Everything Changes in Six Minutes

San Diego cricketers in exile

As the perpetual pounding of the ball destroys the grass wicket quite quickly, this wear and tear is cunningly distributed between the two ends by requiring a bowler to bowl only six deliveries (called an “over”) from one end before yielding to a different bowler, who bowls an over from the other end. Hence the greatest bafflement to the American spectator: every three or four minutes, for no apparent reason, all the fielding team members suddenly stroll around and take up entirely different fielding positions. The spectator rubs his eyes and suspiciously examines his tankard.

The next difference between baseball and cricket is the delightful but cryptic English tradition of assuming that if someone 400 years ago in Yorkshire invented an utterly incomprehensible dialect word for something, then that’s what it should still be called. American sports have plain, utilitarian terminologies: Right Field. Left Field. Catcher. Pitcher. Tackle. Kicker. Cricket has fielding positions called square leg. Short square leg. Square short leg. (All different positions, none of them implying a need for an orthopedic appliance.) Silly mid-on and silly mid-off. (Don’t make the joke that these positions are called silly because you’d have to be daft to field only ten feet away from the batsman. The English expect this naive etymology from Yanks and smile patiently at you.) Silly point. (Nothing to do with debating.) Third man. (Makes no sense at all. This guy fields at one end of the ground, so he should be either first man or last man.)

Then there’s first, second, and third slips. (Actually a reference to greyhound racing, for Pete’s sake; these fielders are supposed to crouch alertly like greyhounds straining to go; before dog races had little starting gates, they had just a line where the leashes were slipped.

You knew you’d be sorry you asked, didn’t you?) The only name that makes the remotest sense is long-off, who stands such a long way off that on a good hot day, he vanishes in the heat haze. I’ve played on grounds that were on a slope, so long-off couldn’t even be seen by the batsman. Fielders have been known to volunteer to field long-off just so they could make out with their girlfriends during the dull patches.

Even the most basic words go berserk. “In” may mean the opposite of “out,” but it may also mean exactly the same thing. The opposite of “off ’ is sometimes “on,” but it is sometimes, astonishingly, “leg.” Mind you, what do you expect from a nation that gives its food names like Toad-in-the-Hole and Bubble and Squeak?

The last and perhaps most astounding difference is that if a cricketer hits the ball, he doesn’t have to run. In fact, if he thinks the ball is going to miss his wicket, he doesn’t even have to hit it. No wonder an ordinary club game, lasting one innings each side, runs for perhaps six hours, and international matches, at two innings per side, are scheduled to last five days. No wonder that even some of the English find cricket tedious. No wonder it is often seen as less like a sport and more like a religion.

And that’s cricket, more or less: bowl and bat, hit and miss, life and limb.

As a Brit living in Vermont, I first heard of SDCC through the Internet, when someone on the newsgroup rec.sport.cricket asked if there was cricket in San Diego, and the answer came back in the joyous affirmative. There is a strange congruence between electronic mail and this centuries-old game. It’s not simply that the San Diego Cricket Club sends out its game reports and announces its team selections by e-mail. The Internet has become a cultural lifeline for the cricketer in voluntary exile.

Cricket is being played up and down the median along the information superhighway, with messages zinging back and forth from MIT to the University of North Carolina to Microsoft Corporation to the University of Lahore, from Pakistan to Zambia to England, updating scores of major games almost hour by hour, bickering over whether this player should have been selected or that one dropped from the national team, inquiring about cricket history, rewriting cricket history, pleading for tickets to Test (international) matches, or announcing satellite TV channels or shortwave radio frequencies where broadcasts can be found, debating the merits of the various commentators, grumbling about one hero’s poor form or an umpire’s poor eyesight — even a cricket poetry contest.

A recent sprightly correspondence listed top-level players who shot themselves, were hanged for murder, played with only one good eye, suffered torn groin muscle while lifting a heavy suitcase, were run down by a motorized airport cart, required stitches after an encounter with a champagne bottle, were crushed to death by a crate of bananas, had a contact lens swallowed by the wicketkeeper, and “retired with measles.” Most days there are more e-mail bulletins about cricket than any other sport. Four-fifths of the postings are about the Indian or Pakistani teams or their players. It’s not surprising that one recent posting was an apology: “I’m sorry,” someone wrote, “I thought this was soc.culture.India.” (Indian cricketers have names that sound like religious epic poems: Tendulkar, Subramanian, the Nawab of Pataudi.)

The e-mail cricketers have found their voices and have found each other. This is fandom as it should be or perhaps as it will be; this is the electronic gossiping of the crowd up in the bleachers of the global stadium. This is the sign of a living sport.

At this point, I should admit that I am playing as a guest for the SDCC 2nd team (officially, the 2nd “XI,” a cricket team being made up of 11 men) because, frankly, I’m not good enough for the first team. On its day, the SDCC 1st XI is as good as any team in California, which means it is as good as any team in the U.S. Its members have played for California against Canada, one played for the West Indies under-21 team, and one played for India. (The top cricketing nations are Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, India, England, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, though not necessarily in that order.)

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