It was not very wonderful that Catherine...should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books....
Jane Austen Northanger Abbey (1818)
What is human life but a game of cricket?
THE DUKE OF DORSET (1777)
Britain and America were created, as every serious historian knows, just to see how profoundly two cultures sharing a common language can fail to understand each other. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in the malignant mutual travesty that concerns our respective summer games. You smugly know we English are impossible because of our attachment to the incomprehensible ritual of cricket; we smugly know you Americans will never grow up because of your seriousness over a game we reserve for beach picnics. You don't even call it by its proper name, which is rounders. One plays rounders with a moribund tennis ball and any old bit of wood for a bat. Every decent Englishman knows that, and that "baseball" is sheer Yankee gall—trying to hide a stolen patent under a new trade name. Of course, every decent American, who equally knows baseball was handed straight from God to Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown in 1839, will spit on such a foul imputation.
Alas, poor truth. Chauvinists from either side who go to bat for the kind of view above can be retired to the bench very fast indeed by any dispassionate historian. There is hard textual evidence that baseball was played in England, and under that name, well back into the 18th century. But Americans can take heart. The farther back one goes, the closer the two games seem to interweave and the plainer it becomes that we are dealing with a pair of twin brothers. It is not at all certain which is the senior sibling. My own guess is that the shadowy father, the Ur-game, was a good deal more like his emigrant son Baseball than the introverted child who stayed at home.
They say an intrepid British secret agent once peered out of a Siberian forest at the mind-bending sight of a meadow of white-clad figures disporting themselves before an English village—thatched cottages, ancient pub and all the rest. But our man guessed in a flash what he had stumbled on: a KGB spy school designed to counter the most fiendish of all British cover-blowing techniques—the request for a brief rundown on the finer points of cricket.
Faced with the same task I know exactly how those would-be Soviet espionage aces must have felt. I can only pray that the basecricketballese I have had to resort to, and which will undoubtedly cause a few major coronaries among elderly British purists, does give some idea of our game. I am not, however, going to get into one grisly swampland where many brave essayists have met a tragic end: explaining the detailed rules. All Americans need understand is that whatever the obvious superficial differences between the two modern games, they are both about precisely the same things: pitching and batting, catching and fielding, running and tagging bases. What is fascinating indeed is this remarkable similarity at heart and the considerable difference in present-day ethos and practice, and what that paradox has to say about our two nations.
The first reference to the two games' common ancestor, club ball, is in a 13th century illuminated manuscript. Many variations of club ball developed (hockey and golf among them), and descriptions of the earliest forms are speculative. One version has it that the bases were just holes in the ground and that the striker could only be caught out or tagged out if a fielder hit the running striker with the ball or "popped" it into a base hole before the striker could reach sanctuary. The ball was tossed or bowled underhand, which is why we still, very misleadingly, call our cricket pitchers "bowlers." As in preleague baseball, the pitcher was merely a feeder, and under the striker's command.
What seems to have happened is that this archetypal version of the game went across the Atlantic with the early settlers before an important series of innovations became general in the mother country. The "living fossil" descendant in England is rounders. Visiting Americans who see it played here by boys (and girls) must not think it is some crass British notion of how baseball is played. What they are really watching is the fluid and very delightful game that every 17th and 18th century American must have known—as "old-cat" or "town ball"—before it was coded into baseball. We've all here played rounders when we were children, and one reason we can't get on with baseball is simply that the ferocious professionalism and strict rules of the developed American game seem to us (in our ignorance) like an elephant trying to imitate a chickadee. In rounders you tend to make as many bases as fancy pleases, and the diamond becomes very polyhedral. But the two games are virtually identical in principle.
Grass seems to have been a vital factor in the divergence of the two senior sports. In southern England an early fondness grew for having an upright mark for the pitcher to aim at behind the home plate. Two variants appeared: in one the mark was a tree stump; in the other, played on the short-turfed and treeless hills we call downs in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, the shepherd boys would set up the movable gate, or wicket, they used in their sheep pens. We retain a memory of this medieval division between "woodland" and "downland" cricket in our name for the three basemarker sticks of today's game—still called with equal frequency the "stumps" or the "wicket."
