Cricket is the second most watched sport in the world after football. It originated in South-East England in the late 16th century before becoming the national sport of England in the 18th century. However, it started developing globally only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Matches between countries have taken place since 1844 while the first Test match took place between Australia and England in 1877.
Let us attempt to trace the evolution and growth of cricket from its infancy through the years up to World War I.
The first definite reference to cricket was in the year 1598, according to the modern calendar. Initially, it was played by children before it was taken up by adults in the beginning of the 17th century. While there have been numerous match-fixing scandals in cricket since the mid to late 1990s and even after the turn of the new millennium, most cricket fans will react with amusement and outrage to know that gambling in cricket has been prevalent since 1660. In 1664 the Parliament passed the Gaming Act 1664 which limited stakes in cricket to 100 GBP. Cricket had become a significant gambling sport by the end of the 17th century with a match involving Sussex in 1697, played for as high as 50 guineas a side.
By the 18th century, cricket was introduced to other parts of the globe. It was introduced to the West Indies by colonists and to India by the British East India Company mariners. It arrived in Australia by 1788 and in New Zealand and South Africa by the early years of the 19th century.
The basic rules of cricket such as bat and ball, the wicket, pitch dimensions etc. have existed since time immemorial. In 1728, the Duke of Richmond and Alan Brodick drew up the rules of agreement which determined the code of practice in a particular game. In 1744, The Laws of Cricket were codified for the first time and then amended again for the first time in 1774 when innovations like LBW, middle stump and maximum bat width were added. These laws stated “the principals shall choose from amongst all the gentlemen, two umpires who shall absolutely decide all disputes”. Ultimately the MCC was formed at Lord’s in 1787. The MCC immediately became the custodian of the Laws and has made periodic revisions and recodifications.
All modern-day county clubs in England were formed in the 19th century with Sussex being the first in 1839. The original form of bowling involved rolling the ball along the ground as in bowls, before bowlers began to experiment with changes of line, length and pace sometime after 1760. The emergence of the railway network in England in the mid and late 19th century helped in making the game more popular as teams could play each other without a prohibitively time-consuming journey and that also meant that more spectators could view the matches thereby enhancing the popularity of the game.
In 1864, another bowling revolution took place with the legislation of overarm bowling and that was also the year that the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack was first published. Around this time, William Gilbert Grace became the first truly great superstar of cricket and his feats, particularly in batting did much to revolutionize the game.
The first ever international cricket match between countries took place between the USA and Canada at the St George’s cricket Club in New York. In 1859 a team of English professionals set off to North America for the first ever overseas tour and in 1862 the first ever English team toured Australia. Between May and October 1868, the first ever Australian Aborigines team toured England and this was the first ever Australian team to tour overseas.
In March 1877, the first Test match was played between Australia and England in 1877 and the tense finish between the two teams at the Oval in 1882 gave birth to the Ashes. The Ashes is a Test series between England and Australia usually of 5 Tests. The term originated in a satirical obituary in the British newspaper, ‘The Sporting Times’ after Australia’s victory at the Oval in 1882, which was their first ever Test victory in England. The obituary stated that English cricket had died and that the body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia. England’s captain Ivo Bligh, vowed to win back those Ashes during his team’s tour of Australia in 1882-83. The English media therefore dubbed the tour as the quest to regain the Ashes. England won 2 out of the 3 Tests on that tour and a group of women from Melbourne presented an urn to the English captain which contained the ashes of a wooden bail and which were said to be the ashes of Australian cricket. The urn has never been the official Trophy of the Ashes but replicas of the urn are held aloft by the teams that won the Ashes in subsequent series.
In 1889, South Africa became the third team to play Test cricket and another significant development took place when the County Championship was instituted in England in 1890. Australia instituted the Sheffield Shield in 1892-93 and a lot of other countries followed suit by introducing their own national competitions soon. These included the Currie Cup in South Africa, the Plunkett Shield in New Zealand and the Ranji Trophy in India. The period between 1890 till 1914 is nostalgically called the Golden Age because it marked the emergence of a number of superstars in cricket apart from WG Grace. They included Wilfred Rhodes, Ranjitsinhji and Victor Trumper.
