Here’s an easy question: What does the word “hardball” in The Hardball Times stand for? Give yourself 10 points if you said a small, white ball that hitters try to club as far as possible with a wooden bat.
However, baseball isn’t the only sport that counts a small, hard, white ball and a lump of timber as its weapons of choice. No, cricket does as well, so that gives me the remit to discuss the sport on these hallowed pages (otherwise we’d be called The Baseball Times or some such).
Why on earth would I want to do that?
Well, almost a year after the World Baseball Classic wowed fans with exciting intercontinental play, it is time for cricket to have its turn in the limelight as the World Cup comes to a climax in the Caribbean. It’s just possible that over the last couple of weeks you’ll have seen a highlight reel of a game or two on ESPN. Given the superficial similarities between the sports, I want to make sure you have the tools at your disposal to field (sorry!) any questions that might come your way about cricket—also think of all the ladies (or men) you can impress with your expanded sporting knowledge!
Tell me About Cricket Then (Grumble, Grumble)
Cricket originated in the United Kingdom and has been played there since time immemorial. In the 19th century it was exported to all corners of the British Empire—had the War of Independence happened 100 years later we might all be talking about bowlers and stumps rather than pitchers and strike zones. Despite its colonial origins, the first international cricket game was between the USA and Canada!
Let’s cut to the chase and have look at the rules. Here is a short, light-hearted version:
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in to bat. Each man in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that has been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.
There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the
men have gotten out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game
Still confused? I thought so. Perhaps this cricket lark isn’t so simple after all. Let’s try a different tack and methodically explore the main aspects of the game.
We’ll start with the park.
The Park (Called The Ground)
Perhaps the best way to envision what a cricket ground looks like is to compare it to a ballpark. (Click on image for a clearer image).
As you can see the dimensions aren’t too dissimilar, although there are some fundamental differences, largely concerning where the action takes place. In baseball the jousting is mostly confined to a corner of the yard, whereas in cricket everything happens in the middle, on a small oblong strip of dry, bare grass about 20 meters long and three meters wide. This is called the wicket.
The wicket has two ends, each marked by a white box called the crease—this is similar to a base. If a player is in the crease he is considered safe. See the three dots at the back of the crease? Those are three wooden poles that are jammed into the ground and are called the stumps.
If the ball hits the stumps and the batter isn’t in his crease then he is out. If the pitcher hits the stumps after pitching (bowling) then the batter is also out.
The large elliptical area that surrounds the wicket is called the field. This area is patrolled by fielders who try to prevent runs being scored and also catch any fly balls that come their way (no gloves allowed).
There are 11 players on a cricket team. These 11 players are usually a mixture of batters and bowlers. A cricket team will have four to five bowlers in their team, although only one can bowl at any point. A game consists of one team batting and the other pitching and fielding. The batting team always has two batters in the middle. When a batter makes an out he walks back to the dugout (pavilion in cricket lingo) to be replaced by another batter who hasn’t been out. This goes on until 10 of the 11 batters are out (i.e., when the batting team can no longer put a batsman at both ends of the wicket).
The fielding team has all 11 of its players on the field at the same time, though there are rules for limited substitutions if required.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the idiosyncrasies of batting, bowling and fielding.
Like baseball, cricket involves a match-up between a batter and a pitcher and the aim is to score as many runs as possible. However, in cricket it is markedly more difficult to get the batsman out than it is in baseball. To give you a sense the record score by a single batsman in an innings is 501 by Trinidadian, Brian Lara. It took him over two days to accumulate that mega-total!
A cricket bat is paddle shaped with a flat front that is used to strike the ball. This straight face means that controlling the ball is much easier than it is with a barrel bat. Cricket bats are typically made of wood—usually a soft willow.
Generally batting in cricket is similar to batting in baseball. Batters like to keep the ball on the ground in order to avoid getting caught. In cricket every time the players run from one end of the wicket to the other a run is scored. Unlike in baseball a player is not obliged to run if he hits the ball, he can elect to stay where he is if he thinks there is a chance that he will be thrown out on the running play.
The ground is surrounded by a rope called the boundary line. If a batter hits the ball out of the park (over the boundary) without it touching the ground it is an automatic six runs; if it hits the ground before scampering over the boundary it is four runs. Needless to say, as a batter your sole objective is to score as many runs as possible without getting out.
Because a batter’s turn only ends when he is out there is less emphasis on clubbing big shots and more focus on accumulating a high score. Although this can include a lot of sixes and fours, it is also likely to contain a lot of singles too.
Bowling, as pitching is called in cricket, is very different to its baseball brethren. For a start the bowler runs before the ball leaves his hand and must use a windmill action with a straight arm. If the arm is not straight then the equivalent of a balk is issued (called a no-ball). Below is a diagram of a typical bowling action.
In cricket the ball normally bounces before it reaches the batsman. This adds a completely different dimension to the game concerning movement of the ball. In baseball most of the movement comes as the ball arrows through the air. Now, while this can happen in cricket (called swing), movement when the ball hits the wicket is more important. This can take two forms: spin and seam.
