Cricket and the Olympics

On the 14th of February, the 2015 Cricket World Cup got underway in Australia and New Zealand. It is the largest sporting event after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, although it will be mainly followed in (former) members of the British Commonwealth. Cricket was an Olympic sport for only a single match, but connections between the two stretch from 1866 to 2012.

Crystal Palace

Our connection begins 30 years before the first modern Olympics, at the 1866 British National Olympic Games. These were in a large part the effort of William Penny Brookes. Brookes was also the founder of the Wenlock Olympian Games, first held in 1850 and still contested today.

Held at Crystal Palace, the National Olympic Games were a big success. The 440 yard hurdles event was won by an 18-year-old who had taken some time off from a cricket match: W.G. Grace.

Most cricket connaisseurs will need no further explanation, but for those not in the know, William Gilbert Grace, going by W.G. Grace, is one of the greatest cricketers of all time. The bearded legend is described well at CricInfo:

The statistics of his career are alone enough to explain why – more than 54,000 first-class runs (there are at least two different versions of the precise figure, so let’s leave it at that) spread across 44 seasons, including 839 in just eight days of 1876, when he hit a couple of triple-centuries, and only one other batsman managed to top a thousand runs in the entire season; a thousand in May in 1895, when he was nearly 47; and 2800-odd wickets costing less than 18 runs apiece.

An Olympic sport

In 1894, cricket’s association with the Olympics becomes much closer. At the time the IOC is founded, cricket is one of the few well-organized sports, and it is therefore not surprising that it ends up on the short-list of sports for the first Olympics in 1896.

The sport was however never held, no doubt hampered by the fact that Athens (or Greece, for that matter), lacked a wicket.

The first and only ever Olympic cricket match was held at the 1900 Games. Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands, were scheduled to send a team to France, each to play the host nation, but not each other. However, the Low Countries failed to send teams, leaving France v. Great Britain as the only match.

Great Britain (or England, as they were billed) was represented by the touring Devon and Somerset Wanderers, while the French team was made up of clubs that belonged to the Union des Sociétés Français de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). Most of the “French” players were actually British expatriates living in France, and we’ve only been able to confirm three team members to be French.

The twelve-a-side match was not an exciting affair, the British side being far stronger, eventually winning by 158 runs (see the original scorecard as well as a match report). Most of the Olympic competitors were, as Ian Buchanan has put it “distinctly average club players”, with the exception of two Wanderers players: Montague Toller and Alfred Bowerman, who both played first-class cricket (that’s the top-level, three-days-or-more form of cricket).

No return to the Games

The closest cricket has ever got to making a return to the Olympic Games after its brief appearance in 1900 came four years later in the unlikely setting of St. Louis, Missouri. September 22 was due to see the start of a tournament to decide the “World’s Amateur Cricket Championships” but, a few weeks before it was due to begin, the event was cancelled due to a lack of available pitches. The only confirmed entry we know of came from the city of Philadelphia. The Philadelphians, who included America’s greatest ever cricketer Bart King, would have been rated  alongside South Africa, England and Australia as the four best teams in the world at the time.

Tentative plans were made for a cricket tournament at the 1908 Rome Olympics. When Rome relinquished its right to hold the Games, London made no effort to follow through with these plans.

 So far, cricket has never returned to the Olympics, although the short Twenty20 format seems an ideal candidate for this. Reasons for the sports non-inclusion are rumored to sit with the sport’s governing body ICC and its most powerful members. The ICC is recognized by the IOC.

First-class Olympians

Toller and Bowerman, who played in 1900, are not the only Olympians to have played first-class cricket. We have identified at least 38 more Olympians with at least 1 first-class match. 24 of them competed at the Olympics in field hockey, which makes sense if you know that in Britain, cricket was only played in summer, with hockey or rugby being the winter-time activity.

Brian Booth batting for Australia

Of these 40 first-class players, there are four who have also played in Test matches (first-class matches between countries that have been given Test status):

  • Brian Booth played 29 Test matches for Australia (1961-66), after competing at the 1956 Olympics in hockey. He captained the team for two matches during the 1965-66 Ashes series.
  • John Douglas played 23 Test matches for England (1911-25). In 1908, he won Olympic gold in the middleweight boxing division. He died tragically in a shipwreck off the Danish coast.
  • Claude Buckenham contested 4 Test matches for England (1909-10), all in the English tour of South Africa in those years. Earlier, Buckenham had played football for Upton Park FC, which represented Britain in football at the 1900 Olympics, winning the Olympic “tournament”.
  • Jack MacBryan is credited with a single Test match for England. He played during a rain-plagued match against South Africa in 1924, where did not bowl, bat or dismiss anybody, while fielding for 66.5 overs. Four years earlier, he had won a gold medal in field hockey.

 Cricket venues

As a final link between the Olympics and top class cricket, four cricket grounds have been used as an Olympic venue. This does not include the 1900 Olympics, as that match was held as the Vincennes velodrome.

In 1928, the demonstration sport of kaatsen (similar to the US version of handball and pelota) was held on the cricket grounds outside the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium. A much better known venue is the Melbourne Cricket Ground. At the 1956 Olympics, it was the main stadium, hosting the opening and closing ceremony, the track and field competitions, as well as matches in football and field hockey. Demonstration matches in baseball and Aussie rules football were also conducted at the MCG.

For the 2000 Olympics, several football matches were held in the stadium. The same occurred in Brisbane, where the Brisbane Cricket Ground served as the venue.

The most famous cricket ground in the world is Lord’s, which calls itself “The home of cricket”. With some right: it has been in use at its current location since 1814. At the 2012 Olympics, the archery competitions were held there.

The archery competitions at Lord’s.

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