High on the Downs the sheep prepared the wicket. The springy turf on thin soil above hard chalk made a ball bowled at pace along the ground hop and skip to the frustration of even the best bat.
On still days you could look from here across the Weald to the North Downs and beyond towards London – that great wen*. To the south, the onshore breeze brought the taste of salt and the scent of ozone. The rising wheatfields, prepared last autumn and now in nature’s hand, gave time for leisure.
It is April and walking with great cheer up the lanes towards these heights, the people of villages, hamlets and farmsteads could come together at this place to play at cricket three hundred years ago and more.
Sometimes they played against each other, picking sides as people arrived: the old against the young or the shepherds against the rest; those of one hamlet against those of another or the married against the bachelors. Sometimes they joined together to take on the challenge of a parish further ‘afield’.
But always having fun at this difficult, frustrating game where the darned ball always bobbles just when you are about to smite it, and when even your demon scuttler, having raced across the turf and beaten the batsman darts right on through the stumps without dislodging the bail, passing the despairing long stop, with his right trouser leg tied with a handkerchief (what is he like?) on and on down the slope as the batsmen laugh and run.
In David Underdown’s engrossing Start of Play, the author identifies the original location of the development of cricket as the Downs and the Weald of South East England.
The typical Downland landscape – the chalk country – was sweeping unfenced hillside, a huge close-cropped sheep pasture, like the one in the photograph above. At around 1700 many villages still grazed their sheep in common.
There was arable farm land on the lower slopes and the Downland villages strung along the nearby valleys were compactly built with clearly defined central cores, a church, a smithy, an alehouse, a cobbler’s, a cartwright’s.
Even then, as farms sizes started to increase, there were remnants of the old common fields in which the inhabitants sowed the same crops and harvested them together collectively.
As Underdown observes, ‘Strong habits of cooperation were ingrained in such places’. Village institutions, ritualised festivities, mores and manners all stressed the values of neighbourliness and unity.
A symbol and facilitator of this unity would often have been a favourite meeting place, a large tree, a small stretch of green, a patch outside blacksmith’s forge, where people gossiped, relaxed and where impromptu games could take place.
The social anthropologist Mary Douglas who did her fieldwork in the Congo in the 1950s developed a way of classifying cultures according to the degree of ‘group’ and ‘grid’ manifest in a social system. She and her colleague Aaron Wildavsky later referred to it as Cultural Theory.
A “high group” way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a “low group” one exhibits a much lower degree and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency.
A “high grid” way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a “low grid” one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.
The old Downland culture is high group and high grid, well suited to activities and games with an emphasis on team work, where the need for defined roles, shared knowledge of rules, assumptions of common practices and implicit codes of behaviour reinforced the sense of belonging and togetherness.
As the 1700s moved ahead there were more individually owned and larger farms which began to produce for the often distant market, and fewer small freeholders and copyholders engaged in subsistence agriculture. The gap between rich and poor grew.
Individualistic and market-centred behaviour was supplanting the older order of conformity and cooperation.
As the requirements of the social structure changed so the culture responded in the type of rituals (including games) needed to reinforce the system.
Cricket with its mixture of team work and individualism exactly met the need. It’s time had come.
Cricket was uniquely placed to respond to a cultural shift as the bonds of group bonds weakened – giving each individual a chance to shine – and the grip of social stratification weakened – requiring the squire to share the crease with the labourer and face the unpleasant fact that fact that the carter was a better batter than he.
* wen – an indolent, encysted tumour of the skin; especially, a sebaceous cyst – adopted by William Cobbett to describe London.
**In a paper here Mary Douglas explains the history of grid and group cultural history. This is an extract: “The group dimension measures how much of people’s lives is controlled by the group they live in. An individual needs to accept constraints on his/her behaviour by the mere fact of belonging to a group. For a group to continue to exist at all there will be some collective pressure to signal loyalty. Obviously it varies in strength. At one end of the scale you are a member of a religious group though you only turn up on Sundays, or perhaps annually. At the other end there are groups such as convents and monasteries which demand full-time, life-time, commitment.
“Apart from the external boundary and the requirement to be present, the other important difference between groups is the amount of control their members accept. This is supplied on the other dimension: grid gives a measure of structure. Some peoples live in a social environment where they are equally free of group pressure and of structural constraints. “This is the zero start where everything has to be negotiated ad hoc. Moving along from zero to more comprehensive regulation the groups are likely to be more hierarchical.
“Put the two dimensions together, group and regulation, you get four opposed and incompatible types of social control, and plenty of scope for mixing, modifying or shifting in between the extremes.”