The Early History of Cricket
A quick look at the possible origins of the game and its early development
The possible origins of cricket
How did cricket begin? One thought is that English shepherds with nothing better to do used their crooks (long sticks with a bent-over handle at one end) to hit lumps of wool or stones to see how far they would go. One shepherd would toss a “ball” towards another who held his crook upside down and the latter would give it a bash. The “bowler” or his mates might then try to see if they could catch the wool or stone before it hit the ground.
It’s just a possibility, with no proof one way or the other!
However, there is also evidence that the idea came from children who liked hitting things with sticks, and it was several centuries before adults realised that they could make a proper game out of it.
Cricket first appears in writing in 1598 in a court case relating to schoolboys playing “creckett” (which does not sound a million miles away from “crook it” - see above). In 1611 there was a case in Sussex in which two men were prosecuted for playing the game on a Sunday, so it had clearly progressed from being a children’s pastime by this date.
By the end of the 17th century the game had been formalised to the extent that matches were being played for high-stake wagers, and this was to be a familiar feature of cricket in the years to come.
It is known that a proper match was played at Sevenoaks in Kent in 1734. The bats were curved, the wicket consisted of two uprights and a single bail, the bowling was underarm and the “score” was literally that – notches scored on a piece of wood.
Cricket clubs were formed by landed gentry who sometimes took part in matches themselves but who mainly created teams from their estate workers, for whom this was a welcome form of recreation. The team owners would bet huge sums of money on the outcome of matches, and they were not above adopting underhand methods to get the result they wanted. There were frequent disputes about what was allowed on the field (and what was “not cricket”), so the need arose for an agreed rulebook.
The Marylebone Cricket Club
The laws of cricket were first codified and written down in 1744, being amended in 1774. The men who created the laws formed themselves into the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787, Marylebone being a district of London near Regent’s Park. They started playing in Dorset Square on land that had been acquired by one of their members, Thomas Lord.
When the lease on Dorset Square expired in 1810, Thomas Lord found two other suitable sites for a cricket ground, a little to the north in St John’s Wood, but one of them was requisitioned by the government in 1813 as part of the route of the Regent’s Canal. The other site, however, continued in use and has always been known as Lord’s Cricket Ground and “the home of cricket”.
Somewhat confusingly, Lord’s is today not only the headquarters of Marylebone Cricket Club but also the Middlesex County side. However, the initials MCC refer to the original Marylebone club that is still the guardian of the laws of cricket.
Mention should also be made of a club that was formed in the mid-18th century on the Hampshire downs at Hambledon, north of Portsmouth. This club acquired a reputation for honesty and fair play and it was the custodian of the traditions and reputation of the game prior to the founding of the MCC. Matches are still played on the same pitch today, more than 250 years later.