It was not very wonderful that Catherine...should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books....
Jane Austen Northanger Abbey (1818)
What is human life but a game of cricket?
THE DUKE OF DORSET (1777)
Britain and America were created, as every serious historian knows, just to see how profoundly two cultures sharing a common language can fail to understand each other. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in the malignant mutual travesty that concerns our respective summer games. You smugly know we English are impossible because of our attachment to the incomprehensible ritual of cricket; we smugly know you Americans will never grow up because of your seriousness over a game we reserve for beach picnics. You don't even call it by its proper name, which is rounders. One plays rounders with a moribund tennis ball and any old bit of wood for a bat. Every decent Englishman knows that, and that "baseball" is sheer Yankee gall—trying to hide a stolen patent under a new trade name. Of course, every decent American, who equally knows baseball was handed straight from God to Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown in 1839, will spit on such a foul imputation.
Alas, poor truth. Chauvinists from either side who go to bat for the kind of view above can be retired to the bench very fast indeed by any dispassionate historian. There is hard textual evidence that baseball was played in England, and under that name, well back into the 18th century. But Americans can take heart. The farther back one goes, the closer the two games seem to interweave and the plainer it becomes that we are dealing with a pair of twin brothers. It is not at all certain which is the senior sibling. My own guess is that the shadowy father, the Ur-game, was a good deal more like his emigrant son Baseball than the introverted child who stayed at home.
They say an intrepid British secret agent once peered out of a Siberian forest at the mind-bending sight of a meadow of white-clad figures disporting themselves before an English village—thatched cottages, ancient pub and all the rest. But our man guessed in a flash what he had stumbled on: a KGB spy school designed to counter the most fiendish of all British cover-blowing techniques—the request for a brief rundown on the finer points of cricket.
Faced with the same task I know exactly how those would-be Soviet espionage aces must have felt. I can only pray that the basecricketballese I have had to resort to, and which will undoubtedly cause a few major coronaries among elderly British purists, does give some idea of our game. I am not, however, going to get into one grisly swampland where many brave essayists have met a tragic end: explaining the detailed rules. All Americans need understand is that whatever the obvious superficial differences between the two modern games, they are both about precisely the same things: pitching and batting, catching and fielding, running and tagging bases. What is fascinating indeed is this remarkable similarity at heart and the considerable difference in present-day ethos and practice, and what that paradox has to say about our two nations.
The first reference to the two games' common ancestor, club ball, is in a 13th century illuminated manuscript. Many variations of club ball developed (hockey and golf among them), and descriptions of the earliest forms are speculative. One version has it that the bases were just holes in the ground and that the striker could only be caught out or tagged out if a fielder hit the running striker with the ball or "popped" it into a base hole before the striker could reach sanctuary. The ball was tossed or bowled underhand, which is why we still, very misleadingly, call our cricket pitchers "bowlers." As in preleague baseball, the pitcher was merely a feeder, and under the striker's command.
What seems to have happened is that this archetypal version of the game went across the Atlantic with the early settlers before an important series of innovations became general in the mother country. The "living fossil" descendant in England is rounders. Visiting Americans who see it played here by boys (and girls) must not think it is some crass British notion of how baseball is played. What they are really watching is the fluid and very delightful game that every 17th and 18th century American must have known—as "old-cat" or "town ball"—before it was coded into baseball. We've all here played rounders when we were children, and one reason we can't get on with baseball is simply that the ferocious professionalism and strict rules of the developed American game seem to us (in our ignorance) like an elephant trying to imitate a chickadee. In rounders you tend to make as many bases as fancy pleases, and the diamond becomes very polyhedral. But the two games are virtually identical in principle.
Grass seems to have been a vital factor in the divergence of the two senior sports. In southern England an early fondness grew for having an upright mark for the pitcher to aim at behind the home plate. Two variants appeared: in one the mark was a tree stump; in the other, played on the short-turfed and treeless hills we call downs in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, the shepherd boys would set up the movable gate, or wicket, they used in their sheep pens. We retain a memory of this medieval division between "woodland" and "downland" cricket in our name for the three basemarker sticks of today's game—still called with equal frequency the "stumps" or the "wicket."
Two more specific characteristics of cricket now arose. The presence of a home-plate marker instead of a hole in the ground led to a new method of putting the batter out: if the pitcher made a strike on the marker, the man with the bat was done for. As time went on, the marker became a thin planted stick, then two sticks and finally a third. In order to know if the side of one of the outer sticks had just been snicked by a pitch, two crosspieces (called "bails") were balanced on top. That gives us the 28-inch-tall, nine-inch-wide, three-stick target of modern cricket.