Spinners impart a lot of rotation on the ball as it leaves the hand and this rotation forces the ball to change direction quite severely on contact with the ground. Shane Warne, an Australian, is probably the most famous spinner in world cricket—with a sharp turn of his wrist he could make a ball zip sideways by several feet. A spinner’s velocity will max at about 55mph!
Seam movement is a result of the construction of the cricket ball. Although superficially similar to a baseball, a cricket ball has a unidirectional seam which allows bowlers to create movement. Good seam bowlers try to bowl a cricket ball with the seam facing forwards so when the ball hits the ground it leaps in a different direction and confuses the batsman.
Seam bowlers are also called fast bowlers. The world speed record of a cricket ball is a shade over 100mph by Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar.
As a team carries four of five bowlers an enforced system of bowling rotation exists. When a bowler steps up to face a batsman he is allowed to bowl one over before handing the ball to another bowler. An over constitutes six legal balls. That means that at a maximum a bowler will bowl every other over (or six balls out of every 12).
Fielding in cricket is an entirely different beast to fielding in baseball. For a start there is only one set position and that is catcher (usually called wicket keeper). Apart from that the captain of the fielding team can elect to put his fielders where ever he wants. And it isn’t necessarily an easy undertaking as there are literally hundreds of permutations. Have a look at the following fielding map:
The captain will choose his field depending on the context of the game. If he is looking to get opposing batters out he’ll play an attacking field with lots of players close to the wicket looking for catches but this also allows an aggressive batsmen the opportunity to score lots of runs. If the captain’s goal is to frustrate and contain he may choose a more defensive field designed to prevent runs. Suffice to say that fielding strategy is a lot more complex that it is in baseball.
Still Don’t Get It?
On the off chance my I wasn’t lucid enough I’ll give you one more shot at understanding cricket for all you baseball freaks out there. Let’s take a game of baseball and change the rules until we arrive with something resembling cricket. Starting with baseball, here we go (note: adapted from David Morgan’s page):
- You can’t strike out. Swing and miss as much as you like.
- There’s no foul territory. Hit the ball anywhere you like.
- There are no balls. The pitcher (called the bowler) expected to bounce the ball on the ground before it reaches the batter.
- There are no walks either. If you get hit by a pitch, tough.
- If you hit the ball, you only have to run if you think it’s safe to do so. Otherwise, stay where you are and take another pitch.
- If you reach home plate and score a run, don’t go back to the dugout. Stay there to face the next pitch. Or keep running on to first again if you wish.
- When you get out, no matter what base you’re on, the next batter comes in to replace you where you were.
- The bases are always loaded.
- So if you hit a home run, that’s 6 runs. But don’t bother actually running the bases, since that’s pointless. Just stay where you are.
- Take the gloves off the fielders.
- Once you’re out, you can’t bat again in the same inning.
- The team’s inning is only over when 6 players are out, since this leaves only 3 players who aren’t out to man the bases.
- Reduce the number of bases from four to two.
- Replace each base with three upright wooden poles in a row, 32 inches high, with the outermost two 9 inches apart (this are called the stumps).
- When batting, you are out if the pitcher hits the poles with a pitch, or if you get in the way and he hits you. You better defend them with your bat!
- If the ball hits the wall around the field, automatically score 4 runs and the ball is out of play, like if a home run is hit.
- Increase the number of players from 9 to 11 per team. So now, the inning is over when 10 players are out, since that just leaves one player and two bases to man.
- Reduce the number of innings from nine to two.
In a nutshell that is cricket.
Anything Else I Should Know?
Yes. You think baseball is a long game at three hours? Some cricket games can last for up to five days, and even then a tie game is a possible outcome. A five day game is referred to as a Test Match and is played between two countries. Two other forms of the game exist: one-day game, which as its name suggest is played over just one day rather than five; and Twenty 20, which is more like baseball in terms of fun and entertainment.
Why Should I Care?
Got this far? I’m impressed but your probably wondering what relevance this has to baseball. Today, for your casual fan probably not a lot, except you can wow (!) your friends with your new found cricketing knowledge. But for serious historians of the game of baseball cricket is very relevant.
The origins of baseball are somewhat disputed but what is for sure is that cricket was played by English and Irish immigrants on the Eastern Sea Board in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cricket was more a game of the English gentry and two-base rounders (itself evolving from cricket) started to become more popular among the working classes. After the Red Coats were kicked out after the War of Independence so the game of cricket and its esoteric rules went with it.
Even so the two sports share a common heritage and there are many similarities between the two games. If you do catch a game of the cricket on the box I urge to sit back and watch a few overs to get an appreciation for what happens with the timber on the other side of the pond.
Oh, and one of the best things about following cricket is that you can play without question the finest web-game. It is called Stick Cricket and is simply awesome.
References & Resources
Images are from the following sources: Cricket ball from Stephen Turner; Stumps from Ian Page; Wicket from Nichalp; Fielding Positions from Miljoshi; Bowling action from unknown; Cricket and Baseball comparision from David Morgan. All images in this article are used under the Wikimedia Commons License.