A Brief Cricket Guide For American Baseball Fans

I am back in the USA, but I am missing my daily dose of cricket each evening.  I found watching cricket incredibly relaxing in the evening.  Despite common perception, it is not a difficult sport to understand -- it just has a vocabulary all its own.

This is actually a pretty big week in British cricket, as the biennial Ashes matches between Australia and England begin on Wednesday.  Apparently, Australia has pretty much owned England over the years, with the exception of an exciting victory by England four years ago.   The only way I have found to watch it in the US is via a pay internet site associated with Sky TV.  Anyone have any better ways?

Cricket for American Baseball Fans

As a public service, here is my quick description of cricket in terms American baseball fans will understand.  This will leave out some details and arcana (just as one can easily describe the basics of baseball without mentioning catcher interference or running on a dropped third strike).  Commenters are free to get all over me with exaggerated anger for any small mistakes I make.  Note that I purposefully am using some American baseball terms for things in order to make the translation easier.

The cricket field is a large oval (of varying sizes) with two wickets or stumps about 66 feet apart in the middle of the field (about 6 feet longer than the distance from an American pitching mound to home plate) (picture).  Think of the two stumps as two home plates separated by a single base path.   This is a useful way to think of it because herein we get to the part that is most confusing to Americans:  At any one time, there are two batsmen, one at each end.  And, there are two bowlers (the equivalent of pitchers), again one on each end.  If you think of it as two home plates, each with its own batter and pitcher alternating play, you get the idea.

Play progresses in a series of overs, which is 6 balls or pitches in a row.  A single bowler will bowl 6 balls, or one over, from his end, and then play reverses and the other bowler at the other end will bowl six balls.  This continues until all the batters on the team are out (more in a minute).  As in baseball, bowlers get tired and get replaced over time.  Much like high school or little league baseball, bowlers are not specialists but are fielders who are rotated in and out of the bowling position from the field.  Again, just like American baseball, bowlers can be straight ahead speed specialists or they can be spinners (ie throw a variety of curving balls).  Bowlers generally bounce the ball into the batsman (though they don't have to), as they can then take advantage of funny hops off the uneven playing surface and because the bounce can accentuate the effects of spin.  Unlike American pitchers who are fixed to a spot on the mound, cricket bowlers can make long running starts to their bowling.

Since there are two batsmen, whoever is facing the current bowler is the active batter. In addition to the bowlers and the keeper (like an American catcher) there are 9 fielders dispersed 360 degrees around the batter.  Only the catcher wears something like an American-style leather glove -- all the other fielders are bare-handed.

OK, here is the second thing that befuddles American baseball fans:  Batsmen continue to bat and score runs until they are out - even if this takes hours and scores of pitches.   There are no ball and strike counts that limit the time batting.  If the batter hits a short ground ball to a fielder, a sure out in American baseball, he does not have to run in cricket and therefore cannot get out.  And once he hits and gets some runs, he still keeps batting.  These are all differences from American baseball.

When the batsman gets a hit, he has a choice to run.   If he chooses to run, both he and his partner (remember there are two batsman at a time) run to the opposite stump.  Making it safely is one run.    If the ball is hit well enough, he may run back and forth for more than one run.  If the ball rolls all the way to the "outfield" wall, it is automatically scored as four runs.  If the ball clears the "outfield" fence on the fly (the equivalent of an American home run) it is automatically 6 runs.

Note that if the batter runs an even number of bases, he ends up back at the stump where he started and he will be the one to face the bowler on the next pitch.  If he scores an odd number of runs, the other batsman will now face the bowler.  There is some strategy involved in this, as it gives the batting team some leeway to determine which of its two batters will face the current bowler.

