The laws of cricket are a set of rules established by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) which describe the laws of cricket worldwide, to ensure uniformity and fairness. There are currently 42 laws, which outline all aspects of how the game is played from how a team wins a game, how a batsman is dismissed, through to specifications on how the pitch is to be prepared and maintained. The MCC is a private club based in London in England and is no longer the game's official governing body; however the MCC retains the copyright in the laws of the game and only the MCC may change the laws, although nowadays this would usually only be done after discussions with the game's global governing body the International Cricket Council (ICC).
Cricket is one of the few sports for which the governing principles are referred to as 'Laws' rather than as 'Rules' or 'Regulations'. However regulations to supplement and/or vary the laws may be agreed for particular competitions.
The origins of cricket are debatable, but it probably derived from numerous games and sports involving hitting a ball with a bat or club (see History of cricket). In the eighteenth century, it expanded to become a betting game especially popular with the British aristocracy. The earliest laws were drawn up in that context, to help regulate a game on which large sums of money were being staked. The earliest existing known Code of cricket was drawn up by certain "Noblemen and Gentlemen" who used the Artillery Ground in London in 1744. In 1755 there is further reference to the laws being revised by "Several Cricket Clubs, particularly the Star and Garter in Pall Mall", followed by a revision of the Laws by "a Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen of Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex and London at the Star and Garter" in 1774. A printed form of the laws was published in 1775 and a further revision to the laws was undertaken by a similar body of Noblemen and Gentlemen of Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex and London in 1786.
However, these laws were not universally followed, with different games played under different guidance. On 30 May 1788, the Marylebone Cricket Club, which had been formed by the leading noblemen and gentlemen playing the game just one year before, produced its first Code of Laws. Whilst the MCC's version of the Laws were not accepted fully immediately, or applied consistently, it is the successor of these Laws that governs the game today. The next major change was in 1809 and saw the further standardisation of the weight of the ball from between 5 and 6 ounces (142 to 170 g) to between 5.5 and 5.75 ounces (156 to 163 g), and the width of the cricket bat was standardised for the first time. The length of stumps was increased from 22 to 24 inches and bails from 6 to 7 inches to help the bowlers, and the importance of umpires was further enhanced. Finally, a new method of dismissing a batsman was introduced. Previously, as cricket uses a hard ball and leg-pads were not used, players would naturally play with their legs away from the wicket. As batsmen started to wear pads, they became willing to cover their stumps with their legs to prevent the ball hitting the stumps and bowling them. Therefore a "leg before wicket" rule was introduced so that a batsman preventing the ball hitting his stumps with his legs would be out.
In 1829 the Length of stumps increased from 24 to 27 inches (610 to 690 mm) and the length of the bails was increased from 7 to 8 inches (180 to 200 mm), again to help the bowlers. For the first time, the thickness of stumps was mentioned. A new Code of Laws was approved by the MCC Committee on 19 May 1835, and another on 21 April 1884. In the 1884 laws the number of players was formalised for the first time (at eleven-a-side), and the size of the ball was formalised for the first time too. The follow-on rule was introduced. This was in response to the problem that to win a game a side needed to dismiss their opposition twice. A side that batted first and was fully on top of a match and scoring lots of runs would have to wait until it was dismissed a second time before it could attempt to dismiss the opposition a second time. As cricket is a time-limited game, it meant that sides that dominated the opposition could be forced to draw rather than win games. The initial follow-on rule was faulty, though, as it required a side to follow-on when it was behind. A side could deliberately concede its last wickets in the first innings in return for being able to bowl last on a deteriorating pitch. Later the follow-on rule was changed so that a team sufficiently ahead of its opposition has the option on whether to enforce it or not.
In 1947 a new Code was approved by the MCC on 7 May. In 1979 after a number of minor revisions of the 1947 Code, a new Code was approved at an MCC Special General Meeting on 21 November. This is known as the 1980 code. Amongst other changes, imperial units are now followed by metric units in the specifications.
In 1992 a second edition of the 1980 Code was produced. In 2000 a new Code, which for the first time included a Preamble defining the Spirit of Cricket was approved on 3 May. The code was rewritten into plain English and is more discursive than previous Codes. The length of an over was officially standardised at six balls for all matches, although in practice this had been the case for 20 or so years before that. In 2003 a second version of the 2000 Code was produced incorporating necessary amendments arising from the application of the 2000 Code.
Throwing was first regulated in laws produced in 1829. In 1864 overarm bowling was permitted for the first time.
In 1889, the length of an over increased from four balls to five balls. In 1900, the length of an over was increased to six balls. In 1922, variation was allowed in the length of the over (Australian overs to be eight balls). The 1947 Code stipulated that the length of an over was to be six or eight balls according to "prior agreement" between the captains.