Name a game, practically any game, and sports lovers somewhere will have clasped it to their chests. The world’s sports enthusiasts have learned bowling from the Dutch, hockey from the Canadians, curling from the Scots, skiing from the Scandinavians, and just about everything else that anyone plays anywhere.
But mention cricket and the typical sports buff knows more about what it is not than what it is. He knows, for example, that it is not cricket to steal from petty cash or to make a pass at someone else’s girl friend.
In fact, that same buff would be a trifle ruffled if he were told that the “leisurely” English game of cricket, which the majority of action-loving Americans consider akin to croquet, is the father of baseball.
Well, the way the British feel about it, cricket is to baseball as chess is to checkers. You cannot live happily in England until you bow to this maxim.
Indeed, you cannot live happily in England unless you grasp the essentials of cricket—not how it works, for no one who has not actually played it has the foggiest idea what is going on, but what it contributes to English life. Many feel it reflects the British spirit at its best. “It’s a piece of English character,” said one cricket player. “It has a British kind of excitement—phlegmatic, understated, underexpressed.”
The excitement of cricket comes from a kind of mind-reading that varies from ball to ball, from the intricate tactical variations applied by each side. Englishmen seeing baseball for the first time are apt to wave it aside as a glorified form of “rounders”—an innocent game that most English children play in kindergarten.
On the other side of the ocean, Americans consider cricket in much the same unprofessional light. I know, because long, long ago I also nourished that same opinion. Only I made the mistake of discussing it with Trevor Wright, my English buddy at a Boy Scout summer camp I attended while living in England.
Word got around quickly about the “American’s comment,” and I soon found myself challenged by the entire troop to join in a cricket match. Feeling that the opinion they had of America was always directly influenced by what I did, I felt called upon to acquiesce and participate in the game.
Of all the foolish mistakes I have made in life, that was certainly the greatest. I had no idea of the mischief they were brewing up to teach me that cricket is not for kids, or cream puffs, or upstart Americans.
It was one of those languid August days when you’d sooner lie on your sleeping bag reading a comic book than run around outside playing games. But I had made my commitment, and I strolled out to the cricket pitch with comics in hand, the apparent epitome of unconcern. Sides were chosen up, and I was chosen last. Not realizing that I was chosen last because they had so little confidence in my cricket prowess, I thought it was a result of my taunts about their game.
Our side was up first, and it was a long while before it was my turn. You see, one of the first things you must realize is that cricket is not a game at all, but a siege. The shortest match of any seriousness at all starts at 11:30 A.M. and ends at 6 P.M., with an hour off for lunch and half an hour off for tea and biscuits. Normal matches last two or three days, while test matches, the big events in the cricket world, take five. In test matches, an all-England team goes out to play in Australia once a year, and an all-Australia team comes to England. As soon as they know which team is really best, they can have a real match, I guess. Meantime they keep testing it out.
Well, I took Trevor aside and asked him for a capsule lesson on cricket, admitting that I knew nothing about the game. He was greatly surprised, but in spite of his amazement, he did his best to tell me what was important. The following covers the gist of his explanation:
Both cricket and baseball are similar in three important aspects—they both involve a ball and a bat, and each game is won by the side earning the greatest number of runs. However, where baseball’s element is air, the ball touching the ground only incidentally, cricket’s is grass. You will hear old cricketers debate for hours on the state of the field, or “pitch” as they call it, because the fortunes of the game so thoroughly depend on it.
The game is concentrated on a strip of well-rolled turf, sixty-six feet long, at either end of which are two wickets. Each wicket consists of three stumps of wood driven into the turf, with two bails, small bits of wood shaped like spark plugs, balanced on top. From one wicket, the bowler (never called pitcher) tries to knock the bails off the stumps. The batsman (never called batter) attempts to thwart the bowler, either by blocking the ball with his bat or by banging out what in baseball would be a hit. (But, there are no foul balls in cricket.) After six balls have been bowled from one end of the wicket (the unit of play called an “over”), the whole field changes around; another bowler takes charge, and the batsman at the opposite end of the wicket receives his bowling.
