Wicket Cool/Apparel Ace: The Cricket Jumper/Tennis Sweater

Vintage cricket player wearing a jumper
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Before kicking off talking about the classic bit of sportswear that is the cricket jumper or tennis sweater (depending on your preference and geography), I should by rights lay my cards on the table regarding all things sport.

As a teenager I was, I think it would be fair to say, perhaps the worst sportsman ever to walk the halls of the hundred-and-fifty-some-year-old institution where I attended high school. If this sounds like too bold a claim, I’ll ask you to pause for a moment to consider the facts: While I may have seemed tall and reasonably well put together for my age, beneath the skin I was nought but a wobbly tower of Jenga blocks poised to tumble. What’s more, I had nothing resembling ball skills nor any sort of head for strategy and competition. I was, therefore, consistently and deservedly picked for the worst teams in every sport I played — and I do mean every sport, by the way, since being at boarding school involved mandatory participation in all games.

Naturally, I hated sport as a result. It wasn’t just down to my ineptitude, either, it was all of the attendant misfortune. Again, allow me to present the evidence: My rugby-playing career was put to an end by an injury severe enough to require surgery, bed rest, and extensive physical rehab. Of much greater concern to me at the time, however, was that said injury was sustained in front of the entire school during the first five minutes of tryouts, well before the season had even begun. An even greater indignity occurred when, upon being all but chucked into the pool at the inter-school swimming gala, I proceed to dog paddle my way across an Olympic-size swimming pool while every school in the district looked on. Then there was my short-lived squash tenure, which crashed and burned when I failed to score even a single point against an opponent who was, without exaggeration, both half my age and size. I did find out later that he was a nationally ranked player, although you try explaining that to the group of peers who witnessed a David and Goliath act in which I was the lumbering giant toppled by a lone squash ball.

Rather on-topic given the ultimate premise of this preamble — the cricket jumper, lest we forget — is the fact that there was no sport in all the pantheon of physical activities that I was worse at than cricket. Once more, the deposition: Whenever it was my turn to bowl, it looked like I was wistfully gathering daisies in a field rather than making an entirely earnest attempt at a run-up. Ditto, if ever I was up to bat, the wickets would inevitable go flying well before I had so much as looked up from the crease. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that I was the twelfth man in the lowest-ranking team in my age group. If you don’t know cricket (in which case, welcome, you’re among friends here) that means I was effectively the team’s reserve player. And if it seems ridiculous that a sport as famously slow-moving and uneventful as cricket could ever need a backup man, I assure you what is far more so is the idea that I should ever have been that man.

You’d think all of this would be enough to put me off sport for life, and for a long time it did. In truth, I still get the sweats whenever I think about any of those adolescent athletic misfortunes. However, against all odds, as the embarrassment of my teens recedes ever further into memory, I have in the present day somehow become a real sports guy. Lord knows what my younger self would have made of a future comprising regular exercise and a fondness for outdoor activities, let alone voluntary attendances at sporting fixtures and a level of fandom teetering on the edge of obsession. One last bit of evidence to this effect: Not only am I writing this — notionally a post on a stylish piece of menswear — covered in the garish sports merch I routinely wear around the house, but I can scarcely get to the end of a sentence without looking up to check the score of the old basketball game I have playing in the background.

Vintage tennis player wearing a jumper
Image credit: Digital Museum / No known copyright restrictions

Perhaps the only thing I still have in common with my sport-fearing former self is a love of athletic clobber. Even as a teen who hated basketball, rugby, cricket, and all the rest of it, I still coveted a sharp pair of high-tops, a stylish rugby jersey, and — above all really, perhaps because it was furthest from my grasp — a sweet-looking cricket pullover.

I still remember the 1st XV (that’s cricket speak for the top team) kicking about the school grounds in their sport’s signature jumper, which they wore year-round on and off the pitch, rather like the letterman sweaters of American teen lore. How I wished I was good enough at cricket to have merited such a garment. With its coloured V-neck, ivory hue, ribbed stitching, and heavy build, it represented to me the very apex of style and a level of cool I’d never be able to attain. 

Truthfully, that hasn’t changed much in the interim, the only difference being that I’m no longer a child bound by school uniform rules and a lack of athletic ability. Instead, I’m a sport-loving grown-up who, at the very least, can wear what he likes while pretending he can pull it off. Which is why, after all these years, I finally bought a cricket jumper and have been wearing it with reckless abandon. Howzat for you?

J. Crew cable knit cricket vest
Image is my own / All rights reserved

I’ve since learnt that the sporting origins of my new favourite sweater are about as catholic as my own sporting past, albeit considerably more distinguished. There is a reason you might know the piece of knitwear in question variously as a cricket jumper or a tennis sweater or some other title still since versions of the same garment became popular across a range of sports beginning in the nineteenth century. These included games as diverse as tennis, golf, skiing, squash, and, of course, cricket. The precise origins of the garment remain somewhat murky, although the earliest version may have been made by Foster & Co., a defunct London clothier who started selling sports jumpers as early as 1840. 

It was in the 1920s that these sporting knits first made their way into people’s everyday wardrobes. As was so often the case in those years, the Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) had no small part in the garment’s widespread adoption. He got his from a tailoring shop in Surrey run by William Paine, who had opened a tailoring business in 1907; by the time William’s son, Alan (who lent the brand its current name of Alan Paine), took over in the 1930s, just a few years after the Prince’s pullover went viral, the company was dealing exclusively in knitwear.

Across the pond, the tennis player William ‘Big Bill’ Tilden, who was perennially ranked as the best player in the world throughout the ’20s and ’30s, may have had as much to do with the jumper’s civilian adoption as did the Prince of Wales. Ditto it’s adoption by style icons like Coco Chanel, Cary Grant, and Robert Taylor. From here it became a staple of American collegiate wear (as it had done in Oxbridge circles back in Merry England) where it would forever remain as a marker of preppy style on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

It is probably as much from this posh, club-going aesthetic — immortalised in fashion by the Ralph Laurens and the J. Crews of the world — as from the cricket jocks of my youth that I gleaned my own love of this sporty, cable-knit bit of kit. And while I may never have mastered the game for which it was named, I can’t help but feel vindicated wearing one now after those early years of sport-based anguish. Fair game, I can’t help but feel; or, if you prefer, it’s bloody cricket.