October 13, 2007

The cradle of cricket

Hambledon's name conjures up an image of rustic locals playing the game in front of the Bat and Ball pub. The reality is quite different



The Bat and Ball pub: the heart of the Hambledon club © Cricinfo

In many people's minds, Hambledon was the first club of consequence, epitomising the early days of organised cricket. Set deep in Hampshire - then a good day's journey from London - its name conjures up an image of rustic locals playing the game in front of the Bat and Ball pub.

The reality is quite different. There were clubs functioning long before Hambledon, which lies 15 miles north of Portsmouth, sprang to fame in the 1770s. And Hambledon did not exist in the form of a club as we understand it today. Its players were either wealthy aristocrats or paid professionals who did the organising and the donkey work on the field.

The Hambledon club existed in 1756. In that year they played at the Artillery Ground, the leading venue at the time, and under the guidance of Richard Nyren, the landlord of the Bat and Ball from 1762, they really started to take shape.

Cricket at that time was synonymous with betting and in 1763 the Rev Charles Powlett, whose behaviour belied his occupation, was shipped off to a village near Hambledon. There he found the outlet for his two greatest passions, cricket and gambling, and with an old Winchester school friend, Philip Dehany, he set about establishing a social club.

It was certainly not for the run-of-the-mill villagers - the annual subscription was set at three guineas, almost two months' wages for a labourer - but at Hambledon's peak there were 157 members, including 18 with titles and six MPs. Through its heyday, drinking was to the fore, and industrial quantities of wine, port and sherry were consumed. Members were regularly fined, with the penalty being to provide even more wine.

Dinners were bawdy affairs, and among the regular toasts - the king, the club - was one to the "Immortal Memory of Madge". Madge might seem innocent enough, but it was a slang term for a part of the female anatomy.

Hambledon played on Broadhalfpenny Down, not only a cricket pitch but the village's sheep common. The wealthy patrons attracted the best local players, and that in turn brought in the best sides to visit, and with them came spectators and gamblers. It is estimated that between 1772 and 1781 the club netted £12,467 from side bets on matches.

Hambledon were a draw, so much so that 20,000 were reported to have watched them play a Surrey side at Guildford in 1769. Matches at Broadhalfpenny Down also attracted large crowds, and the gentry rented small marquees to watch from - the forerunners of modern corporate hospitality. The entertainment was lavish.

The opposition were usually labelled as county sides - Kent, Surrey, Sussex - and on occasion Hambledon played England. The reality was that these teams were usually based on one club from an area or were specially assembled for gambling purposes. Hambledon's fame was such that they travelled to London, attracting large crowds there. In 1775 one game at the Artillery Ground ended in a riot after hooligans pelted spectators with bricks.

There were a few games against local parish sides, and for those the Hambledon team was drawn from the village. But for the big matches the heavy guns came from far and wide. It was more like the modern-day Lashings than anything else. It was, as one writer observed, big business.

In 1833, John Nyren, son of Richard, publishedThe Cricketers of My Time, a historic account of Hambledon's glory years, and noted: "No eleven in England could compare with the Hambledon, which met on the first Tuesday in May on Broadhalfpenny. So renowned a set were the Men of Hambledon, that the whole country round would flock to see on their trial matches."

Such was the club's influence that it could change the Laws. In 1771 Shock White batted against them with a bat wider than the wicket. Within two days Hambledon had legislated as to the maximum width of a bat and produced a metal gauge to help enforce the amendment.

Perhaps the club's zenith came in June 1777 when they took on All-England and beat them by an innings - England mustering 166 runs and 69 to Hambledon's 403, an enormous total for the time.

By the 1780s players were openly paid. Five guineas for a win was not uncommon, and as much as three even if they lost. Others got travel expenses and they were also paid to turn up to practice sessions. The income was enough that some players were reported to have been able to retire on their earnings from the game. But the treatment of the gentlemen and the paid professionals was also marked, even if the so-called amateurs earned far more from the game than those openly paid.

So renowned a set were the Men of Hambledon, that the whole country round would flock to see on their trial matches John Nyren

In 1783 the club moved to Windmill Down - they had been flirting with games on Stoke Down for a few years as well - took some of their turf with them, and erected a brick-built clubhouse. It was closer to the more salubrious George Inn, also owned and run by Nyren, which was crucial for the social side of the club. There was also a degree of snobbishness in the decision. "Cricket at Broadhalfpenny had belonged to the community," wrote David Underdown in Start of Play. "At Windmill Down it belonged to the club."

But the seeds of Hambledon's decline were already being sown. The great players who had been the bedrock of the club - Nyren, John Small, Thomas Brett - were getting old. And clubs relied on rich patrons: the Duke of Dorset was a keen backer (and player) at Hambledon, but the Earl of Winchilsea, who was, incidentally, also a member of Hambledon, was richer and his loyalties lay in London, where he was a member of the White Conduit Club.

Hambledon was a devil to get for aristocrats based in town, and gradually its patrons and players started to be drawn by money and convenience to London. Hambledon still played and paid, but in 1787 Winchilsea commissioned Thomas Lord to find and build a new ground for the White Conduit Club. The ground was Lord's and the club became the Marylebone Cricket Club.

The effect was terminal for Hambledon. In 1791 the club had 52 members but a dozen resigned during the year, and the same number failed to pay their subscriptions. By 1795 attendance at the weekly meetings was so poor they became fortnightly. There were 16 paid-up members. The club limped along, still paying professionals, but even locally it was not the centre of cricket as major matches switched to Stoke Down.

In 1796 nobody turned up for the Annual General Meeting and the club, to all intents and purposes, was finished as a major force. There are sketchy records of matches between 1800 and 1804, and in May 1808 an AGM was held. The accounts show that income and expenditure were a fraction of what they were, but there were still some important games. But on August 24 and 25 of 1824 the club played for the last time at Windmill Down, beating Goodwood by two wickets.

Hambledon's part in cricket history may be overstated. There were certainly other important clubs in the home counties, but none were so well documented and so their achievements are lost forever. What is certain is that for two or three decades, a small Hampshire village was at the heart of the cricketing world.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo