September 6, 2013

It began in Guildford?

We've been told Hambledon was the place where organised cricket first flourished. A new book thinks not

It has long been accepted, almost as if it were one of cricket's ten commandments, that the sleepy village of Hambledon, in the Meon Valley in Hampshire, was where cricket grew up. It is usually - and fondly - known as the "cradle of cricket", and its picturesque pitch on Broadhalfpenny Down is a hauntingly beautiful spot.

Hambledon owes its reputation largely to the writings of John Nyren, whose charming reminiscences of his fellow players were gathered together in a magazine, and later collated and published as The Cricketers of My Time, the game's first classic book. Nyren's father Richard captained Hambledon, and was the landlord of the Bat and Ball Inn, where the team would congregate after a game.

Clearly there was a flourishing cricket club there, but was Hambledon really the place where organised cricket first flourished? A new book thinks not. Guildford's Cricket Story, by the distinguished cricket historian David Frith, makes a convincing case for, well, Guildford.

The funny thing is that the book was not conceived with this in mind: it is mainly a celebration of 75 years of first-class cricket at Guildford's homely Woodbridge Road ground, where Frith played for years and was latterly the local club's president. But what might have been a leisurely recounting of the deeds of Alistair Brown (203 in a 40-over game for Surrey at Guildford in 1997), Justin Langer (342 for Somerset in 2006) and even good old KP (a blistering 234 not out in a rare outing for Surrey in 2012) took on a new slant as Frith started to consider earlier history.

"As I cobbled together all the Guildford firsts," he says, "it began to dawn on me that so much of profound historical significance had taken place in this area that nowhere in England - or anywhere else - can point to such a cluster of fundamental landmarks in cricket history. There had been no original aim to lodge this claim, but the evidence piled up." He added: "Hambledon is richly historic, and I'm not trying to do them down. Truth is, though, that little by way of landmark came out of Hambledon. It was just that village's good fortune to have had a great chronicler in John Nyren."

The main plank in the convincing pro-Guildford argument is that the first known mention of the game comes in a document presented to the Guildford Court in 1598. In it, one John Derrick attests (about a plot of land under dispute) that about 50 years earlier he and his friends "did run and play there at Creckett and other Plaies". So cricket - or creckett, anyway - was played in Guildford around 1550. (Derrick also said that bear-baiting took place on the land, but luckily that seems to have died out rather more quickly.)

Guildford doesn't just have a claim to the beginnings of men's cricket. The first recorded women's match was played there in July 1745, after which the Reading Mercury ran an admiring report: "The greatest cricket match that was played in this part of England was on Gosden Common, near Guildford, between eleven maids of Bramley and eleven maids of Hambledon, all dressed in white. The Bramley maids had blue ribbons and the Hambledon maids red ribbons on their heads. The Bramley girls got 119 notches and the Hambledon girls 127. There was of bothe sexes the greatest number that ever was seen on such an occasion. The girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do in that game." The visiting maids may have come from Hambledon, but it was a nearby Surrey village - not far from Farnham - not the famous one.

Guildford has produced several other notable firsts. A local farmer called Bob Robinson was the first to use protection on his legs while batting. They were "pads of two thin boards placed angle-wise, off which the ball went with great noise". Unfortunately for "Long Bob", they amused his fellow players so much that "being laughed at, he discontinued them". Robinson also pioneered spikes "of monstrous length" in his boots to help him stand upright in wet conditions.

And it was a man from Guildford - or Send, a few miles away on the road to Woking - whose bowling accuracy led to the introduction of the middle stump. There were originally only two, but Edward "Lumpy" Stevens was such a dead-eye that he was often frustrated when his deliveries passed between the stumps without hitting them: a third one was added in 1775.

Like most bowlers, Lumpy relished a helpful pitch, and he was helped by the laws of the time that allowed the fielding side to select their own wicket (within a certain radius). Stevens' chain of choice was an uneven piece of turf with a rise in the middle, and a famous verse of the time related that "Honest Lumpy did allow /He ne'er would pitch but o'er a brow".

Moving on a little, the man who coined the term "Test match" came from, you've guessed it, Guildford. William Hammersley was born in the neighbouring village of Ash in 1826, and later sailed to Australia, where he became a journalist, and was also secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club for a time. When the first English touring team went to Australia in 1861-62, Hammersley described some of their upcoming games as "test matches", while dismissing others as of local interest in rural areas.

And there's more, as another Cricket - comedian Jimmy - might have said. "I realised too late," lamented Frith, "that I might also have included the 1727 Brodrick match agreement - the earliest known precursor of today's Laws - since his match against the Duke of Richmond's team was at Pepperharowe, just down the A3100 from Guildford."

And there you have the case for Guildford. By chance, some of the earliest to hear about the claims were the modern-day cricketers and enthusiasts of Hambledon, as Frith had been invited to give a talk at the Bat and Ball earlier this year, just as he was putting the finishing touches to the book. "Things did go a little quiet when I first mentioned it," he admits, "but they seemed to take it well - though when it sank in later they might have felt differently. It might take time for Guildford's 'Cradle' claim to be accepted - but word is spreading!"

Guildford's Cricket Story, by David Frith, is available from Guildford Cricket Club, Woodbridge Road, Guildford GU1 4RP, or via this link

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013

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