Sociology, Sportization and Cricket: To WWII

By | January 16, 2014

As with most sports, cricket probably had numerous precursors, some of which doubtless remain unknown to us; but its true origins have never been nailed down. There is documentary evidence that a young man, John Derrick, was accustomed to playing ‘crekett’ in the environs of Guildford, Surrey, in the 1550s. By the beginning of the 17th century references to cricket in England were more commonplace; controversially, it was often played clandestinely on the only work-free day, the Sabbath.  But this was a largely localized and rule-less folk ‘pastime’ markedly different from its modern successor. Cricket would arguably have remained an obscure plebian pastime had it not been for a passion for ‘gaming’, or gambling, amongst the nobility. One unintended consequence of the Civil War of 1642 was the displacement of Royalist sympathizers to safer rural locations and a consequent perpetuation of the Elizabethan enthusiasm for country estates.  It was in the countryside that the younger Cavaliers discovered cricket amongst its labouring classes. In 1646, as Charles was being handed over to the Scots at Newark, the first recorded ‘formal’ game of cricket was played at Coxheath in Kent.

The Puritans opposed Sunday cricket and the game withered during the period of the Commonwealth from 1649 to 1660. A few prosecutions were brought and are recorded, and in Dublin Cromwell actually ordered all bats and balls to be collected and burned. After the Restoration in 1660, however, cricket regained its fashionable appeal. Betting on cricket, as on much else, became commonplace. By 1668 the landlord of the Ram Inn in Smithfield was paying rates for a cricket field; thenceforth publicans and innkeepers were to play a key role in the commercialization of sport. Cricket, as we now understand it, was the issue of the plebeian, the patrician and the commercial.

Light characterizes the growing involvement of the gentry with cricket into the early 18th century in terms of its appropriation. When in the 1730s the Duke of Richmond and the like openly played cricket in London’s Hyde Park there was no gainsaying either its patronage or its cultural arrival. Lavish events were staged which reproduced and reinforced relations of social stratification. Displays of wealth and power were represented – ideologically – as ‘popular entertainments’. This aristocratic usurpation of plebeian sporting activities will become an enduring theme in the transition to modernity.

As the 17th century proceeded, ‘professional’ village teams were sponsored. The Duke of Richmond lent his support to a team from Slindon, a village close to his family seat at Goodwood. Local cricketers like Slindon’s celebrated Richard Newland acquired impressive followings. One match featuring Newland and held at the Artillery Ground in London in 1743 attracted 10,000 spectators: it was a match played for 500 guineas, a sum presumably put up by the patrons of each side. But Slindon’s success was soon dwarfed by another ‘professional’ village team from Hambledon, near Portsmouth. The Hambledon team was captained by Richard Nyren, landlord of the Bat and Ball Inn on Broadhalfpenny Down and nephew of his mentor, Slindon’s Richard Newland.  But most of the members of the Hambledon Club were not players, and most of the players were not members. It was essentially a club for gentlemen. On the whole, the players were hired hands recruited not only from Hampshire but from neighbouring counties like Sussex and Kent. Matches took place weekly during the season for considerable purses, and the players were paid four shillings for a win and three shillings for a loss.

The cricket was played in earnest, and not just for commercial reasons. Several radical changes were made to the game during the period of Hambledon’s dominance. Pivotal was an attempt in 1744, probably on behalf of the gentlemen of the London Club (based at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury), to agree certain ‘Laws of Cricket’. These ‘laws’ established parameters for wickets (22 inches high with a single bail of six inches), which made wickets narrower and higher than before, and encouraged a new bowling technique: instead of trundling the ball along the ground, the accepted practice, bowlers could pitch it up to good effect. Pitching the ball up, in turn, led by the 1750s to the displacement of the customary curved bat, designed for hitting the ball on the ground, by a bat straight and flat at the front with a discernible ‘shoulder’ at the top. Other revisions to the ‘Laws’ followed for pragmatic reasons, notably the inclusion of a third stump between the existing two and the restriction of the width of bats (to four-and-a-quarter inches). Importantly, this provisional codification was not intended to apply to cricket wherever played, but only to matches sponsored and played by their promulgators. But the earlier publication of a discrete set of ‘Laws of Cricket’ on the cusp of the new phase of industrial capitalism in England preceded equivalent initiatives in association and rugby football by a century.

