How early cricket survived opposition, censorship to become one of the world’s most popular sports

LONDON: There was not a single moment when my passion for cricket suddenly developed. It happened slowly, almost like the game itself. I do recall enjoying playing in a chaotic manner during break times at primary school, using wickets painted onto a wall, a tennis ball and a borrowed bat. After school, we played in the lanes behind the closely terraced houses of a coal mining community in the English Midlands, using dustbins as wickets and pieces of wood to hit the ball.

It never occurred to me to ask why a wicket was so called, why it had three stumps, why the bat was shaped the way that it was, or why a proper cricket ball was so hard. I was also unaware that the origins of cricket were obscure or, indeed, that it had a history at all.

Those questions only arose when I was taken, aged nine, for the first time to a professional cricket match at a famous ground in the English city of Nottingham. It was full of people and the spectacle was exhilarating. It was so different to my experience of playing in back yards. Little did I know that the origins of cricket were more akin to my early playing environment than to the spectacle I had just witnessed.

Cricket’s origins have been poorly represented in historical records. There is a common assumption that the game originated in England, through references to stick and stone games with some resemblance to cricket being played as early as 1183. The household accounts of King Edward I in 1300 report of a game much like cricket being played in the county of Kent.

It was the sheep-grazing lands of south-eastern England that provided short grass on which balls of rags or wool could be rolled. The wicket gate (a small gate or door within a larger one) was used as a target, which was defended by a person who wielded a stick similar to a shepherd’s crook.

This idyllic, pastoral, image is a seductive one with which to associate the game’s beginnings in England. It certainly worked on me, serving to increase my appetite to play and understand the game. These romantic undertones are enhanced by the words derived to name the tools needed to play – wicket, stump, bat, bail, (or beil), a French word for a cross piece on the wicket gate, whilst mystique surrounds the way in which the game got its name. I discovered one view that it derives from an old English word for cryce or crutch and a Dutch word, rick, meaning stick, thus suggesting the involvement of merchants from the near European continent.

In my search to learn more, I was disappointed to discover that, if the game was being played between the 12th and 16th centuries, it received almost no references in literature or contemporary records. Those that have been identified were oblique ones, such as reports in a court case in 1598 of cricket being played by pupils of the Royal Grammar School in Guildford in 1550 and, in 1611, two young men were punished in court for playing cricket instead of going to church. I know that feeling, given I skipped piano lessons in favor of playing cricket until found out and suitably admonished for wasting my parent’s money.

The first conclusive records for a game recognisable as cricket emerged in 1646 in Kent for no clear reason that I can find. The match was played for a small wager, curiously of 12 candles. The post-English Civil War government was keen to stamp out public gatherings, drunkenness and gambling, so the holding of the match may have been an act of insolence or rebellion. Perhaps the participants thought the government’s ban was not worth a candle.

Cricket’s apparent lack of popularity may have been influenced by other preferred opportunities for gambling, such as bear baiting, wrestling, racing, or cock fighting. Additionally, it suffered from governmental press and print censorship, designed to prevent opportunities for sedition.

Once this was lifted in 1696, cricket began to flourish. It attracted the attention of the aristocracy, for whom it provided a new vehicle for heavy gambling. When I read about this, as a boy, I was appalled that this seemingly well-mannered game could be tarnished in this way. There was a silver lining in that it created the imperative for codified conditions under which the matches should be played.

The development of the game as it is played today began to be shaped in 18th century England. Its subsequent journey has taken it far beyond its supposedly rustic origins in the south of England to many parts of the world, some of them unexpected, a subject for another piece. Cricket abounds with stories, fierce rivalries and myths. It also has deep, but discreet, strategic aspects, which have served only to increase my fascination with the game over many years.

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