India’s Shikhar Dhawan. Photo credit: Hannah Peters/Getty

If you aren’t familiar with cricket, it can be a difficult game to follow. There are a number of elements similar to baseball, paired with others that are utterly unique and sometimes baffling. It can be difficult to understand what strategies the players are pursuing, and even fundamental questions like “who is winning?” don’t always have simple answers. But once you know the basics, cricket is great.

How The Game Is Played

Just like baseball, there is a batting team and a fielding team. One member of the fielding team hurls the ball at the batsman, who wields a wooden bat and attempts to hit the ball around the field, scoring runs either by running or hitting the ball into the crowd. The fielding team tries to achieve two complementary aims: to get the batsmen out, and to limit the number of runs scored by the batsmen.

The Rules of the Game

Each team comprises 11 players. All 11 of the fielding team’s players take the field, along with two from the batting team, and two umpires. The game takes place on a grass oval, roughly 150 meters long and 130 meters across (although it varies from ground to ground). In the middle of the oval is the ‘pitch’, a 22-yard-long strip of rock-hard earth covered by very short grass. At each end of the pitch stand three wooden stakes (‘stumps’ or ‘wickets’), with two wooden pieces (‘bails’) resting on top, giving the look of a small wooden castle.

Photo credit: Ryan Pierse/Getty

Two batsman take up positions on the pitch, at either end. One begins as the ‘striker’—similar to the hitter in baseball—and one begins as the ‘non-striker’—similar to a baserunner. The fielding team have roles roughly analogous to the fielding set-up of a baseball team: one ‘bowler’ delivers the ball to the batsman (as does the pitcher in baseball), one ‘wicket-keeper’ stands behind the batsman to receive the ball if it is not struck by the batsman (as does the catcher in baseball), and the remaining nine members of the fielding team arrange themselves around the field.

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As in baseball, the bowler delivers the ball to the batsman, but, crucially, the bowler must deliver the ball with a straight arm. So, throwing is not allowed; the bowler must deliver the ball in a windmill action. The ball bounces on the pitch once before reaching the batsman. (It may bounce twice or not at all, but neither is desirable, and the ball is not allowed to arrive above the batsman’s waist without bouncing). There are no restrictions on the permitted batting style, but the traditional stance is similar to a baseball stance, but with the bat held at hip-level with the end pointing back towards the wicket-keeper.

A cricket ball—cork covered by leather—is rock-hard, and will leave a fair bruise. The batsmen wear pads on both legs, one thighpad, a cup (or a ‘box’, as it is called in cricketing parlance), gloves, and a helmet. In a marvelous illustration of the importance of priorities, boxes were worn to protect male cricketers’ crown jewels right from the dawn of the game in the 16th century, while helmets weren’t worn to protect their skulls until the 1970s.

Play Ball

The bowler runs up to one end of the pitch, and bowls the ball to the on-strike batsman, who is standing at the other end of the pitch, guarding his or her stumps. The batsman attempts to hit the ball to a vacant area anywhere in the 360 degrees of the field, in order to score runs.

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If the Batsman A hits the ball to a suitably remote and vacant part of the field, the two batsmen may—but are not obliged to—run from their end of the pitch to the other, passing by each other as they go. If both successfully make it from one end to the other without the fielding team striking their stumps with the ball, one run is added to the batting team’s score, and also to the individual score of Batsman A (but not to the individual score of Batsman B). Now, Batsman B is on strike, and the next ball will be bowled to him or her, while Batsman A stands at the non-striker’s end.

So, Batsmen A and B are equals in that they can both contribute to their team’s score equally, just as any of the five players on a basketball court can score on any given possession. But only the on-strike batsman is able to score off of any given delivery, in roughly the same way that only one basketball player may shoot the ball at any one time.

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The rule that one run is earned for running once extends to infinity. If Batsmen A and B manage to run all the way up and all the way back, their team scores two runs. If they run three times, their team earns three runs. And if they can run eleventy-hundred times, their team would earn eleventy-hundred runs. In practice, there is a limit to how many times the batsmen can physically run 22 yards before the fielding team retrieves the ball from the finite expanse of the field, so it is uncommon to see batsmen run even four times. (Cricketing lore is filled with likely apocryphal tales from years past of batsmen running dozens and even hundreds of runs as fielders struggled to find a ball lost in long grass, or fetching an axe to chop down a tree in which a ball lodged.)

