A Beginner’s Guide to Cricket

People from non-cricketing countries (poor, sad souls) often ask me to explain cricket to them. Here in San Miguel I have lost count of how many times I’ve sat at a bar using glasses for batsmen and coasters for the fielders. It seems to me more than past time to set my simple principles of cricket down for the greater world to enjoy. It disturbs me that so many of those sad souls labour under the misapprehension that the blessed game is an arcane and difficult one into whose mysteries you must be initiated from birth, otherwise understanding is impossible.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Cricket is dead easy to understand. Like the world’s greatest board game, Go, the principles are simple, but the variations endless. Anyone can learn to understand, enjoy, and ultimately, love, cricket. Quite simply it is the world’s greatest spectator sport.

Plus you have me, the mistress of easy (er, but not in that sense) to teach you how.

Cricket, of course, is not for everyone. Those readers who have zero interest in spectator sports should stop reading now. Run off to your yoga class, go walk your dog, turn back to that book you were reading. This musing is not for you.

For the rest of you here are the basics of cricket:

Cricket is a team sport. The team which scores the most amount of runs, and gets the other team out, wins. Nothing simpler.

There are two forms of the game:

1) Test cricket—which takes place over five days. Think of it as akin to the novel with all the running dramas, climaxes, anti-climaxes, intrigues and counter-intrigues of that artform. Test cricket is the original and only true form of cricket.

2) Pyjama or One-Day cricket—the shortened form. It is to test cricket as a bad TV advertisment (wheredyagedit?) is to a superb film. Loud, noisy, predictable, wholly lacking in subtlety and eye-jarringly colourful. To be watched only if there is no test cricket available.

For obvious reasons, I will largely be discussing test cricket.

Cricket is played on an oval. A large expanse of green grass usually surrounded by a white picket fence. The grass is kept at a specific height by the groundsman. In the centre of the oval is the cricket pitch (or wicket) which is a strip of paler grass. The wicket (or cricket pitch) is also carefully presided over by the groundsman, but once the game begins grass is left to grow and the wicket to deteriorate. Thus the conditions for playing change over the five days of a test. The condition of the oval and pitch has a large effect on whether the cricket played on it will be high or low-scoring. Some afficionados argue that the groundsman is the most important person in cricket. I think this is going a tad too far.

At either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) are the stumps (or wicket). The stumps are a wooden constuction of three stakes (Buffy would have plenty of weapons available should she have to deal with a nest of vampires while attending a cricket match) impaled in the ground, with two smaller pieces of wood, known as the bails, balanced on top. In front of these stumps (or wicket) at either end is a white painted line which marks the crease.

Two teams of twelve people play (though the position of the twelfth man is that of gofer. They don’t actually play unless one of the fielders needs to leave the oval for a short amount of time). The two teams take turns fielding and batting. In test cricket each team has two innings. In pyjama (or one-day) cricket they have one innings each.

The team batting has the job of protecting the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs. Two batsmen at a time are on the field (unless one of the batsmen is injured in which case they have a runner and there are three batsmen on the field). One batsman is at either end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) defending the stumps (or wicket) and trying to score runs.

Runs are scored by hitting the ball (made of cork covered with red leather) with a cricket bat (traditionally made of willow—thus the expression "the glorious sound of leather on willow" which sound dirty if you’re thinking of a certain character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and running up and down the cricket pitch (or wicket). Although only one batsmen can hit the ball at any one time, both must run and get safely behind their crease. If the ball is hit all the way to the boundary (typically a thick white rope, not the fence) it is deemed to be four runs. If it is hit over the boundary it is six runs. The batsmen need not run for these boundaries.

Once a batsmen has run safely from one end of the cricket pitch (or wicket) to the other they have scored one run for themselves and also for their team. The batsman who is facing the bowling is said to be on strike. You do not have to hit each ball. You do not have to run if you do hit the ball. Hitting the ball to the boundary is the most efficient way of making runs because you accumulate runs faster and you don’t have to exhaust yourself running.

Getting fifty runs is good for an individual batsman, getting one hundred (or a century) is better, and getting more still is even better. The most amount of individual runs ever was 380 scored by the Australian Matthew Hayden. (Update 13 April: it’s now Brian Lara with 400 not out. Woo hoo!) The highest ever career average for a batsman is that of Donald Bradman (also an Australian): 99.94. Of course cricket is a team sport and individual feats and statistics are rarely mentioned and of little importance.

The job of the fielding side is to get the batsmen out and prevent them from scoring runs. This is achieved by standing in positions where the team captain thinks they are most likely to get a catch or prevent runs. Only one of the fielders, the wicket keeper, wears gloves to help catch the ball (unlike, say, baseball). The wicket keeper stands behind the stumps (or wicket).

