First-class cricket

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A first-class cricket match is one of three or more days duration between two sides of eleven players officially adjudged first-class. Matches must allow for the teams to play two innings each, although in practice a team might only need to play one innings. The term "first-class" is commonly used to refer to domestic competition only but international Test matches are part of the first-class structure and a player's first-class statistics include his performances in Test matches. First-class is the highest standard of double innings cricket, which is distinct from other forms including limited overs and historic single wicket.

Generally, first-class matches are eleven players a side but there have been exceptions. Equally, although first-class matches must now be scheduled to have at least three days' duration, there have historically been exceptions. Due to the time demands of first-class competition, the players are mostly paid professionals, though historically many players were designated amateur. First-class teams are usually representative of a geopolitical region such as an English county, an Australian state or a West Indian nation.

Definitions of first-class cricket

MCC 1895

Prior to 1947, the only definition of first-class cricket had been one in Great Britain that dates from a meeting at Lord's in May 1894 between the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) committee and the secretaries of the clubs involved in the official County Championship, which had begun in 1890. As a result, those clubs became first-class from 1895 along with MCC, Cambridge University, Oxford University, major cricket touring teams and other teams designated as such by MCC.

ICC 1947

The term "first-class cricket" was formally defined by the then Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) in May 1947 as a match of three or more days duration between two sides of eleven players officially adjudged first-class; the governing body in each country to decide the status of teams. Significantly, it was stated that the definition does not have retrospective effect. MCC was authorised to determine the status of matches played in Great Britain.

For all intents and purposes, the 1947 ICC definition confirmed the 1895 MCC definition and gave it international recognition and usage. Hence, official judgment of status is the responsibility of the governing body in each country that is a full member of the ICC. The governing body grants first-class status to international teams and to domestic teams that are representative of the country's highest playing standard. It is possible for international teams from associate members of the ICC to achieve first-class status but it is dependent on the status of their opponents in a given match.

According to the ICC definition, a match is first class if:

  • it is of three or more days scheduled duration
  • each side playing the match has eleven players
  • each side may have two innings
  • the match is played on natural, and not artificial, turf
  • the match is played on an international standard ground
  • the match conforms to The Laws of Cricket, except for only minor amendments
  • the sport’s governing body in the appropriate nation, or the ICC itself, recognises the match as first-class.

A Test match is a first-class match played between two ICC full member countries subject to their current status at the ICC and the application of ICC conditions when the match is played.

A peculiarity of the two-innings match is the follow-on rule. If the team that batted second is substantially behind on first innings total, they may be required to bat again (i.e., to immediately follow on from their first innings) in the third innings of the match. In first-class cricket, the follow-on minimum lead requirement depends on match duration. In a Test or other match with five or more days duration, the team batting second can be asked to follow on if 200 or more runs behind. If the match duration is three or four days, the minimum lead is 150 runs.

Main first-class competitions

Test cricket is the highest level of first-class competition. A Test match is an international game, normally scheduled for five days, played between two international teams representing full members of the ICC. There are currently (2019) eleven Test teams: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies. In addition, Zimbabwe is a full ICC member that is not playing Test cricket at present.

Another type of first-class match is one in which a national team plays against a first-class team that is non-international. Typical examples are touring teams playing against English first-class county teams or against Australian first-class state teams.

Although there are other types of first-class team (e.g., MCC, Cambridge, Oxford and one-off or occasional teams that consist of first-class players), the majority of non-international first-class teams take part in their country's national championship. The major national championships and current competing teams are listed below.

Sheffield Shield – Australia

The earliest record of cricket in Australia occurs in January 1804 when it was mentioned in the Sydney Gazzette. There are records of matches being played in the 1830s and the earliest first-class match (classified retrospectively) took place in February 1851 between teams representing the colonies of Van Diemen's Land (renamed as Tasmania in 1856) and Victoria. Inter-colonial games were played almost annually thereafter and Australia played its first Test match in 1877. The first official overseas tour by the Australian team was to England and North America in 1878.

Unlike England and Wales where first-class domestic competition involves teams representing formally constituted county clubs, cricket in Australia is organised on the basis of district cricket, State associations and the national board. The national board, now known as Cricket Australia, was formerly called the Australian Cricket Board. The State associations are not clubs and they select their players from the district cricket clubs (who play what is called "Grade cricket", the equivalent of "minor counties cricket" in England).

