The coffin would emerge from the loft each spring, a battered brown leather hippopotamus of a bag. During the week it would sit in various inconvenient places around the house, until Saturday morning, when, just after washing the car, my dad would carefully pack it: thick buckled pads, sausagey gloves, grotesquely pink box, creamy green-kneed trousers, a huge v-neck woollen jumper trimmed with club colours, a buttermilk buttoned shirt.

Then, in the evening, fresh from his 20 overs into the wind, a jug of bitter in his hand, dad would visibly relax. The whites had done their work; we would get our bottles of Coke. And though his poor old knees have long given up, just a sniff of a slightly musty cable-knit transports me back to the late 1970s and a grassy cricket club in Surrey.

Whites are evocative, in a way no other sporting uniform quite manages. In football, in rugby, in one-day cricket, in tennis, kits change markedly from year to year. It is their financial raison d'etre. But both the first-class cricketer and the blacksmith on the village green remain essentially what they were 130 years ago, men playing a sweaty, dirty game in long white(ish) clothes. It is both impractical and hopelessly romantic.

White traditionally signifies purity - the white witch, the virgin, the nun, the pilgrim - and cricket likes to think of itself as a game of integrity. But if that is stretching it, there is a timelessness to whites, and something unquantifiably lovely about watching a Test with its whites-clad players.

Novelty-wise, things were a lot more interesting in the early 19th century, when the elaborate facial hair of the time was matched by high-collared shirts, huge bowties and braces. Disappointingly, by the 1840s top hats had started disappearing; by the 1880s the coloured shirts of the 1850s and 60s had bleached to white. Blazers were born about 1860, around the time that boots nudged out shoes. By 1880 dandyism was out of the window, and cricketers looked pretty much as we know them today.

A photograph of WG Grace circa 1890 shows the doctor's ample frame straining at a white buttoned shirt of some sort (his beard obscures the collar) and a pair of stout-looking trousers. The Victor Trumper who leaps to drive in Beldam's famous picture of 1899 is similarly clad, if a little more agile. Thirty-nine years later, as Don Bradman walks out to bat at Headingley in late summer, little has changed. His shirt has buttons to the navel (though he has undone only one), the sleeves are nearly folded up and the tail is tucked into his white, fairly high-waisted, trousers.

It is just the trousers, not the full uniform, that professionals refer to when they talk of whites, flannels or creams. The trousers were the first part of the cricket clothing jigsaw to click into place. By the early 1800s they had replaced breeches, and for important matches they were white

The war came and went, the first professional captained England, the former colonies gained independence - but still the uniform of the game remained largely untouched. It was up to fashion to tweak an establishment nose here and there.

Shirt buttons began to be loosened in the '70s, until the bearish, hairy chests of players like Greg Chappell were visible, collars got larger and trousers became less forgiving around the thigh and wider at the bottom.

Mike Watkinson, 49, the ex-Lancashire and England allrounder and now director of cricket at Old Trafford, remembers his first pair of club cricket trousers. "We hadn't started wearing drawstring trousers then - these were skin-tight, flared out at the bottom, and you could hardly get a 10p in your pocket. Then when I was first at Lancashire you would generally have a drawstring pair that were more comfortable for batting and a different pair for fielding."

In fact it is just the trousers, not the full uniform, that Watkinson and his fellow professionals refer to when they talk of whites, flannels or creams. The trousers were the first part of the cricket clothing jigsaw to click into place. By the early 1800s they had replaced breeches, and for important matches they were white. Barclay's World of Cricket quotes Reverend John Mitford, an early cricket writer, complaining that they were "not only unbecoming but inconvenient, as they get in the way of the ball".

If the old-fashioned creamy flannels were unbecoming to Mitford, who knows what he would make of the modern easy-care version. Even Watkinson finds some fault: "Modern trousers might have a special panel for polishing the ball, but they don't polish it half as much as the old ones did. The polyester-plastic mix, or whatever it is, just creates a lot of heat."

Technology has also stretched its man-made fingers towards the upper torso, and sounded the death knell for another old favourite. "When I started, Jack Simmons would have worn a buttoned-up shirt, and we all wore a cotton vest from Marks and Spencer's," says Watkinson. "They became freezing as soon as they got wet or sweaty, but we wore them because our mums told us to. You'd bowl six overs and then you'd go off to change your clothes. Unsurprisingly, they don't wear vests any more. It's performance skins."

Those same performance skins, poking out from players' shirts like cling film, have also been a kick in the teeth for the evocative woolly: with such warm undergarments, who needs to wear a small rug on their body? The stuff of Brideshead Revisited and the occasional catwalk reinvention, the jumper represents cricket to many people who have just a passing interest in the game.

But though heavy knitted pullovers don't really cut it in the world of the elite athlete, they live on. Sri Lanka just played a three-Test series in England in early summer and barely took theirs off. Australia and Bangladesh still wear them. England controversially got rid of their sweaters in 2008, by which time 14 of the 18 British first-class counties had given up on them too, finding it impossible to put names and numbers on the back of wool. England's new kit manufacturer, Adidas, dismissed them with the perhaps unnecessary statement that they were "not a technical garment".

Their replacements, made with "clima-cool technology" were disappointingly flimsy-looking, startlingly white things. Watkinson describes manufacturers' early attempts as "like Gore-tex raincoats which bent in stages, with meshy inserts". The players weren't displeased, though: the then England captain, Michael Vaughan, said without a hint of regret, "I'm absolutely delighted to see the end of what I hope will be the last woolly cricket sweater."

It is a bit sad. There is something about the slightly grubby baggy jumper, the self-cleaning woolly warmer (who would wash something as cumbersome and prone to shrinkage) that smelt of tobacco and sweat and beer and hope. Something almost heroic. Can you imagine a young Ian Botham in a clima-control fleece? Viv Richards? Imran Khan?

Today's players spend a lot of time in the gym and have more of a sense of cool than, say, Peter May did. Their bodies are, with honourable exceptions, honed to chunky perfection. They don't want to hide their chests under baggy cricket shirts, any more than female cricketers would like to go back to the skirts they were expected to wear right up until the 1990s. Whites now house the body beautiful.

But they are not, if they ever were, the colour of innocence. They are the colour of Bodyline, the colour of apartheid South Africa, the colour Hansie Cronje and Salman Butt were wearing when they sold their cricketing souls. Whites no longer carry just the county or country badge, but the sponsor's name. It is a wonderful, soulful uniform, but with a sullied integrity.

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for the Guardian