Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The old adage that America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language has a truthful ring, but, if one were inventing a 21st century variant of the adage, one might say that the USA and Britain are two countries separated by their summer games, baseball [an English invention] and cricket [also English, but once very popular in the [USA]!
When first at university in the UK, my American friends and I regularly laughed uproariously when reading a cricket report. How could a popular domestic and international sport be so much like the ‘goons’? Was Spike Milligan The Times’ cricket reporter? It was a bit like reading the Law Code of Hammurabi or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Without a great deal of background, the reports would never make sense. Cricket seemed to be absurd, like the Pythons’ ‘ministry of silly walks’, ‘four Yorkshiremen’ [my favourite Python] and ‘dead parrot’ sketches. Clearly a sentence like “Smith was caught for 15 by Harris fielding at silly-mid-off off the bowling of Johnston” is a joke! How can a ball be a ‘no ball’? How can a position be entitled ‘silly mid-off’? Would Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, or Roberto Clemente ever humiliate themselves by playing in such an undignified position? More significantly, would Marilyn Monroe have married a ‘silly mid off’ [or a ‘silly mid on’ for that matter]? Was every day April Fool’s day in the UK?
The British can’t make sense of baseball [apparently, and rather patronisingly, just a slightly more sophisticated version of rounders, a girls’ school game], and the Americans remain incapable of understanding how a game can be played over three hours [Twenty/20], eight hours [50 overs or a one day match], or four or five days [first class matches, internationals and Test matches] and still end in a draw. And then why are there always two batters? [UNLIKELY ANSWER: the loneliness of a batter who is out in the middle all day – he needs to talk to someone.] Why don’t the fielders use gloves [UNUSUAL ANSWER: since its creation in 1948, the NHS has specialised in broken fingers, and it’s free!] How is it fair, indeed part of the strategy, for the bowler to hit the batters? [TRUE ANSWER: ‘bodyline’ was developed by the English to use against the Aussies, the old rivals, a nation who could give as good as they got]. Why invent a game for 11 players that has at least 20-30 fielding positions? [IMPROBABLE ANSWER: the British invented a game that would be good for its huge and under populated colonies like New Zealand, Canada and Australia.] And what about stopping 45 minutes for lunch and another 20 minutes for tea? [ TRUE ANSWER: Nothing to do with strategy; rather an attempt to fill the belly if one had to field or bat for another 3 hours and a day. The British feel that cricket is a ‘manly’ sport that requires more fitness and hardness than baseball. Discuss this proposition over a pint. [The same is more obviously true for the comparison between Rugby and American football.]
The simplest route to understanding cricket and baseball is to play the games. There is new equipment to consider – the size of the bat, the colour of the ball, the state of the pitch or wicket, the positioning of the fielders, the need for collaboration between the two batters when running between the wickets, sliding and stealing bases, the freedom to hit in a 360 degree area, etc. Mindset: in cricket you just can’t ‘take a pitch’ in case that pitch knocks your middle stump 20 feet into the air. Also when chasing a score, you need to take advantage of just about every ball. You need to know when to dig in, be obdurate, play with a straight bat, don’t take risks, slow the tempo, steady the ship, and when to attack. You need to be adept with the bat.
In baseball, you need to hit in a 90 degree area. You also get to keep the ball if the batter fouls it off into the stands. If a new ball that has just emerged from the umpire’s pocket has the slightest hint of acne – a little red mark], it goes into the recycling bin. But there are no free balls in cricket. Indeed a ball must last an entire innings, whether it be a 25 over match, a 50 over match or a test match [80 overs per ball change]. The American League’s ‘Designated Hitter’ role doesn’t always fit its purpose, that is, to make the game more exciting.
Can this expatriate choose between the two ‘games of summer’? Well, he will sit on the fence for the time being. Both games can be occasionally boring, although a 1-0 pitcher’s duel is technically not a boring event. One good thing about baseball is that you can buy hot dogs at the games. One good thing about cricket is that you can read a book, get a sun tan, have a Pimms, applaud politely or be as raucous as England’s ‘barmy army’ on tour. Cricket has been adopted by many countries in the now defunct Empire, while baseball is on the offensive trying to woo Europeans away from soccer, and rugby.
Final word: laugh all you want at cricket and baseball, or yawn if you must, but before dismissing the games, play them. See the accompanying pictures of Ithaca students playing cricket on a very dodgy wicket in Hyde Park September.
-Bill (with no help from Elsie)
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