Bill Bryson wrote my favorite quote about cricket: “It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting. That. was merely an unintended side effect”1.
Had he met him, Bill would have enjoyed the company of another of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams. Doug put his dim view of cricket rather more succinctly; it is, he said, “an incomprehensibly dull and pointless game”2.
They are great writers both, yet on this subject they are very, very wrong. I shall explain why in this article, but first, for those who are unfamiliar with the noble pursuit of cricket, here is the briefest of summaries.
What Is Cricket?
Cricket is a bat-and-ball sport not unlike baseball, played between two teams of eleven players each. The teams play on an oval grass field, in the centre of which is a hard, rectangular strip called a pitch, where most of the action takes place. Cricket scores are very high--in the many hundreds--and the game can run on for hours, days, even weeks. It is an old game, originating in the 16th century, and colonialists went on to export it throughout the British Empire.
Back to Bill and Doug. If bright, sports-watching fellows such as these have disliked cricket, then we should not be surprised that the game failed to take here, in the melting pot of American sport. Baseball holds some of the legacy of cricket, to an extent, but much of what makes cricket cricket did not survive.
For my money, that is America’s loss. As other former British colonies discovered--countries like Australia, India and South Africa--and indeed as I have discovered as I have grown older, cricket is a most fascinating activity. It is a game difficult to summarize, but to me, cricket combines the athleticism of a sport, the intellectualism of a game,- and the silliness of Monty Python.
The Language Of Cricket
How can one not love a game that employs such ridiculous terminology? Take for instance the start of the match--only in cricket do we call the beginning an over. What follows from there is a simple pursuit, based around one player bowling a ball to another, who in turn tries to hit the ball to score points. Yet out of this simple scenario the following, and bewildering, vernacular may occur:
In cricket-speak: The bowler chucks a googly to the batsman who slog-sweeps the ball to his square leg, trying to drive his team to a double Nelson. He fails, and instead he is caught at silly midwicket. The batsman is out for a duck and the bowler celebrates with a maiden under his belt.
Translation: The thrower pitches the ball to the hitter who hits it away and off to the left, in the hope of increasing his team’s score. He fails, and instead the ball is caught not far from where he stands. The hitter is dismissed, having failed to score, and the pitcher celebrates his opponent’s lack of points.
The wonderful absurdity of cricket lies in this strange verbal landscape--and to think I did not mention the bosies, the bunnies, the quack-tric, the cherries, the flat-track bully, the pie chucker and the Chinaman. There are so many more, it deserves a book.
Cricket And The Weather
Some say they dislike cricket because of its maddening relationship with the weather. A cricket pitch is hard and flat; a brief outbreak of rain, barely enough to wet the lips of a mayfly, is enough to ruin it. Yet England--a country in which the locals know summer has arrived because the rain gets warmer—invented cricket. It is crazy--the detractors have argued--to invent such a fragile pastime in Britain.
Because of the meteorological predicament in which cricket finds itself, precipitation is a friend to non-believers. One British Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home, stated, “Oh God, if there be cricket in heaven, let there also be rain”. Indeed, it is a wonder so many cricketers are overweight, given how often they scamper from the pitch, soaked to the skin.
What makes matters worse is that even the possibility of rain is enough to end a cricket match. A batsman in cricket is at a disadvantage if the light is somewhat dull; he cannot see the ball properly, so the game’s inventors decided. Sadly, in England, the light is often dull--in fact, that is why the painter Turner vamoosed to Venice. So could Bill and Doug be right after all?
Allow me to balance the argument. The aim of cricket is to deliver a ball to one’s opponent so that he or she finds it unplayable. To make such a delivery with the assistance of a fluke--be it a soggy pitch or poor light--is, well, just not cricket.
Besides, who enjoys watching a game in a downpour? Cricket is civilized enough to know when to end a contest in favor of drinking a nice warm beer. Rain stops play is a phrase dear to any Englishman’s heart. For many years, by a quirk of the law, the only place in England to permit all-day drinking was the cricket stadium. Perhaps Bill and Doug’s unhappiness derived from their teetotal lifestyle.
