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The Story of Cricket

Cricket grew out of the many stick-and-ball games played in England 500 years ago, under a variety of different rules. The word ‘bat’ is an old English word that simply means stick or club. By the seventeenth century, cricket had evolved enough to be recognisable as a distinct game and it was popular enough for its fans to be fined for playing it on Sunday instead of going to church. Till the middle of the eighteenth century, bats were roughly the same shape as hockey sticks, curving outwards at the bottom. There was a simple reason for this: the ball was bowled underarm, along the ground and the curve at the end of the bat gave the batsman the best chance of making contact.

How that early version of cricket played in village England grew into the modern game played in giant stadiums in great cities is a proper subject for history because one of the uses of history is to understand how the present was made. And sport is a large part of contemporary life: it is one way in which we amuse ourselves, compete with each other, stay fit, and express our social loyalties. If tens of millions of Indians today drop everything to watch the Indian team play a Test match or a one-day international, it is reasonable for a history of India to explore how that stick-and-ball game invented in south-eastern England became the ruling passion of the Indian sub-continent. This is particularly so, since the game was linked to the wider history of colonialism and nationalism and was in part shaped by the politics of religion and caste.

oldest cricket bat

Our history of cricket will look first at the evolution of cricket as a game in England, and discuss the wider culture of physical training and athleticism of the time. It will then move to India, discuss the history of the adoption of cricket in this country, and trace the modern transformation of the game. In each of these sections we will see how the history of the game was connected to the social history of the time.

Historical Development of Cricket as a Game

The social and economic history of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cricket’s early years, shaped the game and gave cricket its unique nature. For example, one of the peculiarities of Test cricket is that a match can go on for five days and still end in a draw. No other modern team sport takes even half as much time to complete. A football match is generally over in an hour-and-a-half of playing time. Even baseball, a long-drawn-out bat-and-ball game by the standards of modern sport, completes nine innings in less than half the time that it takes to play a limited-overs match, the shortened version of modern cricket!

Another curious characteristic of cricket is that the length of the pitch is specified – 22 yards – but the size or shape of the ground is not. Most other team sports, such as hockey and football lay down the dimensions of the playing area: cricket does not. Grounds can be oval like the Adelaide Oval or nearly circular, like Chepauk in Chennai. A six at the Melbourne Cricket Ground needs to clear much more ground than a lofted shot for the same reward at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi.

There’s a historical reason behind both these oddities. Cricket was the earliest modern team sport to be codified, which is another way of saying that cricket gave itself rules and regulations so that it could be played in a uniform and standardised way well before team games like soccer and hockey. The first written ‘Laws of Cricket’ were drawn up in 1744. They stated, ‘the principals shall choose from amongst the gentlemen present two umpires who shall absolutely decide all disputes. The stumps must be 22 inches high and the bail across them six inches. The ball must be between 5 and 6 ounces, and the two sets of stumps 22 yards apart’. There were no limits on the shape or size of the bat. It appears that 40 notches or runs was viewed as a very big score, probably due to the bowlers bowling quickly at shins unprotected by pads. The world’s first cricket club was formed in Hambledon in the 1760s and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was founded in 1787. In 1788, the MCC published its first revision of the laws and became the guardian of cricket’s regulations.

The pavilion of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1874

The pavilion of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1874

The MCC’s revision of the laws brought in a series of changes in the game that occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century. During the 1760s and 1770s it became common to pitch the ball through the air, rather than roll it along the ground. This change gave bowlers the options of length, deception through the air, plus increased pace. It also opened new possibilities for spin and swing. In response, batsmen had to master timing and shot selection. One immediate result was the replacement of the curved bat with the straight one. All of this raised the premium on skill and reduced the influence of rough ground and brute force.

The weight of the ball was limited to between 5½ to 5¾ ounces, and the width of the bat to four inches. The latter ruling followed an innings by a batsman who appeared with a bat as wide as the wicket! In 1774, the first leg-before law was published. Also around this time, a third stump became common. By 1780, three days had become the length of a major match, and this year also saw the creation of the first six-seam cricket ball.