The team principle is pretty basic. There are eleven men on a side, and whichever side bats first must play until ten men are out—or in the language of the game, until ten wickets have fallen. (The eleventh batsman, obviously, has no one left to partner him and consequently can score no more runs.)
At this point, the fielding side comes in and bats till all of its ten men fall. Each team then has a second innings (always plural in cricket), and the game is decided on the total of the scores in the two innings.
This, however, is a ludicrously simple summation of what practically never happens; the game is so full of ifs and buts, so prone to uncertainties and unknowns, that no two games are ever alike, and none is in any way predictable.
“Just remember,” Trevor impressed upon me, “don’t let the ball hit your wicket when the bowler bowls it, and if the hit seems good enough, run.” As he left to take his position at bat, I smiled to myself in anticipation of my glorious time at bat. It would be, I thought in English slang, a piece of cake.
I watched the course of the game a while longer before returning to my comics. What seemed the oddest thing to me was that the batsman held the bat much like a golf club, and the bowler would walk away from the batsman, turn, run about ten yards, whirl his arms and legs like a windmill, and then throw the ball. No, he doesn’t throw—that’s illegal—he bowls it, making sure it bounces before reaching the batter. It all reminded me of an antelope suddenly seeing and then chasing some victim.
Another hour passed before someone yelled out my name and all the fielders shifted positions as if expecting me to play into their hands. I stepped up to the popping crease, an area four feet from the wicket in which a person bats and tags the base when running.
I had all the confidence in the world. After all, I was pretty good in baseball, and here was a bat a yard long and twice as wide as a baseball bat, and all I had to do was hit that little five-ounce red leather ball. I figured we had the game won. Old Casey was at bat.
The bowler and I eyed each other like a Spartan confronting an Athenian in battle, and he walked back for his crazy run-up. It seemed the minute he stopped running, everybody started laughing. I didn’t even see the ball until I looked back and saw the wicket knocked over. With drooping shoulders, I walked off the field after what must have been the shortest time at bat in cricket history.
I don’t even recall eating dinner that night—I was too busy eating crow.
By the end of the evening, after talking with Trevor at length, I had decided that not only was cricket the most complicated game in the world, but the most lethal. A fast bowler hurls the ball ninety miles an hour onto the ground at the batsman’s feet. According to what sort of spin he puts on it, and whether the earth is dry or wet, the ball flies into the air at any one of a hundred angles. It might hit the batsman in the face and break his nose, it might smash his thumb or his wrist, or it might knock him cold.
Not only is cricket as dangerous as football or rugby, but it must be the most heartbreaking game ever invented. The players often field for four or five hours. Then comes their big moment when one by one they go in to bat. Their job is (a) to not get put out and (b) to make runs. Since these two tasks are clearly incompatible for any length of time, every batsman is fundamentally a tortured soul. He can bat only once, but if he is good, hit scores go into the dozens. Only a few score a century (100 runs) or more. Sir Donald Bradman of Australia (knighted in 1949 after retiring from cricket) scored a record 452 runs for four days of play in 1930—without being put out.
Although the English claim that cricket builds character, the truth is that it is so full of anguish that it brings out the worst in everyone. A successful bowler is Machiavellian to the depths of his soul. He pretends to bowl a googly (in baseball, a screwball) and sends down a blazing fast ball or a tormenting slow ball instead.
The bowler knows that there are only three basic ways to get a batsman out and they all hinge on his bowling: (1) by knocking the bails off the stumps with the ball; (2) by forcing the batsman to hit a fly ball which can be caught; or (3) by a fielder throwing the ball to the wicketkeeper (like a baseman) fast enough for him to knock the bails off the stump with the ball (like tagging a man out at base). Incidentally, this is where we get the expression “You stumped me!”