All fielding positions have specific names that indicate their relationship to the batsmen on strike. A deep position is one that is a long way from the batsman and closer to the boundary. A short or silly position is one that is closer to the batsman. Leg or on side positions are closer to the back of the batsman’s legs. Off side positions are closer to the front of the batsman.

When a batsmen gets out they leave the field and the next batsman in the batting order comes out to replace them. The batting order usually runs from best batsmen to worst (the exception being the nightwatchman). There are cricketers who are specialist bowlers, cricketers who are specialist batsmen, as well as that rare beast, the all-rounder, who is good at both. Regardless of batting ability every one on the team (save the twelfth man) must bat.

There must be two batsmen for play to continue so once the tenth batsman is out the innings is over.

The Play

The game begins when the captain of each side walks out on to the oval and a coin is tossed. The winner of the toss decides whether they want to bat or field first. Their decision is based on the weather, the conditions of the pitch, what they know of their opponents and of their own team.

Test cricket play typically commences at 11AM and continues until 6PM, with scheduled breaks for tea and lunch and unsceduled breaks for drinks. It continues for five days, or less, if there is a result sooner.

Results of a test match are win—your team scores more than theirs and gets theirs all out; lose—your team scores less than theirs and is all out; draw or no result—one team scores more than the other team but fails to get them all out; tie—both teams get the exact same score and are all out (exceptionally rare—this has happened only twice in test cricket history).

Once the matter of who bats first has been decided, the two umpires, the fielding team and the two opening batsmen (or openers) walk out onto the oval. The batsmen take up their positions in front of the two sets of stumps.

Opening batsman is a specialist batting position given to the two batsman on the team who are good at accumulating runs, not prone to throwing their wickets away, and work well together. It is essential that the openers have a mutual understanding of when to run and even more importantly when not to run.

At the same time, the fielders take up their positions: the wicket keeper behind the stumps (or wicket) of the batsman who bats first, the opening bowler at the other end of the cricket pitch, and the rest of the fielders in positions determined by the captain and the bowler which they deem to be best for getting this particular batsmen out and preventing them from scoring too many runs.

Some of the factors they take into account when determining these field placings are: whether the batsman is right or left handed, whether the batsman is known to be fond of particular strokes, how the batsman proceeds to bat in this particular innings, and how fast or slow the wicket (cricket pitch) is.

The opening bowler, usually a fast bowler (or quick), bowls an over from one end of the oval. Usually the two ends are named for their geographical locations. At the S. C. G. (Sydney Cricket Ground) there is the Paddington end and the Randwick (or University of New South Wales) end. One of the ends at the ‘Gabba (the major cricket ground in Brisbane) is known as the Vulture St end which has always seemed remarkably ominous to me.

An over consists of six legitmate bowls. If the bowler bowls a ball the umpires deem to be illegitimate (a wide or a no ball) the bowler must bowl another ball and the over ends up consisting of more than six balls (and thus more than six opportunities to score runs for the batsmen). Some overs wind up being 17 or 18 balls long, but this is uncommon. Each time there is an illegitmate delivery the batting team is given an extra run. These are called sundries.

If the batsman hits the ball and gets a run, the two batsmen change ends and the bowler finds themselves having to reset the field (change the positions of all the fielders) to accommodate the new batsman. If each ball results in a single run the batsmen will change end six times, resulting in frequent changeovers of the field.

After the first over is finished a second bowler bowls an over from the other end. At the completion of that over the ends change again and the first bowler bowls another over. The two bowlers thus rotate the bowling until they begin to tire, or bowl badly, or annoy the captain, who replaces them with a different bowler. A bowler can only be replaced once they have completed an over.

In order for a batsman to get out they must be dismissed in one of the following ways:

Bowled. The bowler bowls a ball which goes past the batsman and hits the stumps (or wicket), dislodging the bails. Common.

Caught. The batsmen hits the ball (or it comes off their gloves) into the air and a fielder catches it before it hits the ground. Common.

Handled Ball
. The batsmen picks up the ball. Uncommon.

Hit Ball Twice
. The batsmen hits the ball, it doesn’t go anywhere, so they take a second swipe at it. Uncommon.

Hit Wicket. The batsmen hits their own stumps (or wicket) dislodging the bails. Uncommon.

Leg Before Wicket
. The batsmen does not offer a stroke to a ball that would have hit their stumps were their pads not in the way. Common.

