Cricket in the 17th and 18th centuries

For the main part, Wisden aims to record current first-class cricket throughout the world, but in this article we have dipped into the more remote past. The story is taken right back, not indeed to the origins, for these are not known, but to the infancy of the game until it was so well-established that it could support a cricket annual, namely Britcher. This, at the end of the eighteenth century, where our story ends, was through Bentley, Denisonand Lillywhite, the ancestor of Wisden itself.

By the start of the seventeenth century, cricket exists and is, very shortly afterwards both widespread and popular in parts of South-Eastern England. By the end of the next century, M.C.C. is well established, the game is already being played in many parts of the world, and we are on the threshhold of the modern period.

Thus these two hundred years span a most interesting era -- one which we can in our ignorance still call the infancy and growth of the game; in our ignorance because we do not know when it was born, or where, or how, or the extent of its development from its birth by the time we reach King James the First's reign.

For the first hundred years we can infer much more about the organisation of the game than about how it was played, and this is true to a lesser extent in the eighteenth century also.

Let us for a moment consider cricket in its very many different guises at the present time: we know all about Test cricket, County cricket, League cricket and Club cricket but how often do we think about playground cricket, street cricket, back-garden cricket, beach cricket?

There can be few of us who have not played cricket using no cricket bat, nor any cricket ball, nor stumps, nor bails, let alone pads, gloves and other appurtenances; yet we were never in any doubt that we were playing cricket, nor would any casual bystander have been in any doubt. Over the wall, 6 and out, broken window, 0 and out, and you'll have to pay for it -- these important local Laws find no mention in any printed Code yet, though oral, they are indisputably part of the indigenous and accepted Laws of the game.

The point we thus make is that there are generally two kinds of cricket, formal cricket which, even if friendly, is competitive, and informal cricket which (often most unfriendly) is play: and these two kinds of cricket exist, and appear always to have existed side by side, following more or less parallel courses but with an undoubted time-lag in informal cricket (under-arm is still not uncommon). Historical and geographical circumstances have sometimes enhanced the differences, and at others have eliminated them.

The game which was once played at Stonyhurst was informal cricket of the late sixteenth, and even early seventeenth century, modified for its special environment, and kept as it was by being played by boys, and by boys who were exiles.

The game of cricket, known as wicket, which was played in New England even into this century was undoubtedly a perpetuation of informal cricket as it was introduced by the early settlers in North America, but, oddly, maintained in a formal state so that it even caused some students of that game to think it had no relation to cricket at all.

However, the word wicket is a good North Country dialect word for cricket, not yet wholly extinct, and there is a further proof that it was cricket from a description of the size of the wicket itself: the wicket was six feet by four inches, and an American visitor to London in 1810 was struck by the difference between "their (i.e., English) cricket and ours" and went on to say that "in our cricket, the wickets are only two in number and about three or four inches high."

Moreover, there is a reference to cricket in New York in 1751 being played according to the London rules (doubtless those of 1744) which by implication shows a definite divergence between the American game, and its later development in the country of its birth.

It is that difference in the size of the wicket which is about all we can point to with certainty as an illustration of the way early seventeenth-century cricket differed from ours. It is sometimes said that the original game will have been single wicket, but it is difficult to understand how double wicket could ever have developed from single wicket, whereas single wicket is, from one point of view, merely the informal version of the accepted game.

Indeed, one derives strongly the impression from a reading of early eighteenth-century notices of cricket that single-wicket was an innovation of that period, for when such matches are announced they are almost invariably announced as being at single wicket the clear inference being that double wicket would otherwise be expected.

If we could transport ourselves to one of the country districts of Kent (even to prophane Maidstone) towards the end of King James's reign, we would probably see a game which we could readily recognise: the differences would be the wide low wicket, the fast-slung underarm ball, the curved blade of the bat, the necessity to touch the umpire's bat on a completion of a run, the probability (in some games) that one could count a run made from a stroke off which a batsman was out, and the recorder scoring a notch in his tally-pole with a knife.

All the rest would be very much as now: a game which then, as now, provided more opportunity for skill and co-ordination of eye and brain and muscle than any other save, perhaps, polo.

It was this which made the game fascinating then, and it is this which still makes it fascinating despite the competition of other games and sports for the attention of the masses. But when, in the early seventeenth century it was not only far and away the most skilful game but also, whether by designed or accidental omission, the only lawful game, no wonder that it took root and spread rapidly.