A successful batsman, on the other hand, must have Hitler-like qualities. He must hit the bowler all over the field and so humiliate him that he is quickly “taken off” and replaced by someone far less cocky. However, it is next to impossible to do that to a bowler. The legendary Babe Ruth once had an informal “go” at cricket and pulled off the cricket equivalent of a home run the first time—hitting over the boundary of the field with a fly ball for six runs. The second time, though, the bowler had caught on and bowled a ball that was so fast it broke Ruth’s bat. By the third hit, the bowler had the great Babe pegged and forced a short fly ball that a fielder easily caught.
In a game of cricket, with a good team, a fly ball almost certainly means an out. This is due to the wise placement of the ten fielders. Their positions are designated by such terms as “third man,” “first sleep,” “square leg,” “cover point,” and “silly mid off.” But don’t let the names throw you—the silly mid off position is one of the most difficult, being, at times, a mere ten feet away from the batsman. All of the fielders catch the ball bare-handed (except the wicketkeeper who’s allowed to wear gloves) at speeds that can break a hand. No game for sissies.
One of the key points to remember in playing cricket is that a great many more things turn on what a batsman or bowler doesn’t do than on what he does. If a batsman, for instance, lets a ball go past him instead of hitting it, the experts say, “Well let alone, sir.” There are lots more balls coming; you’ve got three days to wait for one.
In one game I watched, the bowler sent a fast ball straight at the batsman’s face; he moved his face aside to let it pass, and they called, “Well let alone, sir.” You see, if it had hit him on the side of the face, he’d have been out. Why? By what is called L.B.W., or “leg before wicket.” The point is that you are not supposed to use your body to stop the ball from hitting the wicket. Suppose, for instance, you deliberately turn your back on the ball and it rises up and hits you right in the middle of your body—out! L.B.W.
There was a terrible row over this a few years ago in connection with one of the great test matches between England and Australia. The Australians came up with the idea of bowling the ball terribly fast and right straight at the batsman so as to hit him on purpose. Even if he started to run away from the wickets and got halfway to the home tent, the bowler would get him. I didn’t see it myself, but I understand that was the idea.
A great deal of bad feeling resulted—there was even talk of Australia leaving the British Empire. However, outsiders intervened, and it was suggested (by the Archbishop of Canterbury, I think) that the rule should be that if the bowler meant to hit the batsman to put him out, then he wasn’t out; but if the bowler didn’t mean to hit the batsman and he hit him, then he was out. A nice bit of old English compromise.
Well, you may well understand, the second day I stood up to bat, I was not so confident as before. The same bowler stood opposite me and began that mind-bending warm-up. He threw a fast ball with a spin so wild that it hit the ground and bounced off, knocking me over to the left of the wicket with a force so hard I almost fell down.
The next thing I knew, everybody was yelling “Howzat?” to the umpire—the standard query for an umpire decision. Unless that is said, the umpire will remain silent the whole game. As far as I was concerned, he should have kept quiet, for I saw, unbelievably, the letters “L.B.W.” come to his lips. I was next to him in a minute to argue the decision.
It was then that I learned another important lesson about the game and the British character. It was Trevor who rushed to my side to inform me, “No player ever disputes an umpire’s decision once it’s been made.”
“You mean you can’t beef about a lousy decision?” I complained.
“Of course not,” Trevor said in a matter-of-fact voice. “That just wouldn’t be cricket.”
I had to admit he had me there. As I hobbled off the field (suspecting that the name of the game came from that grasshopperlike animal, the cricket, which is the only creature physically equipped with the muscles necessary to avoid getting hit with a L.B.W.), I vowed that never again would I make fun of something I knew nothing about.
The next day I was as cheerful as ever and persuaded the boys to play a game of rounders—from which, of course, I arose the hero. However, I was quiet about my laurels. After all, no sense in becoming a sticky wicket about it.