Recently, Kent County Cricket Club updated its website, and created a timeline on the website which recalls the outstanding events in the club’s history. On the previous website there was an excellent and full history of the club, written by David Robertson, which we will now reproduce on this blog over the coming few weeks.

 

PART ONE – THE PREHISTORY

Kent County Cricket Club first came into existence in 1842. In the mid 19th century there were two clubs playing under the name of Kent: Kent County Cricket Club and the Beverley Kent Cricket Club. But in 1870 a decision was taken to amalgamate into one club, to be called the Kent County Cricket Club with Canterbury as the Club’s headquarters. However, cricket had been played in the county for at least a century and a half before this.

“Early Days in Kent”, Chapter 2 of “Barclay’s World of Cricket”, states that in 1719 Kent played London in the first match recorded by a representative London side, and it is claimed that this constituted the first county match. Further, it records that many prefer to look upon the matches of 1728 as the first real contests between counties and in three matches against Sussex in that year Kent came out on top, thereby earning the title given to them by cricket historian H.S. Altham – “Kent, the first Champions”. Arthur Haygarth’s “Scores and Biographies”, a 15 volume work covering cricket from the mid-eighteenth century to the latter part of the nineteenth, records the first organised match as that between Kent and All England “played in the Artillery Ground, London, 1746”. Kent won that match by one wicket. Between then and the formation of Kent CCC as we know it today, there were numerous matches played throughout the County.

The first recorded inter-county match was played between Surrey and Kent on the Laleham-Burley Ground near Chertsey in 1773. A return match was played shortly afterwards at Bishopsbourne Paddock, near Canterbury, the venue for many such matches at that time. The ground was on land owned by Sir Horatio Mann, described by one historian as “the best friend Kent cricket ever had before Lord Harris,” but eventually Mann’s love of gambling led to his bankruptcy and the sale of his picturesque cricket ground. Both of those matches were won by Surrey, the return match by the then overwhelming margin of 153 runs. However, a third match between the two sides played on The Vine at Sevenoaks later in the season, saw Kent get revenge by six wickets.

It was in the early 1800s that two Kent men, John Willes and G.T. Knight were largely responsible for the establishment of round-arm bowling. John Willes (1778 – 1852) was a leading cricketer for several Kent and England teams at the beginning of the 19th century. He bowled fast, but as was the custom (if not the law) in those days, underarm. Underarm bowling, or lob bowling as it became known, was often effective on the uncovered and underprepared wickets of the early nineteenth century, but it was mainly effective for applying spin, rather than bowling particularly fast.

The story – virtually entirely unsubstantiated but now part of cricket’s folklore – goes that John Willes was practising in his garden with his sister Christina and asked her to bowl to him. Because of the volume of her skirts in that age of the crinoline, she found it impossible to bowl in true underarm style to her brother, and raised her arm so that it was level with her shoulder – what later became known as ‘roundarm’ bowling. John saw how effective this method of delivery could be, and taught himself how to bowl it effectively. The laws of cricket at the time made no mention of the way a ball should be bowled, so Willes was not doing anything against the laws, but anything other than underarm had always been considered rather unsporting – certainly not quite cricket.

Willes probably used the roundarm style on several occasions during the early years of the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1822 that his style of bowling became a major cause for concern within the game. As Arthur Haygarth states in his famous work Scores and Biographies, “In the MCC v Kent match on 15 July 1822, Mr Willes commenced playing for his county but, being no-balled, he threw down the ball in high dudgeon, left the ground immediately, and (it is said) never played again.” As Willes jumped on his horse and rode out of Lord’s and away from cricket for ever, the battle lines between underarm and roundarm bowling were being drawn.

In fact, the battle was comparatively short. Thanks largely to the persistence of George Thomas Knight (1795-1867), a nephew of Jane Austen who lived at Godmersham Park between Ashford and Canterbury, in 1827 three matches were arranged between England and Sussex to test the new roundarm style. Although the controversy raged for a little while longer, in 1835 the law was changed specifically to allow roundarm bowling, and in 1864, twelve years after John Willes’ death, overarm bowling was made legal. Christina Willes, from Headcorn, is thus the first of many famous bowlers from Kent who have changed the face of the game.

In the mid 1830s Kent proved to be formidable opposition and could field a side worthy to rank with the highest. They frequently played and defeated All-England. The nucleus of that side was five of the finest players to have graced the game: Alfred Mynn (pictured), the most destructive fast bowler in England and a dangerous batsman; Fuller Pilch, probably the best batsman of his time; William Hillyer, a most effective medium pace bowler; “Felix” (Nicholas Wanostrocht), described as a glorious left-hand batsman, and Edward Wenman, the leading wicket keeper of his day and a much respected captain. During this period Kent won 98 matches and lost very few.

A further outstanding player at this time was Edgar Willsher, a great left arm fast bowler who took 785 wickets in 145 matches at an average of 12.54. He also had much to do with legalising overarm bowling, the logical successor to roundarm.

During this period a number of attempts were made to form the County Club. The first of these was at Town Malling in 1835, the initiative coming from Thomas Selby and Silas Norton, who had been responsible for persuading Fuller Pilch to qualify for Kent, and for five years most of the County’s matches were played at Malling. But the ground (and the town) proved to be too small to support a true county club, and in 1842 during the first Canterbury Week, the organisers, the Beverley Club (which had only been founded seven years before) reconstituted themselves as the Kent Cricket Club. This arrangement faced early financial difficulties, exacerbated by the retirement of several of the great Kent players in the early 1850s, and in 1859 a further County Club was formed at Maidstone, not as a rival to the existing one, but to support its efforts.

This arrangement proved impossible and from around 1865 moves were made for an amalgamation between the two. In 1870 this was successful and the two clubs were merged into what then became and has remained, the Kent County Cricket Club.

To be continued…

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