It is a commonly held belief in America that cricket is a fiendishly complicated game that cannot be understood by anyone not born and raised in the former British Empire. However, this is a result of them being taken in by silly jokes involving cricket terminology (which is, admittedly, somewhat bizarre). In this article I intend to show that cricket is actually quite a straightforward game with a lot in common with baseball, but with simpler rules, a lot more action, and rather more complex tactics.
Bases and creases
A fairly obvious difference between cricket and baseball is that baseball has four bases and cricket has two. In both games runs are scored by running around the bases. More about this later, but first I should explain that cricket doesn’t have actual bags to stand on. Instead it has markings more like the batter’s box, inside which the batters have to stand. The important line is the front one, known as the crease. If the batsman is behind his crease then he is safe. When he is between the two creases he can be run out, which is like being put out on bases.
Strikes and stumps
One of the biggest areas of controversy in baseball is the strike zone. Every umpire has a different idea of what the strike zone should be. Some of them change their minds several times during a game. Cricket solves this by having a physical strike zone. On each base there are three vertical sticks called stumps with two other tiny sticks called bails balanced on top of them. If a pitch strikes the stumps hard enough to dislodge either of the bails then it is a strike, otherwise it is not. Easy, isn’t it? Except that it is a much smaller strike zone than in baseball, so to make life easier for the pitchers there is none of this getting three chances. In cricket it is one strike and you are out. This is called being bowled.
Just like in baseball, if a batter hits the ball in the air and a fielder catches it then he is out. That’s nice and easy. But note that cricket players (except catchers, who are known as wicket keepers) are not allowed to wear gloves. This makes catching much less certain and adds interest to the game. Also foul tips can be caught. For this reason you will see the catcher standing well back to fastball pitchers. This means that if the ball is tipped he will have a chance to dive after it. Cricket catchers spend a lot of time doing acrobatic dives.
OK, so we have seen how getting out is very much like it is in baseball. There are a few other ways you can get out, but for now let’s get on with the game and see how we can score runs. This will bring up several important differences between cricket and baseball. The first is that cricket is always played with the bases fully loaded. At the beginning of the innings the first two batters come out and occupy the bases. When they run and exchange bases a run is scored. So far so good. (By the way, in yet another of those little transatlantic language differences, in British an innings is both singular and plural, whereas in American you can have an inning.)
Now, difference number two is that in cricket the batter doesn’t go back to the dugout when a run is scored. He stays out on the bases until he is put out. (Actually until recently cricket players would normally not be seen dead in a “dugout”, they have a nice pavilion where they can go and have lunch and tea, but that’s by-the-by.) This isn’t a very significant difference, but it leads to a slightly different structure to the game. Whereas baseball has nine innings per side with each batter typically getting between 3 and 5 chances to bat, in cricket there are only one or two innings, with the batters getting one or two chances to bat. But while they are there, they can try to accumulate as many runs as they can.
Of course in baseball it is very easy to have a disastrous inning. You hit the ball at an infielder and you are almost certainly going to be put out at first. In cricket this doesn’t happen because the batter doesn’t have to run if he hits the ball. But that is only sensible. In baseball if you don’t like the look of a pitch that seems to be a strike you can try to foul it off. In cricket the whole field is fair. There being no such thing as a foul ball, you don’t have to run if you hit.
The whole field is fair?
It sure is. In cricket the bases are in the center of the park, and batters can hit the ball anywhere around them. This radically changes the tactics of the game. In baseball field placement is relatively simple. You might move the fielders in and out a bit dependent on the state of play, or shift everyone to the right if you have Barry Bonds at the plate, but that is about it. In cricket you have a much bigger area to cover, and you have to think very hard about where to place your fielders. This will depend on whether you are trying to get men out or prevent them from scoring (yes, this is a consideration), what type of pitcher you have operating, and what you know of the batter’s strengths and weaknesses. That is the reason that cricket has so many silly names for fielding positions. There had to be some memorable system for telling fielders where to stand.
But the main result of this significant difference between the two games is that many more runs are scored in cricket than in baseball. In a typical 3-hour baseball game about 9 runs will be scored. In a typical one-day cricket match (lasting about 6 hours) 600 or more runs may be scored. Far from being boring, cricket is in fact an all-action game compared to baseball.
Unlike baseball, cricket grounds do not have a wall. The field is normally bounded by a rope or by a white line marked on the grass. If a ball is hit out of the field on the full (a home run in baseball) then it scores six runs (and is called a six). If the ball is hit out of the field but bounces first then it scores four runs (yes, this is called a four). While the ball is within the field the batters can keep running around the bases, scoring one, two, three or maybe even more runs if the throw in from the outfield misses the man waiting for it at the base. Crowds love to see sixes hit, but top quality cricket batters prefer to hit fours because there is less risk of being caught.
More About Run-Outs
In baseball running batters can be put out either by tagging them or by holding the ball while standing on the base they are running to. This is too complicated for cricket. There is one and one only way to be run out. The ball has to break the stumps at the base you are running to, before you get over the crease. Ideally the fielder should throw the ball so that it hits the stumps directly, but this is hard so fielders will cover both bases and be there to catch the ball and use it to break the stumps. The catcher almost always takes one base, because he has gloves so he is more certain to catch a ball fired in quickly.
A small and entertaining difference between cricket and baseball is that cricketers carry their bats with them when running. The bat is deemed to be an extension of their arm, so you will see them stretching their bats out in from of them to ground them over the crease. Just as in baseball, cricket batters love to slide, but they always to do head first with their bats stretched out in front of them.
By the way, once a batter is put out in cricket the ball is dead. There is no such thing as a double play.
Types of pitching
Just as baseball pitchers have different styles, so too in cricket. There are basically three types of pitcher (or bowler as cricket terminology has it): fast, swing, and spin.
Fastball pitchers aim mainly to beat the batter with speed. However, unlike in baseball they will sacrifice some speed in order to let the ball bounce before it reaches the batter. This is because a cricket ball has a single, circular seam. It is quite wide and raised above the surface of the ball. If you land the ball on the seam it can deviate on bouncing, allowing it to perhaps catch the edge of the bat rather than hit the middle as the batter intended.
Swing bowling is mysterious stuff. Supposedly it depends on one side of the ball being more shiny than the other, and air moving differently over one side than the other, thus causing the ball to curve in the air. Supposedly also it is much easier in a more humid atmosphere. But no one really understands the physics and the really good swing bowlers refuse to give away their secrets. The simple version is that if you can’t deliver the ball really fast then you have to deceive the batter in some way, and making it move through the air is the usual way of doing it. Conversely, if you pitch the ball too fast it won’t swing as much.
Spin bowling is entirely different. Rather like with a knuckleball, the pitcher imparts ferocious spin on the ball as it leaves his hand. When it pitches the ball can change direction wildly. The best spin bowlers, given the right conditions, can make the ball turn a right-angle. This can really confuse the batter. There are cases of a batter watching idly as a ball bounces behind his legs and then staring in amazement as it cuts back to take out his stumps. The disadvantage of spin bowling is that you can’t impart all of that spin and pitch fast as well.
With cricket matches lasting six hours or more and an innings being at least three hours it is clearly unfair to ask a single pitcher to last anywhere near a whole game. Instead pitchers are regularly rotated. One pitcher will deliver six pitches from one of the bases to the batsman stood at the other base. (It is 22 yards between bases, just in case you were interested.) This is called an over. The catcher then trots down to the other base and a new pitcher delivers six pitches from the original batting end. Then they swap ends again, and go back to the first pitcher, and so on. The pitching side can changes pitchers, but only at the end of an over or if the current pitcher is too injured to continue.
Why do they do this ridiculous dance? Probably money. This means you get two sets of “seats directly behind home plate” to sell rather than just one.
Another important point is that in cricket you can’t make substitutions except to cope with injuries. So the team, which is eleven players, has to include several pitchers. A typical team will contain four or five specialist pitchers, five or six specialist batters and a catcher. Players who can both bat well and pitch are very valuable (they are called all-rounders).
