The Laws of Cricket

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The approach of this page is to present a chronological sequence of known codes of law. Sound though this approach may seem, it does not present a full picture. We do not know how widespread knowledge of these code were, their implementation may well have been restricted to an elite group of cricketers and even then, subject to local variations and agreements.

It has always been a matter of pride to certain members of the cricketing community that the game is governed by laws rather than rules. I am not aware of why this is but I believe it was simply a matter of the terminology chanced upon when the laws were first printed in 1755 and has been carried on ever since.

Early days

In the very early years of the game began in the Weald in the Seventeenth Century, there is no record of what rules there were that governed how the game was played; it is improbable that any settled version existed, though perhaps some villages may have negotiated terms when they played against their neighbours. Evidence of this emerges in the 1707 poem In Certamen Pilae:

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.

Some clues as to the rules themselves in these early days are given by John Nyren in Cricketers of My Time (1833) . This book has an chapter which he entitles A Few Memoranda Respecting the Progress of Cricket in which he takes us back to the later years the Seventeenth Century.

Mr. Ward obligingly furnished me with a small MS., written some years since by an old cricketer, containing a few hasty recollections and rough hints to players, thrown together without regard to method or order. From the mass I have been able to select a few portions, thinking that they might possess some interest with those of my readers who take a pride in the game. From the authority before me, it appears that about 150 years since, it was the custom, as at present, to pitch the wickets at the same distance asunder, viz. twenty-two yards. That the stumps (only one foot high, and two feet wide) [Nyren provides a footnote that says 'There must be a mistake in this account of the width of the wicket'] were surmounted with a bail. At that period, however, another peculiarity in the game was in practice, and which it is worth while to record. Between the stumps a hole was cut in the ground, large enough to contain the ball and the butt-end of the bat. In running a notch, the striker was required to put his bat into this hole, instead of the modern practice of touching over the popping-crease. The wicket-keeper, in putting out the striker when running, was obliged, when the ball was thrown in, to place it in this hole before the adversary could reach it with his bat. Many severe injuries of the hands were the consequence of this regulation; the present mode of touching the popping-crease was therefore substituted for it. At the same period the wickets were increased to twenty-two inches in height, and six inches in breadth, and, instead of the old custom of placing the ball in the hole, the wicket-keeper was required to put the wicket down, having the ball in his hand. 

It is noticeable that the twenty two yard pitch appears here. The suggestion however of a two foot wide wicket seems absurd and Nyren himself disowns it in a footnote. Also, the other great source for cricket of this period, the poem In Certamen Pilae (about a ball-game) by William Goldwin says that the two stumps are placed close together. There is however one illustration which shows a very wide wicket and this is below, from the Arms of Shrewsbury, 1737. If this is an accurate representation of how the game was played, at least in some places, I would speculate that the object of the bowler was to get the ball trough the stumps rather than hit them – otherwise it seems a hopeless task.

Similarly, the early method running someone out that he describes seems so obviously dangerous that it is hard to believe it ever happened and indeed there are no other sources for it. Perhaps there is some confusion with a game called Cat and Dog in which one player tries to thrown a block of wood (a cat) into a hole which is protected by a club (a dog). We cannot say. In Certamen Pilae suggests something very different – that the two umpires both held a bat and the batsmen had to touch that to complete a run – how run outs were effected is not said but this may have been by getting a fielder to touch the umpire’s bat with the ball, before the batsman has got there himself.

1727 – The first known codification

When the aristocracy took the game to London and made major matches the occasion for high-stake gambling, it is likely that efforts would have been made to make the playing conditions unambiguously clear. One such example has come down to us, the Articles of Agreement dated 11 July 1727 for two matches between teams assembled by the Duke of Richmond and a Mr Broderick. They are as follows

Imprimis 'Tis by the aforesaid Parties agreed that the first Match shall be played some day of this Instant July in the county of Surry (sic); the Place to be named by Mr Brodrick; the second match to be played in August next in the County of Sussex, the Place to be named by the Duke of Richmond.

