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.