The answers to various questions on the exact origin of cricket probably lie in Hambledon.
PHOTO: K. PRADEEP.
Close-of-play clubhouse: Cricket is still important to the Bat & Ball Inn.
CRICKET comes alive in the English summer. It reminds one of the smells of freshly cut grass, of the taste of cucumber sandwiches, the sight of floppy, white hats and of the sound of polite applause.
But time has brought many changes. The International Cricket Council shifted its base from Lord's to flashy Dubai. The rules of the game are being constantly revised. But England will always remain the traditional home of cricket.
Trying to unravel the exact and true origins of this game leads one to a great medieval mystery. An answer may be found in and around the village, now known as Hambledon. This picturesque little village lies about 10 miles north of Portsmouth, midway between Meon Valley and the main London road. It is located in the county of Hampshire, just an hour by road or rail from London. A visit to Broadhalfpenny Down and the Bat & Ball Inn here is a must for anyone who loves cricket.
The word "Broadhalfpenny" was a title given to places licensed by Royal Charter for fairs and markets. The Bat & Ball Inn was built in about 1730. It was only natural that the Down was used for cricket and the Inn as a pavilion and clubhouse. It would not be right to describe Broadhalfpenny Down as the birthplace of cricket, but it could be said to have been its nursery.
The Hambledon Cricket Club, considered by many as the first ever cricket club, was formed in 1750. And in a comparatively short time, cricket developed from a casual pastime to something akin to the internationally prestigious game of today. It was here that the rules were developed. The middle stump was added, the width of the bat defined and, for a time, disputes on the rules, resolved. It was here that the skills of cricket were perfected.
Richard Nyren, captain of the Hambledon Cricket Club and landlord of the Bat & Ball Inn, was the first to think about the game and how it could be best played. He combined talent with the rare ability to lead and inspire other players. Richard Nyren first, and after him Tom Walker, had the vision and skill to devise and develop length bowling.
John Small had the vision and skill to counter it with straight bats and fast footwork. By 1770, Hambledon was established as the leading club in England and acknowledged as the chief authority for enforcing the Laws of Cricket.
The Bat & Ball Inn was the focus of the club. The players huddled together here after a match for a post-mortem of the game, analysing and discussing, striving to iron out the flaws.
Cricket club dinners were often held here, as they still are today. John Nyren, Richard's son, tells us that "two or three of them would strike dismay into a round of beef" washed down with "ale that would flare up like turpentine, genuine Boniface!" Nothing has changed here.
The Bat & Ball sign shows only two stumps. Here in the "Hambledon era" the third stump was added. In 1771, when "Shock" White of Reigate appeared with a bat as broad as a wicket not only was the offending weapon seized from him and cut down to reasonable dimensions, but the Hambledon players also limited the width of the bat to four and a quarter inches, which remains the regulation size to this day.
Broadhalfpenny Down was considered a bit windswept by one of its patrons, the Duke of Dorset, and cricket moved on to London with another, the Earl of Winchilsea, the local Lord and then president of Hambledon Cricket Club. He, with others, formed the Marylebourne Cricket Club and commissioned Thomas Lord, an entrepreneur, to look for a suitable field within a short carriage ride of their Mayfair homes. The ground came to be known as the Lord's.
Many of the Hambledon players moved with their patrons to play there. Thus the glory and fame of Hambledon, Broadhalfpenny Down and the Bat & Ball Inn was over.
In the 1920s, Winchester College bought the ground but it was only sporadically used. A few cricket enthusiasts, who formed the Broadhalfpenny Brigands Cricket Club, took up the ground and ensured that cricket is played on this historic ground in the best traditions of the game. The Royal Navy took the lease of the ground in 1960, but the club has remained independent since the early 1970s. A splendid, new pavilion was built on the ground in 1999.
Setting the pace
Hambledon set the pace for the game in its formative stages. Their team of the late 18th Century raised cricket from a sport to an art, in an era when the local team was more than a match for any All England team and when it seemed that the Bat & Ball Inn was the centre of cricketing universe.
A stone monument, unveiled in 1908, stands on Broadhalfpenny Down that commemorates a match between Hambledon and an All England side. The Bat & Ball still stands across the Down still used as a close-of-play clubhouse.
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