Okay cricket. There’s a World Cup on, and it is focussing attention on Zimbabwe, and on Mugabe – extreme nastiness of. So cricket is worth explaining to people whom I wouldn’t normally bother to bother about it.
For example, in their first game of the tournament two of the Zimbabwe cricketers, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga made a protest on behalf of their fellow countrymen:
Before the Group-A match started Monday, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga donned black armbands and released a statement condemning the worsening violence and famine in their country, as they mourned what they called “the death of democracy.”
So anyway, I’ll assume you know roughly what baseball is, and I’ll assume I do, and I’ll describe cricket basically by saying how it differs from baseball.
First, the similarities, and (I’m guessing) the common ancestry. Both involve a guy propelling a ball in the direction of a batter, and the batter trying to hit the ball. A cricket ball is not so extremely different from a baseball ball, but I’m guessing it’s a bit bigger and more than a bit harder and scarier to get hit by. Corrective comments on that welcome. (I’ve not done much with a baseball. All I know is what I’ve seen watching baseball on British Channel 5 TV.)
However, the manner in which a cricket ball is propelled at the batter is very different to baseball. In baseball, the pitcher stands in one place and throws the ball. In cricket, the “bowler” runs towards a fixed spot and when he gets there he “bowls” the ball at the “batsman”. Important: the bowler must keep his arm absolutely straight, as he swings it round and lets go of the ball. If he doesn’t do this, and instead is believed to be throwing it, baseball-style, even a little, this can cause an international diplomatic incident. If a bowler is “no balled” for throwing, i.e. yelled at by one of the umpires as soon as he does it, this is a huge deal for the bowler, for the bowler’s entire career, for his team, for cricket, and for all cricket fans everywhere. Cricket fans like me can still remember the names of bowlers no-balled for throwing years and even decades after it happened: Griffin of South Africa, Meckiff of Australia … You have to keep your arm straight!!
Being no balled for overstepping the mark and bowling from a few inches closer to the batsman than you should, well that’s no big deal. You lose one “run” (which is what a point in cricket is called). You can’t get a batsman “out” if you do it, but your cricket career won’t be affected.
Next big difference: unlike in baseball, the ball once bowled then generally strikes the ground, in between the bowler and the batsman, and quite near to the batsman, before the batsman tries to hit it. Baseball, to a cricket fan, looks like an endless succession of “full tosses”, that is, balls that never hit the pitch and which for a cricket batsman are extremely easy to hit.
Because the ball strikes it just before the batsman tries to strike the ball, the nature and state of the pitch makes a huge difference in cricket. It can vary a lot from match to match, and during a match. A good pitch for batting means that the ball bounces predictably off the pitch and is thus easy to hit. A “difficult” pitch means that the ball can sometimes deviate when it hits the pitch, and so when the batsman tries to hit the ball he’s liable to miss, or to miscue.
Like baseball, cricket also has its equivalent of “curve” balls, or whatever they’re called, in that a cricket ball in the hands of a skilful bowler also deviates in the air, when on its way towards the batsman. How greatly it does this depends a lot on the weather. With the possible exception of golf, there’s probably no other game in the world where the weather counts for more than it does in cricket.
There are broadly speaking two ways to bowl. You can bowl fast, and make the ball swing in the air and deviate from the pitch. And you can bowl slow, and make the ball spin in the air and deviate a lot when it hits the pitch. For international bowlers fast means 80 mph and more, and slow means about 50 mph.
To cope with all the complexities caused for him by the bowler, the cricket batsman has one huge advantage over his baseball cousin. His bat is wider, and it is flat. It’s not a stick. It’s more like a big and very thick paddle. Hitting the ball quite often is not that difficult, and a good batsman will reckon on hitting the ball pretty much as often as he tries to.
The batsman scores “runs” by hitting the ball out amongst the fielders, and running the length of the pitch from where he started out to the other end, where the bowler bowled from. Every length thus travelled is worth one run. He can also hit the ball to the boundary (quite a common occurrence) and get four runs. Or (much rarer) he can hit it, home run style, over the boundary, and get six runs. There are two batsmen out on the pitch at any one time, one at each end. If one scores a run, that means they swap ends, and the other one then faces the next ball. Bowlers take it in turns to bowl balls in sets of six, switching ends after each set of six (after each “over).
Whereas baseball scores seldom go to more than a dozen runs, cricket matches typically involve totals of one, two, even three hundred, and sometimes more. In the game that opened the World Cup, for example, in which the West Indies narrowly defeated South Africa, both sides scored getting on for three hundred runs each.
