No one knows when or where cricket began but there is a body of evidence, much of it circumstantial, that strongly suggests the game was devised during Saxon or Norman times by children living in the Weald, an area of dense woodlands and clearings in south-east England that lies across Kent and Sussex. In medieval times, the Weald was populated by small farming and metal-working communities. It is generally believed that cricket survived as a children’s game for many centuries before it was increasingly taken up by adults around the beginning of the 17th century.
It is quite likely that cricket was devised by children and survived for many generations as essentially a children’s game. Adult participation is unknown before the early 17th century. Possibly cricket was derived from bowls, assuming bowls is the older sport, by the intervention of a batsman trying to stop the ball from 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 stool or a tree stump or a gate (e.g., a wicket gate) as the wicket.
Derivation of the name of “cricket”
A number of words are thought to be possible sources for the term “cricket”. In the earliest known reference to the sport in 1598 (see below), it is called creckett. The name may have been derived from the Middle Dutch krick(-e), meaning a stick; or the Old English criccor cryce meaning a crutch or staff. Another possible source is the Middle Dutch word krickstoel, meaning a long low stool used for kneeling in church and which resembled the long low wicket with two stumps used in early cricket.
According to Heiner Gillmeister, a European language expert of Bonn University, “cricket” derives from the Middle Dutch met de (krik ket)sen (i.e., “with the stick chase”), which also suggests a Dutch connection in the game’s origin. It is more likely that the terminology of cricket was based on words in use in south east England at the time and, given trade connections with the County of Flanders, especially in the 15th century when it belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy, many Middle Dutch words found their way into southern English dialects.
First definite reference
John Derrick was a pupil at The Royal Grammar School in Guildford when he and his friends played creckett circa 1550
Despite many prior suggested references, the first definite mention of the game is found in a 1598 court case concerning an ownership dispute over a plot of common land inGuildford, Surrey. A 59-year old coroner, John Derrick, testified that he and his school friends had played creckett on the site fifty years earlier when they attended the Free School. Derrick’s account proves beyond reasonable doubt that the game was being played in Surrey circa 1550.
The first reference to cricket being played as an adult sport was in 1611, when two men in Sussex were prosecuted for playing cricket on Sunday instead of going to church.In the same year, a dictionary defined cricket as a boys’ game and this suggests that adult participation was a recent development.
Early 17th century
A number of references occur up to the English Civil War and these indicate that cricket had become an adult game contested by parish teams, but there is no evidence of county strength teams at this time. Equally, there is little evidence of the rampant gambling that characterised the game throughout the 18th century. It is generally believed, therefore, that village cricket had developed by the middle of the 17th century but that county cricket had not and that investment in the game had not begun.
After the Civil War ended in 1648, the new Puritan government clamped down on “unlawful assemblies”, in particular the more raucous sports such as football. Their laws also demanded a stricter observance of the Sabbath than there had been previously. As the Sabbath was the only free time available to the lower classes, cricket’s popularity may have waned during the Commonwealth. Having said that, it did flourish in public fee-paying schools such as Winchester and St Paul’s. There is no actual evidence that Oliver Cromwell’s regime banned cricket specifically and there are references to it during the interregnum that suggest it was acceptable to the authorities provided that it did not cause any “breach of the Sabbath”. It is believed that the nobility in general adopted cricket at this time through involvement in village games.
Gambling and press coverage
Cricket certainly thrived after the Restoration in 1660 and is believed to have first attracted gamblers making large bets at this time. In 1664, the “Cavalier” Parliament passed the Gaming Act 1664 which limited stakes to £100, although that was still a fortune at the time, equivalent to about £12 thousand in present day terms . Cricket had certainly become a significant gambling sport by the end of the 17th century. There is a newspaper report of a “great match” played in Sussex in 1697 which was 11-a-side and played for high stakes of 50 guineas a side.
With freedom of the press having been granted in 1696, cricket for the first time could be reported in the newspapers. But it was a long time before the newspaper industry adapted sufficiently to provide frequent, let alone comprehensive, coverage of the game. During the first half of the 18th century, press reports tended to focus on the betting rather than on the play.[