The Heavy Ball

This, that and the other. Mostly the other

The fossil record of cricket

Take a palaeontological view of the game and you find a lot of things start to make sense

Liam Herringshaw

Comments: 1 | Text size: A | A
llustration for an unidentified Ray Harryhausen film showing a dinosaur attacking a group of cavemen outside of a tent, circa 1965
Early cricketers find an innovative use for their stumps © Getty Images
Enlarge

A few weeks ago I made my first visit to the home of cricket. I had only a vague idea what to expect, so it was with anticipation that I boarded the train to London. This turned to trepidation as I caught my connection to Brussels and then made my way to Ghent. Would I be able to find any fellow cricketers?

"Well of course you wouldn't!" I hear you bellow. "It's the middle of winter, Lord's is the home of cricket and you're in Belgium, you fool!" To which I respond that my foolishness is unarguable, but not my geography: in 2009, a pair of researchers - one Australian, one German - announced that cricket originated in Flanders.

Tracing the early history of cricket is fraught with difficulty, and using Tudor verse to pin down its origin inevitably controversial. As I was actually in Belgium to attend a palaeontological conference, I realised it was time to try a new approach. It was time to look at fossils.

Cricketing dinosaurs are oft-encountered - from archaic administrators to extinction-threatened fast bowlers - but I wanted to be literal not metaphorical. When was the thwack of leather upon willow first possible? Could cavemen have played cricket? And did a team of T rex ever take on a Stegosaurus Select XI for the Volcanic Ashes?

Well, I can rule out the latter to start with, as the two species existed more than 80 million years apart. Even a timeless Test never lasted that long. Furthermore, there was no grass in the Jurassic; it didn't appear on Earth till late in the next geological period, the Cretaceous. Indeed, if we take grass, willow, cork and mammalian leather as pre-requisites for a proper game, a match would have been impossible till about 15 million years ago. Jurassic bowlers would have had to wrap a rock in reptile skin and hurl it across dried mud towards a coniferous batsman.

Of course, as Dennis Lillee tried to demonstrate, bats need not be made of willow, and this leads onto the tale of one of the greatest fossil hoaxes, and probably the only one to feature cricket.

A human-like skull and an ape-like jaw were discovered in a quarry in Piltdown, Sussex, in 1912, and united as the remains of an ape-man almost half a million years old. Many experts had their doubts, but the publicity bandwagon became unstoppable, and Piltdown Man was hailed as an extraordinary missing link in human evolution. Then a year or two later, an even more remarkable item was found - a stone implement that looked for all the world like a small cricket bat.

It was an incredible, almost unbelievable discovery, but rather than cast more doubt on the Piltdown story, the bat served mainly to convince people. After all, what other weapon would "the first Englishman" have had?

It was another 40 years before chemical analysis proved that Piltdown Man really was a hoax, a fake fossil made from an orangutan jaw and a human cranium. Intriguingly, though, according to Professor Chris Stringer and researcher Andy Currant of London's Natural History Museum, the cricket bat "was not the work of the original forger". Their analysis led them to argue that it was made and planted by a third party who knew about the hoax and was warning the perpetrators to stop. However, rather than proving that the game was up, it just proved that the game was cricket.

No other fossil cricket bats have turned up, forged or otherwise, so the next best thing might just be the Museum of Interesting Things in Nymboida, New South Wales. Brainchild of Russell Crowe, Hollywood superstar, cricket fan and now curator, the MoIT is probably the only place in the world where you'll find a baggy-green cap belonging to Crowe's cousin, former Kiwi captain Martin, vying for space with a dinosaur skull donated by Leonardo di Caprio. (Though maybe London's Natural History Museum could counteract the Piltdown debacle by giving its Diplodocus a David Gower sun-hat?) Sadly expansion of the Cricket Hat-Wearing Fossils section will have to wait: di Caprio was recently outbid for a Tyrannosaurus specimen by Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps as Crowe awaits new material he might like to consider an exhibition on his fellow New Zealander Patrick Marshall. A lecturer at the University of Otago, Marshall published papers on a variety of palaeontological subjects, from very old molluscs to flightless birds, and also studied ancient volcanoes. In his early thirties, however, he had a change of summer job. He became a first-class cricketer.

This lasted about as long as Nasser Hussain's career in palaeontology*, but Marshall does have a cricketing legacy. In August 2005, mid-Ashes, a cricket match was arranged between palaeontologists from the universities of Leicester and Birmingham. By way of an appropriate trophy, they filled a vial with volcanic deposits of the type that famously fossilised Pompeii. Employing the proper geological term, they dubbed the prize The Ignimbrite Ashes. Little did they know that the term "ignimbrite" had been coined some 70 years earlier by one Patrick Marshall. It may be inadvertent, but the palaeontological cricketer lives on.

*which, according to a colleague of mine, concluded with him sitting his finals in the Long Room at Lord's

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist

Tell us what you think. Send us your feedback

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Comments: 1 
Posted by   on (January 28, 2011, 20:12 GMT)

Lovely article Liam, thanks. Great to have your wit and erudition back on Cricinfo - up there with the very best of cricket writing.

Comments have now been closed for this article

Email this page to a friend Email Feedback Feedback Print Print
More in The Heavy Ball
RSS FeedAll
  • ESPN
  • ESPNF1
  • Scrum
  • Soccernet