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Cricket explained – as briefly as I can manage (i.e. not very)

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.”

Brave men.

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-youEnglish 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.

18 comments to Cricket explained – as briefly as I can manage (i.e. not very)

  • Michael

    Been living in the UK for a year and a half now. Thanks for the attempt at explanation. Two things.

    1. You make it sound as if it would be easier to hit an American Baseball that the Cricket ball because of the ‘pitch’ (more on that next). It has been said that the most difficult thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball. Maybe an exagerration, but I can assure you of one thing. If you faced a pro pitcher’s fastball, you would be about as terrified as a person can get in a sport (excluding ski jumping).

    2. Americans will be confused by your use of ‘pitch’ above. Your ‘pitch’ is our ‘field. Our ‘pitch’ is your ‘bowl’. Your ‘bowler’ is our ‘pitcher’. The batter hits the pitch. The pitcher doesn’t hit the pitch, he threw the pitch. Little word, lots of confusion.

  • Pete Cretingham

    I missed your definition of being “stumped”, not because the lack of it made your blog any less complete or enjoyable but because I would have liked seeing how you tried to explain it.

    Reference to the French being “out of their ground” now might help…or not.

  • Cricket was a popular sport in the USA until after the civil war. The USA – Canada annual match started in 1840. John Adams was a keen cricketer. I hope they don’t come back to it. England loses to too many nations as it is and you can be sure the USA would become good at it as they do in all sports.

  • eamon

    With the notable exceptions of Rugby and football of course.


  • The four-point hit could be compared to a “ground-rule double” in baseball, where the ball goes over the fence on the bounce. Since there is no fence in cricket, going over the boundry on one or more hops is typical; imagine the doubles and triples in the gap without a wall.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    I certainly didn’t want to make it sound easy to hit a baseball. I did mention the thinness of the baseball bat, didn’t I, compared to a cricket bat? But sorry if I suggested different.

    You’re spot on about the “pitch” thing, of course. You think you’ve got every important thing, but then you screw a thing like that up. Ah well …

    I didn’t know they played cricket in the USA. How about that!

    A further point about the politics of the World Cup. The international cricket authorities are very determined that England should play their game in Zimbabwe, not because they are morally neutered sports jocks with no idea of politics, but because they are acutely aware of political matters, and very scared of cricket being used (i.e. disrupted) again and again to make political points. When you consider that two of the great cricketing countries are India and Pakistan, you can see their point.

    All the more kudos to Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, the Zimbabweans. They played their game, but they made their point. Maybe England could do something similar. If they all wore black armbands for their game in Harare (Flower and Olonga having ALREADY EXPLAINED what that now means!), that would ENRAGE Mugabe, and cheer up his opponents no end.

    As for “stumping”, I’m all explained out for now. Anyone else care to try doing that one?

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Brian, how hard is a cricket ball? You make it sound like a jai-lai ball, and those are deadly.

    Baseballs are pretty nasty in their own right–I’ve seen people knocked out cold from taking a wild pitch to the head or a line drive to the chest, and people have been killed by line drives striking them just over the heart.

    Cricket sounds interesting, but you are missing a special feature of baseball. Baseball (or softball) can be played hard or easy. You can play a fun, competetive game of baseball with a keg behind second base over the course of an aftenoon cookout, or you can play a hard-fought game over an entire day. You can grab a whiffle ball and bat and play in someone’s back yard. You can grab a broomstick and a tennis ball and play a long-distance game on a football field. It’s very versatile.

    And you get to kick sand on the umpire when you disagree with him.

  • Whenever famed cricket six-hitters have gone up against baseball pitchers, they haven’t had a problem hitting home runs. I recall a Wisden Cricket Monthly account from the mid-80s of Ian Botham visiting the LA Dodgers on his way back from Australia and having a jolly old time frustrating their pitchers at how easily he dispatched them. Having said that, six-hitters are about as rare in cricket as good home-run getters are in baseball, and quite often they are not particularly good batsmen (Botham being a definite exception).

    As for the size and hardness of a cricket ball, it is smaller and definitely harder. Mike Gatting once received a sickening blow in the face from a fast bowler during a tour of the West Indies. He got what is termed a “bouncer,” where the ball is deliberately slammed into the ground so as to rear upwards into the batsman’s face at a sharp angle. When the ball was examined it was discovered that a piece of his nose cartilege had embedded itself in the ball.

    Cricket balls have also killed, normally again when struck just over the heart (what was so offensive about bodyline was that this was the area Larwood, Voce and Bowes were aiming at, at about 90mph). Before the invention of helmets, it was relatively common to see batsmen leave the field after being knocked out or having had bones broken (“Retired hurt” on the score card).

    Cricket, I should add, can also be played anywhere as long as you have a bat and some sort of ball (just draw the stumps on a wall if you haven’t got any). A trip to India should convince anyone of that.

  • HEY! Us Americans are darn good at football. It’s soccer we have problems with! <G>

  • The problem I have with cricket is the same as basketball. Each score is relatively meaningless, and therefore unexciting. In baseball and soccer the scoring is much less frequent, but that increases the drama and excitment for my tastes.

    As for US soccer, we’re on the rise. (Despite the sloppy game against Argentina last week.)

  • David Gillies

    Stumped vs. runout: a batsman is Run Out if at any time while the ball is still in play he is out of his ground (the ‘crease’) and his wicket goes down. This becomes Stumped if the guy taking his wicket is the wicket-keeper and the batsman is not attempting a run. The usual situation is for a batsman to take a forward stroke, step out of his crease and have his wicket taken by an alert wickie.

    You also forgot hit ball twice, handled ball, obstructed the field, timed out and hit own wicket as means of getting out.

