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Could cricket have originated in France?

SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
2.20K   //    05 Sep 2015, 11:50 IST
The many faces of European cricket history – Geneva's Plaine de Plainpalais (left) and an early game of creckett/criquet

Historians have been in agreement for generations that cricket was invented in England. If there wasn't the documentation to suggest this, making the presumption that it was is hardly far-fetched. Indeed, where else could a game that has a tea break, an all-white dress code and a demand for gentlemanly conduct have been created? France, apparently.

Evidence indicates that the sport – described as “criquet” - was first played in the northern village of Liettres in 1478; a whole 72 years before a game of “creckett” was played in Guildford, Surrey. A letter, which was written to King Louis XI, made reference to a bat-and-ball game. It wasn’t the cheeriest of matches though – one player ended up being killed.

According to Didier Marchois, the former president of the French Cricket Federation, a request to spare the life of the killer was made to King Louis XI. Marchois has even claimed that cricket was being played in France as early as the 13th century, with a manuscript supposedly describing a batsman defending his wicket.

If indeed all of this is true, then the French were pioneers of modern cricket as well. Forget five-day games or even 50-over matches, Marchois said that 20-over contests were being held between off-duty soldiers at both Crecy and Agincourt during the Hundred Years War, and that English soldiers learned the game during truces before taking it back to their homeland.

American Professor Dismissed The Claims

Interestingly, none of the speculation which has recently been doing the rounds in the media is new. Marchois’ eyebrow-raising comments were made in 2002, and they drew considerable attention from Professor David Underdown, a historian who lectured at Yale University in America.

Underdown quickly rebutted Marchois’ claims, branding them as “nuts”. He said that cricket was started in south-east England and argued that while a bat-and-ball activity may have sprung up in France - or anywhere for that matter - it was purely because hitting a ball with a stick was deemed as entertainment - creating something more organised and professional was never the intention.

There is just one big problem. Despite Marchois’ quite extraordinary rewriting of history is backed up by little. As of yet, barring him saying that the documents “leave no room for doubt”, there isn’t really anything to prove it. Until such evidence comes to light, one man’s hearsay cannot be taken with any more than the finest pinch of salt.

Underdown, who died in 2009, had his own theories and timeframe of how cricket came to be. He stated that the first true knowledge of cricket came during a court dispute in England in 1598. From that case, information was presented which suggested a game was played in 1550. It was from the 17th century onwards when the sport really began to shape and be enjoyed by all classes. Then, following that, attendances of over 10,000 were being achieved for matches in London. The professor’s story is undeniably more rooted in fact than Marchois’.

While cricket may have initially taken place on what is now French soil, at the time, the region – which is separated from the United Kingdom by only the English Channel – was heavily influenced by England. With that in mind, the idea that the sport was an entirely French conception looks unlikely, but it is equally possible that cricket was played in France during its embryonic stage.

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French Cricket and French Cuts

A few strange anomalies have helped to shape cricket's history. The first international contest was played not between England and Australia in 1877, but by America and Canada in 1844. The sport's fleeting Olympic visit threw up a (perhaps now not so) surprising silver medallist: France. The host nation of the 1900 Paris Olympics were denied by England, however, they were the only two teams competing.

A loosely related game known as "French cricket" is also played regularly in British playgrounds with a bat and a soft ball. The batsman's objective is to protect his legs (or in this game, his stumps) and not to get caught. Then there is the "French cut" - a phrase often pulled from the commentators' lexicon to describe a miscued stroke whizzing between the stumps and the wicketkeeper.

While both use France purely in a mocking way, rather than one that implies a lasting connection, that the country is even present at all given this new information is food for thought. Even now, pockets of France have bustling little cricket communities - almost entirely thanks to British expats. For a country that has no status in the sport to have so many little connections hints there may be more to the French story than we think.             

So, could cricket really have originated in France? Theoretically, the game which became cricket may have - the name itself is very similar to “criquet”, an old French word that supposedly means “stick”. However, those who developed a recreational activity into a proper competition were undoubtedly English. It’s a nice story, but unless anything more substantial is uncovered, it will remain just that.

SENIOR ANALYST
Cricket fanatic who now finds himself cheering on India more often than his hapless England. Best spectating feats: watching Marcus Trescothick hit a 50 in 13 balls and witnessing a double-wicket maiden from Ravi Bopara in the 2013 Champions Trophy final.
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