Mark Nicholas

Cricket isn't ready for the grave just yet

The game has weathered storms in the past, and it will almost certainly do so again

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
The cradle: the Bat and Ball Inn, haunt of members of the Hambledon Cricket Club in the second half of the 18th century  •  Hulton Archive

The cradle: the Bat and Ball Inn, haunt of members of the Hambledon Cricket Club in the second half of the 18th century  •  Hulton Archive

Forms of cricket were played in medieval times - a shepherd with his stick, stone and wicket gate. Much of the game's terminology has its root in the old Anglo-Saxon names for various bits of equipment used by shepherds; thus, the "wicket" surely came from the wicket gates used for penning the sheep, and the "bail" must derive from the bail slid to secure that gate. Possibly the name "cricket" derives from the "crook" carried by shepherds.
The historians, to whom we are all indebted, have reported clear evidence of organised cricket being played in the south of England since the early days of the 18th century "to give amusement and provide diversion from agricultural life". Sunday was rest day and country people gathered on the village greens to begin a long association with the game, albeit a very different one from today.
Initially, cricket was played low to the ground, with underarm bowling aimed at two stumps that were no more than shin- to knee height, topped by a single bail. The bat was curved at the bottom - like a hockey stick - to deal with the scooting hand-bound leather ball. In the days before rollers and mowers, pitches were impossibly uneven and scores, recorded by notching a stick, were extremely low.
The laws of the "Noble Game of Cricket" were drawn up as "Articles of Agreement" in 1744 by landlords who had become fascinated by the opportunity to gamble on matches played by a combination of aristocracy and work hands. The articles laid down the distance between the two wicket ends, the width of the bat, the approximate weight and dimension of the ball, and the measurement of the two creases. It was around this time that the physical stymie of fielders by batsmen was banned, to prevent the punch-ups that ensued when the stakes were high. (Imagine the sight of Virat Kohli barging down Kagiso Rabada as he is about to catch him!)
The concern for today's cricket is that bat overruns ball; that the balance of the two needs to be the one constant essential. As an ideal that is right, but the game is inherently weighted in favour of batsmen, it just is
Hambledon in Hampshire is said to have been the first club. The men who drank together in the Bat and Ball pub also played together, being able collectively to beat any other group of cricketers in the land. In 1775 a tight match went in favour of Hambledon because the Kent bowler, "Lumpy" Stevens, bowled so straight at Hambledon's last man in, John Small, that the ball went through the two stumps on numerous occasions and Small therefore survived to see the winning runs hit at the other end. After which, a third stump was added to the wicket.
By the start of the 19th century, Hambledon had lost something of its magic. Instead, the Marylebone Cricket Club, formed by the body of men in and around London who had written the Laws of the Game, was making a name for itself at Thomas Lord's first ground, just a mile or two from where Lord eventually settled in St John's Wood. The establishment of the railways opened up industrial England and interest in the game soon spread. William Clarke, another publican, set up a travelling group of professionals from Nottinghamshire, who made tidy sums across the country from the 1840s onwards. One of these was John Wisden, whose famous Almanack is considered the game's bible to this day.
From this point, cricket moved very quickly. Pitches had improved with machinery, and overarm bowling had been mastered, particularly through the skills of spin and cut. By the time George Parr took a team to Canada in 1859, the game was fast going international and England was no longer the sole stakeholder. Indeed, in 1877, the first Test match was played in Melbourne, between Australia and England. Charles Bannerman's unbeaten 165 gave Australia a famous win and triggered the long and often controversial rivalry between the two nations.
In many ways, the game looked much as it does today. First-class records began in 1864; the Ashes in 1882, after the famous obituary written in "affectionate memory" of English cricket appeared in the Sporting Times. Grand personalities began to attract a fan base of sorts, and first among them, of course, was WG Grace. This huge man bestrode both the amateur and professional games in England, while also travelling frequently to Australia - not least for a special series of matches conceived by Lord Sheffield, a tour from which was derived the Sheffield Shield.
Australia's renaissance period at the turn of the century included many players of great colour and character, though none quite had the charismatic genius of Victor Trumper. CB Fry once said that Trumper appeared to have "three strokes for every ball", and other phrases used to describe his play included "sheer mastery", "amazing brilliance" and "unrivalled skill". He died young, in 1915, of Bright's disease, aged 37. The news briefly broke the trail of wartime headlines throughout the Commonwealth.