The Sheffield Shield was inaugurated in 1892 by Henry North Holroyd, 3rd Earl of Sheffield (18 January 1832 – 21 April 1909), an English Conservative politician who had promoted the 1891–92 English tour of Australia that was captained by W. G. Grace. Sheffield donated £150 to the New South Wales Cricket Association and asked them to donate a trophy to the champion team each season. The new tournament was launched in the 1892–93 season and won by Victoria.

The current contenders in the Sheffield Shield are:

Colonial teams representing each of New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria played in first-class matches prior to the formation of the respective state associations.

National Cricket League – Bangladesh

The origin of Bangladesh as a country is the Partition of India in 1947, when it was established as the eastern wing of Pakistan. It was formerly known as East Bengal (1947–55) and then as East Pakistan (1955–70). Bangladesh became independent in 1971 following the Bangladesh Liberation War. Cricket was already well-established there after two centuries of British influence. Bangladesh staged first-class and even Test cricket when it was part of Pakistan. The Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka was first used for Test cricket when Pakistan played India there in January 1955.

The Bangladesh Cricket Control Board was established in 1972 and local leagues began in Dhaka and Chittagong. In the 1976–77 season, an MCC team toured the country and played four matches. MCC made a favourable report to the ICC and, on 26 July 1977, Bangladesh became an Associate Member of the ICC.

First-class cricket in Bangladesh (i.e., since independence) began when the national team played England A at the M. A. Aziz Stadium in Chittagong on 25–27 October 1999. Having already had success in limited overs international cricket, Bangladesh became a Full Member of the ICC on 26 June 2000. Bangladesh played its inaugural Test Match v India at the Bangabandhu National Stadium on 10–13 November 2000.

The 2000–01 season saw the beginning of first-class domestic competition when the Green Delta National Cricket League was constituted as the first-class championship.

Current contenders:

County Cricket Championship – England and Wales

Cricket is generally held to have originated as a children's game in south-east England during the medieval period. The first definite reference to the sport occurs at Guildford, Surrey in the 16th century. During the 17th century, cricket became an adult game and soon reached the stage where wealthy patrons were organising "great matches" and employing professional players. Organisation continued through the 18th century with the first known issue of The Laws of Cricket in 1744 and then the foundation of MCC in 1787. Although inter-county matches have been definitely recorded since 1709, it was not until 1839 that the first county club (i.e., Sussex County Cricket Club) was established. Before the clubs were formally constituted, county teams were assembled on an ad hoc basis by individual patrons or by loose associations, sometimes based on a prominent local club such as Hambledon in Hampshire. All of the present first-class county clubs were founded during the 19th century. English teams began to undertake overseas tours in 1859 and England played their first Test match in 1877.

The start of first-class cricket in England is a matter for debate but it is essentially a statistical argument that does not affect the historical importance of matches played in the 17th and 18th centuries. The contemporary press tended to refer to significant matches as "great matches" and the earliest of these on record is a game in Sussex in 1697.

There is evidence dating back to 1728 that the concept of a "champion county" (at least in the form of "bragging rights") had existed long before the constitution of the official County Cricket Championship in December 1889. The new competition began in the 1890 season. An unofficial championship of sorts had existed beforehand with the champions being proclaimed by the newspapers, but this suffered from the problems of differing criteria and, hence, no universal recognition. Following residence qualifications that were introduced in 1873, there is a credible list of quasi-official champions from 1873 to 1889.

The current contenders in the County Championship are:

Ranji Trophy – India

Cricket was introduced to India in the 17th century by mariners and traders of the British East India Company. The earliest definite reference to the sport in India is a 1721 report of English sailors playing a game at Cambay, near Baroda. The Calcutta Cricket and Football Club was founded by 1792 and, in 1799, another club was formed at Seringapatam in south India after the successful British siege and the defeat of Tippoo Sultan.

A Madras versus Calcutta match in 1864 was arguably the start of first-class cricket in India but it is more generally agreed that first-class cricket began in the 1892–93 season when an English team captained by Lord Hawke played four first-class matches, including a game against "All India" on 26-28 January 1893. It is from the same season that the Bombay Quadrangular series is usually reckoned to have first-class status. India played its first Test match in 1932.