While many important changes occurred during the nineteenth century (the rule about wide balls was applied, the exact circumference of the ball was specified, protective equipment like pads and gloves became available, boundaries were introduced where previously all shots had to be run and, most importantly, overarm bowling became legal) cricket remained a pre-industrial sport that matured during the early phase of the Industrial Revolution, the late eighteenth century. This history has made cricket a game with characteristics of both the past and the present day.

Cricket’s connection with a rural past can be seen in the length of a Test match. Originally, cricket matches had no time limit. The game went on for as long as it took to bowl out a side twice. The rhythms of village life were slower and cricket’s rules were made before the Industrial Revolution. Modern factory work meant that people were paid by the hour or the day or the week: games that were codified after the industrial revolution, like football and hockey, were strictly time-limited to fit the routines of industrial city life.

In the same way, cricket’s vagueness about the size of a cricket ground is a result of its village origins. Cricket was originally played on country commons, unfenced land that was public property. The size of the commons varied from one village to another, so there were no designated boundaries or boundary hits. When the ball went into the crowd, the crowd cleared a way for the fieldsman to retrieve it. Even after boundaries were written into the laws of cricket, their distance from the wicket was not specified. The laws simply lay down that ‘the umpire shall agree with both captains on the boundaries of the playing area’.

If you look at the game’s equipment, you can see how cricket both changed with changing times and yet fundamentally remained true to its origins in rural England. Cricket’s most important tools are all made of natural, pre-industrial materials. The bat is made of wood as are the stumps and the bails. The ball is made with leather, twine and cork. Even today both bat and ball are handmade, not industrially manufactured. The material of the bat changed slightly over time. Once it was cut out of a single piece of wood. Now it consists of two pieces, the blade which is made out of the wood of the willow tree and the handle which is made out of cane that became available as European colonialists and trading companies established themselves in Asia. Unlike golf and tennis, cricket has refused to remake its tools with industrial or man-made materials: plastic, fibre glass and metal have been firmly rejected. Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee tried to play an innings with an aluminium bat, only to have it outlawed by the umpires.

But in the matter of protective equipment, cricket has been influenced by technological change. The invention of vulcanised rubber led to the introduction of pads in 1848 and protective gloves soon afterwards, and the modern game would be unimaginable without helmets made out of metal and synthetic lightweight materials.

Cricket and Victorian England

The Parsi team, the first Indian cricket team to tour England in 1886.

The Parsi team, the first Indian cricket team to tour England in 1886.

The organisation of cricket in England reflected the nature of English society. The rich who could afford to play it for pleasure were called amateurs and the poor who played it for a living were called professionals. The rich were amateurs for two reasons. One, they considered sport a kind of leisure. To play for the pleasure of playing and not for money was an aristocratic value. Two, there was not enough money in the game for the rich to be interested. The wages of professionals were paid by patronage or subscription or gate money. The game was seasonal and did not offer employment the year round. Most professionals worked as miners or in other forms of working class employment in winter, the off-season.
The social superiority of amateurs was built into the customs of cricket. Amateurs were called Gentlemen while professionals had to be content with being described as Players. They even entered the ground from different entrances. Amateurs tended to be batsmen,

leaving the energetic, hardworking aspects of the game, like fast bowling, to the professionals. That is partly why the laws of the game always give the benefit of the doubt to the batsman. Cricket is a batsman’s game because its rules were made to favour ‘Gentlemen’, who did most of the batting. The social superiority of the amateur was also the reason the captain of a cricket team was traditionally a batsman: not because batsmen were naturally better captains but because they were generally Gentlemen. Captains of teams, whether club teams or national sides, were always amateurs. It was not till the 1930s that the English Test team was led by a professional, the Yorkshire batsman, Len Hutton.