Winning the game
There are two basic styles of cricket match, those limited by pitches as those limited by time. One day games are limited by pitches, typically 40 or 50 overs a side (that’s 240 or 300 pitches). Amateur and junior games can be even shorter. And there is something called Twenty20, of which more later. Just like in baseball, the side with the most runs at the end of the game wins. Ties are possible, but with many more runs being scored they are much less likely. In the event of a tie the team which had the least men put out may win, depending on the rules of the tournament being played. And if they are still tied, well, no one wants to play extra innings after playing all day, so they let the tie stand.
By the way, if all of your batters are out before you have used up your allotted number of pitches, tough. You lose those extra pitches. And in some competitions your opponents get to use them as well as their own.
Multi-day cricket matches are a little bit more complicated. Firstly the teams get two innings each. In order to win you have to score more runs in aggregate in your two innings, and you have to get the other side all out twice. This does tend to confuse people, because it results in many multi-game cricket games ending in a draw. But there is a good reason for it. You have probably seen the occasional baseball game in which one team scores 10 runs in an early innings and, assuming the game is not at Coors Field, the rest of the game is spent going through the motions. It is dull. Now, consider cricket game in which the first team to bat does so for two days amassing some 800 runs. The other side, having been fielding for two whole days, is exhausted and demoralised. The chances of them winning the game are very slim, but there are three days left to play. Why would anyone come to watch? Because if the second team can defend well enough and not have all of their batters put out twice, then they can prevent the first team from winning and come away with a draw rather than a loss. This maintains interest in the game.
Understanding cricket scores
At any point during an innings you need to know two important things about the batting side: how many runs have been scored, and how many batters have been put out. The score is written like this: 245-4, meaning that 245 runs have been scored and four batters have been put out. Australians, because they live on the other side of the planet and do everything upside down, would report the same score as 4-245.
Wins are reported either by runs or by wickets, depending on whether the winning side batted first or second. Suppose that India bats first and scores 296-7. Pakistan bats second, and if they are all out or run out of overs, and have scored only 221, then India will have won by 296 – 221 = 85 runs. If, on the other hand, Pakistan reaches 297-6, then they will have won by 4 wickets, because they now have more runs, and they still have four batters left.
Why four batters when there are eleven players on the team? Because the bases must always be loaded so once ten men are put out the innings is over.
Like baseball, cricket has umpires. There are only two, because there are only two bases. One umpire stands at the pitching end and watches the ball as it is pitched. The other stands perpendicular to the crease at the batting end so he can judge run outs. If the batsmen begin to run then the umpire at the pitching end will move out perpendicular to his crease as well. In important games television replays are allowed for certain decisions such as close run-outs and determining whether a catch taken low to the ground was fair.
Cricket doesn’t keep a strike/ball count. There isn’t much point with the one-strike-out rule. Pitchers may pitch well away from the stumps if they want, but if, in the opinion of the umpire at the pitching end, the ball is so wide that the batsman could not reach it from his normal standing position then he will call a wide. One run is credited to the batting side. It is scored against the pitcher’s stats, but does not count towards the batter’s total. The batters do not have to exchange bases.
Just as a baseball pitcher may not step forward off the rubber before pitching, so a cricket pitcher may not step over the crease at his end before pitching. The reason is the same in both cases, you are not allowed to cheat by shortening the distance that you have to pitch. In cricket this is called a no ball. As with a wide, one run accrues to the batting side and is scored against the pitcher’s stats. However, whereas a wide is by definition un-hittable, a no ball can be hit. The batter may try to hit the no ball. Because it is an illegal pitch, he cannot be struck out or caught, but he can score runs in the normal way. Of course if he does try to run then he can be run out.
Hit by a pitch
Hello? What do you mean, a baseball batter gets a free base if he is hit by a pitch? The whole point of fastball pitching in cricket is to hit the batter, or at least make him so afraid of being hit that he makes a mistake and gets out. The technical term is chin music, which is the sound the ball makes when it hits the batter on the chin. Sorry, if a cricket player isn’t man enough to risk getting hit by a pitch then he doesn’t belong out on the field. (Of course this may explain why cricketers wear so much more armor than baseball players.)