The Ranji Trophy competition was launched in the 1934–35 season as "The Cricket Championship of India" following a meeting of the Board of Control for Cricket in India in July 1934. The competition is named after Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji (known as "Ranji") and the trophy was donated by Bhupinder Singh, the Maharajah of Patiala.

Current contenders:

Plunket Shield – New Zealand

The earliest record of cricket in New Zealand is in 1832 in the diary of a churchman called Archdeacon Williams. There are records of matches played in the 1840s and then the first known inter-provincial match took place in 1860. The earliest first-class match (classified retrospectively) was Otago v Canterbury at Dunedin on 27–29 January 1864.

The Plunket Shield competition was inaugurated in 1906 after the trophy was donated by William Plunket, 5th Baron Plunket, the Governor-general of New Zealand. Until 1921, the holder of the shield had to be challenged in a similar fashion to that used in boxing. In the 1921–22 season, a league system was introduced and New Zealand is the only country to have established a national first-class championship competition before it began playing in Test cricket. New Zealand played their first Test match in the 1929–30 season.

Current contenders:

Quaid-i-Azam Trophy – Pakistan

The state of Pakistan was established by the Partition of India in 1947. By that time, cricket was already well-established after some 200 years of British influence in the area. The Pakistan Cricket Board was established on 1 May 1949 but games from 1947 to 1953 were arranged on an ad hoc basis. Nevertheless, Pakistan was admitted to full membership of the ICC and Pakistan played their first Test match in October 1952.

The Quaid-i-Azam Trophy was established as the national first-class championship in 1953 and first contested in the 1953–54 season. The trophy is named after Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is generally recognised as the founder of Pakistan and is officially known in the country as Quaid-i-Azam.

Current contenders:

SuperSport Series – South Africa

The earliest record of cricket in South Africa is in reference to a match between two teams of British officers on 5 January 1808. First-class cricket in the country began with South Africa's first Test match in March 1889. The Currie Cup was inaugurated in the 1889–90 season but was not at first a national competition and was not until the 1960s contested annually. The Currie Cup was replaced in the 1996–97 season by a new format called the SuperSport Series.

Current contenders:

Premier Trophy – Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) became a British colony in 1802. The earliest record of cricket is a report in the Colombo Journal dated 5 September 1832 which called for the formation of a cricket club. The Colombo Cricket Club was formed soon afterwards and matches began in November 1832. First-class cricket in Ceylon was restricted to games between the national team and visiting touring teams. In 1982, Sri Lanka became a Full Member of the ICC and played its first Test match.

The Premier Trophy was inaugurated in 1938 but is not recognised as a first-class competition until the 1988–89 season.

Current contenders:

Regional Four Day Competition – West Indies

The earliest record of cricket in the West Indies is an announcement in the Barbados Mercury on 10 May 1806 that a meeting of St Anne's Cricket Club would be held two days later.

The difficulties of travel in the 19th century meant that few inter-colonial matches were played. In the 1891–92 season, the first Inter-colonial Tournament was held in Barbados between Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Although some of the earlier ad hoc matches lay claim to first-class status, the 1891–92 tournament marks the effective beginning of first-class cricket in the Caribbean. The 1894–95 season featured the first tour of the West Indies by an English team.

The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) was founded in the early 1920s as a federation of the Caribbean islands and joined the ICC in 1926. In 1928, West Indies played its first Test match.

The inter-colonial tournament was not contested annually and it was not until 1965 that a true domestic championship was established when Shell Oil donated and sponsored the Shell Shield, which has subsequently evolved into the Regional Four Day Competition under the administration of the West Indies Cricket Board.

Current contenders:

Matches played before the MCC and ICC definitions

The absence of any ruling about the status of matches played before 1947 (or before 1895 in Great Britain) has caused problems for cricket historians and especially statisticians who have been forced to compile their own matchlists and apply first-class status retrospectively, in contravention of the ICC and MCC directives. Matches that meet the official definitions, assuming they featured teams of the necessary high standard, have been recorded since 1697.[1]

The position is that each statistician must compile his own list based on his personal opinions. As a result, significant differences may be observed in the published career records of W. G. Grace, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe and some minor differences in the records of other players. At club level, there are differences in the perceived status of certain matches played by Gloucestershire before 1870 and by Somerset in 1879 and 1881. The number of variations is minuscule in terms of the sport's overall statistics.

