Going to Bat for Cricket (Almost)

Although you probably don’t know it, one of the biggest sporting events in the world is going on right now. Package tours have been sold, mountains of T-Shirts have been printed, and team controversies continue to swirl. Starting March 11, upwards of two billion people began watching the tournament. If that number seems high for March Madness, well, you’re right. I’m talking about the Cricket World Cup, currently underway in the West Indies. An event second in popularity only to soccer’s World Cup. More people will watch the month-and-a-half-long competition than did last year’s World Series and Super Bowl combined. The question for most Americans, of course, is why should you care.

Anyone born in the former British Empire will tell you that cricket, a test of endurance that can last days, is far more compelling, more complex, and more athletically challenging than American baseball. If you grew up watching baseball, though, you’re probably not buying this argument. Still, with seemingly half the globe convinced that cricket is the end-all of batting games, you have to wonder if the instinctual defense of baseball isn’t wrongheaded. Are we doing exactly the thing—trumping up American goodies without regard to the facts—for which the rest of the world makes fun of us?

With that in mind, for the last few months I’ve tried to give cricket a shot. On a trip to South Asia I watched as much cricket as possible, talked to fans, and even played a game or two. And here’s the sorry news: for all its arcana, minutiae, and twee language—things my Anglophone side usually adores—cricket just ain’t all that.

As far as codified complexity goes, cricket wins hands down. Its 42 laws and 259 subsections cover everything from the length of the grass on the pitch to the right time during a match to take a cup of tea. In contrast, baseball’s streamlined set of 10 rules answers only questions that actually have to do with the game. If I touch home just before the third out, does it count? When is it OK to run head-first into an opponent? What happens if I pitch a ball and it hits a seagull? You know, stuff that matters.

The real difference, of course, is in the game-play. Cricket and baseball are set up similarly, with a pitcher and a batter and three basic ways to get out. I pitch the ball, you try to hit it. If you hit it in the air and I catch it, you’re out. If you hit it on the ground, you can take bases—in cricket there are two, called wickets, and each one that you reach counts as a run. But if I get the ball back to one of the bases before you get to one, you’re out. Finally, if, while you’re batting, I pitch and hit the wicket behind you (it’s made of three stumps that stand delicately linked at the top by “bails”) you’re also out—as if there were always a two-strike count.

Defensively, cricket does seem tough. Although there are only two innings in a cricket match, scores run well into the hundreds. Hitting a wicket is difficult, because a batter can put any ball you pitch on the ground and just not run—the equivalent of fouling balls away until the cows come home. The wickets are also small: just nine inches wide and 28 inches tall. (The strike zone in baseball is almost twice as big.)

The problem is, in cricket you can afford to make mistakes. Nearly every ball you pitch is going to be, to some extent, hit. The three best-ever bowlers, runs-per-wicket-wise—Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, and Curtly Ambrose—each allowed nearly 21 runs-per, and they’re the best ever. A lame pitch equals a maximum of six runs for the other side, but Australia beat India by 125 runs to win 2003’s World Cup.

In baseball, where the scores run in the single digits, if I hang a curve and you crush it, you’ll probably score most of your runs for the game. Simply put, in baseball the game is on the line with every pitch. In cricket, it isn’t.

Cricket batsmen, who occasionally score more than a hundred runs per game, obviously have it easier. But they do have something working against them: they have to make a play for every ball, hitting each in a non-hazardous way until they get one they can score with. And a batter’s mistake means the end of his game, while in baseball you’ve got two extra strikes to deal with, and you’ll probably get three more at-bats per contest.

But there are far more things working in the cricket batsman’s favor. First of all, a cricket bat is nearly twice as wide as a baseball bat (4.25” max. for cricket, 2.63” for baseball). And of course it’s flat. No need for a long discussion about the physics of directing a projectile with a flat surface v. a round one—it’s easier. Also, a cricket ball is softer than a baseball, meaning it sits on the bat longer at contact, giving the batter yet more control of its trajectory.

An even bigger deal for the batsman is pitch-speed. While both sports have fastball specialists and practitioners of slowball tactics like curves, spins, and puzzling deliveries, baseballs do tend to be thrown a touch faster (the fastest cricket pitch was 100.2 mph, baseball’s was 103). But the real difference is distance. A cricket ball is thrown from 66 feet away, while the baseball’s pitcher’s mound is 60.6 feet from home plate. The extra distance means a cricket batter gets an extra .05 seconds to react to a 90 mph pitch. It doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that for a baseball player to have the same amount of time, he would need face only an 81 mph pitch. For a fastball pitcher those are high school numbers.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say, having never picked up a cricket bat in my life. So I went out to Azad Maidan, one of Mumbai’s main public cricketing grounds, and tried to get myself in a game. After about 15 minutes of standing awkwardly on the fringes I was invited to try it out.

I think it’s safe to say I’m preternaturally good at no sport. I was fine at softball when I played it, but I haven’t picked up any kind of bat in over a decade. Getting used to the way the ball bounced—it’s like a really thick, dead, tennis ball, and it hits the ground before it reaches the batter—took a bit, but soon enough I was knocking it around like the rest of the boys out there. I wasn’t very good at bowling, but nor did they kill anything I sent their way. And in the field…it’s just not very hard to catch a ball moving at the speed of a dead baseball.

Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun. Nor that cricket isn’t plenty fun to watch. Like baseball, a colorful language surrounds the game—wickets, chuckers, and overs are just the start: there’s the featherbed, the blob, and the duck; the chinaman, the jaffa, and the nurdle. And any competition that’s tight and generates passionate fans is worth a six pack. That’s why ESPN2 exists, after all. That’s why there’re the Olympics. And for the next few weeks, as far as I am concerned, that’s why there’s a Cricket World Cup.

Fun, and informative! (Will stick to tennis, however, where at least one is playing with a LIVE tennis ball….)

Janet    Mar 21, 01:52 PM    #

easy to settle: baseball v. cricket all-star charity series. alternate games each side plays the other’s sport. and david ortiz with a cricket bat. hilarious.

— jay Harlow    Mar 24, 09:39 AM    #

You arrogant American pigs 😉

In the UK we have ‘Rounders’. We play it when we are about 6. You get three strikes. Hit the ball and run around the bases. Simple rules for simpletons.

Matt Lee    Mar 25, 01:26 PM    #

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