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The Bat and Ball

Edited from an article first published in The Telegraph by Scyld Berry

The Bat and Ball Inn was a most hospitable hostelry when grand matches were played on Broadhalfpenny Down in the 1770s. John Nyren has immortalised the vigour of the punch that was served - not the watered-down stuff dished up after the Napoleonic Wars had devastated the English economy as much as Covid-19 - but alcohol that packed a punch: “not your modern cat-lap milk punch, but good unsophisticated John Bull stuff that would make a cat speak! Sixpence a bottle!”

The author was of course extolling the virtues of his father, Richard Nyren, as landlord of the Bat and Ball Inn, but still: those victuals and viands, the hog-roasts, the claret and punch, must have been pretty tasty to keep the gentry and even aristocracy happy when they played at Hambledon, before they adjourned to London and made MCC, from the 1790s, the leading club in the land.

Much learned discussion - a euphemism for acrimonious debate - has gone into establishing why Hambledon suddenly became the strongest cricket club in England in the 1770s, and why it just as suddenly folded. My interpretation is that in the case of Hambledon at any rate, history is made by great men - in this case, Richard Nyren. He was everything to Hambledon: the captain, a fine lefthanded batsman, a useful bowler, and the club secretary, as well as the landlord of the local inn.

Nyren held the purse-strings, coaxing annual subscriptions out of wealthy patrons and doling out not only prize-money to the players but expenses. For this was surely the unique selling point of the Hambledon club: mileage. Most players were men of yeoman substance - farmers, or shoemakers, while John Small made cricket bats and balls - and they topped up their income with match-fees (up to five guineas for a win, three for a loss) and with expenses (unfortunately the accounts from the club’s heyday do not survive to tell us how many pence per mile they got). Some had to ride ten miles or more to practice sessions, for only a couple lived in Hambledon. A few even came from Surrey and Sussex, setting the trend for Hampshire’s signings to follow.

It is utterly extraordinary when you consider it: that gentry and even aristocracy were content to play under the captaincy of Nyren, a landlord, in the 18th century. Nyren was not alone either as a captain who was a commoner: if a cricket match was being played for 500 or 1,000 guineas, you had to have your best man as captain. George Trevelyan might well have been right in his hypothesis: that if the French aristocracy had been playing cricket simultaneously, they would not have had their chateaux burned.

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