Custom Search


History Of Cricket

A game of stoolball in Four Elms, Kent

It seems traditional in cricket to bemoan the passing of better days. This is seen most clearly in the idea that cricket was invented in the lovely Hampshire village of Hambledon. This creation myth has less to do with the actual origin of cricket, and more to do with the way people want to see cricket - as a vision of lost summer days in a more innocent world. Ironically cricket as it once was in the Hambledon days of the late eighteenth century still exists, and is played every week in summer months in southern England. But to find this game you will have to ignore the men flinging down their over arm deliveries. Instead you'll have to go and watch Kent and Sussex women playing stoolball. The otherwise well informed cricket historian Derek Birley says in his book A Social History of English Cricket that stoolball is now "defunct" when as of 2012 there is an eleven team league playing in west Kent, and leagues playing in Sussex. My mother in law played in the Four Elms team for many years, and still attends matches and events. This game using a tall wicket, a round bat and underarm bowling is closer to the original nature of the cricketing ideal than anything played at Lords. The fact that no one takes much notice, and games are watched by only a few people, related to the players, indicates that people are more interested in the illusion of cricket's rural past than the reality. The reality still exists, and can be seen at a stoolball match at somewhere like Four Elms on an average summer evening today.


Hambledon's creation myth aside, the origins of cricket are obscure. Cricket as a term derives from the Norman word "criquet" which means stick, but there is no evidence that the Normans played cricket. A few hundred years after the Norman invasion Edward III is recorded as banning "club ball" in 1369, worried that it was distracting people from their archery practice. But we don't know what club ball actually was. More centuries go by, and then there is a reference to a cricket match in 1550 at Guildford School, Surrey (A History of Cricket by Benny Green P12). Early cricket seems to have been largely played in the south of England. The bat was a curved stick, the wicket was two sticks with another across the top, and, as in stoolball, bowling was underarm. Whatever form cricket, or sport in general took, by the seventeenth century religious extremists were objecting to what they saw as the rowdiness and disorder of sport. Certainly with recreations such as bear baiting and cock fighting, they had a point. Nevertheless people of a more sensible frame of mind did not want to throw the baby out with the bath water and ban all sports. In 1618 James I issued the Book of Sports which was ordered to be read at churches throughout Britain. While the ban on bull and bear baiting remained, King James rebuked "puritans and precise people" for opposing lawful recreations, and directed that such recreations be allowed after Sunday services and on other holy days. Players of cricket now had some protection from religious extremists.


Cricket was still very much a minor sport at this time. It is mentioned on a few occasions in seventeenth century records, mainly in legal documents which record the offence of playing cricket instead of going to church. The crime of neglecting church for cricket is recorded in East Lavant, and in Midhurst, Sussex in 1637. Sussex seems a centre for cricket based misdemeanors. Kent wasn't far behind. Puritan minister Thomas Wilson regarded Maidstone, Kent's county town as "a very prophane town" where "morrice-dancing, cudgels, stoolball and crickets" were played "openly and publickly on the Lord's Day" (see A Social History of English Cricket P7- 8). Inspite of King James's stand against the puritans, their time would come. Deposing and executing James's son, Charles I in 1649, a puritan dominated Parliament instituted a harsh regime hostile to all sports. Somehow sport survived the years of Parliament's rule, perhaps on enclosed aristocratic estates, or in the closed worlds of famous public schools, where games were used as an outlet for youthful energy. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the famously fun-loving Charles II encouraged sport's reinvigoration. Horse racing was Charles II's personal enthusiasm, but all sport benefited. Historically leisure had been based around alcohol, so unsurprisingly the alcohol trade was closely related to a recovering sporting culture. In 1668 the Ram pub in Smithfield, London paid rates on a cricket ground. In the same year Maidstone justicers in Kent waived excise duties on the sale of beer at cricket matches. In keeping with this boozy milieu, cricket at this stage was still considered rather a lower class kind of game, as noted in Stow's survey of London cricket in 1720.



