A History of Cricket: The World’s Second-Most Popular Sport

Cricket is an immensely complex game, but it is also the world’s second-most popular sport. How did it become so?

Apr 16, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
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For many who don’t understand it, cricket is seen as a slow and boring sport, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. With 2.5 billion followers, cricket is the second-most popular sport (behind soccer/football with 3.5 billion followers). It has a substantial geographical reach, being popular in Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies (a conglomeration of Caribbean areas), and Zimbabwe, with growing popularity in many countries around the world such as Afghanistan, the Netherlands, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few.


The future of the sport is bright, as popularity is certain. Still, cricket is also one of the oldest games in sports history and has undergone many evolutions (and revolutions) to get to where it is today.


Cricket For the Uninitiated…

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England and Australia at the 2019 World Cup, via britannica.com via Getty Images (Clive Mason)


The oldest and most prestigious form of cricket is Test cricket, which is played over the course of five days. Twelve countries are officially recognized as Test-playing nations. Test matches are played with both teams wearing white. The second officially-recognized format of the game is the One-Day-International (ODI), which was introduced in 1971. The ODI can last up to nine hours. The most recent form of the game is the Twenty20 (T20) format, which was introduced in 2003. It is the shortest version of the game and takes about three hours to play.


ODIs and Twenty20 matches are played with the teams wearing their team colors. Although team uniforms change regularly in terms of design, South Africa started a trend in 2013 of ditching their traditional color scheme and playing in pink once a year to raise awareness for breast cancer.


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South African cricketer AB DeVilliers wearing pink, AFP via espncricinfo.com.

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International Test matches are played during tours when one country’s team visits another country. A series usually consists of several Test matches followed by ODIs and T20s. The biggest cricket tournament is the World Cup, played every four years in the ODI format. There is also the Champions Trophy, which is played every four years, and was initially conceived to raise funds and increase the popularity of the sport in non-Test-playing countries. The T20 World Cup has been played every two years since its inauguration in 2007. The sport is governed by the International Cricket Council (ICC).


Early History


Although the first written account of cricket comes from the 16th century, the rudiments of cricket are almost definitely from an earlier time, at least 400 years earlier. It is believed that cricket originated in Saxon or Norman times in the Weald, a densely forested area covering much of Kent and Sussex in the southeast of England. It has also been suggested that Cricket evolved from bowls – the main addition being someone with a stick or a plank of wood trying to stop the ball from reaching its target.


Etymology suggests the target could have been a tree stump or the gate of a sheep enclosure. A “wiket” is a small door or grille in Anglo-Norman French. The term “wicket” is also used for the hoops in croquet. In Old French, an enclosure was called a “baille,” which is derived from the Latin “baculum,” meaning “rod” or “stick,” which would have been an important part in securing the “wicket” of the enclosure. These are all essential terms when one considers the target in Cricket.


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A wicket. Three “stumps” driven into the ground, and two “bails” resting atop the stumps, via indiatoday.in.


Although there is little information of the game’s early history, it is believed to have been a children’s game until 1611, when the earliest evidence of the sport appears as an organized match between adults. In 1617, the future Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, 18 years old, entered the annals of sports history by being the first person to be mentioned playing cricket in London. Village cricket was also popular during this period.


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Oliver Cromwell was the subject of the first mention of cricket being played in London, picture via the Royal Academy


One of the myriad rules in cricket is that the batsman is not allowed to hit the ball twice in one attempt to protect his wicket. This is because of two incidents where fielders were killed in the process of trying to catch the ball while the batsman tried to hit the ball away from the fielder. The first happened in 1624, in which Jasper Vinall became the first recorded cricket fatality after being struck on the forehead by a cricket bat. In 1647, a fielder named Henry Brand suffered a similar tragedy. In 1744, the Laws of Cricket were drawn up, and these incidents are why a batsman will be given out if they try to hit the ball twice.


During the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), the English gentry took a considerable interest in the game, partly because it offered an opportunity for gambling. During this time, the sport was also exported to England’s colonies in North America and the West Indies. The oldest team in sports history is also from this time: the Mitcham Cricket Club was formed in 1685 and exists to this day.


In the 18th century, cricket was popular enough that it had grown from teams representing villages to teams representing whole counties, which attracted significant crowds.


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An early depiction of cricket. Getty Images via icc-cricket.com.


