What the heck is cricket?

With Captain’s Knock releasing soon, a few people have noted that USA readers will be unfamiliar with the sport of cricket, so I’ve written a little guide about the game. I’ve tried to keep it to the gist of the game, and steer clear of the technical rules.

What the heck is Cricket? A guide for Americans (and other nations who don’t play cricket).

If you live in England or any Commonwealth country, cricket is part of the fabric of life. As someone who grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Australia, it has always amused me that England invented cricket. Cricket… the game you can’t play when it’s raining.

But if you aren’t from a Commonwealth countries, you might be asking yourself: what the heck is cricket? How does it work? Why does it take several days, and why do they stand around in the sun wearing white clothes?

Cricket is basically a game of strategy. There’s one ball which is used for the whole batting innings (two balls per game) and the way it deteriorates over the game matters. If the ball gets lost, it has to be replaced with another ball that is the stage of wear (which causes a lot of fuss).

The absolute basics:

There are two teams with eleven players on each team (and also a ‘twelfth man’ who can play sometimes but mostly just brings drinks and equipment to the main players).

The game is played on an ‘oval’ which is a big oval shaped field with a pitch in the middle. At both ends of the pitch are the wickets (three wooden poles called stumps with two bails sitting on top of them).

One team bats and the other bowls (also called fielding). The bowling team has all eleven players on the field/pitch/oval, and the batting team has two. The two batters stand at each end of the pitch. To score one run, they must both run (swapping ends). The bowling team has a wicket keeper who catches the ball after it has passed the batter, and a bowler, and everyone else stands in fielding positions. Every fielding position has a name, and there are diagrams showing them all, which can be found in an internet search. Some fielding positions have fun names, like silly-mid-on and cow corner and gully and slips.

There are three main formats – test cricket (five days long with two innings per team), one day (50 overs per team), and T20 (twenty overs per team).

An over is six legal balls bowled by the bowler on the fielding team. (Are you lost yet?). Basically, the bowler bowls the ball to the on-strike batter. If the batter doesn’t run, it’s a dot ball (and yes, they can run if they don’t hit it, eg if the keeper doesn’t catch it). For each ball, they can run as many runs as possible until the fielding team gets the ball back to the bowler or keeper. If the batter hits the ball to the boundary, they get four runs which they don’t actually have to run, and if they hit it over the boundary on the full, that’s six runs to the score (that they don’t have to physically run).

The idea is that the batting team get as many runs as they can in their innings. The bowling team has to get all the batters out to end the innings. In test cricket, the innings ends when all the batters are out. In the other formats, the innings ends when the number of overs are bowled (these games are shorter; time wise).

Then the teams swap for the other innings and the team that was bowling now has to bat and ‘chase down’ the number of runs that the first batting team got. More runs equals a win, less equals a loss, and a tied match is the same number of runs (which is rare). If they can’t finish, it’s a draw. What do you mean, if they can’t finish? How can they play five days of a game and not have a result? Can you see why we love cricket?!

Well … rain is a big factor. If it rains, then the players can’t play. They leave the field, and the covers are put on the pitch to protect it. Everyone waits. There are a bunch of complicated rules about rain and how it affects the game (depending on the format), and these get discussed endlessly during rain delays, particularly about how they will affect the game strategy.

Back to the basics. The bowling team’s goal is to get the batters out before they score too many runs. There are, technically, eleven ways they can do that, but the main ones are:

Bowled – the bowler bowls the ball, the batter misses it, and the ball hits the wickets.
Caught – the batter hits the ball into the air and one of the fielders catches it before it hits the ground.
Run Out – the batter runs but not fast enough and the fielding team hits the wickets with the ball before the batter gets to the other end. If the wicket keeper does this, it’s called Stumped.
LBW – leg before wicket. A batter can’t use his legs to protect the wickets from the ball so if the bowler bowls and it hits the batter’s legs and not the bat, and the batter’s legs are in front of the wickets, then the batter is out. This rule tends to be very technical, but that’s the gist of it.

The equipment needed to play the game is fairly basic. The ball is hard and made of leather with one seam. Women play with a ball weighing 142grams, and men play with a 156gram ball. Everything else is the same between the women’s and men’s version. The keeper and batters wear a helmet and box and shin pads. Batters can also wear other protective gear, like arm guard, chest guard, thigh pads, but these are not compulsory. If a fielder fields close to the bat, like in silly mid-on, they also need to wear a helmet. Unlike baseball, fielders catch the ball with their bare hands.

Bowling – this is where it gets a little complicated. Cricket does love its technical rules. A bowler must bowl with a straight arm and the ball usually bounces once before it gets to the batter. A full toss (where it doesn’t bounce) is legal if the ball arrives at the batter under his waist height, and a full toss is easier to hit so bowlers try to avoid it. If it bounces more than once, it’s a no-ball (illegal) and the bowler has to bowl it again, while the batting team gets a free run (called an extra).

There are two types of bowlers – a pace bowler and a spin bowler.

A pace bowler, as the name suggests, bowls as fast as possible. The world record is around 163km/hr (101.2 miles/hr). The pace bowler beats the batter with speed, and sometimes also swing. Remember how there is only one ball used for the innings; the fielding team are allowed to shine the ball, which means they can make one side shiny while the other side gets roughened through use. They are not allowed to rough the ball on purpose. Having one shiny and one rough side makes the ball swing in the air.

A spin bowler relies on the motion of the ball to trick the batter. There are two types (I warned you this was complicated). A off spinner, or finger spinner, uses their fingers to rotate the ball out of their hand. A leg spinner, or wrist spinner, uses their wrist to rotate the ball.

With six balls per over, the bowler uses strategy to get the batter out. A pace bowler can change the speed of the ball, the seam placement out of their hand (straight seam vs scrambled seam), as well as the placement of the bounce. A spin bowler can change the rotation speed, the spin direction, the flight shape, and the placement of the bounce to confuse the batter.

Batting. The aim of a batter is to get the most number of runs without getting out. Their bat is made of wood and has a flat side to hit the ball with, while back of the bat has a ‘hill’ shape to it. The basic shot is the straight drive, played with a vertical bat. The batter can hit the ball anywhere on the field, even behind themselves, but they need to avoid all the fielders.

Clothing – why do they wear whites? Okay, so they don’t. I mean, they do … but only in test cricket for traditional reasons that are lost to the weirdness of England deciding the rules, probably something posh. In the shorter formats they are allowed to wear colours.

So that’s basically it. Both teams have a batting innings where they get as many runs as possible without getting out. Each team fields while the other team is batting, trying to get them out for the least amount of runs. The most runs wins. It’s supposedly a gentleman’s game, but also the most famous game is the Ashes, where the trophy is literally a tiny urn filled with the ashes of a wicket given to England as a joke after they lost to Australia in 1882.

Cricket Slam is my fictional series based on the Australian Women’s Big Bash Tournament, which is a T20 format. T20 is the fastest and most exciting format of the game. With less overs but the same number of wickets, batters take more risks, hit the ball harder and further, and the game takes about four hours. All the titles in this series are cricket slang.

Captain’s Knock – when the captain of the team has an outstanding batting innings (usually to save the game), eg “They need a captain’s knock now.”

Sweet Spot – the part of the bat that gets the biggest hit

Maiden Over – when a bowler bowls all six balls without having a run scored

Fine Leg – a fielding position

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