There are a number of arcane ways to get a batter out, but the most common are the following:

  • Bowled:  The ball hits and breaks the wicket.  First and foremost, then, a batter is defensive.  He needs to make contact with any ball that is headed for the wicket.  If any part of the batsman hits the wicket (eg he hits it with his bat or with his leg while running) this is also an out.
  • Leg before wicket (LBW):  If the ball hits the batters leg, and the referee rules the ball would have hit the stump, the batter is out
  • Run out:  When the batter chooses to run (and this is a choice) he can be "thrown out" in baseball parlance if a fielder throws the ball back and hits the stump  (or someone tags the stump with the ball) before the runner gets back to the wicket (the equivalent to a force-out in baseball).  I have not watched a lot of cricket, but I have never seen anyone run out.  Batsmen tend to be pretty conservative in going for runs this way, as a single out is far more devastating than in American baseball so they take fewer chances.  Its better to live and bat some more than try to stretch out a single extra run.  Particularly since a good batter can score 50 or even 100 runs in a single at-bat (or inning) before getting out.
  • Caught:  If the batter hits the ball in the air and it is caught, the batter is out.  There are several fielders typically concentrated just behind the batter as catching the equivalent of an American foul tip backwards (there is no foul territory in cricket)  seems a particularly rich source of caught balls.

Batters therefor face a tension.  They must guard the wicket at all costs, and the safest way to do so is to hit a lot of ground balls to avoid being caught out.  But the batter also needs to score, and so must sometimes take some chances in order to score runs by putting the ball in the air.  The best batters seem to be the ones who can hit the ball hard on the ground and consciously seek out gaps in the fielders.  The best equivalent in baseball I can think of is batters who are good at hitting the infield gaps on hit and run plays.

An inning is the process of having an entire team bat and be put out once.  In a test match, typically over four days, each team might have two innings.  There are a number of rules variations that might end innings sooner on time or number of overs.

A note on scoring:  When watching TV, they still flash a lot of stats I do not frankly understand.  But the most common will be a score after a test match might say England was 292 and 165.  This means they had 292 runs in their first innings and 165 in their second.  For an inning in progress, the score will look something like this:  164-4.  This means that the team batting has so far scored 164 runs and has had four batsmen put out.

There are many other unique terms (I personally like "maiden" as a particularly apt term for a no-run over) but I think this is a good start.   There is a lot of arcana in test cricket I don't yet understand, but none of it stops me from enjoying the games.   Enjoy.  That is, if one could ever get any cricket on American TV.

  • Jess

    Well, that's pretty much how I understand cricket, so "two thumbs up" on the effort...

    but (saw that coming), there's no such thing as a "dropped third strike" in BB - it's an "uncaught third strike" (ex - batter takes a swing at a pitched ball over his head & out of the catcher's reach, then w/no runner @1st {except w/2 outs} the batter is now a runner...)
    and a "foul tip" is a hit ball that travels sharp & direct & makes contact w/the catcher's glove and is then caught (not just by the catcher) for a strike (or an out if the 3rd strike).

    Heh.

  • Geoffrey Stone

    For someone who has no history with the game, you have done a good job. I grew up playing and enjoying cricket in Bermuda and it is a fascinating game filled with strategy and tactics. For me it is the polar opposite to N American major sports, which are played in very short bursts. It is a beautiful game, and for me, nothing says summer like cooling out and watching a Test match (which is a five day affair, not four).

    Run-outs are far more common in the one day game when batsmen have more urgency to chase a run total and less time and overs in which to do it. The late overs can be filled with them!

    Geoff

  • Kit

    Just a slight correction: "British cricket" - sadly the Scottish never took to cricket which is mostly put down to the fact they have never had five consecutive days without rain. 😉

  • I have watched cricket highlights over the years on my flights and while waiting in airports. I also find it interesting. I especially love the bowler's motion, all windmilling arms and whatnot. I think that some test matches are available via pay per view in some places, on satellite at least.

  • Michael Wolf

    You're right about the tension between scoring runs quickly and remaining not out, but you didn't mention the flip side of that coin, which is that the same tension exists for the bowlers! A bowler can also bowl in a more attacking or in a more conservative style; usually, bowling more aggressively will result in both more runs being scored and more wickets being taken. Since there are two bowlers bowling at a given time, there's lots of room to adjust tactics and strategy: a conservative bowler bowling from one end and an aggressive one from the other, for instance.

