While many sporting bluffers won’t want to get too bogged down in the history of cricket, it’s as well to have some idea about the game’s origins, development and organisation.
At the top level of the English game, the overriding aim is obviously to humiliate the Australians – but, then again, no one’s quite sure if this most-English-of-English pursuits is…well, quite so English as we often like to think.
The early days…
No one even knows the origin of the word ‘cricket’, let alone the game, but it seems to be derived from either the Anglo-Saxon cricce, the French criquet or the Dutch krickstoel.
A cricce was a staff or crutch. In the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, there is a picture of medieval monks standing in a field, one brother bowling a spherical object to another who is attempting to hit it with his cricce (difficult when you’re wearing a heavy woollen frock). Instead of a wicket there is a hole in the ground. This is reckoned by experts to be a very early form of the game ‘club-ball’, cricket’s forerunner. But it could simply be a picture of some medieval monks being silly in a field.
There are references in fifteenth-century French literature to criquet (it was played at St Omer as soon as they’d got over the Hundred Years War) and in a sixteenth-century Italian dictionary to cricket-a-wicket. This cosmopolitan scattering of information is perfect for bluffing purposes.
You can wax lyrical over why it never caught on in Italy – imagine fielding at cover after a torta milanesa – and speculate wildly about the game’s simultaneous development in Denmark, Holland, Germany and Persia (where it was called kruitskaukan). There is probably a picture in Tehran University of a group of ayatollahs being silly in a field (possibly also wearing frocks).
In 1617, Oliver Cromwell is said to have thrown himself into a ‘dissolute and disorderly course’ by playing cricket; there’s depravity for you.
In 1676, a party of British sailors played cricket in Aleppo. This does not explain what they were doing in Syria, some 80 miles inland, when they were supposed to have been fighting the Dutch in the Medway, but it may be evidence of cricket’s early international prestige.
The Marylebone Cricket Club
The headquarters of the MCC are at Lord’s in a posh part of London called St John’s Wood. It was founded in 1787 by ex-patrons of the Hambledon Club, which up to then had regarded itself as the controller of the game.
It’s considered something of an honour to become a member, although not so notable a distinction as being kicked out. This has only been achieved publicly in recent times by that champion bluffer Jeffrey Archer, who was suspended for seven years after being convicted of perjury. After a spell behind bars, he’s now back in the venerable club which pronounces on the rights and wrongs of the game.
There is also a waiting list of several thousand, and, if you are a man, you will have to show that you wear a suit, collar and tie at all times, treat women like ladies, know your way round a decent wine list and are able to sleep on a hard seat in the open air. The MCC is the custodian of cricket. It has a museum of the game, a collection of books, more memorabilia than it has room for, and is the self-appointed guardian of the game of cricket. Because it is based in London, it is viewed with great suspicion by all the county clubs except Middlesex, who share Lord’s with the MCC and are consequently given preferential treatment. The bright bluffer knows that this is why Middlesex play all their cup finals on their home ground, and why there have been more captains of England from Middlesex than any other county.
The Ashes is a ‘Test’ series that takes place every two years between England and Australia, alternately in each country. Most followers of English and Australian cricket say that it should be played every year, because it is the only one they really care about.
In August 1882, in a match that lasted only two days, Australia beat England for the first time in England. One spectator dropped dead and another bit chunks out of his umbrella handle (Augusts were soaking wet 100 years ago too). The next day, The Sporting Times published its famous mock obituary:
In affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a largecircle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
The following winter, England beat Australia in Australia, and some Melbourne ladies burnt a bail, sealed the ashes in an urn and inscribed it with a rather sweet little poem that included the couplet: ‘The welkin will ring loud/The great crowd will feel proud.’ Australians have always been better at cricket than poetry.
The ladies presented the urn to the English captain, the Honourable Ivo Bligh, and one of them subsequently married him. When the Hon Ivo died, he bequeathed the Ashes to the MCC. Since 1927 they have remained at Lord’s, even though England did not win them once from 1934 until 1953.
For more information about the history of game – without the usual old flannel – read The Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket®