Covid crisis and a culture war at the home of cricket

If there’s one thing more English than cricket, it’s queueing. And a peculiar strand of Englishness is represented by the line to join Marylebone Cricket Club, the 233-year-old institution that runs Lord’s, the north London venue known as the “Home of Cricket”.

Nearly 12,000 people are waiting up to 29 years to become a full MCC member. This earns the privilege of entering the turreted pavilion at Lord’s to watch England Test matches, games which can run for up to five days, and still end in a draw. 

It is a club — and a sport — where patience is a necessity, not just a virtue. This helps to explain a furore caused this year when MCC introduced “life memberships,” allowing existing members to pay a one-off fee to cover future dues, while offering those in the queue the chance to pay up to £45,000 to leap into the club right away. The move was designed to address a £30m revenue shortfall created by cancelled matches in the coronavirus pandemic.

“We settled on life membership, plain and simple, because it was the most effective and least damaging method of meeting our requirements,” MCC chief executive Guy Lavender told the Financial Times. “Solving our immediate financial problem and importantly, not saddling the club with debt.”

Guy Lavender, MCC chief executive © Andrew Redington/Getty Images

This week, the UK government announced the partial return of fans in stadiums from December and MCC plans to host spectators next year. But interviews with several club members suggest the return of cricket will not settle an identity crisis at the institution, with life memberships a symptom of a wider problem.

Sparking a culture war at MCC is quite a feat, as even the club’s members say it has a homogenous demography of white, old, public school educated men.

Mr Lavender insists the club is a “broad church” with a congregation made from 78 nationalities. The current MCC president is Kumar Sangakkara, the former Sri Lanka cricketer and the first non-British member to hold the role. Next year, Clare Connor, the former England women’s cricket captain, will take over as the first female MCC president.

But members say the real divide is between the merely affluent and the super-rich. Those of the City, versus those from the shires. The smart suits against the tweed blazers.

Kumar Sangakkara, the former Sri Lanka international, is the first non-British president of the MCC © Philip Brown/Popperfoto/Getty Images

“The sort of people who have up to £45,000 to spend in order to jump the queue will be largely male, pale and stale,” said Chris Waterman, 72, a political adviser. “It will reinforce the stereotype.”

Mr Waterman, who previously failed to be elected on to MCC’s ruling committee, said recent decisions reflect a “geriatric chumocracy” — a self-selecting, grey, professional class that, he argued, locks up top roles while making decisions that serve the well-heeled above the rest. 

The view for MCC members from the pavilion © Andrew Fosker/Shutterstock

Mr Waterman has collected 140 of the 180 signatures required to force a vote of no confidence in MCC’s chairman, Gerald Corbett, also chair of FTSE 100 logistics group Segro. Mr Corbett was not made available for an interview.

Meanwhile, around 330 on the waiting list snapped up life memberships including, according to reports, home secretary Priti Patel, helping to raise more than £25m. While life memberships have been offered previously in decades past, those more usually allowed to jump ahead are royalty, prime ministers, and those who made outstanding contributions to the game.

Home secretary Priti Patel reportedly paid £45,000 to become an MCC member © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Otherwise, people must wait their turn. Last year, around 500 new slots became available among the 18,000 strong membership. Some resigned. Others failed to pay their annual fees. The main reason members dropped out was death. 

MCC insists life memberships expanded the club slightly, rather than delay entry for anyone on the waiting list. Many members supported the decision, given the financial hole the club needed to plug.

Chris Waterman is pushing for MCC reform © Charlie Bibby/FT

“In many ways that’s life,” said a former MCC committee member, who works in banking. “If you’re lucky to have some money, then you have more choices than the poor people who don’t.”

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Still, there is concern about reinforcing an uber-posh make-up. “In my idle moments, I’ve tried to count the amount of men who wear red trousers, and there’s quite a few,” says a 62-year-old schoolteacher from Birmingham, who declined to be identified by name for fear of angering fellow members. “I don’t want anyone to poison my Pimms next time I’m in the pavilion,” he said. 

Further ructions occurred last month when members voted in favour of a series of governance changes, including removing direct elections to its ruling committee, instead setting up a “nominations committee” that will vet candidates for top posts. “It is a coup in all but name — and a most distasteful one,” said Robin Knight, an MCC member since 1973.

Mr Lavender said the changes will improve diversity by selecting a “skills-based” leadership and choosing from minorities, such as its 781 female members. (MCC voted to allow entry to women members in 1998). More than 1,200 voted against the reform though, a significant rebellion by the club’s genteel standards.

The MCC is hoping spectators will be able to return to Lord’s for international cricket next year after 2020 matches were cancelled because of Covid-19 © Charlie Bibby/FT

“They don’t want boat rockers, original thinkers,” said Maxwell Sawyer, 69, a retired schoolmaster from Stamford, Lincolnshire. “[Those in charge] are wealthy, middle class, London-centric. They’ve attended the same schools and universities and know the same people.”

Another member lamented the “corporatisation of MCC,” but many others said improvements in food and facilities over recent years help justify the lofty position of Lord’s within the sport.

While international cricketers revere playing at the ancient ground, MCC’s losses in the pandemic have been exacerbated by a £52m redevelopment designed to keep up with the times.

However, the financial imperative to accommodate the mega rich is a source of angst. In one recent incident, a man sprayed a bottle of champagne over diners in a corporate hospitality area of Lord’s. 

“It just becomes a rich boys’ playground,” said Peter Hart, 64, a MCC member for 43 years from Beckenham, Kent. “If you’re earning millions, it’s a day out with little interest in cricket.”

Others suggest a decline in behaviour at the ground has transmitted to the pavilion, with claims that some MCC members have been rude to eastern European waiting staff and booed opposition players such as Steve Smith, Australia’s star batsman.

Steve Smith, the Australian batsman, walks out of the pavilion at Lord’s during the Ashes Test series in 2019 © Paul Childs/Reuters/Alamy

More serious incidents have occurred. At last year’s MCC annual general meeting, according to three people present, a woman complained of being assaulted in the pavilion, while a man complained of being subjected to anti-Semitic abuse. MCC responded by introducing a stricter code of conduct for members but declined to clarify what disciplinary action was taken.

The club is also developing an “action plan” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. As part of a review on racism policies, it has temporarily removed a portrait and bust of Benjamin Aislabie, the club’s first honorary secretary and a slave plantation owner.

Many members said the culture war has not reached them. The majority, more interested in cricket than internal politics, did not even vote in this year’s decisions to introduce life memberships and change the club’s governance structure.

Still, Mr Lavender conceded change is needed — even if there is a dispute over what MCC should look like in the future. “Modernisation is the wrong term, but you do want to be progressive in what you do,” he said.


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