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Explaining Cricket to Americans

How could you possibly explain a sport as bizarre as cricket to someone who grew up in America?
April 8, 2015, 4:15am
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sport UK.

Cricket is baffling. If you've grown up in a country that doesn't play it, it basically looks like this. But this survivor of the empire is also unique. A game that can last five days long, it doesn't always sit comfortably within the commercial machinery of our world. With the England-India test series reaching its conclusion and the World Cup coming up next year, VICE's American man of sports Harry Cheadle got in touch with me to find out what the fuck all this goddamn leather on willow stuff is all about.

Question #1. The Basics and the Question of Time

Yankee Harry asks:
Okay, so I understand the basics of cricket (I think): A pitcher (bowler) throws a ball at a batter (batsman) standing in front of a wicket, which is like a... couple posts? With something on top of them? If the bowler hits the wicket, his team gets to bat, but if the batsman hits the ball he sprints back and forth between the wickets (oh yeah, there's a second wicket in there somewhere, I think) and scores runs while fielders grab the ball and throw it back to the pitcher (or try to tag the batsman out?). Like in baseball, each team gets a set number of turns at bat, after which the game is over. My question is, why does this take days to accomplish?

Question #1.5 – WAIT, I did some more reading and apparently a "test match" is different from a regular match and now I'm totally adrift. What's the difference?

Britisher Oscar responds:
A test match is the ultimate test. Two teams, five days, hard balls, stiff bats. The fact that test matches now are only five days is a shameless capitulation to modernity. Teams used to play "timeless tests", which went on till one team won. The last timeless test between England and South Africa went on for 12 days and only ended because England had to take the boat back. That was in 1939.

There are plenty of other types of cricket. The two most popular are T-20, which is a 20-over (six balls or "pitches" = one over) per side game that's become a global phenomenon because of the Indian Premier League/people's chronically shortened attention spans; and the 50-over game, which is what's played at the World Cup. Neither of these forms of cricket is as challenging and potentially demoralising as the test but they finish in less time than it takes to read Das Kapital. If you go and watch a test match, you often find yourself drinking, reading, chatting or panicking because you've fallen asleep and have woken up and don't know where you are.

It's often assumed that the length of these games is the product of some carefree time in which a group of chaps had nothing better to do than spend a full working week playing a game, in between drinking G&Ts and running India. There's certainly an element of that but it's also worth remembering that the first test was played in the 1870s, at the height of the industrial revolution, when England's green and pleasant hills had become dark satanic mills and there was no longer time to roam in pastoral idylls, so test match cricket was, from the beginning, nostalgic.

Each team has 11 players and ten of them need to be got out in order for the other team to bat. Failing that, the team needs to declare (if it's a test match) or run out of overs (if it's a limited overs game). No one gets "tagged" out; this isn't a New England county fair and we're not talking about kids called Chet or Madison playing hopscotch. You can, however, get "run out". Other ways to get out: bowled, caught, stumped and LBW (leg before wicket), which is when the ball hits the batsman on the legs when his legs are in line with the wicket.

The wicket is made up of three stumps (vertical wooden posts) and the two bails (think solidly put together twigs) that rest on top of them. Yes, "stumps and bails" does sound a bit like "cock and balls" – both items are rich in symbolism, something cricket is fond of.

Question #2. The Ashes

– Yankee Harry asks:
What's the deal with this thing I keep hearing about called the Ashes?

Britisher Oscar responds:
Bails are actually at the heart of the story of "The Ashes", which is what a series of test matches between England and its former prison, Australia, are called. When the Aussies first beat England in England, a bunch of housewives in Melbourne burnt the "spirit of cricket" (an old bail), put its ashes in an urn and presented them to the horrified, bail-loving English captain on his arrival in Australia the following year. This urn has been the trophy the two teams have fought for ever since.

Question #3. Bowlers

– Yankee Harry asks:
What kind of pitches do bowlers have? (Is that the right term?) In baseball, which is my obvious reference point, pitchers throw either fast pitches that go straight, or slower pitches that curve or break in weird ways, and there are a bunch of different names for those pitches – is the same true of cricket? Also, what the heck is a "googly"?

– Britisher Oscar responds:
Basically, there are fast bowlers (85-95 mph), medium-pacers (75-85 mph), and spinners, who bowl slow and make the ball turn off the pitch. All of these bowlers can make the ball swing (curve) in the air but it's the medium and fast-paced ones who focus on that.

