Sports Nut

Cricket: It’s Wicket Awesome

Global sophisticates have tried mightily to force soccer on the American sports fan. But let’s face it, that’s a futile exercise. Despite years of trying, most Americans over the age of 12 have no interest in the world’s most popular game. If we’re going to inject a bit of internationalism into the U.S. sports scene, we’re going to have to import a different sport. The obvious solution: Major League Cricket.

Though usually associated with England, cricket is a global sport. Spread by colonialism, it’s fair to say that the sun never sets on the cricketing world. Cricket has hundreds of millions of fans on the Indian subcontinent alone. It’s played by posh Oxford undergraduates, dirt-poor Pakistanis, hard-drinking Aussies, black Jamaicans, and white South Africans. Cricket is the second-most-popular game in the world. The formerly colonized are still mad for it, decades after independence. Except here.

True, cricket does not lend itself well to casual fans. The rules are extremely complex. The terminology is arcane. The game is played at a snail’s pace. Fat and slow “athletes” can be the game’s best. At a glance, it’s hard to see why so many people are wild for it.

Yet which of these things cannot be said of our national pastime, cricket’s nearest cousin? Like baseball, cricket is a sport of timing and of fractions of an inch. It requires more hand-eye coordination than strength or speed. Normal-looking humans, not 7-foot freaks or 300-pound ogres, can be its legends.

Then there’s the terminology: take “googly” and “Chinaman” (two types of tricky bowled balls), “maiden” (an “over”—six balls bowled—without a run), “gully” (a fielding position), and “duck” (an at-bat with no runs scored). Only baseball (“balk,” “bunt,” “bloop,” “beanball,” and “bullpen,” just to take the B’s) can match cricket for color.

Of course, the game is also fundamentally different from baseball. There are 11 players per side, not nine. There are two bases (“wickets,” which consist of three stumps with two wooden dowels or “bails” on top) 20 yards apart in the center of a large oval field. Two batsmen are on the field at all times, one defending each wicket. Bowlers (similar to pitchers) bowl from one wicket to the other, bouncing the ball once rather than throwing it through the air. Batsmen can use all 360 degrees around them to hit the ball, not just the 90 degrees in front of them. When batsmen put the ball in play, they can try to score runs by running to the other wicket, but they don’t have to—on a weakly batted ball they can stay put. If they do run, their partner must do the same, so they cross in midrun trying to reach the opposite end. If both runners reach safely, a run is scored. If the ball crosses the outer boundary, four runs are scored, and if it does so without hitting the ground, six.

But if the bowler can knock the bails off the wickets, the batsman is out. Or, if the ball is fielded and returned to the wicket and used to knock off the bails before a running batsman has arrived, the batsman is out. A ball caught on the fly means an out. And if a batsman uses his leg to block a bowled ball that would have hit the stumps, he is out. When out, the batsman is gone for good. He is replaced by the next man in the lineup, and so on, until 10 outs (which are also called “wickets”) have been registered, and only one batsman is left. At this point, the other team takes the field to bat, trying to outscore the first team. In one-day cricket, each team goes through the lineup once, in five-day “test” cricket, twice. (For a more thorough explanation of the rules, click here.)

These rules make for a game that is fantastically complex. The oddly shaped bat and 360-degree field make for a huge variety of batting strategies. A dramatic smash may be good for four or six runs, but playing a ball off the edge of the bat, like a foul tip, can be just as effective. Placement, not raw power, is the most important thing. To get your head around this, imagine baseball’s greatest bunter (can you name him? I can’t) standing alongside Mark McGwire as one of the game’s most effective weapons.

Bowling is as nuanced as batting. Fast-bowlers get roughly the same velocity as a fastball pitcher, and they use the ball’s seams to create midair movement. Spin-bowlers use a sharp wrist rotation to make the ball jump unexpectedly off the ground. Shane Warne, a pudgy, loud Australian and the world’s finest spinner, embarrassed some of the world’s best batsmen by making the ball do the seemingly impossible in Australia’s victory in the most recent World Cup.

Though similar in their technical aspects, baseball and cricket couldn’t be more different in the culture surrounding them. Baseball is the game of the common American man, one unafraid to chew tobacco and fondle himself in plain view. Cricket, though played by many poor people in poor countries, carries an aspiration to respectability. There’s even a midgame interval for tea and sandwiches. The official rule book, called “The Laws of Cricket” (click here to read it), contains an introduction to “The Spirit of Cricket.” It’s against the spirit of the game, for example, to dispute an umpire’s decision. If the players on the bowling side think a batsman is out, they appeal to the umpire by shouting “How’s that?” (actually “Howzat!”). But if the umpire refuses to change his call, that’s that. (I discovered this to my embarrassment during one of my first games of cricket. After a rejected “Howzat!” I stormed up and began haranguing the umpire, because my baseball experience dictated this response. I was quietly informed by an English teammate, “Lane, we don’t do this.”)

Not that it is all high-minded sportsmanship. Trash-talking (called “sledging”) between the wicketkeeper (like a catcher) and batsman is not uncommon. Like other athletes, high-profile cricketers can make asses, and sometimes crooks, of themselves. The former South African captain, Hansje Cronje, recently admitted to a match-fixing scandal similar to point shaving. In the 1930s, English bowlers adopted a strategy of bowling directly at the bodies of Australian batsmen. Though not against the rules—there is no equivalent to the strike zone—it was such a violation of the game’s spirit that it caused a diplomatic mini-crisis in which Australia nearly broke off relations with Britain.

Could a cricket league thrive here? There’s clearly room in the market—we’ve just gotten a second football league, after all. We even have a soccer league, despite the fact that Americans don’t like sports where the final score is likely to be 1-1 or 0-0. By contrast, hundreds of runs are scored in a cricket match.

So how about it? Children could covet cricket cards featuring players like Don Bradman, the sport’s greatest player. (His career achievement, scoring almost 100 runs per innings in international matches from 1928-48, is equivalent to averaging .400 over a baseball career. There is no close second.) Deion Sanders could become a three-sport star. We’d get to hear Bob Costas say “wicket maiden.” And Starbucks could serve the tea.