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Cricket is believed to have begun possibly as early as the 13th century as a game in which country boys bowled at a tree stump or at the hurdle gate into a sheep pen. This gate consisted of two uprights and a crossbar resting on the slotted tops; the crossbar was called a bail and the entire gate a wicket. The fact that the bail could be dislodged when the wicket was struck made this preferable to the stump, which name was later applied to the hurdle uprights. Early manuscripts differ about the size of the wicket, which acquired a third stump in the 1770s, but by 1706 the pitch—the area between the wickets—was 22 yards long.
The ball, once presumably a stone, has remained much the same since the 17th century. Its modern weight of between 5.5 and 5.75 ounces (156 and 163 grams) was established in 1774.
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The primitive bat was no doubt a shaped branch of a tree, resembling a modern hockey stick but considerably longer and heavier. The change to a straight bat was made to defend against length bowling, which had evolved with cricketers in Hambledon, a small village in southern England. The bat was shortened in the handle and straightened and broadened in the blade, which led to forward play, driving, and cutting. As bowling technique was not very advanced during this period, batting dominated bowling through the 18th century.
The early years
The earliest reference to an 11-a-side match, played in Sussex for a stake of 50 guineas, dates from 1697. In 1709 Kent met Surrey in the first recorded intercounty match at Dartford, and it is probable that about this time a code of laws (rules) existed for the conduct of the game, although the earliest known version of such rules is dated 1744. Sources suggest that cricket was limited to the southern counties of England during the early 18th century, but its popularity grew and eventually spread to London, notably to the Artillery Ground, Finsbury, which saw a famous match between Kent and All-England in 1744. Heavy betting and disorderly crowds were common at matches.
The aforementioned Hambledon Club, playing in Hampshire on Broadhalfpenny Down, was the predominant cricket force in the second half of the 18th century before the rise of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in London. Formed from a cricket club that played at White Conduit Fields, the club moved to Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. Marylebone borough in 1787 and became the MCC and in the following year published its first revised code of laws. Lord’s, which was named after its founder, Thomas Lord, has had three locations over its history. Moving to the current ground in St. John’s Wood in 1814, Lord’s became the headquarters of world cricket.
In 1836 the first match of North counties versus South counties was played, providing clear evidence of the spread of cricket. In 1846 the All-England XI, founded by William Clarke of Nottingham, began touring the country, and from 1852, when some of the leading professionals (including John Wisden, who later compiled the first of the famous Wisden almanacs on cricketing) seceded to form the United All-England XI, these two teams monopolized the best cricket talent until the rise of county cricket. They supplied the players for the first English touring team overseas in 1859.
Until early in the 19th century all bowling was underhand, and most bowlers favoured the high-tossed lob. Next came “the round-arm revolution,” in which many bowlers began raising the point at which they released the ball. Controversy raged furiously, and in 1835 the MCC rephrased the law to allow the hand to be raised as high as the shoulder. The new style led to a great increase in pace, or bowling speed. Gradually bowlers raised the hand higher and higher in defiance of the law. Matters were brought to a head in 1862 when an England team playing against Surrey left the field at London’s Kennington Oval in protest over a “no ball” call (i.e., an umpire’s decision that the bowler has thrown an illegal pitch). The argument centred on whether the bowler should be allowed to raise his arm above the shoulder. As a result of this controversy, the bowler was in 1864 officially accorded liberty to bowl overhand (but not to cock and straighten the arm). This change dramatically altered the game, making it yet more difficult for a batsman to judge the ball. Already a bowler was allowed to take a running start from any direction and for any distance. Once the bowler was allowed to release overhand, the ball could then reach speeds above 90 mph (145 km/hr). Though this is not as fast as the pitching speed in baseball, cricket has an additional twist in that the ball is usually delivered so as to bounce on the pitch (field) before the batsman can hit it. Thus, the ball may curve to the right or the left, bounce low or high, or spin toward or away from the batsman.
Batsmen learned to protect themselves with pads and batting gloves, and a cane handle increased the resilience of the bat. Only the best batsmen, however, could cope with fast bowling, because the poor condition of most pitches made it yet more difficult for a batsman to predict the motion of the ball. As the grounds improved, however, batsmen grew accustomed to the new bowling style and went on the offensive. Other new bowling styles were also discovered, causing batsmen to adjust their technique further.