The history of the game

Cricket literature - the 18th century

AR Littlewood

Written and pictorial records of cricket may go back to the Plantagenet period, although it is impossible to distinguish between what may be cricket and its brothers, cat and dog, stool-ball, rounders etc., and even at times its cousins, hockey and golf. The firmest, though still not secure, pictorial evidence is an illustration apparently of a man demonstrating a stroke with a stump to a boy holding a straight club and a ball in a Decretal of Pope Gregory IX that was illuminated in England; while in the Wardrobe Accounts of the Royal Household for the year 1300 the sums of 100 shillings and 6 pounds are mentioned as being spent on "creag" and other sports of Prince Edward (the grandfather of the Black Prince).

In the Tudor period there are references to boys playing "creckett" and in the seventeenth century there are many references such as that by Sir William Dugdale that Oliver Cromwell played cricket in his youth, while in 1653 Sir Thomas Urquhart even makes Gargantua play cricket in his translation of Rabelais. At the very end of this century cricket makes its appearance in the newspapers, a trend that grows rapidly in the eighteenth century but is concerned with announcements of matches, the wagers involved and, occasionally, the ensuing riots rather than with descriptions of matches. Rather different is the "Code of 1744" that contains at least two strata, one of which, wherein for instance the ball is referred to as "she" rather than "it", is clearly rustic rather than metropolitan and may be of considerable antiquity. All this, however, cannot be classed as literature.

Literature begins, for cricket, suddenly, unexpectedly and fully grown, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, in a Latin poem of 95 lines on a rural cricket match that was written by William Goldwin and published in his Musae Juveniles in March 1706. Little is known of the author: he left Eton for King's College Cambridge in 1700 and subsequently became Master of Bristol Grammar School and then was Vicar of Saint Nicholas, Bristol, until his death in 1747. His poem, In Certamen Pilae (On a Match at Ball), has been translated into English verse by Harold Perry in Etoniana in 1922 and, with copious scholarly notes, again into verse by H.P.-T. (P.F. Thomas) in Early Cricket the following year. In early spring "a chosen cohort of youths, armed with curved bats, ...descends rejoicing to the field". Each team tries to impose its own laws, until a grey-haired Nestor composes the squabble. They mark the pitch and on the stumps place the bail which "cries out for good defence" against "the leathern sphere". Two umpires stand "leaning on their bats" while the scorers "sit on a hummock ready to cut the mounting score on sticks with their little knives". The game begins and a batsman "propels the strident ball afar ...but a clearsighted scout (fieldsman) prepares his ambush in the deep and with outstretched palms joyfully accepts it as it falls ...and grief overwhelms those who silently mourn their friend's disaster". The tale of misfortune continues, and one batsman in going for a second run "falls headlong at the very foot of the wicket. (as) the shaken earth groans beneath his great weight" and the rustic throng exult in laughter". The other side fares better and "Victory , long striven for, noisily flaps its wings and fills the sky with the shouts and roars of success".

Cricket literature in English also gets off to a flying start with the appearance of Cricket: an Heroic Poem. illlustrated with the Critical Observations of Scriblerus Maximus. In 316 lines it describes the earliest match for which individual scores have been recorded, between Kent and England at the Artillery Ground, London, on June 18th 1744. It was written by James Love (really Dance), the bankrupt son of the architect of the Mansion House, who had taken to acting and writing for the stage to earn his living. It contains the much quoted couplet "Hail, cricket! Glorious manly, British Game! / First of all Sports! be first alike in Fame", as it lauds cricket to the detriment of "puny Billiards, where, with sluggish Pace, / The dull Ball trails before the feeble Mace" and even "Tennis self, thy sister sport" that cannot "charm, / Or with thy fierce Delights our Bosoms warm". Its style may, however, be better judged by the description of the fall of the famous lefthander Richard Newland of Slindon:

The champion strikes. When scarce arriving fair,
The glancing ball mounts upward in the air.
The batsman sees it, and with mournful eyes
Fixed on the ascending pellet as it flies,
Thus suppliant claims the favour of the skies
And now illustrious Sackville where he stood
The approaching ball with cautious pleasure viewed,
At once he sees the chiefs impending doom,
And pants for mighty honours yet to come.
Swift as the falcon darting on its prey,
He springs elastic on the verdant way;
Sure of success, flies upward with a bound,
Derides the slow approach, and spurns the ground.
Prone slips the youth, yet glories in his fall,
With arm extended shows the captive ball.

