History of cricket

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This article presents a high-level summary of the history of cricket.

Early times

For more information, see: History of cricket to 1700.

Cricket has an immemorial existence. It originated in England, probably in Saxon, Norman or Plantagenet times. It is generally believed that it began in the south-eastern counties of Kent and Sussex as a children's game and, despite some possibly spurious earlier references, it was first definitely mentioned in 1597 as a game played by boys at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Surrey, around 1550. Having been a boy's game in 1550, it became an adult game in the early 17th century with inter-parish matches taking place by the time of the English Civil War and then, almost certainly, a professional sport in or soon after 1660 in the wake of the Restoration. It is the world's oldest professional team sport.

17th century

For more information, see: History of cricket to 1700.

Professionalism came about because of the influence of gambling, particularly by rich and sometimes aristocratic patrons. These men, always looking to improve their chances of winning, began to form teams that were representative of more than the fundamental parish eleven by hiring good players from elsewhere. As a result, the basic unit of the parish team evolved into a unit representative of a wider area and matches between such teams were played in front of large crowds with considerable sums of money at stake.

Freedom of the press was not allowed in England until 1696 and sport could not be reported until that historic breakthrough occurred. In 1697, a match in Sussex was the subject of the earliest known newspaper report about cricket. By this time, cricket had spread across the south-east of England and had already gained its vital footholds in London and in the public schools, although it was not yet a part of any school's curriculum. The original London Cricket Club was almost certainly formed about 1700, though it is not definitely mentioned in sources until 1722. Cricket was already known at some public schools including Eton, Westminster and Winchester by 1700.

18th century

This was the key period in the sport's history as it spread throughout England to become a truly "national sport". But, curiously, because of military and trading expeditions, cricket may have been introduced to North America and India before it was first known in Yorkshire, the county with which it is now most famously associated. Although it was a major sport by 1800, it relied (like horse racing and prizefighting) on gambling and patronage for its existence.

The 18th century is noted for the earliest codification of the rules as the Laws of Cricket in 1744, with subsequent amendments, and it saw several important changes in the way the game is played. In early times, the wicket had only two stumps: the middle stump was introduced in the 1770s. Leg before wicket (lbw) was introduced as a means of dismissal at about the same time. These were rule changes but there was also an evolution in the 1760s when bowlers began to "pitch" the ball whereas formerly they had rolled it along the ground as in true bowls. Batsmen had used a bat shaped like a modern hockey stick to combat the rolled ball and, in response to the bounce of the pitched delivery, the modern straight bat was introduced.

It was probably by the 1730s that teams representing whole counties began to be assembled and so this can be termed the startpoint of major cricket's historical record. The statistical record begins in 1772 with the habitual compilation of match scorecards and the commencement of first-class cricket. A few scorecards have survived from the years before 1772 but are reckoned to be too isolated for inclusion in the first-class statistics.

Numerous great players were active in the 18th century, including William Bedle, Thomas Waymark, Richard Newland, Robert Colchin, John Small, Lumpy Stevens, David Harris, William Beldham and Tom Walker. Several famous clubs were formed including the legendary Hambledon and Slindon. The most important club of all, the MCC, was founded in 1787 from the remnants of the old London club after its members began using the new Lord's ground in Marylebone. Towards the end of the century, the important Sheffield Cricket Club and Nottingham Cricket Club were established in the north of England.


For more information, see: First-class cricket.

We have seen how cricket began to receive press coverage at the end of the 17th century and this increased during the 18th century but reports for a long time were more concerned with gambling than with the actual play. Scorecards made a brief appearance in 1744 but then became few and far between until the 1772 season when, quite suddenly, they became habitual. Unfortunately a lot of early scorecards have been lost, most of them in a fire at Lord's Cricket Ground in 1825, but from 1772 there is a continuous, albeit incomplete, statistical record of first-class matches.

19th century

Investment in major cricket had already been impacted by the Seven Years War but it had recovered and gained strength in the aftermath. The sport faced an even greater threat to its existence from the Napoleonic War but again it made a solid recovery.

The influence of Muscular Christianity was significant through the 19th century and cricket was something of a talisman in the days of empire building and post-Industrial Revolution society. The sport became established as a feature of public school and university life, taking on an importance that no sport should have in a society that was otherwise weighed down with the real problems of poverty and disease. Cricket was viewed as an activity that developed character, especially in its emphasis on teamwork. The two great universities, Cambridge and Oxford, are said to have been as intent on enrolling potential "blues" as potential "firsts".[1] The public schools at Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Winchester, Repton, etc. produced a succession of top-class players who firmly established an "amateur tradition" of well-to-do players who played, in theory, for expenses only.

The other side of the coin was professionalism, without which the game could not have survived as a major sport. In 1846, William Clarke launched the All-England Eleven, which was deserving of its title, as a commercial venture to tour the country and play against allcomers. The majority of Clarke's players were professionals and the venture was an outstanding success that spawned several imitations.

Despite the success of the amateurs and the touring professionals, the most important development in English cricket during the 19th century was the formation of county clubs, which led in 1890 to the formalisation of the County Championship, hitherto an unofficial and mostly retrospective "title". The earliest county club was Sussex in 1839 and many more followed in the next fifty years. As well as being part of an organised structure in championship terms, the clubs pulled together the disparate strands of itinerant amateurism and professionalism into a cohesive whole. From this, it was possible to properly organise an England international team to take on the growing might of Australia and, in due course, several other countries.

The first Test matches between England and Australia took place in 1877 and this fixture soon acquired enormous popular and media interest. South Africa began playing Test matches in 1889. By 1900, major cricket was established in India, New Zealand and the West Indies although these three did not play Test matches until the 1920s and 1930s.

The greatest player of the 19th century was unquestionably William Gilbert Grace, known throughout England as "WG". His career in major cricket spanned the 1865 to 1908 seasons and he set standards, particularly in batting, that revolutionised the sport and raised its profile to the levels of national and international consciousness. Other great players included Fuller Pilch, William Clarke, William Lillywhite, Alfred Mynn, William Caffyn, Arthur Shrewsbury and the Australian fast bowler Fred Spofforth, who is known to all cricket followers as the original "Demon Bowler".

Bowling was the cause of the sport's greatest controversies in the 19th century. During the Napoleonic period and soon afterwards, bowlers began to develop an action that involved raising the arm at the point of delivery. Although pitching had begun in the 1760s, the bowlers had still retained the basic underarm action they had used for rolling or skimming the ball along the ground. The new style, known as roundarm bowling because the arm is extended outwards from the shoulder, was condemned in many quarters as "throwing", even though the arm is kept straight and the style is in fact the antithesis of a throw. In 1827, a set of "roundarm trial matches" was staged and after that, the new style was at first grudgingly and then legally adopted. By the 1860s, bowlers were beginning to raise their arms higher still and following a confrontation at The Oval in 1862, the modern style of overarm bowling was legalised from the 1864 season.

20th century

Cricket thrived throughout the 20th century despite the massive impact of the two World Wars and continued to expand internationally. By 2000, ten countries were playing Test cricket and many more had become involved in the sport's new variation, limited overs cricket, which was introduced in the 1960s.

Cricket's first World Cup was introduced in 1975 as a limited overs competition and by the end of the century a World Test Championship in the form of an ongoing ratings system had gradually been introduced.

The greatest player of the 20th century was undoubtedly the Australian batsman Don Bradman who set statistical records that may never be equalled. Other great players included Gary Sobers, Wilfred Rhodes, Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Fred Trueman, Victor Trumper, Shane Warne, Graeme Pollock, Richard Hadlee, Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan, Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall.

21st century

Cricket in the 21st century is a major international sport which attracts enormous media coverage.

Although Test cricket remains the standard by which excellence is recognised, the two-innings format of the sport is increasingly under pressure because of social change. There is a growing view that a cricket match needs a short duration, along the lines of baseball and football, so that a busy public can see a whole match in an afternoon or evening.

As a result, limited overs cricket is probably the way forward, especially given the spectacular commercial success of Twenty20 cricket which was introduced as an evening entertainment in England in 2003 and had its first World Cup in 2007.

Notes and references

  1. Basically, anyone who represents one of these universities at cricket, rowing or rugby football against the other receives an award known as the "blue" for that sport.