Batsmen And Bowlers
Many Americans, if asked about cricket, would have a vague knowledge of it. They would likely describe it as a game that’s primarily played abroad; however, it is a sport that has a committed following in the United States and here in New Orleans. The local teams include a mixture of Americans and expats and local universities like Tulane and UNO feature club teams. Some travel to play teams in places like Hattiesburg, Houston, and Ocala.
Before Katrina, there was even a field reserved specially for cricket at Joe Brown Park in New Orleans East. Sadly, the hurricane devastated the field like it did all of New Orleans East. Membership dropped after the storm as many players relocated. But thanks to the dedicated group who stayed in New Orleans and secured new fields, participation is on the rise again and most weekends feature cricket matches at both City Park in New Orleans and Lafreniere Park in Metairie.
At a casual glance, cricket looks like a cousin of baseball. There are some similarities aside from the basics of one person throwing ball to another person who hits it with a bat. The object of the game is to score more runs than the opponent. If a batted ball is caught in the air, the batsman is out.
But there are a number of striking differences as well (for a glossary of basic terms, see the sidebar). Unlike baseball, which is played on a diamond, cricket is played in an oval. The batsman stands in front of a wicket while waiting for a ball from the opposing bowler. Instead of fair and foul territory, the batsman can hit the ball in any direction. Once the ball is hit, the batsman has a choice on whether or not to run. Instead of automatically having to run whenever a ball is in play, a cricket batsman can stay put in his batter’s box if he feels he won’t score a run safely. If the wicket is broken while he is out of his batter’s box, he’s out. As a result, batsmen are often more cautious and defensive than batters in baseball.
The first batters of the match are there to primarily defend the wicket and make the opposing bowler work hard and hopefully tire out. Scoring runs is great, but working the bowler is key. This is like leadoff hitters in baseball working a pitch count so the cleanup hitter will get better pitches to hit. Then, the more powerful hitters bat against tired bowlers and go for the boundary-clearing hits (the fours and the sixes).
Batters wear protective padding on their legs, protective gloves covering their forearms and wrists, and a batting helmet with a protective face guard may be worn as well. The wicket keeper (cricket’s equivalent to the catcher in baseball) is the only fielder allowed to wear gloves.
The length of the game can vary wildly. International test matches can last days. Shorter matches with a restricted number of overs (the kind played by local teams) typically last somewhere between 4-6 hours. Each team has 11 players in the field.
Many cricket players are expatriates who grew up in a country where cricket is an integral part of the culture like the United Kingdom, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For some countries, the sport’s popularity is like that of football, baseball, and basketball combined. Sridhar Rao Takkallapalli, president and captain of the cricket club at the University of New Orleans, grew up in Hyderabad, India. “I love everything about cricket,” Takkallapalli said. “I grew up in a country where cricket is more than a sport.”
Benji Haswell, who plays with and captains a cricket team sponsored by Finn McCool’s Pub, grew up in South Africa (although he was born in Baton Rouge, the son of LSU’s first rugby coach). As a younger man, he played a lot of soccer and rugby. He played cricket through his youth, but the sport took a back seat to his other interests. But as he’s gotten older, it’s become a bigger part of his life. A few years ago, he survived a battle with pancreatic cancer. Now, he’s no longer able to physically withstand soccer’s endless running and sometimes vicious slide tackling nor the full-body tackling required in rugby. With cricket, he’s able to enjoy the activity of playing a sport and the camaraderie of being part of a team without the physical toll of more high-contact sports.
But not all cricket players are attracted to the sport because they grew up with it. More Americans are being drawn to the game. Bob Rivard, an American who now runs the Crescent City Cricket Club, says he first began playing cricket in the 80s when he saw a notice in The Times Picayune seeking players for a cricket team. Rivard had played softball for much of his life, but that sport had grown stale to him and he was looking for a change. For a softball player like Rivard, cricket bore enough of a resemblance to the sport he excelled at but was different enough that he decided to give it a try. And he’s been playing ever since. “It’s like baseball, but it’s much more open-ended,” Rivard said. “There’s more strategy.”
While some people might initially be intimidated by the length of the matches, for cricket players, this is part of the game’s appeal. Because the matches last for hours and a team’s turn at batting can last a long time, it encourages conversation and joking around with teammates and opponents. Players and spectators often bring food or barbecue and turn the whole day into a social event.
Breaking Into The Game
The rules can be difficult to absorb at first. Takkallapalli says that because of cricket’s superficial similarities to baseball, many novice American players approach the game as if it were baseball but with a different bat and ball, which is a mistake. He says he starts off new players on the UNO team as fielders so they have time to observe the game and how it’s played before getting into the intricacies of batting and bowling.
While the differences between cricket and baseball can throw Americans for a loop at first, good baseball players have a solid chance to succeed at cricket with time and patience. Excellent hand-eye coordination is crucial in both sports. “If you have an eye for batting a baseball, you can play cricket,” Haswell said.
In addition to this, proper stamina helps. While cricket does not have the frenetic anaerobic pace of a sport like basketball or subject its players to the physical punishment of football, the matches do last several hours. Players will have to run in short bursts throughout the game and remained focused. Staying sharp from start to finish requires good stamina.
The hardest part of the game for newcomers is probably bowling. When Americans throw a baseball, they bend their elbows and they make the pitch from a windup at a standstill. Cricket bowlers throw with a straight elbow; some throw fast and others put more spin on the ball. This can take a lot of adjustment for an American, but it’s far from an impossible skill to learn.
But for those willing to take a little time to learn the game, the sport has plenty of rewards. Like any sport, once you understand the basics of the rules and strategy, it becomes a lot more fun to participate in and watch. And like all team sports, it offers the opportunity to meet and befriend a variety of people from different backgrounds. On the Finn McCool’s team alone, there’s people from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand. Uniting people from so many different backgrounds and cultures in friendship is quintessentially New Orleanian. “It’s the whole New Orleans gumbo experiment,” Haswell said.
Some Basic Cricket Terms
batsman - The batter (easy enough?)
bowler - Cricket’s equivalent to a pitcher
wicket - Three wooden stumps in a straight line topped by two crosspieces called bails. If the wicket is broken while the batter is out of his box, he’s out.
over - A set of six hittable balls bowled (i.e. pitched) to a single batsman. The length of the game is often determined by an agreed-upon number of overs.
boundary - the edge of the playing field
four - A batted ball that rolls past the boundary on the ground results in four runs
six - A batted ball that flies past the boundary while still airborne results in six runs (cricket’s equivalent to an out-of-the-park home run)
wide ball - A bowled ball that is too wide or too high (sort of like a ball in baseball), resulting in a run for the batting team