    As to some of the stats, one is the strike rate. For bowlers, this is how many balls are bowled on average per wicket; for batsmen, the same term is used for how many runs are scored per 100 balls faced. Both are a lot like ERA in baseball, including its flaws—much like a pitcher (even using ERA), a great bowler's official stats aren't helped by bad fielders. Another measure, for bowlers, is runs allowed per over. All very primitive. Cricket is still waiting for its Bill James and its Billy Beane, but it'll be fun to watch a heretofore crappy side suddenly start beating all comers with hardly anybody knowing why. At least, it would be fun to watch if it were available to watch in North America.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    I'd say the only important thing you missed is the continuous use of the same ball and its consequent tendency to become seriously scuffed, increasing its bite. As a result the spin bowlers tend to be more effective later in the match. Over the years I managed to make three half-centuries in friendlies, every one of them early in the match.

    For me there was nothing worse than having to face a left-handed off spin-bowler, and I usually ended up sitting down in short order.

  • hkk

    You can watch a lot of highlights online. Here is a website which has 10min highlights of Test Matches(the 5 day kind), 1 Day matches - where each side bats for 50overs and T20 cricket which is the 2hr version of the game
    http://cricket-online.tv/

  • Warren

    As a follower from across the Atlantic of both your blogs, and a cricketer, I'm delighted you like our great game. Great job with the description.

    Ben

  • Jonathan

    As others have said, a very good description. One minor quibble, there is no such thing as an "inning", but only "innings". The singular of innings is also innings, almost as if the game was designed to be confusing.

    One of the other interesting differences from baseball is the concept of declaring. Basically, the team currently batting decides they've scored enough runs to win, and lets the other team begin batting. This is often done strategically so as to avoid ties (not sure if that is the term used). For example, suppose a two-day test match and it takes the first batting team isn't out at the end of the first day. If they continue to play until they're all out (10 wickets lost), then the second batting team cannot be considered to have lost unless they too are all out. But if the first team has taken too long, then there may not be enough time for the second team to lose.

    By declaring, say with a score of 176-5, the second team loses if they have 5 outs before reaching 176 runs.

    I've really enjoyed watching cricket. It's like a more exciting version of golf, and I never get tired of seeing a sport played in sweaters and which can be disrupted by "bad light" and for snacks.

  • ben

    This is literally the first time I've heard an American say nice things about cricket. I grew up playing cricket in Canterbury, NZ (my claim to fame: I used to open the bowling with Shane Bond for Canterbury under 13 and under 15s...anybody? anybody?)

    Your description is right on Coyote.

    The thing I enjoy most about top quality test cricket, of which there is plenty in Australia but not in NZ, is the extraordinary skill of the players, watching the bowling team bowl to a plan, and the natural tension that goes with the possibility of something dramatic every ball. Sometimes you have to wait for it, sometimes hours, for the pay off. A large part of test cricket is mental - five days of cricket involves a lot of sustained pressure and the mental side of the game is probably more important than skill. Australia has completely dominated England on this front for at least 30 years. England has a record of missing the key moments - they nearly threw away 2005's win in the last hour of the last test from memory, and that is entirely a mental thing.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    I was in Australia when England beat Australia in the Ashes test matches in 2005. Shane Warne became a national disgrace in Australia for a time (perhaps still is?).

    The most interesting aspect I found being in country at the time was the amount of trash talking between the two countries, and the overall livelihood of the rivalry spanning to opposite sides of the globe. It was like they were next door neighbors.

    London literally exploded when they won at The Oval, and people in Australia were visibly dejected.

    Following the defeat, the Sky TV press hounded the Aussie team until they hopped a Qantas jet, and were back home 21 hours later, when they hounded them some more.

    DirecTV carries “CricketTicket”

    See here

    But I don’t see the Ashes on the list.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    How is Bond's back these days? He got stove up pretty bad after his Test prominence earlier in the decade. Last I heard of him he was off with some upstart league in India, no? ... but still having back trouble.

  • ben

    Bart, I think he's healthy. He was in India with a rebel league which, for purely political reasons I think, meant his contract with NZ Cricket was terminated. But that league has crashed and he just come back on contract for NZ Cricket - great news. Not sure when his first game is, I think he is touring with the NZ 2nd XI trying to get back to international level of fitness.

