In prelapsarian times, it was only ever a short step from the batting crease to the pulpit, as generations of cricketing vicars used the game that they played heartily, if not usually very well, on Saturday afternoon for a neighbourly source of Sunday metaphors with which to earth a sermon and reassure the congregation that the rules by which a good Anglican was urged to live were really no more arduous than those framed by the MCC. The path of righteousness measured 22 yards and by repeated association with the godhead the patently sinless game of cricket was hoisted onto an existential plateau to which other, rougher games needn’t bother to aspire. The parallel was, on the other hand, open to question, since it involved seeing the testing game of life exclusively from the batsman’s point of view. Contingency did its satanic worst to get you out, and you did your Christian best to stay in. What, though, if you were some out-of-order soul who chose to look at this vital encounter from the other end of the pitch? One early cricketer who did so was the third Duke of Dorset: ‘What is human life but a game of cricket? – beauty the bat and man the ball,’ he’s quoted as saying in David Underdown’s book. The Duke, a big sponsor of the game in its years of consolidation in the second half of the 18th century, reverted on non-match days to his role of seducer of upper-class women, and no doubt felt that the life’s-a-game-of-cricket trope, as modified by him, was a sporting way of dressing up his venery as victimisation. Once into his forties, and having, let’s hope, been struck to the boundary once too often, he married and gave up cricket.
Large landowners like the Duke of Dorset, whose seat was at Knole, don’t come well out of Start of Play, a piece of social and sporting history that stays absorbingly close to the local facts of how and where cricket as we know it came about. Underdown has a case to make along the way, for cricket as a game and the countrymen who were the first to play it, and against the titled and other intruders who later came along and did much to spoil it. In following the game over roughly the century and a half after the Restoration in which it spread and became more organised, mainly in the South-East of England, he’s also following the process by which, as he sees it, an honest, communal, if at no point exactly godly game was gradually corrupted. What happened to it needless to say was money. Money and London, which had the resources to draw all things to it, an essentially bucolic pastime like cricket included. Underdown himself is not a Londoner; he grew up watching cricket in Somerset and is riled to this day that the fine players he warmed to there many years ago, the six-hitting Arthur Wellard and the beefy opener, Harold Gimblett – who impressed me no end once by returning the ball full toss to the wicket-keeper from the boundary underarm: his forearms looked to measure as many inches around as my teenage thighs – never got to play as often for England as they should have done, because the selectors at Lord’s were too high-and-mighty to take the train to Taunton and get a good look at them. Underdown’s lingering resentment about this surfaces from time to time in his book and puts a bracingly keen edge on its argument that the dukes and other notables who got involved in cricket did so more to advance their own glory and political influence than the welfare or fun of the working men who played it.
Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, what he calls the ‘forest countries’, are where Underdown has been to do his research, and he’s done it with the sharp eye for relevance of a real historian – the one Somerset supporter, it could well be, to have ended up as a Yale professor. He has collected large numbers of references to cricket in local records, in newspapers, in private diaries, in club and other account-books, where the money recorded as having been spent on paying the players and on the eating and drinking that went on in the pub after the game makes for instructive reading: the players didn’t do at all badly, with the most talented of them able to earn more from a day’s cricket than from a week of their regular work in the fields. Keen to have the game seen as a natural growth, Underdown ties it almost too intimately to the topography of the places in which it grew up, as though it were somehow a secretion of the landscape and thus bound to go wrong once it was uprooted and carted off to the paved surroundings of London, to the Artillery Ground in the City or Thomas Lord’s first ground in Dorset Square. In one small but intriguing respect, the terrain was a factor: the chalk of the Downs, both South and North, proved better stuff to pitch a wicket on in the days when all the bowling was done underarm, because the ball bounced higher from the chalk than it did off the dull clay of the Weald, where scuttling grubbers may well have been a bowler’s standby and a batsman’s nightmare.
In a mere double century of pages, Start of Play roots cricket more firmly and knowledgeably within its social, economic and cultural matrix than any other book known to me. It emerges here in bright detail as one of the many festival diversions that were taken up lovingly in some communities and seemingly not at all in others a few miles away. Underdown never loses sight of how well or badly things stood economically in the countryside over the years he’s concerned with, given the effects this was bound to have had on the daily lives of its inhabitants, and the suggestion is that rural incomes started edging upwards in the early 1700s, so that people had more free time, some of which at least could go into jolliness such as cricket. It didn’t have to be cricket of course, because there were a number of boisterous or downright nasty alternatives to enjoy without anyone needing to travel too far from home: horse-racing, cock-fights, bull-baiting, men’s and women’s running races, wrestling and something called ‘cudgel-playing’, an uncomplicated game for two whose rules, if there were any, aren’t spelt out here but which is sure to have packed in the local hooligans, thirsting for what we’ve learnt lately to call a spot of mayhem: ‘When a man has broke two heads, he must get off the stage, and fresh men must mount,’ ran a Wiltshire pub’s flysheet announcing an upcoming tournament.
Cudgelling wasn’t to the taste of the gentry, who may have turned out to watch the lower orders setting head-breakingly about one another but didn’t mean to do so themselves. Cricket was different, it wasn’t a demeaning contact sport and, for all the scope it offered for the working-off of animosities, already a game promising considerable refinement. It offered those gentlemen who took the field an opportunity to be suitably paternalistic without their also having to feel they were slumming. Hence the odd cricketing duke like Dorset, or the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood before him. And hence royalty even, because one of the game’s first casualties was Prince Frederick, the father of George III, who, the royal spin-doctors having no doubt decided that a Eurosceptic nation might be brought to overlook his Hanoverian origins if he took up cricket, was hit by the ball when fielding and died from his injury – helping to bear out the morbid piece of hearsay I recall from boyhood, that someone had been killed in every position on the field, something it was easy to believe in the case of wicket-keepers or short legs, not so easy for fielders further away. It would be an unlucky deep mid-off who perished accidentally, except I suppose by collision underneath a skyer with a converging teammate or, these days, a streaker.