The period from the late 1800s to the First World War is often referred to as the Golden Age - as much for the increasing wealth, growing opportunities for travel and generally high confidence of the countries in the British Empire as for the cricket they played. If Trumper was the Australian gift to the age, so Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji was an Indian jewel in England's crown. "Ranji" had arrived in England to attend Cambridge University in 1888. He was just 16 years old and did not immediately suggest batting immortality. In his final year, however, he made runs and attracted interest from Sussex, for whom he then excelled. Intially, MCC ruled against an Indian representing England, but the more practical approach of the men in the north of country ensured he was chosen for his first Test, against the Australians in Manchester in 1896. In those days Test teams were chosen by the hosts of the match, and Lancashire saw Ranji's huge commercial value. He made 62 and 154 not out, and though England narrowly lost a fine match, Ranji won hearts across the land.
His virtuoso batting was a revelation, especially off the back foot, and his origination of shots - not least the leg glance - quite remarkable. These were glorious days for batsmen, as equipment improved and advanced preparation of pitches made for relatively even and certainly faster surfaces. Writing in the early 1920s HS Altham observed: "Neither excellence of pitches not weakness of attack can supply an adequate explanation of what, to my thinking, is the outstanding feature of English cricket at this time - the superiority of bat over ball... There are aggressive batsmen playing, men who would never surrender the initiative to the bowler. On flat wickets the great majority of leading batsmen have no use for the short backlift... they are masters of the drive." And said Harry, "the cut is not yet demode"! These are words of almost 100 years ago.
All of which preamble leads to watching Glenn Maxwell, Jos Buttler and others over these past weeks. Strokeplay today is original, strong, supple and remarkably well coordinated. The speed of conception and execution at times defies belief. Batsmen are free to score, rather than obliged to survive. You might think the spectators had seen enough to be blase, but the shiver of expectation is there from the moment each of the short-form "moderns" makes his way to the wicket. The split seconds at which they strike bring a fizz of electricity into the air - Buttler using his amazingly flexible and powerful wrists to hit a yorker over mid-off for six, or Maxwell screwing his hands and arms inside out to scythe a perfectly good full-length delivery into the tiniest gap between the point and cover boundary rider for four.
We may worry for the elegance of the cover drive and wonder about the lost outswinger but there will be other joys to reflect upon
The concern for today's cricket is that bat overruns ball; that the balance of the two needs to be the one constant essential. As an ideal that is right, but the game is inherently weighted in favour of batsmen, it just is. And yet bowlers have always found a way - think Bodyline; Ramadhin, Valentine and the Indian spinners of the 70s; West Indies from 1976 to 1995; reverse swing; the rebirth of wristspin; the doosra, the DRS, and now the weird and wonderful variations of pace and cut that give succour to the leather-flinger in his four-over allowance.
Cricket has always reinvented itself in one way or another and ridden mighty storms. It will almost certainly do so again. In fact, we could argue that the speed of evolution between 1860, say, and 1900 was similar to the period of breakneck change that began with World Series Cricket in late 1977 and continues apace now. Pitches are certainly flatter, a reason perhaps for scores being higher, run rates faster, bowlers more diverse in their skills (if no faster in the delivery of them) and fielders more athletic and entertaining.
Back in the late 1800s the game reacted to the social biography of the day: in reach, format and method. This was the first sign that cricket was to evolve alongside the way people used their time. T20 is a natural extension of life today - communication, travel, food, recreation, etc. In the 1970s, one-day cricket was to some the perceived threat, the monster that would, at best, push Test cricket towards something less artistic and fulfilling, or at worst, wipe it out. It was a 60-over game then - yes, 60 overs per side was once the zeitgeist - and seen as loose, destructured, commercial, and at the behest of the television god. As it turned out, one-day cricket brought the best out of Test cricket, making it a puzzle that, if less cerebral, is more dynamic and result-driven than ever before.
And guess what, T20 has brought the best out of one-day cricket, which is having a little revival in the affections of players, administrators and fans. The next thing for one-day cricket is better scheduling of fewer matches, tighter rules and much, much more promotion. Most of all, it needs context in the form of a league system that sets up qualification and seeding for World Cups.
We must trust the resilience of cricket and have faith in this ability for reinvention. We may worry for the elegance of the cover drive and wonder about the lost outswinger but there will be other joys to reflect upon, and frankly, so long as the young remain starry-eyed at Buttler and Maxwell and company, the legacy of Grace, Trumper and Ranjitsinhji will not have been wasted.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK