Cricket in Georgetown: Early days © Getty Images
Cricket in Georgetown: Early days © Getty Images

Almost all laws of cricket have undergone changes at some time or the other over years. The one law that has exhibited an admirable degree of constancy till date from the early days of the game is the one that pertains to the length of the pitch which has steadfastly remained 22 yards (20.12 metres), or to use an archaic term, one chain. The law pertaining to the number of balls in an over is one that has seen numerable changes till it was standardized to 6 deliveries an over across all the lands that pursue the lovely game. READ: Argentina and Bahamas play a bizarre cricket match

In the Research archives of the work done under the auspices of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians, noted statistician and historian Philip Bailey had first published a consolidated chart of all the changes in this regard in first class cricket in the 7th issue of The Cricket Statistician, dated October 1974. A small portion of it is displayed above with the kind permission of the authorities and with grateful thanks for the same.

From history, it is seen that many countries had initially used 4-ball and 5-ball overs before gradually settling for the 6-ball over format. The 8-ball over was a system that many nations had tried, particularly Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, West Indies, Pakistan for a while and even Sri Lanka. Some other nations had brief flirtations with the 8-ball law, including the staid progenitors of the game, England, in 1939. Even India tried it out in 1962-63. READ: 1850-51, the first First-Class match in Australia

The domestic season of 1871-72 saw only one First-Class match being played in West Indies, a 3-day affair between hosts Demerara and the visiting Barbados team on the Parade Ground of Georgetown, from September 25 to 27, 1871. This match turned out to be a bit of an anomaly in the history of First-Class cricket.

In keeping with the prevalent laws of the time in West Indis, the scorecard shows that 5 balls were bowled per over in the match. But that tells exactly half the actual story. The truth, very much stranger than any imaginable fiction, was that Barbados bowled 6 balls in the over whilst Demerara bowed to the extant law, and bowled 5 balls in the over. It was amazing that the umpires, Grant (first name not recorded), who officiated in only this one First-Class match in his career, and Henry Haynes (for whom too, this was the only First-Class match in the long white coat), could allow such a situation to develop. READ: Albert Padmore: Two historic Tests, World Series cricket, rebel tours, and Barbados 

On the Monday of the week, Barbados won the toss and put the hosts in. Demerara, in their first innings, scored 115 all out in 55.1 (6-ball) overs with no significant contributions from the bat. For the visitors, Robert Alleyne picked up 5 for 52 and Thomas Clarke had 4 for 29.

In their first innings, Barbados scored 148 all out in 73.2 (5-ball) overs, thus gaining a 33 run lead. Walter Outram, batting at No. 9, remained not out on 42. After the 8th wicket had fallen on 82, Outram forged partnerships of 54 and 12 for the 9th and 10th wickets with Augustus Smith and George Whitehall respectively.

Demerara made a woeful 91 all out in their second effort, in 40 (6-ball) overs, Herbert Unwin (51) scoring the only half-century of the match. With a winning target of 59, Barbados made 62/2 without much fuss in 23.3 (5-ball) overs, to win the match by 8 wickets.

This match raises several questions in the minds of students of the game. How was it possible for the two teams to bowl different numbers of deliveries per over in the same First-Class match? Was it by a mutual pre-match arrangement between the teams? If so, on what basis was the arrangement made?

An easy answer to this riddle may have been the contention that the different regions involved in West Indies cricket at the time may have been following their own sets of laws. This view, however, is negated by the fact that these same two teams had met earlier, in a two-day First-Class encounter at Garrison Savannah, Bridgetown, on February 15 and 16, 1865, a match hosts Barbados had won by 138 runs. The scorecard shows the number of balls per over as 5. All 22 players had made their First-Class debuts in this match. For Haynes, one of the umpires for the 1871 match, this was his first and only First-Class match.

The 1871 match raises another perplexing question; who, then, was Grant, the other umpire for the match? What was the extent of his experience of any organised form of cricket? How well, indeed, was he acquainted with the laws? Above all, given this discrepancy in the number of deliveries bowled per over by the two teams, how on earth was this classified as a First-Class match in the first place?

These are questions, one supposes, that will never be answered and this match will forever adorn the archives of First-Class cricket as a delightful riddle shrouded in mystery.

Brief scores:

Demerara 115 (Robert Alleyne 5 for 42, Thomas Clarke 4 for 29) and 91 (Herbert Unwin 51; Thomas Clarke 4 for 27) lost to Barbados 148 (Walter Outram 4 for 35; Linford Cox 4 for 35) and 62 for 2.

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical doctor with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)