Because cricket balls bounce unpredictably the life of a catcher in cricket is hard. Passed balls are common. Just as in baseball, the batters may run on a passed ball. The runs accrue to the batting team, but not to the batter and are not charged against the pitcher. If the ball passed straight through then the runs are called byes and are charged against the catcher’s stats. If the ball hit the batter the runs are called leg byes and are not charged against the catcher.
I promised you a few other ways in which batters can be put out. Stumped is a special type of being run out. It trying to hit the pitch, the batter may end up in front of his crease, and therefore off base. If he misses the ball, and the catcher is quick enough, he can be run out without actually having tried to run. Because this method of making an out requires special skill on behalf of the catcher it is given a special name and counted as a separate stat to run-outs.
Leg Before Wicket
OK, it had to happen. Every game has some sort of really complicated rule that hardly anyone understands. In baseball it is the infield fly rule. In cricket it is Leg Before Wicket, or lbw.
The basic idea of the rule is very simple. If a batter wanted to prevent himself from being struck out, all he would have to do is stand in front of the stumps. Then the ball would hit his legs rather than the stumps. Obviously this has to be illegal. And so it is. But then things get complicated.
You see, the batter has to stand somewhere. Just as a baseball batter will stand to one side of home plate, with his bat protecting the strike zone, so a cricket batter will stand to one side of the stumps. Now, if the ball bounces in line between the to sets of stumps, or outside that line but away from the batter, and the batter blocks the ball with his legs, then he can be out lbw. But if the ball bounces outside the line of the stumps and on the same side as the batter then the batter may use his legs to block the ball because he has the right to stand there. (There is a baseball analogy to this in that a batter cannot be ruled hit by a pitch if he has stepped out of the batter’s box – where you stand is important.)
In judging whether a batter is out lbw an umpire must first decide where the ball pitched, and then decide whether it would have hit the stumps had it not struck the batter. It is a difficult decision, and just as with strikes in baseball, umpires occasionally make the wrong call.
Obviously batters want to score runs, but one of the joys of cricket is that they have time to consider how to do so. Early on in their innings they may wish to play defensively until they get a good idea how the ball and the pitch are behaving. Once they have “got their eye in” then they can play more aggressively. Defensive play may also help tire out fearsome fastball pitchers. Time is also a factor. The longer a batsman has to play, the fewer chances he will take because he knows if he stays in bat a long time he will accumulate lots of runs. Batting aggressively is foolish if it means you take risks and your batsmen are all out half way through the first day of a five-day game. But if time is short the first batsmen in the innings can take risks because there probably isn’t time for everyone to be put out.
Just as a baseball pitcher won’t always try to throw a strike, so a cricket bowler won’t always aim for the stumps. You study the form of the batsman you are pitching to, and adjust accordingly. Sometimes you can frustrate a batsman into making a rash shot by making it hard for him to score. Sometimes you can unsettle him by bashing him on the helmet with a few balls. And remember that you can place your fielders wherever you like. You have to know the sorts of shots the batsmen like to make, and those they are bad at, then pitch the ball in such a way as to encourage your opponent to play bad shots.
Well, it had to happen. Cricket players do travel to the US, and they will watch baseball while they are there. Eventually someone had to come up with the idea of a cricket match that had the same TV-appeal and spectator convenience as baseball. What was wanted was a cricket match that lasted 3 hours, had mascots and fun stuff for kids, had the batting side’s players in dugouts where the crowd could see them all the time, and so on. Enter Twenty20 cricket.
As you may have guessed, this is cricket with only 20 overs a side. Having so little time, the batsmen take lots of risks, and the end result is a frenetic game in which sides normally score about 150 runs each. The game has proved hugely popular in England and the West Indies, and is rising in popularity elsewhere. From an American point of view, it has the day-out-in-the-sun attraction of baseball blended with the scoring frequency of basketball. If you find baseball boring, and want a more exciting way to spend a summer afternoon, Twenty20 cricket is the sport for you.