On the 10th June 1755, the Public Advertiser carried the following report:
Cambridge. On Tuesday and Thursday June 3rd and 5th two matches were played between the gentlemen of Eton and the gentlemen of the University which were both won by the latter. The University won as easily this year as Eton did the last.
Cricket had arrived at Cambridge University! Although the University Cricket Club was not officially constituted until 1820, games were played on Parker’s Piece by the colleges and by the University against Cambridge Town from 1817 at the latest.
It wasn’t long before the next natural step was taken- the setting up of the University Match. Oxford’s Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the poet, challenged Cambridge’s captain, Herbert Jenner, to a match at Lord’s in June 1827, and although it ended in a damp draw, the die was cast. The series was played intermittently over the next few years, until 1838, when the consecutive series of matches (interrupted only by the two World Wars) began. From 1851 until 2000, all the matches were played at Lord’s.
From 1839 until 1843, Cambridge won five times in a row, a sequence never since equalled, and unlikely to be overtaken in the future. This era produced two great players, Charles Taylor and John Kirwan, considered respectively the greatest amateur batsman and fast bowler of their time.
In 1848, Francis Fenner’s new ground (still on the same site 150 years later) was used by the club for the first time, replacing Parker’s Piece and another ground that stood on the site of what is now Mill Road Cemetery. From this time the fixture list expanded, with games against the counties becoming standard, and friendly games against teams like I Zingari and the Quidnuncs starting up. In 1866 the period of the University’s greatest strength was ushered in by the first ever defeat of Surrey in a first-class match. From then on, the Light Blues could compete with the best in the land.
1870 was made memorable by the most famous University Match, finished by Frank Cobden’s hat-trick with the last three balls of the match. This incredible two-run victory was also notable for the first hundred in the series, scored by William Yardley, who repeated the feat two years later. The 1878 team was regarded as Cambridge’s best ever, and its record of played 8, won 8 tends to prove the fact. The brilliant all-rounder Allan Steel was a legendary member of this side, which also included the Honourable Ivo Bligh of Ashes fame.
The success of the club was reflected in the building of a magnificent pavilion in the 1870s, which was regrettably pulled down a hundred years later to make way for today’s more functional edifice. The Club further entrenched itself by buying the Fenner’s freehold in the 1890s. The last quarter of the century saw many great players and great victories, starting with the defeat of the all-powerful Australians in 1882. The three Studd brothers dominated the scene in the early 1880s, and ten years later another trio made their names. Sammy Woods took ten wickets in an innings in 1890, Gregor MacGregor kept wicket brilliantly and Stanley Jackson was another top-class all-rounder. Also in 1890, Cambridge scored 703 for 9 declared against Sussex, still the University’s top score. In 1896, the students chased 507 to win in the fourth innings against the MCC, still a world record. Ranjitsinhji and Jessop were two other great names of the 1890s, but their records for Cambridge were moderate compared with what they achieved later.
The next great side was that of 1921, based around Percy Chapman and the three Ashton brothers. Their fielding was particularly brilliant, a marked contrast with the hapless England team that year. The inter-wars generally saw a falling-off in the standard at Cambridge, although it still managed to produce England captains like Gubby Allen, Freddie Brown and Norman Yardley and a genius in Duleepsinhji, whose 254 not out against Middlesex in 1927 remains a Cambridge record.
The late 1940s sparked something of a revival, started by Hubert Doggart scoring 200 on debut in 1948, and continued in 1949 when he and John Dewes set up a new English second wicket record of 429 unbroken against Essex. Add the great Peter May and the very holy David Sheppard to the mix, and you have a phenomenal batting line-up. Alas, despite the presence of Trevor Bailey, JJ Warr and Robin Marlar during these years, bowling sides out was always a problem and Cambridge victories became less and less frequent. Compensation came in two thrilling wins in the Varsity Match in 1953 and 1957, the latter being the swansong of the Sri Lankan Gamini Goonesena, whose 211 is a Cambridge record against Oxford.
Yet more England captains have continued to come off the conveyor belt since then, namely Ted Dexter, Tony Lewis, Mike Brearley and Mike Atherton, but the only truly competitive team to emerge during this period was that of the early 1970s. Led by the inimitable Majid Khan, the team was, for once, particularly strong in bowling, with an attack led by John Spencer, Phil Edmonds and Mike Selvey. Derek Pringle led by example in 1979, when he scored a century in a massive win at Lord’s, and showed that Cambridge could still spring surprises when he made his debut for England in 1982 instead of playing in the University Match, a unique occurrence.
From 2001, Cambridge University ceased playing a full length first-class fixture list; this status now only applies to the annual clash with Oxford, which alternates between Fenner’s and The Parks, as does the annual Twent20 which gas been played since 2008. A one-day fixture is played at Lord’s. At the same time, CUCC formed a joint squad with Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) to form a new University Centre of Cricketing Excellence (UCCE) in which players from CUCC and ARU could play. During 2004, the responsibility for the UCCEs passed from the ECB to MCC who now fund and oversee the MCC Universities scheme nationally. The MCCU now plays two first-class and one non-First Class, fixtures against the counties and participates in league tournaments with other MCCUs.
Embracing these changes, cricket at Cambridge continues to thrive in the twenty-first century. Both the University eleven (Blues) and the Crusaders continue to fulfil an extensive and competitive fixture list against a wide variety of opponents. These range from the traditional, like the Free Foresters, Combined Services and Quidnuncs, to matches against Scottish and Irish Universities. Women’s cricket is developing an increasingly high profile, with some players selected to be part of the MCCU scheme, and the annual University Match now taking place on the Nursery Ground at Lord’s. Facilities for all cricketers have also improved dramatically with the opening of the new indoor cricket school at Fenner’s and Sports Science and Medicine support from Cambridge and ARU.
Somehow, the Club still manages to maintain links with its glorious past while striving to create a bright future. Long may it continue!
For those with an appetite for further information, there are two well known texts on this subject:
The Cambridge University Cricket Club by W.J. Ford, published by William Blackwood in 1902
Oxford and Cambridge Cricket by G.H. Chesterton and G.H.G. Doggart, published by Willow Books in 1989
On Fenner’s Sward: A History of Cambridge University Cricket Club by Giles Phillips, published by the History Press in 2005.