The game of cricket as we know it began in England in the late 1700s, when the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in London set down the Laws of Cricket. The MCC remains the guardian of the laws but no longer controls the global game; similarly, England's initial dominance of global cricket has given way to a more competitive international calendar.
By virtue of its large player base and greater familiarity with cricket, England contributed much of the game's early innovations. It also gave the game its first superstar, W. G. Grace, who was possibly the greatest innovator the game has seen. It played its first Test in 1877 against Australia, and the biennial Ashes series against Australia began in 1882, international cricket's first great rivalry.
In the first half of the 20th Century, England and Australia were the pre-eminent cricketing nations and essentially occupied their own league at the top. England cricket remained strong until the mid-1970s, when the West Indies marauded their way to the top, and varied between unexceptional-but-competitive and plain dismal until the late 2000s. The high point, without a doubt, was winning a closely contested 2005 Ashes series.
Since Zimbabwean Andy Flower took over as team director in 2009, England have gelled into an excellent team in all forms of the game. They sprung a surprise by winning the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies and have gained and consolidated a reputation as a leading Test team. For all their current talent, whether or not they can stay around the top seems to depend on maintaining that cohesive, one-for-all mentality.
World Cup Record:
England's cricketers were regular World Cup contenders (and often the hosts) in the 1970s and 1980s, usually alongside the West Indies and Australia, but they've never managed to go all the way and win it. England reached the World Cup semi-finals 1975 and 1983 and were beaten finalists in 1979, 1987 and 1992.
Of these, the 1987 final against Australia was the closest contest. Chasing Australia's 253, England were well on track to take the Cup at the halfway point of their innings. Unfortunately, captain Mike Gatting got out to a poor shot and put England on the back foot. They eventually fell seven runs short.
From 1996 until 2011, through five World Cups, England has failed to even reach the semi-finals. It has played in some classic matches, though - most memorably, the tied group match against India in 2011. However, this match was like so many other England World Cup failures in that they failed to take advantage of a strong position.
- Sir Jack Hobbs: Hobbs is primarily remembered for his unbeatable first-class record - 199 centuries and 61,760 runs - but his exploits at Test level for England were exceptional. Hobbs hit 5,410 runs at an average of just over 56, outstanding by any measure, and formed an opening partnership of legend with Herbert Sutcliffe. Hobbs turned down film, theatre and even political offers at the height of his popularity; he was always more comfortable to let his bat do the talking.
- Sir Ian Botham: 'Beefy', who now works as a cricket commentator, is the greatest all-rounder in the history of the England national team. He scored 14 centuries and took 383 Test wickets, still an England record; more importantly, he was a true character, controversial one minute and beloved the next. The 1981 Ashes, known as Botham's Ashes, gave us the best of Botham at the batting and bowling creases. Botham was knighted for his services to charity in 2007.
- Alistair Cook: The Test and one day international captain, Cook has developed into England's best batsman. He's a tall left-hander with impressive powers of concentration - these were best demonstrated by his mammoth run haul in England's 2010-2011 Ashes victory Down Under. He somehow appears not to sweat or tire, even after batting all day in the hottest conditions.
- Graeme Swann: For decades, England didn't have a world-class spinner. Now they have Swann, who is about as good as orthodox off-spinners get. Swann turns the ball off the pitch pretty well but it's his consistency in length, allied to an ability to adjust his attack depending on the batsman, that gets him wickets. Swann is now in his mid-thirties so England will hope he can play on despite persistent injuries, particularly a troublesome elbow.
- Ian Bell: The enigmatic Kevin Pietersen comes and goes from the England side but Bell, for all his elegance and style, is now one of the most reliable batsman in the team. Bell is versatile: he can smash it around in limited-overs cricket or knuckle down to keep England alive in a Test match. His close-in catching skills are also excellent.
England Cricket Timeline:
- 1877: First Test match, against Australia. Wins second match in series for first Test win.
- 1882: The Ashes, arguably cricket's greatest rivalry, is born as England loses its first home series to Australia.
- 1908: Sir Jack Hobbs debuts against Australia.
- 1932-33: Controversial 'Bodyline' tour, in which England's fast bowlers targeted Australian batsmen's bodies with short-pitched deliveries.
- 1939: Takes part in longest Test match in history, against South Africa, which is drawn by mutual agreement after 10 days of play.
- 1975: First World Cup appearance as hosts. Reaches semi-finals.
- 1977: Sir Ian Botham debuts against Australia.
- 1979: Finishes runner-up in Cricket World Cup, again as hosts.
- 1987: Finishes runner-up in Cricket World Cup in India and Pakistan.
- 1992: Finishes runner-up in Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
- 2004: Ian Bell debuts against West Indies.
- 2005: Wins a thrilling Ashes series after 16 years of Test series losses to Australia.
- 2006: Alistair Cook debuts against India.
- 2008: Graeme Swann debuts against India.
- 2010: Wins ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies, defeating Australia in the final.