The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Editor's choice

The origins of cricket, like many other aspects of the game, are tied up with legends. For lovers of cricket, the name of Hambledon in Hampshire evokes very strong sentiments. This was the cradle of cricket. It was here on the green, next to the Bat and Ball pub, that the first heroes of the game — Richard Nyren, John Small, Tom Sueter and others — carved out their names in the early history of cricket. Hambledon, as David Underdown correctly notes, is “both historical fact and imagined romantic symbol”. Readers of cricket literature know that the Hambledon men entered the portals of legends through John Nyren’s evocation of cricket on the windswept Broadhalfpenny Down, the team’s home ground on the hill above the village.

Underdown, well known historian of 17th century England and passionate cricket lover, retrieves that enigmatic era, half-history, half-legend, when Father Time (or more aptly his Hambledon equivalent) announced that play could begin. Underdown does this — and this is the real strength of the book — as a historian and deploys all his professional skills. This book is not written in the evocative spirit of Nyren but with the analytical rigour of a historian trained in the hard school of British empiricism. This is not to say that the book is dull. On the contrary, Underdown has the raconteur’s discernment of the best possible anecdote and these abound in the book. Underdown successfully draws out the relationship of cricket with English society and culture. This helps to locate the deep roots that cricket had in English life.

Underdown emphasizes that cricket, in its origins, was “primarily a rustic, village game”. The world of the 18th century was hierarchical and oppressive but the lower orders still enjoyed some degree of independence and this expressed itself in riots over food prices and wages. Cricket, a game in which the local aristocracy and squirearchy participated with the lower orders, served to bridge the social and cultural divide. Cricket encouraged social cohesion and conveyed the somewhat deceptive impression that village life was held together by some notions of commonality.

The participation of the nobility transformed a peasant sport by professionalizing it and by introducing gambling. Cricket added to the aristocrat’s dignity as a patron. The nobles played the game as they enjoyed the fun involved. But by the middle of the 18th century, a new element was beginning to affect cricket: commerce. The force emanated from London. Lord’s was still in the future but cricket was already being played in the Artillery Ground to entertain a mass audience. A village game was on the way to becoming a part of metropolitan culture.

Underdown connects the decline of Hambledon cricket with the disappearance of the old community under the impact of industrialization and the market economy. And appositely, the centre of gravity shifted from the southeastern counties, the original home of village cricket, to Lord’s and the MCC in London. Underdown stops when cricket was poised to enter its early modern phase.

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