The influence of the Hambledon Club was considerable, and gradually other initiatives followed, initially in the Home Counties and then in the Midlands and the North. Cricket in London meanwhile became particularly fashionable. But in the Islington-based White Conduit Club, which had come to replace the London Club in Finsbury as the pre-eminent locus of cricket in London, there was none of the mixing of classes to be found at Hambledon. But the White Conduit Club lacked an appropriate ground and two of its senior members asked the ambitious Thomas Lord to lease a ‘more convenient’ space in London’s West End. The result was the founding of the Marylebone Cricket Club (the MCC), another private club run by and for gentlemen, at an unimpeachable new site. Within a year or two the MCC, having displaced the White Conduit Club, had seen off the Hambledon Club as the leading club in the country, not least by recruiting some of the latter’s leading ‘hired-hand’ players; by the end of the century the Hambledon Club had been wound up.

That the MCC did not rapidly grow from strength to strength was probably due to a mix of consternation on behalf of the nobility occasioned by the French Revolution and an economic downturn, leading to insecurity and general impoverishment. Rich carefree patrons retreated. Struggling to pay the rent, Lord was compelled to seek an alternative site and, with luck on his side, he eventually secured one at St John’s Wood, the home of the MCC ever since.

Lord Frederick Beauclerk, the first amateur aristocrat who could play cricket as well as the hired-hands or professionals, was the dominant figure within the MCC by the turn of the century. He supplemented his rather modest income by betting on his own performances, making by his own estimate £600 per annum – equivalent to approximately £60,000 today – over a period of 35 years. Neither Beauclerk nor his rivals were above sharp practices, including fixing matches to line their pockets. It is therefore not without irony that the MCC, often represented in the person of Beauclerk, was gradually becoming the de facto arbiter of disputes in the wider game; but it lacked formal authority.  Its authority was put to the test when a wealthy landowner, John Willes, started bowling ‘round-arm’ in country matches in Kent. With prize money at stake, feelings ran high, and in 1816 the MCC introduced a new rule banning this innovation. In some quarters, however, this ban was ignored; nor was Willes himself brought into line. Matters came to a head in 1822 when Kent played the MCC at Lord’s and Willes was promptly ‘no-balled’. He stormed off the pitch, rode off on his horse and never played again, turning instead to coaching. The problem was not solved however: Sussex, the dominant county between 1822 and 1827, relied heavily on round-arm bowling. In 1828 the MCC ceded ground and allowed round-arm bowling provided the hand stayed below the elbow (in 1835 this was amended to ‘below the shoulder’).

The first genuine county clubs to be formed were Sussex in 1839, Nottinghamshire in 1841, Kent in 1842 and Surrey in 1845. This era was characterized too by a new fashion for touring the country with travelling professional ‘Elevens’ put together by pioneering entrepreneurs like William Clarke and two of his rivals, John Wisden and Jeremy Dean. Gradually more county clubs were formed. An informal county championship emerged in the 1860s, but there was no formal league until the formation of the County Championship in 1873 (Durham was the 18th and most recent county to join the league in 1991). The mid-19th century also saw the development of international cricket. The first recorded international match, ironically, was between the USA and Canada in 1844, unsurprisingly featuring a number of expats. In 1859 an English team toured North America; in 1868 a team of Australian aborigines toured England and Wales; in 1877 the inaugural ‘test match’ between Australia and England took place in Melbourne; and in 1880 the first test match occurred on English turf, again against Australia. It was after the test between England and Australia in 1880 that the concept of the Ashes’ was born. Bemoaning the home team’s performance, the Sporting Times printed an obituary for English cricket: ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’.

In England attention had largely switched by the third quarter of the 19th century from itinerant professional ‘Elevens’ to county teams. The organization of county cricket had remained to this point almost as much pastime as sport (see Figure Two). The second phase of sportization, however, was about to catch up with and ‘nudge’ cricket. In 1873 the chairman of Surrey, Charles Alcock, who was revealingly also secretary of the new Football Association, summoned a meeting at the Oval to settle outstanding issues. Specifically, it was agreed that each county player should be qualified either by birth or two years’ residence, with disputes referred to the MCC, and that no player should play for more than one county in the same season. Not that all ‘issues’ were resolved: it was not until 1894 that the MCC, via its ‘Classification of Counties’, finally ruled that 15 counties might enjoy exclusive or ‘first-class’ status, an arrangement that would last for a century (during which three more counties joined the elite).

W.G.Grace was the Bradman of the period from 1864-1908. To his exceptional and statistically proven talent he added a formidable personality and an aptitude for self-promotion. Nor was he averse to gamesmanship, or even sheer bravado. Norridge relays the following anecdote:

‘The best-loved W.G. story concerns an occasion when he was bowled first ball. He calmly picked up the bails and replaced them. When the umpire objected, he simply said: ‘Don’t be silly. They’ve come to see me, not you umpire’.

His commercial exploitation of his abilities was uncompromising, anticipating many a modern or postmodern sportsman; but his decades of popular ascendancy, terminating in his final first-class game in 1908, coincided with and unarguably fed the national and international coming of age of cricket.

