Ladybird Story of Cricket

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First published in 1964, The Ladybird children’s book, The Story of Cricket, was, as it must have been for many boys, my first exposure to the history of the game. The Ladybird format was well established and very successful; a page of text would be faced by an illustration bringing the theme of the page to life. The pictures were lively and cheerful, and left the reader with a strong visual memory. Impressively, out of twenty three pairs of pages, no less than ten are devoted to the very early history of the game. Women’s cricket also gets a feature in relation to the modern game.

The stories told reflects the traditional understanding of the game’s history, however many of the episodes described have since been partially debunked and are sometimes regarded as outright myths. That however should not detract too much from an overall appreciation of an appealing and influential contribution to the literature of cricket.

Club ball

Comments: this page (and the next one, on stoolball) reflects the information from The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt (1801).

Stool ball

Comments: all fair enough I think. Not sure though why the fielders are attempting to fly.

Shepherd’s role in the origin of cricket

Comments: The view that shepherds started cricket is not commonly held these days. Generally, shepherding is a lonely life, they wouldn’t ordinarily get together with other shepherds for general recreation. I love the illustration though, especially the way the sheep are corralled while the bosses play. I don’t think that the leg slip is a good idea though – a deep mid-wicket may be more useful.

Hole in the ground run out law

Comments: The hole in the ground rule seems very strange – the possibility of injuries is so obvious that it is hard to imagine anyone organising the game in this way. The sole source for this rule is John Nyren’s Cricketer’s of My Time. In the same paragraph he suggests that the stumps were an implausible two foot apart, so there is room for doubt. Peter Wynne-Thomas questions the hole-in-the-ground rule, speculating that Nyren may be thinking of another game, Cat and Dog. The rule could however have been used some localities as laws would not have been uniform throughout the game.

Umpires holding stick run out law

Comments: This method of judging run-outs is the one that is mentioned in the poem In Certamen Pilae but neither Nyren, nor anyone else, suggests it replaced a hole in the ground rule, although it certainly seems safer. The 1755 printing of the laws uses the modern method of breaking the stumps to effect run-outs. However, in paintings of cricket, umpires are invariably shown as carrying bats, that may be a relic of a defunct rule along these lines. There should, of course, only be two stumps at this point in history.

The Hambledon Club

Comments: 1750 may not be the right date for Hambledon’s formation. Neither is there any record of a Hambledon written code of the laws, these all came from the London cricket scene. Never mind. Runs were called notches in the Laws.

Christiana Willes and overarm bowling

Comments: another slightly dubious story I’m afraid. The first player to bowl round-arm was Tom Walker of Hambledon who tried it briefly in the in the 1790s, but soon abandoned it. However John Willes in 1807, was another ‘early adopter’. The source of this story is Willes’s nephew Richard, who, in his old age, wrote in a letter that his mother, Christiana, inspired John to try round-arm bowling by the way she bowled when they practiced together. Fair enough perhaps – but – Richard never actually mentioned the dresses, that detail was added later, and the story has become part of cricket’s folklore. Round-arm and later overarm bowling were gradually adopted over the course of the nineteenth century. For more detail, see the page on Women’s Cricket.

The large bat incident

Comments: The text is rather misleading, though the illustration is magnificent. Round-arm bowling, the predecessor to over-arm bowling was not legalised until the nineteenth century. The revision to the rules following the wide-bat incident however was formalised in 1774.

The error is however, understandable. The change that that happened was that bowlers has started to bounce the ball before the batsmen and make it lift towards them while still bowling underarm, rather than rolling it along the ground – Lumpy Stevens of Kent and David Harris of Hambledon ware the main exponents of this type of bowling, which started to emerge in the 1760s. That is when bats changed from being shaped like a shoulderless club to the shape that is now familiar.

The incident illustrated comes from Nyren and the player is identified as Thomas White of Reigate, not someone else called Shock White as was once thought.

Note that the wide bat bat is shown with a cane handle, rather than a just one piece of wood – not quite right, as the spliced bat did not appear until well into the nineteenth century. Overall, the illustration is a later period than when it actually took place, for instance white clothing was not yet de rigueur and it was still the two-stump era (the incident that brought towards an end took place in 1776), pads didn’t come in until after 1800. But I do love the headgear and the side-whiskers, not to mention the bow-ties.

I can’t resist this little aside. On 8 July 1976, John Edrich and Brian Close, both survivors from another age, opened the batting against the West Indies at Old Trafford and, to say the least, struggled against extremely fast short-pitched bowling. In the second innings, Close (wearing what looked like an office shirt) made 20 off 108 balls and got hit about 20 times.

A not-so-kindly spectator ran out onto the field and gave Edrich a wider bat, perhaps even inspired by memories of the Ladybird illustration.

Neither Close not Edrich ever played for England again. Two fine players, among the best cricketers of their era. My father was a great fan of John Edrich – and they died on the same day – 23 December 2020. RIP.

MCC and the Lord’s Cricket Grounds

Comments: the text isn’t quite right; for many years before the Hambledon Club was formed, the main team in England was the London Cricket Club who played at the Honourable Artillery Company ground in Finsbury, just north of the City. So the emerging prominence of the MCC toward the end of the eighteenth Century was a return to the old City-based order.

On another point – look at the flat-based implement being used on the edge of the grassed area; implements like this are still seen in action at cricket grounds to-day, used to flatten out bowlers’ foot-marks. Sometimes called a thumper.

Strange though, that a pavilion is in place before the grass was laid…

The penalty runs law

Comments: the five run penalty was introduced by MCC in 1798.

Am I right in seeing a similarity to this caricature, produced by Charles Crombie in 1906?

Recognition of the Ladybird book

The book’s importance was recognised by MCC in 2015 when it was the subject of an exhibition on the Lord’s Museum.