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History fills the New Year air as cradle of cricket celebrates match with pink ball on plastic pitch

Written by Ivo Tennant and published in The Times 3rd January 2022; it's so good we decided to republish one year on

John Small was one English cricketer who could bat. In the inaugural first-class match in 1772 he made the highest score, 78, through what the chroniclers of the time informed us was a classic technique which once enabled him to stay at the crease for three days. It did not go unremarked when the 250th anniversary celebrations of this fixture commenced on New Year’s Day that the entire England team nowadays struggle to survive for three sessions.

The Hambledon men, regarded now as Hampshire, beat All-England by 53 runs. For 30 years until the aristocracy decided that London and Thomas Lord’s new ground was better suited as the epicentre of their gambling, drinking, dining and cricket, this little village near Portsmouth was where cricket was shaped to a form with which we are familiar today. A third stump was introduced and the width of the bat modified. The game “grew to man’s estate.”

Broadhalfpenny Down, overlooked by the equally famous Bat and Ball public house, remains wonderfully unspoiled. The sweeping view across chalk fields towards Hambledon can barely have altered over the past 250 years. The cricketers who turned out to play at the weekend (fortunately for them it was the warmest New Year’s Day on record) respected tradition. The captains tossed a 1772 coin and everyone, including the umpires, was properly attired.

This was the start of a number of celebratory events including a fixture between Hampshire and All-England starting on June 24, the date when play commenced in 1772. There is one slight snag: until the first-class fixture list appears it will not be possible for the organisers to know the availability of players. They are hopeful of attracting the old stars such as David Gower, not least as Hambledon Vineyard are in support, but fresh legs and imbibers are also needed.

The prize for the winners in June will not quite compare with the 500 guineas which were on offer in 1772. No wonder Old John Small, as he was known, had the wherewithal to become an expert bat and ball maker. His greatest contribution to the game, according to The World of Cricket was “his development of the basic technique of straight bat-play as the only answer to the length-ball revolution of the bowler’s attack.” When he finally retired he sold the tools of his trade, and gave of his knowledge, to MCC.

As well as the departure of the aristocracy, the decline of the Hambledon Club was hastened by the departure of cricketers to serve in the Napoleonic Wars. The Down was a sheep-growing area and for a while the ground reverted to that use. It is now the home of Brigands CC; Hambledon CC play at another venue close by. “They are our friends,” Mike Beardall, chairman of Broadhalfpenny Down’s preservation trust, said.

Beardall climbed to the top of the monument opposite the Bat and Ball to announce the regulations of this match starting the 250th anniversary proceedings. It was between Brigands and Hampshire Huskies, a Twenty20 contest with a pink ball on an artificial pitch. At the conclusion, it was only to be expected that the pub would be drunk dry, as doubtless occurred in 1772 and apparently happened in a New Year’s Day fixture in 1929. This match was interrupted by the Hampshire Hunt traversing the pitch and was a cold and low-scoring affair.

At the millennium another match commenced at the stroke of midnight. Car headlights were turned on to light up the ground, yet play had to be called off owing to bad light and did not resume until daybreak. On the first day of 2022 there was no hunt, rain or snow: only a few ramblers and the odd sightseer were photographed at the foot of the monument as Kane Williamson, the captain of New Zealand, was last summer.

The game, of course, has moved on since the heyday of the Hambledon men. Small, the esteemed craftsman, would not recognise the strength of bats or those who wield them in the 21st century. The Bat and Ball has been peppered so often that protective netting will be placed in front of it. And women play at Broadhalfpenny Down, only not this New Year’s Day. “We asked some to play but they said it would be too cold — and added, ‘You do know it’s after New Year’s Eve?’ ”

Hampshire Huskies, who made 123 for seven, beat Brigands, 106 for five, by 17 runs. Huw Turbervill, the editor of The Cricketer, won the man-of-the-match award for taking two wickets and making an unbeaten 12 in a partnership of 22 with his son, Ben. Needless to say that the outfield was on the sluggish side: perhaps sheep still have their place in mid-winter.

Would the same post-match ale be served in the Bat and Ball as in 1772? “I hope not,” Beardall said. Here, where the der-doings on this great ground had long been recorded, an orderly past was celebrated and happenings down under soon forgotten. After all, the participants could remind themselves, first-class cricket was played at Broadhalfpenny Down before the first penal colony in Australia had even been founded.

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