An American Learns What’s Cricket

This is what’s cricket. (via Rae Allen)

MELBOURNE, Australia – Cricket, they say, is a distant relative of baseball.

Perhaps so. Much as, say, a panini press is a distant relative of a laptop computer. Both are rectangular and both are plugged in. As for cricket and baseball, there are bats, balls and a big field.

So, if you are a seamhead and you find yourself Down Under — a phrase which nobody except those of us from Up Over apparently uses — you can’t resist the urge to see cricket in person. You join 71,162 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a centerpiece of one of the most spectacular sporting complexes anywhere and the site of the 1956 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies and track events. It’s adjacent to the site of the Australian Open tennis tournament, across the street from a rugby stadium and just over the trolley tracks — trolleys are THE way to navigate Melbourne — from a basketball arena. (Trivia: The MCG holds 100,024, making it the 10th largest sports arena on the planet; the Southeastern Conference boasts four of the top 10.)

Some 71,158 of the fans at the MCG on this evening are intimately plugged into what’s happening as the Melbourne Renegades meet the crosstown rival Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League. Four Americans sitting 15 rows from the field are clueless as aliens landing their spaceship on the Las Vegas Strip.

Still, we quickly figure how to adapt. We find the nearest concession stand where they’re selling beer, which isn’t a particularly long journey. We hold up cardboard placards handed to us at the gate, with a 4 on one side and a 6 on the other. Imagine a 4 hit as a ground-rule double, a 6 as a homer.

And — sigh — we join the other 71,158 in standing up when they begin The Wave.

We are in Australia for a family reunion, to meet the youngest offspring who is on a brief military leave. He is a sports agnostic and his mother would greatly prefer an art museum over a stadium. The older brother is a sports fan who has missed his calling by not being behind a desk at ESPN and I’m a reformed sportswriter with four decades in newspapers, so the two of us force the issue.

Because we received some education in our rented apartment by watching snippets of day-long telecasts of “test” matches involving Australia’s national team, the oldest son thinks he’s figuring this cricket stuff out. I call his bluff, and raise him with even more analysis about defensive skills and batters’ skills.

Short attention span may now be an international ailment. The Big Bash League, a collection of teams representing various Australian cities, has designed its games to fit into three hours, with the teams’ turn on offense separated by an intermission; aka, another beer run. Each team is limited to 20 “overs,” an “over” being a series of six pitches thrown.

Much as an Outback is an American steak house that is Aussie-ized, the BBL is an Australian league that has been American-ized, with rock music, costumed mascots, fireworks, cheerleaders and even a BBL Fantasy League. (Ben Dunk, who would have seemed destined for another sport, should be your “keeper” pick for next season.)

And, oh yeah, if all that’s not Americanized enough, the BBL’s title sponsor is Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There is also a Women’s Big Bash League. Catherine McGregor, one of Australia’s most respected cricket analysts and writers, tried out for the league last fall at age 60. The fact that McGregor is transgender didn’t raise nearly the same hoopla it would have in the States. McGregor, a lieutenant colonel in the Australia Defence Force who made her transition in 2012, laughed that some critics would call her “just an old bloke in a dress.”

To assure I could properly relate the basics of cricket, I did a Google search which led to this post near the top of the queue: “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?” headlined a post that called it “one of the most important questions of all time.”

A cricket pitch is traditionally round or oval, usually 450 to 500 feet in diameter. There is a narrow dirt strip in the center with thigh-high wooden stumps at either end, about the same distance apart as home plate and a pitching rubber.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The primary figures are the bowler (pitcher) and batter. The family is not nearly as amused as I am when I recall the famous cricket radio broadcast line: “The batter’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey,” referring to Michael Holding of West Indies and England’s redundantly named Peter Willey.

The bowler gets a running start before hurling the ball toward the batter on one bounce. Much like watching the 2016 Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen, the object seems to be generously permitting the batter to hit the ball. Nine fielders spread out across the turf try to snare the ball before it rolls to an outer boundary (the 4 points on our placards) or soars over it (the 6 points). Though the bowler can reach the 90s in pitch velocity, the bounce takes off some steam and the 4.25-inch blade of the cricket bat facilitates contact more than a round baseball bat. Batters, in fact, learn to deflect the ball backward, toward more wide-open spaces. They run from their “home plate” to the other wicket and back, thus registering a run. If the ball is retrieved and delivered to the catcher before the batter reaches the “stump” at home, he is out.

That’s one of 10 ways a batter may make an out, including whiffing on a throw that bounces into the stump or having a ball caught on the fly. We see some full-speed, running-toward-the-wall plays that bring to mind Andruw Jones in his heyday.

Eventually, we settle into a nice comfort zone. Enjoy the weather. Enjoy a couple of brews. Appreciate the obvious skills. And don’t look at the scoreboard, because that just confuses you.

With each passing inning, we can see more and more kinship to the essence of baseball, similarities beyond the basics. I leave the MCG thinking that, for its contributions to the history of our sport, we American baseball fans owe cricket a debt of thanks.

Meanwhile, what did we give cricket in return? Fantasy leagues and The Wave.

