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Urban Betrayal in Cricket

Updated: Mar 8

Cricket was unloved by 18th-century moralists. By the middle of the century, it had become a popular spectator sport. Much was drunk; large sums were gambled; there was the odd riot, and the moralists worried that leisure time was undermining the work habits of the English people. They were being seduced into idleness and vice, which made watching cricket a lot better than working. It still is.

The story of 18th-century cricket is told as a rural idyll in which a contented peasantry was encouraged by benign members of the gentry to develop a rural sport into a professional game. The symbol of this idea of cricket was Broadhalfpenny Down in Hampshire, where Richard Nyren ran the Bat and Ball Inn, and the Hambledon Club took on all comers. Hambledon was identified as the cradle of cricket.

What we know now is that early cricket was not as bucolic as it has looked. It is a story of conflict - between urban and rural England, between the classes, and between myth and reality.

Cricket had been growing in popularity among peasants and artisans in South-eastern England since 1700 and the gentry were already forming clubs so they could play the game in the company of better cricketers, or, alternatively, spend their time eating, drinking, and gambling.

Hambledon became the dominant cricket club in England in the 1770s and 1780s, when they played 51 matches against teams called England and won 29 of them. A crowd of 20,000 watched Hambledon beat Surrey at Guildford in 1769. The players were local men - farm workers like the great batsman Billy Beldham, John Nyren (author of the first cricket memoir), the shepherd Lamborn (inventor of off-spin), and shoemakers like John Small, who began to make bats and balls.

These were independent men, who refused to be patronised by the aristocracy. Having scored enough runs for an unlikely win, Richard Nyren berated two Hambledon members: "Another time don't bet your money against such men as we are."

Such behaviour may have alienated their patrons because the aristocrats eventually slunk off to London.

The villain of the piece is the Earl of Winchelsea, chairman of Hambledon. He founded the White Conduit Club in Islington in 1786 and persuaded Thomas Lord to prepare a ground in Marylebone. This became Lord's, and the White Conduit Club became the MCC.

The significance of Hambledon was that it was the model: a cricket club employing professional players run for the enjoyment of the gentry. Underdown regards Winchilsea's decision to turn a rural game into an urban one as a betrayal: "The populist element was subordinated to the aristocracy," he says.

Underdown compares the influence of sponsors and television companies to the privileged role of the gentry in the 18th century. He does not approve. As for the ECB, they are no better than the Earl of Winchilsea and his cronies. But it is not prescription that makes Start of Play such a good book. It is the accumulated weight of history and a deep love of cricket; it is a combustible mixture.

Edited from an article by Stephen Fay in The Independent, Sunday 17 September 2000

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