2d: That the wickets shall be pitched in a fair & even place, at twenty three yards distance from each other.

3d: A Ball caught, cloathed or not cloathed, the Striker is out.

4th: When a Ball is caught out, the Stroke counts nothing.

5th: Catching out behind the Wicket allowed.

6th: That 'tis lawfull (sic) for the Duke of Richmond to choose any Gamesters, who have played in either of His Grace's two last Matches with Sir William Gage; and that 'tis lawfull (sic) for Mr. Brodrick to choose any Gamesters within three Miles of Pepperhara, provided they actually lived there last Lady Day.

7th: that twelve Gamesters shall play on each side.

8th: that the Duke of Richmond & Mr. Brodrick shall determine the Ball or Balls to be played with.

9th: if any of the Gamesters shall be taken lame or sick after the Match is begun, their Place may be supplied by any one chose conformably to the sixth Article, or in Case that can not be done, the other side shall be obliged to leave out one of their Gamesters, whomsoever They please.

10th: that each match shall be for twelve Guineas of each Side; between the Duke & Mr. Brodrick.

11th: that there shall be one Umpire of each side; & that if any of the Gamesters shall speak or give of their opinion, on any Point of the Game, they are to be turned out, & Voided in the Match; this not to extend to the Duke of Richmond & Mr. Brodrick.

12th: If any Doubt or Dispute arises on any of the aforemd (sic) Articles, or whatever else is not settled therein, it shall be determined by the Duke of Richmond & Mr. Brodrick on their Honours; by whom the Umpires are likewise to be determined on any Difference between Them.

13th: The Duke of Richmond's umpire shall pitch the Wickets when they play in Sussex; & Mr. Brodrick's when they play in Surry (sic); and each of Them shall be obliged to conform Himself strictly to the Agreements contained in the second Article.

14th: The Batt (sic) Men for every one they count are to touch the Umpires Stick.

15th: that it shall not be lawfull (sic) to fling down the Wicket: & that no Player shall be deemed out by any Wicket put down, unless with the Ball in Hand.

16th: that both the Matches shall be played upon, and determined by, these Articles.

It must be noted that these are not complete, they often seem to be listing agreed exceptions to existing practices, much as Playing Conditions operate in today’s game. For example the specification that catches behind the wicket count reads as if they normally would not. (I also wonder how such catches could arise when the ball was delivered by rolling it along the ground towards the batsman.). Another point is that the wicket is defined as being 23 yards long, perhaps again this was a special condition of the matches.

The 3rd rule is intriguing – ‘A Ball caught, cloathed or not cloathed, the Striker is out.’ Presumably the reference to being clothed or otherwise does not refer to the fielder, but it is hard to say. I can only think that it refers to whether the ball was caught in a fielders clothing, but I am open to other suggestions.

1744 – the first laws we have

The first printed version of the laws we have comes from the unlikely medium of a pocket handkerchief:

An handkerchief illustrating of the game of cricket, produced in 1744, with the laws printed around the edges.

1755 – the first typeset laws we have

Then we come to the first printed code of the Laws we have, dating from 1755. This is often referred to as the 1744 edition as they are the same as the 1744 version above subject only to updating of words (such as ye to the). They may however have been earlier codes of which we know nothing. Perhaps important grounds such as the Artillery kept their own written codes? What we do know is that these Laws were printed in 1755 and were agreed at the Star and Garter, Pall Mall.

Laws of Cricket - 1755 Version
This edition of the Laws is believed to be the first printed in book form. It was printed in 1755 by W.Read.

