William Byrd – played cricket in 1709 in Virginia © Wikimedia Commons
William Byrd – played cricket in 1709 in Virginia © Wikimedia Commons

April 25, 1709. That day’s entry in the diary of William Byrd of Virginia is the first mention of the noble game in the cricket-agnostic America. Arunabha Sengupta traces the roots of the game in the New World.

Those baseball-playing Americans. The country where even today cricket is a mystery — a symbol of inscrutable Englishness.

When Raphael, one of the mutant Ninja Turtles, is attacked with a cricket bat, he surrenders exclaiming: “Cricket? Nobody understands cricket! You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket!”

For the American, cricket remains curious, enigmatic and boring.

But then we delve into the history books and find that the first ever international cricket match was held way back in September 1844 in New York, between Canada and the United States.

Yes, the incredible history of the game has various ways of catching us off-guard.

True, a lot of connoisseurs do know that cricket did become a major sport in Philadelphia, with regular tours by English and Australian cricketers; that down the line Bart King became one of the greatest cricketers to have never played Test cricket and perhaps bowled reverse swing. But those were in more recent days, commencing from the latter days of the nineteenth century, when cricket was slowly but surely becoming a major global sport.

But, delving in the obscure pages of the early days, when the game was just about peeping over the horizon of time, we come across another great surprise. Cricket was known and played in the New World during the very, very early days, way before the concept of the ‘United States’ had even been conceived.

In fact, the first reference of the game played in India dates back to 1721, in an obscure journal of an East India company seaman. The mention of cricket in America predates that by a dozen years.

The William Byrd diaries

There is a reference to ball slaen, literally translated to ‘hit ball’, in the accounts of Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. That dates back to 1656. However, as most historians agree, that form of the bat and ball game was too rudimentary to be seriously considered cricket.

Hence, when some English tradesmen enjoyed a game while holidaying at Aleppo in 1676, the event went down as, and is still recognised as, the first ever occurrence of cricket played away from England.

However, if we give credence to the diaries of William Byrd, the founder of Richmond, Virginia, it did not take long for the game to make an appearance in America.

Byrd, British planter, slaveholder and author from Charles City County in colonial Virginia, was born in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1674. Educated in Felsted School, Essex, England, he studied law and was elected by friends in aristocracy to the Royal Society. We can conclude with certainty that he was exposed to the game during his days in England.

Byrd returned to Virginia on his father’s death in 1705, and started running the family estate. He was appointed to the Virginian Council of State in 1709, and remained a member for the rest of his life. Apart from setting up a library in Virginia, founding Richmond and writing The Westover Manuscripts, he was also an early advocate of inoculation against smallpox.

However, the most interesting of his legacies remain the secret diaries that he kept in a personal coded short hand.

These diaries, kept from 1709, provide valuable historical data and insights into contemporary life in Colonial Virginia of the early 18th century. There have been numerous volumes published after the notes had been deciphered. The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover 1709-12, edited by Louis B Wright and Marion Tinling, published by Dietz Press, Richmond, VA, in 1941. Later, in 1965, Jane Carson translated and published the extracts of Byrd’s sporting pursuits in her book Colonials at Play.

While there are plenty of topics of interest in Byrd’s diaries, including rather embarrassing insights into slavery and extra-marital affair, what piques our fancy is an entry on April 25, 1709.

It reads: “I rose at 6 o’clock and said my prayers shortly. Mr W-I-s and I fenced, and I beat him. Then we played at cricket, Mr W-I-s and John Custis against me and Mr Hawkins, but we were beaten. I ate nothing but milk for breakfast and then we returned to Williamsburg.”

There it is. The earliest reference to cricket in America.

Ronald Bowen, in the October 1964 issue of Cricket Quarterly, identifies John Custis as the husband of Frances Parke, sister of Byrd’s first wife, Lucy Parke. The Mr W-I-s remains enigmatic and unknown.

In his seminal History of Cricket from the Weald to the World Peter Wynne-Thomas dismisses this entry as a version of ‘old-two-cat’ … “which involved four players and was still occasionally being played in the United States in the 19th century.”

When Martin Wilson, the author of Dawn’s Early Light, cricket in America before 1820, discussed the matter with Wynne-Thomas in the Trent Bridge library, the Nottinghamshire historian said that his conclusion was mainly based on the number of players. However, Byrd, who had been in England during his formative years, continued to refer to the game as cricket in his diary. It is difficult to think of someone who was acquainted with the pure form of the game in an English school refer to ‘old two cat’ as cricket. And secondly, there were single and double wicket games in those early days — even in England.

