Perhaps so. Much as, say, a panini press is a distant relative of a laptop computer. Both are rectangular and both are plugged in. As for cricket and baseball, there are bats, balls and a big field.
So, if you are a seamhead and you find yourself Down Under — a phrase which nobody except those of us from Up Over apparently uses — you can’t resist the urge to see cricket in person. You join 71,162 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a centerpiece of one of the most spectacular sporting complexes anywhere and the site of the 1956 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies and track events. It’s adjacent to the site of the Australian Open tennis tournament, across the street from a rugby stadium and just over the trolley tracks — trolleys are THE way to navigate Melbourne — from a basketball arena. (Trivia: The MCG holds 100,024, making it the 10th largest sports arena on the planet; the Southeastern Conference boasts four of the top 10.)
Some 71,158 of the fans at the MCG on this evening are intimately plugged into what’s happening as the Melbourne Renegades meet the crosstown rival Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League. Four Americans sitting 15 rows from the field are clueless as aliens landing their spaceship on the Las Vegas Strip.
Still, we quickly figure how to adapt. We find the nearest concession stand where they’re selling beer, which isn’t a particularly long journey. We hold up cardboard placards handed to us at the gate, with a 4 on one side and a 6 on the other. Imagine a 4 hit as a ground-rule double, a 6 as a homer.
And — sigh — we join the other 71,158 in standing up when they begin The Wave.
We are in Australia for a family reunion, to meet the youngest offspring who is on a brief military leave. He is a sports agnostic and his mother would greatly prefer an art museum over a stadium. The older brother is a sports fan who has missed his calling by not being behind a desk at ESPN and I’m a reformed sportswriter with four decades in newspapers, so the two of us force the issue.
Because we received some education in our rented apartment by watching snippets of day-long telecasts of “test” matches involving Australia’s national team, the oldest son thinks he’s figuring this cricket stuff out. I call his bluff, and raise him with even more analysis about defensive skills and batters’ skills.
Short attention span may now be an international ailment. The Big Bash League, a collection of teams representing various Australian cities, has designed its games to fit into three hours, with the teams’ turn on offense separated by an intermission; aka, another beer run. Each team is limited to 20 “overs,” an “over” being a series of six pitches thrown.
Much as an Outback is an American steak house that is Aussie-ized, the BBL is an Australian league that has been American-ized, with rock music, costumed mascots, fireworks, cheerleaders and even a BBL Fantasy League. (Ben Dunk, who would have seemed destined for another sport, should be your “keeper” pick for next season.)
And, oh yeah, if all that’s not Americanized enough, the BBL’s title sponsor is Kentucky Fried Chicken.
There is also a Women’s Big Bash League. Catherine McGregor, one of Australia’s most respected cricket analysts and writers, tried out for the league last fall at age 60. The fact that McGregor is transgender didn’t raise nearly the same hoopla it would have in the States. McGregor, a lieutenant colonel in the Australia Defence Force who made her transition in 2012, laughed that some critics would call her “just an old bloke in a dress.”
To assure I could properly relate the basics of cricket, I did a Google search which led to this post near the top of the queue: “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?” headlined a post that called it “one of the most important questions of all time.”
A cricket pitch is traditionally round or oval, usually 450 to 500 feet in diameter. There is a narrow dirt strip in the center with thigh-high wooden stumps at either end, about the same distance apart as home plate and a pitching rubber.
The primary figures are the bowler (pitcher) and batter. The family is not nearly as amused as I am when I recall the famous cricket radio broadcast line: “The batter’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey,” referring to Michael Holding of West Indies and England’s redundantly named Peter Willey.
The bowler gets a running start before hurling the ball toward the batter on one bounce. Much like watching the 2016 Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen, the object seems to be generously permitting the batter to hit the ball. Nine fielders spread out across the turf try to snare the ball before it rolls to an outer boundary (the 4 points on our placards) or soars over it (the 6 points). Though the bowler can reach the 90s in pitch velocity, the bounce takes off some steam and the 4.25-inch blade of the cricket bat facilitates contact more than a round baseball bat. Batters, in fact, learn to deflect the ball backward, toward more wide-open spaces. They run from their “home plate” to the other wicket and back, thus registering a run. If the ball is retrieved and delivered to the catcher before the batter reaches the “stump” at home, he is out.
That’s one of 10 ways a batter may make an out, including whiffing on a throw that bounces into the stump or having a ball caught on the fly. We see some full-speed, running-toward-the-wall plays that bring to mind Andruw Jones in his heyday.
Eventually, we settle into a nice comfort zone. Enjoy the weather. Enjoy a couple of brews. Appreciate the obvious skills. And don’t look at the scoreboard, because that just confuses you.
With each passing inning, we can see more and more kinship to the essence of baseball, similarities beyond the basics. I leave the MCG thinking that, for its contributions to the history of our sport, we American baseball fans owe cricket a debt of thanks.
Meanwhile, what did we give cricket in return? Fantasy leagues and The Wave.