The development of scorecards to 1895

The problem of different statistical versions is as old as cricket scorecards themselves. The earliest known scorecards are dated 1744 but very few were created (or have survived) between 1744 and 1772 when they became habitual.

The main source for scorecards since 1772 until the 1860s is Arthur Haygarth’s Scores & Biographies, which was published in several volumes between 1862 and 1872. Haygarth used a number of sources for his scorecards including many that were created by the Hambledon Club and MCC. He frequently refers to earlier compilers such as Samuel Britcher, W. Epps and Henry Bentley.[2][3] Haygarth often mentions in his match summaries that another version exists of the scorecard he has reproduced. Sometimes he outlines the differences which range from players' names to runs scored and even to apparent discrepancies in innings totals or match results.

Haygarth first mentions the difficulty of obtaining scorecards in his summary of the Hampshire v Surrey match at Broadhalfpenny Down on 26 August 1773:[4]

"The Score of this match was obtained from the Hampshire Chronicle, and it was not inserted in the old printed book of Hambledon Scores from 1772 to 1784".

Then, in his summary of the Surrey v Hampshire match at Laleham Burway on 6–8 July 1775:[5]

"The above is taken from the old printed score books; but in another account, in the first innings of Surrey, Miller is b Brett...&c".

He goes on to list a total of 13 differences between his two versions, some re dismissal details and others re scores. He then makes a highly pertinent comment:[5]

"It may here be remarked, that when there are two scores of the same match, they never agree". (The italics are Haygarth's own.)

In saying that, Haygarth has recognised the essence of the problem when there is no standard means of scoring and no centralised control over the system of capturing and storing the data.

Scoring systems in the 18th century and most of the 19th century had nothing like the consistency of standard that was employed through the 20th century to the present. Many early cards gave no details of dismissal. Where dismissal was recorded, it was limited to the primary mode and so a fielder would be credited with a catch but the bowler would not be credited with the wicket unless he bowled out the batsman.

MCC finally responded to the problem in 1836 when they decided to include in their own scorecards (i.e., for matches played at Lord's) the addition of bowlers' names when the dismissal was caught, stumped, lbw or hit wicket. Haygarth comments that "this was a vast improvement in recording the game and but justice to the bowler".[6] As a result, scorecards became more detailed through the second half of the 19th century but reliability remained a problem and different versions continued to appear. It was some time before the MCC scorecard standard was adopted throughout the country and the inclusion of bowling analyses "was not introduced until several years afterwards".[6]

A greater problem surfaced after 1890 with the establishment of the County Championship because, as described above, this gave rise in 1895 to the concept of first-class cricket and so, for the first time, there was a perceived higher standard based on organisation of games in an official competition. Until then, everything had been somewhat ad hoc and playing standards was a term applied very liberally, especially with teams containing guest or occasional players in addition to recognised players.

In the context of pre-definition matches, first-class cricket is essentially a statistical concept and not a historical one. Historians record the importance of a match in contemporary terms regardless of 21st century ideas. Thus, to a cricket historian, the inter-county match between Kent and Surrey in 1709 has the same importance as a County Championship match between the same two counties in the 21st century.

Commencement of statistical records

Roy Webber published the Playfair Book of Cricket Records in 1951 and, in his introduction, expressed the view that first-class records should commence in 1864. A number of sources have agreed with this date.

The issue with using any cut-off date as a startpoint is that it excludes everything before that date despite cricket's history making clear that there has been a continuous standard of top-class cricket in England since the 1740s, if not the late 17th century. If first-class cricket did not begin until 1864, then legendary cricketers like Richard Newland, John Small, Billy Beldham, Alfred Mynn and William Caffyn were not first-class players.

It is true that none of the cricketers with large career totals played before 1864 (Webber's main reason for adopting that date) and so his startpoint is not really an issue in that context. But it does exclude numerous major players and it does affect other cricket records. For example, the lowest known team score occurred in the 1810 match between England and The Bs (with Wells and Lawrell) when The Bs were dismissed for 6 in their second innings; and that match is not regarded as first-class by those statisticians who still use 1815 or 1864 as their statistical startpoint. The real significance of 1864 was the legalisation of overarm bowling but there is also evidence of a more structured approach to inter-county cricket which ultimately brought about the introduction of the official County Championship. 1864 was also the first year in which Wisden Cricketers' Almanack was published and this is seen as the key source for cricket records, although there are plenty of earlier sources.