As settled by the Several CRICKET-CLUBS,
Particularly that of the STAR and GARTER In PALL-MALL


    The Pitching the first Wicket is to be determined by the Toss of a Piece of Money.
    When the first Wicket is pitch'd, and the Popping-Crease cut, which must be exactly Three Feet Ten Inches from the Wicket, the other Wicket is to be pitch'd directly opposite, at Twenty-Two Yards Distance, and the other Popping-Crease cut Three Feet and Ten Inches before it.
    The Bowling-Creases must be cut in a direct Line from each Stump.
    The Stumps must be Twenty-Two Inches Long, and the Bail Six Inches.
    The Ball must weigh between Five and Six Ounces.
    When the Wickets are both pitch'd, and all the Creases cut, the Party that wins the Toss-up, may order which Side shall go inn first, at his Option.

LAWS FOR THE BOWLERS, Four Balls an Over

    The Bowler must deliver the Ball, with one Foot behind the Crease, even with the Wicket; and when he has bowl'd one Ball, or more, shall bowl to the Number of Four before he changes Wickets, and he shall change but once in the same Innings.
    He may order the Player that is inn at his Wicket, to stand on which Side of it he pleases, at a reasonable Distance.
    If he delivers the Ball, with his hinder Foot over the Bowling-Crease, the Umpire shall call no Ball, tho' it be struck, or the Player be bowl'd out; which he shall do without being ask'd, and no Person shall have any Right to question him.


    If the Wicket is bowl'd down, it's out.
    If he strikes, or treads down, or falls himself upon his Wicket in striking (but not in over-running) it's out.
    A Stroke, or Nip, over or under his Bat, or upon his Hands (but not Arms) if the Ball be held before it touches the Ground, though it be hugg'd to the Body, it's out.
    If in striking, both his Feet are over the Popping-Crease, and his Wicket put down, except his Bat is down within, it's out.
    If he runs out of his Ground to hinder a Catch, it's out.
    If a Ball is nipp'd up, and he strikes it again wilfully, before it came to the Wicket, it's out.
    If the Players have cross'd each other, he that runs for the Wicket that is put down, is out: If they are not cross'd, he that returns is out.
    If in running a Notch, the Wicket is struck down by a Throw, before his Foot, Hand, or Bat is over the Popping-Crease, or a Stump hit by the Ball, though the Bail was down, it's out.
    But if he Bail is down before, he that catches the Ball must strike a Stump out of the Ground, Ball in Hand, or else it's not out.
    If the Striker touches, or takes up the Ball before it has lain quite still, unless ask'd by the Bowler, or Wicket-Keeper, it's out.


    When the Ball has been in Hand by one of the Keepers, or Stoppers, and the Player has been at Home, he may go where he pleases till the next Ball is bowl'd.
    If either of the Strikers is cross'd, in his running Ground, designedly, the same must be determined by the Umpires.
    N.B. The Umpires may order that Notch to be scored.
    When the Ball is hit up, either of the Strikers may hinder the Catch in his running Ground; or if it is hit directly across the Wickets, the other Player may place his Body any where within the Swing of the Bat, so as to hinder the Bowler from catching it; but he must neither strike at it, nor touch it with his Hands.
    If a Striker nips a Ball up just before him, he may fall before his Wicket, or pop down his Bat, before it comes to the Wicket, to save it.
    The Bail hanging on one Stump, though the Ball hit the Wicket, it's not out.


    The Wicket-Keepers shall stand at a reasonable Distance behind the Wicket, and shall not move till the Ball is out of the Bowler's Hand, and shall not, by any Noise, incommode the Striker; and if his Hands, Knees, Foot, or Head, be over, or before the Wicket, though the Ball hit it, it shall not be out. 


