Cricket – the first modern game

Cricket  was the first team game to be a great spectator sport,  indeed, one might argue that it was the first great spectator game of any  sort as  opposed to a sport such as horse-racing,  running,  boxing  or  the more  disreputable pursuits of cock and dog fighting and bear  baiting.

Cricket  might also reasonably claim  to have inaugurated the  idea  of international  sport with the first cricket tour to  North  America  in 1859.  

The game is very old.  It can be dated certainly  from the 16th century, but as a pursuit it is reasonable to assume it was much older –  before the  age of printing little was recorded about any subject.  There  are some  intriguing  references  in old manuscripts  which  may  refer  to cricket,  for example, an entry in the wardrobe accounts of Edward I in 1300 which records a payment for the Kings sons playing  at “Creag”  (H S Altham p20 A History of Cricket Vol I).

The  game probably became more than simply  a rustic or boys’   pursuit towards  the end of the 17th  century. The gentry took it up  –  George III’s father,  Frederick, was a very keen player and actually died from an  abscess  caused  by being hit by a cricket ball –  and  teams  were raised  by   great  aristocrats such as the Duke of  Dorset,  Such  men effectively created the first cricketing professionals by employing the best  players  on  their estates,  ostensibly to  do  other  jobs,  but primarily  to ensure they played cricket for a particular team.  Partly because  of  this  and partly because the game grew  out  of  a   still overwhelmingly rural England with its much closer relationship  between the classes than later existed,  English  cricket was always a socially inclusive    game,   with  dukes  literally   rubbing  shoulders   with ploughmen.

The game was early organised. Sides representing counties such as Kent, Hampshire and Sussex were competing with each other by  the first  half of the 18th century.   Teams called England or the Rest of England were also  got up to play either a strong county or,  in the second half  of the  century,  the Hambledon Club,  a club based in  a  tiny  Hampshire village.   Hambledon were surprising modern in their  thinking,  having built  the  18th  century  equivalent of the  team  coach  –   a  great pantechnicon  –  to   transport  the team and  its  followers  to  away matches.    

During  its  first  century  or so as a  spectator  sport  cricket  was bedevilled by betting.  Important matches  were played  for very  large purses,  sometimes more than a thousand pounds,   a fortune in the 18th century.  Even more insidious was individual betting on results or  the performances  of  individual players within the game –  the  nature  of cricket absolutely lends itself to the latter.   But although the  game was always under suspicion of foul play, much as horse racing is today, betting must have greatly increased interest in the game.  

With  the  coming  of  the  railways  cricket  moved  into  the  modern professional  era with the formation of the All-England Eleven and  its imitators  such as the United South of England Eleven.   These  touring professional   sides   took  cricket  around   England  and  laid   the foundation  for  the modern county game.   During the same  period  the county  clubs as we know them today began to be  formally  established, with Surrey dating from 1845.   By the 1870s the work of the travelling professional sides was done and county  cricket became the mainstay  of English cricket.

H.S.Altham  entitled  a  chapter in his  History  of  Cricket  somewhat blasphemously  as the Coming of W.G.Grace.  This was not hyperbole.  In the  high  Victorian age two people were known as the  GOM  (Grand  Old man). The first was Gladstone, the second was Grace. It is a moot point who  was  the better known.  It is no moot point who  was  the  greater celebrity: W.G. won hands down.

Grace was the first great popular games playing  hero.  His first class career lasted an amazing 43 years (1865-1908).  He made his first class debut at the age of 15.   His Test career began in 1880 with a score of 152.  He played his last Test at the age of 50 in 1899.   At the age of 47  (1995)  he scored a thousand runs in May,  the first man to  do  so (only five other men have ever managed it).   

About  the  only two organisational  things seen in modern  team  sport which  cricket did not invent are  cup competitions and leagues  –  the honour for doing so rests with football,  although an unofficial county championship existed before the formation of the Football League.

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