    You know he bowls now with the exact same action as he did when he was 12. A bit faster now. 🙂

  • Dion

    Warren,
    It appears that the ashes will be screening on Zee Sport in the US. http://www.zeesports.us

    @Bart
    Bond will be playing for New Zealand in the tour of Sri Lanka.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    So, apart from speed, Ben, how do you rate him compared to Harris? Is he now getting back into the ODIs? -- where he used to be devastating, like 6-26 or so -- which is where I first became aware of him.

    I've got a cousin in Hamilton but it's nevertheless a challenge to follow NZ cricket over here. Keep on sticking it to Oz. The southern Oz, not Kansas Oz.

  • Tractordriver

    Coyote,

    As a Arizona native now a resident in Australia I can say that I really enjoy Cricket. I was a baseball fan and really missed the game after relocating "down under". But soon forgot all I knew about baseball and started to really understand cricket. Coyote, you really gave a fine description of the game using baseball as the point of understanding. A test match, because of the five day length and possible weather disruptions, makes for a game that needs players that can stay mentally alert and keep to a good plan. To me cricket has truely replaced baseball. Now if only the Aussies could learn to make good Mexican food!

    Thanks, Tractordriver (from Stanfield)

  • Max

    Well, you could try p2p streaming tv, if you are that interested: http://www.myp2p.eu/competition.php?competitionid=&part=sports&discipline=cricket
    Though, I'd wager the time difference is too much to bother =)

  • Current

    Something else that should be mentioned is the action of bowling.

    Throwing the ball to the batsman is not allowed in Cricket (throwing it on other occasions is). The bowler must not move his elbow beyond a certain angle (15 deg) or it is considered a throw and consequently a no-ball.

    The little video on wikipedia shows it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_(cricket)

  • Here is a 'classic' explanation of cricket. I should warn you that some might find quantum mechanics easier to understand!

    "There are two sides, one out in the field the other one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

    When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when
    the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game."

    There you are, quite simple, really!

  • Jaspear

    The Ashes is available on Dish Network.

  • Billy Ruff'n

    I lived in Australia in the '90s and became aquainted with the game. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was being able to fall asleep on the couch while watching a match and wake up an hour later having missed nothing -- same side at bat, same batters up, score basically unchanged. Cricket is a very civilized sport.

  • Any cricket shown on the BBC should be available for a week afterwards on the BBC iPlayer (internet TV platform)

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/categories/sport/tv

  • I am an ex-Englishman, now a proud American citizen, and have not lived in the UK for 30 years. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I think we only have one bowler at a time. Can some of you current cricket buffs confirm this?

  • An excellent description. Here are just two thoughts (there are many) on cricket/baseball. Catching in cricket is better than in baseball because fielders don't have gloves. They are experts with both hands. Throwing in baseball is superb. The speed and accuracy with which outfielders throw back is extraordinary.

    Two great games that fans of one would more than likely enjoy the other.

  • Knowledge of cricket rules is certainly a sort of sublime arcana to an outside observer which is very fascinating it its own right. Also, you are right it does come with colourful language (like a batsman who is out for zero has "scored a duck" - don't think about it too much).

    However this belittles the true purpose of cricket as established by the test match. It is an excuse to take a five day holiday in a colonial tropical establishment whilst sipping gin and tonics and listening to a BBC international broadcast. "What? A war has started you say? Damn nuisance. I was just getting settled in to listen to the test match" etc.

  • How could we have several mentions of the colourful (note the intentional British spelling) language of cricket without any mention of the dumbest position name in any sport: "silly mid off".

    Here's a guy who stands about three feet in front of the batsman waiting for a catch, or to have his face rearranged by the ball.

    And "maiden" is even more colourful when used in it's full context as in "bowling a maiden over".

    For an American, Warren has done a great job of explaining cricket. I don't bother going to all that trouble when explaining it to my American friends. I just tell them it's like a cross between baseball and chess and yet unlike both those games, not boring!

  • Sam

    I am a massive cricket fan - watching and playing - and I thought this was an excellent description. One thing you did miss, however, is one day cricket. Teams are restricted to a certain number of overs (50 or 20, can be less if there's rain) and have one innings each. Run outs are also more common here as a batsman's wicket loses value for the need to score quickly. One day cricket gets larger attendances, however it is not as respected as the purest form of the game: Test cricket.