May 18, 2012

Passion and Sticky Wickets.

“Ms. Edna”, inquiring urban hipsters ask, “explain to us the game of cricket.”
“Short version?”  
“Please! And, in American English.”

The short version:
Remember, cricket is a national mania.  First of all you must own a pair of white flannel trousers in order to play.  Secondly, the rules of cricket have become English laws, and you wouldn’t dare break them unless you do it so skillfully that you won’t be caught (everyone knows that gentlemen are the most skillful and surreptitious cheaters).
A game is played for a specified period, which can be anything from a few hours to a few days-obviously having to be at work would be a bother.
First they get together two groups of gentlemen (and you know that they’re getting harder to find every day!).  For a little friendly weekend game there’s a little leeway, as to the absolute number of players required per team (11 players for official games).  Then they find a nice green lawn.  There’s a little leeway here, too, since there is no absolute size specified for a cricket field (as you may expect, like most laws, the rules of cricket are subject to the interpretation of the individual court, so, if it’s your court…well then, your rules.)
Then they play.  At the start of the match, a coin toss determines which side has the choice of batting or fielding first.
Cricket, like our baseball, is played in innings (always in the plural). 
The teams take turns batting and fielding. Two batters stand opposite each other; to score a run, they change positions.  The bowler throws the ball toward the batter.  This is a true test of a gentleman’s courage, since a good bowler can deliver a ball at upward of 100 miles per hour (or in England, 160,930 meters per hour).  If a player winces or runs, he is obviously only a pseudo-gentleman.
Behind the batter is a construction consisting of three wickets supporting two bails (in plain American, five sticks), which he attempts to protect.  If the bails fall, he’s failed.  If he hits the ball, or if the wicket keeper (catcher) misses the ball, the two batters can run from wicket to wicket as long they feel that it’s safe. 
As you guessed, the team that scores the most runs is the winner.
So, if you are playing, remember to own a pair of white flannel trousers and you must try to appear to be a gentleman, or a lady, as the case may be.  I also recommend a hat, an umbrella, and a tall, cool drink to create this image.  Since the most classic of all cricket matches, Eton versus Harrow, is held in early July, you will probably want to start practicing your gentlemanly image in mid-June.  Beyond the shadow of a doubt anyone with a modicum of intelligence can master it within two weeks!
Respectful silence, then, “interesting, now teach us how to make peanut butter.”

Gird your loins for the long version:

The image of cricket is for me timelessly fixed in an embroidered tableau of white figures on an English green, fringed with retired colonels snoozing around the boundary under straw trilbies, while cheery matrons inspect the cucumber sandwiches. To be sure, it must be the most visually ravishing of games, a lantern-slide memory of an Edwardian garden party. Cricket is baseball strained through the finest muslin and then choreographed by George Balanchine.
But despite its impeccable pedigree which dates back at least two centuries to the aristocratic dandies who founded the Marylebone Cricket Club, still cricket's governing body - the game perfectly expresses ambiguities that lie close to the heart of the English spirit. Under the graceful and elegant surface, under the playing codes raised to the level of a morality that extols "the stiff upper lip" and "the straight bat," lurks a rich vein of unacknowledged deviousness and deep reserves of sheer physical menace.
It's no accident that when delivering his death-blow attack on Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, her senior minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, armed himself with an arsenal of cricket metaphors. He was, after all, only drawing on a splendidly combative tradition: About eighty years ago, during a blitzkrieg tour of Australia, England's bowlers so regularly felled Aussie batsmen with wickedly well targeted 90-mile-per-hour projectiles that there was talk in high places of dismantling the British Empire.
England has long looked to cricket as a uniquely powerful weapon in pacifying the troublesome natives. A hundred years ago, clean-limbed missionaries brought their bats along with their Bibles to the South Pacific. They were convinced that a healthy injection of cricket was guaranteed to inoculate the locals against their unfortunate inclinations toward sex and violence. As a consequence, the warring tribes of the Trobriand Islands abandoned centuries of murderous mayhem in favor of cricket. These days, the Trobriand warriors play out their vendettas in an uproarious but recognizable version of the most English of games.
But I reckon the canny Trobriand's recognized the true spirit of England's gentlemanly-seeming summer sport better than those mild men of the cloth. For it's my belief that only croquet approaches the same schizophrenic blend of demure appearance and killer reality that lies at the heart of cricket.
Englishmen have toiled for a hundred years to explain cricket to bewildered foreign visitors.  It has usually ended in hilarity or strained international relations. With a due sense of trepidation, let me try to shed some light on England's most mysterious summer activity.
First, there are these two teams, you see, of eleven players each. If it's not already raining, the two captains toss a coin to decide which team bats first, though sometimes the winner decides not to if the weather looks unfavorable. Then there's the state of the pitch to consider-that's the strip of grass where bat and ball will do battle. The thing you must understand is that no game and indeed few human activities are more involved with the moods of the weather. Cricket responds with exquisite paranoia to the vagaries of the English climate, and "Rain Stopped Play" can be a tragic headline in the evening papers. Spectators, commentators, and players debate the state of the pitch with the obsessive gravity of medieval theologians: "Will it play true or will it take spin?" "Will it break up and become a sticky wicket?" Anyway, I think I was trying to tell you about the start of the game . . .
If it's still not raining, the first two batsmen take the field. They alternate in trying to score runs, hitting the ball as elegantly as possible, and then dashing up and down the twenty-two yards between the wickets-they're the wooden sticks, by the way, which ... but I'd better not get into that yet. Back to those scampering batsmen; their hits are called strokes and are savored by the spectators with the discrimination elsewhere reserved for a bullfighter's passes with his cloak-even though no runs may result. All this time, the two bowlers on the opposite team are spinning or swerving or hurling the very hard, very red ball at the batsmen, trying to dispose of them in a variety of tortuous ways, not excluding thinly veiled intimidation.
Meanwhile, the other members of the bowling team stand around for hours, trying to keep warm or suddenly rushing about like anxious sheepdogs to round up the ball. They're deployed in an elaborate geometry of positions, each with a name that sounds as though it was borrowed from some rustic freak show: "long leg" and "square leg," "silly mid-off' and "deep fine leg."
After a couple of hours, the players leave the field to eat salad. In the afternoon, if they haven't already stopped for rain, they stop for tea. In between, if it's hot, someone will bring lemonade onto the field. Sometimes, someone bowls "a maiden over." That's when nothing happens for minutes on end, and everybody applauds. Then I should tell you about the "googly"...
Actually, the further I get into this, the more I feel like the harassed Chinese official who tried to explain the Peking opera to me as I struggled for sanity during a four-hour performance. I never did manage to decode the minute but significant eye movements or the maddening symbolism of the long sleeves; and I guess cricket has something of the same elusiveness for the newcomer. And that's the point, I suppose. Like Chinese opera, cricket is a ritual as well as an entertainment. So, like me at that opera, you can always nod off when the thing finally defeats you.
When my induction into the cricketing ritual first began (thank you Charles) the game had not changed much in half a century. Indeed, it would still have been recognized by the nineteenth-century genius of the game, W. G. Grace, a bushy bearded giant who transformed cricket over three decades starting in the 1860s.