Without being condescending, even a six or seven-year-old today knows that an over in cricket constitutes 6 balls but this was not always the case. Cricket started with 4 balls an over and in 1889 it became 5 balls an over. In 1900 it became 6 balls which is what is prevalent currently. Some countries experimented with 8 balls an over. The most recent version of the Laws of cricket permits only 6 balls an over. The ICC which was originally called the Imperial Cricket Conference was founded in 1909.
In later years there have been Triangular Series in ODIs and T20Is between nations, but not many know that there was a Triangular Test series in 1912 between the 3 Test playing nations at that time. In 1909, at a meeting of the ICC, the tournament was proposed to be played every 4 years with the first being played in England in 1912. During those days, Tests in England were played over 3 days rather than 5 and the month of August 1912 was considered to be the wettest summer in the entire 20th century. Moreover, pitches were uncovered in those days which meant that batsmen were at a distinct disadvantage. Australia sent a weakened side without 6 of its top players due to a dispute between players and management. Therefore, a lack of popularity meant that no further editions of this tournament were held. The reasons for the lack of popularity were the poor crowds, an unusually wet English summer and uncompetitive cricket caused mainly by a weakened Australian team. Each team played the other two teams twice and England were adjudged the victors of the tournament with 4 wins from their 6 Tests. The Daily Telegraph said that ‘Nine Tests provided a surfeit of cricket and that contests between Australia and South Africa were not of much interest to the British public.
These days due to the advent of satellite television and the amount of money in the game, all champion cricketers are household names and are the most recognizable faces from almost any profession, in all the major cricket playing countries. Prior to the first World War, WG Grace was without doubt the most famous cricketer of his generation. No article or documentary on cricket will be complete without mentioning some of his exploits. He was a doctor by profession and is known not just for his cricketing feats (of which there were many) but also for his quirky nature, sense of humour and at times atrocious behavior.
He played cricket for a record equaling 44 seasons, from 1865 to 1908. He was an outstanding all-rounder but excelled primarily as a batsman. Grace was also extremely good in soccer, golf, lawn bowls and curling. He was extremely famous for his cricketing ability but was also considered highly controversial because of his gamesmanship. One of his most famous quotes was “If you win the toss bat, If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat, If you have very big doubts, consult your colleagues, then bat”.
Once when he was dismissed in a match, without the umpire knowing, he calmly replaced the bails and told the bowler that the crowd had come to watch him bat and not to watch the bowler bowl. Once when an umpire gave him out LBW he told the umpire, that the crowd had come to watch him (Grace) bat and not to see the umpire. However, nothing can take away from the fact that he was a great cricketer and a great personality. He was cricket’s first ever superstar and until around 1899 he was the game’s most famous superstar. Also, because pitches were uncovered in his era, noted batsmen of the era up till World War I, can only be judged on beauty of batsmanship and elegance rather than statistics as the runs they scored would pale in comparison with that of other batsmen who played during the 1930s and beyond.
Victor Trumper was another great batsman who died tragically young of Bright’s disease in 1915 at the age of just 37. He is widely regarded as one of the truly great Test batsman before World War 1. He was famous for playing match-winning innings on wet wickets, on which his contemporaries were found wanting. Another great batsman of Trumper’s era, Archie MacLaren said “Compared to Victor I was a cab-horse to a Derby winner”. There can be no greater praise than that from one’s peers.
These days when cricket pundits and aficionados select all-time great XIs, they go by the usual parameters like batting averages and runs scored away from home and against different opposition. Sadly, for those reasons Grace and Trumper do not feature in those XIs, because they played on uncovered pitches and therefore have lower averages, and there is no television footage of their stroke play and technique. However, that should not in any way diminish their greatness. In fact, no cricketer from the 19th century features in the selection of these all-time XIs, which does not do justice to their skills.
In the first 37 years of Test cricket prior to the World War I, there were just 135 Tests played which is lesser than just 4 Tests per year, which is understandable to a certain extent as there were only 3 Test teams and anything more would be repetitive and boring. But there were enough developments in cricket as a sport from its initial days and enough great cricketers and great cricketing achievements to establish it as one of the premier sports in the world.