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Changing ends

History Today, August 2010

As the England cricket team take on Pakistan in this summer’s Test Match series, Mike Marqusee revisits S.M.Toyne’s article on the origins and growth of the game, first published in History Today in June 1955. The full text of the original article (”The Early History of Cricket”) is available at History Today

In June 1955, when S.M Toyne’s article appeared, domestic and international cricket were still directly governed by the MCC, a self-perpetuating private members’ club. The division between gentlemen (public-school educated “amateurs”) and players (working class professionals) was still 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 were, probably for the last time, widely recognised as the best in the world.

In the mid-50s, English cricket felt to many like a prolonged Edwardian summer, an oasis resistant to post-war social changes. 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, CLR James, Derek Birley and others subjected cricket’s myths to critical scrutiny, and before historians transformed our picture of the 18th to 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.” In condescending to play cricket alongside their social inferiors, and even more in sponsoring matches and employing cricketers, English aristocrats (many of them Whig grandees) did indeed revolutionise popular culture, but there were always limits to cricket’s democracy. Equality on the field was encased in and conditioned by hierarchy off it. 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.

Today we would also expect a comparative framework – with other sports, eg. football, or with sports in other societies. Within such a framework, the ideas that cricket has unique “virtues” and that these correspond to “typically English virtues” would seem anything but the self-evident propositions they were to Toyne.

Toyne’s account of cricket’s emergence is gradualist. For him 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 therefore 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 an early 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 in our day expanded to outsize proportions.

Toyne condemns the early aristocratic patrons of cricket for setting “a deplorable fashion in gambling” and argues that the game was saved from corruption because in small villages it was still “played simply for enjoyment,” not for money. His researches have been cited by recent commentators to show that match fixing is not alien to the game – which is the opposite of the point Toyne was trying to make. In fact, gambling fuelled cricket’s rise. It was partly because of the huge stakes they wagered on the game that men of wealth sought to impose “the rule of law” over it.

Toyne was headmaster of St Peter’s School in York, hence his article’s focus on early cricket in Yorkshire, which he celebrates as untainted by the gamblers of the south. However, the “marked contrast” between north and south probably emerged only 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 League Football).

The early history of cricket still bears heavily on the game. It has always had one foot in the pre-industrial 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 anachronism remains part of cricket’s appeal, and though Toyne’s assumptions about cricket, England and commerce appear dated, they still pepper popular discussion about the game.