16 Jun 2023


Cricket has never been a more popular sport, not least because of investment in a range of country grounds, the increasing following for Twenty20, and the thrilling professionalism of the county teams.

From the perfect sight of a cricket match played on a village green in late afternoon sunlight to the grandeur and excitement of an England test match at Lords, cricket offers so much to the spectator. Fans will be looking forward to a summer of their favourite sport, especially to the Ashes series, which starts at Edgbaston on Friday 16 June.

The famous rivalry between England and Australia dates to 1882 when the Australians beat England on English ground for the first time, The Sporting Times promptly declared that English cricket was dead and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. During the next encounter in Australia, a small terracotta urn was presented to the English team, reputedly holding the ashes of an item of cricket equipment. Although the urn has never become the official trophy of the tournament, it has come to symbolise the high drama that is so often associated with it.

Many ‘firsts’ are recorded in the substantial annals of the game of cricket. A game that was recognisably cricket was being played in Tudor England – the word ‘cricket’ is mentioned in Florio’s Italian English dictionary in 1598. In 1624 Jasper Vinall became the first man known to be killed playing cricket: hit by a bat while trying to catch the ball – at Horsted Green, Sussex. The first reference to a ‘great match’ was in 1697 in Sussex. Just 12 years later the first county match, between Kent and Surrey, was recorded.

In 1744 the Laws of Cricket were first codified and in 1787 the first match was played at Thomas Lord’s London cricket ground. The first match at the Oval was played in 1845. The first English touring team went to the US and Canada in 1859. In 1873 WG Grace became the first player to record 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season. The first test match took place in Melbourne in 1877 – Australia beat England by 45 runs. The first test match in England took place in 1880 – a five-wicket victory against Australia at the Oval.

Gentlemen vs Players

Cricket developed as a peculiarly British game that enshrined and perpetuated many fundamental British attitudes. Underpinning it is the notion that there were once two types of cricketers: amateurs who played for the love of the game and professionals who played for money. The ‘gentlemen’ amateurs probably had sufficient wealth and social status to be able to afford to indulge in their hobby, while the professionals presumably were concerned with the necessity to make a living. This division led to a belief that the best gentlemen sportsmen, who appeared to be operating on the moral high ground (free of the constraints of financial necessity) could meet professionals on equal terms and even emerge the victors.

In 1798 a cricket-obsessed clergyman named Lord Frederick Beauclerk, captaining a team of ‘gentlemen amateurs’, challenged the professionals (‘players’) to a match and lost disastrously. A tradition was born, and for many years these Gentleman vs Players matches, which took place every season from 1816–1962 (with the exception of the world war years) were the most prestigious fixtures on the English cricketing calendar. For the most part, the clash of ill-matched teams generally led to the resounding defeat of the gentlemen. From 1865 to 1906, however, a remarkable amateur cricketer, WG Grace, took to the field and turned the whole game around; the Gentlemen dominated the matches during this era, a triumph that was reflected in the whole-hearted enthusiasm for the game at public schools and Oxford and Cambridge.

After the heyday of EG Grace it became increasingly apparent that the gentlemen were not offering any real contest to the professionals. Gentlemen vs players matches became a good way of spotting talented amateurs and recruiting them for the professional game, rather than an exciting spectator sport, and the last of these games took place at Lords in 1962. The veneration of the flair and spontaneity of supremely talented amateurs, at the expense of admiration for the competence and efficiency of professions continued to haunt British sport –and not just cricket.

It’s Not Cricket

Early games of cricket were hard-fought and alarmingly violent. The Laws of cricket began to evolve in the 18th century (the MCC produced their first set of Laws in 1788 a year after the club’s foundation). Over the courses of the following century, cricket began to develop a notion of the ‘spirit of the game’, which went further than the actual laws. The prevailing idea emerged that cricket should be played with integrity and straightforwardness, linking the sport closely to the notion of sound, ‘gentlemanly’ ethics. From this evolved the idea of ‘not cricket’, which was first mooted by another enthusiastic reverend, James Pycroft, in 1851, who, condemning the timidity of the great batsman Fuller Pilch in the face of some awesome fast bowling, explored the notions of cricket and fair play: “Why then, we will not say that anything which that hardest of hitters and thorough cricketer [Pilch] does is not cricket... But certainly it is anything but play.”

In 1896 The Times thundered: “cricket is a kind of synonym for generous behaviour, nor can we condemn any conduct more severely and succinctly than by saying that ‘it is not cricket’”. The phrase ‘not cricket’ had acquired general currency and was so over-used in the first half of the 20th century that it began to become meaningless. Indeed, in 1929, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin confusingly opined: “One could not define what cricket was, as one could not define a gentleman, but one knew it, as one knew a gentleman when one met a gentleman.”

In an era of fierce professionalism, commercialism and sponsorship, cricket has become a very different sport and that telling phrase has lost much of its lustre, but it is a reminder of the very special place cricket has occupied in the British character.

Fair Play for Cricketers

• The umpire’s decision is final. Never show dissent.

• Walk when given out – no lingering or arguing.

• Applaud the new batsman as he makes his way to wicket.

• Never interfere with the seam or surface of the ball (polishing is fine).

• Never deliberately distract the batsman.

• No dangerous bowling: never risk causing physical injury to the batsman.

• No time-wasting.


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