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.

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