Match in progress at Mote Park, Maidstone, Kent

The fact that there was enough cricket to survey in 1720's London indicates how important the game was to town dwellers. It was at White Conduit Fields, today lying beneath King's Cross Station, that townies began to get a taste for cricket. It was also here that cricket began to split along class lines. Up until this point cricket had been a generally easy going sort of game. As Benny Green says of rural cricket in eighteenth century Hambledon: "One of the most striking features of Hambledon was the extent to which cricket in the valley drew together all the classes" (History of Cricket P21). The change towards the famous Gentleman and Players split came with cricket's move to a more urban environment as industrialisation began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. John Arlott makes this point when he writes: "As the game moved, like the population, from the farmlands to the new growing cities at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so its great players were no longer the villagers but the Regency bucks" (John Arlott in Cricket). A group of aristocrats centred on a club known as the Star and Garter in Pall Mall started playing cricket regularly at White Conduit Fields. In contrast to the socially diverse nature of cricket at somewhere like Hambledon, the White Conduit Club was firmly exclusive. The rules explicitly stated that "none but gentlemen ever to play" (see History of Cricket P27). In some ways this growing division was a reaction to the frightening uncertainty that gripped society in the late eighteenth century. The 1790s saw revolution in France, and in 1793, prime minister William Pitt the Younger was forced into war with France. In Britain there were fears of invasion from without and subversion from within. In August 1795 the Hambledon Club has a record of Tom Paine, author of Rights of Man, coming to address a club meeting. The authorities did not take kindly to such things, and by September the famous Hambledon club had closed (see A Social History Of Cricket P52).



By the beginning of the nineteenth century cricket had become a game suggesting a stable society in which people knew their place. London's aristocratic cricketers, calling themselves the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), took up the game's general administration. Stability and continuity were two of the basic aims of cricket, which meant that the shift from underarm bowling to much more aggressive over arm bowling was a painful one. Over arm bowling seems to have begun in Kent in the early 1800s, and was initially opposed by the MCC. But people seemed to like the added excitement of over arm bowling, and by 1835 even the MCC was forced to adopt it. Cricket in its modern form now became an establishment game, played at public schools, designed to symbolise both social stability, and manly courage in facing these new over arm deliveries. As part of this robust nostalgic image cricket increasingly served as an idealisation of a rural life which had been left behind. By the nineteenth century life in the countryside was particularly harsh, with rural workers being paid far less than their counterparts in the towns. But this harsh reality in the countryside did not stop a continuing idealisation of rural life. Mary Russell Mitford wrote the Our Village series, Cobbett wrote his Rural Rides. Gardening styles became artfully naturalistic rather than formal. In a world of change, cricket was part of a general nostalgia which gave comfort. This is one of the reasons that modern county cricket became established in the mid nineteenth century. Calling a club "Kent" or "Surrey" had a much more rural ring than clubs named after towns or cities, even if most of the players in these clubs lived in towns or cities. Cricket also recalled the past in the way it became a kind of adjunct to religion. Sport brought people together in a common endeavor and provided intense highs and lows of emotion. It also demanded a subservience to higher authority, in terms of referee or umpire on the day, and also in terms of a game's traditions. In this way cricket could serve as an antidote to a scientific outlook, and take on the moral role once played by religion. Lord Harris, a rather mad Victorian politician and senior figure in the MCC wrote: "... to play the game keenly, honourably, generously, self sacrificingly, is a moral lesson in itself, and the classroom is God's air and sunshine. Foster it, my brother, protect it from anything that would sully it, so that it may grow in favour with all men" (quoted in A History of Cricket P128). Sentiments of this nature contributed to an idealistic notion that sport should be above the financial concerns which seemed to drive modern industrial society. This ethos really took hold in the 1840s, with arguments about professionalism amongst university rowing fraternities. Professional rowing coaches and coxes were banned, men who worked in boats were forbidden from competing in races, and in the case of rowing even men who had worked as manual laborours were banned from competition. These attitudes spilled over into cricket where the supposedly amateur Gentlemen were given a much higher level of respect than the professional Players.


The otherworldly expectations of cricket also demanded that it didn't do anything as vulgar as provide too much entertainment or make too much money. In the early twentieth century as many as 40% of matches were drawn, but the MCC resisted all attempts to make play more exciting. There was no attempt, for example to change the lbw rule. There was also no attempt to try and create a competitive league. In 1905 Lord Harris said that there is "nothing more popular than success" which supposedly meant that no measures had to be taken to curb the boring dominance of a team like Yorkshire. Harris took no notice of the fact that when Yorkshire won the county championship in 1905, they covered their expenses in only two out of thirty games. But when Warwickshire jumped from 14th place to win the championship in 1911, the games were packed. People like competition, not predictable dominance. Harris and the MCC simply refused to accept that cricket was now a form of entertainment, and entertainment required a competitive league. In the same vein the MCC refused to countenance shortening traditional three day county matches. In northern England cricket leagues based on industrial towns were already playing in a manner convenient for working people. League matches were usually played on Saturdays, beginning at 2pm and ending at 7pm. In 1929 the West Indian player Learie Constantine joined the Nelson club. He was appreciative of a Saturday when the mills closed at 10.50am, giving people time to have something to eat, do some shopping and then get down to the cricket. Meanwhile the MCC and county cricket remained in its three day citadel, which of course was a style of match designed to exclude anyone who had to work for a living six days a week. But in a number of ways reality pressed on the semi-religious idealism of the MCC. First there was the painful fact that the colonies who originally played cricket as a kind of missionary exercise were now doing better than England. This was most true of Australia, who soon proved themselves to be excellent cricketers. The ideals of gentlemanly play ran up against the painful fact that Australian teams threatened to make England look second rate. From 1928 England had to come to terms with Donald Bradman, a virtually invincible Australian batsman. The answer that the England team of 1932 -33 came up with was body-line bowling. Led by Douglas Jardine, and bowler Harold Larwood, the England team went to Australia and started bowling high speed deliveries designed to hit a batsman's body. Bowler G.O. Allen refused to have anything to do with body-line bowling, and wrote home in despair: "Douglas Jardine is loathed... he is a perfect swine and I can think of no words fit for Mummy to see when I describe him " (Social History of English Cricket P246). Jardine and Larwood were dismissed following the tour, but there was a lasting impact on the idealisation of cricket as a gentleman's game above vulgar considerations of money and winning. The MCC eventually had to face facts, both on the field in the way the game was played, and off it in the way the game made money. By 1937 the county teams were collectively losing £27,000 a year. Even so cricket clung to its traditions, which perhaps through the war years of the 1940s was comforting. After the war reality returned, and finally in 1963 the meaningless division between gentleman amateurs and professionals was abolished. 1963 also saw the first limited over one day match in English county cricket.



Pavilion at Four Elms

Today cricket has lost a number of the factors which once made it such an influence in British life.There is still an idealised nostalgia for rural life, but society is now more meritocratic, and there is less interest in the model of discipline and social stability that cricket once provided. The religious fervour which once made the "straight bat as second in religious symbolism to the cross of Jesus" (A History of Cricket P126) has gone. In many ways sporting religious passion has been diverted to the far more emotional game of football. According to a Government Social Survey quoted by Derek Birley, 1965 saw cricket as the most popular outdoor sport for adults. By 1980 cricket lay in tenth place, behind golf, tennis, and bowls (see Social History of English Cricket P322). A government survey of participation in sport and leisure in 2002 put cricket in twenty fourth place, behind sports such as table tennis and badminton. (See Cricket has always been about providing stability in a changing world. It seems that that role is not required so powerfully anymore. And yet if you want to see cricket as it was once played, you should go to Four Elms on a summer evening. If you're lucky you might see the ladies of the Four Elms stoolball club playing a match. In small parts of Kent and Sussex cricket is still being played as it once was, as a charming summer game in a rural setting.