Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Sticky Wicket, Part 1

As is often the case with flashes of inspiration, I don’t recall where this one came from, at all.

But one of my answers to the essay question “what did you do with your summer?” this year is: cricket.

Yes, the curious and, to Americans, mystifying ancestor of baseball.

This Englishman’s-son didn’t play, mind you. But thanks to the wonderful technology of YouTube, I found myself not quite obsessed with the sport but certainly curious enough to hunt down clips of isolated cricket plays, then “how to play cricket” videos, and then whole matches. One day, maybe I will have played in one.

And in the past week or so, I’ve gotten to a couple of actual live matches. No small task, as I don’t live in England or Australia or any of the Commonwealth nations where cricket is Kind Of A Big Deal. I had to dig around a little bit to discover where in these United States I could see a match – and that investigation’s result will end up as Part 2 of this post, I think.

Because to tell that story, I have to address this question: what the devil is this cricket game anyway?

If you’re among 99 percent of Americans, you have only a vague idea. Guys in white outfits, some of whom wear shin pads … some of whom carry things that look like the offspring of an illicit affair between a baseball bat and a ping-pong paddle … some of whom are running back and forth somehow …

If you’re a resident of what used to be the British Empire (except perhaps Canada, since cricket on ice would be just nuts) … you’re wondering, “how can you not know?”

My English father was a great guy. About the only thing he didn’t do for his son was to explain cricket. Which he did say he meant to do.

Let me see if I can boil it down to a few points. Unlikely, but I’ll try. Let me see if Dad will peer down from the science experiments he’s running, up in Heaven, and nod and say, “that would be the idea.”

[1] The object of the game is to Win.

[1a] Your team wins by scoring more Runs than the other team.

[1b] A Ball is hurled into play, and a batsman hits it, and then scampers to specific locations on the playing field, thereby scoring Runs, thereby getting closer to Winning.

So far … baseball, yeah?

They’re related. And some cricket concepts can {and thus will, within these brackets,} be described in terms of baseball.

And some of them can’t.

First, you need a field. Size of the field varies, but usually a soccer pitch will do. Into the dead center of the field are jammed two Wickets. Each consists of two Bails – little wooden dowels – perched atop three 2 1/2-foot-high Stumps, which look like croquet stakes. The two Wickets are placed something like twenty yards apart, separated by a dirt strip called the Crease. These poor, innocent constructions are defended and attacked by the players with polite ferocity. Here’s how:

[2] Team A consists of eleven players, but only two are on the field at a time. The nine other team members wait patiently on the sidelines to become batsmen sometime. One batsman stands {not unlike a baseball batter} in front of one Wicket. The other batsman stands near the far Wicket. When a cricket ball is bowled {pitched} at that Wicket, the batsman tries to hit the ball away. In any direction, just away. There are no foul lines. The whole field is fair territory. Foul tips are in play.

[2a] The batsman to whom the ball is bowled (and who guards that Wicket) is known as the Striker. Logically. The other batsman is probably known as “Be Very Careful In Case It’s Hit Right At You”. Fetchingly, this pair of batsmen are called a “Partnership”.

Each batsman gets to wear shin pads. Because the cricket ball is made of the hardest stuff known to humanity outside of Marvel Comics. Let’s just say that the sound of a cricket ball being hit by a cricket bat is a sound that has no give.

[2b] After a ball is hit a safe enough distance away, the each batsman runs along the Crease toward the opposite Wicket. If they both make it safely (we’ll define “safe” shortly), that scores a run. If the ball is still rolling around or being fielded by Team B, the defensive team covering the rest of the field, the batsmen can keep running back and forth; each time they do, they score another run. {Remember the playground game of “Pickle”, where there’s a baserunner or two and the object of the game is to run back and forth between the bases without being tagged out by the two or three or forty kids with baseball gloves? Good; now imagine that we’ve given the runners bats.}

[2c] If a struck ball rolls over the boundary line that encircles the field, the stroke is called a “boundary” and the batting team is awarded four runs. The batsmen don’t have to run back and forth four times. The runs are assumed.

