SI Vault
Making A Pitch for Cricket
John Fowles
May 21, 1973
In an essay on two cultures, a noted English novelist assesses some rugged similarities in our ball games, including the notion that a bumper at the Adam's apple rivals our stick-it-in-his-ear
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May 21, 1973

Making A Pitch For Cricket

In an essay on two cultures, a noted English novelist assesses some rugged similarities in our ball games, including the notion that a bumper at the Adam's apple rivals our stick-it-in-his-ear

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The second characteristic we owe to the fact that it was the hill shepherds' version of the game that eventually conquered the woodland kind. A feature of many English villages was a central and well-grazed common pasture, the "village green," whose short turf could passably reproduce the downland conditions. One may guess that the shepherd boys had already learned that on short grass the bounced pitch pays handsome dividends, which in turn argues that the pitchers in their game were not content merely to "feed" the batters. But this made nonsense of the old rule of three chances only at hitting, which baseball still retains. In cricket that sank without trace, and ever since our batters have stayed in for as long as they can avoid being put out actively—having their stumps hit by a pitch, being caught on the fly, tagged off base, and so on. Mere failure to connect is no crime.

Exactly when these developments took place we do not know, but cricket seems to have risen from an obscure peasant and children's pastime to general sport in the late 17th century. It was helped on by Cromwell's Commonwealth, when many royalist sympathizers had to lead an idle country life. The first publicly recorded match took place in 1697, the first written laws date from 1744, the first mention of the game in America comes in 1751 (at New York). We know that by that time the bounced pitch was becoming universal and the hostile role permitted the pitcher—not adopted by baseball until the late 19th century—was also general.

Seventeenth century American settlers, on the other hand, cannot have had much time—in the case of the Puritans, no time at all—for frivolous games. Furthermore, they lacked the indispensable fields of short turf; if they pitched at all, one imagines it must have been high over the hay.

It seems logical to infer from all this that since the kind of conditions that dictated the haphazard, makeshift nature of the early medieval sport also applied in colonial America, baseball is the more genuinely "antique" version of the ancestral game. It is cricket, especially in the period 1740-1840, that metaphorically emigrated and became the newfangled of the two sports. If we forget this today it is because the game's basic principles were laid down in that period and it remains at heart an 18th century gentleman's invention, with a characteristic (compare the "rules" of formal dueling) avoidance of direct body-to-body contact.[2] Baseball was of course codified later, and so in that sense seems more modern. Cricket is allied to the fencing rapier, to country squires, to amateurism; baseball to the pugilist's bare-knuckle fist, to a noncaste society, to professionalism.

That emphatically does not mean that cricket was soft and snobbish in its early heyday. It received noble patronage mainly because it proved a heaven-sent opportunity for gambling (the enormous stakes often wagered explain why the rules were formulated so clearly) and drinking;[3] it also required 22 men for a match, and there were seldom enough gentlemen to make up two teams—so they hired their own professionals and let their servants and villagers play with them on equal terms. Indeed, all the rumbustious ills (drunkenness, rioting, umpire baiting, pro snatching, match fixing) that were to beset baseball in the late 19th century are uncannily well foreshadowed in Georgian cricket. In 1796 the headmaster of Eton College flogged the entire cricket team after it had lost a match—not because the players had lost but because they had dared even to take part in so dissolute an activity. The game did not really lose its aura of the disreputable until the 1830s. The myth of the '"clean and manly national sport" was very much a Victorian invention.

The advent of the bounced pitch and the consequent need for one strip of really good "true" turf explains another peculiarity of cricket: the two-base system. Instead of a diamond, things were reduced to the batting and pitching boxes with the best turf between them. Runs are made only between these two boxes. To distribute wear and tear on the turf, home plate and mound are reversed after every six pitches from any one direction, so the catcher (in cricket the "wicket-keeper"—and the only fielder allowed gloves, by the way) and the nine other fielders have to change position or ends. This constant switch round explains why there are three stumps at either end of the batting "track." The bowlers themselves can also change ends, but not in any two consecutive six-pitch spells. In general a cricket pitcher works from one end until he is tired or shown to be ineffective, and another pitcher takes his place. He won't come from the bullpen though, since substitutes and reliefs are forbidden in cricket except in cases of genuine injury—and even then they can't bat or pitch, only field.

The two sets of base marker "stumps" (mound to home plate, in effect) are 66 feet apart, against baseball's 60 feet six inches. This antediluvian common measure is much closer than it looks, since the cricket batter stands in front of his plate and the pitcher '"bowls" from in front of his. The actual flight distance of the ball from hand to bat therefore remains very similar to baseball, as does the speed of the fastest pitches in both games—around the 100-mph mark. Even the two balls are nearly identical in size and weight, a baseball being fractionally larger but lighter than its hard, leather-covered cricket equivalent.

Cricket runs are scored up and down this two-base line. There are always two batters on the field. The in-play man faces the pitcher, beside whom stands the out-of-play batter. If the in-play batter makes a scoring hit, he runs to the mound end, while his out-of-play colleague runs down to the in-play hitter's position—and becomes the hitter for the next pitch, if only one run was possible. When the pitching switches ends, whichever batter happens to be at the new home-plate end is in play.

Another important difference in cricket batting is that there is a 360° fair-ball zone—no foul lines. A hit is good to any part of the ground. The two batters can score as many runs (one for each switch of bases) as they like. In practice more than three actually run runs are rare. This is because a hit that crosses the ground limit is given an automatic score without running—four runs if it goes over on the bounce, six if it carries on the fly. During a five-day international match a thousand runs or more will often be scored by the end of the game (in which each team normally has two innings, though the batting team can "declare" an inning closed short of completion if it thinks it has amassed the runs it needs).

The differences from baseball grow and grow as we come into the 20th century, but the extraordinarily close kinship in certain fundamentals endures. In their deepest imagery both sports are about protecting property against attack (in cricket slang the home-plate slumps are even known as the "castle") and the corollary need to go out and raid to survive. In both games there is a delicious ambivalence of assault and defense, of slipping through siege lines, of setting traps and ambushes, making false sacrifices; in both games the same marked stress on physical courage and agility, on impudence, stealing, conning, bluffing, risking. In both games a recurrent and deliberately manufactured personal crisis: a confrontation of pitcher and batter with everyone else temporarily in the wings, just nurses and assistants around the surgeon and his patient—though that is a very bad analogy, since the surgeon means to kill here. The bullring, matador and beast, is a better parallel.

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