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Cricket Is Baffling: A Beginner's Guide to Cricket

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Throughout the British Commonwealth, with the exception of Canada, cricket is celebrated as something akin to a religion. (Canadians, as befits a country with a relatively short summer, are born holding ice-hockey sticks—ouch—and, apart from a few enthusiastic immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, have little interest in cricket.)

For most non-Commonwealth people, cricket is a conundrum, with international matches that last five days, include breaks for lunch and tea, and have players in fielding positions such as silly point and deep extra cover.

Cricket at the village level.

Cricket at the village level.

The Home of Cricket

Since 1787, the centre of cricket’s universe has been Lord’s Cricket Ground in North London. It is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club and is “custodian of the laws,” not rules—laws, of the game.

“I am confident they play cricket in heaven. Wouldn’t be heaven otherwise, would it?

— Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore

The hallowed pitch at Lord's.

The hallowed pitch at Lord's.

Bill Bryson has written, “It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively . . . but it is an odd game.”

There are two teams of 11 players each, expressed with gravity in Roman numerals—XI; that’s sophistication right there. Each team gets to bat and field (just as in baseball), sometimes once, sometimes twice, depending on the form of the game that is being played. The team with the highest number of runs wins, and that’s where the similarity with baseball ends.

Cricket players do not spit or chew gum.

“Say, when do they begin?

— Grouch Marx, watching a cricket match at Lord’s

My Introduction to Cricket

Tricky things, memories.

Sometimes, when I’m nodding off for an afternoon nap and I’m in that twilight place between wakefulness and sleep, I have this vivid image of winning a match with outstanding play. The fact that I never played for the school's first XI, or the second XI, or any other named XI casts a small shadow of doubt over the validity of my crepuscular imaginings.

But, I do clearly remember my introduction to cricket in the spring of about 1954. The entire third form of some 60 12-year-old boys was seated on a bank overlooking the sacred sward of the school’s cricket pitch.

Several teachers (we called them masters) demonstrated the finer points of the game for us, particularly the kind of shots a quality batsman would be called upon to make. We were shown the elegance of the cover drive and the late cut. Then, we received instruction on the stubborn stylishness of the forward and backward defensive strokes. Finally, came the memorizing of the fielding positions (below).

A captain with 11 players cannot fill all position but must judge which are the best positions to place his fielders in.

A captain with 11 players cannot fill all position but must judge which are the best positions to place his fielders in.

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We were spared a display of the reverse sweep, as it was about 50 years before the South African-born Mr. Kevin Pietersen (who played for England—it’s complicated) revealed this crude and brutish slog to the world. It's very like a baseball swing.

It is rumoured that when Mr. Pietersen unveiled his ugly swipe a glass of Pimms was very nearly spilled in the Member’s Lounge at Lord’s: “Blighter looks like he’s playing rounders or, as our American cousins erroneously call it, baseball. But then, what does one expect? Bounder’s not really British is he?”

Cricket Is a Sport That Includes Pain

A cricket ball is smaller, heavier, and harder than a baseball and causes agony when it meets unprotected flesh as it does as though guided by a laser.

My first experience as a batsman came on a field called Willowpond. It had a considerable slope to it that proved great for tobogganing but for cricket, not so much.

I strode to the batting crease purposefully and asked the umpire for a guard of middle and leg. I had absolutely no clue what this meant but it seemed to be the accepted procedure.

The bowler (pitcher in baseball parlance), fantasies dancing in his head of being the next Fred Trueman, a legendary fast bowler, began his approach. I played a lovely cover drive to what in baseball terms would be in the direction of shortstop. Unfortunately, the ball did not make contact with my bat but rather my left, unprotected, forearm.

I have a low tolerance for pain, especially when it’s inflicted on my delicate body. So, I learned all I needed to know about playing cricket and decided to pursue a career in a game involving an inflatable ball.

My batting technique from then on involved closing my eyes as though facing a firing squad and, as added protection against taking a missile on the schnozz, turning my face to the sky. Then, I swung the bat and on rare occasions made contact. I doubt if in my entire cricketing career I amassed a total of runs that got to double figures.

“I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth - certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.

— Playwright Harold Pinter

Cricket’s Protective Gear

Our school provided little in the way of pain-reducing equipment.

Our kit was rudimentary. When I see today’s international cricketers marching out to the wicket rigged up like medieval knights about to enter the jousting lists I think “Wusses.” We played in plimsolls (soft, canvas sneakers), and strapped on a lower leg pad that had very little resistance left in it.

