Lord’s? The Oval? Hambledon? Cricket didn’t start at any of those legendary grounds, says David Frith
It’s extremely difficult to correct a claim so deeply entrenched. MCC say Lord’s is the “Home of Cricket” while The Oval boasts the first English Test match and much else. Equally, most cricket aficionados accept without question the fruity tales concerning the Hampshire village of Hambledon almost in Biblical terms: the beginning, the establishment of the beloved game, its historical epicentre, “The Cradle of Cricket”.
The reasoning is easily understood. John Nyren, with the help of Charles Cowden Clarke, composed a revered memoir, The Young Cricketer’s Tutor and the Cricketers of My Time, which was based on his father Richard’s recollections. Published in 1833, it animatedly illuminated the cricket and cricketers in that famous village in the 18th century. No other ancient cricket chronicle quite compares. Because of this fame and familiarity with Hambledon situated picturesquely on the Hampshire Downs, most cricket lovers accept that the game’s foundations were firmly stamped there long ago by the men who played there and drank heartily at the cosy Bat & Ball Inn.
However (a weighty however), if one were to gather all the early significant landmarks in the development of the game of cricket, there at the top of the list stands the old Surrey town of Guildford. A study of these ‘firsts’ should convince even the most sceptical reader, even those nursing a stubborn resistance to amending long-held beliefs. In the course of research for the book ‘Guildford’s Cricket Story’ marking 75 years of County Championship matches played by Surrey at the Woodbridge Road ground in Guildford since the first in 1938, I managed to establish from among the many old cricket grounds in and around the town precisely where the great 18th century matches were played. This expanse, on the east of the ancient borough, close to Merrow, is now part of Guildford Golf Club’s course, and was also used long ago as a horse-racing track. Remnants of the old stone boundary lines can still be found. There the star cricketers performed, the matches recorded in Scores and Biographies, and attended by noisy, animated crowds which often included aristocracy.
Establishing Guildford’s prime position as the locality in all of Britain (and the world, come to that) which is most steeped in cricket’s formative history, there is a bundle of firsts beyond comparison. Here they are …
Earliest surviving reference to the game
In 1598 a Surrey coroner named John Derrick, 59, during a hearing over a disputed plot of land, testified that about 50 years earlier he and some school friends “did runne and play there at Creckett and other Plaies”. This entry in a Guildford Court Book is dated January 15, 1598 and was held at Guildford’s Muniment Room for as long as anyone could recall – until recently, when regrettably it was moved to the Surrey History Centre over in Woking. That highly significant piece of wasteland, site of the boys’ primitive games of cricket, is known to have been close to the junctions of North Street and Chertsey Street. Around the corner stands Guildford’s Royal Grammar School, where England fast bowler and captain Bob Willis was educated. A local history film-making team has plausibly re-enacted the juvenile mid-16th century cricket scene in one of their programmes, the boy with the bat protecting a three-legged milking stool.
Top picture: An impression of the earliest recorded game of cricket, at Guildford in around 1550
The Middle Stump
The first wicket consisted simply of two upright sticks, or stumps, with a fairly long cross-bar bail. It was very frustrating for the premier bowler of the day, Edward ‘Lumpy’ Stevens, as repeatedly he beat the batsman, with his curved bat, only for the ball to fly or roll between the two stumps. It was eventually decided to add a middle stump. ‘Lumpy’, from Send, an outlying village near Guildford, had been a bit of a smuggler as a youngster. His craftiness extended to selecting pitches before play began which would favour his bowling (underhand, of course). His penchant for apple pie would have won him a nice sponsorship contract today.
Spikes and Pads
Cricket long ago had its physical risks. Those who participated in the earliest matches played in their everyday dress, so a blow from the ball on shins that were covered only in silk, cotton or woollen stockings could be painful. However, an imaginative soul named Bob Robinson, a tall, heavily-built chap, a left-hander, who came from Ash (a village just down the Hogs Back from Guildford), fashioned his bat handle so as to be more comfortable for a man who had lost a finger on his right hand. His next innovation was aimed at protecting his battered shins and knees. He devised wooden ‘pads’. They helped, but unfortunately the sound of ball on plank was noisy and was mocked, so the development of leg guards was put on hold. But this was another ‘first’ for Guildford. Not that ‘Long Bob’ was finished. His next innovation was aimed at overcoming the slipping and sliding that made a batsman’s life difficult in wet weather. He designed boots with long spikes. Cricketers today give little thought to the history of footwear, but this sophisticated and crucial accessory has Bob Robinson as its patron saint.
To the greater Guildford area also stands the honour of having staged the first formally organised women’s cricket match. On January 26 1745, at Bramley, another of Guildford’s satellite villages, Eleven Maids of Bramley, dressed in white, with blue ribbons in their hair, played Eleven Maids of Hambleton (not Hambledon), who wore red ribbons, and won the contest by 127 notches (runs) to 119. An eyewitness recorded that “the girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do.” In 1995 the Women’s Cricket Association staged a commemorative match at Bramley to mark the 250th anniversary of that historic event.
The term ‘Test Match’
The term “test match” was actually coined some time before March 1877, when the first of all recognised Tests was played. In the Australian summer of 1861-62 an English team led by HH Stephenson of Surrey sailed to the New World and played matches in Sydney and Melbourne and some bush towns. Will Hammersley, who came from Ash (the same village just out of Guildford where the inventive Bob Robinson lived) had walked out on his wife and four children to settle in Melbourne. There he played cricket and wrote about it, and briefly became Melbourne Cricket Club’s secretary. In previewing the great contest between the locals and Stephenson’s Englishmen (half of the dozen tourists were Surrey players) Hammersley used the expression “test match”. The term caught on in due course (with only New Zealanders today clinging to the lower-case “test”). Incidentally, another member of that pioneering English touring team who came from the Guildford area was George ‘Ben’ Griffith: he hanged himself in 1879 and is buried in the town’s Stoke cemetery.
Oldest known ‘Laws’
As for cricket’s Laws, the oldest surviving set of ‘articles’ – a crude prototype of the elaborate compilation that umpires and players abide by today – are those drawn up by the 2nd Duke of Richmond and Alan Brodrick before their teams played home and away fixtures in July 1727. They make weird reading today, with 16 clauses, and 12 players on each side. There was even a clause forbidding players from speaking out, a sin punishable by expulsion, though the two captains were not subject to this restriction. And where was Mr Brodrick’s estate? Pepperharowe, just seven miles south-west of Guildford town. As far back as 1763 some people were disgruntled about cricket. I have a very rare little pamphlet compiled by John Geere, of Farnham. Its succinct title is Serious Considerations on Plays, Games, and Other Fashionable Diversions, Shewing the Sinfulness and Dangerous Tendency Thereof . The agitated Mr Geere fumed: “If those who delight in plays and sports be grown so numerous in a Church that they can choose a Minister of their own way of thinking … then they may go on and play amongst the frolicsome youths, and continue their card-playing, bowls, cricket matches, cock-fighting, horse-racing, bull-baiting, wrestling, dance-meeting ”.
Has it ever struck you that by playing cricket you could be committing a sin?
David Frith originally wrote this article for the January 2021 edition of The Cricketer. His book, ‘Guildford’s Cricket Story’ can be bought through Guildford Cricket Club. Contact Tim Walter by either email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07882 054111.