It’s often said that the ‘battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. This means that Britain’s military success was based on the values taught to schoolboys in its public schools. Eton was the most famous of these schools. The English boarding school was the institution that trained English boys for careers in the military, the civil service and the church, the three great institutions of imperial England. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, men like Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the famous Rugby School and founder of the modern public school system, saw team sport like cricket and rugby not just as outdoor play, but as an organised way of teaching English boys the discipline, the importance of hierarchy, the skills, the codes of honour and the leadership qualities that helped them build and run the British empire. Victorian empire builders justified the conquest of other countries as an act of unselfish social service, by which backward peoples were introduced to the civilising influence of British law and Western knowledge. Cricket helped to confirm this self-image of the English elite by glorifying the amateur ideal, where cricket was played not for victory or profit, but for its own sake, in the spirit of fair play.

In actual fact the Napoleonic wars were won because of the economic contribution of the iron works of Scotland and Wales, the mills of Lancashire and the financial houses of the City of London. It was the English lead in trade and industry that made Britain the world’s greatest power, but it suited the English ruling class to believe that it was the superior character of its young men, built in boarding schools, playing gentlemanly games like cricket, that tipped the balance.

The Spread of Cricket

While some English team games like hockey and football became international games, played all over the world, cricket remained a colonial game, limited to countries that had once been part of the British empire. The pre-industrial oddness of cricket made it a hard game to export. It took root only in countries that the British conquered and ruled. In these colonies, cricket was established as a popular sport either by white settlers (as in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and Kenya) or by local elites who wanted to copy the habits of their colonial masters, as in India.

While British imperial officials brought the game to the colonies, they made little effort to spread the game, especially in colonial territories where the subjects of empire were mainly non-white, such as India and the West Indies. Here, playing cricket became a sign of superior social and racial status, and the Afro-Caribbean population was discouraged from participating in organised club cricket, which remained dominated by white plantation owners and their servants. The first non-white club in the West Indies was established towards the end of the nineteenth century, and even in this case its members were light-skinned mulattos. So while black people played an enormousamount of informal cricket on beaches, in back alleys and parks, club cricket till as late as the 1930s was dominated by white elites.

Despite the exclusiveness of the white cricket elite in the West Indies, the game became hugely popular in the Caribbean. Success at cricket became a measure of racial equality and political progress. At the time of their independence many of the political leaders of Caribbean countries like Forbes Burnham and Eric Williams saw in the game a chance for selfrespect and international standing. When the West Indies won its first Test series against England in 1950, it was celebrated as a national achievement, as a way of demonstrating that West Indians were the equals of white Englishmen. There were two ironies to this great victory. One, the West Indian team that won was captained by a white player. The first time a black player led the West Indies Test team was in 1960 when Frank Worrell was named captain. And two, the West Indies cricket team represented not one nation but several dominions that later became independent countries.The pan-West Indian team that represents the Caribbean region in international Test cricket is the only exception to a series of unsuccessful efforts to bring about West Indian unification.

Cricket fans know that watching a match involves taking sides. In a Ranji Trophy match when Delhi plays Mumbai, the loyalty of spectators depends on which city they come from or support. When India plays Australia, the spectators watching the match on television in Bhopal or Chennai feel involved as Indians – they are moved by nationalist loyalties. But through the early history of Indian firstclass cricket, teams were not organised on geographical principles and it was not till 1932 that a national team was given the right to represent India in a Test match. So how were teams organised and, in the absence of regional or national teams, how did cricket fans choose sides? We turn to history for answers, to discover how cricket in India developed and to get a sense of the loyalties that united and divided Indians in the days of the Raj.

The modern transformation of the game

Modern cricket is dominated by Tests and one-day internationals, played between national teams. The players who become famous, who live on in the memories of cricket’s public, are those who have played for their country. The players Indian fans remember from the era of the Pentangular and the Quadrangular are those who were fortunate enough to play Test cricket. C.K. Nayudu, an outstanding Indian batsman of his time, lives on in the popular imagination when some of his great contemporaries like Palwankar Vithal and Palwankar Baloo have been forgotten because his career lasted long enough for him to play Test cricket for India while theirs did not. Even though Nayudu was past his cricketing prime when he played for India in its first Test matches against England starting in 1932, his place in India’s cricket history is assured because he was the country’s first Test captain.