The batsman can also score by hitting the ball all the way to the boundary at the perimeter of the field. If the ball is hit to the boundary, touching the ground at least once, the batting team scores four runs. If the ball is hit all the way over the boundary (like a home run in baseball), that’s six runs. These are simply known as ‘fours’ and sixes’. The batsmen do not need to run in order to earn these scores, unlike in baseball, where a player must round the bases after socking a dinger.

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On the other hand, a delivery may produce no action. The batsmen may choose not to swing at the ball and let it sail harmlessly to the wicket-keeper, or may choose to strike the ball with his or her bat but then not run, unlike in baseball where running on a live ball is compulsory. There are no balls and strikes; as long as a player is not given out, there is no penalty for, say, swinging and missing at a delivery. There is also no strike zone, nor any ‘live-ball’ part of the field—the whole of the field is fair-play territory, and the batsmen can hit the ball anywhere they please in order to score runs.

As in baseball, the play is not continuous: once a ball has been bowled and play has come to a stop, the ball is deemed ‘dead’, and play only resumes when the bowler delivers the next ball.

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The batting team commences their innings (yes, it’s innings, not inning) with Batsman A and Batsman B on the field. They will bat together in partnership, together accumulating runs for the team, until one (say, Batsman B) is given out. At that point, Batsman B is done batting for the day, and will trudge glumly back to the dressing room, to be replaced on the field by Batsman C. Batsmen A and C will bat together for a period, until one is given out, to be replaced by Batsman D, and the process repeats all the way down the line. The innings ends when one of the last two batsman standing is given out, meaning that the bowling team has taken ten wickets (made ten outs, in baseball terms). The lone batsman will remain ‘not out’, but the innings will have finished, for he or she has no more partners to bat with.

Bowlers bowl six deliveries at a time—this constitutes one ‘over’. A bowler cannot bowl two overs consecutively, so after Bowler A bowls the ball six times, he or she retrieves his/her hat and sunglasses from the umpire (who chivalrously holds them during the over), and takes up a position in the field. Bowler B, who was in the field during the last over, will bowl the next six balls, but will deliver the ball from the opposite end of the pitch than Bowler A.

Typically, Bowlers A and B will bowl in tandem for a period, alternating overs. Between overs, the fielding team must reassemble so as to face the opposite end of the pitch, and so the broadcast usually cuts to a quick commercial break, while the batsmen huddle in the middle of the pitch for a short conversation about the state of the game, their tactics, and what to have for dinner. Once the fielding team is in position (usually after 30-45 seconds), play resumes.

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As in baseball, the fielding team may dismiss the batsmen in a variety of methods: in cricket, there are exactly 10, only five of which are common. The umpire signals that a batsman is out by holding his right index finger up in the air. Whereas in baseball outs are common and by definition happen at least 51 times in one three-ish-hour game, in cricket they are much rarer. Every out (or ‘wicket’) is extremely valuable—once you’re out, there’s no coming back later in the day—and they may occur hours apart. Double plays are not allowed; the ball is dead when a wicket is taken.

The five common modes of dismissal are as follows.

1. Bowled

To be bowled out is when the bowler successfully bowls the ball past the batsman’s defenses such that it crashes into the stumps and knocks at least one of the bails off. This is by far the most gratifying mode of dismissal for a bowler, and the most crushing for a batsman. A satisfying and humiliating wooden clunk sound adds to the theatre.

2. Caught

To be caught out is self-explanatory. If the ball is caught by a fielder after striking the batsman’s bat and/or glove, and before the ball hits the ground, the batsman is out. If, however, the ball only strikes another part of the batsman’s body or armory (e.g. legs or helmet, and without hitting the bat or glove), the batsman cannot be out caught.

Note that a fielder attempting a catch near the boundary must stay in bounds, and if the fielder touches the ground on or beyond the boundary while in contact with the ball, the ball is deemed to have reached the boundary. That is to say, a player cannot toe-drag over the boundary like in the NFL, or catch the ball and fall into the crowd as in baseball. Out-of-bounds rules similar to basketball apply, and the player must be in-bounds while in contact with the ball.