Two more specific characteristics of cricket now arose. The presence of a home-plate marker instead of a hole in the ground led to a new method of putting the batter out: if the pitcher made a strike on the marker, the man with the bat was done for. As time went on, the marker became a thin planted stick, then two sticks and finally a third. In order to know if the side of one of the outer sticks had just been snicked by a pitch, two crosspieces (called "bails") were balanced on top. That gives us the 28-inch-tall, nine-inch-wide, three-stick target of modern cricket.
The second characteristic we owe to the fact that it was the hill shepherds' version of the game that eventually conquered the woodland kind. A feature of many English villages was a central and well-grazed common pasture, the "village green," whose short turf could passably reproduce the downland conditions. One may guess that the shepherd boys had already learned that on short grass the bounced pitch pays handsome dividends, which in turn argues that the pitchers in their game were not content merely to "feed" the batters. But this made nonsense of the old rule of three chances only at hitting, which baseball still retains. In cricket that sank without trace, and ever since our batters have stayed in for as long as they can avoid being put out actively—having their stumps hit by a pitch, being caught on the fly, tagged off base, and so on. Mere failure to connect is no crime.
Exactly when these developments took place we do not know, but cricket seems to have risen from an obscure peasant and children's pastime to general sport in the late 17th century. It was helped on by Cromwell's Commonwealth, when many royalist sympathizers had to lead an idle country life. The first publicly recorded match took place in 1697, the first written laws date from 1744, the first mention of the game in America comes in 1751 (at New York). We know that by that time the bounced pitch was becoming universal and the hostile role permitted the pitcher—not adopted by baseball until the late 19th century—was also general.
Seventeenth century American settlers, on the other hand, cannot have had much time—in the case of the Puritans, no time at all—for frivolous games. Furthermore, they lacked the indispensable fields of short turf; if they pitched at all, one imagines it must have been high over the hay.
It seems logical to infer from all this that since the kind of conditions that dictated the haphazard, makeshift nature of the early medieval sport also applied in colonial America, baseball is the more genuinely "antique" version of the ancestral game. It is cricket, especially in the period 1740-1840, that metaphorically emigrated and became the newfangled of the two sports. If we forget this today it is because the game's basic principles were laid down in that period and it remains at heart an 18th century gentleman's invention, with a characteristic (compare the "rules" of formal dueling) avoidance of direct body-to-body contact. Baseball was of course codified later, and so in that sense seems more modern. Cricket is allied to the fencing rapier, to country squires, to amateurism; baseball to the pugilist's bare-knuckle fist, to a noncaste society, to professionalism.
That emphatically does not mean that cricket was soft and snobbish in its early heyday. It received noble patronage mainly because it proved a heaven-sent opportunity for gambling (the enormous stakes often wagered explain why the rules were formulated so clearly) and drinking; it also required 22 men for a match, and there were seldom enough gentlemen to make up two teams—so they hired their own professionals and let their servants and villagers play with them on equal terms. Indeed, all the rumbustious ills (drunkenness, rioting, umpire baiting, pro snatching, match fixing) that were to beset baseball in the late 19th century are uncannily well foreshadowed in Georgian cricket. In 1796 the headmaster of Eton College flogged the entire cricket team after it had lost a match—not because the players had lost but because they had dared even to take part in so dissolute an activity. The game did not really lose its aura of the disreputable until the 1830s. The myth of the '"clean and manly national sport" was very much a Victorian invention.
The advent of the bounced pitch and the consequent need for one strip of really good "true" turf explains another peculiarity of cricket: the two-base system. Instead of a diamond, things were reduced to the batting and pitching boxes with the best turf between them. Runs are made only between these two boxes. To distribute wear and tear on the turf, home plate and mound are reversed after every six pitches from any one direction, so the catcher (in cricket the "wicket-keeper"—and the only fielder allowed gloves, by the way) and the nine other fielders have to change position or ends. This constant switch round explains why there are three stumps at either end of the batting "track." The bowlers themselves can also change ends, but not in any two consecutive six-pitch spells. In general a cricket pitcher works from one end until he is tired or shown to be ineffective, and another pitcher takes his place. He won't come from the bullpen though, since substitutes and reliefs are forbidden in cricket except in cases of genuine injury—and even then they can't bat or pitch, only field.
The two sets of base marker "stumps" (mound to home plate, in effect) are 66 feet apart, against baseball's 60 feet six inches. This antediluvian common measure is much closer than it looks, since the cricket batter stands in front of his plate and the pitcher '"bowls" from in front of his. The actual flight distance of the ball from hand to bat therefore remains very similar to baseball, as does the speed of the fastest pitches in both games—around the 100-mph mark. Even the two balls are nearly identical in size and weight, a baseball being fractionally larger but lighter than its hard, leather-covered cricket equivalent.
