First-class cricket is a standard of the sport of cricket comprising matches of three or more days' scheduled duration between two sides of eleven players each, officially adjudged to be first-class by virtue of the standard of the competing teams. Matches must allow for the teams to play two innings each, although, in practice, a team might only play one innings or none at all. Generally, first-class matches are eleven players a side but there have been exceptions. Equally, although first-class matches must now be scheduled to have at least three days' duration, there have historically been exceptions.
The origin of the term is unknown but it was used loosely before it first acquired an official status following a meeting of leading English clubs in May 1894. Subsequently, at a meeting of the Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) in May 1947, it was formally defined on a global basis. A major omission of the ICC ruling was any attempt to define first-class cricket retrospectively. This has left historians, and especially statisticians, with the problem of how to categorise matches before 1947 (or before 1895 in Great Britain).
Test cricket, although the highest standard of cricket, is itself a form of first-class cricket, although the term "first-class" is commonly used to refer to domestic competition only. A player's first-class statistics include his performances in Test matches.
MCC ruling, May 1894
Before 1894, "first-class cricket" was a common term used loosely to suggest that a match had a high standard. There was at the time no concept of what became Test cricket and so an international match would be called a first-class one, as would any match involving two major county clubs. The term acquired official status, though limited to matches in Great Britain, following a meeting at Lord's Cricket Ground (Lord's) in May 1894 between the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) committee and the secretaries of the clubs involved in the official County Championship, which had begun in 1890. As a result, those clubs became first-class from 1895 along with MCC, Cambridge University, Oxford University, senior cricket touring teams (e.g., Australia and South Africa) and other teams designated as such by MCC (e.g., North v South, Gentlemen v Players and occasional "elevens" which consisted of recognised first-class players).
ICC ruling, May 1947
The term "first-class cricket" was formally defined by the then Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) on 19 May 1947. It was made clear that the definition "will not have retrospective effect". The definition is as follows:
A match of three or more days' duration between two sides of eleven players officially adjudged first-class, shall be regarded as a first-class fixture. Matches in which either team have (sic) more than eleven players or which are scheduled for less than three days shall not be regarded as first-class. The Governing body in each country shall decide the status of teams.
For example, MCC was authorised to determine the status of matches played in Great Britain. For all intents and purposes, the 1947 ICC definition confirmed the 1894 MCC definition and gave it international recognition and usage.
Hence, official judgment of status is the responsibility of the governing body in each country that is a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC). The governing body grants first-class status to international teams and to domestic teams that are representative of the country's highest playing standard. Later ICC rulings make it is possible for international teams from associate members of the ICC to achieve first-class status but it is dependent on the status of their opponents in a given match.
According to the ICC definition, a match may be adjudged first-class if:
- it is of three or more days scheduled duration
- each side playing the match has eleven players
- each side may have two innings
- the match is played on natural, and not artificial, turf
- the match is played at a venue which meets certain standard criteria re venues
- the match conforms to the Laws of Cricket, except for only minor amendments
- the sport’s governing body in the appropriate nation, or the ICC itself, recognises the match as first-class.
A Test match is a first-class match played between two ICC full member countries subject to their current status at the ICC and the application of ICC conditions when the match is played.
A peculiarity of the two-innings match is the follow-on law. If the team that batted second is substantially behind on first innings total, it may be required to bat again (i.e., to immediately "follow on" from its first innings rather than innings alternating as them normally would) in the third innings of the match.
In 2010, the ICC published its Classification of Official Cricket which includes the criteria with which a match must comply to achieve a desired categorisation. In the section on first-class cricket, there is a list of the types of match that should qualify. It is important to note, given the differences in opinion about what constitutes a first-class match, that the ICC clearly stipulates that its match type list is not exhaustive and is merely indicative of the matches which would fall into the first-class definition. For example, the list includes matches of recognised first-class teams versus international touring teams; and the major domestic championships (using their then-current names) such as the County Championship, Sheffield Shield, Ranji Trophy, etc.
The absence of any ICC ruling about matches played before 1947 (or before 1895 in Great Britain) has caused problems for cricket historians, and especially statisticians, who have been forced to compile their own match lists. Inevitable differences have arisen and there are variations in published first-class statistics.
A key problem is when first-class cricket for both historical and statistical purposes is deemed to have begun. Writing in 1951, Roy Webber argued that the majority of matches prior to 1864 (i.e., the year in which overarm bowling was legalised) "cannot be regarded as first-class" and their records are used "for their historical associations". This drew a line between what was important historically and what should form part of the statistical record, hence for pre-1947 cricket matches "first-class" is essentially a statistical concept, while the historical view is broader and takes account of historical significance. Webber's rationale was that cricket was "generally weak before 1864" (there was a greater and increasingly more organised effort to promote county cricket from about that time) and match details were largely incomplete, especially bowling analyses, which hindered compilation of records.
Subsequently, the "start date" has gone back in time and Webber's view has been challenged by those who, inter alia, suggest 1772, 1801, 1815 and 1826. The most significant internet-based views are those of CricketArchive (CA) and ESPNcricinfo (CI), both of which hold that the earliest first-class match was Hampshire versus All-England at Broadhalfpenny Down on 24 and 25 June 1772. CA has numbered this match "f1" (i.e., first-class match number one) and CI as "First-Class # 1".
This view is, however, statistical and not historical because the match in question has left a scorecard that is complete apart from the bowling analyses and so the data is sufficient for a statistical study, especially as the scorecard was itself the start of a trend and there are surviving scorecards from every season commencing 1772. The historical view centres on the importance of a match and, as is often the case with early matches, the amount of money at stake. The earliest match known to have been accorded superior status (i.e., "a great match" in this case) and to have been played for a large sum of money was one in Sussex between two unnamed eleven-a-side teams contesting "fifty guineas apiece" in June 1697. This match has enormous historical significance but has no value at all for statisticians as there is no surviving data.
- Birley, p.145.
- Wisden 1948, p.813.
- "ICC Classification of Official Cricket". International Cricket Conference (ICC). Retrieved 9 February 2015.
- "MCC Laws of Cricket – Law 13". Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Retrieved 9 February 2015.
- Webber, pp.9–10.
- "Hampshire v England 1772". CricketArchive. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
- "Hampshire v England 1772". ESPNcricinfo. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
- McCann, p.xli.
- Birley, Derek (1999). A Social History of English Cricket. Aurum.
- McCann, Tim (2004). Sussex Cricket in the Eighteenth Century. Sussex Record Society.
- Webber, Roy (1951). The Playfair Book of Cricket Records. Playfair Books Ltd.
- Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, 27th edition, editor Charles F. Pardon, John Wisden & Co., 1890
- Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, 32nd edition, editor Sydney Pardon, John Wisden & Co., 1895
- Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, 85th edition, editor Hubert Preston, Sporting Handbooks Ltd, 1948