    To allow Two Minutes for each Man to come inn when one is out, and Ten Minutes between each Hand.
    To mark the Ball that it may not be changed.
    They are sole Judges of all Outs and Inns; of all fair or unfair Play; of all frivolous Delays; of all Hurts, whether real or pretended, and are discretionally to allow what Time they think proper before the Game goes on again.
    In Case of a real Hurt to a Striker, they are to allow another to come inn, and the Person hurt to come inn again; but are not to allow a fresh Man to play, on either Side, on any Account.
    They are sole Judges of all Hindrances; crossing the Players in running, and standing unfair to strike, and in Case of Hindrance may order a Notch to be scor'd.
    They are not to order any Man out, unless appealed to by one of the Players.
    These Laws are to the Umpires jointly.
    Each Umpire is the sole Judge of all Nips and Catches; Ins and Outs; good or bad Runs, at his own Wicket, and his Determination shall be absolute; and he shall not be changed for another Umpire, without the Consent of both Sides.
    When the four Balls are bowl'd, he is to call over.
    These Laws are separately.
    When both Umpires call Play three Times, 'tis at the Peril of giving the Game from them that refuse to play.

A facsimile of these laws can be seen here. A summary of the main points is given below.

  • there is reference to the toss of a coin and the pitch dimensions, with a length of 22 yards (20 m);
  • the two stumps must be 22 inches (560 mm) high with a six-inch (152 mm) bail;
  • the ball must weigh between five and six ounces (140 and 170 grams);
  • overs last four balls;
  • the no ball is the penalty for overstepping, which means the hind foot going in front of the bowling crease (i.e., in direct line of the wicket);
  • the popping crease is exactly 3 feet 10 inches (1.17 m) before the bowling crease;
  • run outs are adjudicated by use of the popping crease, no more touching umpire’s sticks. Umpires would continue to carry though, well into the nineteenth century;
  • various means of “it is out” are included, LBW is not among them but hitting the ball twice and obstructing the field are following experiences in the 17th century;
  • the wicket-keeper is required to be still and quiet until the ball is bowled;
  • umpires must allow two minutes for a new batsman to arrive and ten minutes between innings (meal and rain breaks presumably excepted);
  • the umpire cannot give a batsman out if the fielders do not appeal;
  • the umpire is allowed a certain amount of discretion and it is made clear that the umpire is the “sole judge” and that “his determination shall be absolute”

It is astonishing how many of the elements of the modern game are already in place. The major divergence is not immediately apparent, that is that we are still in the are of underarm bowling, indeed, change is nearly eighty years away. Also, we are very much still in the world of the two-stump wicket.

1774 – further refinements

A famous incident described by Nyren gave rise to a new law limiting the width of the bat

Several years since (I do not recollect the precise date) a player, named White, of Ryegate, brought a bat to a match, which being the width of the stumps, effectually defended his wicket from the bowler: and in consequence, a law was passed limiting the future width of the bat to 4¼ inches.

The cricketer was was once thought be someone called Shock White but scholarly opinion now believes it to be one Thomas White. The date has been identified as taking place on 23 September 1771 at Laleham Burway between Hambledon and Chertsey. There was a stake on the match and Hambledon won by one run, hence perhaps the sensitivity over the issue. It is one of the great cricket stories and will be remembered as long as the game is played.

Within two days, Hambledon had apparently passed the following resolution at a committee meeting:

In view of the performance of one White of Ryegate on September 23rd,” it read, “that four and quarter inches shall be the breadth forthwith.
This 25th day of September 1771
Richard Nyren, T Brett, John Small”

However, John Goulstone in Hambledon, The Men and the Myths, argues that the documentary evidence for this is a Nineteenth Century forgery. In any case, there is no evidence that the wide bat strategem was ever repeated and the bat-size revision was embedded in the next code of Laws we have, dated 1774.

Also included in 1774 was a LBW law which read as follows: “The striker is out…[if he] puts his leg before the wicket with a design to stop the ball, and actually prevent the ball from hitting his wicket by it”. It seems that intent is the heart of this Law, accidental interference is not penalised, although Billy Beldham credited the introduction of this to the shabby tactics of John Ring. I also wonder how the law could be confidently adjudicated, given that there a huge gap in the centre of the stumps through which the ball could readily pass. In practice, this law was not active – it was not until 1795 that we have a record of a batsmen being dismissed in this way.

