This Afghani enjoying cricket today and this Stonyhurst Cricketer from earlier times are linked by more than just a stone ‘wicket’. Both are having enormous fun (craic) trying to stop a ball hitting a target and ‘whacking’ it as far as ever they can.
In 1593 the Jesuit, Fr Robert Persons, set up a school in St Omers 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 and made their way up the Avenue to Stonyhurst Hall, 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 similar if not identical to cricket played in the villages at the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. A form of the game seen and played by Cavaliers exiled to their country estates and eventually brought back by them to the Capital at the time of the Restoration.
The photograph of the Stonyhurst Cricketer dates from the 1880s and may have been a ‘set up’. The uniform worn by the player had disappeared by the 1850s when the game was still unrivaled. It could however be an act of schoolboy defiance.
At that time the College authorities, already worried about the institution’s relative isolation from the Public Schools movement, cracked down on its traditional games and forced its pupils to play (you can hear the sneers) London Cricket so that it could play against other schools. Someone was actually sent off to purchase a London Cricket Set. This was not a popular innovation and one can imagine the resistance put up by the boys.
The Stonyhurst Cricket season was played between Easter and Whitsun and followed the rather similar game of ‘Cat’ which was played between Shrovetide and Easter. ‘Cat’ could be the common ancestor of cricket and baseball and it’s presence with cricket in the College calendar is a signpost back to the moment of separation with each game persisting side by side for a time.
The following is an extract from T.E. Muir’s Stonyhurst, “ On the eve of Ash Wednesday ‘Matches’ boys, subdivided into teams of five, were organised and assigned to their respective cricket stones ranged in a line twenty yards from the back of the garden wall.
Bats, three feet in length tapering to an oval head 4 ½ inches in width, were made by villagers in the winter months. Some consisted entirely of ash, but most had an alder-head spliced on to an ash-handle.
Balls which had a core of cork – sometimes with india rubber at the centre – were covered with worsted, soaked in glue and baked before the fire by the boys. They were then taken to the shoemakers for casing with two hemispheres of hard leather sewn to form a thick seam around the ball.
Pitches were dominated by the single wicket stone; 27 yards away stood the ‘running in’ stone, placed at a slightly oblique angle to give a clear path for the striker. The ‘running mark’, from which the bowler released the ball underarm and with the seam, was a further three yards away.
‘Play’ was called for the first ball, but thereafter ‘the bowler is at perfect liberty to bowl as quickly as he likes, and if the batsman be not ready, need allow no time’. At the wicket he was assisted by a ‘second bowler’ and three ‘faggers’ or fielders.
Amongst other things the second bowler was required ‘to have the cricket-stone free from all books, bats etc, which may in any way prevent him striking the stone with the ball’.
The batsman, who retired after 21 balls, was obliged, from the nature of his implement to slog. The hard surface of the Playground was well adapted for this and ‘greeners’ could be dispatched 100 yards across its length into the gardens beyond the Penance Walk.
Runs were scored by racing to and from the running-in stone and, on the final ball, counted double.”
Even by the time of the mid-C18th and the great matches played on the Artillery Ground, Finsbury, we can see that although there are similarities with the equipment used, the game in England had moved forward.
Here, then, lies an almost fully preserved fossil of a something that was itself an even older survival. It has the survivor’s advantage of descriptions and relics that would allow us to walk up to that ‘Playground’ today and play a game that is probably at least 400 years old if not more … well, if it wasn’t chucking it down!