During the first half of that century the game became widespread in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, and in parts of Essex and East Anglia generally. Being widespread it was, therefore, popular amongst a section of the community, but persons of quality had to defend themselves against accusations that cricket was not a proper amusement for a gentleman, or a parson -- and this they did with spirit.

The game was on its way up the social scale but it was not established when the Civil War commenced. It seems likely that the Interregnum provided both hindrance and encouragement.

Cromwell, we know, forbade the game in Ireland in 1656, but he had himself played the game, when young in Huntingdonshire: if there was, for some reason, a Roundhead antipathy to the game, the Cavaliers, dispersed to their estates from London, may well have found solace in playing the game with their own tenantry -- can one imagine any better time possible than having nothing else to do but play cricket?

But it is likely that the Restoration was the crucial factor in leading to the social acceptance of the game: Old Rowley himself may even have seen the boys at St. Omer playing their own form of cricket, during his exile in the Spanish Netherlands, and we should not ignore the great part played by his own descendants in the game in the next 200 years or so.

At all events, it was already the accepted thing for English merchants overseas to be found playing cricket during holidays, within half a generation of the Restoration -- and it has been ever since. It is intriguing how many of those merchants at Aleppo came from Essex, the Fen country, and Lincolnshire, as well as form Kent. Recalling Cromwell's boyhood, we can muse whether the game was even more widely spread than is generally imagined at that period.

Nor is it, perhaps, wholly without significance that William Byrd the younger, of Westover, Virginia, was at Felsted: he may have learnt the game there, though, on balance, the probability is that he had learnt it at home where, years later, a mature man, and a member of the Assembly, he was found playing the game with his friends on near-by estates along the James River.

By the time he wrote of those events, the game was already fashionable and popular in London and the first county game had been played, and the first of the long line of great cricketers had been named -- William Bedle, the forerunner of Long Robin, of Minshull, of Small (makes bat and ball), of Nyren, of Beldham -- we can go no further for we shall be outside our period.

It was at that time, in the first ten or fifteen years of the new century, that we first read of widely advertised matches for considerable sums of money, and though almost our earliest references to the game tell of gambling, it was in this century that it reached what, considering the relative value of money, would now be considered colossal proportions, amounting to thousands of guineas on one match.

Indeed, it was not till late Victorian prudery won the ascendancy that bookmakers ceased to shout the odds in front of the Tavern at Lord's: gambling had always been an important part of the game, and there seems good reason to think that many of our earliest detailed records of the game would not have been compiled had not gamblers felt the need to study form.

It was, again, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century that we learn of the first great private patrons of the game, Mr. Edwin Stead being perhaps the most notable. Wealthy patrons were to be an important, if not essential, feature of the game for the next two hundred years, and with the passing of the individual patrons, we find their place taken by commercial organisations.

It is often bemoaned that cricket does not pay its way, but it seems rather that the highest form of cricket never, or only rarely, did, from the earliest times: it needed a patron, and wealth, to bring together great cricketers, and it is only by bringing together great cricketers that there can ever be an improvement in the technique of the game.

By the end of that quarter century, we know that county cricket was firmly established. We owe this to a foreign chronicler, M. Cesar de Saussure in June 1728 who writes of county cricket as altogether usual and taken for granted. How much have we lost? We know, in all the years before then, only nine matches which could possibly be called county matches.

Moreover, it was in that same period that we first find mention of county clubs. What meaning was then intended is not certain: maybe no more than an association of people coming together for a common purpose or, in other words, club, team or eleven. But later in the century, some 60 or 70 years on, we find mention of a county club (Essex) on which there is just sufficient information to tell us that it hardly differed from the modern pattern of cricket clubs: so it may also be in the earlier period.

Nor had the game only spread to the Americas; as early as 1721, we know that ordinary mariners of the East India Company whiled away their time by playing cricket at Cambay in Gujarat. It is indeed evident that long before the first quarter of the century is over, the game is taken for granted by all classes of the population and is no private preserve of a particular locality or sector of society.

The numerous references we possess from that time make it clear that they are to ordinary facts, not a chronicling of something unusual. The spread of the game from the south and east was already taking place -- we even know of a match so far away as Townham in Gloucestershire in 1729 but, though this is unlikely to be an isolated instance, we find no further mention in that county till 1752. Otherwise, the spread from the homeland seems to have followed the main roads, to Bath and so into the West country, to Newmarket, and the great estates in Norfolk and Suffolk, up the Great North Road through Lincolnshire into Yorkshire and beyond.

