Anyone for criquet?
April 25, 2004
Cricket on the Parade Ground, Georgetown, in 1865. (Not the world's first cricket match.)
But Mon Dieu! How could this be? Some time ago, the French bowled un googli by claiming that that most quintessential of English games - cricket - actually originated in France. According to a BBC report some months ago, Monsieur Didier Marchois, who had once been President of the French Cricket Federation (yes, France really does have a cricket federation, and yes, some deviant nationals of that country really do play the game), had found documents which proved that cricket had been played in France as early as the 13th century.
Now this is not a matter of any great moment to the West Indies; no one has ever claimed that cricket had its origins on the sward at Bourda - that ground's respectable pedigree notwithstanding. And neither will it be of any great moment to most of the world's leading cricketing nations. Perhaps, as the BBC suggested, this Gallic affront would have caused greatest consternation among "[English] retired vicars slumbering in deckchairs around village grounds," who would have been "spluttering" in their tea at the thought that they were watching a French sport.
Of course, no one really knows how cricket originated. However, the most popular hypothesis is that it began with Anglo-Saxon shepherds (minding sheep involves a lot of down-time) on the English Downs. One source waxes lyrical on the subject of the "short downland pastures" of south-east England, which facilitated a game which the longer grasses elsewhere would have made impossible. (In France too perhaps?)
But back to the shepherds. The theory goes that one of them would stand in front of the wicket gate to the sheep pen grasping his crook firmly in his calloused hand, and swiping at balls bowled (underarm) by his companion. If a shepherd's crook was an obvious choice for the bat, then what about the ball? Some sources have suggested a stone, which if true, would certainly have made a beamer a life-threatening event - for the sheep too, if they happened to be in the fold behind the wicket gate at the time. Perhaps cricket started as a sneaky way of putting mutton on the menu more often than otherwise would have been the case.
It might seem more reasonable to suppose, as others have hypothesised, that the ball was of a less unforgiving substance - wool or rags perhaps. And then again, why not imagine an Einstein of a shepherd who in due course invented a wooden ball stitched around with a piece of sheepskin? In the murky realm of the Anglo-Saxon South Downs, any guess is a good guess.
The would-be linguists have also had their say in this saga, coming up with the seemingly incontrovertible proof of the English provenance of the game by demonstrating that the Anglo-Saxon word for a shepherd's crook was 'cricce.' (There are various spellings of this.) Others say that 'cryce' or 'crice' was the Saxon word for a stick. Perhaps it meant both. What the advocates of the crook theory have in their favour is the fact that the early cricket bat had a curve on it, a bit like a hockey stick.
There are the spoilers of course (apart from the French) who have claimed that cricket derived from a game called club-ball, which was played in churchyards. If so, it would at least give cricket an interesting sociological lineage, since club-ball was clearly the first attempt - by the Church in this case - at a kind of Youth Choice Initiative for Anglo-Saxon tearaways.
Then there are the theories from beyond the boundary which say that the game could have evolved from an ancient bat and ball game played in Greater Punjab. Along with chess, perhaps, it then made the grand tour through Persia via Constantinople and into Europe. Since the Church sponsored bat and ball games (see above), it then moved to England. One rather suspects that this particular thesis has greater currency in Punjab than it does on the village greens of Kent.
So what about the French claims? Ever the diligent researchers, the BBC 'leafed through' Cassell's Dictionary of Word Histories, and discovered that the word 'cricket' derived from the Old French 'criquet,' itself a corruption of the Old Dutch for 'stick.' Well, there's a thing. Monsieur Marchois' assertion is undermined right away: a French word with a Germanic etymology? Retired English vicars to a man are certain to resist the conclusion that a word for stick which their forebears already had in their early language, they then borrowed from the French, who had in turn borrowed it from a source related to early English.
According to the BBC, M Marchois is of the view that cricket was played by French soldiers during the Hundred Years War (a lot of down-time there too between battles fought over the course of a century), which was picked up by English soldiers who then carried it home. So, in the intervals between battles like Crecy and Poitiers, when the English longbowmen made pincushions of the opposing army - including, it must be said, the knights in their plate armour, something which the French nobility regarded as definitely not criquet - a few friendly innings were played between the two sides.
The problem is that the Hundred Years War did not start until after 1327, and most sources agree that there is a reference to cricket being played in England in 1300, involving Prince Edward. M Marchois does have evidence, said the BBC, of cricket being played in France in succeeding centuries, in addition to which he claims that it was the Sun King's (Louis XIV's) favourite game.
So where did it go in France after the eighteenth century, one wonders. Why do French eyes glaze over when cricket is mentioned nowadays? Are we to assume that by the seventeenth century it had become a game of the French aristocracy and royalty alone, from which the lower orders were excluded? Are we to believe perhaps, that the secret history of the French Revolution is yet to be written, and that the first blow struck against the ancien regime was not the storming of the Bastille, but the burning of the willow all over France?
But maybe there is a point of reconciliation between the two old foes, England and France, on the question of cricket. At the very least there is an undeniable Gallic contribution to the ancient game, namely, the word 'bail,' which, it is said, is of Old French derivation. Exactly how it came into cricketing parlance is a matter for speculation, but then that would make it little different from everything else about cricket's origins.