In cricket, weather is very important because you can't play in the rain and if there are clouds, the ball swings more. This means cricket people often take on a sort of "Wise American Indian in a Hollywood film" vibe, picking up a blade of grass and peering gravely into the middle distance before saying, "The nights grow colder, light cloud cover will move the ball".

The fiercest delivery is the "bouncer", which is when a fast bowler makes the ball bounce up at the head of the batsman. Back in the day, batsmen didn't wear helmets, which seems stupid now, because a number of players have died after being hit by a ball.

There are two basic spin deliveries for a right-hander: the off-spinner, who turns the ball into a right-handed batsman; and the leg-spinner, which spins away. A googly is an off-spinner bowled with a leg-spin action. It was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by an Englishman called Bernard Bosanquet who, as this cartoon suggests, wore his trousers nice and high.

Other celebrated spin balls include the doosra, the carrom ball and the furiously un-PC "chinaman", which is a leg-break bowled by a left-hander. It's named after its supposed inventor, Ellis Achong, who was a West Indian with Chinese heritage. After he got one England batsman out, the disgruntled Brit muttered, "fancy getting done by a Chinaman" on the way back to the pavilion. Ah, racism...

– Yankee Harry responds:
People have died?! Jesus. What rules do the pitchers have to follow? I've seen videos of dudes throwing the ball seemingly straight at the batsman. How can that be legal?

– Britisher Oscar responds:
You're allowed to bowl the ball straight at the batsman but in limited overs games (T-20, 50 overs) there is a restriction on how many of these balls you can bowl every over. Cricket is a series of mini-battles between batsman and bowler, and batsman and fielder. The classic West Indian teams of the 1970s and 80s were great at this. One of their bowlers, Michael Holding, was called "Whispering Death" because his run-up was silent. Here he is terrorising the helmet-less Brian Close, a bald Englishman in his forties.

Question #4. Fielders

– Yankee Harry asks:
Are there set positions in the field like there are in baseball, where we have shortstops, first basemen, second basemen, etc, in the infield and outfielders in the outfield?

– Britisher Oscar responds:
You are more or less free to put your players where you want, though there are traditional positions and they have appropriately whacky English names, like "fine leg", "gully" and "silly mid-on".

In one-day games you can't have loads of fielders hanging out on the boundary making the game really boring. In any game, you can't put more than two fielders behind square on the leg-side. This is a law brought in after the infamous "Bodyline" Ashes series of the 1930s, in which England's bowlers bowled fast at the Australians' bodies all day long and had lots of fielders perched around their legs for catches. The Australian cricket board cabled its English counterparts, the MCC, accusing them of being "unsportsmanlike". Appalled at this totally legitimate attack on the nation's honour, the British government naturally responded to a cricketing issue by threatening to withdraw outstanding financial loans to Australia. Struggling during the depths of the depression, this would have left Australia in economic ruin, so they withdrew the accusation.

Question #5. Great Cricketers

– Yankee Harry asks:
Who are some great cricketers and what makes them so good? Like, does it help to be really strong or fast or is it mostly hand-eye co-ordination? I ask because in baseball there are some dudes who don't seem to be in good shape at all (like Bartolo Colon) but are nonetheless really good, and I wonder if the same is true in cricket.

– Britisher Oscar responds:
Players are definitely fitter these days, as with every other sport, but there's still room for the kind of joy you get watching fat guys in the NFL run. Above is a video of Dwayne Leverock, a 20-stone (280 pound) policeman who lives above a curry house, taking a great catch for Bermuda against India in the World Cup. At the other end of the scale, there was BS Chandrasekhar, an Indian leg spinner from the 1960s and 70s whose right arm had been withered by a childhood attack of polio but who was still really good.

Generally, great batsmen have incredible hand-eye co-ordination married to the kind of mentality that makes spending enormous amounts of time in a field having a hard ball thrown at you bearable. Australian Don Bradman will forever be the finest batsman in the history of the game. In his last game he only needed four runs to have a career average of 100. He came out and the English players all took their hats off and gave him three cheers. He was bowled for a "duck" (that's what it's called when you get no runs) on his second ball and as he walked back, the crowd was completely silent. They say he missed the ball because he had tears in his eyes.

