June 29, 2006

The strange game of cricket

I am a lifelong fan of cricket and spent an enormous amount of my youth devoted (many would say wasted) to the game. As a boy, much of my free time was spent playing it, reading about it, watching it, or listening to it on the radio. I was such a devoted fan that I would set the alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to listen to crackly and indistinct short wave radio commentary of the games from distant time zones in England, Australia, and West Indies. Such was my fanaticism towards the game that I was going to all this trouble to listen to games involving other countries, Sri Lanka achieving international Test playing status only in 1981. And now with the internet, I have been able to renew my interest in the game since the lack of coverage in the US media is no longer a hindrance, so the time wasting has begun anew.

But the game seems to leave Americans cold, just like baseball is hard to appreciate for those from countries that do not play the game. I have become convinced that indoctrination into the joys of slow games like cricket or baseball is something that must occur very early in childhood and is difficult to develop later in life.

To help Americans to understand the game (and thus appreciate the film Lagaan even more), I'll provide a brief description. For more details, see here.

It is easiest for Americans to understand the traditional form of the game by comparing its features with that of baseball, its closest relative.

The classical form of cricket consists of two teams of eleven players each (nine in baseball). Each team has two innings (nine in baseball). An inning ends when there are ten outs (three in baseball). As in baseball, the team that has the most runs at the end of the game wins.

There are two chief differences with baseball that give cricket its quirky features. The first is that, unlike baseball and like football, the game is time-limited. International games, called 'Tests', last for five consecutive days, six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea. Several shorter forms of the game also exist. In Lagaan, for example, the game is limited to three days and one inning for each side.

This time-limited feature means that even after five days, a game can (and often does) end in a no-decision because time has run out and the game ends before either or both teams have had a chance to complete their two innings. The thought that such a result is even possible, let alone not unusual, boggles the mind of Americans, who are used to obtaining a definite result.

The second distinctive feature is that the batsman (batter) who hits the ball is not obliged to run but has the option of choosing to stay put, running only if he is sure that he can complete the run safely. Because of this option, in theory it is possible for the first batsmen to stay out there for five full days, neither scoring runs nor getting out, and the game ending in a no-decision with no runs scored, no outs, and no innings completed by either side. This has never happened. This would be career suicide for the batsmen concerned. The crowds would riot if anyone tried this and their teammates would be incensed.

The reason this potentially possible scenario does not play out is a consequence of the combination of the natural competitive desire of players to win a contest, coupled with the time-limited nature of the game. In order to win, one side must score a high enough total of runs quickly so that they have sufficient time to get the other team out for fewer runs before time runs out. This requires each team to take chances to either score runs or to get the opponents out. It is this continuous balancing of risk with reward that gives the game most of its appeal and thrills.

It is only when winning is seen as a hopeless task for one side that it becomes a good (and even required) strategy to try and play safe for a no-decision. There have been many memorable games in which one side was hopelessly outscored in runs and had no chance to win but salvaged a no-decision by digging in and not trying to score runs but simply not allowing their opponents to get ten outs. That strategy is considered perfectly appropriate and in such situations those batsmen who successfully adopt this dour defensive strategy are hailed. Weather sometimes plays a role in creating no-decisions by reducing the time available for the game.

Paradoxically, the fact that batsmen are not obliged to run after hitting the ball results in cricket being a high scoring game (since they run only when it seems reasonably safe to do so) with a single innings by one team often lasting for more than a day and a five day game producing typically 1,500 runs or so.

A cricket field requires a large amount of land and consists of an elliptical shape about three to four times the size of a baseball field. Unlike in baseball, where the action takes place in one corner of the field where home plate is, cricket action takes place at the center of the field in a strip about 22 yards long, called the 'pitch.' There is no foul territory. At each end of the pitch are the 'wickets', three vertical sticks about knee high and spanning a width of about 9 inches. There are always two batsmen simultaneously on the pitch, with one batsman standing at each end. A bowler (pitcher) runs up and delivers the ball (with a straight arm delivery, no throwing allowed) from near the wickets at one end to the batsman guarding the wickets at the other end (the striker). If the ball hits the wicket, the batsman is out (said to be 'bowled'), and replaced by the next one.

If the batsman hits the ball away from a fielder and decides it is safe to run, he and the batsman at the other end (the non striker) run towards the opposite wickets, crossing paths. If the ball is returned to either end, and the wicket there broken before the batsman running towards it reaches it, then that batsman is out ('run out'). If the batsmen run an odd number (1,3,5) of runs safely then the non-striker becomes the striker. If an even number (2,4) of runs, then the same batsman retains the strike. Four runs are scored if the striker hits the ball so that it crosses the boundary of the field, and six runs are scored if it does so without first touching the ground. The boundary is not a high wall (as in baseball) but simply a line marked on the ground, usually by a rope.

In addition to getting out by being bowled or run out, a batsman is also out if a hit ball is caught by a fielder before it hits the ground. These are familiar forms of getting out to baseball fans but there are seven additional (and rarer) ways of getting out in cricket that are too complicated to get into here.

After one bowler has made six consecutive deliveries (called an 'over'), the ball is given to a different bowler, who bowls an over from the opposite end, while the batsmen stay put during the changeover. Thus the non-striker at the end of one over becomes the striker at the beginning of the next. (A fairly recent development has been that of one-day games where each team has just one inning that lasts for a maximum of 50 overs, with the team that scores the most runs winning. This format guarantees a result and aggressive batting, and has proven to be very popular with the general public, though cricket purists look down on it.)

To play cricket well requires developing a lot of technique (especially for batting) and thus fairly extensive coaching. Simply having raw talent is not sufficient to make it to the top. This is why the villagers in the film Lagaan, having never played the game before, faced such an uphill task in challenging the British team, who presumably had been playing the game since childhood.

I still enjoy watching cricket being played by good teams, although I no longer have the opportunity. There is no question that it is a strange game, and I can understand why newcomers to the game find its appeal highly elusive. It is slow moving and its delights are subtle. It is a game where good technique can give the spectator pleasure, even when displayed by the opponents. A batsman who hits the ball with style and grace, and a bowler whose run-up and delivery are fluid and skilful, and great fielding moves, tend to be appreciated by all spectators, not just those supporting that team.

Cricket is not a game that would have been invented in the modern age. It could only have been conceived in a different, more leisurely era, when people had the time and the money to while away whole days chasing after a ball on a grassy field. The fact that it has survived and even flourished in modern times, with more and more countries taking it seriously, is somewhat amazing.

POST SCRIPT: Class warfare in America

It always amazes me that it is the comedy shows that understand and report on policy best. Catch Stephen Colbert's look at the minimum wage and class warfare.


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You should read Jacques Barzun's essay on baseball, which explains that cricket does not actually exist.

(reprinted in "A Jacques Barzun Reader")

Posted by Jason Colby on June 29, 2006 11:48 PM