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“Knowing Christ is the best thing that has ever happened to me, although winning the US Open was a pretty good second.”

Alison Nicholas

Struggling for the soul of Cricket

Victorian clergy saw cricket as a game with a high moral code, which would develop the player's character.

As the Ashes series draws today to an end, it is worth considering Cricket's link to Christianity, celebrated earlier this summer at the first National Christian Cricket Festival in Keynsham. The event developed following the National Cricket Cup which began nine years ago and which serves a reminder of the strong role played by the Church of England in the development of Cricket.

"The Victorian Clergy" as KAP Sandiford wrote in Cricket and the Victorians gave cricket their unqualified blessing. Indeed, approximately a third of all Oxford and Cambridge cricket blues between 1860 and 1900 were later ordained to the clergy. And, as the majority of headmasters of public schools, together with many public school teachers of the day were ordained, the influence of cricket spread into public schools, where it was associated with the rise of Muscular Christianity.

The plot of Tom Brown's School Days, (published 1857) revolves around a vital match between the school and the MCC, during which the character-building qualities of cricket are clearly highlighted. When Tom discusses the sport with a master at the game, the reader learns that cricket "merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn't play that he may win, but that his side may".

Many of the evangelical clergy of the period, however, did not continue the sport post-ordination. The Right Rev JC Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool for instance, was captain of Eton, gained three Oxford Blues, took 10 wickets v Cambridge in 1836 but never played cricket after ordination. In Who's Who, Ryle listed his recreation as "cricket until ordained". In similar vein, CT Studd gave up a promising cricket career with England for mission work in China, India and Africa, saying "Formerly I had as much love for cricket as any man could have but when the Lord Jesus came into my heart I found that I had something infinitely better than cricket".

In Cricket and the Religious World of the Victorian Period, published the Church Quarterly in 1970, Patrick Scott suggests that “In terms of belief, life was far too serious, and duty far too important to have any real relation to a game for Evangelicals... The Evangelical attitude to cricket then tended to be that it was a very good thing to be good at when young but that it had no relation to the real business of adult life."

Occasionally, cricket would surface in Victorian literature as a form of allegory for Christianity. Baxter’s Second Innings (Hodder, 1892) by Henry Drummond, for instance, is an account of two innings by a young cricketer. In his first innings he is hit on the head second ball and retires hurt. The rest of the booklet consists of the captain of his team explaining things to him before his second innings, in which he makes the biggest score of the season.

The purpose and content of the booklet are, however, much more about the Christian life than about cricket. The bowler is called "Temptation". The batsman has three stumps to defend - truth, honour and purity. A story is told of a boy who stole money and the climax is when the boy is confronted with his crime, "There stood the culprit with his middle stump – honour - as clean bowled as I ever did see”. Similarly when Peter denied the Lord it was “a swift ball that did him".

Another presentation of the Christian life through the terminology of cricket was published in about 1910, in Thomas Waugh's The Cricket Field of the Christian Life. This set out its purpose as following: "Thousands more of these young men remain unsaved, and many of them are steadily drifting away beyond our reach. The widening gap between them and the Church is one of the saddest things and most ominous signs that we are called upon to presenting the Christian life to them under the figure of a game of cricket, help the former class into closer fellowship with the Lord". The point of the book is to persuade the young person to change sides.

The book sets out life as a spiritual battle: the "test match of all test matches" between Christ’s team and Satan's. For reasons which are never explained, Christ's team is always batting and the Devil's is always in the field. The most likely explanation is that Cricket has been chosen as the vehicle because it is popular among young men and because it "suggests and illustrates so many points and phases in the Christian life".

By the early 20th century, church cricket teams were plentiful. In the 1920s, they accounted for 70 of 134 teams in around Bolton in Lancashire, for 107 out of the 129 teams in Burnley and for 79 out of an astonishing 132 teams. In 1922 the Burnley and District Sunday Schools League had 83 teams.

Jack Williams in Cricket and England, 1919 – 1939, reported that "most Sunday school leagues and most church clubs had rules insisting that all players attended church or Sunday school regularly, and although the rules were not always observed, the possibility of cricket teams encouraging church attendance may have occurred to some clerics". This, no doubt, is what Patrick Scott calls "sportsmanship being exploited for religious purposes".

This remains in modern times an ongoing debate among church teams – are they just recreational or are they intended to draw players into the church? If it is the latter, how should this best be done? Walkden Congregation Cricket Club came up with a wonderful pragmatic solution, insisting that second XI players needed to attend church but not those in the First XI.

Cricket was popularly perceived to be a game with a high moral code which would naturally develop the player’s character. Dr George Ridding, the headmaster of Winchester (1867 – 1884) declared "Give me a boy who is a cricketer and I can make something of him", while the Rev Albert Peel argued that "modesty and patience, intellect and harmony are the things that make for success on the cricket field and also in the game of life."

A writer in The Times in 1920 explained the “accepted maxims of cricket” in the following terms : "to play the game, to play for one's side, to do nothing mean or unfair, to greet ill fortune with a smiling face, to obey the laws and never to dispute the umpire". [The Times 31 July 1920].

Lord Harris - quoted in The Times 11 years later - said that cricket was "more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, than any game in the world. To play it keenly, honourable, generously, self-sacrificingly is a moral lesson in itself" [The Times Feb 3, 1931]

Another former player Bill Bowes (Yorkshire) described cricket as a game of interest for every Christian as it "demanded self-discipline, self-control and team-spirit". In the modern era of sledging, ball-tampering, players’ strikes and match fixing, these words may have a hollow ring.

Stuart Weir is the director of Verite Sport

This article first appeared on theTimes online edition August 20, 2009

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