Facts About the Game of Cricket

Mad Dogs and Englishmen go Out in the Midday Sun

I love cricket. Many say you have to be born into the game, and most Americans simply can’t understand what all the fuss is about, but unlike baseball, cricket is truly an international game. It has been likened to watching baseball on “Valium” and a game can last for five days without anyone winning.

The game is thought to have begun as a diversion played by shepherds on sheep-grazing fields. One shepherd would defend one of the wicket gates in a paddock fence (the reference to a “wicket” being suggestive here) from being hit by stones thrown by another shepherd, using his crook to try to hit the stones away.

In the last half of the 18th century, cricket was played by the aristocracy, who considered it a manly sport like shooting or fox hunting and a good activity to bet on. In London, the gentry played at White Conduit Fields in Islington. In those days, cricket was seen as an opportunity for the gentlemen to hit the ball, and bowlers were restricted to bowling relatively gentle underarm lobs. In some cases, gentlemen hired lower-class men to bowl to them so they could bat and hit the ball.

By 1787, the aristocracy had become annoyed with the crowds of commoners who gathered around the field to watch them play. Thomas Lord, a bowler with the White Conduit Cricket Club, leased some land on Dorset Fields in Marylebone and established a private cricket ground so gentlemen could play without commoners gathering to observe. Lord founded the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which hosted its first match between Middlesex and Essex on May 31, 1787.

In 1788, the MCC published a set of laws of cricket: the “laws” contained the first extensive codification of the rules of the game and the dimensions of the cricket pitch and equipment. Other cricket clubs across England quickly adopted the MCC’s laws, and cricket became standardized for the first time. The MCC remains the official custodian of the laws of cricket to the present time, updating them with new or changed rules from time to time.

In 1811, the MCC moved to a new ground at Marylebone Bank in Regents Park. Three years later, it moved for the final time to the present location in St. John’s Wood. The cricket ground there was named Lord’s after Thomas Lord died in 1825, and it is still the premier cricket venue in the world today.

By 1821, the distance between the bowling and popping creases was increased from 46 to 48 inches. On May 10, 1838, the size of a cricket ball was codified for the first time, being a circumference between 9 and 9 1/4 inches.

In 1844, the first international cricket match was played. Surprisingly to modern fans, it was played at the St. George’s Club in New York, between sides representing the USA and Canada. The match was for a wager of $1,000. The Cricketer’s Guide of 1858 noted that the 1844 match was originally considered to be between the Toronto and St. George’s clubs and not until 1853 regarded as a game between two nations.

In 1864, perhaps the most far-reaching change to the game was made. Up to this point, bowling had been allowed only underarm. A few people had tried bowling overarm, but the action had been banned. Finally, in 1864, the rules were changed to allow overarm bowling actions. This revolutionized the game and paved the way for the much more even contests between bat and ball that have prevailed for the rest of cricket’s history.

In 1865, creases were painted with whitewash for the first time. Before this, the creases were cut into the turf, forming small ditches an inch in width and depth.

County cricket—matches played between sides representing the English counties—grew in popularity throughout the 19th century. By 1870s, the MCC decided that the next step was to establish international relations with the colonies, where cricket was becoming more popular as well. In 1877, James Lillywhite organized a side and set off by ship for a tour of Australia.