Cricket runs are scored up and down this two-base line. There are always two batters on the field. The in-play man faces the pitcher, beside whom stands the out-of-play batter. If the in-play batter makes a scoring hit, he runs to the mound end, while his out-of-play colleague runs down to the in-play hitter's position—and becomes the hitter for the next pitch, if only one run was possible. When the pitching switches ends, whichever batter happens to be at the new home-plate end is in play.
Another important difference in cricket batting is that there is a 360° fair-ball zone—no foul lines. A hit is good to any part of the ground. The two batters can score as many runs (one for each switch of bases) as they like. In practice more than three actually run runs are rare. This is because a hit that crosses the ground limit is given an automatic score without running—four runs if it goes over on the bounce, six if it carries on the fly. During a five-day international match a thousand runs or more will often be scored by the end of the game (in which each team normally has two innings, though the batting team can "declare" an inning closed short of completion if it thinks it has amassed the runs it needs).
The differences from baseball grow and grow as we come into the 20th century, but the extraordinarily close kinship in certain fundamentals endures. In their deepest imagery both sports are about protecting property against attack (in cricket slang the home-plate slumps are even known as the "castle") and the corollary need to go out and raid to survive. In both games there is a delicious ambivalence of assault and defense, of slipping through siege lines, of setting traps and ambushes, making false sacrifices; in both games the same marked stress on physical courage and agility, on impudence, stealing, conning, bluffing, risking. In both games a recurrent and deliberately manufactured personal crisis: a confrontation of pitcher and batter with everyone else temporarily in the wings, just nurses and assistants around the surgeon and his patient—though that is a very bad analogy, since the surgeon means to kill here. The bullring, matador and beast, is a better parallel.
Though I like the various forms of football in the world, I don't think they begin to compare with these two great Anglo-Saxon ball games for sophisticated elegance and symbolism. Baseball and cricket are beautiful and highly stylized medieval war substitutes, chess made flesh, a mixture of proud chivalry and base—in both senses—greed. With football we are back to the monotonous clashed armor of the brontosaurs.
Baseball is a highly extrovert game, very easy to like fast—accessible, in a word, just as Americans themselves are outgoing in comparison with the English—and cricket, please note, is quintessentially English, not British. There is only one Welsh major league team and none at all from Scotland or Ireland. Cricket never appealed to the Celtic temperament, perhaps because it is so inturned and self-absorbed, so indifferent to pleasing the public. It is almost as if the English decided to invent a national secret instead of a mere game. As with our political constitution, the unwritten rules count almost as much as the written ones. Throwing a small, hard missile at or near another man is too dangerous an activity if there is not, besides printed laws, an unspoken convention as to when honest hard play becomes dishonest intent to murder. This mysterious ethos of fair playing conduct, what's cricket and what isn't cricket, has crept deep into the English soul. It can't be defined in general; you can only say it was or it wasn't present in a specific situation. An area where it is very often lacking these days is in really fast pitching, but I will come to that later.
Another strange element in cricket is what a modern art critic might call its aleatory side. Aleatory art is where at least part of the creation is left to pure chance. No two cricket grounds in the world, for instance, are quite alike. There is no fixed dimension to the outer boundaries of the field. Even at major league level many grounds have easy sides to hit to, and hard ones. Some have slopes. Some are fast, others slow, depending on the type of grass grown, how close the groundsman cuts it, on weather conditions. The wildest dice of all are rolled by the weather. The nature of the bounced delivery means the state of the turf is all-important. As a rough rule lack of rain means hard turf, which suits the batter. If rain has softened the turf, it helps the pitcher. In a game lasting several days, the turf may suddenly grow fierce from docile, or vice versa. Since its quality in general deteriorates through a long match, in cricket the first side at bat is not a matter of who is visiting but is decided by the toss of a coin. Sometimes winning the toss virtually decides the game before it is started—yet one more element of hazard.
