America's Original Pastime
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Today, millions of people in 92 countries ranging from the Caribbean to Europe to Africa to South Asia play or watch Cricket. Most Americans, however, have little or no knowledge of the game despite the fact it once was one of the most popular games in Colonial America and the early United States.
The widely accepted theory about the beginnings of cricket is that it first developed in early medieval times to the south and south-east of London in the geographical areas of the North Downs, the South Downs, and the Weald. The counties of Kent, Sussex and Surrey were therefore the earliest centers of experience, and it was from here that the game reached London and other southern counties like Berkshire, Essex, Hampshire, and Middlesex. As early as 1611, a cricket match was recorded at Chevening in Kent between teams standing for the Downs and the Weald.
Cricket survived for many generations as essentially a children's game. Likely it was derived from bowls by the intervention of a batsman trying to stop the ball reaching its target by hitting it away. Playing on sheep-grazed land or in clearings, the original implements may have been a matted lump of sheep's wool (or even a stone or a small lump of wood) as the ball; a stick or a crook or another farm tool as the bat; and a gate (e.g., a wicket gate), a stool or a tree stump as the wicket.
The game of cricket, known as wicket, which was played in New England even into the 20th century was undoubtedly a perpetuation of informal cricket as it was introduced by the early settlers in North America, but, oddly, maintained in a formal state so that it even caused some students of that game to think it had no relation to cricket at all. The word wicket however, is a good North Country dialect word for cricket and is not yet wholly extinct There is a further proof that it was cricket from a description of the size of the wicket itself: The wicket was six feet by four inches, and an American visitor to London in 1810 was struck by the difference between "their (i.e., English) cricket and ours" and went on to say that "in our cricket, the wickets are only two in number and about three or four inches high."
Moreover, there is a reference to cricket in New York in 1751 played according to the “London rules” (doubtless those of 1744) which by implication shows a definite divergence between the American game, and its later development in the country of its birth. These "rules" were again updated in 1774.
The first mention of Cricket played outside of England comes from a diary entry from 1676 by Henry Teonge, a Chaplain in the Royal Navy. They set sail on June 1, 1675, and traveled through Malta, Cyprus, and Iskenderun before travelling on horseback to Aleppo, in what is today Syria. The diary entry on May 6, 1676 read:
“This morning early (as is the custom all summer long) at least 40 of the English, with his worship the Consull, rod out of the cytty about 4 miles to the Greene Platt, a fine vally by a river syde, to recreate them selves. Where a princely tent was pitched; and wee had severall pastimes and sports, as duck-hunting, fishing, shooting, hand-ball, krickett, scrofilo; and then a noble dinner brought thither, with greate plenty of all sorts of wines, punchs, and lemonads; and at 6 wee returne all home in good order, but soundly tyred and weary.”
Note: The spellings are, of course, not what we use these days, but one can safely presume that the words are comprehensible.
Beginnings in America -The 1700s
Without a doubt, the early sailors to America brought cricket along and the colonists played cricket however, exactly when the first ball was bowled is hard to estimate. By 1705, the colonists were already playing the game in Georgia, Virginia and North and South Carolina.
In a diary he kept between 1709 and 1712, William Byrd, owner of the Virginia plantation Westover, noted,
"I rose at 6 o'clock and read a chapter in Hebrew. About 10 o'clock Dr. Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack, we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner. Then we played at shooting with arrows...and went to cricket again till dark."
The next mention of cricket in America was in 1737, this time on Oglethorpe's and William Stephens’ colony in Georgia. William Stephens, a planter and secretary to the English Trustees of the Colony wrote in 1737 that “Many of our townsmen, freeholders, inmates and servants were assembled in the principal square at cricket and divers other athletick sports”.
The first public report of a cricket match in North America was in 1751, when the New York Gazette and the Weekly Post Boy reported that a match between New York XI and London XI was played according to the ‘London method' probably a reference to the 1744 Code of the game which was stricter than the rules governing the contemporary game in England. The New York XI won the match, the scores being 80 and 86 against 43 and 47. Both XIs were drawn from residents of New York. The “formalizing” of the rules of the game on this side of the Atlantic came in 1754, when Benjamin Franklin brought back from England a copy of the 1744 Laws; cricket’s official rule book.
George Washington, commander of the American forces who were rebelling against the army of King George, having survived the savage winter of 1777-78 in Valley Forge, rebuilt his army's shattered morale with courts martial, drills, theatrical entertainments and cricket.