The 1774 code is reproduced below. It should be noted is that the Star and Garter, again are controlling the process and are consulting with the Counties of The Weald and London.

Laws of Cricket - 1774 Version

Settled and revised at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall on Friday 25 February 1774 by a Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen of Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and London.


In the Chair: Sir William Draper.
Present: His Grace the Duke of Dorset, Right Honourable Earl Tankerville, Sir Horace Mann, Philip Dehany, John Brewer Davis, Harry Peckham, Francis Vincent, John Cooke, Charles Coles, Richard James, Esquires, Rev. Charles Pawlet.
The Laws of Cricket, &c.

    The ball must weigh not less than five ounces and a half, nor more than five ounces and three-quarters.
    It cannot be changed during the game, but with consent of both parties.
    The bat must not exceed four inches and one quarter in the widest part.
    The stumps must be twenty-two inches, the bail six inches long.
    The bowling-crease must be parallel with the stumps, three feet in length, with a return-crease.
    The popping-crease must be three feet ten inches from the wickets ; and the wickets must be opposite to each other at the distance of twenty-two yards.
    The party which goes from Home shall have the choice of the innings and the pitching of the wickets, which shall be pitched within thirty yards of a centre fixed by the adversaries.
    When the parties meet at a third place, the bowlers shall toss up for the pitching of the first wicket, and the choice of going in.
    The bowler must deliver the ball with one foot behind the bowling-crease, and within the return-crease; and shall Bowl four balls before he changes wickets, which he shall do but once in the same innings.
    He may order the player at his wicket to stand on which side of it he pleases.
    The striker is out if the bail is bowled off, or the stump bowled out of the ground.
    Or if the ball, from a stroke over or under his bat, or upon his hands (but not wrists), is held before it touches the ground, though it be hugged to the body of the catcher.
    Or if, in striking, both his feet are over the popping-crease, and his wicket is put down, except his bat is grounded within it.
    Or if he runs out of his ground to hinder a catch.
    Or if the ball is struck up, and he wilfully strike it again.
    Or if in running a notch, the wicket is struck down by a throw, or with the ball in hand, before his foot, hand, or bat is grounded over the popping-crease; but if the bail is off, a stump must be struck out of the ground by the ball.
    Or if the striker touches or takes up the ball before it has lain still, unless at the request of the opposite party.
    Or if the striker puts his leg before the wicket with a design to stop the ball, and actually prevent the ball from hitting his wicket by it.
    If the players have crossed each other, he that runs for the wicket that is put down is out; if they are not crossed, he that has left the wicket that is put down is out.
    When the ball has been in the bowler's or wicket-keeper's hands, the strikers need not keep within their ground till the Umpire has called Play; but if the player goes out of his ground with an intent to run before the ball is delivered, the bowler may put him out.
    When the ball is struck up in the running ground between the wickets, it is lawful for the strikers to hinder its being catched; but they must neither strike at, nor touch the ball with their hands.
    If the ball is struck up, the striker may guard his wicket either with his bat or his body.
    In single-wicket matches, if the striker moves out of his ground to strike at the ball, he shall be allowed no notch for such stroke.
    The wicket-keeper shall stand at a reasonable distance behind the wicket, and shall not move till the ball is out of the bowler's hand, and shall not by any noise incommode the striker; and if his hands, knees, foot, or head, be over or before the wicket, though the ball hit it, it shall not be out.
    The umpires shall allow two minutes for each man to come in, and fifteen minutes between each innings ; when the Umpire shall call Play, the party refusing to play shall lose the match.
    They are the sole judges of fair and unfair play, and all disputes shall be determined by them.
    When a striker is hurt they are to allow another to come in, and the person hurt shall have his hands in any part of that innings.
    They are not to order a player out, unless appealed to by the adversaries.
    But if the bowler's foot is not behind the bowling-crease, and within the return-crease, when he delivers the ball, the Umpire unasked must call No Ball.
    If the strikers run a short notch, the Umpire must call No Notch.