As Wilson points out, the matches as described by Byrd were similar to the games outlined by Thomas Turner in Sussex between 1755 and 1765, and there was no doubt in Turner’s mind that they were games of cricket. “In the evening Joseph Fuller and myself plaid a Game of Cricket with Mr Geo Bannister and James Fuller for half a crown worth of punch …” reads the description of a match on June 28, 1763.

There are several other references to cricket in Byrd’s diary entries. The full collection is provided below. They hint at regular and strenuous games, which sometimes ended in injuries, although the food and drink habits do not always reflect what we would consider scientific diet for a sportsman today.

April 27, 1709: After dinner we played at cricket and then went to whist and I lost 30 shillings.

May 6, 1709: I rose about 6 o’clock and Colonel Ludwell, Nat Harrison, Mr Edwards and myself played at cricket, and I won a bit. (Bowen concludes that Nat Harrison was Major Nathaniel Harrison, son of Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Wakefield. The ‘bit’ was one-eighth of a Spanish dollar.

Benjamin Harrison is particularly important because through the entries we find his health deteriorated. This did play a role in the association of Byrd with the game)

November 28, 1709: I rose about 7 o’clock and said a short prayer. About 8 o’clock we played at cricket and lost five shillings.

February 1, 1710: Isham Randolph and I rode to Colonel Hill’s. The Colonel and Mr Harrison were just going to court but I stayed with Mr Anderson and he and Colonel Eppes played with Isham Randolph and me at cricket, but we beat them.

February 20, 1710: We played at cricket and I sprained my backside. In the afternoon we played at the same sport again, but I could not run. When we came away, I was forced to get on my horse by a chair.

February 22, 1710: In the afternoon Colonel Randolph came. We played at cricket and then Colonel Randolph and Mr Anderson went away.

February 25, 1710: In the afternoon they played at cricket at which the Captain sprained his thigh.

March 4, 1710: In the afternoon we played at cricket and then rode home where I found all well, thank God.

March 10, 1710: They walked in the garden till dinner. I ate boiled beef. In the afternoon, we played at cricket a little while…

March 15, 1710: We played at cricket but Mr (Benjamin) Harrison was soon tired.

March 17, 1710: In the afternoon Mr Will Randolph and Robin Mumford came. We played at cricket.

March 22, 1710: In the afternoon we played at cricket, four of a side, and Mr Harrison among us, who looked exceedingly red a great while after it.

March 23, 1710: I rose at 7 o’clock and read a little in Homer and said a short prayer. Then we drank chocolate for breakfast. Then we drank a dram of cherry brandy. Then we played several games of cricket and after a little rest played several more games till it began to rain.

March 27, 1710: After I had given them a glass of sack we played at cricket and after that at billiards till dinner. About 4 o’clock we all went to Mr Harrison’s whom we found better. Here we went to cricket again till dark.

March 28, 1710: About 10 o’clock Major Harrison, Hal Harrison, James Burwell and Mr Doyley came to play at cricket. Isham Randolph, Mr Doyley and I played with them for three for a crown. We won one game, and they won two… Then we walked to Mr Harrison’s whom we found better… We played a game at cricket again.

April 3, 1710: I ate roast beef for dinner. In the evening we shot with a bow and then played at cricket. In the evening we walked to Mr Harrison’s. He was very ill.

This is the last entry about cricket in the diaries.

Benjamin Harrison passed away on April 10, 1710. This unfortunate event seemed to end Byrd’s enthusiasm for the game. Perhaps he and his friends did not feel like playing at cricket again with the memory of their deceased comrade fresh in their minds. We read of his feeling tired during a game, and perhaps it was exertions at cricket which brought about the first symptoms of ill health.

Hence, we find mentions of the game for only a year and two moths. But, they are invaluable records from the point of view of the game.

Perhaps the games were four a side or two a side, perhaps played with the puerile rules of ‘no back runs’, ‘no runs on the leg side’, ‘no last man’, ‘no direct hits over the fence’ etc.

But then, in a rare disagreement with Wynne-Thomas, whom I respect immensely, I must say that just like the modern day school kid who follows these and other quaint rules; and yet, has no doubt that he is indeed playing cricket, Byrd and his cronies would also have believed that they were indeed playing the English game.

 (Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)