All's Fair

The rudiments of cricket

To the untrained eye, cricket looks like a lot of standing around. Which it is.
But it's more. It's a lot of standing around with a purpose, the purpose that links all competition: to pummel the opposition. Cricketers just happen to do this for the most part with their hands in their pockets, idly inspecting the turf at their feet.

The game is played by two teams, each with eleven players, on the closely cut grass of a circular field whose radius measures 75 yards. As in baseball, one team is at bat while the other plays the field. Unlike in baseball, however, cricket teams don't reverse roles until the entire batting order has been retired, or until a team chooses for strategic reasons to retire its side without completing the batting order.

At any given time there are thirteen players on the field -- eleven fielders from one squad and two batsmen from the other -- plus two umpires, who are easily distinguishable by their white coats. The focus of play is the pitch, a 22-yard-long strip of extremely short grass (or hard-packed dirt) in the middle of the field. At each end of the pitch is a wicket: two small wooden crosspieces (bails) resting on three thigh-high wooden sticks (stumps). In front of each wicket stands a batsman holding a cricket bat, which is made of willow and resembles a jumbo version of a college fraternity paddle. One of the batsmen (the striker) stands ready to receive a ball from the opposing bowler, analogous to baseball's pitcher. The other batsman waits.

After an elaborate windup that involves a long run from down the field, the bowler hurls the ball (a hard leather-covered sphere slightly smaller than a baseball) toward the striker's wicket. The bowler may opt to bounce the ball toward the wicket. He will almost always try to do so, because it is much more difficult for a batsman to hit a bouncing ball than one that comes straight to him, particularly after the bowler imparts various spins and curves. (Balls that don't bounce, known as "full tosses," are often the delight of batsmen.)

The striker wants to score runs, which he accomplishes by hitting the ball and running to the opposite wicket, exchanging places with his fellow batsman. One sprint of the pitch by the batsmen counts as one run for the team; statistically, the striker gets credit for the run. The striker, however, is under no obligation to hit the bowled ball or to run if he hits it. He also hopes not to get out.

This puts him squarely at odds with the bowler, who is trying to ensure that the batsmen do get out, which can occur in any of several ways. The most dramatic is a bowled ball that hits the wicket. A striker can also be caught by a fielder if a batted ball is snared on the fly. (Note to tender-palmed baseball players: Except for the batsman and the wicket keeper, who stands directly behind the striker's wicket, cricketers don't wear gloves.) A batsman can also be run out, which happens when a fielder recovers a batted ball in time to knock down the wicket before the batsman who is running toward it reaches the crease, which is akin to baseball's batter's box.

After the bowler has bowled six balls to one wicket, an umpire calls over, and another bowler commences bowling to the opposite wicket. A common tactic employed by batsmen is to maneuver their run-scoring in such a way that the stronger batsman is always the striker.

Fielders cover a vast range of positions, known by terms only the British could employ with a straight face, such as silly mid on, silly mid off, and leg slip. The players shift positions strategically according to which batsman is batting and which bowler is bowling.

Another wrinkle: There is no foul territory in cricket; the entire field, including the area behind the striker's wicket, is in play. Thus fielders are obliged to establish a 360-degree defense. On a ball hit a long distance, a batsman may score several runs: A batted ball that reaches the boundary of the field automatically counts for four runs. A ball that clears the boundary on the fly scores six runs. Outstanding batsmen may score more than 100 runs (a century) during a single at-bat, or innings.

There are several types of cricket match, each of which has slightly different rules and, usually, a set time during which the contest must be completed. Among the varieties: the one-innings match, in which each side gets to bat only once; the two-innings match, in which teams bat twice; and limited overs, in which each team bats for a fixed number of overs. Limited overs and one-innings matches often take a day or less to complete. Two-innings matches last several days and are usually played by professionals. Test matches, the most elite form of cricket competition, go on a maximum of five days.

There are two basic requirements for winning a match: exceed the number of runs scored by the opponents and retire their side within the time allotted. (The phenomenon known as declaring the innings complicates matters slightly. If a team captain is confident his squad's score isn't likely to be exceeded, he may retire his own side so that they will be able to run through the opposing batsmen before time expires.)

In any case, the end comes only after many hours of play. And, of course, a lot of standing around.

 
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