Cricket --A Leisurely Sport
The English have devised other, more popular sports like soccer, rugby and tennis, but none carries the same sense of quintessential Englishness as cricket. This is a game, after all, that has a break in the afternoon so the players can drink tea.
The reason for a tea break stems not only from the English obsession with caffeine and tannin, but also from the length of a typical cricket match. International matches, between competing countries, will go on for several weeks. During that period, there are dozens of stoppages for tea, and for lunch too--now we know why cricketers are overweight.
The length of time it takes to complete a cricket match makes it the perfect televised sport for the rich, the retired and the unemployed. Few others can spare such extended periods in front of a television set and not become racked by guilt. Consider that some cricket matches last longer than some marriages.
Players are able to stay the course of a match by plying their trade at a leisurely pace. The rhythm of cricket is akin to that of a hobbled snail with time on its hands.
However, the languorous nature of cricket makes its occasional bursts of speed stand out and seem even more thrilling. The spin bowlers may be slow, but when the fast bowlers arrive, they deliver the ball at almost 100 miles per hour. Ha, take that, Bill! It is understandable and tolerable, then, that the same fast bowler will need a slow walk back to his starting position before repeating his amazing feat. After all, inside him is sloshing a lot of tea.
The Ashes Series
As I write, a cricket series is taking place--made up of matches called Tests--between the two oldest rivals in international cricket, England and Australia. Their Test series has a special name--the Ashes--and they stage it once every eighteen months.
The term Ashes derives from an article that appeared over a century ago in an Australian magazine named The Sporting Times, after Australia had beaten England in a fashion embarrassing to the sport’s originators. Here is the important quote:
"In Affectionate Remembrance of ENGLISH CRICKET, which died at the Oval on 29th AUGUST, 1882, Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances R.I.P.
N.B.--The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."
All subsequent matches have been a bid to win back those ashes--for Australia’s greater glory or for England’s wounded pride. It is a tough task for England--we have a long tradition of inventing globally popular sports only to be stuffed by the countries that adopt them.
As the current series stands, Australia is trouncing England, and the upstarts will once again place the Ashes Urn on their collective mantelpieces.
It has been there so often, it has left a ring.
And what exactly was burnt to create the ashes in the famous Ashes Urn? No one knows for sure; some say it was an item of cricketing equipment, some say it was a lady’s scarf. Whatever it was, the English cricket team has seen it rarely.
The Past Mistakes And Future Hope For English Cricket
Fortunately for English cricket fans, our defeated team no longer meets each loss with a display of gallant indifference. The team examines its failings closely, pinpoints exactly where those failings occurred, and then regroups before losing again.
This process may not seem fortunate, but English fans remain grateful that their team’s approach is more aggressive and purposeful than of old. For many years beforehand, the team lived by the maxim that cricket popularized for all sports: it is not the winning that matters, it is the taking part.
The English private school system dreamed up this notion, and it did so on the posh, expensive playing field of its most famous school, Eton, where a great number of cricketers honed their skills. It makes one part of the myth of the English gentleman, who is always, amongst many other things, a lover and player of cricket.
The image is bogus, of course, born in the heyday of the British Empire,when the English concocted the excuse that it is acceptable for a country to ransack the globe as long as it does so with impeccable manners. Just as the empire has waned, so the influence of private schools on cricket has dwindled. It has become an English sport, rather than a gentleman’s pastime, but we have many years of catching up to do on our rivals. They were not hamstrung by the feckless style of the English gentleman.
What English cricket needs now is a spell of success. For success, we need results,like winning the Ashes. Probably a few miracles too. And maybe the support of people who have watched the game but found it odd. Bill and Doug, wherever you are, take note.
Jamie Gletherow, born and raised in London, is our intrepid international correspondent responsible for educating us on life across the pond. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
1 Bill Bryson, Down Under (2000)
2 Douglas Adams, Life the Universe and Everything (1982)