LONDON: There hasn’t been a single moment when my passion for cricket has suddenly grown. It happened slowly, almost like the game itself. I remember enjoying playing chaotically during recess in elementary school, using wickets painted on a wall, a tennis ball and a borrowed bat. After school we played in the alleys behind the terraced houses of a coal mining community in the English Midlands, using trash cans as wickets and pieces of wood to hit the ball.
It never occurred to me to ask why a wicket was called that, why it had three stumps, why the bat had the shape it was, or why a real cricket ball was so hard. I was also unaware that the origins of cricket were obscure or, in fact, that it had a history.
These questions only arose when I was taken, at the age of nine, for the first time to a professional cricket match on a famous ground in the English city of Nottingham. It was full of people and the spectacle was exhilarating. It was so different from my experience playing in backyards. I had no idea that the origins of cricket were more related to my early playing environment than to the show I had just seen.
The origins of cricket have been misrepresented in historical documents. There is a common assumption that the game originated in England, through references to stick and stone games with some resemblance to cricket played as early as 1183. King Edward I household accounts in 1300 report a game very similar to cricket played in Kent County.
It was the sheep pastures of south-eastern England that provided short grass on which to roll balls of rags or wool. The wicket door (a small door or a door in a larger one) served as a target, which was defended by a person wielding a staff similar to a shepherd’s staff.
This idyllic and bucolic image is alluring with which to associate the beginnings of the game in England. It certainly worked on me, serving to increase my appetite for playing and understanding the game. These romantic undertones are reinforced by the derived words to name the tools needed to play – wicket, stump, bat, surety, (or beil) , a French word for a cross on the wicket door, while mystique surrounds the way the game bears its name. I discovered a point of view which derives from an old English word for cryce or crutch and from a Dutch word, rick, meaning stick, thus suggesting the involvement of merchants from the nearby European continent.
In my quest to find out more, I was disappointed to find that while the game was played between the 12th and 16th centuries, it received almost no reference in contemporary literature or archives. Those identified were oblique, such as reports in a court case in 1598 of cricket played by pupils of the Royal Grammar School in Guildford in 1550 and, in 1611, two young men were punished by a court for playing cricket instead of going to church. I know that feeling, given that I skipped piano lessons in favor of cricket until I found out and was berated for wasting my parents’ money.
The first conclusive records for a recognizable game like cricket appeared in Kent in 1646 for no clear reason that I can find. The match was played for a small stake, curiously 12 candles. The post-Civil War England government was keen to stamp out public gatherings, drunkenness and gambling, so holding the match may have been an act of insolence or rebellion. Perhaps participants thought the government ban was not worth a candle.
Cricket’s apparent lack of popularity may have been influenced by other preferred playing opportunities, such as bear baiting, wrestling, running or cock fighting. In addition, it suffered from government censorship of the press and print media, designed to prevent opportunities for sedition.
Once this was lifted in 1696, cricket began to flourish. He attracted the attention of the aristocracy, for whom he provided a new vehicle for the heavy game. When I read about it, as a boy, I was appalled that this seemingly well-behaved game could be tarnished in this way. There was a positive side in that it created the imperative of codified conditions under which matches were to be played.
The development of the game as it is played today began to take shape in 18th century England. His subsequent journey took him far beyond his supposedly rustic origins in the south of England to many parts of the world, some of them unexpected, a subject for another piece. Cricket is full of stories, fierce rivalries and myths. It also has deep, yet understated strategic aspects that only served to increase my fascination with the game for many years.