India entered the world of Test cricket in 1932, a decade and a half before it became an independent nation. This was possible because Test cricket from its origins in 1877 was organised as a contest between different parts of the British empire, not sovereign nations. The first Test was played between England and Australia when Australia was still a white settler colony, not even a self-governing dominion. Similarly, the small countries of the Caribbean that together make up the West Indies team were British colonies till well after the Second World War.

Commerce, Media and Cricket today

The 1970s were the decade in which cricket was transformed: it was a time when a traditional game evolved to fit a changing world. If 1970 was notable for the exclusion of South Africa from international cricket, 1971 was a landmark year because the first one-day international was played between England and Australia in Melbourne. The enormous popularity of this shortened version of the game led to the first World Cup being successfully staged in 1975. Then in 1977, even as cricket celebrated 100 years of Test matches, the game was changed forever, not by a player or cricket administrator, but by a businessman.

Kerry Packer, an Australian television tycoon who saw the moneymaking potential of cricket as a televised sport, signed up fifty-one of the world’s leading cricketers against the wishes of the national cricket boards and for about two years staged unofficial Tests and One-Day internationals under the name of World Series Cricket. While Packer’s ‘circus’ as it was then described folded up after two years, the innovations he introduced during this time to make cricket more attractive to television audiences endured and changed the nature of the game.

Coloured dress, protective helmets, field restrictions, cricket under lights, became a standard part of the post-Packer game. Crucially, Packer drove home the lesson that cricket was a marketable game, which could generate huge revenues. Cricket boards became rich by selling television rights to television companies. Television channels made money by selling television spots to companies who were happy to pay large sums of money to air commercials for their products to cricket’s captive television audience. Continuous television coverage made cricketers celebrities who, besides being paid better by their cricket boards, now made even larger sums of money by making commercials for a wide range of products, from tyres to colas, on television.

Television coverage changed cricket. It expanded the audience for the game by beaming cricket into small towns and villages. It also broadened cricket’s social base. Children who had never previously had the chance to watch international cricket because they lived outside the big cities, where top-level cricket was played, could now watch and learn by imitating their heroes. The technology of satellite television and the world wide reach of multi-national television companies created a global market for cricket.

Matches in Sydney could now be watched live in Surat. This simple fact shifted the balance of power in cricket: a process that had been begun by the break-up of the British Empire was taken to its logical conclusion by globalisation. Since India had the largest viewership for the game amongst the cricket-playing nations and the largest market in the cricketing world, the game’s centre of gravity shifted to South Asia. This shift was symbolized by the shifting of the ICC headquarters from London to tax-free Dubai.

A more important sign that the centre of gravity in cricket has shifted away from the old, Anglo-Australian axis is that innovations in cricket technique in recent years have mainly come from the practice of subcontinental teams in countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan has pioneered two great advances in bowling: the doosra and the ‘reverse swing’. Both skills were developed in response to subcontinental conditions: the doosra to counter aggressive batsmen with heavy modern bats who were threatening to make finger-spin obsolete and ‘reverse swing’ to move the ball in on dusty, unresponsive wickets under clear skies. Initially, both innovations were greeted with great suspicion by countries like Britain and Australia which saw them as an underhanded, illegal bending of the laws of cricket. In time, it came to be accepted that the laws of cricket could not continue to be framed for British or Australian conditions of play, and they became part of the technique of all bowlers, everywhere in the world.

One hundred and fifty years ago the first Indian cricketers, the Parsis, had to struggle to find an open space to play in. Today, the global marketplace has made Indian players the best-paid, most famous cricketers in the game, men for whom the world is a stage. The history that brought about this transformation was made up of many smaller changes: the replacement of the gentlemanly amateur by the paid professional, the triumph of the one-day game as it overshadowed Test cricket in terms of popularity, and the remarkable changes in global commerce and technology. The business of history is to make sense of change over time. In this chapter we have followed the spread of a colonial sport through its history, and tried to understand how it adapted to a post-colonial world.

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