This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of what is believed to be the oldest of all cricket fixtures still played to this day - the annual Eton v Harrow match. While the glory days of the match, when crowds of 20,000 crammed into Lord's, are long past, and many regard the continuation of the game at Lord's as an anachronism, no other head-to-head can trace its roots back to before the Battle of Trafalgar.
Eton was founded in 1440, Harrow 131 years later, and by the beginning of the 19th century both schools were playing cricket. There are sketchy reports of a game between the two schools in 1800, but that cannot be verified. What is for sure is that on June 20, 1805, a simple invitation was sent by Harrow:
The gentlemen of Harrow School request the honour of trying their skill at cricket with the gentlemen of Eton, on Wednesday July 31 at Lord's Cricket Ground. A speedy answer, declaring whether the time and place be convenient, will oblige.*
A reply was forthcoming, although the date was altered to August 2.
The two teams assembled at Lord's - not the current ground, but Thomas Lord's first site at Dorset Fields, and the match resulted in an easy win for Eton, by an innings and two runs. Little is known about the game itself, although the scores survive in the Eton College library.
Perhaps the best-documented facet of the game is that one of the Harrow XI was Lord Byron, who played despite suffering from an incurable malformation of the right calf and ankle which meant that he had to bat with a runner. Although he was a keen cricketer, his participation in this match has been the subject of scrutiny. JA Lloyd, the Harrow captain, wrote shortly after the game that "Byron played very badly ... he should never have been in the XI had my counsel been taken." It has been suggested that Byron was involved in the original challenge and that as a result his inclusion in the side was unavoidable.
And the only real account of the match comes from Byron himself, in a letter two days later to Charles Gordon. "We played the Eton and were most confoundly beat," he wrote. "However, it was some comfort to me that I got 11 notches in the first innings and 7 in the second, which was more than any of our side except Brockman and Ipswich could contrive to hit." Either Byron's memory was not good or he was guilty of some exaggeration. The scorebook shows that in fact he made 7 and 2. The only Harrovian to emerge with credit was the 15-year-old Lord Ipswich, who top-scored in both innings with 21 and 10.
What is of equal interest is Byron's account of the post-match activities of the teams and supporters:
"Later to be sure we were most of us very drunk and we went together to the Haymarket Theatre where we kicked up a row, as you may suppose when so many Harrovians and Etonians meet in one place. I was one of seven in a single Hackney [a horse-drawn taxi], four Eton and three Harrow fellows, we all got into the same box, the consequence was that such a devil of a noise arose that none of our neighbours could hear a word of the drama, at which not being highly delighted they began to quarrel with us and we nearly came to a battle royal etc."
Rowdy behaviour was to be a feature of Eton-Harrow matches through the years. In 1873, MCC asked both schools to control the behaviour of their followers, and that was a recurring theme over the years. WF Deedes, the eminent journalist, recalled of a disturbance at the game in the 1930s: "It certainly bordered on yobbish behaviour and, if it had occurred outside the privileged walls of Lord's, might well have attracted the attention of the police."
The next recorded match between the two sides was in 1818, although it is thought that there were odd games in the intervening period. In the 1820s the two headmasters tried to ban the fixture, but aside from a three-year interlude between 1829 and 1831, it has been played at Lord's ever since.
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Eton v Harrow at Lord's Robert Titchener-Barrett (Quiller, 1996)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Various
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo