150 years of I Zingari

The vagrant gypsy life

The widespread increase in competitive club and village cricket in the late 1960s and through the 1970s presented many long-established and well-run private clubs with an awkward problem. I am thinking, for example, of the constituent county clubs with euphonious names, such as the Devon Dumplings and the Hampshire Hogs, as well as the more nomadic Free Foresters and Incogniti and Cryptics and Buccaneers and Arabs, and the oldest and perhaps most illustrious of them all, I. Zingari. Even MCC, with their 300 out-matches a year, began to find it more difficult to put a strong side into the field.

In 1960 there was very little league cricket south of the Midlands. Now, the great majority of town and village clubs throughout the country are in a league of some kind or other, and need to find, in so far as it is possible, a settled side. There is also the national club knockout, the national village championship, and countless other relatively new competitions. The wandering clubs suddenly found it more difficult to fulfil their commitments to the extent to which they were accustomed, or to recruit suitably competent and socially suitable members. The sort of players they had always relied upon became less regularly available. Fixture lists had to be cut back; in some cases, dissolution threatened. None has ridden the crisis - for that, to many, is what it was - more surely than IZ, founded 150 years ago and still with a language and a status of its own.

On July 4, 1845, its founders, J. L. Baldwin, Frederic and Spencer Ponsonby (to become the Earl of Bessborough and Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane respectively) and R. P. Long, dined together at the Blenheim Hotel in Bond Street, following a match that day against Harrow School. There and then they formed a club, for the purpose of fostering amateur cricket, christened it and framed the rules. Next day they informed William Boland, a barrister with an extensive practice and a formidable presence, that he was Perpetual President and 20 of their friends that they were now members of I. Zingari (the gypsies).

The rules were half-serious and half-comic ( The Entrance fee be nothing and the Annual Subscription do not exceed the Entrance.) and many of them survive today, including the ordinance to keep your promise, keep your temper and keep your wicket up. The affirmation of amateurism was important, mainly because most sides in those days employed professionals, or given men, to bolster them, whereas the Zingaros preferred to do without one. Colours of black, red and gold ( out of darkness, through fire, into light) were chosen, and attracted such attention that in the late 1860s MCC appropriated them, except that they kept to the red and gold and left out the black. (For the next 100 years or so the MCC egg and bacon tie and cravat were rarely worn - it was considered bourgeois to be seen in them. Today, however, on the first morning of a Test match at Lord's, the pavilion is a blaze of red and gold.)

Excellence was of the essence to IZ. Patronised by royalty, acknowledged in high society and careful whom they chose to play for them, they were very soon able to turn out a side strong enough to hold its own against any professional eleven, besides reading like a table of precedence. By 1877, IZ were beating Yorkshire at the Scarborough Festival, and in 1882 and 1884 they had a fixture against the touring Australians. Their last first-class match was against a Gentlemen of England XI at Lord's in 1904. At the time, a fully representative Gentlemen's side would have consisted mostly of IZ. But the days of quite such high glory were numbered. With their activities being suspended during the two wars, when many of the country house grounds on which they played came under the plough, the club had to rely upon its renown - one could justifiably say its mystique - and the devotion of its senior members to hold its place.

Since 1867, Wisden has made a point of publishing the results of all I. Zingari matches, a service provided for no other private club. In 1884, in its heyday, IZ played 52 days' cricket (one three-day, 19 two-day and 11 one-day matches). In 1994 they played 24 one-day matches and one of two days. The results are on page 857.

Because Boland was made Perpetual President in 1845, the club's senior living officer is called not the President but the Governor, who is currently the former Middlesex and England captain, George Mann. To Sir William Becher, though, IZ owes its greatest modern debt. In 1839, six years before the dinner in Bond Street, one of Becher's forbears gave his name to the brook at which so many hopes have been dashed in the Grand National at Aintree. Billy Becher himself, secretary from 1953 to 1993, has given much of his own life to keeping the Zingaric spirit alive, and ensuring that in 1995, its 150th year, IZ remains the most urbane of clubs.

John Woodcock was cricket correspondent of The Times from 1954 to 1987 and editor of Wisden from 1981 to 1986.

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