The Field of Play

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This page looks at the characteristics of the playing surfaces that would have been used in the Eighteenth Century. It is a subject about which little information is available and little has been written, but I will do my best to set out what I have managed to learn.

The pitch

The first and most obvious point is that cricket field, as we know them now, did not exist at the start of the Eighteenth Century and had only begun to emerge one hundred years later. Cricket was played on any available space, village greens would have been popular, so would common land. The aristocracy would have made available areas of parkland for matches they were patronising. Either way, there would have been no cricket square.

The 1707 poem In Certamen Pilae sets out the procedure for deciding on the pitch before the start of a game:

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.

It is clear from this that the players would look around for a suitably flat piece of land and pitch the stumps there. In 1727, the first known codification of the Laws states as article 2 ‘That the wickets shall be pitched in a fair & even place…’. Thus there was no advance preparation.

The fist full code – the 1744 / 1755 version begins by stating ‘The Pitching the first Wicket is to be determined by the Toss of a Piece of Money.’ This, I can only presume meant, that whoever wins the toss decides where the wickets shall go. This was radically changed in the next full code the 1774 version ‘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.’ Obviously, then as now, the question of the playing surface has a hot potato, but the 1774 formulation, giving the choice to the home team was to become the standard for the game.

The only further change came when MCC assumed responsibility for the rules, in 1788. This concerned pitch maintenance and said ‘It shall not be lawful for either party during a Match, without the consent of the other, to alter the Ground, by rolling, watering, covering, mowing, or beating. This rule is not meant to prevent the Striker from beating the ground with his Bat near where he stands during the Innings, or to prevent the Bowler from filling up holes, watering his ground, or using sawdust, &c. when the ground is wet.’ This again emphasises how much of an issue the playing surface had become over the course of the Eighteenth Century.

It also makes it clear that pitch preparation techniques had started to evolve and that rolling, watering covering and even mowing were now common practice, at least in the more prominent grounds. Mowing would not however have been mowing as we understand it today. The lawn mower was not invented until 1830 so a scythe would have been the implement of choice.Rollers however were available, not surprising as these did not involve technology and there was demand, both from ornamental gardens and the existing game of lawn bowls. Watering and covering are interesting, showing that means of combating inclement weather were already an issue.

My view was that pitches would have improved, over the course of the eighteenth century, especially on the dedicated grounds, but perhaps though, not exactly beyond recognition. Around 1700, the hockey stick bat era, the grass would have been long and the pitches just area of the field that happened to be central. I believe that the bowling technique on such pitches would have been to skip the ball towards the stumps, perhaps bouncing it two or three times on the way. Just bowling along the ground would not have been possible. Impetus for change would have arisen from the development of the length underarm delivery, after the mid-point in the century; this would have called for a firmer surface to produce some element of bounce, which in turn led to the modern bat shape. This was reflected in the laws which continued to develop to take account of the emerging skills and techniques of pitch preparation.

Finally some words recorded by Fredrick Gale’s from a conversation with old Surrey cricketer John Bowyer in 1871, referring to his playing days at the start of the Nineteenth century – “At Lord’s Sevenoaks, Sheffield and other places where grand matches were frequently played for large stakes, the wicket was fairly prepared… Many matches of importance were played on open downs and commons, such as Epsom Down, Twyford Down in Hampshire, Penenden Heath in Kent and similar places; and beyond a little beating down of lumps between the wickets, the players took the ground as they found it.”

The outfield

While pitches may have improved a little over the Eighteenth century, I cannot see that the outfield would have been anything other that a typical field. It would not have been rolled or mowed by scythe, rather would have been kept fairly low by sheep grazing. Indeed, in the early nineteenth century, when MCC moved to Lords, a flock of sheep were kept in a corner of the ground for precisely this purpose.

The ground would in most cases be uneven and thickly grassed. Any shot hit along the ground would quickly slow down. Fielding close to the wicket would be a hazardous business as the path and bounce of the ball could not easily be predicted. Bowyer says of outfields that universally they ‘were not much thought of’. He does mention an area of the ground he calls ‘long-stopping ground’ presumably behind the wicket keeper, which he seems to say is no better kept than the outfield. Why he make this distinction is not clear.

Note that boundaries were not an issue – they were not mentioned in the Laws until 1884 and, while they had been introduced on particular grounds before then, this was all in the nineteenth century. what would happen then if and when the ball passed from the grassed area to a road, maybe even a river, possibly into the ceremonial tent? I am not sure, but it must have been an issue because in 1809 a lost ball rule was introduced which would have covered this possibility, granting a batsman four runs plus everything he had run before the lost ball rule was invoked by the fielding side.

This absence of boundaries is important to bear in mind when visualizing the game, but I suggest that it would rarely as the predominant play would have been offside, which would not have carried far in the air and the long grass would have slowed the ball before it went too far. It also goes way to explain the irregular shape and size of cricket grounds – they started out as just been an area of grassland and, in a sense, that is what they remain.