Partnerships are important in cricket. You bat with someone else and you bowl with someone else. You build something together in pairs and the history of cricket is full of famous partnerships. Francis Thompson, an opium addict who became homeless before being saved by a prostitute (are you listening, Hollywood?), wrote a haunting poem about this. In "At Lord's", a northerner transplanted to London watches a "ghostly batsman" playing the "bowling of a ghost" and remembers, through his tears, a Lancashire batting partnership he loved when he was younger. Cricket, like baseball, inspires a lot of wistful emotion. Perhaps it's that batsmen, who only have one chance, play out a version of mortality every time they go into bat. You have one innings, just as you have one life.

There's a chance I'm overdoing this, so here's Shane Warne – an Australian who used to look like a surfer in a daytime soap opera but now looks like a guy who's had lots of hair transplants and promotes a poker company – bowling the greatest ball of all timeand here's Khyber Province's finest, Shahid Afridi, battering loads of sixes.

Question #6. The Empire and the Fans

– Yankee Harry asks:
I know that cricket is pretty popular in former British colonies like India, Pakistan, the West Indies and Australia... how big is it in its homeland, though? I get the impression that the only Brits who really like the game are old dudes who always wear ties and the youth more or less just make fun of it. Am I totally off base?

– Britisher Oscar responds:
Listen bro, Harry Potter is a cricket fan, OK? So is Lily Allen, you get me? These people are kool with a capital "K". But yes, football is king in Britain. There are, though, still plenty of people who play on the weekend (though fewer than used to, and it's become more competitive), Sky has a big deal for international cricket games and when there's a big series on, people pay attention. Cricket is very big in Asian communities in England.

English cricket has always had a good sideline in solid, dour folk from up North. The most famous is Geoff Boycott, a batsman so defensive he was once deliberately run out by his own batting partner for being so boring. Boycott has now turned his no-nonsense approach to life into a personal brand. Here he is talking about getting out of bed (literally): "Get right out of the bed. No half measures. You must get your whole body out of the bed..." Here he is talking about how much he loves Katy Perry: "She's different, she's unusual, she's clever... very feminine."

Cricket's role in the empire is fascinating. CLR James, a Marxist from Trinidad, wrote what is probably the best book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, as well as one of the greatest lines in all sportswriting: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" CLR, who loved cricket, revealed the machinery of empire through the game and his writing was a major factor in the appointment of Frank Worrell as the first full-time black captain of the West Indies at the end of the 1950s. Up until then, cricket reinforced the logic of empire by having white men captain the West Indies.

Some "hilarious" moments from the Indian Premier League

Question #7. Shorter Games

– Yankee Harry asks:
I heard that some people have tried to make the games shorter, which seems like a really good idea. Is that something cricket people endorse?

– Britisher Oscar responds:
Shorter forms of the game have been around since 1962 and, because normal people can't spend five days playing a game, non-competitive matches almost always only last a day or less. The Cricket World Cup started in 1975. The games are 50-overs long, which means they take around seven hours, on average. 20-over games are the new thing and when they were invented, the only people not to be in favour were over the age of 55. The Indian Premier League, or IPL, is the mecca for 20/20 cricket, with its Pepsi sponsorship, cheerleaders and rampant betting syndicates. The games last about three hours and can be exciting but are hampered by the fact that the teams are all corporate inventions.

With so many things assaulting our attention spans it's no surprise that people think test cricket might soon be dead. But they've been worrying about that for a long time now and it's still going, so the future is hard to predict. The thing about test matches is that you can tune in and out of them. You can watch hour-long highlights packages and if you actually go to one, you can read, think and drink while also taking in some of the action. It's a game that doesn't infantilise you by constantly overloading your senses.

Pakistani fast bowler Waqar Younis in action

Question #8. The Greatest Match

– Yankee Harry asks:
Okay, last one – what's the best cricket match you've ever seen? Tell me why people like this game, because I've watched highlights that seem kinda exciting but I'm not sure I'd be into a full match.

– Britisher Oscar responds:
I think the best game I went to was probably a one-day match between two English counties when I was a kid. It was the final of a tournament sponsored by a cigarette company and it was won in the last over by the Pakistani bowler Waqar Younis. It was at Lord's, the home of cricket, and I was with my Dad.

If you, American friend, went to a test match, you'd have to think about it as being a bit like a slower, longer baseball game. (Sounds fun, right?) You can't expect to be entertained all the time. That's a difficult thing to cope with in the modern world. But that's what makes cricket special.