A lovely dear American friend named Martin got in touch to say:
Over the past few days, you’ve been doing quite a lot of bellowing about something called the Ashes, which I have deduced is related to the sport of cricket. While it’s always thrilling to hear you cry out with joy, I confess I feel unable to truly appreciate your excitement as I find cricket somewhat confusing. I’ve been doing some research, but still feel befuddled. Can you help a poor man who just wants to understand?
I don’t doubt Martin is not alone in his bewilderment, because it can be hard to understand any sport if you weren’t taught the rules by a frustrated, middle-aged primary school PE teacher who still lives with his mother. Even I myself once was ignorant.
Because I love learning, I went directly to the library to educate myself on the history, rules and strategies of cricket. The librarian suggested two tomes: Cricket for Dummies and Helping Women Understand Cricket (if you guessed the librarian was male, you are correct). Personally, I don’t like those . . . for Dummies books because I don’t believe in starting off the writer/reader relationship with an insult. The other book was equally appalling: most of its pages were dedicated to advice on keeping large plates of sandwiches fresh and jugs of tea hot to ensure players’ satisfaction at the lunch interval. Outrageous!
There’s also quite a famous summary which is often titled “Explaining Cricket to Foreigners.” Now, of course, we can’t ignore the xenophobic stupidity of the title nor the fact that, while the explanation is correct, it’s clearly designed to mock those who aren’t familiar with the sport. Here it is:
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!
So it makes sense that Martin would come to me, a woman famous for her thoughtful clarity and extensive experience with bats and balls. So let’s get to work.
If you are familiar with baseball, realise that this will actually hinder rather than help your understanding. It ain’t baseball, people, and trying hard to connect the two is just going to get your brain cells in a tizz. So stop doing that.
Instead please read through the following helpful explanation of test cricket.
THE SET UP:
In the middle of a great big grassy field is a strip of dirt (called the pitch). At each of the strip’s ends are three wooden sticks (called stumps) with two little sticks (bails) balanced across them. Together, the stumps and bails make up the wicket. This is important.
Two teams of eleven players each wear white outfits.
Throwing the ball (which is maroon) at the batsman is called bowling. Bowling involves a little run then a little jump then whipping the arm up in the air before releasing the ball. It looks wonky at first, but it’s a proper skill because the bowler can’t go too wide (called a wide) nor can the bowler’s front foot cross a certain line (called a no-ball).
Batsmen use fat, flat bats made out of willow, with a thin handle at one end. Batsmen also wear helmets and pads to protect their legs because just because the ball is maroon, don’t think for a minute it can’t do some proper damage if you’re hit by it. (However, fielders do not wear gloves because they aren’t pussies about it.) That batsmen stand in front of the wicket to protect it from being hit by the bowler.
What’s that you say, Agatha? How can the batsman be standing in front of the wicket when you just said there are two wickets on the pitch?
Get your mind blown, suckas. There are two batsman. But there are also two bowlers! Can you believe that?
A bowler bowls six times at the batsman standing in front of the wicket at one end. This is called an over. Then the other bowler bowls six times to the batsman in front of the other wicket. The fielders move position to be better prepared to catch the new batsman’s hits.
One player on the fielding side stands behind the wicket; this player is called the wicket keeper. Big, webbed gloves help the wicketkeeper stop the balls that have been bowled but not hit.
There are two umpires on the field. They also wear white shirts but black trousers. There is a third umpire who looks at video replays, and a fourth umpire who is basically the other three umpires’ bitch and brings them drinks and new balls if the ball gets too beat up.
Here is a cricket pitch.
Here is a cricket pitch that has been invaded by a swarm of bees.
One team bats while the other fields. A team is at bat until ten batsmen get out. This is called an innings (no, not an inning). Then they switch places and the second team bats until ten of their batsmen are out. Each team gets two innings.
Obviously the goal of the fielding team is to get the batsmen out.
The goal of the batting team is slightly more complex: the batsman must protect the wicket from being hit by the bowler (if this happens and the bails fall off the stumps, the batsman is out).
The most ideal way to protect the wicket is to hit the ball with the bat. If it’s hit hard or far enough, both batsmen run to the other wicket and one run is earned. If they’ve got enough time to run back to their original wicket, they get another run. They can do this as much as they want but if a fielding player is able to knock the bails off the stumps with the ball (including by throwing the ball directly at the stumps) before the batman gets back to it, then that batsman is out. However, if the ball is hit so hard that it rolls to the edge of the grassy field (called the boundary), neither batsman has to run; that team just automatically earns four runs. If the batsman hits so the ball goes right over the boundary, six runs are earned. If the ball is hit up in the air and a fielder catches it, the batsman is out.
Another way a batsman can get out is called leg-before-wicket (LBW). The batsman cannot use the body to protect the wicket. If the bowler bowls a ball that seems like it would hit the stumps, and the batman disrupts the ball’s flight with a body block (well, a leg block since the pads more easily absorb the force of the ball than, say, the batsman’s crotch would), then the bowler (and other fielders) jump up in the air and yell “How’s that?” (usually written as “Howzat” for comic effect). If the umpire deems that yes, the ball would have hit the stumps if it weren’t for the batsman’s big fat legs, then the batsman is out LBW.
