Changing Ends: The History of Cricket

Mike Marqusee revisits S.M. Toyne’s article, The Early History of Cricket, on the origins and growth of the game, first published in History Today in June 1955.

First Grand Match of Cricket Played by Members of the Royal Amateur Society on Hampton Court Green, August 3rd, 1836. (unknown artist)When S.M. Toyne’s article first appeared, domestic and international cricket was still directly governed by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), a self-perpetuating private members’ club. The division between ‘gentlemen’ (public school educated ‘amateurs’) and ‘players’ (working-class professionals) was strictly enforced, with separate dressing rooms, entrances and forms of address. Limited-overs cricket was played only at club level, commerce was kept at arm’s length and the England Test side was widely recognised as the best in the world. 

In the mid-1950s English cricket felt to many like a prolonged Edwardian summer, an oasis resistant to postwar social change. In the ensuing 55 years, as the face of the game has changed, so inevitably has the writing of its history. Toyne wrote before Roland Bowen, C.L.R. James, Derek Birley and others subjected cricket’s myths to scrutiny; and before historians transformed our picture of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the period of cricket’s emergence as what Toyne called ‘a national game, played in every town or village’. 

Toyne opens and closes his article with paeans to the national character of cricket, which by then had been a staple of commentary for well over a century. This character resided in the game’s inclusiveness. On the cricket field ‘social differences were forgotten … all were equal under the rules of the game’. By condescending to play cricket alongside their social inferiors and, even more so, in sponsoring matches and employing cricketers, English aristocrats (many of them Whig grandees) revolutionised popular culture. But there were always limits to cricket’s democracy. Equality on the field was encased in and conditioned by the hierarchy off field. Today ‘The Early History of Cricket’ would have to be, at least in part, an account of how the elite imposed control over a popular pastime. 

We would also expect a comparative framework, contrasting cricket with sports such as football, for example, or with games in other societies. Then, the idea that cricket has unique ‘virtues’ and that these correspond to ‘typically English virtues’ would seem anything but the self-evident propositions that they were to Toyne. 

For Toyne, cricket has always been cricket; it was always out there, in a pristine form, first fighting off Puritan attempts to ban it, then commercial attempts to corrupt it. He understates the scale and nature of the leap that cricket made in this period, from a folk pastime to a commercial entertainment with a national public. From a 21st-century globalised perspective, the emergence of cricket takes on a significance it could not have for Toyne: as the world’s first modern organised team sport, cricket in England is the progenitor of an economic and cultural phenomenon that has expanded exponentially. 

The early aristocratic patrons of cricket are condemned by Toyne for setting ‘a deplorable fashion in gambling’. He argues that the game was saved from corruption because in small villages it was still ‘played simply for enjoyment’, not for money. Toyne’s researches have been cited by recent commentators to show that match-fixing is not alien to the game, the opposite of the point he was trying to make. In fact, gambling fuelled cricket’s rise. It was because of the huge stakes they wagered that men of wealth also sought to impose ‘the rule of law’. 

Toyne was headmaster of St Peter’s School in York, hence his focus on early cricket in Yorkshire, which he celebrates as untainted by southern gamblers. However, the ‘marked contrast’ between north and south probably emerged at a much later date than he supposes, towards the end of the 19th century, when the Lancashire Leagues offered working-class spectators an alternative to county cricket (and a summer equivalent to football). 

The early history of cricket still bears heavily on the sport, which has always had one foot in the pre-indust-rial world from which it emerged. Fitting the old, leisurely-paced game into the constricted space available in a modern economy remains intrinsically awkward, as the controversies surrounding Twenty20 have reconfirmed. Though cricket is seen as the more conservative game, football tinkers much less with its rules and formats, precisely because it emerged as a modern sport a century later. Nonetheless, the sense of anachron-ism remains part of cricket’s appeal and, although Toyne’s assumptions about cricket, England and commerce are dated, they still pepper popular discussion about the sport.

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