Betting in cricket is as nearly old as the sport itself. In fact, it was one of the most significant driving forces in cricket’s early days.

Introduction to Origins of Cricket Betting

The earliest known instance of betting in cricket dates back to a game at Coxheath, Kent on May 29, 1646, about a century after the first confirmed instance of cricket being played (in Guildford, Surrey). Two “young Royalists”, Samuel Filmer and Thomas Harlackenden, were pitted against Walter Franklyn, Richard Marsh, Roberts Sanders, and William Cooper, gentlemen of “prophane” Maidstone. The stakes were of a most singular kind. If the Maidstone quartet won, the Royalists would have to cough up cash. On the other hand, if the Royalists won, the quartet would have to pay twelve candles. When the Maidstoners lost and failed to pay the candles, the winners took them to court.

Betting was almost certainly rampant around this time. Charles II’s Gaming Act of 1664 made any wager “exceeding the summe of One Hundred pounds” (more than the annual income of 99 per cent of the population in England, as per Derek Birley in A Social History of English Cricket) a punishable offence.

In 1693, Thomas Reynolds, Henry Gunter, and Eleanor Lansford, who were “only spectators at a game of cricket” at Sussex, were charged with “riot and battery” for assaulting Ralph Thurston. In More Than a Game, John Major speculated betting as a reason behind the incident.

Betting in Cricket: 17th to 19th Century

Towards the end of the 17th century, the nobility began to take an interest in the sport. Many of them were not competent cricketers, but they could afford to have cricketers on their payroll, build teams, and challenge others for money. To the early patrons, cricket was a betting sport, like horseracing and prizefighting.

The cricket matches between these teams attracted massive crowds, and betting was rampant. The media reports covered the stakes as much as they covered the game. The first “important” 11-a-side cricket match in history was played at Sussex on July 7, 1697. The Foreign Post report ran: “The middle of last week a great match of Cricket was played in Sussex; there were eleven of a side, and they played for fifty guineas apiece.”

Cricketers from both sides bet massive sums in a match between London and Rochester Punch Club at Islington on September 1, 1718. As London closed in on a win, the Rochester cricketers left to prevent financial losses. The London cricketers sued them, and the court decreed the match would be “played out” in July 1719 at the same venue. London won this by 21 runs.

“Lumpy” Stevens, considered the first great bowler in history, played most of his cricket later that century. Renowned for perfecting many aspects of bowling in the underarm era, Lumpy found a second use for his accuracy: he won £100 for Lord Tankerville, on whose estate he worked as a gardener, by landing the ball on a feather placed on the pitch.

Such incidents kept surfacing throughout the 18th century. A particularly violent one took place at Richmond Green in 1731, when the team of Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond, hosted Thomas Chambers’s side for 200 guineas. They made 79 and 72 on either side of Chambers’s first innings of 119. The visitors needed eight to ten 'notches' with four or five wickets in hand when time ran out. Many in the crowd had bet on the match. They were not happy, particularly with Lennox, whose late arrival had delayed the start. In the subsequent violence, some cricketers had shirts torn off their backs. Lennox vowed revenge – but that story is better left for another day.

Birley mentions a court case in London from 1748 where the magistrate conceded that the “manly game” of cricket, while “not bad in itself”, had been the victim of “ill use”, for people often crossed the “legal” limit by staking in excess of £10.
In The Cricket Field, Reverend James Pycroft described how, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “Lord’s was frequented by men with book and pencil, betting as openly and professionally as in the ring at Epsom” and that “cricketers did take money to play badly at the latter end of the eighteenth century”.

“Silver Billy” Beldham, one of the finest cricketers of the era, mentioned how, during a match at Lord’s, “for seven balls together, one would not bowl straight, and the other would not hit; but at last, a straight ball must come, and down went the wicket.” Another infamous match took place in 1817, between an England XI and a Nottingham XXII. “The match was said to have been ‘sold’ on both sides,” read the scorer’s footnote.

Bookmakers of the era left no stone unturned to turn the odds in their favour. When a cricketer seemed a threat, one of their men would convince him that his wife had passed away. With no way to confirm in the days of primitive communication, the player was left with little choice but to leave the match and return home, even if to verify.

Between 1791 and 1825, the MCC – the central body of cricket – had Frederick Beauclerk as their president. A top cricketer in his prime but a “foul-mouthed, dishonest man”, Beauclerk was so obnoxious a human being that the Times refused to run an obituary when he died. He abused his power to fix matches to an extent that he made £600 a year from “playing cricket for stakes”. He “bought and sold matches as though they were lots at an auction”, wrote Jonathan Rice in Presidents of MCC.

A relatively light-hearted incident took place at Harefield Common in 1827, when two men famously challenged Francis Trumper, a farmer of no known relation to Victor, the legendary antipodean, and his dog for a double-wicket cricket match. This obviously drew crowds, and the game began with the stakes 5-1 against Trumper and dog... who won.

The early editions of the Wisden Almanack used to publish the rules of betting under the Laws of cricket. The instructions were specific: “No bet on any match is payable unless it is played out or given up. If the runs of the one player be betted against those of another, the bet depends on the first innings, unless otherwise specified.” And so on. These continued until 1883.

The Rise of Test Cricket

By then, Test cricket had begun, and there had been two significant betting incidents on Test tours. When England visited Australia for what was later classified as the first two Test matches in history, they also made a detour of New Zealand. In a match at Christchurch, Ted Pooley, the only wicketkeeper in the England squad, bet a shilling at 20-1 on each Canterbury cricketer scoring a duck.

There were eleven ducks in the match. This does not seem fantastic, but Pooley, then injured, stood as umpire in the match. When one Ralph Donkin lost the bet and refused to pay, Pooley assaulted him at Dunedin, spent time in jail, and missed the Tests. England, thus, started their journey in Test cricket with John Selby, at best a part-timer, behind the stumps. Selby kept wicket only seven times in 222 first-class matches, but five of them were on that tour, in Pooley’s absence.

Against Victoria at Melbourne five summers later, in 1881/82, England were 62 runs ahead in the second innings with three wickets in hand when time ran out. The English cricketers were scheduled to leave for Adelaide that night, but the hosts were eager to extend the match by another day. “The bookmakers were standing up doing business as if they were in Tattersall’s ring,” reminisced Ted Peate, who claimed nine wickets in that match. They did not need to hide their acts: after all, so influential were they that they had managed to delay a ship!

Before the match began, visiting captain Alfred Shaw and teammate Billy Midwinter bet a pound each on their side. That done, Midwinter told Shaw that teammates Selby, George Ulyett, John Selby, and perhaps William Scotton had placed £100 on Victoria, and had tried to entice Midwinter as well.

Victoria needed only 94. Shaw kept Ulyett, Selby, Scotton, and even Midwinter away from bowling, but simple catches began to go down once Victoria became 20-7. Selby caught Harry Boyle “by the ball going up inside the fieldsman’s arm and sticking there”. At 75-9, Dick Pilling stumped Frank Allan and began to walk off, but the umpire ruled not out. Dick Barlow then bowled Allan to end the farce. One can see why, in Never a Gentleman’s Game, Malcolm Knox wrote that cricket in the era was “like horse racing, still indivisible from gambling”.

Betting became more structured in the 20th century in countries like England, where it is legal to bet on cricket. With the odds 500-1 against England, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh bet against Australia during the Headingley Test of 1981. England pulled off one of the most famous wins in history, but few eyebrows were raised despite Lillee and Marsh being part of the losing side. Had they placed their bets today, ICC would almost certainly have probed into it.

The scenario is entirely different where it is illegal to bet on cricket. A bookie who went by the name John offered Shane Warne and Mark Waugh money for information on playing conditions and team tactics in Sri Lanka in 1994. When Australia toured Pakistan in 1995, Saleem Malik offered Waugh, Warne, and Tim May money to lose a game.

In 2000, Hansie Cronje shook the world with a confession to accepting money from bookies. The subsequent chain of accusations against several South African and Indian cricketers, including former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, forced the ICC to take the long-awaited step of setting up their Anti-Corruption and Security Unit.
There have been subsequent incidents of match- and spot-fixing. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, and Mohammad Amir’s antics in England in 2010 led to more than cricketing penalties. The IPL fixing episode of 2012 failed to raise awareness, but the 2013 saga led to a chain of events that culminated in the Supreme Court stepping in and a significant overhaul inside the BCCI.

The odd incident of fixing still exists inside the system and keeps surfacing from time to time, but at least there is a system in place to address that.

Fantasy sports – especially cricket – spread its wings in India in the same decade. Betting remains illegal in the country, but fantasy cricket, considered a game of skill, does not fall under that umbrella. Today, brands like Dream11 and My11Circle are big enough to sponsor various entities in Indian cricket.

Cricket owes its early popularity to betting. Over time, the two have gone hand in hand. Today, cricket, with its myriad parameters, is among the popular betting sports where it is legal. In countries where it is not, fantasy cricket serves as a viable next-best option.