There was another excuse for this pilgrimage, mind. On the other side of the road stands the Bat and Ball Inn, the most famous hostelry in the annals of the game with closer ties to drinking than any other, which yesterday officially opened as a cricket club in its own right.
Among the honorary life members are Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Dennis Silk, the president of the MCC. The consultant historian is Stephen Green, curator of the Lord's museum. Even the secretary has her claim to fame, sharing the same surname, Small, as one of the first great Hambledon players. Perversely, as he readily admits, the cheery, craggy landlord who dreamt the whole thing up, Bill Galbraith, is a Scot.
The Bat and Ball Inn CC will even play a couple of games a season on Broadhalfpenny Down, although this was played down at the launch since the ground, now owned by Winchester College, is already home to the Broadhalfpenny Brigands. The new club's raison d'etre is the inn itself, the aim, as Galbraith puts it, 'to reestablish the recognition of the role the inn has played within cricket history'.
That role is well chronicled. In 1763, Richard Nyren took over as landlord of the inn and permitted it to serve as pavilion and clubhouse to the newly formed Hambledon, soon to become, albeit briefly, the most powerful cricket club of the era. Nyren doubled as captain and secretary and was reckoned to be one of the finest of the game's early exponents. When he left the inn in 1791, his son, John, a historian himself, wrote that Hambledon's 'head and right arm were gone'.
On June 18, 1777, as an ornately framed scorecard in the bar reveals, Hambledon crushed All England by an innings, Aylward making 167 batting at No 10. Not bad for a tiny Hampshire village. Acknowledged as the chief enforcer of the laws of the game, the club exerted an influence later assumed by the MCC. In fact, the Earl of Winchelsea committed the ultimate act of betrayal by founding the Marylebone institution in 1787, while still president of Hambledon.
It is impossible though to ignore the sloping field opposite the inn. Sitting beside the stone memorial commemorating Hambledon's days on Broadhalfpenny Down, you can almost hear the crowd urging the batsmen to 'tich and turn, tich and turn'. Punch was sixpence a glass, ale tuppence a pint. The wicket, depicted on the inn sign, resembled a miniature hockey goal, the gap yawning between the two sticks a deterrent to straight bowling. The bats were merely clubs with a curved end. Leslie Thomas, author of Virgin Soldiers and president of the Bat and Ball Inn CC, posed with one of these vicious- looking implements yesterday and was at a loss as to which way round to hold it.
There was one area, mind, in which Nyren, Small and 'Siver Billy' Beldham did give a hint of trends to come. Topped and tailed in velvet caps and buckled shoes, they wore sky-blue coats with black velvet collars. The sense of sartorial elegance was a marked improvement on the garish successors set to grace the Sunday League for the first time this summer. No wonder the Reverend Gilbert White disliked Hambledon for its 'loose morals and general dissipation'.
Among the multifarious nostalgic artefacts adorning the walls of the inn is a page from the Daily Sketch of 11 June, 1940. Tucked away amid battleground bulletins and news of Italy's entrance to the fray, ran the following ode to the men who supped their after- match pints by the half, attributed to someone referred to solely by the initials ACT:
Give honour to the noble teams / Tight-pantalooned, squash- hatted / Who climbed this breathless Hampshire hill / And each, in order, batted . . .
If only little German boys/Had gathered round a wicket / We might have heard much less of guns / And challenged them at cricket.
Whether the author would have felt the same about little Indian boys is another matter.
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