But nothing in cricket must seem stranger to Americans than the almost total absence of the coaching and management apparatus of baseball. Even the international teams travel with only a tour manager (to handle arrangements and publicity) and a masseur and scorer. The kingpin is very much the captain on the field. He makes all the tactical decisions through a game. He will also be on the team selection committee, and his voice will carry the most weight. The players effectively coach themselves. They may ask an old pro for some friendly advice, but that is all. Nor are our teams in any sense owned; they are picked and paid by elected amateur committees. This laissez-faire atmosphere extends right down to the individual player. A fielding captain will use his available pitchers as he pleases, but once he is at work the pitcher will pitch in general according to his own hunches and experience. He may occasionally confer with his captain and the catcher, but he is expected to formulate his own strategy. The same goes for the batters.
This comparative freedom from management and commercial pressures brings one great benefit to cricket: a surprising democracy of status among all players of the game. There are, broadly speaking, four main layers of skill. At the bottom—but only in skill, not in importance—is village cricket, with games lasting just one afternoon, four hours or so. Above that is amateur club cricket, with members drawn from a town or district or sometimes from all over the country. Their matches last a day, six hours of play. Above that is professional county cricket, equivalent to major league baseball, where three-day matches are played. On top of the pile are the "test," or international, matches that run (and sometimes sleep) for five days. But there are two other important cricket reservoirs. One is at colleges and universities. The other is in the working-class North of England, where they play to a short-duration formula called League cricket. The League teams will usually have only one professional, who coaches the best local talent and also takes the star role on the field.
The glory of this complex structure is that players in all categories mix much more often than in any other sport. Oxford and Cambridge play the professional county teams, adult club sides play high schools. Many players still of class but past their professional days will happily play on club and even village teams. There is no contempt, in other words, for the bush leagues. The advantage for promising young players is enormous, since the best exponents of the game are not locked away, figures to be glimpsed on TV or from the sidelines of a major ground, but are actually there to play with or against.
By the time I was 18 I had pitched against a lot of professionals and even some international players—including two captains of England and one of the finest cricketers of all time, the West Indian Learie Constantine. My second pitch to the great man he mis-hit straight to a fielder and was caught out for a "duck"—a zero. Producing that easy pop-up was the climax of my cricketing career. I don't know what the equivalent would have been for an American high-schooler—striking out Willie Mays, perhaps. Anyway, I can still see every inch of the flight and bounce of that pitch.
But the point is that the underlying philosophy of cricket makes such experiences far from rare. The assumption is that the senior players have a kind of duty to help the junior and less good ones. This means that baseball and cricket are not national games in quite the same way. The one is now a highly professional popular entertainment, the other is more of a widely practiced folk art. This readiness to accept very different levels of skill on the same field works, needless to say, only if the better players are prepared to be indulgent. On that same day I had Constantine's scalp, it so happened he was pitching when I had to go in to bat. He was as famous for his fastball as for his batting. Until I appeared he had been bowling at half-speed, but as I came to the box I saw to my horror that he was pacing out his long run-in for real business. He duly bounded in, like a black jaguar, and delivered. I never saw the ball, just heard it hit the catcher's gloves. I did see Constantine with his hands on his hips, grinning at me. There was a laugh round the ground. A sense of proportion had been restored. But from then on he went back to his half-speed pitches, the ones he knew I had at least some chance of handling.
As in baseball, cricket batters seem cast by spectators as the heroes and the pitchers as the villains, which says something about Anglo-Saxon love of property. I was very much on the villains' side when I played myself, and I am going to pass quickly over the art of cricket batting. But one or two important differences from baseball need to be noted. Cricket batters are not, of course, more skilled than their baseball analogues, but they do have a much more complex technique to learn. There are the great differences in turf brought about by preparation and mowing practices and the weather—huge adaptations of method are sometimes called for. Secondly, the flat blade of the cricket bat makes it a much more precise instrument for finding the holes between fields. Thirdly, the all-round strike zone means there is a whole armory of scoring strokes to be learned that deflect the ball behind the catcher. Since the batter can also receive a limitless number of pitches as long as he isn't put out, and since also a number of those pitches will be aimed straight at his body, there is in addition an elaborate defensive technique. The art of waiting out pitches is also much more vital in our game.
One last difference from baseball is this: Since no substitutes are allowed, each man on the team of 11 has to bat in a full inning, and this includes the pitchers. There is no fixed batting order. Each captain can change it as he likes, even in mid-inning, but almost invariably the specialist lead-off men, whose main task is to tire out the opening pitchers, are followed by the big run-scorers; then comes the "tail," the specialist pitchers who seldom last long at bat but who traditionally follow a death-or-glory line and slug wildly at every pitch. Once in a while luck will run with them, and there is nothing a cricket crowd loves more.
