On the first hot Saturday marking the end of the June gloom, we take over Warren Field on the UCSD campus, we aliens, we immigrants, carrying our strange apparatus, calling to each other in three or four languages, proudly odd, even un-American, in our all-white clothes, eerie music braying from our car speakers. We are the University of California-San Diego Cricket Club.
Cricket, like baseball, evolved out of a million miscellaneous, impromptu forms of stick-and-ball games played all over the world. Its clearly a universal survival skill that we need, to be able to hit something thrown in our direction. Both games also evolved in England: Jane Austen refers to baseball as an English pastime 20 years before Abner Doubleday is supposed to have invented the game in Cooperstown. Cricket is just like baseball, in fact, except for 5 major differences and 30 or 40 minor ones.
The first significant difference is that cricket is played not tucked away in the corner of a stadium, like baseball, where the batter may literally have his back to the wall, but in the middle. Consequently, there is no foul territory. The batsman can hit the ball in any direction, not just try to blast it into the next zip code, but steer it delicately past his hips or over his shoulder. The range of strokes is, therefore, much greater, the batting subtler (especially as a cricket bat has a flat face, and the batsman therefore has much more control over his shots than that baseball batter), and the skillful placement of fielders is more important. For the spectator, it also means that everything is happening at least 60 yards away, in the middle of a grassy oval. It’s not surprising that many spectators carry opera glasses. Or sandwiches. Or a good book. If you don’t understand what is going on out there, it’s not only confusing but awfully small.
The second big difference is in the bases. Baseball has four of them, though one has evolved into a plate above which a notional rectangle of air known as the strike zone hovers invisibly, growing and shrinking with each player and each umpire. Cricket has two, and instead of slouching on the ground or hovering in the air they stand proudly upright. They are called wickets. (This word, unfortunately, means four entirely different things to a cricketer, as we shall see.)
For the purposes of explaining the game, we can ignore the first seven or eight centuries of its history and begin in early 18th-century England. At that time, each wicket consisted of a simple structure like the Greek letter pi, two vertical sticks with a third stick across the top, something like a croquet wicket. The two wickets were set up 22 yards apart. The bowler delivered the ball from beside one wicket, and the batsman defended the other: it was his home, his strike zone, his castle. If the ball hit the wicket, dislodging the “bail” laid across the top, or passed through it, the batsman was out, and would be forced to spend the next two or three hours watching his fellow teammates bat. (He was also out if he hit the ball and it was caught before it bounced or if he prevented the ball from striking the wicket by interposing his leg, a frequently painful form of dismissal called Leg Before Wicket.)
No wonder most cricket pavilions now have a bar. Inevitably, there were disputes as to whether the ball had passed through the wicket or missed it, and now it consists of three vertical dowels, called stumps, about 28 inches high, spaced so the ball can’t quite pass between them.
Runs are scored, as in baseball, by running the bases, going back and forth between the two rather than round the four; but here again there are a couple of complications.
Cricket being a social game, there are always two batsmen at work at the same time. One is doing the hard part — defending his wicket, trying to hit the ball, and so on — while the other lounges by the wicket from which the bowler is operating and acts as a sort of tag partner. If the active batsmen hits the ball cleanly and calls for a run, the two dash toward each other’s end, and if they reach it safely before the ball is thrown in to either wicket, one run has been scored, and the formerly passive partner faces the next ball. Runs can also be scored by big hits. If the ball is hit all the way to the boundary, some 60 to 80 yards distant, the batting team scores four runs even without running; if the ball crosses the boundary without bouncing, it is worth six.
The third major difference between baseball and cricket is that in cricket, the ball bounces before it reaches the batsman. Two hundred years ago, in fact, the ball was delivered along the ground, which is why the action is still called “bowling” rather than “pitching.” The bowler retreated some 10 or 20 yards, raced up and bowled, underhand, like Earl Anthony on speed, a small, hard ball, a nasty little customer that might race across the bumpy ground and sneak under the batsman’s blade and through the wicket or might strike a flint and ricochet upwards, dislodging a tooth or an eye. (One bowler is said to have been so fast that one of his deliveries shot past one fielder, brushed aside another’s coat held out like a bullfighter’s cape, and killed a dog.)
In the decades that followed, bowlers discovered that if they began releasing the ball not down by the ankle, but farther off the ground, using a round-arm motion (the rules were and are still very strict: the elbow must be straight at the moment the ball is released), it bounced awkwardly up at the batsman. The higher the delivery point, in fact, the more difficult the bounce. Bowlers still run up and bowl at speed, but now the ball is released directly above the shoulder, some 9 feet off the ground, making the ball rear up nastily. A baseball batter has to judge a ball coming at him at 85 miles an hour from 60 feet, but a cricket batsman has to gauge a ball rising off the ground at perhaps 70 miles an hour some 5 to 10 feet in front of him. This makes the quality of the playing surface, confusingly called either the “pitch” or (even more confusingly) the “wicket,” absolutely paramount. The professional game is played on grass that has been rolled with a ten-ton roller several times a week for several decades, so the ball’s bounce is at least somewhat predictable. The amateur game, lacking such amenities, can be bloody lethal.