England has two national sports: cricket and queuing. And to the uninitiated onlooker, there’s little to separate one from the other. Both swing from great periods of languor and boredom to sudden flurries of excitement and action; both can last for groaningly long periods with no clear victor at the end; both are governed by a set of bewildering rules and tacit understandings; and both are buttressed by a ferocious sense of fair play.
And both, it should be said, are cozily housed in the grand institution of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Based over at Lord’s—the North London ground known internationally as the Home of Cricket—the M.C.C. is the literal owner of the laws of the sport and the foremost preserver of its values. The turreted Lord’s Pavilion (in which only M.C.C. members can sit on match days) is not so much a grandstand as a cathedral crossed with a museum crossed with a locker room.
International players stroll through the bar on their way out to bat. The walls of the famous Long Room are adorned with towering oil paintings displaying gods of the game. On match days, the stand is an imposing blaze of gold and red, as members of varying girths lounge in their “egg and bacon” jackets and ties. A visiting Australian player, stepping inside the Pavilion, once said it felt like “being bear-hugged by an invisible spirit.” Englishmen of a certain upbringing have a phrase they reach for at moments of betrayal and skullduggery: “It’s just not cricket.” The M.C.C., in both body and soul, most definitely is.
A cathedral crossed with a museum crossed with a locker room.
It’s also home to perhaps the most famous queue in all of British society. The waiting list to become a full member of the club currently stands at 12,000 names and lasts 29 years. To get onto it, you have to be proposed, seconded, sponsored, and endorsed by four individual senior club members, often after an interview. The M.C.C. promotes several hundred people per year to full membership, based on spaces vacated by departing members. (Anything more would risk upsetting the delicate composition of the clubhouse on match days.) This is the grandest one-in, one-out policy in history. And the only sensible out is death.
Imagine the bouts of soul-searching and jowl-quivering, then, that must have accompanied recent events. In a move unprecedented in the club’s 233-year history, the membership approved a resolution in June that would allow 350 wealthy individuals to pay to leapfrog the queue. At the annual meeting, the M.C.C. voted 5,144 to 1,330 to permit existing and associate members, those on the waiting list (and even—horror of horrors—outsiders) to pay between $70,000 and $100,000 (and possibly a hell of a lot more) for lifetime membership. This is a privilege that had only previously been afforded to royalty, cricketers who have made truly outstanding contributions to the game, prime ministers (former P.M. Theresa May had her application fast-tracked by Tory grandees David Cameron and John Major in 2018), and fraudsters (in March of this year, a businessman was fined $13,000 and given 150 hours’ community service for using a forged, dead man’s pass to gain access to the Pavilion.)
Some members think the new measure is a necessary evil to combat the $39 million loss of revenue this summer at the hands of the coronavirus. (To compound matters, the M.C.C. is currently in the middle of the costliest renovation project in its history—a $67 million outlay to improve the outdated Compton and Edrich stands at the ground, which have awful sight lines. “This is just classic money problems,” one member commented.) Others think it is a hasty and irreparable corruption of the club’s spirit—a floodgate opening of the highest order that will change the atmosphere forever. But most, it seems, would rather not talk about it: “I like you,” one friend and member told me, “but I’m afraid I like my membership more.”
Chris Waterman, a 20-year veteran of the club who has been attending Lord’s for half a century, cannot be quite so coy. A longtime crusader against what he described as the M.C.C.’s “pale, male, and stale” chumocracy, Waterman has formed a splinter cell (dubbed the Ad Hoc Group) of some 230 members to bring forward a vote of no confidence against the club chairman, Gerald Corbett. To Waterman, as he told The Times, the queue-jump motion is “a shameful and shameless way to raise cash”; “a short-term fix for a long-term problem”—and yet another symptom of the “poor decision-making that has hampered the development of the M.C.C.”
“I like you,” one friend and member told me, “but I’m afraid I like my membership more.”
“It’s just morally wrong,” he tells me. “What if you’re 50 and you’ve been on the waiting list for 20 years, and a bunch of city boys and the super-rich come and jump the queue?” Even full members have to queue up from the early hours on the morning of test matches to secure a seat in the Pavilion, he reminds me. “Can you imagine someone who’s just paid £85,000 [$108,000] wanting to queue for a decent seat from six in the morning? No—they’ll expect to waltz right in.”
In a letter to the existing membership before the vote, Chairman Corbett wrote: “The committee has already debated at length the principle of people paying to obtain preferment, which is uncomfortable. But it is a reality that you can only raise money from those who have it.” This might, however, be precisely the problem. Some members worry that the hefty price tag will attract quite the wrong sort of spectator into the Pavilion—one friend recalls being doused in champagne on a recent visit by a group of sunburned corporate showboaters. (“They didn’t watch a single minute of the game.”) “Things got so bad that last year they had to introduce a code of conduct for the first time,” shudders Waterman. “The existing committee thinks that Lord’s is a corporate venue at which cricket happens to be played. The members think it’s the cathedral of cricket where you invite guests.”
The Ad Hoc Group claims the M.C.C. leadership is allergic to modernization. “[They] undermine any attempt to reform the club and broaden the diversity of the club’s governing body by getting women, BAME people and disabled people onto the committee,” Waterman told The Telegraph in June. “They all went to the right schools and speak with the right accents,” he told me. “And most of the committee are Oxbridge alumni.” At the same meeting that the lifetime membership vote was held, however, the M.C.C. elected its first-ever female president, Clare Connor, a former England captain whose stated aim is to reach out to under-represented communities. (Women, it should be said, were only allowed to join the club in 1998.)
Lord’s has just endured a summer without competitive cricket. But a spirited clash is set to take place on the sidelines in the coming weeks—and the Ad Hoc Group has stayed badgering at its crease. The rebels are now a “handful” of signatures short of the 180 required to force a Special General Meeting on the queue-jump question. Waterman believes it will “turn the governance on his head,” and recalls King Cnut facing down the onrushing tide. “But Cnut only got his feet wet,” he says. “Corbett will be washed away.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL