This famous illustration of the evolution of the cricket bat has been much reproduced (including above, by WG) but first appeared in the 1871 book, Echos From Old Cricket Field by Fredrick Gale. Gale said that he had collected about 40 bats, covering every design since about 1740. What is noticeable, is that only number 1 is all that different to the modern design, what I call an archaic type, although number 2 is strangely curved.
Photos of a collection of old cricket bats, from Imperial Cricket, edited by P F Warner and published by The London and Counties Press Association Ltd (London, 1912). These may have been owned by the now defunct Wisden Museum of Cricket Bats. Note there are three archaic shoulderless bats (type 1 above) in the top right photograph as well as one, bottom left, and one, bottom right – but no hockey-style bats.
The hockey-style bat
One thing about early cricket that most enthusiasts know is that the first bats were shaped like a hockey stick. This indeed is apparent from many of the paintings of Eighteenth Century cricket.
For example, the painting below, wrongly known as, Cricket at the Artillery Ground is based on an engraving of 1743 which itself was based on a now lost painting of around 1735 (left). The reasons for this shape of bat widely understood to be as follows. Until around 1760, balls were delivered rolled along the ground – the contact point would therefore always be on the ground itself, so that is where the bat needed to be broadest. It is suggested that they survived to the until the idea of pitched, and therefore bouncing, deliveries took hold. I do note however, that Gale’s illustration above does not include one resembling a hockey stick, so it would seem, not many of these survived into the mid-Nineteenth Century when he was building his collection. At all events, as far as I am aware there are only three known examples of hockey stick bats that are around today. And these are shown below.
To the left, this bat, possibly dated around 1720, is on loan to the Lord’s museum. It was discovered behind a fireplace at Boredam Hall, Kent. In truth, it is a strange shape, the toe is not really square enough to the shaft to make it much use against the rolled ball.
This bat which recently came to auction (guide price £10,000) was purportedly rescued from Breaston CC Derbyshire (1836), and once on display in the pavilion in the Soldier and Sailor Sports Ground. This particular example is a left-handed bat, length is 38”, weight 3lbs and at its widest point is 4” wide. It has evidence of use to hammer in stumps. This example was originally obtained via the Taylor family. The only suggestion of age given was ‘Eighteenth Century’. This looks to me to be in excellent condition, which makes me wonder if it has had much use.
I personally find it hard to see how these bats could be effective. Of the three surviving examples, only the Breaston one has a toe end anything like at right angles to the main stick and easily wins the best-in-show award. The Sandham room one has a toe at 45 degrees and the Boredam Hall one is nearly straight. If a ball was genuinely rolled along the ground, as is commonly believed, the first two would be of little more use than a straight stick. Having given this matter some thought, I would offer the following as possible explanations.
- The ball was not rolled, even early on in the game’s history. This would have been hard as grass was not cut mechanically, any pace would have been lost by the time it reached the striker. Rather it was projected so as to bounce many times, rather like a stone skimmed across water, so that batsmen would typically strike it while it was slightly off the ground. To support this look at the image above where you can see the artist is at trouble to show ball casting a shadow a little way away – why do this if not to show it off the ground.
- To add to this point, the catching mode of dismissal was, as far as we know, an original feature of the game. How would this work if the ball was always on the ground? In particular, the first attempt at a code of rules that we have specifies that catches behind the wicket count – all but impossible for a genuinely rolled ball.
- I tentatively suggest that the hockey-style bat was adopted early as these were used in other games and pastimes, as suggested by several of the very early images.
- Another tentative suggestion I am prepared to make is that sometime around 1740, dissatisfaction grew with the hockey-style bat as it was not as effective as batsmen wanted. So the shoulderless bat was designed, a stronger implement, which would offer more power, better balance and, I speculate, less likely to break. That is not to say that the shoulderless bat took over immediately, mass advertising was not available. Rather it would have been phased in, and soon became a fashionable product; several family portraits of youths showing off such items indicate that it was a prestigious piece of kit.
So let us consider it in more detail
The shoulderless bat
This bat looks a bit strange to the modern eye – is something like the type of club the stone-age cartoon figure Fred Flintstone might be seen with. There are a few of these bats still around and several photographs as well, and they all seem conform closely to a pattern. A strapped handle, broadening out gradually to the striking face which is very thick and curved, especially down one side. There is no particular strengthening in the toe, but the whole thing is very solid.
Six shoulderless bats held by the MCC museum. All believed to be circa 1750. Some curve more than others. The last bad in a kind of hybrid, hinting at a shoulder, but still not in the modern style.
One diversion from the normal narrative if the history of cricket is the version of the game played at Stoneyhurst College, a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire.
In 1593 the Jesuit, Fr Robert Persons, set up a school in St Omers in France for the education of English Catholics who were unable to receive such an education in Elizabethan England. The College of St Omers operated until 1762 when, forced to leave what was by that time part of France, it moved first to Bruges, then, Liege (1773) and finally to a supportive and out of the way estate in Lancashire (1794).
The school boys and their teachers who returned to England brought with them their own games including that of cricket. But it was a form of the game preserved by geographical and cultural distance from the evolution of the game in England. It was a form of the game probably dating back as far as the College’s foundation in 1593, if not beyond. This was believed to be similar to cricket played in the villages at the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. So it was preserved in a kind of time-warp and carried on being played until the second half of the nineteenth century.
Three bats, some leather balls, a stone wicket and a mallet survive. The bats are, three feet in length tapering to an oval head 4½ inches in width and were made by villagers in the winter months. They either consisted entirely of ash, or had an alder-head spliced on to an ash-handle.