By the middle of the century, the game had spread into Hampshire, to give rise eventually to Hambledon and the many tales that surround that Club and its doings. By the same period, the game was being played by red-coats as far away as Perth.

During the eighteenth-century, and for long after, it was the custom for regiments in these islands, with the exception of the Guards and certain others, to recruit in the area where they were garrisoned. If a regiment had been stationed at Chatham for ten or fifteen years, and then been moved to Carlisle, we would expect a strong element of Kentish men in the regiment, and a reasonable certainty that they would have been playing cricket in Carlisle shortly after their arrival there.

As the game spread more through the country, we can be sure that red-coats overseas would be found playing the game shortly after disembarkation. It may often be many years later that we find the first actual mention in print and this has led to a serious post-dating of early cricket overseas.

However, it has perhaps already been made clear that the cricket played in Royalist New York during the American Rebellion will have owed nothing, beyond the presence of more players, to the arrival of the troops: cricket was widespread in the American colonies long before, and continued after the departure of the British troops.

If we were to consider what was the most significant organisational feature of the game during the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, it would be the undoubted pre-eminence of the Artillery ground (still thriving in London at Finsbury Square).

From 1730 to 1773 we know of no fewer that 206 matches, and other accounts make it clear that it was virtually the Lord's of the period with large crowds in regular attendance. Not that there were not many other good matches elsewhere: there was a great number in the country areas immediately south of London, and we read of journeys by coach, by whole families, with the husband on his horse, to watch great games in Dorking, and at Sevenoaks, and later on at Hambledon.

Such journeys would have been arduous, and we know from the bill of fare offered in tents on the grounds that meals were not cheap: it is doubtful whether the modern cricket lover puts up with anything remotely resembling the hardship and discomfort suffered by the fans of those days.

It is interesting to consider what social influences were affecting the game: Stuart blood was prominent amongst the aristocracy who took part, and doubtless the country was well aware that the Pretender was playing cricket in Rome in 1718.

No doubt, for similar reasons of courting popularity, we find the Hanoverians taking part in the game as the century rolled on, and, in consequence of the Hanoverians liking for Windsor, we have the rise of Eton and its influence on cricket as on so many other walks of life in this country, and the decline of Westminster, the favoured school of the old Tory aristocracy, which had furnished so many of the founders not only of the Hambledon club but of M.C.C. itself.

The Hambledon Club had arisen around 1767 largely as a result of the decline in importance of the Artillery ground, and within a few years, from the sheer authority of its members, and the ability of its players, had become the game's law-giver.

But so remote a country locality could hardly maintain its sway, and it is not surprising that the law-giving power returns to London with the formation of the White Conduit Club in 1782 and of its immediate successor, the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787. (This is by the way, the conventional date and it is almost certain that the actual year was 1788 but 1787 is generally used as it is the date when the White Conduit Club, or a principal part of its members, removed themselves to Thomas Lord's first ground.)

Throughout the first half of the century, Kent had been the great cricketing county, and its leading town, Dartford: for the rest of the century it was to be Surrey with, for a few years, Hampshire when the Hambledon club found the county team. But towards the end of the century there seems to have been some falling off in county cricket and we hear more about such leading clubs as the Montpelier, the Homerton, the Brighton and, of course, the Marylebone.

It would be interesting to know why this was: the wars with France can have had little to do with it, either then, or till the fall of Napoleon himself, for only an insignificant part of the population, at any level of Society, was directly affected by those wars, and not a very much larger part indirectly. There was, in fact, no parallel with the events of 1914-18 and 1939-45.

It is interesting, though, that it was in this period that we first learn of the rise of cricket in three great industrial towns of the Midlands and North. Apart from London (always an exception to every social rule, though often convinced, itself, that it is the norm) cricket was never an urban game: how did it become so popular in those three towns Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, when it took little or no root elsewhere till very much later?

The answer is that in each of those towns, trades were practised which gave the opportunity for contract piece work (hose, lace, cutlery) each man working in his own home in his own time, and not regimented into soul-destroying factories. What more natural that, on a sunny day, they should play cricket during the day, and work during the night? (One wonders whether it was the earlier harvests in the south and east which made it possible for cricket to be popular in the rural parts of that area. Elsewhere with very much later harvests, cricket has never been a rural game either, but a game of a limited social class.)

We must retrace our steps again to the middle of the century to pick up some more threads in the game's history. It is well known that the first two full scores date from 1744: it was a quarter of a century later that we know of a score where each batsman's details were written down stroke by stroke -- and that score also provides us with the first known century, Minshull, 107.