    As Iain Murray points out, cricket balls hurt. I was watching the match on TV when Mike Gatting got that ball in the face and it was pretty obvious that he had been seriously injured (the blood was a bit of a giveaway). When I was at school you could spot the 1st and 2nd XI people by the splints on their fingers (fielding is quite hazardous and you don’t get a big leather bucket to catch the ball in like baseball). Fingers would get bent back and snapped, but even nastier was getting a (yes, very hard) cricket ball on the end of a finger which splintered the top joint.

  • “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?”

    Yes, even if it’s caught when “foul” i.e. out of bounds.

    “close to 100 mph? Trust me, you’d 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.”

    But, except in the bodyline case or intentional bounce case, there’s much less chance of the ball hitting you in the head than in baseball, right?

    “If you faced a pro pitcher’s fastball, you would be about as terrified as a person can get in a sport (excluding ski jumping).”

    While I’ve unfortunately never had that experience, I was pretty terrified the first (and second) time I rappelled off an overhanging 60′ cliff. I’ve also been pretty terrified on my mountain bike coming down either steep or exposed trails. I’ve also been terrified…

    “The problem I have with cricket is the same as basketball. Each score is relatively meaningless”

    Ah, but the last three minutes of a basketball game is pretty exciting.

    Anyway, so why do some people choose soccer, and some cricket? Why is soccer catching on the U.S., and football has become the new baseball (i.e., national sport). Someone said before the last World Series (baseball) that no one under 35 cared. Is cricket losing popularity too?

    And, when are we going to get Arena Cricket?

  • Thank you for this. I happened to click on a link the other day that said “World Cup” and I thought it might be soccer I had somehow missed. It turned out to be cricket and I turned out to be horribly confused. Thanks for the explanation 🙂

  • One Key difference that wasn’t made clear between cricket and baseball is this:

    In baseball, when you do connect with the ball, you are forced to run at least 1 base, which results in being “run out” very often.

    Cricket, on the other hand, leaves the decision entirely up to the batsman. If you don’t hit it very well, you can simply remain in position and take another “pitch”.

    You can continue bunting the ball back to bowler (pitcher) as often as you like, and take runs only when you hit it somewhere there are no fielders.

    This is the most important difference between the 2 sports in my opinion. The “forced run” in baseball balances things heavily in favour of the pitcher, since the batsman is forced to take a full swing at every pitch.

    Cricketers can just bunt or let go as many balls as they like until they get that perfect, hittable ball. The only qualifier is that it can’t hit your stumps.

    World War II was a time of cultural exchange between Australian and American soldiers. Australians were impressed with the ability of baseball playing Americans to hit any ball from a fast bowler – they were talented sloggers. Once the spinners came on to bowl, however, they had no idea what to do.

    Cricket is still played in the majority of states in America, although primarily by expats of India + the Carribbean. I played a game there myself in a park in the Bronx, NY. It had a dutch sounding name (the park) which I can’t quite remember.

    Canada has a team in the current World Cup, for the first time since 1979. They won their first match against Bangladesh. Most of the current Canadian players are of Carribbean origin.

  • nach

    I am sorry to say that cricket is a game that requires far more skill and patience than baseball, it is merely a far superior sport. the widest part of a baseball bat is more than half the width of a cricket bat. almost everything that a baseball pitcher can do in the air, a cricket bowler can too, plus there is the added problem of negotiating bounce, spin or deviation off the pitch (the playing strip or field). for sheer variety of bowling involved in cricket, watch fast men like pakistan’s shoaib akhtar or autralian brett lee, who bowl at almost 100 miles/hr at their fastest, or spinners (slow bowler who can make the ball spin and turn after landing), such as australias shane warne or sri lanka’s muralitharan who can spin the ball at what seems to be almost right angles at times, or india’s harbhajan singh or pakistans saqlain mushtaq who can throughly confuse batsmen with their control over the flight of the ball. almost all baseball batters will not be able to handle even a club level spinner whereas almost all cricketers have hardly a problem hitting a fast ball in baseball, which in cricket is called a ‘full toss’ and is about the easiest delivery you can get.
    lastly in baseball you know which area the ball is going to come, in cricket, presuming where the ball will land or where it will land after going can most often get you out.

  • G’day , One of the problems that we Cricketers have is that we think we are so bloody superior to baseballers. Both sports take a lot of skill , commitment , and patience. This attitude is what holds Cricket back in the USA , with all the expats saying cricket is a superior game , americans thumb there noses at it , they don’t need cricket.
    We need to look for the kids that fll between the gaps of Baseball, Football, Basketball and be there with Cricket, which most kids find a very satisfying game to play , especially adaptive versions like , Kanga Cricket, Kwik Cricket , Hot Shot Cricket having done a bunch of school demos of cricket , i know that a resurgence of Crciket in America can happen.
    Edward Fox
    Kansas Cricket Association

  • patrick

    i was playing a muck about game with my mates of cricket and one of them hit the ball but the bat went flying out of his hand but he still ran but without out his bat is this person out or not plz help

  • Robbo

    If you drop the bat after hitting the ball, you are not out – unless the ball hits the stumps before you make your ‘crease’. (The crease – which I have noted also didn’t get a mention – is a line that is drawn on the pitch to determine whether the batsman is ‘in’ or ‘out’ during a run out. It is also the line that determines whether a bowler bowls a no ball or not.)
    A cricket ball weighs between 8 and 10 ounces, and is usually a piece of cork wrapped in twine, which is then further wrapped in either two or four pieces of leather. Last month at training, one of my teammates was hit in the mouth by a fast ‘full toss’ (baseball pitch) We are still finding pieces of his teeth…..his smile suffered a bit of a flogging as well.