Modern cricket suffers from being perceived as exemplifying the aristocratic circles from which it originated. It is the history behind this image which this book attempts to unravel, as Derek Birley illustrates cricket’s uncertain position today. He cleverly shows that central to this uncertainty is the ethos of competition underpinning modern ethics–an ethos within which cricket, having originated in a leisurely environment, fares badly.

In concentrating on the aristocratic origins of the sport and the developments of the industrial revolution, Birley elucidates the reasons for the disparities in popularity and etiquette of cricket and football. His research is impressive in scope, but its purpose is ultimately hindered by his inability to filter out unnecessary facts.

This is a pity, because there is much noteworthy historical material–appealing to historians and cricket lovers alike–in this weighty book. Yet the historical passages are a little clumsily integrated with cricketing developments and the conclusions are somewhat piecemeal, as if Birley still believes that the historian’s role is to be an “objective observer” and present “the facts”. This is a somewhat antiquated view, but it is commensurate with the subject matter and the hypocritical mores of the founders of the game–the old-style aristocrats who invented the spirit of cricket and with whom, it appears, Birley cannot help but identify himself. –Toby Green

A Social History of English Cricket




  1. It may be unfashionable to say so but I’m afraid I derived little enjoyment from this book, or from the very similar “The Willow Wand” by the same author. As a social history putting cricket into context it is certainly useful and readable but the author continually betrays his socialist bias which, I suppose, is only to be expected from an academic.

    Much of it reminds me of the current fashion for television documentaries which tell us how unreasonable our leaders were in that war or that crisis and how they ought not to have behaved the way they did. Yes, perhaps it’s a pity the game wasn’t run on a democratic basis but that’s the way society was at the time and I’m not convinced that everything is so much better now it’s in the hands of the professionals.

    The amateurs weren’t all bad, as Birley implies. Some of them did make more money from expenses than the professionals did from wages and some failed to uphold the standards expected of “gentlemen”. But others played just for the fun of it, without financial reward, and were worth their place in the side. Some of the businessmen and gentry enabled counties to avoid bankruptcy; many current observers (including some who owe their current jobs to county cricket) would say, “Pity!” but, to many people, county cricket has given more pleasure than international cricket.

    Birley is so biassed about amateurs that he fails to acknowledge that even a professional might have three initials: what about CWL Parker, HTW Hardinge, HAW Bowell, WRD Payton or even JEBBPQC Dwyer, from the period before the First World War?

    In fact, he rarely has a good word for anybody. He describes George Emmett, who replaced Len Hutton in one of the 1948 Tests, as “very ordinary” in one book and “wholly inadequate” in the other. This is not the impression one gains from other writers such as David Foot (who wrote the glowing foreword) or Stephen Chalke and, in an interview shown on television recently, Tom Graveney evidently thought he was better than that. Birley is so dismissive of county cricket that I don’t believe he can have seen much of it.
    Rating: 2 / 5

  2. J. Bailey says:

    A Social History of English Cricket

    This deeply absorbing volume proved to be a winner on several accounts. First the price was more than reasonable, secondly The World of Books Ltd were as good as their word in their description of the book’s condition and the delivery was super speedy. The book has a wealth of information that ties together very skilfully the social mores of the early days of what might be termed some loose form of organised cricket and the obsession with high-stakes gambling in England among the effete aristocracy of the early years of the eighteenth century, with the development of the game almost to the present day. This will be a useful guide to how the game was once played for those that come later. An excellent, well-researched book.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  3. This book is quite breathtaking in ambition and scope – and more remarkably still, it succeeds admirably. Taking the developments in cricket and intertwining them with the ongoing changes in political, economic and social history (esp. the “old empire”), Mr Birley has produced a book that deservedly won Sports Book Of The Year in 1999. I read this book in four days, and still go back to it every now and again. Never dry, always interesting, often very funny – indispensable.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am a recent female convert to the game of cricket. I picked up this weighty tome with some trepidation and what I found was a book full of wit that was a joy to read. Not only do I understand more fully the game of cricket but it was a lesson joyfully embarked upon. I was given the book for Christmas and had finnished it before New Year. Thank you Sir Birley a wonderful read.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  5. Well-researched, this book starts at the very beginnings of English cricket 500 years ago and takes it all the way up to the end of the 20th century. It connects what’s happening in the real social world with developments in cricket (which always lagged behind). My understanding of non-cricketing English social history has improved at the same time. An excellent read.
    Rating: 5 / 5

Leave a Comment