The casual observer of cricket may well note the various financial scandals, the spot-fixing, the strange manner in which commentators and players alike appeal to the 'spirit of the game' even at the acme of its professional expression, and hanker for a golden age, an age of gentlemen and W.G. Grace and pure sportsmanship.
The Country House Cricketer
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While the game has evolved from the underarm bowling, two stumps and curved bats of the 17th century into DRS, hotspot and third umpires, several things have remained remarkably consistent.
One of them is the influence of money. Indeed, in the 18th century, games revolved around money to an astonishing degree. Of one game in 1772, between the Gentlemen of Hampshire and Sussex and those of Kent, it was noted that 'great bets were depending on the Duke of Dorset's strokes, against Mr. Ellis's, which was won by the Duke, who got 21 notches at one hand, Mr. Ellis 16 at both his hands'. It's intriguing that the language of the cards table is used here, though when you read that in 1777 a match was to be played for 1000 guineas it becomes more understandable.
Cricket, at least, organised cricket, was a sport associated closely with the nobility, with patrons such as John Sackville and Charles Lennox, Dukes of Dorset and Richmond respectively, not only playing the game (and often exceptionally well), but also 'employing' the best cricketers on their estates to ensure competitiveness on the field of play.
John Minshull, scorer of the first recorded century; Lumpy Stevens, whose accuracy at bowling between the two stumps led to the introduction of the dreaded middle stump, and the Newland brothers were all estate employees.
Cricket, in being adopted by the nobility as a sport delightfully suited to gambling, had moved a long way from the early 17th century when, for example, Bartholomew Wyatt and Richard Latter were fined for deciding to play cricket instead of attending church one fine Easter Sunday.
That the development of the game was intimately wrapped up in the world of the great country houses is perhaps demonstrated best by those gentlemen such as the Dukes of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dorset and Sheffield, all of whom constructed cricket pitches on their estates, primarily for the edification of their sons.
Figures such as the Duke of Richmond were the driving forces behind the codification of the game, too, with the articles of agreement between him and Mr. Broderick in 1727 covering the length of the pitch, whom they might select to play (residency being the important factor), and even the conduct of the players: 'there shall be one Umpire of each side; & that any of the gamesters shall speak or give of their opinion, on any Point of the game, they are to be turned out, & Voided in the match.'
It was this history, this connection that led me to write The Country House Cricketer, the story of 12 country houses, their history, and the cricket played there, past and present.
Again, the games were played for money, but in this case the profits from the book go to benefit sufferers from Parkinson's disease, via Parkinson's UK and the Cure Parkinson's Trust. Why? Well, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2008 aged 40.
But I still play cricket.
Because it is the best of games. Now, if someone would only let me have a country house...
© Pete Langman