Obstructed Field
. The batsman deliberately tries to prevent a fielder either taking a catch or throwing down the stumps. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

Run Out. The batsman fails to make it back behind the crease before the opposing side has dislodged the bails with the cricket ball, either thrown or held in the hand. Common.

Stumped. The batsman steps out of their crease to strike the ball, misses, and before they can step back the wicket keeper dislodges the bails with cricket ball in hand. Common.

Timed Out. The batsman fails to come out to bat within three minutes of the fall of wicket. Uncommon. I’ve never seen this happen.

In addition to being caught, bowled or any of the other possibilities listed above there must also be an appeal. An appeal consists of the fielding team leaping in the air screaming "howzat?" and staring at the umpires with a fierce expression that generally means "you’d have to be barking mad not to give the bastard out". If the umpire agrees they will raise their index finger. If they disagree they will do nothing, or shake their head. Umpires are universally known not to be intimidated by the antics of the fielding team and their decisions are always just and fair. Particularly those of Steve Bucknor.

Once a batsman is given out by the umpire they slowly trudge off the field looking miserable (particulary if they have scored a duck [no runs]). Batsmen never look happy getting out even if they have scored a double century. Someone would say particularly if they have scored a double century, because they were deprived of the chance to knock over the world record for number of runs scored. Though of course cricket is all about the team and not about individual statistics.

The score is represented thus: number of wickets taken followed by a forward slash, followed by the number of runs scored. If one wicket has been taken and 23 runs scored the score looks like this: 1/23 which is read as "one for twenty three" (except in England where for some bizarre reason they do it like this: 23/1 or twenty-three for one). As more runs are scored and more wickets taken the score changes. However you will never see 10/ because once ten wickets are taken the innings is over.

The next batsman then comes out, jogging up and down on the spot and generally giving the impression of being raring to go and ready to knock every delivery far, far out of the ground. That is if the next batsman is still an actual batsman and not a bowler masquerading as a batsman. In that case they will walk out somewhat unsteadily holding the bat as if they aren’t quite sure what it’s for or how to hold it. They will stand at the crease and stare up the other end at the fast bowler who is hurtling towards them faster than Phar Lap and they will valiantly try not to panic and run.

Such a batsman is known as a tailender. My favourite spectacle in cricket is when there is only one genuine batsman left and they are in the position of having to stay on strike and thus protect the tailender from getting out and possibly injured (in that order).

Because the strike automatically changes at the end of every over (or every six balls). The real batsman tries to end the over by hitting a single thus ensuring that they keep the strike and the tailender doesn’t have to deal with that scary red thing hurtling towards their body and/or wicket (stumps). This leaves the good batsman in the awful position of sometimes having to resist hitting a boundary for fear of handing the strike over to the incompetent, afraid-of-the-ball, not-quite-sure-which-end-of-the-bat-is-up tailender. Meanwhile the fielding side is doing everything it can to give the tailender the strike so that they can then get them out. Mostly by terrifying the poor bastard into treading on their own wicket. It is most gratifying to watch.

Once the tenth bastman is out the innings ends. The innings total consists of the combined total of all the individual batsman plus all the sundries (illegitimate deliveries) conceded by the bowling side. Let’s say for example that the first side to bat, who we’ll call Australia, score 456 and still aren’t all out. The captain might decide that 456 is a very solid, good, defensible total and declare. A declaration means that the captain has decided to end their team’s innings before they are all out.

The new batting side, let’s call them England, will be aiming to get that much and hopefully two hundred or more besides. So that when Australia bat again in their second and final innings they will have a difficult target to achieve. (Second innings totals are almost always smaller than first innings totals.) If Australia are all out before they reach England’s first innings total then England has won (and pigs would start to fly).

A much more likely result is that England would go out for their first batting innings and tragically (though predictably) make only 123 runs and fall well short of Australia’s first innings total. This means that Australia has a choice: they can now go out to bat and make an even bigger total for England to get in their second innings or they can enforce the follow on. The follow on means that Australia postpones their second batting innings and forces England to bat twice in a row, gambling that they can get England all out before they reach, or get very much further than, the first innings total of 456.

Australia does this and gets England all out for 234. Sadly the two totals 123 + 234 is still less than Australia’s first innings total and England lose by an entire innings and 99 runs. Not an unusual result for either side.

And there you have it. Enough cricket knowledge to allow you to follow a test match without any difficulty. Before long though you’ll find yourself thirsting for more so you can follow the intricacies of the game and not just these bare basics. Don’t despair! Coming soon:

The Slightly More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket. To be followed shortly after by the Moderately More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket, and not long after that, by the Substantially More than Beginners’ Guide to Cricket.

San Miguel de Allende, 16 February 2004