Kent's major role in shaping the history of the game of cricket

After a three-month delay caused by coronavirus lockdown restrictions, this year's cricket season is in full swing.

At one stage, it looked as if it may not have been played at all in 2020, with Boris Johnson calling cricket balls a "natural vector of disease" - a claim later tempered by new research.

An 1887 painting by CG Hall of a cricket ground in Dover. Picture: Canterbury Auction Galleries

Thankfully, play has resumed and cricket fans are once again enjoying England's exploits on the field, particularly this week when they wrapped up a test series win over Pakistan.

However, the sport would be completely different had it not been for Kent , with our county having a long and storied influence on the quintessential summer game.

Now one of the world's most popular sports, the game found its origins in south-east England.

Though its beginning is believed to date from the 1550s, cricket historian David Underdown found evidence of a game held in around 1611 in Chevening, near Sevenoaks .

The match - played between teams representing the Downs and the Weald - is the earliest known village cricket match and the first organised game in the world.

The Cricket Week at the St Lawrence Ground, held the first week in August, remains a popular social event. Pictured here is the 1933 iteration. Picture: 'Images of Canterbury' book page 112

Kent cricketers were also the subject of the earliest known poem written about the sport - James Love's Cricket: An Heroic Poem.

The 1744 tome is based on a match between Kent and All-England, played on June 18 of that year.

It is evident that Kent was highly regarded at the time, with Love writing: "And now the sons of Kent immortal grown, By a long Series of acquir'd Renown, Smile at each weak Attempt to shake their Fame;

"And thus with vaunting Pride, their Might proclaim."

Kent was one of six counties represented at a 1774 committee meeting, during which the standard width of the bat was set, as well as the 'leg before wicket' rule.

Crowds line the St Lawrence Ground for Cricket Week, this time in 1959. Picture: 'Images of Canterbury' book page 115

A single wicket match played a year later between the so-called Five of Kent and Five of Hambledon proved influential to the future of cricket.

In the course of a single innings, Kent's Edward 'Lumpy' Stevens would have out-fielded his opponent three times.

Each time, however, the ball passed through the stumps which at that time consisted of only two stumps. As a result of the controversy, a middle stump was introduced to the laws of cricket.

Another five-a-side game - this one held in 1825 between Five of Kent and Five of Sussex - had an odd twist when it ended with both teams being all out for 0, resulting in a tie.

Around this time, there was a cricketer regarded as one of the best batsman of the non-modern era - Fuller Pilch.

A painting of Fuller Pilch, completed by George Frederic Watts in 1903

Despite getting only 10 centuries in his 34 years in first-class cricket, this was a remarkable feat at the time.

Pilch achieved them while round-arm bowling was still the norm and pitch conditions varied from poor to terrible.

He played in 229 matches for counties including Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and, of course, Kent.

The 'Pilch poke' he pioneered was a forward lunge to strike the ball early, a move seen as the basis of modern batting.

The luminary player moved to West Malling - or Town Malling as it was then - in 1835, where he kept a tavern attached to the cricket ground and earned a salary of 100 pounds.

Pilch took over the Saracens Head pub on the corner of Burgate, pictured here in 1968 - a year before its demolition. File picture used in Images of Canterbury book page 22

In 1842, Pilch moved to Canterbury and took over the now-demolished Saracen's Head pub on the corner of Burgate and Lower Bridge Street.

His affinity with cricket was not yet at an end, as he became the St Lawrence Ground's first groundsman - holding the job from 1847 to 1868.

He died in the city in 1870, aged 66, but he did attract some attention in 2008.

Canterbury Christ Church University wanted to convert St Gregory's Church into an £8million music centre, however no one knew where Fuller Pilch's grave was for relocation.

Thankfully, a photograph was unearthed by one of the cricketer's descendants and the build could go ahead.

Peter Pilch's family photo allowed an £8million music centre to be constructed

Prior to working at St Lawrence, which has been known as the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence, since 2013, Pilch had been the groundskeeper at Beverley - the first formal home of cricket in Kent.

The first iteration of the Kent County Cricket Club was established here in 1842, three years after it had opened.

However, the home would transpire to be short-lived, with only 15 first-class matches being played at the Sturry Road ground.

In 1847, St Lawrence became the centre of Kent cricket.

The field was unique among top-flight venues, in that it boasted a tree within the boundary rope.

The lime tree stood for at least 150 years before snapping in 2005. Picture: Carolyn Dunne

The lime tree was fully mature by the time the stadium opened and proved an intriguing obstacle to both home and visiting players.

Rules were introduced especially for the 27-metre-high tree, namely that if a ball hit it then four runs would be scored even if it would have been a six.

Furthermore batters couldn't be caught out off a rebound from the tree.

Unfortunately, it was diagnosed with a fungal infection in 1999 and in 2005 high winds snapped the lime in two.

The loss was reported across the world, with organisations including ESPN and The Sydney Morning Herald issuing editorials on it.

Legendary Kent and England cricketer Colin Blythe is still revered for his bowling

After the 1840s, Kent had a dry run until the early 20th Century.

Prominent bowler Colin Blythe was a figurehead for the Kent team, which won the County Championship four times between 1906 and 1914.

Regarded as one of the greatest bowlers in history, he is one of only 33 players who has taken 2,000 wickets in a first-class career.

Particularly impressive was a 1907 match against Northamptonshire where, as the Wisden Almanack recorded, "he obtained 17 wickets in one day, taking all 10 in the first innings for 30 runs, and seven in the second for 18".

This remains the record for most wickets taken in a day, which has only been matched twice but never beaten.

An annual remembrance service is held at the Colin Blythe memorial at the Spitfire Ground

Unfortunately Blythe's life was cut short at the age of 38, when he was killed on active service at the Second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

He was recognised with a stone memorial built in the St Lawrence Ground and the site remains as a monument to him and other Kent cricketers who lost their lives in the World Wars.

Colin Blythe is among 28 Kent players to have been named one of the Cricketers of the Year in Wisden - the bible of cricket.

The most recent was Tammy Beaumont, in 2019. She was born in Dover and attended Sir Roger Manwood's School in Sandwich .

She was a key part of the team which won the 2017 Women's Cricket World Cup, and during the competition, batting with Sarah Taylor, scored the highest second-wicket partnership ever recorded in the game at 275 runs.

Kent player Tammy Beaumont is one of the top stars of Women's Cricket

On June 18, the 29-year-old was chosen to be one of the 24 players training in preparation for international fixtures in the wake of Covid-19.

And in 22-year-old Zak Crawley, who starred with the bat for England at the weekend, scoring 274 against Pakistan, we might just have found the next Kent player to be honoured by Wisden.

So while the county's history with cricket is long and filled with legends of the game, it looks like the future will be too.

Read more: All the latest sports news in Kent

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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