Now, it is not possible to conceive a mechanism which would provide such details scoring on tally sticks, and it follows that by that date, 1769, the practice of keeping the score on paper, much as we do now, was already established (for the match was quite a minor match, and if this was done for a minor match, it can be taken for granted that it had long been the accepted practice in matches of importance).

This, of course, raises a problem: for many years after, we find artists showing scorers notching away and it is difficult to explain this. It is possible that tally-scorers were by then honorific and not the effective functionaries: it is possible that the artist was just quite out of date: or it may merely be that, in some cases, the match depicted was in an out-of-the-way country area where the latest innovations were not yet practised. But, recalling that until recently Her Majesty's Stationery Office would supply Government offices with sand for drying ink, we think it most likely that the tally-scorers were redundant.

Certainly by the 1780s we know of match cards which are indistinguishable from those to be had on at least one county ground till shortly before the last war (i.e. they gave no bowling analyses nor falls of wicket) even to the price -- 2d. By 1792, the averages for the season were being worked out, and though we have, so far, no knowledge of any printed version, yet it is reasonable that such existed.

It was in 1791 that Britcher brought out his first annual book of scores, and eight years later, Epps brought out his collection of scores from 1771. All these details point to the need for statistics on the game.

It is also very likely that they met another need, which seems to have existed almost since the game began, of being able to talk with factual knowledge of cricket of the past: always there seems to have been this desire to compare the deeds of to-day with the deeds of yester-year and cricket lovers seem to have had not only detailed memories, but also lengthy memories: helped no doubt by much printed ephemerides, of which the greater part may well be irretrievably lost to us. (Certainly there is one book of eighteenth-century scores known to Haygarth which is no longer in existence, and even more recently, the first issue of Britcher, known 60 years, ago can no longer be traced anywhere.)

Because there is so much that we are certain must once have existed, we can always hope for absolutely new and exciting finds to be made.

We have reached the end of the century, and as we indicated, we have reached a state of affairs very similar to our own: cricket annuals, wide coverage in the Press, M.C.C. established. What of the game itself, rather than its organisation and apparatus?

We have seen that we knew little of the actual mode of play in the seventeenth century, but there is one matter we do know about, and it must have had a material effect on the mode of play, whether of batsman, bowler, or fielder. It is the size and shape of the wicket.

Nyren quoted, and disbelieved, a statement that before 1702, the wicket was two feet wide by one foot high: but we saw that a similarly shaped wicket existed in America, though its dimensions were even stranger. If we find a wide low wicket in America, we can be sure there was a wide low wicket in this country, and the actual dimensions are unimportant.

But whereas, in America, the wide low wicket persisted, in this country it quickly, after the start of the eighteenth century (though hardly much earlier or a wide low wicket could not have reached America at all), became a tall narrow one. There seem to be certain problems here and it is possible that there were two different shapes and sizes of wicket in this country, one of which was exported, and the other of which gradually became dominant here.

Now, in this connection, it is worth recalling that in the Sussex dialect, stool equals stump, and this is almost certainly the real connection of stool-ball with cricket: that stool-ball was, in origin, played with no milkmaid's stool, as has been fancied, but was cricket played in a clearing in a woodland, using the stump of a tree, or a stool, as the object to be hit by the bowler. Such an object would have been wider rather than narrow, and lower rather than higher (it should be remembered that the Forestry Commission's conifers are a twentieth-century product).

In sheep-rearing areas, a wicket would have been used, and it might well have been a relatively narrow and tall object -- enough to admit one sheep in fact! If there is substance in these conjectures, it is indicated that those settlers in America who took cricket with them came from wooded rural areas rather than sheep-rearing areas.

Anyway, by 1744, the laws in this country make it clear that the wicket approximated to its modern, dimensions, and it can be inferred from the lack of any mention of a change in its shape, that those dimensions obtained at least from 1706 when we have the first full account of a match.

However it may be erroneous to consider the shape and size of the wicket in isolation from the style of bowling, and of batting, which prevailed. It is known that until well after the middle of the eighteenth century, the bat had a curve at the bottom, and this was even more pronounced earlier in the century, to resemble more a hockey stick than a modern bat. By the late 1770s, the bat had assumed the modern shape and appearance.

The change in shape can only have been to meet a change in style of bowling, and we can thus be reasonably certain that throughout most of the first half of the century, the ball was in fact bowled, in the sense that we should use the term in the game of Bowling itself. (The rules of Stonyhurst cricket -- an evident perpetuation of a much earlier game as we have seen -- provided that all bowling should be what we would nowadays call "sneaks" and this is good confirmation of our assumption, linked as it is, with the old-style shaped bat.)