3. Run Out

To be run out is similar to being thrown out in baseball. If the batsmen attempt to run, and the fielding team is able to throw the ball into one of the sets of stumps before the batsman can make it to the white line (the ‘crease’) at that end of the pitch, that batsman is out. The fielding team can either strike the stumps with the ball via a direct hit, or a player can catch the ball and then knock off the bails with the hand(s) that is/are holding the ball. Or, they can just do this:

Given that running on any given ball is optional, run-outs generally happen either because one player thought he or she was fast enough to make it to the other end but was beaten by a fantastic display of fielding, or due to miscommunication between the two batsmen. This is one of the most famous mix-ups in cricket history:

4. Stumped

The stumping is essentially a sub-set of the run out, where the wicket-keeper breaks the stumps of the on-strike batsman after the batsman has inadvertently moved out of his or her crease while swinging at and missing at the ball. The same rule applies that the stumps must be broken while the batsman is out of the crease, so if a batsman swings and misses but remains established behind the white line, they cannot be out stumped. Here’s a nice example:

5. Leg Before Wicket

The cricketing rule of leg before wicket, or LBW, surely ranks as one of the more complex rules in all of sport. Imagine the difficulty of explaining soccer’s offside rule, crossed with the byzantine legal definition of a catch in the NFL. The essence is this: if the ball strikes the batsman on the leg (or any other part of the body) without first hitting his or her bat or glove, and the ball would have otherwise gone on to hit the wickets, the batsman is out.

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The name is a literal description of the mode of dismissal: the ball hit the batsman’s leg before it would have gone on to hit the wickets; leg before wicket. Today, umpires have access to technology which not only tracks how the ball did travel through the air (like in tennis), but predicts where the ball would have travelled had it not come into contact with the batsman. This technology is used in many of the higher forms of the game—although India is notably skeptic and refuses to consent to the use of the technology in its matches—and teams are given a prescribed number of reviews per game.

Scoring

Throughout a batting team’s innings, they will accumulate runs, and the fielding team will accumulate wickets (outs). If at a certain point the batting team has scored 72 runs and has lost three wickets, their score will be ‘3/72’, or “three for seventy-two”. If that team scores two runs off of the next ball, their score ticks along to 3/74—because they have still only lost three wickets, but have now scored 74 runs. A player who has faced 40 deliveries and has scored 30 runs will have a score written as “30* (40),” with the asterisk indicating that he or she has not yet been dismissed.

If 18 overs have been completed, and the bowler has bowled three balls in the 19th, the number of overs bowled will be represented by: “Overs: 18.3.”(Because there are six balls in an over, the progression goes 18.3, 18.4, 18.5, 19.0—i.e, each number after the decimal represents one ball bowled, not one-tenth of one over.)

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There are two common infractions committed by the fielding team: a no-ball (most commonly, when the bowler delivers the ball with his or her front foot in front of the white line at the end of the pitch, similar to a foot fault in tennis); or a wide (when the ball is bowled behind the batsman or out of his/her reach). A no-ball or a wide awards one run to the batting team, must be re-bowled—it does not count toward the six balls in that over—and means that a batsmen cannot be dismissed by that delivery, except by runout or stumping. So, if a player has his or her castle shattered by a delivery that is called as a ‘front-foot no-ball’, the batsman escapes dismissal and remains in the game, sort of like the free play an NFL offense gets if someone on the defense is offsides.

Different Forms of Cricket

There are three forms of cricket: Test cricket, one-day cricket, and Twenty20 cricket.

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The oldest and most prestigious is Test cricket. Test matches last for a maximum of five days, playing from about 11:00am until 6:00pm, bowling 90 overs in a day, with two breaks for lunch and tea. (Quite obviously, cricket was invented in England.)

