‘When’s the game itself going to begin?‘ – Groucho Marx while watching a cricket match at Lord’s field
If you’re moving to South Africa, you’ll have to learn about cricket. Otherwise, you’ll sit at the Vodacom store waiting to be seen (for the third time) about your new cellphone contract, staring at the TV screen in the corner with a cricket match on, and you’ll be bored to death. Or you might sit on the sidelines of your son’s cricket match – as I did with Jabulani the other day – and also be bored to death, at which point you will start asking questions just to pass the time.
There was actually a day – hard to believe now, after so many little league baseball games to sit through – that I felt much the same way about baseball, having just arrived in the United States from our native Germany. I remember thinking how on Earth people managed to sit through an entire game and actually be riveted by what’s going on. So, in all honesty, cricket is not really that strange.I’ll try to explain it in a nutshell, with the help of a book a colleague of Noisette recently gave me. It’s called “What is a Googly? by Rob Eastaway, and it is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud while reading it. First, the setup: Basically you have two teams of 11 players each, all dressed in white (go figure). One team is in the field, like in baseball, and the other is batting. What’s different is that there are always two batsmen, standing at opposite ends of the pitch, which is a stretch of short grass, much like a golf green, in the middle of the cricket field, which in turn is round (or rather elliptical) and bordered by the boundary line. Each batsman has behind him a wicket, a construction of three sticks in the ground with some more short sticks balanced on top. The fielding team is scattered around the field, with a catcher of sorts behind the batsman, except that he is called the wicketkeeper, the only player who actually has a glove. On the other end of the pitch is the bowler, the guy who throws the ball and tries to get the batsman out by knocking over the wicket, or by getting him to hit the ball into the air so that it can be caught. It always amuses me that the bowler runs across half the cricket field to wind up his throw, when it is a fact that higher speeds can be achieved by such an elegant move as a baseball pitcher’s windup, which involves no running at all. But the laws of cricket were laid down in 1788 by some posh gentlemen in England and apparently are really hard to change, so that we should be happy that there is any overhand bowling at all, even if it has to be with a stiff arm and the ball has to bounce.
Now for the action (yes, there are periods of action in a cricket match; or, better phrased by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Big Country it is “full of deliciously scattered micro-moments of real action”): The bowler bowls the ball to the batsman on the other side of the pitch, the striker, while the batsman on his side of the pitch (non-striker) just waits. If the striker then hits the ball, he can score a run by running to the other end of the pitch and crossing the line there with some part of his body or his bat (he actually has to take his bat with him to be able to score). Meanwhile, the non-striker also runs, so that they each pass each other in the middle. If both arrive safely, a run is scored. If the ball is hit far enough, the batsmen can keep running and score additional runs, though this happens rarely, because you automatically get 4 runs when the ball crosses the boundary, or 6 when it crosses the boundary without bouncing first (sort of like a home run). Runs can also be scored without hitting the ball (extras), like on wides, no balls, leg byes, and byes, but I won’t get into any of that.Besides scoring runs, and perhaps even more importantly so, the batsman’s goal is to not get out. Unlike in baseball, each batsman only has one single stint at bat (though it can be a considerably long one), and therefore tries to prolong that as much as possible to score runs for his team. The team is done scoring runs when ten batsmen are out, at which point the other team gets a turn (the only exception would be two innings matches, where each team gets to bat twice). In order to not be out, the batsman has to protect the wicket. If the bowler knocks the wicket over, the batsman is out. Incidentally, if the batsman himself accidentally knocks over the wicket with his bat, he is also out. He could also be stumped by the wicketkeeper if he swings and misses and fails to keep any part of his body or bat on the wicket-side of the crease. In that case, the wicketkeeper can knock over the wicket with the ball, and the batsman is out. A run out happens when a batsman doesn’t get to the other end in time, i.e. a fielder throws the ball back towards the wicket and knocks it over, or the wicketkeeper catches it and knocks it over. Another common way to be out is if the batsman hits the ball and it is caught before touching the ground, much like a pop-fly. There are a few other ways to be out which I won’t cover here, but it is worth noting that one of them is when your team captain comes up to tell you you’re out so that another batsman can have a turn!
Great, you will think, what an exciting game with so many ways to see spectacular outs. Except that they rarely ever happen. Instead, the batsman will stand there, hardly even moving, and bat away, running up the score. It could be hours before anything new happens. Why? Because – and this is my biggest beef with cricket – the batsman doesn’t have to run! Can you see where this is going? If you don’t have to run, of course you’re only going to do it when you’re 100% guaranteed that you will safely score a run, or several of them. All you have to do is protect that wicket by swatting at any ball that might bounce toward it, which is not too hard, given the fact that the bat is wide and flat. Being run out is quite embarrassing in cricket, because it must have been a dumb decision to run if there was any risk involved.Just so that it doesn’t get too monotonous, a bowler will only bowl six balls for what is called an over. After the over, the fielders change ends (the batsmen stay put), and another bowler will bowl his over from the other side of the pitch. After that, the first bowler can have another over, or a new one can be brought in, and so forth. To sum this all up, I’ll use a quote from aforementioned book: “All of this frantic activity keeps on going, with batsmen batting and running, bowlers bowling, and fielders fielding and changing ends, until ten of the batsmen are out, or until something else intervenes (like lunch, rain or the discovery that one of the teams has won).” Every once in a blue moon a bowler will score a wicket which is cause for huge excitement,or a batsman will be caught out. Now you will understand how cricket matches can last 5 days. It just takes that long to get ten batsmen out! Luckily, they’ve since come up with other forms of cricket (or I’d still be sitting at Jabulani’s match) called Twenty20 matches, where each team gets 20 overs. Whoever scores more runs in those 20 overs is the winner. This might mean that in a particular match only the first two batsmen will ever ge to bat, if they manage to stay in that long.
That’s pretty much it. Of course there is plenty else to understand, like strategy, how to read the score, the mind games between bowler and batsman (just as in baseball, there are fast bowlers and slower bowlers who are usually spin bowlers who master the art of making the ball bounce unpredictably across the pitch), the fielding positions with names like silly mid-off, square leg and slip, and a plethora of additional terms. For instance, I always thought a test match was a something like an exhibition game, something to test the waters with. But no, it is the most serious of all cricket matches, an international contest. And a ball box is what Americans call a cup. Oh, and let’s not forget about etiquette. At Jabulani’s last match, I was indignant that no one was willing to run, when it looked like there was plenty of time. After plenty of yelling on my part, I thought to inquire why none of the coaches were yelling for the kids to run. I was informed that this was considered bad etiquette. I really have to learn to keep my mouth shut at my kids’ South African sporting events!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little cricket treatise. I might be posting more as I learn more. There is an entire Cricket World Cup coming up, with plenty of opportunity to watch and learn. For more information, read all about cricket on Wikipedia, especially this excellent cricket/baseball comparison. Baseball and cricket actually have quite a bit in common, especially an obsession with the collection of any kind of statistic you can imagine.
Oh, and I almost forgot: A googly is a nasty bowling trick by which the ball looks like it’s heading away from the batsman, but instead bounces straight towards the nether regions of his private parts, if you know what I mean.