Certainly this must have been the style of bowling in the celebrated Kent v. England match of 1744. In the next generation it had been transformed, and we find instead the "length bowling", the necessity of pitching the ball upon a certain length: this is anything but "bowling" as strictly understood, and it must have led to a completely different approach to batting, an approach as radically different from what had gone before as was to occur twice in the nineteenth century with the introduction of round-arm and of over-arm.

Yet nothing has come down to us of this change, which, however gradual, must surely have excited considerable comment. All we can say is that it is likely that, prior to about 1750, bowling all along the ground was the rule, and that by about 1775 it was largely forsaken: it would never be entirely forsaken till under-arm itself was abandoned.

It seems very likely that just as the new-style bowling will have imposed a new-style bat and approach to batting, it must also have affected the shape of the wicket. It is evident that a pitched ball would not be of much use against a wicket wider than it was high, and if there had been earlier endeavours to bowl the pitched ball, they must have had their part in narrowing the wicket: equally certainly, a low wicket must have seemed intensely unfair to the pitch bowlers who would often have seen a ball bounce over the top though the blade of the bat itself was twice the height of the low wicket.

What is difficult to understand in the relative chronology of these changes is that the curved bat should have outlived the taller wicket. Maybe it did not in fact do so by many years, but one would have expected the straight bat to precede the taller wicket yet, apparently, it did not. We can only await the unearthing of unknown eighteenth-century diaries with possible detailed descriptions of the game to achieve certainty.

We must therefore contrast the start of the century with its termination, as we cannot be sure when these important changes all took place in the middle. At that start we can be tolerably certain that all was indeed true bowling: for this to be effectively met by the old-fashioned bat, little more than a good eye was needed provided the pitch itself was true.

This was hardly ever the case, and it must have been the irregularity of the early pitches which made the bowler's lot tolerable: nevertheless, we fancy that since only stamina -- the necessity to run all hits out -- could have limited a batsman's score, there may well have been occasions on relatively good pitches when high scores were made, as relatively boring to spectators of two hundred and more years ago as the Manchester test of 1964. For, on the whole, scores were very low by our standards, but took often several days to compile: the art of the game was the appeal to the spectator, not the breaking of batsman's records. Nor, in those days, can there have been anything resembling stroke-play: only full-blooded hits, mows and deflection.

By the end of the century the picture was quite different: the bowler in the original sense as derived from the game of bowls had almost ceased to be. Indeed, in a few cases, jerkers were recognised, and Hambledon were not ashamed to own one.

The pitched ball, with its variety of breaks had came into existence: the bat was now straight, to meet the menace of the new-style of bowling, and was held vertically: all this led to the introduction of a whole family of new strokes, most of which are still with us: for it was the bounced ball that made stroke play possible at all, and whether the ball is bounced from an underarm or overarm delivery hardly affects the type of stroke that has to be played, though it very much affects the timing.

Once the new style of bowling had been mastered, and the way to play it clearly demonstrated, the way was open to batsmen of the new generation to make higher scores than ever before till, in the next century, a fresh type of bowling appeared, in its turn to be mastered and replaced by yet a fourth style, which, too was mastered.

It can perhaps now be seen how very old-fashioned, simple, and even childish, the old game of cricket, as still played in America, must have seemed when compared with the highly sophisticated and developed English cricket when an American traveller compared the two games just after the close of our period.

The eighteenth century was what in fact, made cricket as a spectator sport: not the nineteenth, with its over-arm, and W.G. Grace -- they merely added to what had gone before. We can for example, well imagine ourselves watching, and being enthralled, by a game towards the end of the eighteenth century, but we doubt if we could long have borne the tedium of fast sneaks at the beginning: certainly the people of that time did, but then they did not know what was to follow, and the existence of great bets on the game may well have induced a spurious interest.

We have surveyed two centuries of cricket and we are left at the end with the feeling that, at the commencement of our period, we must have been very near the origins of the game itself. This feeling arises from what we have seen of the development of the game in the second of our two centuries: it does not leave very much to have taken place during the earlier half of our period, and hardly anything at all before then.

How then did it arise? We have made no attempt to answer this, but, maybe, before long, we shall know much more about the birth of the game itself. We leave it now, at the start of the nineteenth century, as a lusty young man having seen to its infancy and up-bringing.

© John Wisden & Co