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Cricket: An Unspeakably Traditional Sport

Harvard Team, in Second Postwar Year, Is Heir to Seven Centuries


The Harvard Cricket Team opens its second season in its post-war revival of the sport in Cambridge with a match against M. I. T. this afternoon.

The engagement will last from 2 to 6 p. m. and will be played on the public field beyond the Stadium. Before the match the Crimson will elect its captain for the season.

"The game of cricket, philosophically considered, is a standing panegyric on the English character; none but an orderly and sensible race of people would so amuse themselves." So wrote the good Reverend James Pycroft in 1851; but the American reader may be pardoned, a snort of derision at the phrase "orderly and sensible." Compared to a simple two-and-a-half hour baseball game, a typical three-day cricket match, hedged about with centuries of tradition, does seem far from sensible. The Englishman can only insist that the game is really perfectly rational (if you ignore one or two of the finer points of the rules, and the entire system of nomenclature).

The origins of the game certainly belie its claim to rationality. Cricket probably began sometime around the thirteenth century, but no one is sure, give or take a century or two. Tracing the origins of the game is a popular indoor sport in some circles, and there are books which will attempt to overwhelm you with a battery of Old English words and historical anecdotes of dubious authenticity. But all that is really known in that the game is unspeakably old and unspeakably traditional.

The problem now facing you, gentle reader, is to grasp the elementary principles of the game of cricket. Cricket differs from baseball in several fundamental respects. In the first place, the batsman can hit to all sides of him, instead of only forward as in baseball. There is no such thing as a foul ball in cricket; play can take place in all 360 degrees around the batsman. This naturally makes for more fluid play: the batsman uses a far greater variety of strokes than in baseball because he can hit in any direction, and the fielders have to cover more ground. This is the main reason why there are more men to a cricket team, namely eleven.

Probably the most important difference is that the bowler (pitcher) throws the ball up to the better on the bounce. This may seem crude but it actually makes the whole business much more subtle. The batsman has to watch the ball not only in flight but also as it bounces off the ground; the bowler has many more tricks at his disposal--he can bounce the ball near to or far from the batsman, he can make it spin off the ground and so forth.

The next peculiarity of cricket is the wicket, which is composed of three vertical stumps (sticks of wood) and two little bails which are balanced on top of the stumps. The batsman stands in front of the wicket, and protects it--tries to prevent the bowler from bowling the ball past him and knocking down the stumps and bails. If his wicket is knocked down, the batsman is "bowled out," which is roughly equivalent to being struck out.

Two Home Plates

Possibly the most peculiar thing about cricket (to the uninitiated) is the fact that there are two wickets and two batsmen. This is as if there were two home plates, 22 yards apart and facing each other. The method of scoring is simple, but experience has shown that the American public is singularly dense on this subject, so I will write with care. After the batsman has hit the ball, he has the option of running up to the bowler's end while the batsman there runs down to take his place. Each completed exchange scores a run; on a good hit the batsmen often score two or three runs. The key thing is that the batsmen have a choice, and do not have to run if they think they won't make it; thus more subtleties of judgement enter the game. If the batsman hits the ball to the boundary of the field he scores an automatic four runs; if he lofts it over the boundary line on the fly he scores an automatic six runs.

This last point will have suggested a further noticeable difference between cricket and baseball--the sixes of the scores. In inter-country cricket (equivalent to major league baseball) an average score would be, say, 580 to 517. In order to have time to do all this lavish scoring, the teams are obliged to play three-day matches, six hours a day (not counting the tea interval and pauses for the inevitable English rain showers).

Cricket further differs from baseball in that the teams bat straight through their lineups in an innings (always spelled with an "s"). The fielding team stays out on the field, faultlessly attired in white ducks, until it gets all but one of the batting team out. The last man cannot continue batting because there is no one to score runs with--so he retires to the pavilion, head unbowed, and is listed on the scoreboards as "not out." Each side has two full innings, and owing to the difficulty of getting a team out twice in the limited time between showers, English cricket is plagued by drawn matches. Most county teams draw more games than they win or lose.

From the human interest point of view the American public will be interested to hear that, although a cricket ball is just as hard as a baseball, cricket players field barehanded. Only the wicket-keeper (catcher) has a pair of gloves. Those who think that bowling cannot be very fast because it bounces off the ground should note that the batsmen wear pads on their legs and have special half-gloves for their hands. Bowlers can generate terrific speeds with their curious stiff armed bowling (they are not allowed to throw). A fast bowler takes a run of up to twenty paces before delivering each ball--the prospect of a fast bowler bearing down on one is appalling.

It's hard on the bowlers, too, and they need frequent rest periods in the course of an innings. Usually five or six men are needed to share the burden of bowling--a selection of fast and slow bowlers to give variety to the attack. But, since no substitutes are allowed, all but the very best of these bowlers must be able to bat pretty well too, or the team will be all bowlers and no good batsmen. The neat balance between strong bowling and strong batting is another of the rich subtleties in cricket.

Subtle vs. Straightforward

In fact that is probably the most important difference between cricket and baseball: the former is subtle, the latter is straightforward. It is easier for an untutored spectator to appreciate what is going on in a first class baseball game than in a first class cricket game. The situation, however, changes when you get down to small club cricket, one-afternoon matches such as this afternoon's between Harvard and MIT. Action in these games is much faster, men get out more quickly, and a crowd can follow it much better when there are not so many fine points to appreciate. This kind of game is well worth the novice spectator's time.

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