6/4 he won’t score 20

John Sturrock

  • Start of Play: Cricket and Culture in 18th-Century England by David Underdown
    Allen Lane, 258 pp, £20.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9330 8

In prelapsarian times, it was only ever a short step from the batting crease to the pulpit, as generations of cricketing vicars used the game that they played heartily, if not usually very well, on Saturday afternoon for a neighbourly source of Sunday metaphors with which to earth a sermon and reassure the congregation that the rules by which a good Anglican was urged to live were really no more arduous than those framed by the MCC. The path of righteousness measured 22 yards and by repeated association with the godhead the patently sinless game of cricket was hoisted onto an existential plateau to which other, rougher games needn’t bother to aspire. The parallel was, on the other hand, open to question, since it involved seeing the testing game of life exclusively from the batsman’s point of view. Contingency did its satanic worst to get you out, and you did your Christian best to stay in. What, though, if you were some out-of-order soul who chose to look at this vital encounter from the other end of the pitch? One early cricketer who did so was the third Duke of Dorset: ‘What is human life but a game of cricket? – beauty the bat and man the ball,’ he’s quoted as saying in David Underdown’s book. The Duke, a big sponsor of the game in its years of consolidation in the second half of the 18th century, reverted on non-match days to his role of seducer of upper-class women, and no doubt felt that the life’s-a-game-of-cricket trope, as modified by him, was a sporting way of dressing up his venery as victimisation. Once into his forties, and having, let’s hope, been struck to the boundary once too often, he married and gave up cricket.

Large landowners like the Duke of Dorset, whose seat was at Knole, don’t come well out of Start of Play, a piece of social and sporting history that stays absorbingly close to the local facts of how and where cricket as we know it came about. Underdown has a case to make along the way, for cricket as a game and the countrymen who were the first to play it, and against the titled and other intruders who later came along and did much to spoil it. In following the game over roughly the century and a half after the Restoration in which it spread and became more organised, mainly in the South-East of England, he’s also following the process by which, as he sees it, an honest, communal, if at no point exactly godly game was gradually corrupted. What happened to it needless to say was money. Money and London, which had the resources to draw all things to it, an essentially bucolic pastime like cricket included. Underdown himself is not a Londoner; he grew up watching cricket in Somerset and is riled to this day that the fine players he warmed to there many years ago, the six-hitting Arthur Wellard and the beefy opener, Harold Gimblett – who impressed me no end once by returning the ball full toss to the wicket-keeper from the boundary underarm: his forearms looked to measure as many inches around as my teenage thighs – never got to play as often for England as they should have done, because the selectors at Lord’s were too high-and-mighty to take the train to Taunton and get a good look at them. Underdown’s lingering resentment about this surfaces from time to time in his book and puts a bracingly keen edge on its argument that the dukes and other notables who got involved in cricket did so more to advance their own glory and political influence than the welfare or fun of the working men who played it.

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