Nor is the pattern restricted to England. The other cricketing countries are similarly replete with test dynasties. The names ring through cricket history. The Mohammads and the Khans, the Manjrekars and the Roys, the Hadlees, Headleys, Chappels, and Pollocks. And that’s just a selection of the families with three or more test players. The ones with two run into the hundreds.
It’s not surprising that the debate is hard to resolve. For a start, it’s a mug’s game asking whether some sporting ability is ‘innate’ or ‘acquired’. All human characteristics depend on both genetic and environmental influences, and vulgar talk of ‘innate’ traits only serves to sow confusion, as the philosopher Paul Griffiths has long argued. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innate-acquired/)
What about a quantitative rather than qualitative notion of innateness, one that aims to measure what fraction of some sporting ability is due to genes? But this idea goes nowhere too. Trying to divide Stuart Broad’s bowling average between his genes and his environment is like asking how much of your bathroom’s area depends on its length and how much on its breadth—not a smart question, if you think about it.
The only good way to do genetic sums is to analyse the sources of variation in a population. Even if we can’t divide Stuart Broad’s individual skill into a genetic and environmental component, we can still usefully ask how far the cricketing differences among all English youths can be attributed to genetic and environmental differences respectively. The idea is to consider how far the disparities would disappear if everybody had exactly the same genes. The more the reduction, the more we should attribute the original variation to genetic differences. The technical notion of ‘heritability’ makes this idea precise. It uses the normal statistical measure of variation, and equates the heritability of any trait with the proportion of the total variation that would be lost if everyone were genetically identical.
The notion of heritability needs to be handled with care. It doesn’t always do what you think. It can say as much about a population’s environmental and genetic diversity as about the nature of the trait in question. This can lead to odd results, with intuitively environmental traits coming out highly ‘heritable’, and vice versa. Consider rickets, the childhood bone disease. This seems environmental, if anything is—it comes from not getting enough vitamin D from either sunlight or diet. But in a population where everybody goes out enough and is adequately fed—think of modern Scandinavia, say—rickets could turn out to be 100% ‘heritable’, simply because the only sufferers are immigrants whose dark skins block the thin northern sun. Or, for an example that goes the other way, take an intuitively innate trait like height, and then imagine a population of genetic near-clones, whose height differences nearly all come from environmental causes—in such a group, height will end up with ‘heritability’ close to zero.
Still, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the notion, as long as we take care to remember what it means. So what about cricketing abilities? Heritable or not? If someone is an outstanding cricketer, is this more likely to be due to a special environment or to special genes? Well, perhaps we should start a project to compare the batting and bowling averages of siblings reared apart. But I have a quicker idea. Let’s compare cricket with other sports. Cricket is unusual in the extent to which runs in families. Take soccer for example. While there are a few notable soccer clans--the Charltons and the Ferdinands spring to mind—there nothing like the rampant familiality found in cricket.
Every kid gets plenty of chance to kick a soccer ball around. But cricket skills are by no means easily acquired. It’s not just that you need special equipment and facilities. In addition, both batting and bowling are very unnatural, all sideways and no swiping. You need to be taught young. If you haven’t been initiated before your teenage years, it’s probably too late. On reflection, I’d say that the test-playing clans are just the tip of an iceberg. I’d be surprised to find any top-class cricketers without at least an enthusiastic club cricketer somewhere in their family background.
All right—the argument isn’t conclusive. But it does make some interesting predictions. It implies that, even in sports that don’t require extreme physical attributes, family patterns will be favoured to the extent that (a) the necessary skills are hard to learn and (b) youngsters aren’t all exposed to the necessary training. It would be interesting to explore these hypotheses across different sports and different countries. We need more data.
A Anand and Vijay Amritraj, India, tennis. (‘A’s are not easy. The Durban cricketing Amlas and the London footballing Allens only have one full international each.)
B Ali and Adam Bacher, South Africa, cricket. (There are loads of ‘B’s.)
C Martin and Jeff Crowe, New Zealand, cricket. (Plus their less successful first cousin, Russell.)
D Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, South Africa, rugby. (Bismarck du Plessis is my all-time favourite name.)
E Bill and John Edrich, England, cricket.
F Les and Rio Ferdinand, England, soccer.
G Frank and Eddie Gray, Scotland, soccer.
H Walter, Richard, Dale and Barry Hadlee, New Zealand, cricket. (Just sticking to New Zealand cricket, there are also the Howarths, Harrises, Hornes and Harts.)
I Paul and Tom Ince, England, soccer. (OK Tom isn’t a full international yet, but ‘I’s aren’t easy.)
J Jeff and Simon Jones, England, cricket.
K Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine, boxing.
N Phil, Gary and Tracey Neville, England, soccer and netball. (And Phil also played cricket for England under-15s.)
O Chris and Alan Old, England, cricket and rugby.
P Graham, Peter and Shaun Pollock, South Africa, cricket.
Q The best I can do for ‘Q’s is Jerry Quarry and his boxing brothers Mike and Bobby, USA.
R Karl-Heinz and Michael Rummenigge, Germany, soccer.
S Robin and Chris Smith, England, cricket.
T Glenn, Greg and Brian Turner, New Zealand, cricket, golf and field hockey respectively. (Brian has also been his country’s Poet Laureate. Sometimes I wonder if there are only a couple of dozen families in New Zealand.)
U Rory and Tony Underwood, England, rugby.
V I’m stuck here. I used to think the Vinklevoss twins were so-spelt, but in fact they are:
W Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, USA, rowing.
X, Y, Z I skip these.