Cricket for Americans!

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Big news! On Monday, England defeated Australia on the famous cricket pitch at Lord's for the first time in 75 years! To put this in perspective, this may actually be bigger than the miraculous Red Sox World Series win in 2004, heralding an end to the 86-year Curse of the Bambino. Maybe.

Anyway, England's win put me in mind of doing a post on cricket, because it is so quintessentially British.

I have actually seen professional cricket: This Memorial Day, whilst my American compatriots were enjoying some good ol' barbecue and the unofficial start of summer, I was celebrating an undefined Bank Holiday at Lord's with some British friends. But despite having sat for three hours "“ the match was a Twenty20 match and therefore the "shorter" variety of the game "“ I'm not entirely sure that I can claim to know anything about cricket.

I was primarily at a loss due to the astonishingly sportsmanlike behavior of my fellow cricket fans. I come from the Red Sox school of sports viewing, in which watching sports is nearly as tiring as playing it and, win or lose, someone's going to set a car on fire afterwards. Here, though, people clapped whenever anything happened, regardless of whose team it benefited "“ polite, sure, but confusing as hell. I cast my lot with Surrey "“ good move, since they ultimately trounced Middlesex "“ but had virtually no idea that they had won until the very end of the game (this was also due in no small part to the very large specimen of British manhood sitting directly in front of me, his great jug head just the right size to entirely obscure the pitch).

Given the fact that actually watching cricket left me no more enlightened than before, I turned to that font of all knowledge, the Internet. Here's what I found:

First: What is cricket?

Cricket, being a game of interminable length involving a "bat" and a ball, is a lot like baseball. Except that it's not. The similarity clearly derives from the action of striking the ball with the bat-like object, but cricket takes place in the center of a large field and the concept of a "foul" or even a "strike" doesn't enter.

Basically, cricket works like this: There are two teams of 11 players, with two on-field umpires. The field is oval shaped, with a strip of dry land around 22 yards long in the center. Positioned at either end of this strip are the wickets, basically three wooden poles called "stumps" stood up next to one another, with two wooden pieces called "bails" resting on top of them.

The batter stands in front of one of these wickets, which serve as targets for the bowler (basically, the pitcher); the bowling team has all 11 of its men on the field, in various in-field and out-field positions.

cricket_bowler

Two guys from the batting team are on the pitch at one time, the striker and the non-striker, positioned at opposite ends of the pitch; the pitcher, called in cricket the "bowler," stands just beyond the wickets at the non-striker end of the pitch. He winds up and hurls the little wooden ball toward the striker, who is the batter in action. The striker's job is to hit the ball away from his wickets. Runs are scored for each time the batters are able to run back and forth between the wickets after the ball is hit; if the batter hits the ball outside of playing area, but it touches the ground first, that's four runs. If it sails outside of the playing area without hitting the ground "“ in real out-of-the-park home run style "“ then that's six runs.

An inning is over when 10 guys from the batting team have been gotten out; getting "out" can happen any number of ways, but can include being bowled (when the bowler hits the wickets) or caught (where the struck ball is caught by a fielder or a bowler before it hits the ground). The two teams then switch at the end of the inning, the bowling team batting and the batting team bowling.

In a test match, there is no predetermined time limit to an inning, which is why cricket can go on forever (in these newfangled Twenty20 matches, thank god, there is). The only time limit in test match cricket is five days to complete the whole game; the longest match on record was what is called a "timeless test," which, just like it sounds, has no time limit, and it lasted 10 days.

There are a lot of other, much more complicated rules and strategery and obscure terminology (flipper, googly, tonk, etc.) but I'm not going to get into them here. Suffice it to say, batters try to score runs while the bowling team tries to bowl them out. The winner at the end of day (or five days) is the team with the most runs. And that's cricket!

Cricket players have bad luck: Bizarre injuries off the cricket pitch

In cricket, you don't necessarily get the same spectacular bone-breaking collisions and slides that you get in baseball "“ but from the cursory research I've done, cricket players are more likely to be injured in weird ways off the pitch than on:

"¢ In March 2008, an all-round player for Geelong (that's Australia) was out of commission after injuring his knee "“ putting on his pants.

"¢ British tabloid The Sun dubbed cricketer Chris Lewis "The Prat Without a Hat" after he shaved his head during a tour of the West Indies and suffered severe heatstroke.

"¢ A Sussex player was out for a match after a teammate playfully squeezed his shoulder and injured it.

"¢ Player Chris Old missed a Test Match when he bruised his rib in a particularly violent sneeze.

"¢ Derek Pringle ruled himself out of a Test Match after injuring his back writing a letter "“ the chair he was sitting in collapsed.

"¢ And last, but certainly not least, when English captain Ted Dexter's Jaguar ran out of gas, he tried to push it back into his garage; he lost control of the car and ended up pinned to a gate under it, with a broken leg.

Scandal "“ it's just not cricket

Just like any major sport, cricket has its own scandals. In May, Chris "The Prat Without a Hat" Lewis was sentenced to 13 years in prison for smuggling 7 pounds of cocaine, worth £140,000, in his cricket bag (he was also carrying what prosecutors dubbed his "manbag," a Prada purse). He said he thought it was orange juice mix. Giving evidence during the trial, Lewis and his co-conspirator Chad Kimon each claimed that the other had set him up.

This wasn't the only time that cricket has seen players involved in recreational drugs: In 2001, five South African players were caught smoking some celebratory pot after a win in the West Indies. Cricket has also had its run-ins with doping, not unlike its distant American cousin. In 2006, two Pakistani cricketers were banned from the game for two years and one year respectively after testing positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Cricket can be tragic

In March of this year, a cricket match was cancelled in Pakistan after Islamic militants ambushed the Sri Lankan cricket team as they made their way by bus, with an armed escort, to the pitch. Seven people died in the attack "“ six of the policemen who were escorting the team and a bus driver "“ while seven cricketers and a coach were injured. International teams have vowed not to return to the country.

Tradition! Tradition!

Cricket is also an opportunity to exercise that famous dry British wit and affection bordering on obsession with tradition.

ashesFor example, the recent England win at Lord's was part of a Test Match series called Ashes, so named because in 1882, Australia beat England for the first time on English ground. The loss prompted an English paper, The Sporting Times, to publish a satirical obituary on the death of English cricket: The body would be cremated and its ashes sent to Australia, the story read. England's quest to beat Australia then became a "quest to regain the ashes." Now, the symbol of Ashes is an urn said to contain the actual ashes of a burnt cricket ball; it's not, however, the Ashes trophy exactly: The urn typically lives at the Marylebone Cricket Club, home of the Lord's pitch, while the actual trophy presented to the winners of the series is a Waterford crystal recreation of the urn.

But in recent years, interest in cricket has apparently waned, so cricket organizers have tried to inject a little life into the sport with the shorter Twenty20 matches and by allowing fancy dress on certain days at certain matches. This has provoked the ire of many an old-time cricket fan (at Lord's, you can spot them by their "egg-and-bacon" "“ yellow and red "“ ties and trilby hats and by, in most cases, their extreme age).

See Also: Highlights from Cricket's Strangest Matches

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July 22, 2009 - 3:20pm
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