[2d] If a struck ball crosses the boundary line in the air, {not unlike a home run going over the outfield wall,} the batting team is awarded six runs. And everybody goes “ooooooooo.” And some poor soul in the grandstand has to catch a really really hard cricket ball coming at them at many miles per hour. It probably stings.

In an average cricket match, runs are usually scored by the many dozens. Individual players are known occasionally to score as many as a hundred runs in one {at-bat} before being put Out. Sometimes a team might score as many as three or four hundred runs. At this stage, you might logically wonder why Team B is thought of as the defensive team, as there appears to be little or no defense. Hold that thought, please:

[3] Team B, meanwhile, consists also of eleven players, all of whom are on the field somewhere. I’m yet to figure out why players are arrayed exactly where they are, and it can be adjusted at any time; but some are quite close to the Crease while others are very much {outfielders}. They work together to try to put the batsmen Out. More on this in a bit.

[3a] One fielder is parked behind the Wicket guarded by the Striker batsman. That fielder is like a baseball {catcher}, and is called the Wicket Keeper. (Sounds a bit like Dungeons and Dragons, I know.)

[3b] Another fielder stands near the far Wicket, and is called the Bowler {pitcher}. Most of the Bowlers are allowed a running start of about twenty yards before they arrive at the far Wicket and let the ball fly. The Bowler might be seen as a kind of offensive player, as s/he is trying to knock the Wicket’s Bails off its Stumps.

(Usually, the Bowler bowls a ball overhand in such a way that it hits the ground anywhere from a few inches to a few yards before it reaches the batsman; so the batsman is trying to hit the thing on the rise. In baseball, pitches in the dirt are not rewarded. In cricket, it’s the whole point: most balls are bowled with some kind of spin involved, so the ball comes off the dirt in unpredictable directions. So it’s to the Bowlers’ advantage to do it. They never {throw a pitch} that doesn’t hit the ground first, unless it’s slipped out’ their hand. I suspect that there are no bench-clearing brawls in cricket because [a] there are very few beanballs, and [b] again, it’s far too long of a run from the bench to the Crease.)

[3c] The other nine fielders work to field any balls that are struck and throw them back to the wicket keeper. Again, stay tuned for the “why”.

[3d] Any one player from Team B can only bowl one-fifth of the match. So there will be at least five bowlers drawn from the eleven fielders. What each bowler’s {pitch count} might be … will be made clear in a moment.

(I know. So many moments of “wait, wait, it gets better”. But honestly, try to explain baseball in less than ten paragraphs, why don’t ya?)

So far, all we’re doing is scoring runs, seemingly without end. Hath Team B no recourse? Must they stand out there and take such abuse?

Not necessarily.

[4] To keep the other nine members of the batting team from being bored all day, there are ways of causing batsmen to be Out, and for another batsman from the sidelines to have to replace him or her. {Just like in baseball, but with one important catch.}

[4a] If a batsman swings at a bowled ball and misses, and the ball hits the Wicket and causes the Bails to be knocked off the Stumps, that batsman is “bowled out”. Something like a one-pitch {strikeout}. Back to the bench with ya. And from the middle of a soccer-sized field to the bench or clubhouse … that is one hell of a long, lonely walk.

[4b] If a batsman strikes a bowled ball and it’s caught by a fielder before hitting the ground, that batsman is “caught out”. In baseball, a caught fly ball is a routine thing. In cricket it’s not – because, well, there goes a tenth of your batsmen … and because no fielder except the wicket keeper is allowed to wear a glove. So you catch the ball and smile through the pain.

[4c] If a batsman strikes a bowled ball and it rolls for awhile, and then either of the batsmen don’t make it to one of the Wickets before the ball is returned to that Wicket and made to knock the Bails off of it, that batsman is “run out”. There’s a line drawn in the dirt in front of the Wicket, and a batsman is considered Not Out if even the tip of the bat s/he’s carrying (all the time, by the way, so there are no {bat flips} in cricket) crosses the line in time. So you’ll see running batsmen desperately holding their bats out in front of them. Awkward. I mean, physically awkward.