"This day His Excellency dined with General Nox" wrote first lieutenant George Ewing in his diary, "and after dinner did us the honor to play at Wicket with us."
By 1779, a cricket club existed, and regularly played cricket, in Greenwich on Manhattan and, in 1780, it was noted that cricketers used to meet at the Ferry House Tavern between Fulton St and Elm St in Brooklyn on Mondays. Tom Melville wrote in his book, The Tented Field, that the Brooklyn Club may have organized these matches, played beside the Jewish burial grounds. The Ferry House Tavern appears to have been the favorite spot for the British soldiers stationed in New York at that time and the pitch adjacent to the Jewish burial grounds appears to have been the favored pitch for cricket for over 50 years until 1838.
After the Revolutionary War
While the “Britishness” of cricket caused some problems with its growth in the United States following the Revolutionary War, that soon wore off and its popularity again began to climb. In 1786, an advertisement for cricket equipment appeared in the New York Independent Journal, and newspaper reports of that time mentioned "young gentlemen" and "men of fashion" taking up the sport.
The earliest known portrayal depicting cricket in the United States is the same one that also depicts Dartmouth College. It is an engraving that appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine for February 1793. In addition to Dartmouth, there is evidence that cricket was played at Harvard in the late 18th century and it is generally believed that the two prestigious schools played cricket matches as the century drew to a close although there is no concrete evidence to support such a belief
In Richmond, Virginia, during 1795, organized matches were played under the rules of the club there. While in 1803 a cricket club was organized in Norfolk, Virginia, and continued for some years as shown by advertisements in the American Beacon between 1816 to 1820.
"CRICKET CLUB. A meeting of the Subscribers to this Club, will be held at the Exchange Coffee House, this evening at 6 o'clock, for the purpose of draughting Rules and Regulations for the government." -- American Beacon October 1816.
Later notices were for playing times.
Cricket was played regularly near Broadway and Thirtieth Street in New York, but this gathering did not organize into a club until much later in 1838. As reported in the New York Post, "June 16, 1820, eleven expert English players matched eleven New Yorkers at Brooklyn, the contest lasting two days." Elsewhere, in Portland, Maine, cricket was played throughout the 1820s. Finally, in 1825, Americans in Baltimore played cricket annually as part of the July 4th celebrations.
Rules and equipment of early cricket
Early cricketers played in their everyday clothes and had no protective equipment such as gloves or pads. A 1743 painting of a game in progress at the Artillery Ground depicts two batsmen and a bowler dressed alike in white shirt, breeches, white knee-length stockings, and shoes with buckles. The wicket keeper wears the same clothes with the addition of a waistcoat. An umpire and scorer wear three-quarter length coats and tricorn hats. The ball is bowled underarm along the ground, as in bowls, at varying speed towards a wicket consisting of two stumps mounted by a single crosspiece. The batsman addresses the delivery with a bat that resembles a modern hockey stick, this shape being ideal for dealing with a ball on the ground. The modern straight bat evolved in the 1760s after bowlers began to "give the ball air" by pitching it.
The earliest reference to the cricket ball is found in 1658 in Mysteries of Love and Eloquence by Edward Phillips. The pitch has been 22 yards long (i.e., a chain) since the first known code of Laws in 1744, and this length had likely been in use since the introduction of Gunter's chain in 1620. The over consisted of four deliveries until the 19th century.
The wicket, until the 1770s, included two stumps (uprights) and a single bail (cross piece). By that time, the shape of the wicket was high and narrow after the 1744 Laws defined the dimensions as 22 inches high and six inches wide. But earlier 18th century pictures show a wicket that was low and broad, perhaps two feet wide by one foot high. The ends of the stumps were forked to support the light bail and there were criteria for the firmness of pitching the stumps into the ground and for the delicate placing of the bail so that it would easily topple when a stump was hit.
The earliest known mention of the umpire dates from 1680 and is the first entry in Buckley's Fresh Light on 18th Century Cricket. Buckley does not quote the reference "that is quite unfit for publication nowadays" but he confirms a clear reference to "the two umpires”. In early cricket, there were two umpires as now, but the modern square-leg umpire stood close to the striker's wicket. Both umpires carried a bat which the running batsman needed to touch to complete his run. There were two scorers who sat on the field and recorded the scores by making notches on tally sticks; runs were then known as notches for this reason.
There were two main forms of cricket in the 17th and 18th centuries. One was single wicket in which, as the name implies, there is only one batsman, although teams of threes or fives often took part. The converse is the "double wicket" form, with two batsmen, and this has long been associated with eleven-a-side teams playing two innings each.