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As American as…Cricket

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cricket and baseball are twin brothers, separated at birth.

I cannot remember the first time I heard an American say “cricket is so boring: it lasts for days and still ends in a draw.” Let’s just say it was not this decade or the one before that. I am not going to try and explain cricket—the rules are too complex for a short article. Or to persuade you that cricket is a great gamehundreds of millions of Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Sri Lankans, Australians, New Zealanders, Bangladeshis, West Indians, Kenyans, Dutch, Welsh, Scots, and English, like me, know it is.

It is fair to say if you do not like baseball, then you will not like cricket. But if you do, read on a little longer.

There are many similarities between baseball and cricket. They are duels of batter (batsman) and pitcher (bowler). They showcase highly individualized, skillful players striving for a collective goal. They are slow, staccato games with plenty of pauses for the audience (and indeed players) to consider what could happen next. Both can move from the seemingly pedestrian to vibrant excitement in less than a second.

A cricket bowler is allowed to target the batsman’s body and head—intimidation both physical and psychological is a big part of the game.

They are sports with tremendous history and fabulous rivalries. While there is no love lost between Red Sox Nation and Yankees fans, India and Pakistan almost went to war over cricket (and who knows, they still might). Both sports boast legendary players who elevated the game to new heights. Born at roughly the same time as Babe Ruth, Australian great Don Bradman dominated cricket for nearly 20 years. When Bradman told Ruth that a batter did not have to run on contact in cricket the Babe barked “Just too easy!” Yet Babe Ruth eventually became fascinated by cricket.

Good sports can be enjoyed at many levels. The casual observer enjoys soaking up the atmosphere and beer; the serious fans obsess over the minutiae. Both sports are adored and enriched by lovers and users of data. When Bradman, by then Sir Donald, died in February 2001, the New York Times estimated that were he to have been as far ahead of the crowd in baseball stats as he was at cricket, his lifetime batting average would be an astonishing .392 (in cricket his average was 99.94, the next best is roughly 61).

The differences between the two games are in some respects more interesting. Baseball’s emphasis is on power. There is nothing more explosive in sport than the successful uncoiling of a great baseball swing. To get the ball even most of the way to the fence requires significant strength (to say nothing of timing). In cricket, consistent contact by the batsman (as he is known) and the use of skillful deflections in the 360 degree scoring area mean slighter characters can dominate as compared with baseball. Indeed, arguably the greatest batsman currently playing is a 5 feet 5 inches tall native of Bombay. Sachin Tendulkar has God-like status in India. He is even mentioned during the gameshow scenes in the Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” Tendulkar would make a reasonably good baseball player. I would imagine him batting first in the lineup and playing in the infield. But he probably would not have the best stats on his own team, let alone the world. Someone like Ryan Howard of the Phillies might be able to play for a decent cricket team, but his immobility would make him a liability.

They are sports with tremendous history and fabulous rivalries (whilst the Red Sox may hate the Yankees, India and Pakistan almost went to war over cricket).

The most important difference between the two sports has to do with pressure. Professional sport is often about being able to relax and perform at the moment expectation is greatest. In cricket, because the batsman does not have to run on contact, he can bat for hours if successful; yet he is just one miss away from ending his day’s work. The pressure is disproportionately on his shoulders. In baseball, the odds are that on every pitch the batter will miss. The pressure with each pitch, then, is disproportionately on the pitcher, where a walk is a worry, a run a disappointment, a grand slam a meltdown and often the end of his day’s work.

Cricket never really took off in the United States and there are numerous—and often competing—explanations. One contributing factor was the relative mobility of Americans throughout colonial times and the early days of the republic, which made maintaining cricket grounds uneconomic. Cricket requires a very flat surface (the pitch) and the bowlers (pitchers) generally bounce the ball off the pitch. If the surface is uneven it can make batting so problematic as to make the game impossible to play. An international match earlier this year involving England in Antigua, which was supposed to last five days, was abandoned after nine balls (pitches) because the condition of the ground was too poor.

Henry Chadwick, the Englishman who helped to organize and define baseball in its early days, instead cited the restlessness of the American character. In 1850 he said, “Americans do not care to dawdle—what they do, they want to do in a hurry. In baseball, all is lightning. Thus the reason for American antipathy to cricket can be readily understood.”1

Perhaps the relative coarseness of the young American republic played a role. “Cricket? It civilizes people and makes them gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket,” said Robert Mugabe, the despotic leader of Zimbabwe. I rarely see eye to eye with Mad Bob, but he has a point. There is no doubt that cricket is a game of good manners.

The most important difference between the two sports is who is generally under pressure. Professional sport is often about being able to relax and perform at the moment expectation is greatest.

For example, golf is the only other game I can think of where etiquette dictates calling a foul on oneself. “Walking”—calling oneself out in cricketused to be commonplace at all levels of the game, and it still is on prep school playing fields. Even today some cricketers walk at the highest international levels, occasionally causing the loss of a contest as a result. Adam Gilchrist, the great Australian wicket keeper (catcher), deserves special mention in this regard. At the professional level, shows of dissentand they can be as minor as shaking one’s head at the umpire’s decisioncan cause the loss of some or all of your match fee.

But while cricket should be gentlemanly it is rarely genteel. I have herniated discs playing tennis, broken bones playing rugby, thrown up through exhaustion from rowing, but cricket is the only sport I have played where I have been carried from the field unconscious. A cricket bowler is allowed to target the batsman’s body and head—intimidation both physical and psychological is a big part of the game. It is a war of attrition; concentration and pressure are everything.  

I have learned to love baseball since moving to America in 2001, and would have loved to have played as a child. I have Kevin Hassett to thank for alerting me to the maze of baseball statistics. I think American lovers of baseball would learn to love cricket, too. John Paul Getty was famously tutored by Mick Jagger and I intend to turn at least one American on to the sport. After all, it is not all cucumber sandwiches and tea, but a gritty, hard-fought duel, the best in sport.

Roger Bate is Legatum Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He played cricket for his English county until the age of 16 when he switched sports to (attempt to) become a tennis professional.

FURTHER READING: Bate regularly writes for The American on international health policy.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

1. This is quoted from Playing Hardball by E.T. Smith. Smith’s book provides great insight into a comparison of the two games, and I have drawn liberally from it in this article.

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