The history of the game

The measurements of cricket

AR Littlewood

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The measurements of most sports are in round numbers, except for a few of those that have been converted to metric equivalents. The welter of precise measurements in cricket seems distinct, but in fact some have quite a simple origin.

The earliest known Laws of Cricket, the "Code of 1744", give the length of the pitch as 22 yards. Over the centuries the often vague and regionally differing Saxon linear measurements becaine standardized to give a mile (a survival of the old Roman measurement of 1,000 double paces) as equal to 8 furlongs (i.e. "furrow long") or 320 perches (also called rods or poles) or 1,760 yards (from the Old English gyrd that meant stick or twig) or 5,280 feet or 63,360 inches or 190,080 barley corns (e.g. in the thirteenth century a royal Assize of Weights and Measures prescribed "the Iron Yard of our Lord the King" at 3 feet of 12 inches or 36 barley corns). It will thus be seen that 22 yards is in fact one tenth of a furlong or length of a furrow. There was an equally vague Saxon square measurement of land, the hide (called also carucate, from the Latin for a plough, and ploughland) which was the area required by one free family with dependents and that could be ploughed with one plough and 8 oxen in one year. This was in turn divided into four yardlands or 100 acres, the definition of which was the amount of land that could be ploughed by one yoke of oxen in one day. In Norman times the acre became precisely defined as 40 by 4 perches, thus preserving the shape of the Saxon strip-acre, i.e. one furlong by one tenth of a furlong. The cricket pitch is therefore simply the breadth of the Saxon strip-acre.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that cricket, which is believed to have had its origins on the Weald that was used primarily as grazing ground for sheep rather than ploughland, necessarily took the length of its pitch directly from this source, although the largest Saxon mete-wand or measuring rod, the gad, continued in use into the early days of cricket and was one perch in length, i.e. one quarter of the breadth of a furrow. In 1610 Edmund Gunter, an Oxford trained mathematician, now Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London, invented as an instrument of measurement the chain, taking its length from the breadth of the furrow and dividing it into 100 links of 7.92 inches each (i.e. 4 perches [not 40 as stated by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 19, p. 729, which is the length of the furrow]; By 1661 use of this chain had become sufficiently popular for the word to be used to designate the measurement itself}. This chain became the common measuring tool for land surveyors. We do not know when cricketers first wished to standardize their pitch, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at least pitches were often physically marked out with the use of Gunter's chain.

The distance between the bowling crease and the popping crease (i.e. the crease over which the bat could be popped for safety) is given by the "Code of 1744" as 46 inches (increased to 48 inches sometime before 1821). Before creases were marked in whitewash in 1865 they were cut into the earth and were, as W.G. Grace remembered from his early days, one inch deep and one inch wide. With allowance made of 1/2 inch from the centre of each crease the distance between the inner edges of the creases was thus 45 inches, that is the length of an ell. This was another Saxon measurement that had been standardized by the time of Edward I who required that there should be an exact copy of his ell-wand in all the towns of his realm. It was used regularly for measuring cloth (hence its later name of clothyard), and indeed the king's alnager had the duty of checking that all cloth for sale was one ell in width. It was thus a measurement that would have been very familiar to the cricketing folk of the sheep-rearing Weald.

The ell's subdivision into 16 nails of 2 and 13/16 inches each probably accounts for the size of the early wicket. According to the "Code of 1744" "Ye Stumps must be 22 inches long, and ye Bail 6 inches". P.F. Thomas (who wrote under the pseudonymous H.P.-T.) convincingly argues that these figures are a rounding off by the gentlemen of London of the earlier rustic measurement of 8 nails by 2 nails, which would give a wicket of 22 and 1/2 by 5 and 5/8 inches. The addition of the third stump c. 1775 did not change the dimensions of the wicket but since 1798 a series of alterations has brought them to the present 28 by 9 inches. The addition of the third stump did not immediately bring about the division of the single bail into two bails (first mentioned in the Maidstone edition of the Laws c. 1786 but not in a reputable edition until the early nineteenth century. It is InterestIng that even in the 1950s bails were often sold as a single piece to be cut at the discretion of the purchaser).

There were no legal limits on the size of the bat until Shock White appeared in a match with a weapon the width of the wicket, unsporting behaviour that led two days later to his opponents, the Hambledon Club, writing the following minute: "In view of the performance of one White of Ryegate on September 23rd that ffour (sic) and quarter inches shall be the breadth forthwith. - this 25th day of September 1771". It is signed by its scribe Richard Nyren and by T. Brett and J. Small and was speedily accepted elsewhere, occuring already in the "Code of 1774". The Hambledonians promptly made an iron gauge to check the implements of future opponents, but unfortunately it has been lost since it was purloined by "a gentleman who took a fancy to it". Other similar gauges were, however, manufactured, the one at Sheffield Park once catching out W.G. Grace. Approximately 4 and 1/4 inches is the standard width of all earlier known bats, the oldest being that owned by John Chitty of Knaphill now in the pavilion at Kennington Oval that is dated to 1729. There is tenuous evidence for an earlier period. The Roman Catholic College of Stonyhurst removed to France and later Belgium during the religious persecution of the sixteenth century and kept up a form of cricket that it brought back to England when forced to move by the French revolution. A teacher who left the school in 1871 remembers its bats as being blocks of probably alder wood about 3 feet long, "roughly oval in shape, about 4 and 1/2 in. wide and 2 in. thick". This distinctive Stonyhurst cricket had remarkable wickets, stones about 17 in. high, 13 in. wide and 8 in. thick at the bottom. There has never been any limitation on the weight of the bat, one of 1771 weighing a monstrous 5 Ib.

The "Code of 1744" prescribes that 'Ye Ball must weigh between 5 and 6 Ounces". Its circumference was not specified until May lOth 1838 when it was put as between 9 and 9 and 1/4 inches. This lack of precision corroborates what one might suspect, that a ball was the weight and size found convenient and that the difficulties of manufacture have precluded even today any precise specification. The size of the wicket and other laws have been frequently changed in attempts to be fair to both batsman and bowler. Is it not time for further revisions of measurements? The principal problems today are the ease with which even mis-hits go to the boundary and the sharply rising bouncers from tall fast bowlers. It is impossible to push back the boundaries at most grounds (though Kennington Oval and Grace Road, Leicester, for instance, do not use all the available playing area for any one match), but a restriction on the weight of the bat would not only revive more refined batsmanship but also once more enable slow bowlers to tempt batsmen to their doom with catches in the deep. The length of the pitch was chosen by cricketers who bowled, that is propelled the ball under arm, and were on average shorter than their modern counterparts who can hurl their missile from far above their heads. Is it not time that the pitch should be lengthened, that the old Saxon strip-acre should at last be left fallow ?

© AR Littlewood

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