250th Anniversary of Sheffield Game on The Forest
Cricketing purists get a tad sniffy about competitions like The Hundred, seeing players in coloured clothing playing with a white ball for large sums of money as being alien to the great traditions of the game.
Curious, then, that the first recorded match in Nottingham – 250 years ago this week – was played by two teams in coloured clothing, with a white ball and almost certainly with large sums of money at stake.
When eleven cricketers from Nottingham met their counterparts from Sheffield on The Forest on 26-27 August 1771 it is unlikely to have been the first time that the game had been played in the county – but it stands in the record books as the earliest match for which scores and a report can be found.
“We cannot claim that this was definitively the first cricket match played in Nottingham – we are pretty certain that it was not – but no earlier records have survived”, said Steve LeMottee, Heritage Officer at Trent Bridge. “So, we mark this match as the beginning of the game in the county and the start of our long and distinguished history.
“The cricket played on The Forest that day was as unlike that played by Grace and Shrewsbury as their cricket is to the modern white-ball game.”
In 1771, the teams met at the appointed hour and decided only then where to mark out the pitch – there were no groundsmen in those days – the consequence being that batting was hazardous and low scores were the norm. One great difference from The Hundred was that there would have been no 4s and 6s, boundaries were not defined and scores were runs taken, marked by notches on a stick by whoever was keeping score and referred to in reports of that era as ‘notches’.
The bats were curved like a hockey stick and the stumps were two uprights bridged by a single bail; bowlers bowled underarm and there were just four balls to an over. Three years after this game, the laws were revised – the third stump was added, the LBW dismissal included for the first time, and the size of bats was prescribed (this after one devious cricketer in 1771 had used a bat the same width as the stumps!).
White clothing was not yet in vogue and there were no dress codes; a later game report of 1783 says that the Nottingham team wore green jackets, a colour still associated with the county teams today, and their opponents from Melton wore white.
There were no county sides but it is probable that the Nottingham team on The Forest that day was drawn from teams operating in the area. The match was different from many played in the latter 18th Century in that it appears to have been financed by the players rather than a wealthy patron, as would have been the case with cricket in the South of England at the time. Whatever the backing for the match, it would have been the subject of much betting between the supporters of each side and, contemporary reports suggest, even among the players.
It is possible that this game would not be known were it not for the fact that it ended in acrimony – the Sheffield team unhappy with an umpiring decision and refusing to finish the fixture.
One of those on The Forest that day – signing themselves only as ‘A Spectator’ – wrote a letter, in effect a match report, to the Nottingham Journal with the aim of ‘determining which of the two parties were in the wrong’. The correspondent has no doubts… “some of the Sheffield Gentlemen stole out at the back of the tent that was pitched for their accommodation and got off in carriages and on horses…
“This seems to me to have all the appearance of a design to get off their betts [sic] (as they had many depending and the game greatly against them)”.
In fact, they only got a short distance before they were detained and encouraged to return to the game; when it became apparent that the umpires were not going change the verdict, the Sheffield team “were resolved to play no more”.
There was a return match the following year in Sheffield that the home team won quite comfortably.
At the time of this letter, the names of the teams were not given but later reports do list the Nottingham players as Huthwayte, Loughman, Collishaw, Turner, Roe, Spurr, Stocks, Troop, Rawson, Coleman and Mew. Though no contemporary accounts can confirm these names, two can be included with some confidence as the obituaries for Wm Coleman and Thomas Turner both mention their part in the 1771 match.
When Lancashire visit Trent Bridge this September, the 250th Anniversary will be marked with talks and presentations in the lunch intervals, telling the story not just of the 1771 game – as much as is known – but looking at the history of cricket on The Forest and life in Nottingham in the reign of George III.
Cricket was played on The Forest – at that time it would have been much larger than the present site – throughout the next 250 years and informal games still take place there in the summer months. The main sporting entertainment, cricket apart, would have been the extensive horse racecourse that staged many meetings, including the King’s Plate of 1770, won by the great stallion Eclipse, whose bloodline continues even into today’s thoroughbreds.
In addition to horse racing and cricket, The Forest staged foot races – running and walking – and bare-knuckle prize-fighting, all backed by gambling and often under the sponsorship of wealthy businessmen and landowners.
Those days of hockey-stick bats and underarm bowling seem unrecognisable from today’s modern cricket and yet…cricket played in motley costume with generous sponsorship is not so different from The Hundred or the Vitality Blast.
Picture: A Game of Cricket at The Royal Academy Club in Marylebone Fields (now Regent'sPark) c 1780