A Prehistoric Peeps cartoon from Punch about an ancient game of cricket at Stonehenge.

The codes bred on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow still held sway, dictating an apartheid of amateurs and professionals, of gentlemen and players (though officially dropped in 1963).  After the war, gentlemen still maintained changing rooms separated from players, and marched onto the cricket field through a separate gate. England's captain was still obliged to be an amateur, disdaining payment for his skills.
It remained the game celebrated by the greatest of all cricket writers, Sir Neville Cardus of the old Manchester Guardian. Cardus relayed his passion for cricket with the fine rapture of a deck-chair Wordsworth. "When cricket burns a dull slow fire," he wrote, "it needs only a single swift wind of circumstance to set everything into a blaze that consumes nerves and senses."
My first affair with cricket had no swooning flavor. I first noticed, I think, the smell of the game. The heady blend of grass, leather, and linseed oil that had enslaved a schoolboy newly migrated from Scotland, where cricket was derided as an effete lowland aberration. You could hardly play cricket, it must be admitted, in a kilt.
Despite the annual tyrannies of the delinquent English summer over English cricket, devotees continue to subscribe to the myth of the golden summer game. With a bottle of lemonade and sandwiches, Charles and I queued from first light outside cricket grounds; we filled hours imbibing cricket commentaries. For a while, Charles even became some kind of player. It was then, in his foolhardy teens, that he discovered something of the tough realities of cricket. He acquired a bat stamped with the autograph of his hero, the great Yorkshire and England batsman Len Hutton. But although he practiced for hours in front of mirrors trying to emulate photos of the mighty Len in action, nothing prepared him for the real thing - the punishing thwack of a cricket ball against your thigh, even when delivered at a gentle schoolboy pace; the ordeal of trying to run wearing pads on your legs as heavy as medieval armor; the numbing impact of fumbling to catch a firmly hit drive. With the verbal terrorism of well bred student opponents added in, he began to get an idea of cricket's real demands which he now recognizes as the agility of rap star Hammer, the cunning of General Schwarzkopf, and the guts of Jimmy Connors.  He decided to nurse his wounds and retire to the pleasures of armchair cricket.
Today, cricket is big business, a satellite relayed international spectacular. Cricketing superstars flex their contracts. The long dismembered British Empire, from Australia to the West Indies, from India and Pakistan to New Zealand and Sri Lanka, is reconnected by television deals and sponsorship campaigns.
The one-day game, a kind of rock video version of cricket, has come to stay, flourishing lustily alongside the three and five day fixtures Sir Neville Cardus would have recognized as real cricket.
From late April until mid-September, there's a lot of cricket around in England. The three- and four-day county games may be ghostly charades attended only by a handful of the faithful, but the breezy one day contests and the showpiece international test matches draw big crowds. If you want to sample the peculiar pleasures of cricket, the place to dip in must be Lord's Cricket Ground in North London, the holiest place in world cricket.
If you don't fancy trying to grapple with the monumental convolutions of a five-day test match, sample the brisker charms of a One-Day International at Lord's. There'll be plenty of action with fearsome batteries of fast bowlers firing their thunderbolts at batsmen prepared for combat behind visors and protectors reminiscent of battle-ready knights. It may be derided as cricket on speed by the purists in their club blazers, but at least you'll see a result-if it doesn't rain.

For a more restful alternative, you could pop down to Canterbury to drowse and dream on one of the game's most exquisite grounds, where Kent plays cricket in a landscape by Constable.
And wherever you travel through England on a summer weekend, you'll come upon cricket.

According to reports, however, you may have to hurry, since English cricket could be an endangered species. From across the Atlantic, where cricket never caught hold beyond the homesick exertions of the British expats in Hollywood, baseball looms.

Alas, I fancy cricket will be a feisty opponent.


frenchtoast said...

Cricket = baseball on Valium.

Alistair said...

Cricket needs brightening up a bit. My solution is to let the players drink at the beginning of the game, not after. It always works in our weekend matches.

Anonymous said...

I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth - certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either. ~Harold Pinter

Anonymous said...

Great read.

55.9500° N 3.2200° W said...

Ah, yesterday...

34°03′N 118°15′W said...

...when we were young?