a truer idea of who we are. England can still clap but we can also shout boisterously, drink contentedly and laugh in the elation of good company. Gone are tails of formalised dinners and proper black tie dress codes. These changes to the inner workings of our nation over the course of a century can be traced, with sheet and pencil, on our movement from cricket to darts as truly representative of our national character, it shows us who we might’ve been in rosy reflection to now, in poetic, truly english, ecstasy.