The urban betrayal at cricket's core

Stephen Fay finds old views of game's history are wide of the mark

Cricket was unloved by 18th century moralists. By the middle of the century, it had become a popular spectator sport, organised by the gentry and played principally by the peasantry. Crowds of 7,000 watched games at the Artillery Grounds just north of the City of London in the early 1740s.

Cricket was unloved by 18th century moralists. By the middle of the century, it had become a popular spectator sport, organised by the gentry and played principally by the peasantry. Crowds of 7,000 watched games at the Artillery Grounds just north of the City of London in the early 1740s.

Much was drunk; large sums were gambled; there was the odd riot, and the moralists worried that leisure time was undermining the work habits of the English people. They were being seduced into idleness and vice, which made watching cricket a lot better than working. It still is.

These boisterous origins of popular cricket are downplayed in conventional histories of the game, which tend to look at cricket through a Victorian perspective. The story of 18th century cricket is told as a rural idyll in which a contented peasantry were encouraged by benign members of the gentry to develop a rural sport into a professional game. The symbol of this idea of cricket was Broadhalfpenny Down in Hampshire, where Richard Nyren ran the Bat and Ball Inn, and the Hambledon Club took on all comers. Hambledon was identified as the cradle of cricket.

To remind us that history is never simple, David Underdown's new book on cricket and culture in the 18th century* is required reading. What we know now is that early cricket was not as bucolic as it has looked. It is a story of conflict - between urban and rural England, between the classes, and between myth and reality.

Underdown is a Somerset man who has lived in the United States and was a professor at Yale. He has a childhood memory of seeing Arthur Wellard hit five sixes in an over for Somerset; he managed to find a team to play for in Rhode Island, and he is deeply sentimental about cricket, but Start of Play is fiercely researched by a professional historian. Underdown does the conventional thing and focuses on Hambledon, but his tough-minded social and economic history broadens the common perspective.

Cricket had been growing in popularity among peasants and artisans in South-eastern England since 1700; indeed, a team from Slinden in Sussex were playing and winning at the Artillery Grounds in 1742, before Hambledon were founded. The gentry were already forming clubs so they could play the game in the company of better cricketers, or, alternatively, spend their time eating, drinking and gambling.

The first recorded century, in 1769, was made by the Duke of Dorset's gardener, John Minshull, for the Duke's XI against Wrotham. The Duke was an influential member at Hambledon, and his appointment as Ambassador to Paris in the 1780s did not dilute his enthusiasm. But an attempt to diminish revolutionary ardour by playing cricket in the Champs Elysées did not happen soon enough, and Dorset fled in 1789. Underdown thinks there is something in the contention - usually dismissed as ludicrous - that the revolution might not have happened if the aristocracy had played cricket with the peasants.

Hambledon became the dominant cricket club in England in the 1770s and 1780s, when they played 51 matches against teams called England and won 29 of them. A crowd of 20,000 watched Hambledon beat Surrey at Guildford in 1769. The players were local men - farm workers like the great batsman Billy Beldham, John Nyren (author of the first cricket memoir), the shepherd Lamborn (inventor of off-spin), and shoemakers like John Small, who began to make bats and balls. These were independent men, who refused to be patronised by the aristocracy. Having scored enough runs for an unlikely win, Richard Nyren berated two Hambledon members: "Another time don't bet your money against such men as we are." Such behaviour may have alienated their patrons, because the aristocrats eventually slunk off to London.

The villain of the piece is the Earl of Winchilsea, chairman of Hambledon. He founded the White Conduit Club in Islington in 1786.(The pub on Barnsbury Road still bears the name.) Winchilsea's club was for toffs, and, because they did not like playing in a public arena, they persuaded Thomas Lord to prepare a ground in Marylebone. This became Lord's, and the White Conduit Club became the MCC. The significance of Hambledon was that it was the model: a cricket club employing professional players run for the enjoyment of the gentry. Underdown regards Winchilsea's decision to turn a rural game into an urban one as a betrayal: "The populistelement was subordinated to the aristocracy," he says.

Underdown has a romantic's preference for the Somerset League rather than Tests. He compares the influence of sponsors and television companies to the privileged role of the gentry in the 18th century. He does not approve. As for the ECB, they are no better than the Earl of Winchilsea and his cronies. But it is not prescription that makes Start of Play such a good book. It is the accumulated weight of history and a deep love of cricket; it is a combustible mixture.

*Start of Play: Cricket and Culture in 18th Century England is published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 257pp, £20.

Life and Style
life
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
news
Environment
Fungi pose the biggest threat globally and in the UK, where they threaten the country’s wheat and potato harvests
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone