Is This How Cricket Was Started?

Get the Fact on How Cricket was Created

They say you have to be born into cricket. Me, I love it. An American friend once described it as “baseball on Valium.”

The origins of the game of cricket are lost in the mists of time. There is a reference in the household accounts of King Edward I in 1300 of a game much like cricket being played in Kent.

The English game originated in the sheep-raising country of the Southeast, where the short grass of the pastures made it possible to bowl or roll a ball of rags or wool at a target. That target was usually the wicket gate of the sheep paddock, which was defended with a bat in the form of a shepherd’s crooked staff.

In reality, there were actually a large number of different games played under a variety of local rules. The idea of a single pastime evolving seamlessly into the sport we know and love is appealing but not very likely. However, hitting a ball with a stick does seem to have been a popular pastime. Whatever the variety or origins of games played, records show that Edward II wielded a bat, and it was suggested that Oliver Cromwell also played the game. In fact, “bat” is an old English word that means stick or club. The earliest types of bats were much like a hockey stick—long, heavy clubs curved outward toward the bottom. The design of the bat reflected the type of bowling that was prevalent at the time—fast, underarm bowls rolled along the ground. By the eighteenth century, the bat had developed into a heavier, longer, curved version of our modern bat—the handle and blade were carved out of a single piece of wood.

The first recorded cricket match took place in Kent in 1646, and by the late 1600s, fines were actually handed out for those who missed church to play. Cricket was popular and widely documented in England during the 1700s. In 1706, William Goldwyn published the first description of the game. He wrote that two teams were first seen carrying their curving bats to the venue, choosing a pitch and arguing over the rules. They pitched two sets of wickets, each with a “milk-white” bail perched on two stumps, they tossed a coin for first knock, the umpire called “play,” and the “leathern orb” was bowled. They had four-ball overs, the umpires leaned on their staves (which the batsmen had to touch to complete a run), and the scorers sat on a mound making notches.

The first written “laws of cricket” were established in 1744. They stated, “The principals shall choose from among the gentlemen present two umpires who shall absolutely decide all disputes. The stumps must be twenty-two inches high and the bail across them six inches. The ball must be between five and six ounces, and the two sets of stumps twenty-two yards apart.” There were no limits on the shape or size of the bat. It appears that 40 notches was viewed as a very big score, probably due to the bowlers bowling quickly at shins unprotected by pads. The world’s first cricket club was formed in Hambledon in the 1760s, and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was founded in 1787.

During the 1760s and 1770s, it became common to pitch the ball through the air rather than roll it along the ground. This innovation gave bowlers the weapons of deception through the air, length, plus increased pace. It also opened new possibilities for spin and swerve. In response, batsmen had to master shot selection and timing. One immediate consequence of this was the replacement of the curving bat with the straight one. All of this raised the premium on skill and lessened the influence of rough ground and brute force. It was in the 1770s that the modern game began to take shape.

The weight of the ball was limited to between five and a half and five and three-fourth ounces, and the width of the bat to four inches. The latter ruling followed an inning by a batsman called “Shock” White, who appeared with a bat the width of the wicket. In 1774, the first leg before law was published. Also around this time, a third stump became commonplace.

By 1780, three days had become the duration of a big match, and that year also saw the creation of the first six-seam cricket ball. In 1788, the MCC published its first revision of the laws, which banned charging down an opponent and also provided for mowing and covering the wicket to help keep things fair.

The desire for standardization reflected the big increase in the popularity of the game during the eighteenth century. Between 1730 and 1740, one hundred and fifty cricket matches were recorded in the newspapers of the time. Between 1750 and1760, this figure rose to two hundred and thirty, and between 1770 and 1790, over five hundred.

The nineteenth century saw a series of significant changes to the game. Wide deliveries were banned in 1811. The circumference of the ball was specified for the first time in 1838 (its weight had been decided sixty years earlier). Pads, made of cork, became available for the first time in1841, and these were further developed following the invention of vulcanized rubber, which was also used to introduce protective gloves in 1848. In the 1870s, boundaries were introduced—previously, all hits had to be run, and if the ball went into the crowd, the spectators had cleared a way for the fieldsman to get to the ball. The biggest change, however, was in how the ball was delivered by the bowler.

At the start of the century, all bowlers were still bowling the ball underarm. However, so the story goes, John Willes became the first bowler to use a “round-arm” technique after practicing with his sister Christina, who had used the technique, as she was unable to bowl underarm due to her wide dress impeding her delivery of the ball. In 1816, responding to the increasing number of bowlers who were now using “round-arm,” the MCC ruled “the ball must be delivered underhand, not thrown or jerked, with the hand underneath the elbow at the time of delivering the ball.”

Previously, no such legislation had been needed. However, by the 1830s, round-arm had become increasingly popular, and eventually it was permitted by the MCC who, in 1835, deigned to allow any delivery “not thrown or jerked in which the hand or arm did not go above the shoulder.” By the 1860s, matters had developed further, and some bowlers were experimenting with overarm, although it was still outlawed by the rules of the game. In practice, some umpires allowed it while others called “no-ball.”

As you can see, the practitioners of underarm and round-arm stayed in the game and were by no means unsuccessful. However, the majority of new players used overarm, and by the 1880s, it was the most favored way of delivering the ball. Interestingly, round-arm disappeared before underarm, which was still being employed until World War I. Given that Australia first fielded an entirely overarm attack in 1878, it now seems extraordinary that England occasionally selected underarm bowlers even in the early part of the twentieth century. Most famously, Simpson-Hayward toured South Africa in 1909–1910, and the “lobster” was England’s most successful bowler with 23 wickets at 18 apiece.

Thereafter, cricket became recognizably the game that is played today, despite many changes regarding leg before dismissals, intimidatory bowling, no balls, the weight of the bats, covered wickets, and protective clothing. In the wake of England’s recent tour of South Africa, the thought of Harrison strolling up to the wicket and delivering the ball underarm does have a certain appeal, and it’s tempting to suggest that he could scarcely have achieved worse results with the old-fashioned technique.

Trescothick would surely love to have used Shock White’s oversized bat to keep out Ntini’s delivery that made a horrible mess of his stumps in the nail-biting finish to the series. Kallis, of course, spent much of the series looking as if he was doing exactly that, but that’s another story.

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