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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.