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    The Golden Age of Cricket
The Golden Age of Cricket
Colorized photo of cricket fans in the end of 19th century. Source: Midjourney

The Golden Age of Cricket

The "Golden Age" of cricket is a term often used with fondness in cricket literature to refer to the period in English cricket from 1890, when the official County Championship began, to the start of World War I just before the 1914 season ended. This nostalgic term has also been applied to the same period in Australian cricket and in reference to the Philadelphian cricket team in America.

This era is viewed with a sense of longing, as the teams were believed to have played cricket according to the game's noble ideals. Yet, the nostalgia also stems from the tragic loss of life during the Great War and a yearning for the happier times before the conflict began. Many first-class cricketers were killed or wounded in the war, including eight Test players from England, Australia, and South Africa. The war years also saw the deaths of iconic players like W.G. Grace and Victor Trumper, who passed away in 1915.

The "Golden Age" certainly featured numerous cricket greats such as Grace, Trumper, Blythe, Wilfred Rhodes, Jack Hobbs, C.B. Fry, Ranjitsinhji and Frank Woolley. However, as cricket historian David Frith pointed out, the nostalgia for this era "needed someone to put it in perspective." In his 1939 autobiography, Fry wrote that he believed the 1890s and early 1900s cricket was "more entertaining to watch," though he was unsure if the modern game was "not more difficult to play."

British cricketer in 1899 year. Source: Midjourney
British cricketer in 1899 year. Source: Midjourney

English Golden Age

The period from 1890 to 1914 is often referred to as cricket's Golden Age, viewed through a lens of nostalgia as an untarnished and attractive era. This period was marked by dashing amateur cricketers who did not depend on the sport for their livelihood, and the tragic end of this era with the outbreak of World War I adds a poignant quality.

The stars of the Golden Age were predominantly English, with the occasional challenge from the Australians. The dominant figure was WG Grace, the pioneering Gloucestershire doctor who revolutionised and dominated batting for decades. He shared the spotlight with other polished and carefree batsmen like FS Jackson, AC MacLaren, and the renowned KS Ranjitsinhji.

While the amateurs captured the public's imagination, some highly skilled professional batsmen and bowlers contributed to the era's greatness, like Shrewsbury, Hobbs, Barnes, and Hirst. 

The cricket played during this Golden Age was marked by elegance and dash, performed on often damp pitches, and has since been immortalised in the romantic prose of writers like Neville Cardus. The nostalgia and fond memories associated with this era continue to captivate cricket enthusiasts to this day.

Australian Golden Era

The period between 1890 and 1914 is often referred to as the golden age of Australian cricket. Cricket writer Jack Pollard described this as a time when the sport reached new heights, with an abundance of exceptional batsmen and bowlers captivating audiences. Moreover, the players of that era set remarkable standards of sportsmanship, elevating cricket as a character-building pursuit and an integral part of the social fabric. The Australian cricketers of the time, such as Trumper and the Trott brothers, also left an indelible mark.

Similarly, cricket historian Gideon Haigh regarded Australian batting great Victor Trumper as the very embodiment of that golden age. Haigh praised Trumper's exhilarating and graceful strokeplay, as well as the charm and appeal of his personality. Even Trumper's premature demise was seen as emblematic of the transient, yet captivating nature of that celebrated period in Australian cricket history.

England and Australia rivalry

By the 1890s, Test cricket between England and Australia was well-established. Between 1890 and 1914, the two countries played 15 test series, including the 1912 Triangular Tournament which also featured South Africa. This period is considered the "Golden Age" of Test cricket, when it became the dominant form of the game.

During this time, England was led by captains such as W.G. Grace, Andrew Stoddart, Archie MacLaren, and C.B. Fry, among others. Australia's captains included Billy Murdoch, Jack Blackham, and Monty Noble.

South Africa played their first Test in 1888-89 but struggled in their early years, losing all 8 of their initial Tests against England. They fared a bit better against Australia, avoiding defeat in one of their first 3 matches in 1902-03. However, South Africa turned a corner in 1905-06, winning a series against England 4-1, thanks in part to the emergence of several skilled "googly" bowlers like Reggie Schwarz and Bert Vogler.

South Africa's subsequent tours of England were more competitive, narrowly losing the 1907 series 1-0 and then winning 3-2 in 1909-10. Though their results declined after that, their 1910-11 tour of Australia was still closely contested.

Cricket play in South African fields. Source: Midjourney
Cricket play in South African fields. Source: Midjourney

Golden Age of Proteas

The South African cricket team of the 2010s featured an exceptional collection of world-class players. Superstars like Smith, Kallis, De Villiers, Du Plessis, Amla, Steyn, Morkel, and Philander were all at the peak of their powers during this time. In hindsight, this group of cricketers can be considered among the greatest of their generation.

The careers of these talented individuals overlapped, and their collective success was a source of immense pride for South African fans. At the time, the true significance of this golden era may not have been fully appreciated. It's difficult to envision a similar confluence of such elite-level players representing the Proteas in the future.

During this dominant period, South Africa held the prestigious No. 1 ranking in Test cricket for an extended stretch, from July 2014 to January 2016. But their reign at the top was even more impressive between August 2012 and May 2014, when they were the undisputed leaders of the format, losing the top spot to Australia for only a brief three-month period before reclaiming it.

That South African team, featuring the likes of Smith, Amla, De Villiers, Kallis, Philander, Steyn, and Morkel, is widely regarded as the greatest the country has ever produced. They achieved a remarkable series of victories, both at home and away, including wins over the formidable Australian side.

Those were truly the golden years of South African cricket, a time that may not be easily replicated in the future.

Golden Age In Philadelphia

In addition to the developments in Test cricket between England, Australia, and South Africa, this era also saw the brief emergence of Philadelphian cricket. The Philadelphians from the United States undertook several tours to England during this time and were able to play on even terms with the leading county teams.

On their final tour in 1908, the Philadelphians played 10 first-class matches, winning 4 and losing 6. This tour was particularly notable for the outstanding bowling performance of Bart King, who took an impressive 87 wickets at an average of just 11.01 runs per wicket. This bowling average was not bettered until 1958 when Derbyshire's Les Jackson posted an average of 10.99.

Though short-lived, the Philadelphians' ability to compete with the top English county sides during this "Golden Age" of cricket demonstrated the growing international appeal and competitiveness of the sport.

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