If one is to accept French-born American historian Jacques Barzun’s long-ago observation (and I do), that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” then surely it behooves us Yanks to investigate cricket if we wish to acquire some understanding of our British friends.
Years ago, on a trip across the pond, I took an indifferent stab at this cultural mystery by purchasing a tea towel (“dish rag,” in American vernacular) emblazoned with brief instructions that promised “Cricket As Explained to a Foreign Visitor.” That souvenir clearly was aimed at the sort of knucklehead U.S. tourist most likely to buy a little plastic Big Ben tower or Beefeater figurine. The impish tutorial went like this:
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in.
Each man that’s in the side that’s in, goes out, and when he’s out, he comes in, and the next man goes in until he’s out.
When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in, and the side that’s been in goes out, and tries to get those coming in, out.
Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When both sides have been in and out, including the not outs,
That’s the end of the game.
Almost a half-century as a sportswriter has convinced me how international games are—sports without borders—and how easily competition translates from land to land. Not everything is familiar to everybody, though. And there may not be two sports—baseball to Americans and cricket to the English—more weighted with puzzling conventions and coded language to outsiders.
A few years ago, Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-born American author, wrote a lovely essay called “Understanding Baseball,” in which he acknowledged needing 46 years as a U.S. resident to be able to figure it out. Basically, Ansary concluded, there is only suspense in a sport if one cares about the outcome, so that deciphering strategy isn’t a primary necessity to appreciate the drama..
Still, cricket is a vexation to most Americans, made all the stranger when it is said to be “baseball in the round.” Which it is. Sort of. Or maybe baseball is cricket cubism.
Anyway, it happens that my daughter has connections in England. So, during a Christmas-time visit with Keith Macfarlane and his son Henry, I attempted to solve the cricket riddle. Herewith some principles, as I interpreted them, often using baseball comparisons to aid a Yank’s comprehension:
- The team batting is “in.” The team fielding is “out.”
- The bowler—not quite like a pitcher—takes a long run, something like a long jumper’s approach to the takeoff board, before flinging the ball on one bounce to the batsman.
- The batsman faces a maximum of six pitches from the bowler, though he could be put out on any of those pitches if the bowler sneaks the ball past him and hits the wicket—the three stumps behind the batsman—or if a fielder catches his batted ball on the fly.
- After six pitches—called an “over”—whether they are delivered to one or multiple batsmen, the bowler is replaced. (He may return after another six-pitch “over.”)
- The field is an oval, with its outer limits marked by a fence, rope or some other boundary. If the batsman strikes a ball past that boundary on the fly—the equivalent of a home run—it is called a “six,” because it results in six runs. If the batsman sends a ball past the boundary on the ground, before a fielder can get to it, it is a “four.”
- If the fielders can keep a batted ball in play before it reaches the boundary, the batsman commences running the length of a 22-yard horizontal skinned “infield,” where a teammate—technically, a second batsman—has been standing, and who runs the opposite direction of his fellow batsman. One trip of 88 feet, roughly the same as the 90 feet between baseball bases, before the ball is retrieved results in a run. Two trips, two runs, and so on.
- Because a ball batted in any direction is in play, fielders are scattered strategically around the grass oval, some quite close to the batsman. No foul balls.
- There are 11 men per team, but it is after nine batsmen have been put out—what is called an “innings” (plural)—that the other team bats.
- A batsman, meanwhile, can keep hitting—even after scoring whole batches of runs; a rare “century” consists of one man piling up 100 runs in a single at-bat—until he is put out. So an innings can last hours or even days. Typically, a game consists of two innings per team.
- Some teams have been known to score 500 runs while “in,” and—feeling safely ahead and wanting to get on with shutting down the other side, have decided to “declare”—that is, stop batting before all of their batsmen have been put out. And daring the other side to catch up before its innings is completed.
Meanwhile, as with a cricket game itself, my recent lesson stretched well beyond tea time and into the next day as I attempted, not with any great success, to squint through the fog of terminology and determine what is acceptable within the rules. That is to say: What is kosher. What is cricket.