AS THE cricket season reaches its climax with the Test series between England the the West Indies, it seems appropriate to look back at the history of the game and consider some of the specifically Catholic contributions to its development.
The famous Hambledon Club was captained by Richard Nyren, a yeoman farmer who married into a Catholic family from the village of Slindon, one of the centres of recusancy along the Sussex-Hampshire border.
The Nyrens' links with Jacobitism have been challenged, but Richard's son, John Nyren, was raised as a Catholic, later recalling how he learned "a little Latin from a Jesuit.
John Nyren, who first played for Hambledon circa 1788, is honoured as the "father" of cricket writers, and his Cricketer's Guide and The Young Cricketer's Companion are classics. He moved to London in the 1790s and for 13 years was choirmaster at the Catholic chapel in Moorfields. His daughter became Abbess of the English convent in Bruges. Nyren died in 1837, and in 1842 the choir of St Mary Moorfield's sung his setting of the Ava Verum as a tribute. At the organ on that occasion was his friend Vincent Novello.
It has been suggested that the English Catholic gentry were particularly generous patrons of sport because, being denied entry to the universitites and professions by the penal laws, they naturally channelled their energies into rural pursuits.
There is a certain amount of local evidence for this. In Essex, for example, Catholic families such as the Beringtons and Coverdales were keen sponsors of cricket during the late eighteenth century.
The most famous pioneer of the early game, Thomas Lord, was born in 1755, the son of a recusant farmer from Thirsk, Yorkshire. Lord's father ended up by working as a labourer on his own estate, and it has been suggested that this was the result of sequestration following his support for the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.
The family moved to Norfolk, and Thomas Lord later became a wine merchant in London. He was probably the first member of his family to conform to the Established Church.
In London he acted as coach to a group of gentlemen at the White's Conduit Cricket Club, Islington. The Marylebone Cricket Club was founded in 1787, and it moved to its present ground in St John's Wood in 1813. The first match was played there in June 1814. Thomas Lord later tried to sell the ground to property speculators, but it was rescued, at the cost of £5,000, by the distinguished cricketer William Ward MP. Ward's son, W G Ward, was one of the leading Oxford converts, and his grandson, Bernard, was President of St Edmund's College, Ware, and the first Bishop of:Brentwood.
Cricketing connections may be traced to the English colleges on the Continent as well. The Jesuit academy at St Omers developed its own brand of cricket during the seventeenth century, and the game was brought to Stonyhurst in 1794 when the college was forced to take refuge from the French revolutionaries. "Stonyhurst cricket" was played until the 1880s.
Likewise, cricket was played at St Gregory's, Douay. The school was resettled at Downside, and the "old" cricket was played until 1867, when the Downside Cricket Club was formed and the MCC rules adopted.
The Downside v Prior Park fixture became the Catholic equivalent of Eton v Harrow. In -this latter fixture, incidentally, the future Cardinal Manning twice appeared for Harrow.
One of the leading expOnents of cricket among Catholic priests of the Victorian era was Mgr Lord William Joseph Petre, the first priest to sit in the House of Lords since the Reformation. In 1872, before he entered Holy Orders, a club for the past pupils of the Catholic colleges was started under Petre's inspiration.
Known as The Emeriti, the club survives to this day, and amongst its most famous past players it can number Sir T C O'Brien of Downside, Oxford University, Middlesex and Ireland, whom W G Grace was said to have considered "the next best batsman in England. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also turned out for The Emeriti ,he was educated at Stonyhurst, though he later turned to spiritualism;
Mgr Lord Petre's own school at Woburn Park, Surrey, was well known for its cricket. Petra: laid out a four-anda-half acre ground and built a fine
double-terraced pavilion. He once wrote that cricketers did "a very great deal to make life jolly for themselves and others", though some of his pupils thought he introduced too much cricket into the school.
He placed great emphasis on taking trouble to lay out cricket grounds in the proper manner, and when helping to pay for the cricket field at Ampleforth College he passed the comment that, in his opinion, religious orders were often unwilling to spend sufficient money to provide a good playing surface.
In 1884 his school buildings at Woburn were sold to the Josephite Fathers, and today form the nucleus of St George's College, Weybridge. This school, where the great Percy Fender spent some of his early days, celebrates its cricketing centenary at Weybridge this summer, and still uses Petre's pavilion.
Catholics have thus played their part in supporting the game of cricket, and the links have survived to this day. One of the best-known Catholic cricketers of this century was Andrew Sandham of Surrey and England. In more recent times we have had Frank Hayes of Lancashire, who was educated by the De La Salle Brothers in Manchester, and Bob Taylor of Derbyshire, who has kept wicker for England in more than 50 Tests.
The highly professional game of the 1980s is a far cry from the playing-fields at St Omers and Douay, and from the days of Nyren and Lord, but this tradition is one of which Catholics may he justly proud.