Is Belgian claim to have invented cricket batting on a sticky wicket?


EUROPEAN DIARY:The cosy world of English cricket has been knocked for six by a dispute over its origins, writes JAMIE SMYTH

IS THERE anything more quintessentially English than the game of cricket?

The sight of white-clad cricketers strolling around the village green before disappearing into a pavilion to devour tea and cake has become a metaphor for English life.

Lords, the magnificent cricket ground in St John’s Wood in London, is widely acknowledged as the home of cricket. No summer would be the same without the English public bemoaning their national team for enduring a batting collapse at the hands of the Aussies or India.

But the usually cool, calm and collected English briefly lost their temper this week when two academics from Australia and Germany questioned their claim to have invented the game of cricket, instead attributing the honour to the cycling-mad Belgians.

Research conducted by Dr Paul Campbell while studying at the Australian National University in Canberra and supported by Dr Heiner Gillmeister of the department of English at the University of Bonn suggests the term “cricket” has its roots in the Flemish phrase “met de krik ketsen”, or “to chase with a curved stick”.

The two academics claim to have pinpointed the earliest known reference to the game in a poem written by the English poet John Skelton in 1533, The Image of Ipocrisie.

The poem refers to Flemish weavers who settled in southern England as “kings of crekettes”.

It also mentions “wickettes”, the name of the three stumps that bowlers aim to hit to dismiss a batsman.

Previously it was thought cricket was an English invention with its earliest written reference appearing in a 1598 report of a court case involving a dispute over land in Guildford and the world’s first cricket club, Hambledon.

“There was a good deal of migration to southern England by Flemish weavers from the 1400s on, as the economic fortunes of the two regions become linked through the wool trade,” says Dr Gillmeister, a linguist who specialises in researching the origins of sports.

“A few years ago, Mr Campbell contacted me about my work and I told him to check for references for cricket and he hit on this poem.

“The word wickettes is Flemish, meaning a small gate in a sheep pen. I have no doubt it was a Flemish game,” says Dr Gillmeister, who admits his many media appearances on the topic may have ruffled some English feathers.

The Daily Telegraph, a staunch defender of all things English, questioned the motives of Dr Campbell in an editorial under the ironic headline, “Famous Belgians”: “What’s this? Cricket was invented by a Belgian? Are we to make anything of the fact that this attempt to debunk the English provenance of the game has come from an Australian academic in the run-up to the Ashes? If the Aussies want to pick 11 Belgians, let them go ahead.”

In the cut-throat world of professional cricket, anything is possible and, with the Australian cricket team suffering a sudden dip in form, this “Flemish conspiracy” could perhaps be a subtle plan to get under English skins ahead of this summer’s Ashes tour.

But Cricket Belgium, the organisation tasked with popularising cricket in the country, has no doubt about the academics’ claims.

“The reported timing of this poem around 1530 fits with claims a number of years ago that a painting or paintings by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder between 1525 and 1569 showed a form of cricket in Flanders in the mid-16th century,” says Martin O’Connor, general manager of Cricket Belgium.

Mr O’Connor told The Irish Times that cricket was a minority sport in Belgium with probably fewer than 2,000 people playing. However he said the controversy had sparked a new interest in the game, which he hoped his organisation could use to attract young people.

Whether the Flemish are prepared to swap their bikes for willow bats and white flannels remains to be seen, but it seems safe to say they won’t be humiliating England any time soon on the cricket ground. They’ll leave that role for the Australians.