Throughout the 18th century, the popularity of cricket exploded in England, with many organized matches being played, and as the British Empire expanded, the game was played wherever the British went. The first mention of cricket being played outside of Britain was in 1676 when cricket was played by a large British delegation to Aleppo in the Ottoman Empire.


The Seven-Years-War (1756–1763) brought hardships to England and thus curtailed their enthusiasm for sporting frivolities. However, the outcome of the war meant that the British could expand their activities on the Indian subcontinent at the expense of the French. Thus began the British Raj and a great deal of cricket being introduced to India. A notable and little-known fact from this era is that in the Winter of 1777-1778, during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington played cricket with his men while camped at Valley Forge.


The Growth of International Cricket: British Colonialism

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The England and Australia captains holding “The Ashes,” via skysports.com.


At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, cricket appears in the records of many parts of the British Empire, notably Barbados (1780), Canada (1785), Australia (1804), and South Africa (1808). The permanence of the British stationed in India also meant that cricket clubs were set up there.


In Australia, cricket became widespread and famous in the southeastern colonies. The first first-class cricket Test was played in 1850 between Tasmania and Victoria, which the former won by three wickets. From 1861, teams from England began touring Australia, which gave the sport a prestigious boost, especially with the arrival of one of the legends of sports history, W.G. Grace. In 1882, the English and Australian teams started competing in an annual competition known as “The Ashes.” Being one of the major annual events in sports history, “The Ashes” is regarded as the most famous Test rivalry in cricket. The “Ashes” themselves are reputed to be the burnt remains of a bail which are kept in an urn and awarded to the winning team.


Cricket In Canada & South Africa


In Canada, the first mention of cricket being played on an organized basis was in 1834, after a club was formed in Toronto. In 1840, a team from Toronto played against several clubs from New York. In 1844, the first international cricket match (and the first-ever official sporting event held between nations) was played between Canada and the United States at St. George’s Cricket Club in Manhattan, New York. Canada won the match by 23 runs. Since then, the K.A. Auty Cup Series has been played annually, and since 2011, the tournament consists of a single two-day match, a 50-over match, and two Twenty20 matches.


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Canadian and American players face off, via icc-cricket.com


Cricket in South Africa started in 1795 when the British took control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch. It is believed that cricket became a prevalent pastime in Cape Town very soon after. An expedition in 1795 led by General Sir James Craig contained an officer named Charles Anguish, who was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club and had played 32 first-class matches. Inter-military matches were organized upon his arrival in the Cape.


The foundation for domestic cricket in South Africa started in 1876 with the “Champion’s Bat” competition between towns in the colony. From December 1888 to March 1889, the first English team toured South Africa, cementing South Africa as the third Test-playing nation. During the following decades, the popularity of cricket increased until South Africa’s apartheid policies forced the world’s governing council, the International Cricket Council (ICC), to impose a ban on all international cricket involving South African teams. This affected the women’s team as well, which had their test debut in 1960.


In 1991, apartheid was abandoned, and the ban was lifted. South African cricket today is one of the top three sports (along with soccer and rugby) and has a very multicultural appeal. In August 2012, South Africa became the first team in sports history to achieve no.1 position in all three game formats.


Cricket on the Indian Subcontinent & in Oceania

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Fast bowler Dale Steyn about to send a ball down the pitch, via Gareth Copley/Getty Images via walesonline.co.uk


Cricket had an early start in India, with the game being introduced by British sailors in the early 1700s. Although the infrastructure and eagerness to play the game were prevalent, India was not afforded the same freedoms as Britain’s other dominions. In the early 1900s, Indian players played for English cricket teams, but it was only 1912 when an Indian team officially toured England for the first time. This team, however, only played against English county sides and not against England’s national team.


In 1926, India was invited to join the ICC, and in 1932, they played their first official international Test against England. The next few decades were difficult for the Indian team, and it wasn’t until the 1950s onwards that India started winning regularly and only on home soil. It wasn’t until the 1990s that India managed to become a strong Test-playing nation both in and outside of the Indian subcontinent.


In ODI (One-Day International) cricket, introduced in 1971, India also suffered a rocky beginning but is now consistently ranked as one of the strongest teams. They have won the World Cup twice.


Of particular importance in India is the Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 league inaugurated in 2007. Although only being a domestic league, each team draws players from a pool of international candidates, making the league very diverse and appealing to fans from all over the cricketing world.