Though both batsmen run at the same time to earn runs, the one who actually hit the ball gets the credit. If a batsman gets credit for fifty runs before getting out, the batsman holds up the bat in the air and all their supporters cheer. If the batsman gets one hundred runs before getting out (called a century), the helmet is removed and the bat is held up. The batsman gets a standing ovation, sometimes even from their opponent’s fans, and the commentators talk about how this is a historic moment.
Brian Lara of the West Indies once scored four centuries in one innings without getting out. Now that was a historic moment.
On the other hand, if a batsman gets out before ever scoring a run, it’s called a duck and the crowd should feel free to mock the batsman, especially if it happens on the first ball that’s bowled (or if the batsman’s Australian). This situation is called a golden duck. Quack.
Please keep in mind, though, that the batsman does not have to hit the ball, doesn’t even have to try to hit the ball. As long as the bails don’t fall, it’s cool. Sometimes quite a long time passes in between runs. As a viewer this can seem tedious, I will not lie. But it can be very strategic play. This is especially true if one batsman is much better than the other. The crap one just has to not to get out; after six bowls, the other batsman is up and can start swinging and scoring.
Test matches last a long time, usually three to five days. If an innings is over quickly, that means fewer runs are earned. That’s bad for that team. So the teams try to make their innings last as long as they can, scoring as many runs as they can. Hanif Mohammad of Pakistan once made his own innings last for over sixteen hours! What the hell, dude? Each day’s play is usually about seven hours, with a few breaks for drinks or lunch. The batsmen who haven’t got out at the end of the day are the ones who start the next day.
During the match, the scores reflect only the batting team’s status. The scoreboard will say 113-4 or the commentators will say “At the end of that over, England are 113 for 4.” The first number refers to how many runs have been earned; the second refers to how many wickets have fallen (how many outs). At the end of the first over, the team’s score might be 250-all out (250 runs, all batsmen out). When the first team bats again (the third innings), those runs are added to their previous total but the out total goes back to zero. After the end of the third innings, the team that batted first can no longer earn any more runs. So if their grand total is 456, this means that during the fourth innings, the other team is “chasing” 456.
Obviously the fourth innings is key in determining the match’s winner. If the team batting during that fourth inning overtakes the score of the other team, the match is over and they win. If both teams play their full two innings (where each has ten batsmen out twice), the team with the higher score wins.
However, the match could actually end after the third innings (when the team that batted first has finished batting for the second time). If that team still has fewer runs than the other team, the match is considered lost (since that team won’t have another chance to bat) and the fourth innings don’t have to even be played (since the team with the higher score would just be adding to their already higher score). Everyone goes home and the people with tickets to Day Five of the test match feel they have been slighted, even if their team has actually won. Babies.
You can also have a draw in cricket, which many people whinge about — “It lasts five days and there’s not even in a winner? Whinge, whinge, whinge.” Yeah, well, shut up.
A cricket match ends in a draw if the fourth innings does not end (meaning the batting team has not got ten outs) by the end of the allotted time (by the end of play on Day Five). If that’s the case, it’s a draw regardless of who has the higher number of runs. Sometimes a team will just make that last innings go on forever, even if they know they won’t be able to score enough runs. It’s a hard way for a match to end (if your team is the one in the lead), but you know what? Life is hard, mate. Get used to it.
Like many sports, cricket is full of complications. There are many ways to bowl the ball and different fielding positions. There are cunning strategies. There is new technology to highlight one’s viewing pleasure and help umpires make their decisions. A scorecard can be kept using symbols and notes. Statistics and records are thoroughly analysed. Test cricket is played between different national teams, but there are many different levels. There can be one day matches, matches that last for only forty overs, all types of crazy shit.
But I think perhaps we’ve had enough for today.
Except to mention that the particular test match that had me erupting this week is part of a very important series of test matches that takes place every other year. It is called the Ashes and highlights the longstanding rivalry between England and Australia. Let’s let Lego explain:
So there, Martin, is cricket.
I’d just like to end with the suggestion that you and other readers from non-cricket playing countries and/or who are unfamiliar with the game just watch it. It’s hard to comprehend anything in the abstract. Think about the first time young people hear about sex — they can’t imagine how it works or why anyone would be interested. This is why it’s better to actually watch it happening (actually now that I’ve written that line out, please disregard my previous sex analogy). I’m just saying cricket — like all sports — has tons of little details that are hard to sort out just on paper. In fact, despite my own understanding of cricket, when I read back all I’ve just posted, I think, what the fuck are you talking about? So read but then watch and it’ll all fall into place.
Who knows? Maybe once that happens, you’ll fancy playing it yourself. Just don’t play for Australia or I will instantly become your mortal enemy.