[4d] Here’s my favorite way of getting a batsman Out – not because of what it is, but because of what it’s called.

If a bowled ball strikes the batsman anywhere but on his/her bat – and one of the on-field umpires thinks the ball would have hit the Wicket had the Batsman not blocked it – the batsman is Out. Usually the ball hits the batsman’s shin pads; but even if it hits him or her anywhere else within wicket height, it’s still called “LBW”, or “Leg Before Wicket”. It says what it means, means what it says, and is (to my ear) a relentlessly English term.

[4e] Here’s the thing: when you’re out, you’re done for the match as a batsman. With eleven players, a batting team gets ten outs, which are also called “wickets”, probably since we’re counting the number of Wickets that have been knocked over. Figure: when the first partnership (Batsmen 1 and 2) is disrupted by an out, a second one forms (Batsman 2 is joined by Batsman 3), and so on. Only ten partnerships are possible, since the eleventh batsman can’t bat alone. Ten outs could take only ten {pitches}, if a batting team is really unlucky … or ten outs could take most of the day.

Did you say most of the day?

I did. There’s no shot clock, no scoreboard clock, no time limit at all. As baseball isn’t timed, neither is cricket. As long as the batsmen keep safely batting and running, the match is still going on.

Okay, so one team has a purpose, and the other team tries to stop them. You said this could take a really really long time? Seems vague. Could we have a little structure please?

Only too happy to oblige.

Baseball has nine innings, and each team comes up to bat once per. Back and forth, back and forth. In cricket, back-and-forth is what the batsmen do; but your team gets only one single crack at this. Just one.

[5] Each team gets one chance to bat only, and it’s called an Innings. (I know. It sounds plural. English is a stupid language.) Think of this as each team having one gigantic {half-inning} in which to be on offense. The innings is over when ten batsmen have been put Out.

[5a] Each innings consists of a pre-determined number of series of six bowled balls each. That six-ball series is called an Over. Different matches have different numbers of Overs in each Innings (this depends on many factors; please don’t ask). Could be twenty, or forty, or fifty. So a batting team might face 120, or 240, or 300 {pitches} … and that’s all they get.

[5b] So suppose that Team A bats first and scores 200 runs before either they run out of batsmen or they run out of Overs. This means that Team B then has to score 201 runs to win. If they run out of batsmen or Overs before they reach that score, called the “Target” score, they lose. No extra innings. If Team B scores exactly the same number of runs as Team A did, everybody is very impressed at the statistical unlikelihood, and we call it a draw.

Does this help any?

It’s okay. It’ll sink in.

So if, in the course of your daily life, you hear some radio announcer with an English, Australian, Pakistani or Jamaican accent say, “England are one hundred and twenty-six for nine, through forty-seven overs, with a target of two hundred and thirty-eight”, you know [a] they’ve underachieved offensively, [b] they’ve got only one batting partnership left, [c] they’re running out of time, and [d] a bunch of Britons are about to get really glum.

The game can seem to take forever. It can seem like the same thing over and over and over again. If there’s not a visible scoreboard, you have no concept whatever of how the match is going. But if stay with it long enough, suddenly there’s this incredible moment where you’re not watching sports anymore – you’re watching an epic novel. And you are hypnotized into liking it.

It’s really not complicated. It’s only dressed up to seem that way. How very much like half of my extended family. Rule Britannia.


[Next up in the Sticky Wicket series: Question: “yes, yes, rules are fine, and I may even grasp them, but what’s a match involving actual humans like?” Answer: Anywhere between sleep-inducing and a near-riot. Further answer: lemme tell you about the one I saw this weekend…]


August 30, 2015 - Posted by | sports | , , , , , , , , ,

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