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Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART
Picture: 123RF/ALLAN SWART

The first game of cricket called “first-class” took place more than 250 years ago at Broadhalfpenny Down, Hambledon, a ground known as the “cradle of cricket”. The pub right beside the ground is the Bat and Ball Inn, an 18th century establishment where the laws and early development of cricket were written.

“It was market day in Hambledon on 24th June 1772 when a cricket match began, pitting the finest players in Hampshire against an All England XI consisting of players from Surrey and Kent for a 500 Guinea prize,” the official Broadhalfpenny Down site recounts. 

“Cricket was played here from around 1750 and, over the next three decades, the players and patrons of Hambledon were responsible for the development of new techniques and the laws of cricket, from the addition of a third stump to the size of the bat. Their adaptations, and codification, of these laws, transformed cricket from an occasional country pastime to a national sport, which became an international sport in the following century.”

According to the Wisden Almanac, the England team included two Surrey men “who were catalysts for change. Opener Thomas ‘Daddy’ White had, the previous year, batted for Chertsey against Hambledon with a bat as wide as the wicket. The bowler, Brett, objected — and the bat’s width was limited to 4¼ inches in 1774. Edward ‘Lumpy’ Stevens, meanwhile, was bowling against Hambledon at Chertsey in 1775, when a delivery passed through Small’s two-stump wicket; Stevens’s protests led to the introduction of a middle stump.”

The descriptions of the players involved are a delight: “John Frame was a remarkable bowler: short, fat and fast. Kent’s John Minchin, an employee of the Duke of Dorset, had an agricultural style, and in 1769 had struck the earliest known century: 107 for the Duke’s XI against Wrotham. In 1773, he became the first recorded as out hit wicket.”

There were many pioneers in the team. John Small, playing for Hampshire, is regarded as the pioneer of the “quick single”, while “carpenter Tom Sueter was one of the first ‘who departed from the custom of the old players, who deemed it a heresy to leave the crease for the ball’.”

Everything has to start somewhere. For first-class cricket, Broadhalfpenny Down sounds as fine a place as any.

There was a time, and, indeed, there still is for many, when first-class cricket was not just a glorious thing, but the mark by which players were judged. That still rings true in the records and statistics of the game, the numbers from splash and dash of the shorter formats are extraordinary for their size but do not have the feel nor the weight of first-class figures.

Here are some first-class numbers for you. An average of 48.95 runs from 88 first-class matches; 48.04 from 90 games, 555 wickets from 152 matches; 477 sticks from 135. The names to go with the numbers: David Bedingham, Zubayr Hamza, Dane Paterson and Shaun von Berg. All are members of the Proteas team that left for the tour of New Zealand last week. 

That South African squad may have just 51 Test caps between them, an average of 3.4 across the team, but they have an average of 96 first-class matches.

This side has been called many things in the days before they left. They are a “compromised team” that are “widely expected to be hammered”. The tour is a “debacle”, a “disappointment” and “unacceptable”.

On Friday last, in the Okavango room at the Intercontinental Hotel at OR Tambo International Airport before they flew out, there was little sense of disappointment, nor did the players and staff look compromised. There was strength in their words, enforced by squared shoulders and defiance. There was expectation and nerves, and there was hope.

“It’s a massive assignment and honour for us. If we come back and have potentially won a series, we would show everyone that we’re really not as shit as they think. You guys can decide what we are. I know we’re a good cricket team,” Duanne Olivier told News24.

Some more stats for you. A team with 10 Test debutantes lost to the West Indies away by just 52 runs. A 17-man squad with just 70 Test caps in total (an average of four per player), went to Australia and drew the series, with a famous victory at Sydney. They played against the likes of Shane Warne, Mark Taylor, the Waugh twins, Glenn McGrath and Craig McDermott. The team? SA in 1992 and 1993/94. 

Yes, yes, I know, it was the start of SA’s second life in Test cricket, but most of those players had to rely on their first-class experience, their ability to battle having been born on the fields of SA and England. They went OK for first timers.

New Zealand in 2024 could be the Broadhalfpenny Down for this SA team. Everything and everyone has to begin somewhere.

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