There was usually only enough pads with functional buckles (Velcro was way in the future) to equip each batsman with one apiece; the smarter boys attached this to their forward leg. The only other protective gear was a pair of tattered batting gloves with rubber spikes sticking up over the back of the hand.

But, those mitts had seen service for many years and the sweat of generations of boys was absorbed into the fabric creating a toxic stew of pathogens likely to infect the wearer with anything from black vomit fever to yaws. And, that was it. No helmet or face grille, no thigh or chest pads, no arm guards, and no box to protect the unmentionables.

For all its supposed gentility cricket can be a dangerous sport. Cricketers are apt to lose teeth and a fair bit of blood; sometimes worse happens.

In November 2014, one of Australia’s top batsmen, Phillip Hughes, was struck on the neck by a cricket ball. This caused a tear in an artery wall. Mr. Hughes died two days later just shy of his 26th birthday.

Sadly, Phil Hughes is not alone. The Independent lists seven other players and one umpire who have been killed, mostly by being hit on the head by the cricket ball, since 1998.

Umpiring for Dummies

The leg-before-wicket law is very complex.

From time to time we students were called upon to act as an umpire; that’s the person who makes sure the game is played according to the laws.

Given the potential for pain in the line of fire, I managed to wangle myself into this exalted position more often than most. However, as umpire, I had to adjudicate on appeals for the leg-before-wicket law.

Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as “A mystery wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a riddle.” He might just as well have been describing the leg-before-wicket law.

Here it is explained: Please feel free to skip this section; you’ll thank me if you do.

The striker is out LBW in the circumstances set out below:

(a) The bowler delivers a ball, not being a No ball and (b) the ball, if it is not intercepted full pitch, pitches in line between wicket and wicket or on the off side of the striker’s wicket and (c) the ball not having previously touched his bat, the striker intercepts the ball, either full pitch or after pitching, with any part of his person and (d) the point of impact, even if above the level of the bails either (i) is between wicket and wicket or (ii) is either between wicket and wicket or outside the line of the off stump, if the striker has made no genuine attempt to play the ball with his bat and (e) but for the interception, the ball would have hit the wicket.

Any the wiser? Aren’t you sorry you didn’t take my advice to skip this bit?

As an umpire, my decisions were delivered with ponderous solemnity and were informed by a complete absence of knowledge on how the LBW law worked. My approach was that sometimes the appeals were likely to be valid and at other times they were not.

Unable to distinguish between valid and invalid I arbitrarily decided to raise the finger of doom signalling the batsman was out once every third “Howzat.” (Cricket players appeal to the umpire for an out by shouting “How is that?” contracted to “Howzat.”) My apologies to those unjustly dismissed, but in the grand scheme of things, it probably didn’t mean squat.

“It’s a funny kind of month, October. For the really keen cricket fan it’s when you realize that your wife left you in May.

— Writer Denis Norden

Spectacular Catches

Bonus Factoids

  • Cricket’s laws were first written in 1744 and have changed over the years except for one; the pitch has always been 22 yards long.
  • In the early days of cricket, bowlers bowled underarm. The overarm technique used today was introduced by John Willes in 1806. Bowlers must propel the ball with a straight arm, they are not allowed to throw the ball by bending their elbows to get extra speed. This does not stop some players from trying to get away with throwing. Despite the no-throwing law, the top fast bowlers deliver the ball at almost 100 mph.
  • According to the International Cricket Council, the game is growing in popularity in the United States, with 200,000 players, 6,000 teams, 450 leagues in 44 states. The BBC adds "The Washington Cricket League is thriving. There are 42 teams in total, and new applicants are turned away each year because of a lack of pitches."
  • When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan they allowed cricket matches to be played, but spectators were forbidden to applaud.


  • “A Failing Memory” and,
  • “In a Sunburned Country.” Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, 2001.
  • “Phil Hughes Dead: List of Players who Have Tragically Died on the Cricket Pitch.” Jack de Menezes, The Independent, November 27, 2013
  • "American Cricket Gets Ready for Take-off." Owen Amos, BBC, October 17, 2017.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 24, 2017:

My sympathy to Reginald D. Hunter and all the others who do not understand cricket. You guys just have to settle down and learn the game. It is always more difficult to learn by "laws" than to learn by practice. Then again, every one does not have to love every game, but for us cricket fans, "Long live cricket." We enjoy it. Thanks to you Rupert for the opportunity to say that.

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