Though I like the various forms of football in the world, I don't think they begin to compare with these two great Anglo-Saxon ball games for sophisticated elegance and symbolism. Baseball and cricket are beautiful and highly stylized medieval war substitutes, chess made flesh, a mixture of proud chivalry and base—in both senses—greed. With football we are back to the monotonous clashed armor of the brontosaurs.
Baseball is a highly extrovert game, very easy to like fast—accessible, in a word, just as Americans themselves are outgoing in comparison with the English—and cricket, please note, is quintessentially English, not British. There is only one Welsh major league team and none at all from Scotland or Ireland. Cricket never appealed to the Celtic temperament, perhaps because it is so inturned and self-absorbed, so indifferent to pleasing the public. It is almost as if the English decided to invent a national secret instead of a mere game. As with our political constitution, the unwritten rules count almost as much as the written ones. Throwing a small, hard missile at or near another man is too dangerous an activity if there is not, besides printed laws, an unspoken convention as to when honest hard play becomes dishonest intent to murder. This mysterious ethos of fair playing conduct, what's cricket and what isn't cricket, has crept deep into the English soul. It can't be defined in general; you can only say it was or it wasn't present in a specific situation. An area where it is very often lacking these days is in really fast pitching, but I will come to that later.
Another strange element in cricket is what a modern art critic might call its aleatory side. Aleatory art is where at least part of the creation is left to pure chance. No two cricket grounds in the world, for instance, are quite alike. There is no fixed dimension to the outer boundaries of the field. Even at major league level many grounds have easy sides to hit to, and hard ones. Some have slopes. Some are fast, others slow, depending on the type of grass grown, how close the groundsman cuts it, on weather conditions. The wildest dice of all are rolled by the weather. The nature of the bounced delivery means the state of the turf is all-important. As a rough rule lack of rain means hard turf, which suits the batter. If rain has softened the turf, it helps the pitcher. In a game lasting several days, the turf may suddenly grow fierce from docile, or vice versa. Since its quality in general deteriorates through a long match, in cricket the first side at bat is not a matter of who is visiting but is decided by the toss of a coin. Sometimes winning the toss virtually decides the game before it is started—yet one more element of hazard.
But nothing in cricket must seem stranger to Americans than the almost total absence of the coaching and management apparatus of baseball. Even the international teams travel with only a tour manager (to handle arrangements and publicity) and a masseur and scorer. The kingpin is very much the captain on the field. He makes all the tactical decisions through a game. He will also be on the team selection committee, and his voice will carry the most weight. The players effectively coach themselves. They may ask an old pro for some friendly advice, but that is all. Nor are our teams in any sense owned; they are picked and paid by elected amateur committees. This laissez-faire atmosphere extends right down to the individual player. A fielding captain will use his available pitchers as he pleases, but once he is at work the pitcher will pitch in general according to his own hunches and experience. He may occasionally confer with his captain and the catcher, but he is expected to formulate his own strategy. The same goes for the batters.
This comparative freedom from management and commercial pressures brings one great benefit to cricket: a surprising democracy of status among all players of the game. There are, broadly speaking, four main layers of skill. At the bottom—but only in skill, not in importance—is village cricket, with games lasting just one afternoon, four hours or so. Above that is amateur club cricket, with members drawn from a town or district or sometimes from all over the country. Their matches last a day, six hours of play. Above that is professional county cricket, equivalent to major league baseball, where three-day matches are played. On top of the pile are the "test," or international, matches that run (and sometimes sleep) for five days. But there are two other important cricket reservoirs. One is at colleges and universities. The other is in the working-class North of England, where they play to a short-duration formula called League cricket. The League teams will usually have only one professional, who coaches the best local talent and also takes the star role on the field.
The glory of this complex structure is that players in all categories mix much more often than in any other sport. Oxford and Cambridge play the professional county teams, adult club sides play high schools. Many players still of class but past their professional days will happily play on club and even village teams. There is no contempt, in other words, for the bush leagues. The advantage for promising young players is enormous, since the best exponents of the game are not locked away, figures to be glimpsed on TV or from the sidelines of a major ground, but are actually there to play with or against.
By the time I was 18 I had pitched against a lot of professionals and even some international players—including two captains of England and one of the finest cricketers of all time, the West Indian Learie Constantine. My second pitch to the great man he mis-hit straight to a fielder and was caught out for a "duck"—a zero. Producing that easy pop-up was the climax of my cricketing career. I don't know what the equivalent would have been for an American high-schooler—striking out Willie Mays, perhaps. Anyway, I can still see every inch of the flight and bounce of that pitch.
But the point is that the underlying philosophy of cricket makes such experiences far from rare. The assumption is that the senior players have a kind of duty to help the junior and less good ones. This means that baseball and cricket are not national games in quite the same way. The one is now a highly professional popular entertainment, the other is more of a widely practiced folk art. This readiness to accept very different levels of skill on the same field works, needless to say, only if the better players are prepared to be indulgent. On that same day I had Constantine's scalp, it so happened he was pitching when I had to go in to bat. He was as famous for his fastball as for his batting. Until I appeared he had been bowling at half-speed, but as I came to the box I saw to my horror that he was pacing out his long run-in for real business. He duly bounded in, like a black jaguar, and delivered. I never saw the ball, just heard it hit the catcher's gloves. I did see Constantine with his hands on his hips, grinning at me. There was a laugh round the ground. A sense of proportion had been restored. But from then on he went back to his half-speed pitches, the ones he knew I had at least some chance of handling.
As in baseball, cricket batters seem cast by spectators as the heroes and the pitchers as the villains, which says something about Anglo-Saxon love of property. I was very much on the villains' side when I played myself, and I am going to pass quickly over the art of cricket batting. But one or two important differences from baseball need to be noted. Cricket batters are not, of course, more skilled than their baseball analogues, but they do have a much more complex technique to learn. There are the great differences in turf brought about by preparation and mowing practices and the weather—huge adaptations of method are sometimes called for. Secondly, the flat blade of the cricket bat makes it a much more precise instrument for finding the holes between fields. Thirdly, the all-round strike zone means there is a whole armory of scoring strokes to be learned that deflect the ball behind the catcher. Since the batter can also receive a limitless number of pitches as long as he isn't put out, and since also a number of those pitches will be aimed straight at his body, there is in addition an elaborate defensive technique. The art of waiting out pitches is also much more vital in our game.
One last difference from baseball is this: Since no substitutes are allowed, each man on the team of 11 has to bat in a full inning, and this includes the pitchers. There is no fixed batting order. Each captain can change it as he likes, even in mid-inning, but almost invariably the specialist lead-off men, whose main task is to tire out the opening pitchers, are followed by the big run-scorers; then comes the "tail," the specialist pitchers who seldom last long at bat but who traditionally follow a death-or-glory line and slug wildly at every pitch. Once in a while luck will run with them, and there is nothing a cricket crowd loves more.