The closing years of the Grace era witnessed a consolidation of international cricket. When the South Africans won their first test against a touring MCC side led by Pelham Warner in 1905-06, it became impossible to resist their right to meet England on level terms. A three-match series in England the following year led to the formation of the Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) in 1909. The ICC laid down rules for test matches between ‘representative elevens of England, and of Australia, and of South Africa’. If cricket had long been more modern sport than folk pastime, it was now coming of age as a modern social institution.

What have been judged the ‘golden years’ of cricket were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. The social division between amateur (‘gentleman’) and professional (‘player’) remained central: the public school, Oxbridge, MCC linkages had not weakened since cricket’s initial phase of sportization. The players, not unlike the early soccer ‘pros’, retained a strong proletarian image, even if the image of cricket itself, unlike that of professional association football, as we shall see, was leavened by the continuing dominance of the amateur. Professional cricketers could make a steady living from the game, at least for a while: cricket became a kind of craft, and professionals fell into the artisan class of modest wages for a hard day’s work. But few disputed the right of the amateur to lead, to assume the role of captain of the side. Not that the amateurs left entirely empty-handed, some readily accepting ‘expenses’ beyond the hotel and travel costs to which they were entitled. Lewis summarizes well:

‘After the First World War, in 1923, only 6 per cent of the country’s children were at public schools, but a large cross-section of the nation, while resolutely keeping to its social place, was touched by the ripples of these schools’ teaching. Thus cricket, and the Marylebone Club which governed it, became a sort of precious flagship of the wealthy minority as it spread its influence and its ethos to county cricket ground, village green, park, school yard and back lane’.

Lewis is a former England cricket captain, but no sociologist could trump his eloquence here. The annual Gentlemen versus Players contests were to survive until 1962 (when Cambridge graduate and therefore gentleman, Lewis, batted at number six, scoring 2 and 10). If I might be allowed a personal recollection as a boy Sussex supporter, I can clearly recall matches in the 1950s and into the 1960s when gentlemen amateurs and professional players still had separate changing rooms and therefore entrances to and exists from pitches. Some county clubs even required them to stay at different hotels during away contests. The once-important Oxford versus Cambridge University and Combined Services versus Public Schools matches also faded close to insignificance by the 1960s. But this is all to jump ahead.

The tragic and poignant impact of the First World War on youth well beyond the bounds of Europe, and therefore inevitably too on sport, cannot be done justice here; but certainly no mention of the inter-war years would be complete without mention of the notorious ‘bodyline series’ when Jardine’s England visited and defeated an Australian team featuring the supreme test batsman, Don Bradman, in 1932-33. Bradman was ill and missed the first test in Sydney, won by England; but he was fit again for the second test in Melbourne, which Australia duly won. To the consternation of some of his fellow-amateurs, Jardine devised a plan prior to the third test at Adelaide. His ‘leg theory’ required his fast bowlers, among whom Harold Larwood was pre-eminent, to deliver a plethora of bouncers, effectively to ‘target’ the batsman. Chair of selectors and tour manager, Pelham Warner, confided in a letter home: ‘personally I am terrified of some horrible accident’. In the event Australians Woodfull and Oldfield were hit and injured. The crowd was incensed, their wrath directed at the amateur Jardine; the professional Larwood was after all just following instructions. England won by 338 runs.

In the aftermath of the third test, the Australian Board of Control dispatched a cable to the MCC voicing its disgust at England’s ‘unsportsmanlike’ behaviour. When the cable was received, the MCC was as much confused as angered. Unsure quite what had been going on, its president, Sir Kynaston Studd, did not hold back. He began: ‘We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play’ (quoted by Lewis). There was talk of the tour being called off, but this always seemed unlikely. In the event Jardine and England stuck with bodyline and won the fourth and fifth tests: Bradman averaged, for him, a modest 56.57 for the series. Gradually cables to and fro lost their edge and became more conciliatory. The MCC continued to stonewall, rejecting a demand from the Australian Board that intimidatory bowling be outlawed at the discretion of umpires (although it was to introduce such a change itself – quite a different matter – via its ‘Instructions to Umpires’ in 1935). Relatedly, the experimental introduction of an lbw law was made permanent in 1937. As the true significance of far away events slowly percolated through at Lords, both Jardine and Larwood lost favour.


Lewis,A (1987) Double Century: the Story of MCC and Cricket. London; Hodder & Stoughton.

Norridge,J (2008)  Can We Have Our Balls Back Please? London; Penguin.

Light,R (2011)  Cricket in the eighteenth century.  In Eds Bateman,A & Hill,J: The Cambridge Companion to Cricket. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

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