How does a batsman get “out”? Answer, he’s guarding his “stumps” (a line of three sticks stuck in the ground that stand about waste high behind him when he bats) and if he misses the ball when the bowler bowls it and the ball hits these stumps, the batsman is out “bowled”. If the ball strikes the pads that the batsman wears on his legs for protection, and the umpire decides (after much yelling and gesticulating by the fielding side) that the ball would have hit the wicket, the umpire gives the batsmen out “leg before wicket” (lbw). And, if the batsman hits the ball in the air and a fielder catches it before it lands, the batsman is out “caught” – as is the rule with baseball, yes? And if the batsmen, when trying to complete one of those “runs” don’t manage to cross before the fielding side picks up the ball and throws it at and hits those stumps, then the batsman who failed to make his ground is “run out”, again, much as a baseball player is dismissed for failing to reach his next base before the ball does.
Each team has eleven players, all of whom bat, so when the fielding team have got ten of them out, that’s it, the team is “all out”, and the other guys take a turn. Whoever makes the most runs wins.
Cricket now comes in two versions. There is the type that lasts a day, which is the kind they’re playing now in the World Cup, and then there’s cricket that lasts a seriously decent length of time, like three, four or five days.
One day cricket, a relatively recent invention not liked by purists of the old school, has a winner and a loser. Each team receives a set number of balls, and the team that gets the most runs wins. But in the original, longer version of the game, the contest can end in a draw. In that, both teams bat twice. Suppose that in the final “innings” the team batting second is trying to make two hundred runs to win. If it does that before all its guys get out, it wins. If all its guys get out before they reach a combined total of 200, they lose. But if time runs out before either of those things happens, it’s a draw. Five solid days of desperately competitive action can end with no one winning.
I could go on, but I’ll answer just one more important question about cricket, which is really a criticism rather than a question. This is the one that goes: Cricket, that’s a game for a bunch of pansies and cissies, right? Only “gentlemen” play cricket, not regular guys.
If this is what you think, I can’t stop you. But a word of advice. If this is what you want to go on thinking about cricket, don’t ever play it. A long spell of bowling really takes it out of a man, and as for batting ?!
Put it like this, how would you like it if a man ran straight at you as fast as he could and then propelled a heavy, potentially very hurtful ball at you at a speed that can sometimes get quite close to 100 mph? Trust me, you’d be scared. Yet the proper way to bat is to get your body directly in line with this horror story, so that if the ball doesn’t hit your bat, it is extremely likely to hit you.
Don’t confuse the fact that the moments of the fiercest sort of cricket action can sometimes be rather, er, occasional, with the notion that when the action does happen it doesn’t amount to anything. For a serious cricket fan like me to be watching a good tight run chase, with batsmen clouting fast bowlers to all parts of the field, well, life doesn’t get any better.
Just before World War 2, there was a huge scandal in the world of cricket, know to this day as “Bodyline”. Bodyline was a particularly scary way of bowling that was aimed right at the bodies of the batsmen, even more directly than usual. And who was doing it? The English. That’s right. The gosh-I’m-most-frightfully-sorry – more-tea-vicar? – after-you-no-I-insist-after-you – English were bowling this Bodyline stuff.
And our guys were bowling their Bodyline bowling at Australians. And the Australians were the ones saying that our guys were being too rough and nasty. That’s right. Those rugged, crocodiles for breakfast, brave-hearted Australians were the ones saying that the English weren’t playing fair, and with some justice I might add. It got very serious, with cabinet ministers on both sides getting dragged in and insults flying around in all directions, some of them even being uttered in the House of Commons.
I sometimes think that if Adolf Hitler had paid a bit more attention to cricket he might not have been so casual about letting that World War 2 thing get started, that I mentioned earlier, that broke out a few years after Bodyline.
By all means be baffled by cricket, and if you were when you started reading this, you almost certainly still are. But don’t you dare try telling me that it’s not a game for Real Men to be playing. I’ve played it, and I have the scars and the broken teeth to prove it. And when English teeth of my vintage got broken they stay broken.
When I heard last night about Olonga and Flower making their protest, I was mightily impressed, but I wasn’t surprised. Cricket is a tough game, and the people who play it are tough, gutsy people.
Watching cricket is a different thing entirely. That can get very dull, no matter how many cucumber sandwiches are available, and getting people to do that, at any rate in England, is getting harder by the year.
On the other hand, I recently heard it said that in India they have more cricket fans than Europe has people, so the game clearly has a future for a good while yet.
For more cricket blogging, try Michael Jennings.