Five thousand years ago the Egyptians played ninepins; Nausicaa and her maidens were having fielding practice when Odysseus discovered himself to them . . . and in AD 150 Fronto could write to Marcus Aurelius. With reference to an argument between them, ‘Malitiosam pilam mihi dedisti’ – you have bowled me a pretty dirty ball !
700 years ago !
~ Harry S Altham in The History of Cricket
The earliest couple of references to cricket that can be offered as evidence of the game being played are both around the same period in the early 14th century.
The first is visual, a postcard that shows part of the illumination of the Decretal of Pope Gregory IX. It shows two figures – one with a straight club and a ball, and the other, perhaps his tutor, demonstrating, left handed and with convincing technique, a stroke, played with what, except for its length, is indistinguishable from a modern cricket stump. The second is an entry in the Wardrobe account of King Edward I, in the year 1300 AD, which in essence informs us that Hugo, the Chamberlain, in March 1300, paid out to the chaplain of the King’s son, Prince Edward, a sum of six pounds for playing at ‘creag’ and other sports.
400 years ago :
Then, nearly 200 years later, in 1598, we have a gentleman called John Derrick bearing testimony in court that as a child, (not later than 1550) ‘he and diverse of his fellowes did runne and play their at cricket and other plaies’ So at least children were playing a game, by now known as cricket, at least at the start of the 17th century – 400 years ago. That it no longer remained a sport of children alone is reported by a Bill of Presentment, dated 1622, against six parishioners of Boxgrove for playing cricket in the Churchyard on a Sunday.
About ten years later the park in West Hosley is plowed and sown for a cricket field . . . and so the references keep piling up increasing in number and frequency till towards the latter half of the 17th century by when it becomes clear that cricket has evolved from a pastime for boys to a game with national dimensions and appeal.
Cricket had arrived as a national pastime and had started enjoying the patronage of the elite So the history proper of the game that we are going to address is from after 1650 AD
Fossilised remains of the game 1582 to 1794 :
Before we move onto the next, the development phase of the game, it is important to look at a very interesting development that took place in 1582 which kind of sent a cricketing branch into exile to sub-continental Eutope where it continued in exactly the same form as in which it had left the motherland’s shores – for more than two centuries !
When the Catholics found it virtually impossible to practice their old religion in the British Isles, some of them decided to send their children away to be educated in the Roman Catholic traditions. Thus in 1582, Father Robert Parsons founded his English grammar school at Eu in Normandy, France so that the young boys in his charge may be educated and brought up as practicing Roman Catholics in the realm of His Most Christian Majesty the King of France.
Seven years later, the patron Duke de Guise was murdered and father Parson gathered his wards again at St Omer. The school grew to 200 students by the early 1630’s. A hundred and thirty years later the French proscribed the society of Jesus and the school moved to Bruges in the Austrian Netherlands. Again in 1773 the Jesuits were suppressed by the Pope in 1794 they moved again, this time to Liege where they remained till the French Revolutionary armies chased them out in 1794 and they came back to England to settle in an estate a few miles away from Preston, Lancashire.
When the vessel John of Yarmouth brought the young Roman Catholics back to England in July 1794, it carried in its hold, as part of the schoolboy’s luggage a number of oddly shaped clubs about three feet long, with a round handle at the top (an inch in diameter), and a number of leather balls with which the boys were used to playing a game called cricket.
It was a game the boys of the school had played term after term for 206 years ! and as John Gerard wrote in the history of the Stonyhurst college . . .
“It would appear, very probably, to have represented the rudimentary form in which the game was played in England, when in the days of Elizabeth (1st) the founders of the college had to take themselves and their institution away from their native land.”
Stonyhurst cricket was played at the school now back in England for another 66 years till it was replaced by London Cricket, the ‘regulation’ game now played across the country according to the laws of the MCC.
It is an absolutely awesome instance where an unfortunate quirk of fate took these young men away from the native land, they took the game alongwith them, where it became ‘fossilised’ as most things cultural generally do when a people are forced by circumstances away from their homelands and cut off from it. The developments in England had no impact on the way these boys continued to play the game in France and the short period in Austrian Netherlands and they brought it back intact !
This has been a big boon for historians since there was no proper record of exactly how the game was played in England in the 16th century and exactly how the bat and ball were shaped. Now, over two hundred years later they came back exactly as they had left and we have evidence that is delightful.
I will place here pictures of boys holding the bat and ball and the wicket they defended of those days later but let me first describe the game as they played it in France which, in all probability, is how the young men who left for France in 1786 had played it.
We are told that Ushaw games of Cat and Battledore were transported by Cardinal Allen from 16th century Oxford to Duoay. About the same period there is clear evidence of the existence of Cricket in some form and there is nothing improbable in the supposition that this was in like manner taken over the sea. On the French soil it would naturally be fossilized, none of the influences which combined to develop the game at home affecting its course, while school traditions would rigorously preserve its original features.
However this maybe, it is certain that the primitive Stonyhurst game, the nature of which was regulated by a minute and complex code of rules, combined with the essential features of Cricket much that was altogether different from what is commonly called by that name.
"The base to be guarded was neither the hole nor the circle of the Cat games but a stone the size of a mill stone. A bowler – one of a team of five – bowled one of the not too hard balls, underarm along a thirty yard pitch on a smooth, hard, gravel playground in the direction of the stone with the object of hitting it and bowling the batsman out. He bowled twenty-one balls at the batsman as fast as he could, one after the other, never having to mind whether the batsman was ready or not. One of the rules was ‘A batsman can not be bowled by a full pitch or first-bounce unless he offers”
What was meant by “if he offers” is not known.
All the balls used in Stonyhurst Cricket were partly made by the boys themselves. They made the interior which was cloth tightly covered with worsted soaked in glue which was rapidly dried before a fire. In latter days they made the core from a nucleus of ‘india rubber’ as it was then called. The nucleus made by the boys was then given to the workers at the school’s shoe shop where it was covered by two halves of thick, hard, leather stitched through with waxened thread. The seam thus formed was “raised like a belt around the ball like the rings of planet Saturn” and the boys were advised to bowl as fast as they could and “always with the seam” (meaning on the seam).
The batsman could be bowled or caught by the bowler, the three fielders or the second bowler who doubled up as wicket keeper at the other end crouched a yard behind the stone.
It is quite possible that the ball may have changed form in the 200 years that they were away from England. We know that the first cricket balls were made from round
Bat, Ball, Wicket and all . . .
The implements needed to play the game initially were just two – a round orb for the bowler to throw and a staff for the batter to hit it away with. Any old wall, stool, stump of a tree or, indeed the wicket gate of a sheep pen was the third element which was what the orb was aimed at. However, these looked so very different in their earliest avatars from what we know them as today. The same applies to the surface on which the protagonists carried on their wars of attrition. From a downward sloping wicket selected by Hambledon’s champion bowler to the drugged wickets of the fifties and sixties and the doctored wickets that Bhajji and Dhoni wish their bosses in BCCI arrange for them we have come a long way. Surprisingly, however, while the size and shape of the bat has changed, as has that of the wicket, the pitch has remained almost unchanged now for nearly two centuries.