When Bill Frindall published his Wisden Book of Cricket Records, he explained in his preface that he used 1815 as the starting point for "proper" first-class cricket, though he conceded that there is a reasonable case for several other years, particularly Webber’s 1864. Frindall thus included the entire roundarm era but also a substantial part of the underarm era. Wisden Cricketers' Almanack also commences its first-class records section in 1815.

The problem with 1815, if the intention is to include roundarm, is that roundarm did not begin in any real sense until 1827 and was not legalised until 1835; and even then The Laws of Cricket had to be reinforced in 1845 by removing the benefit of the doubt from the bowler in the matter of his hand’s height when delivering the ball. For most of the period from 1815 to 1845, underarm bowling continued to prevail and so 1815 as the startpoint was resisted by champions of the "underarm era" which had existed from time immemorial.

There is now a general consensus that first-class statistics, as distinct from first-class history, commence in 1772 when scorecards began to be kept on a routine basis. Even then, there isn't a complete statistical record of matches before 1825, especially given the loss of records in the catastrophic Lord's fire, which occurred on the night of Thursday, 28 July 1825. The pavilion burned down and many invaluable and irreplaceable records were lost. It is believed that these included unique scorecards of early matches. The main difficulty encountered by researchers before the Lord's fire is the absence of match details and there are numerous matches in the 18th century which are known about in name only, with no scores having survived.

The handful of scorecards before 1772, including the two in 1744, are arguably too isolated for inclusion in the statistical record. It is in this sense that the statistical record is divorced from the historical record which includes all first-class matches for which no scorecard has survived. The point of origin for first-class cricket's historical record is uncertain. Teams of "county strength" were being assembled by the 1730s, but there are surviving references to what were termed "great matches" going back to 1697.

In 2005, scorecards and other details of all known matches prior to 1801 were loaded into the CricketArchive database and there classified as "major" or "minor" pending an overall accord with other sources about statistical first-class status, which was finally achieved in 2010. The problem of a statistical startpoint is exclusive to England. The "first-class startpoints" in other countries are agreed by most sources.

In the rest of the world, the generally recognised startpoints before 1947 are:

  • Australia, February 1851
  • New Zealand, January 1864
  • West Indies, February 1865
  • North America, 1878
  • South Africa, March 1889 (the inaugural first-class match was also South Africa's first Test match)
  • India, August 1892


  1. McCann, page xli, re the "great match" played in Sussex on or about Wednesday, 30 June 1697.
  2. Epps' standard work is A Collection of all the Grand Matches of Cricket 1771 to 1791 (1799).
  3. Bentley is known for his lengthily titled A Correct Account of all the Cricket Matches which have been played by the Mary-le-bone Club, and all other principal matches, from the Year 1786 to 1822 inclusive (1823).
  4. (quote) Haygarth, p. 14.
  5. 5.0 5.1 (quotes) Haygarth, p. 24.
  6. 6.0 6.1 (quotes) Haygarth, p. 355.


  • Altham, H. S.: A History of Cricket, Volume 1 (to 1914). George Allen & Unwin (1962).
  • Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS): A Guide to First-Class Cricket Matches Played in the British Isles. ACS (1982).
  • Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS): A Guide to Important Cricket Matches Played in the British Isles 1709–1863. ACS (1981).
  • Birley, Derek: A Social History of English Cricket. Aurum (1999).
  • Frindall, Bill: The Wisden Book of Cricket Records, Wisden (1986).
  • Haygarth, Arthur: Scores & Biographies, Volume 1 (1744-1826). Lillywhite (1862).
  • McCann, Tim: Sussex Cricket in the Eighteenth Century. Sussex Record Society (2004).
  • Major, John: More Than A Game. HarperCollins (2007).
  • Marylebone Cricket Club: The Laws. MCC, The Laws of Cricket (2017).
  • Webber, Roy: The Book of Cricket Records, Playfair Books (1963).
  • Webber, Roy: The Phoenix History of Cricket. Phoenix (1960).
  • Webber, Roy: The Playfair Book of Cricket Records. Playfair Books (1951).
  • Wisden: Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. John Wisden & Co. Ltd (1864 to present).