    If the notches of one player are laid against another, the bet depends on both innings, unless otherwise specified.
    If one party beats the other in one innings, the notches in the first innings shall determine the bet.
    But if the other party goes in a second time, then the bet must be determined by the number on the score.

1776 – the three stumps change

The next critical change to the way the game was played was the addition of the middle stump. Again, John Nyren tells the story.

On the 22nd of May, 1775, a match was played in the Artillery Ground, between five of the Hambledon Club and five of All England; when Small went in the last man for fourteen runs, and fetched them. Lumpy was bowler upon the occasion; and it having been remarked that his balls had three several times passed between Small’s stumps, it was considered to be a hard thing upon the bowler that his straightest balls should be thus sacrificed; the number of the stumps was in consequence increased from two to three. Many amateurs were of opinion at the time that the alteration would tend to shorten the game; and subsequently the Hampshire gentlemen did me the honour of taking my opinion upon this point. I agreed with them that it was but doing justice to the bowler; but I differed upon the question that it would shorten the game; because the striker, knowing the danger of missing one straight ball with three instead of two stumps behind him, would materially redouble his care; while every loose hard hitter would learn to stop, and play as safe a game as possible.

In 1776 it was being reported in the press that ‘it had been decided to have three stumps to shorten the game.’ This was more a matter of custom and practice rather than law; the number of stumps to be used was never defined in the laws in the Eighteenth Century and it was 1829 before this was addressed – then it was specified that the stumps must be of sufficient thickness to prevent the ball from passing through.

An interesting question, rarely asked, is how often would the ball have passed through the two stump wicket? In considering this issue, one point to mention is that in the two stump era, the wicket was only six inches wide, including the width of the stumps themselves, as opposed to the nine inches which is in force today. If the stumps were three quarters of an inch wide, the gap would be down to 4 and half inches. Meanwhile the ball was just short of three inches in diameter – let’s say three for ease of calculation. The centre of the ball would therefore have to pass within one and half inches of the stumps for it to make contact. There being two stumps of course, that gives three inches of gap where stump-contact would be made and one and a half inches where it would go clean through. Let’s not forget though the balls striking the outer edge of the stumps, that extends the wicket by one and a half inches in either direction, meaning the target area is nine inches wide, of which only one and half is down the middle channel. So, it follows that around one sixth of on-target deliveries evaded the stumps and batsmen got a lucky reprieve – maybe a little more as we have exaggerated the size of the ball by a smidgen. Let’s say 20% and I don’t think that would be far wrong. Diagrammatically (full height of wicket not shown):

Incidentally, the chances of three consecutive on-target deliveries beating the bat but missing the stumps, as apparently happened to Lumpy Stevens, would be around 0.8%. Still, what bowler doesn’t enjoy the chance for a good moan!

1788 – MCC’s first edition of the laws

A new code appeared on 30 May 1788, this time under the authority of The Marylebone Cricket Club who clearly now saw themselves as the main arbitrator of such matters, something that continues to this day. The laws themselves were set out in more detail but only minor changes were made, one of which was that rolling, watering and mowing of the pitch were permitted by mutual consent of the captains, another was that the LBW law was updated.

1798 – MCC revise the laws

A meeting of the MCC in 1798 introduced three further significant changes to the extant laws, as follows:

  • The height of the wicket was increased to 24 inches and the breadth to 7 inches.
  • A new ball could be demanded at the start of every innings.
  • A penalty of 5 runs would be awarded to the batting side if a fielder stopped the ball with his hat in the field.
This is a copy of the 1809 printing of the Laws; it is very similar to the 1798 version. Hayman’s now out-of-date picture of 1740 is still being used to illustrate the game, albeit with a tents added. Note the absence of any mention of the number of stumps, also the prominent reference to bets. It is clear where the priorities of MCC lay.