The notes are worth reading, being partly informative of participants in the match and literary inspirations from Vergil and partly mock scholarly like that on Book 2, verse 47: "A Place there is.) Est in secessu Locus. The Author here has exactly follow'd the Example of all great Poets, both ancient and modern, who never fail to prepare you with a pompous Description of the Place where any great Action is to be perform'd."

A more frivolous poem on a cricket match appeared in 1773 when the Rev. John Duncombe wrote a parody on the ballad Chevy Chace called Burry Triumphant:

The active Earl of Tankerville
An even bet did make,
That in Bourn paddock he would cause
Kent's chief est hands to quake.

And so he did, for:

Of byes and overthows but three
The Kentish heroes gain'd,
And Surry victor on the score,
Twice seventy-five remain'd.

Of near three hundred notches made
By Surry, eight were byes;
The rest were balls, which, boldly struck,
Re-echo'd to the skies!

This called forth a rejoinder from John Burn by, an attorney-at-law in Canterbury. His description of the Duke of Dorset is memorable:

His Grace the Duke of Dorset came,...
Equall'd by few, he plays with glee,
Nor peevish seeks for victory...
And for unlike the Modern way
Of blocking every ball at play,
He firmly stands with bat upright,
And strikes with athletic might,
Sends forth the ball across the mead,
And scores six notches for the deed.

A more unusual match was the subject of an anonymous poem of 1796: it was played between the one-legged and the one armed:

...Though bloody deeds by fortress wall
Are parodied when bat and ball
Defend and storm the stubborn wicket.
Thus thought I, when with vision dim,
With feeble step and loss of limb,
Old warriors in the strife contended...

Poems could give advice, on cricket (1772):

Ye bowlers take heed, to my precepts attend,
On you the whole state of the game must depend,
Spare your vigour at first nor exert all your strength,
But measure each step, and be sure pitch a length.
Ye strikers observe when the foe shall draw nigh,
Mark the bowler advance with a vigilant eye;
Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.

and even through cricket on life (1756):

The outward side, who place and profit want,
Watch to surprise and labour to supplant;
While those who taste the sweets of present winnings
Labour as heartily to keep their innings.

On either side the whole great game is play'd -
Untry'd no shift is left, unsought no aid;
Skill vies with skill, and pow'r contends with pow'r ,
And squint-eyed prejudice computes their score.


The enthusiasm for cricket in the eighteenth century is well represented by a letter from Mary Turner of East Hoathly to her son in September 1739: "Last Munday youre Father was at Mr Payns and plaid at Cricket and come home pleased anuf for he struck the best Ball in the game and whished he had not anny thing else to do he wuld play Cricket all his life". However, the active participation in cricket of members of the nobility called forth adverse criticism from both poets and poetasters. Alexander Pope attacks probably Lord John Sackville in his "The Judge to dance his brother serjeant call, / The Senator at cricket urge the ball", while in 1778 a lampooner inveighs against the Duke of Dorset in his The Noble Cricketers:

When Death (for Lords must die) your doom shall seal,
What sculptured Honors shall your tomb reveal?
Instead of Glory , with a weeping eye,
Instead of Virtue pointing to the sky,
Let Bats and Balls th' affronted stone disgrace,
While Farce stands leering by, with Satyr face,
Holding, with forty notches mark'd, a board -
The noble triumph of a noble Lord!

The last words for the eighteenth century must, however, be for its most famous club, Hambledon, for which the Rev. Reynell Cotton, master of Hyde Abbey School, Winchester, wrote his Cricket Song:

...The wickets are pitch'd now, and measured the ground;
Then they form a large ring, and stand gazing around -
Since Ajax fought Hector, in sight of all Troy,
No contest was seen with such fear and such joy.

Derry down, etc Then fill up your glass, he's the best that drinks most.
Here's the Hambledon Club! - who refuses the toast ?
Let's join in the praise of the bat and the wicket,
And sing in full chorus the patrons of cricket.
Derry down, etc.

And when the game's o'er, and our fate shall draw nigh
(For the heroes of cricket, like others, must die),
Our bats we'll resign, neither troubled nor vex'd,
And give up our wickets to those that come next.
Derry down, etc.