Ignored by scouts despite leading the Brainerd Dixie Youth Baseball League in home runs in 1967, McCarter soon turned to journalism, with 40 years in the business. His writing led to enshrinement in the sports Halls of Fame in his native Chattanooga and current home town of Huntsville. His coverage of the Southern League led to a book, "Never A Bad Game," the 50-year history of the league, and to many more stories that can't be told as long as the protagonists are still alive.
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T Barnes
6 years ago

Nice article. I lived in Australia for 4 years and was just starting to understand and enjoy cricket. Just like baseball, the more you know, the better it gets. The real sport, however, is Aussie Rules Football. Now that it a great thing to watch. Nonstop action.
PS They aren’t trolleys in Australia…they are trams. Trolleys are grocery store carts.

Dean Ruetzler
6 years ago
Reply to  T Barnes

Can`t agree with you more. Have picked up playing cricket and watching footy from fellow ex-pats here in Japan from Australia. Go Doggies!

87 Crickets
6 years ago

In the middle eighties, I too did some time in Australia assigned for three-months to a US Air Force detachment in Canberra. The Aussies were generous in sharing their game. They lent US personnel equipment and we played it up on our rec time. Cricket was fun to play particularly defense where lay-out, Kevin Kiermaier/Kevin Pillar-type catches are common.

Us U.S. personnel tried to return to the favor by playing baseball/ softball with the AAF. They were serious players in fast-pitch softball but they mocked baseball by bouncing our 5-ounce all-way-from- Haiti baseballs as pitches ala cricket.

During the summers, my sixteen-year-old daughter monitors the BEIN sports network searching for European soccer; she alerts me when cricket gets its shot on the screen. I am still learning the nuances of the cricket rules.

I had a cricket bat made to commemorate my tour of Australia but six years later it was stolen from my city-in-Oklahoma apartment in a break-in where the larceners absconded booty was my microwave oven, twenty-one dollars cash, 11 rolls of toilet paper (the good stuff, the double-rolls), a large sandwich from my refrigerator, my cricket bat and an autograph picture of Robin Yount and I at spring-training event in Arizona.

6 years ago
Reply to  87 Crickets

That’s one of the more bizarre robbery stories anyone is likely to read. Thanks for sharing the weirdness.

87 Cards
6 years ago
Reply to  GBSimons

My apartment was evidence of my paucity of worldly goods; At that time. I lived very briefly in Oklahoma to complete a four-month internship prior to college graduation; I didn’t take much there.

The Yount photo was accidentally packed and with me. The cricket bat was a (ironically) a home-defense weapon; I was not home to defend with it.

6 years ago

Cricket was definitely my segway into baseball although I can’t watch the truncated versions and the less said about Twenty20 (The Big Bash and its many equivalents worldwide) the better.
In my first season watching baseball I loved reading former England cricketer Ed Smith’s book “Playing Hardball” documenting his time with the Mets. I’m not sure how well it would translate to someone looking to go from baseball to cricket fan though.

6 years ago
Reply to  Paul

“with the Mets”
I should have said around the Mets organisation / training camp.

6 years ago

“The batter’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey,”

Brian Johnston in fact said, “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey.”

6 years ago

One of the finer books on cricket was written by an American, Mike Marquesse. His book “War minus the shooting'”about the 1996 World Cup is fascinating.

6 years ago

Also, I urge you to watch Fire in Babylon a magnificent documentary on the West Indies team of the ’80s.

Tim Duggan
6 years ago

I was working in Melbourne and living close to the MCG from Apr 98 thru May 99. Walked to the MCG one day, where some local teams were playing. Stood next to some 13 year olds who instructed me on the “finer” points of cricket. In Jan 99, my son and I attended the last day of the Ashes (Annual up-to-5 day”Test”cricket match between Great Britain and the Aussies. Was tempted to cheer (NEVER say ROOT there!!) for the Brits to counterbalance the local feelings, but held my tongue (regardless of how many VBs I’d imbibed.) (VB = Victoria Bitter, the great local beer – No Melbourne person would drink Fosters – that’s a Sydney brew!!)

Bill Rubinstein
6 years ago

It would be interesting to know whether the best cricket batters would be good if they played baseball in the Major League. The best cricket batter of all times is usually said to have been Sir Don Bradman (he was given a knighthood by the Queen for his services to cricket!), the great Australian who played from the early 1930s to 1948- roughly a contemporary of Jo DiMaggio or Hank Greenberg. He retired with a batting average of 99.44, the highest in history, which is, very roughly, as if someone in the Majors had a lifetime batting average of .399 and a slugging average of .699. If his ancestors had gone to Iowa instead of New South Wales, would he have a plaque in Cooperstown today? Should the Majors be scouting good cricket batsmen (as they are called?)

6 years ago

I find it slightly amusing that we look at a game that takes roughly three hours as evidence of our shortening attention spans. I do think however that it speaks to how busy our lives are. I expect even the most die hard traditional cricket fan would have a hard time attending every day of a three day test match more than once or twice a year. Likewise, I suspect most people who have a problem making it to more than few single day tests. Twenty20 may not be everyone’s cup of tea (and everything I have read about it suggests that the limited overs definitely changes the strategy of the sport), but it recognizes that finding 4 hours in one’s schedule to watch a game is a lot easier than finding 3 days.

6 years ago
Reply to  MarylandBill

Test matches in fact last 5 days and used to not have any limit at all.
It would be quite rare for someone to attend more than maybe 2 days of a test match though and watch the rest on TV. The only people who would attend all 5 days are likely to be retired people who have paid for “members” tickets (expensive tickets that allow access to the more exclusive areas of the stadium away from general ticket holders) at the club where the game is being played.
I’ve been a season ticket holder at Nottinghamshire for a number of years and would usually go to see a full day’s play at the weekend and for a couple of hours after work when I could.