In this form of the game, players wear white clothing and use a red ball. Each team bats all the way through its lineup twice (for a total of four innings), and the team with the most runs in its two innings combined wins. An innings typically lasts between one and two full days, and a team will usually score a couple of hundred runs in each innings. If the four innings have not been completed at the end of five days, the match is declared a draw. If one team feels that it has scored enough runs in its current innings, it can ‘declare’ its innings closed before each batsman has been dismissed, so as to provide a cushion to the five-day time limit.

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Incidentally, Test matches originally had no time limit, and could last for days and days: the five-day maximum was imposed only after an infamous Test match between England and South Africa in 1939, which had to be abandoned after nine days of play, because the England team would have otherwise missed their boat back to London.

There is no Test cricket World Cup, as it would be logistically unworkable to stage any sort of meaningful multi-team tournament when each match can last up to five days. Instead, nations take turns playing each other in series scheduled by the International Cricket Council. Traditional rivals of similar strength will usually play a four- or five-Test series (meaning 20 or 25 days of cricket) every two years, alternating home and away. The status of ‘best in the world’ is therefore determined by the ICC’s Team Rankings, and is currently held by India.

Test match cricket has entertained millions of people for more than 100 years, but many people found it too drawn-out and boring. Even among die-hards, nobody could or would be expected to watch five full days of cricket in a row. (It’s far more suited to following along while having it on in the background rather than staying glued to the screen). So, an idea was born in the 1970s: one-day cricket, or ‘50-over’ cricket.

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In one-day cricket, each team bats once, for 50 overs each, lasting roughly from 1 p.m. until 10 p.m. If a team loses all 10 of its wickets before the 50 overs is up, that’s the end of the innings, but there’s no reward or bonus for having wickets in hand at the end of its 50 overs.

Team A bats first and sets a score, which Team B must ‘chase’ down in order to win. This can make for nail-biting finishes as the ‘number of deliveries remaining’ versus ‘runs required for victory’ numbers winnow down toward zero.

The advent of one-day cricket was a cricketing revolution: players wore colored uniforms, the games were sometimes played under lights, the red ball was switched for white, the scoring rate skyrocketed, and massive television deals meant that players finally got paid—before that, they earned pennies and worked winter jobs to pay the rent. But as fantastic as one-day cricket has been and continues to be, it still lasts all day, and therefore isn’t an ideal consumer product.

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In the mid-2000s, Twenty20 cricket was born, a form of the game lasting for 20 overs per team, and which is done and dusted within three hours. If cricket needed saving, Twenty20 cricket has saved it. T20 cricket looked at the changes that one-day cricket made from Test cricket and extended them to their logical conclusion: a shorter format, a flashier in-game experience with music between deliveries and fireworks celebrating big plays, and separate competitions with franchises free to combine players from different countries on the same team.

In the shorter format with a limited number of overs, batsmen aim to score more quickly and take greater risks, which produces more big hits and spectacular catches. Its fast-paced, high-scoring nature has introduced it to a whole new generation of fans who previously found the game interminable and boring, and will ensure that cricket’s popularity will remain strong for decades to come.

Tactics And Strategy, Briefly

Since the teams cannot score runs simultaneously, and each team scores hundreds of runs in each innings, it can sometimes be quite difficult to even know who is winning. Oftentimes, there is no clear answer, with the score bearing little relation to the game state. In the 20- and 50-over versions of the game, at least, Team B’s score can be compared to what Team A had scored after the same number of overs, like measuring a split in a cycling time trial. In Test cricket, assessing which team is in a stronger or weaker position will depend on their scores, the condition of the pitch, and the time remaining.

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Teams will attack and defend at different stages in a cricket match, and in a 20-over or 50-over match tactics are adjusted almost continuously.

A fielding team looking to take wickets will set an ‘attacking field’, with more players in catching positions—often behind the wicket, or right up close to the batsman—than in defensive positions, which necessarily leaves gaps in the field for the batsmen to score. If the fielding team is more interested in conserving runs, it may set its fielders in an even spread around the field, which limits gaps but does not put much pressure on the batsmen’s wicket. In both circumstances, the bowler will adjust his or her delivery accordingly.

It’s worth mentioning that cricketers have invented names for all of the possible fielding positions in the 360 degrees of a cricket oval. Rather than ‘right field’ and ‘shortstop’, cricket opted for much more logical names, such as ‘fine leg’, ‘deep cover’, ‘silly point’, and ‘cow corner’. Choose your favorite!

