I’ve tried, Gods help me. I really have tried over the past ten years to understand how this game works. But every time I think I’ve got a handle on it, I wind up almost as confused as before, if not more.
I can do no better than to defer to Bill Bryson’s Down Under for the last word in American perspectives on cricket.
After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side-effect. I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players (more if they are moderately restless). It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.
Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery. collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it out to centre field; and that there, after a minute’s pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt towards the pitcher’s mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to handle radioactive isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to waddle sixty feet with mattresses strapped to his legs he is under no formal compulsion to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a misstroke that leads him to being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a big hug. Then tea is called and everyone retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.
But it must be said that there is something incomparably soothing about cricket on the radio. It has much the same virtues as baseball on the radio – an unhurried pace, a comforting devotion to abstruse statistics and thoughtful historical rumination, exhilirating micromoments of real action – but stretched across many more hours and with a lushness of terminology and restful elegance of expression that even baseball cannot match. Listening to cricket on the radio is like listening to two men sitting in a rowing boat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren’t biting; it’s like having a nap without losing consciousness. It actually helps not to know quite what’s going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction.
‘So here comes Stovepipe to bowl on this glorious summer’s afternoon at the MCG,’ one of the commentators was saying now. ‘I wonder if he’ll chance an offside drop scone here or go for the quick legover. Stovepipe has an unusual delivery in that he actually leaves the grounds and starts his run just outside the Carlton & United Brewery at Kooyong.’
‘That’s right Clive. I haven’t known anyone start his delivery that far back since Stopcock caught his sleeve on the reversing mirror of a number 11 bus during the third test at Brisbane in 1957 and ended up at Goondiwindi four hours later owing to a changed timetable at Toowoomba Junction.’
After a very long silence while they absorbed this thought, and possibly stepped out to transact some small errands, they resumed with a leisurely discussion of the England fielding. Neasden, it appeared,was turning in a solid performance at square bowel, while Packet had been a stalwart in the dribbles, though even these exemplary performances paled when set beside the outstanding play of young Hugh Twain-Buttocks at middle nipple. The commentators were in calm agreement that they had not seen anyone caught behind with such panache since Tandoori took Rogan Josh for a stiffy at Vindaloo in ’61. At last Stovepipe, having found his way across the railway line at Flinders Street – the footbridge was evidently closed for painting – returned to the stadium and bowled to Hasty, who deftly turned the ball away for a corner. This was repeated four times more over the next two hours and then one of the commentators pronounced: ‘So as we break for second luncheon, and with 11,200 balls remaining, Australia are 962 for two not half and England are four for a duck and hoping for rain.’
I may not have all the terminology exactly right, but I belive I have caught the flavour of it.