In Certamen Pilae (About a ball-game)

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Much is made of the writings of John Nyren, he is rightly credited with bringing life and meaning to the sometimes bland records of eighteenth century cricket. Although he is is rare in this respect, he is not unique. One little known piece of writing that also explores the emotional side and practical side of the game is a poem, written in Latin around 1706, a time when, it must be remembered, very few records of the game being played exist. The author was a Cambridge University student William Goldwin (1683–1747). Born a baker’s son in Windsor, he had the good fortune to attend nearby Eton College (1695–1700), followed by King’s College, Cambridge (1700–6), where after taking his BA, he spent most of his twenties as a Fellow (1703–10). While at Cambridge he published a collection of eight mid-length Latin poems entitled Musae Juveniles (“Youthful verses”). After Cambridge, Goldwin moved to Bristol, where he was successively Master of the Grammar School (1710–17) and vicar of St Nicholas in that city (1717–47).

The poem was re-discovered by an Eton Schoolmaster, Harold Perry. There are at least five versions:

  • The original in Latin
  • Perry’s translation, published in Etoniana in 1922, probably the best known-version
  • It was also translated into verse the famous cricket historian H.P.-T. (P.F. Thomas) in 1923 in his book, Early Cricket, this time with scholarly notes
  • A prose translation was been made by Duncan McLeish in 2006 and published in The Cricket Statistician, his main concern being to make the meaning clear.
  • The on-line Classics journal Antigone presents here the Latin text together together with a new prose translation.

Set out below are what I consider the two most helpful versions. The divisions and headings are mine.

Harold Perry's versionAntigone's version
1. The teams arrive, full of expectation
‘Tis early spring, the lucid air
And smiling skies make all things fair:
Green Nature bids our feet with speed,
Disport them on the level mead.
I see a chosen company
With curving bats armed gallantly,
Smoothed by the deft hand for use – and lo!
With shouts into the field they go;
Each boats his own peculiar grace,
This skims the ground, supreme in pace,
Hawk-eyed, the moments need to spy,
And to and fro unerring fly.
That best can hurl the ball afar
And burst the wind’s unerring bar;
That other fear no rival’s skill,
When, o’er the even turf, his will
Sends forth a poisèd sphere, too fleet
To wreck the batsmen answering breath.
When spring comes, and the most serene weather smiles forth, and the charm of the green grass encourages fast running over a flat field, a select band of youths, armed with curved bats that an ingenious hand has polished into game-ready form, heads joyfully down into the field. Each has his own talent: this one is more suited to hot-footing it across the ground, and to keeping a close eye out as he goes up and down in every direction in various ways; that one is more skilled at hurling the ball through the air from afar and breaking the headwind; a third is outstripped by no-one else in his skill at launching the ball, with careful balance of his hand, over the flat ground in order to steal a blow by its rapid course.
2. Match regulations agreed
The friendly foe’s loud-voiced array
Greets their approach, then comes delay,
Then quarrels rife, while all exclaim
And all would laud it o’er the game.
Now some grey veteran intercedes,
And wins their love, the while he pleads:
A Daniel come to judgement,
he to all around speaks equity;
Though now his arms be laid aside,
And marred by years his early pride,
Yet rich is he in cricket lore,
And proves that hey need stive no more.
The opposing team welcome their arrival with cheerful greetings and cause delays – and soon they are starting arguments and cordial bickering because each wants to impose his own rules on the game. Nestor, whose hoary old age secures the respect of the crowd and the leave to speak, enters into the thickly-packed locals to discharge the role of a fair judge; and although he has long since laid down his rustic tools and enjoyed his old age, he has not forgotten the skill, so proposes fair rules and calms down their anger.
3. Field is chosen, wicket set
The lists are set where, (happy chance!)
The meadow yields a smooth expanse;
Opposed on either hand, appear
Twin rods that forkèd heads uprear,
With ends set firmly in the green,
Nor wide the middle space in between,
And next a milk-white bail is laid
From fork to fork, whereby is swayed
The dubious issue of the fight,
And all must guard it with their might.
The leathern orb speeds forth like fate,
And should its destined line be straight,
And raze the bail’s support, defeat
Ensures and sorrowful retreat.
Then they point out the place where an even surface spreads out flat; on this side and that stumps are erected and driven into the ground directly opposite each other, rising to two points with a small gap separating them once upright; then a white bail is placed on them, the bail on which the doubtful contest rests and which demands defending well: a leather ball hurtles with aggressive force, which if wicked fortune directs it straight, and the device collapses, snatched from its supports, you would lay down your weapons and leave ingloriously.
4. Umpires and scorers in place
Each at his wicket, near at hand,
Popped on his staff, the Umpires stand,
The runner’s bat must touch their pale,
Or else their run will nought avail.
On a low mound, whence clear the view,
Repose a trusty pair and true:
Their simple task, with ready blade,
Notches to cut, as runs are made.
The two umpires stand in their appropriate positions, leaning on their bats, which the rules stipulate should be touched with clear contact, or we’ll waste the empty effort of running. In another place, where a clear vantage point exists, two loyal-hearted men sit on a small hill, ready to incise the growing score into wood with their penknives.
5. Sides selected, game about to start
The players now ranged out at length,
Two sides are picked, of equal strength.
A coin goes up, now, fortune, say,
Who shall bat first, we or they?
Ere yet the brave encounter start,
Each youth stands ready for his part.
Yet graver cares must him befall,
Whose office is to bowl the ball,
Then stop its sharp return, and hold
It fast, by either hand controlled.
While others to their work he sends,
How busy he to gain his ends!
Around him spreads the brisk array,
and waits the word that heralds ‘Play’.
Then the competitors count on their fingers an equal number of people, while standing in a line: a coin flies up into the air as the arbiter, deciding whether the first innings should be played by this team or the other. While the match is still not begun the youths stand ready for battle; when the more careful man who is responsible for bowling the ball, stopping it from escaping when it has been thrown back, catching it with a good grip by either hand when it has been hit, ordered them to their agreed roles, see, with what zeal they position themselves! How the youths when spread around keep energetic guard, awaiting the signal for play, throbbing fear drawing their beating hearts, their desire for glory piqued.
6. The first innings (1) - aggressive intent
The issue’s joined, two chiefs of name
Go forth, both heroes of the game.
The word is given, and, urged with might,
Speeds the greased ball in level flight,
And o’er the grassy surface sweeps;
With bended knee, the batsman keeps,
A forward stance, to watch its way
And mark it rise, then sans delay –
His arms descend with lightning fall,
To smite again the ringing ball;
And ringing on, sublime it flies
And disappears into the skies.
And now the lovely business is ready to go: first a noble pair of heroes enters the contest, two thunderbolts of the game. Then, once the signal is given, a greased ball thrown with force flies headlong from its trap, and flying over the top of the ground it sweeps its rapid course. The Opposition leans over with bended knee and watches the fast footsteps of the running ball, seeing whether it leaps up, then at once he drives into the certain impact, twisting his arms with swift power, propelling the ringing ball far.  It flies through the upper air, rushing with a constant whistle as it cleaves the sky.
7. The first innings (2) - wickets fall
Meanwhile some wary scout afield
Brings craft to make the victor yield,
Views the decent with upward eyes,
Till his stretched hands secure the prize;
Then gaily throws it up one more,
Cheered by his friends exultant roar.
But silent bows the foeman’s head,
In anguish for a comrade sped.
Woe worth the day! Yet eager still,
Another comes the breach to fill.
Fired with high hopes, his noble heat
Essays to overwhelm defeat.
Yet fortune frowns, the bowler’s force
Four times accomplishes the course,
And thrice the batsman plays his part.
Then headlong flung with desperate art,
The ball prevents the bats and shears
The light bail rudely from its piers.
But the clever fielder who is keeping watch of the high heavens prepares his ambush and leaps up to catch the falling ball with palms outstretched – and he throws it back with a triumphant hand. Hereon follows a happy cheer, while anguish falls over those who silently grieve the fate of their unfortunate friend. A huge loss! But, with this one man removed, there’s another man at hand. This one strives for praise and, driven by the avenging furies, he enters the stage, threatening to make good the loss. The cruel goddess denies him success: scarcely has the ball made three or four passes, scarcely had it felt three hits from the opposition, when suddenly it was hurled with headlong force and snatched the light bail from its place, thus eluding the threat.
8. The first innings (3) - a batting collapse
The victim, reddened with dismay,
Shoulders his bat and walks away,
Mourning his luck and low estate,
Until the coming of his mate.
He, to a sinking banner true,
Renews a fray he soon shall rue.
Anon, between the wickets pent,
On runs this way and that intent,
He slips, he falls, unhappy soul!
Upon the threshold of his goal,
Flat on the earth, with sounding twack,
While jeers around the rustic pack.
To each his innings, and its end
That comes too soon our case to med;
For, it be fate, or lack of skill
Our efforts are but failure still;
Back flows the current of success,
As downcast looks and mood confess.
With indignant expression he lays down his weapon and invokes the gods and cruel stars, until his next successor runs on to take his place, one who would like to restore the languishing honour or his team-mate’s cause. But he too begins his game with ill fortune, for while repeating his runs back and forth, the poor man had a slippery footing and fell over, falling face-first before his very goal (80); the earth grows under his huge weight, and the crowd of country-folk leap with laughter. Each man’s fate lies in wait for him, and each man’s ending drags away everyone, hastening (alas!) all too fast; either fate, or lack of skill, hinders any effort; all the youths’ hope collapses and retreats, and their faces and hearts sink.
9. The second innings - a successful run chase
‘Neath happier stars, the aspiring foe
Distress the ball, with blow on blow:
Hot is the pace , each brow bedewed,
With linkèd triumphs oft renewed
Waxes the strife, but one notch more,
And mastery will crown the score.
‘Tis done! The stricken sphere ascends
Heavenwards, on airs the south wind lends
And, ended now the long debate,
Dame victory claps her wings, elate,
And makes the sky, with cheers, articulate.
The opposing team enters the arena under better auspices and wearies the ball with constant whacks. Their work glows; sweat drips from all their body; when soon the order of play has passed in fine fashion, and one strike decides the contest, the ball is struck with force into the highest regions of the sky: it flies on, snatched by the wind, and crowns the game. Victory, so long contested, beats her wings and fills the heavens with a favourable shout and roar.

As can be seen by reading the poem it is more specific about the preparations for the game than the game itself, and in fact, comes to a fairly abrupt ending.