In class terms, once the upper orders had joined in, 18th-century cricket allowed of a certain provisional democracy. In 1744, Lord John Sackville, the third Duke of Dorset’s uncle, turned out for Kent in a game at the Artillery Ground against a team labelled ‘England’, scored a disappointing 5 and 0 in the two innings but made an important catch (he surely won’t have done any bowling, a chore left to the well-muscled and one that willowy amateurs continued to see as beneath them into the 20th century). This, remarks Underdown, is ‘an astonishing development’: ‘Nothing could better illustrate the blurring of class lines which cricket could sometimes permit: a blue-blooded Sackville playing on a public ground, with and against professionals, and in front of a paying, plebeian audience.’ Even more unexpected is that the Kent team was captained, not by Lord John, but by the head gardener from the Sackville estate at Knole. Perhaps we should see this as evidence of cricket’s element of the carnivalesque, of a licensed up-ending of hierarchies, even if it’s hard to imagine the gardener in question being anything other than deferential when Kent were in the field and the ‘blue-blooded Sackville’ required repositioning.
Kent v. England at the Artillery Ground might make it sound as if by the mid-1740s cricket had already definitively compromised its local roots and passed on into the age of representative teams picked from all over the county, or country in the case of England. Not so, however; teams so called could still be more or less local, or drawn from only a few village clubs. At that date, oddly, the most famous of these clubs may not yet have come into existence, since its origins, unlike its later activities, are unrecorded. This was Hambledon, a parish on the delectable eastern edge of Hampshire and every cricket historian’s model of a small community which was able – who knows how? – to produce a cricket team that was for something like twenty years superior to any other anywhere, although, as the ever scrupulous Underdown admits, not everyone who played for Hambledon actually lived in Hambledon. It wasn’t a big place: there were an estimated seven hundred people in the parish in 1725; but its cricketers achieved feats out of all proportion to the catchment area. Between the 1760s and 1780s, Hambledon had 51 games against ‘England’ and won 29 of them.
The story of the rise and quite quick decline of Hambledon cricket serves Underdown’s purpose well, because it reflects both the wider evolution of the game in the second half of its formative age and the upheavals in the rural economy of Southern England. So far as cricket went, the players of repute, and Hambledon had more than its share, became increasingly mercenary, prepared if the money was right to travel and play elsewhere, against their own clubmates on occasion, so that the strong sense of place that seems to have made Hambledon so formidable in its heyday was dissolved, and by 1800 the sheep that had once been cleared off the club’s entrancingly-named ground at Broadhalfpenny Down were back there grazing. Cricket went on, but it was never again what it had been. On top of which, agriculture now sank into a worse and worse financial state, and the class cohesion that had been unusually strong in Hambledon – a club to which, among other members of the gentry, Shelley’s unpleasant grandfather, whom the poet described as ‘a bad man ... a curse upon society’, had once belonged – began to fall apart. Rural wages went down, labourers were put out of work, and ill-will grew towards the élite farmers who’d grown rich through the enclosure of once common land. South-East England was heading for the Captain Swing riots of 1830 and professional cricket, along with many of its pauperised players, was on its way to the towns.
This was bound to happen: the money that came into cricket may a lot of it have been spent in the shires but it had been made in London. Gates had long been good there, up to ten thousand paying at the Artillery Ground for one especially glossy fixture; and London was also the place where the big bets were laid, betting coming to play a more and more prominent part in Underdown’s story. It took two forms. First, there was the wagering of stake money at so much a side, anything from a pound or two at a humdrum village game, winners take all, up to a thousand pounds when the game was prestigious and the wealthy were putting up the cash.
And then, more murkily, there was betting via the bookies, who came along only towards the end of the years covered here, offering odds against one side or the other, or against particular achievements by particular players, of the 6 to 4 he won’t score 20 kind. That sort of odds-laying, as we have good reason to know just at present, can lead to the corruption of players by the moneyed interest: Start of Play is nothing if not topical. It was bad early in the 19th century. ‘Not a few of the great players earned money to their own disgrace,’ wrote one of the greatest players, William Beldham, who claimed himself never to have taken a penny from a bookmaker. Single-wicket matches were popular at the time, involving only three or four players a side, and the course of those was, for obvious reasons, a great deal easier to influence than games involving teams of eleven (or more). According to Beldham, in one such game at Lord’s one player on either side had been bought, and the time came when bribee A had to bowl to bribee B: ‘For seven balls together, one would not bowl straight, and the other would not hit.’ The players themselves found this pretty funny, even if the swells who’d been busy bringing more and more money into cricket will have professed to be shocked by it. Which brings the mind easily forward to what’s been happening lately, when it’s clear that the mores of the game can seem a little different according to whether they’re seen from the players’ balcony or the administrators’ office. There are always going to be players happy to bank a stealthy credit transfer from a bookmaker, in return for a spot of timely co-operation on the field; and the people who run cricket might reflect, as they recoil in dismay on rediscovering this, that they have themselves been set for some time now on commercialising the game to an extent that would once have seemed outrageous. I have to say that the odd backhander offends me less than having had this summer to endure the crass punctuation of the Tests on television by commercials at the end of just about every over. If there’d been more spin bowlers, with short run-ups, the ads would have had as much air-time as the cricket.