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The Indian team after winning the 2011 World Cup, via indianexpress.com


International tours came quickly to the newly-created Pakistan after its partition from India in 1947. The West Indies toured Pakistan in 1948, and Pakistan toured Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1949. Pakistan became a force to be reckoned with throughout the following decades, especially at home. In 1992, Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup. The captain of that team, Imran Khan, went on to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018. In the 70 years of its existence, much of Pakistan’s cricket has been defined by its rivalry with India, one of the most intense rivalries in sports history and is fueled by the political friction between the two countries.


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Pakistan’s Imran Khan in 1981, via thecricketmonthly.com.


In Sri Lanka, cricket has been played since at least 1800, as it was a frequent stop for the British. The island was occupied in 1796 by the British, and in 1815 it became a colony. Like its northern neighbors, India and Pakistan, cricket is immensely popular in Sri Lanka. However, the potential strength of Sri Lankan cricket was not fully realized until the 1990s, when the Sri Lankan cricket team became one of the big names in the sport. They hosted and won the 1996 World Cup. Before that, however, it was only in 1981 that Sri Lanka was awarded the ability to compete in official Test Match cricket.


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Sri Lankan cricket fans, via Getty Images, via indiatvnews.com


Cricket had an early start in New Zealand, as it shares a common geographical history with Australia and a history of colonization by the British. The first recorded match happened in 1832, and the first international tour in 1864 when an English team toured the colony. In 1930, New Zealand was admitted as the fifth Test-playing nation; however, it was not until 1956 that the country achieved its first Test victory. New Zealand has strong historic rivalries with England and Australia, being their former “colonial masters” and their overachieving neighbors, respectively.


Cricket in the Windies

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New Zealand cricketers, via sportingnews.com


Known colloquially as the “Windies,” the West Indies is a sporting confederation of several English-speaking Caribbean countries. This confederation’s first international cricket matches came in 1880 when a West Indian team toured Canada and the United States. In the 1890s, the West Indies played host to a team touring from England. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the West Indies played numerous Tests against England, Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan.


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Sir Garfield Sobers playing for the West Indies in 1958, via espncricinfo.com


During the 1970s, the West Indian team grew in strength, winning the first two cricket World Cups in 1975 and 1979. In the 1980s, the West Indies became the undisputed kings of Test cricket. Throughout the decade, they played 20 series, winning 19 of them. Their dominance was finally eclipsed by Australia, which held a firm grasp on the rankings during the 1990s and 2000s.


Women’s Cricket

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South African Women’s team celebrating after taking a wicket, 2018, via newframe.com via Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs


The first mention of women’s cricket comes from 1745 and describes a match between the villages of Bramley and Hambledon in Surrey. Early matches such as these were often very rowdy affairs, drawing huge crowds and lots of betting. A match in 1747, for example, had to be postponed until the following day, after being unplayable due to crowd spillover. The first county match was played between Surrey and Hampshire in 1811.


According to legend, during the early 1800s, a lady named Cristiana Willes started the trend of “roundarm” bowling to avoid getting her hands ensnared in her dress (roundarm bowling is a technique halfway between underarm and overarm bowling). This story, however, is most likely untrue, as dresses during this era were not wide or bulky enough to warrant a change in bowling style.


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Women playing cricket in 1779, via Bridgeman Images, via The Telegraph


The Women’s Cricket Club was formed in Yorkshire in 1887, and the Women’s Cricket Association was formed in 1926. The first international Test was played in 1934 when England played Australia. After winning the series 2-1, England went on to tour New Zealand. Since then, Test-playing nations adopted women’s cricket quickly, and the International Women’s Cricket Council was formed in 1958. Cricket is played by women worldwide and is popular in the same countries where it is played by men.


The Women’s Cricket World Cup was introduced in 1973, two years before the men’s tournament. This is notable in sports history as it is not only an example of a women’s tournament being held before the men’s tournament, but it was also done so 18 years before the first women’s soccer World Cup, which was held in 1991. As with the men’s tournament, it is played every four years. It has been dominated by Australia and England, who have won it six and four times respectively.


A Bright Future For Cricket

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The Netherlands celebrates after defeating England in the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup tournament, via Getty Images via insidethegames.biz.


Cricket has responded exceptionally well to the dynamics of sports history. ODIs and T20s were introduced to keep the fan base growing and have been a phenomenal success, spawning franchises that attract growing global interest. The sport has a healthy presence in all strata of society, being played in schools and as a pastime. It is played by rich and poor alike and has brought diverse people together to play and watch something that they all love.

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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus and has written over 100 articles for TheCollector. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.