Image credit: By Py0alb (in powerpoint), used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

A batsman who has just seen several partners get out in quick succession may play defensively so as to conserve his or her wicket, and may concentrate simply on ‘blocking’ the ball for a period rather than taking risks in attempting to score runs. (In the shorter forms of the game, this may not be a viable option.) If the batting team needs to score runs quickly, the batsmen will swing harder and may use creative footwork and angling to work the ball into the gaps in the field, and may attempt more high-risk running.

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The scope for variation in where the ball is bowled and where it is hit is far greater in cricket than in baseball: the ball can be delivered so as to arrive at the batsman’s feet, knees, chest, or head; straight at his or her body, or in front or behind; and swinging left or right. In general, the height at which the ball will arrive determines whether the batsman plays (hits) a front- or back-foot shot, while the line of the ball determines in which direction the ball will be played. Naturally, all players have strengths and weaknesses, and batting and bowling plans are tailored accordingly. Here’s an example of a batting plan which did not go so well:

Generally speaking, there are two types of bowlers: pace bowlers (or ‘fast bowlers’) and spin bowlers. Fast bowlers use a run-up to gain speed and rhythm before launching into their delivery stride. Some aim for out-and-out pace, while others aim for medium pace and focus more on accuracy and making the ball do things through the air. Medium-pacers will bowl at around 130 km/h (80 mph), and fast bowlers up to 150 km/h (90 mph) or more. The batsman thus has to react quickly in order to strike the ball to where he or she wants, but can use the pace of the ball to hit the ball further.

Spin bowlers stride up to the pitch, and bowl at a very slow pace (about 90 km/h, or 55 mph), flicking their wrist as they release the ball so as to create a drift through the air and a savage sideways spin off of the pitch. The batsman thus has plenty of time to watch the ball as it flies through the air towards them, but must deal with the reaction of the ball off of the pitch and must create their own pace when striking the ball. ‘Leg-spinners’ spin the ball from right to left; while ‘off-spinners’ spin it from left to right.

The Global Context

Cricket is played across the globe, but is not exactly a global game. Only ten nations are allowed to play Test cricket—mostly former British Empire nations—and only a further half-dozen or so send teams to the one-day and T20 World Cups. In alphabetical order, the Test-playing nations are Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the West Indies (comprised of fifteen Caribbean countries), and Zimbabwe. Countries such as Afghanistan, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, Scotland, and the United Arab Emirates have all submitted teams to the short-form World Cups in years past.

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Until the advent of one-day cricket, players only competed in Test cricket for their country, plus the four-day equivalent for their state or county. The advent of one-day cricket provided greater opportunities, though players were still pretty much limited to representing their nation or region. Twenty20 cricket—and in particular the Indian Premier League, which was created in 2008—moved the sport much closer to how other popular sports are run.

The IPL, which was initially a rogue competition opportunistically held during a small gap in the cricketing calendar, attracted huge sponsorship and investment, and for the first time put players from opposing nations on the same team. The tournament exploded in popularity, producing wonderful cricket, a great spectacle, and incredible ratings, even for cricket-mad India. The IPL and Australia’s Big Bash League stand as the highest-quality tournaments in world cricket, with opportunities for the best players in the world to get rightfully paid, and a chance for up-and-coming players who could not squeeze into their country’s best 11 to showcase their talents on the world stage.

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The cricketing powers-that-be have recognised the popularity of these leagues and accommodated them on the cricketing calendar. The world’s best players will now play for their country in one or more of Test, one-day cricket, and Twenty20 during the year, plus playing in one or more of the big-money T20 competitions, which run for about two months each.

These three forms of cricket compliment each other. Twenty20 attracts the most eyeballs, investment, and new fans to the game; the One-Day International World Cup remains cricket’s most prestigious single tournament; and Test cricket is still the purest example of the sport, and the best method of determining which cricket nation is superior.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through the basics of cricket. You’re now only a step away from getting into a bar argument about whether or not Virat Kohli is ELITE. And isn’t that what sports are all about?


Ben is a Deadspin reader who likes cricket.