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Strangely enough, cricket fans do not get very excited about a six, or any far-hit ball. In Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack, which runs for more than 1,000 pages, only seven lines are devoted to long hits. One item describes a record hit, delivered by the Rev. W. Fellows while at practice on the Christ Church ground at Oxford in 1856. The ball traveled 525 feet, a tape-measure job. The other occasion Wisden considers worth mentioning concerns the famous bowler A. E. Trott, who one day in 1899 drove a ball atop the pavilion roof at Lord's, where it knocked off a chimney pot and awakened several members. They were probably putting a little rabbit in the ball that year.
In the beginning that is about all one needs to know about cricket, except for the over. There are two batsmen; there are also two bowlers. While one bowler bowls, the other fields, which means he rests, more or less. One bowler delivers six balls from his end, then the ball goes to the other bowler at the other end for six throws. Each series of six is called an over, and if used in baseball it would allow Whitey Ford and Luis Arroyo to go through a game with each of them pitching part of each innings—sorry, inning. Perhaps it is just as well for the Tigers that things remain as they are.
The best cricket is played by the international all-star teams—the test sides—and by the county teams from whose ranks the test players are named. But a test match is not necessarily the best place to go to learn cricket. The best place is the country, where cricket began.
The choice is unlimited, but maybe you have decided to drive out from Manchester on a Saturday afternoon, down the wrong side of the road, barely two Morris Minors wide, past the fences with their climbing roses, to the little town of Styal. You pass a few shops and a petrol station and an old man walking his dog who directs you with his pipe to the cricket ground. As a matter of fact, he is on the way there himself.
The cricket ground is surrounded by everyday, familiar things: a road and a fence, a hedge, a meadow dotted with trees, and a church and a tavern side by side. It is amazing how many taverns adjoin cricket grounds in England. An ancient iron gate droops invitingly open and you walk through, pleasantly aware that no ticket taker is standing there holding out his hand. Suddenly you are in another world.
It is peaceful and quiet and very, very lovely. A bird chirps in a tree. A dog sniffs. A child toddles onto the field and is retrieved by his parents. A cyclist stops by to watch for a moment. The sun dances off the green grass, and the white-clad figures move as if in a dream. The match is already under way, but since nothing spectacular has happened—and perhaps never will—this is not important. Spectators come and go; only the unemployed ever watch a cricket match in England from beginning to end.
At one corner of the field there is a neat little clubhouse, where the players sit awaiting their turn at bat, and nearby is a scoreboard that tells how many runs have been made and how many wickets taken. The scoreboard does not tell which team is at bat, however, so you ask the nearest Styal fielder who the opposition is that day.
He leaves his position, as if it didn't matter anyway, and comes politely over. "I'm not really sure," he says. "Whitchurch, I believe. I'll find out if you like." You shake your head. If he doesn't care, why should you? You are beginning to learn something about cricket.
As the afternoon progresses, you learn more. Village cricket may consist of only one innings apiece; or perhaps there will be 20 overs bowled by each side, and the team that scores the most runs wins.As a result there is little or no strategic stalling and shuffling and waiting around. The village batsman is up there to get his licks and have fun and if he makes out in one minute or five, who cares? Because of this, the bowlers are always ahead of the batsmen in the country, and the game progresses quickly. For cricket.
Your informant is only 18 or 19, like half the players on the team—the other half seem to be 45 (perhaps the 30-year-olds are all away playing against Yorkshire)—and you watch him for a while. He makes one fine running stop; he drops a pop fly; eventually the captain calls him in to bowl and he takes two quick wickets to retire the side. "Well bowled," you murmur.