Since the cricket ball is a shade harder than a baseball, if it hits you—even at far slower speeds than the fast men pitch—it hurts. The batter therefore wears hardened shoes or boots and strapped-on protective pads from ankle to above the knee. Above that he often wears thigh pads beneath the white pants. Also beneath the pants he will wear a "box"—a metal shell over the genitals supported on a G-string. Above the waist the only protection is on his hands—gloves with rubber spikes or pads over the fingers. This still doesn't prevent broken phalanges from being a commonplace accident every season.
So, armored a little like a medieval knight, he stands at the batting line and looks down toward the pitching end. He sees three men there. One is the umpire behind the far stumps. The second is his temporarily-out-of-play fellow batter. The third is the bowler, standing some way behind the other two—sometimes 40 yards or twice the pitching distance—and waiting to make his run-in for the delivery.
The cricket bowler's arms must be straight from shoulder to wrist as he delivers. The ball doesn't have to bounce before it reaches the bat: even a baseball trajectory is perfectly legal, but the flat face of the cricket bat makes such pitches easy meat. Bowlers come in three main kinds; fast, medium and slow, but the offensive is almost invariably begun by the fast men. True fast bowlers of international caliber are rare, since the top speed requires a very special combination of strength and pitching action—having one without the other is no good. The best of the century was Harold Larwood. His run-up to the pitching line had the violent and yet smooth acceleration of a champion long jumper. To describe the tremendous speed of pitch he could achieve in terms of bullets or cannonballs is somehow misleading—the arrow leaving the full-drawn six-foot bow gives a better impression. Watching such bowlers on their great days is a little like watching a hungry leopard attacking a series of tethered goats: very near indeed to sadism.
I hope I have by now corrected any namby-pamby impression the word "bowling" may give Americans. Facing a fast bowler is not a job for fainthearts. The cricket batter may have some of the armor of a knight, but he is, so to speak, on a stuffed horse. Some technically excellent players have never been able to face this unfair form of joust, and to most fast bowlers the faintest hint of a yellow streak is like a gold vein to a prospector—it won't go unexploited.
One mistake many Americans make is to suppose bowlers always aim at the stumps. This isn't so at all, and perhaps especially with the fast men. Their tactics are given away by the special fielder-placements they use. Most of the fielders are clustered behind the batter and alongside the catcher. They are there to catch snicks off the edge of the bat, and to get these snicks the bowler will frequently aim wide of the stumps. Other fielders will often be stationed at what may seem suicidally close proximity to the batter—down to six or seven feet on occasion—to pick up easy flies from another kind of fast pitch, the "bumper." The bumper is bowled at maximum speed but deliberately "short" of a good length—good length being the normal optimum point of bounce from the bowler's point of view. The result with fast men is a pitch that rises viciously chest or head high. The intention is naked: to scare the batter physically.
There is not much the batter can do against a good bumper except put his faith in his reflexes and the lightning dodge away. If he tries to block the ball with his bat, he risks popping up a fly to the greedy hands a few feet away waiting for just such an offer. However, there is one offensive move against this cricketing beanball—a hit that is nearest to a baseball baiter's pull to left field. We call it the hook. Hooking requires a first-class eye and a lot of courage; if you miss, you may end up with a broken nose or a mouthful of loose teeth.
One of the unwritten rules concerns this kind of pitch. The bumper is not used against inexpert batters (the other side's specialist pitchers) who form the tail of the inning. Occasionally one is let fly against such a lamb, and the unforgivable occurs: he is laid out flat. But the most unforgivable of all is when a fast bowler "bumps" a batting fast bowler from the other team. The ensuing situation is about as genteel as a Mafia fall-out.
The next category of bowlers, the medium pacers, are experts with the curve-ball. The ability to "swing" pitches with the cricket ball is something of a mystery. In its fresh state the ball has polished leather sides, which produce the most curve—so much so that the use of a new ball is strictly regulated. The pitching team gets one at inning commencement, but then no replacement until at least another 480 pitches have been made. The curve is also very dependent on air humidity—the damper the better—and on wind direction and force. But the real key is how the equatorial stitched seam of the cricket ball is held. A very ancient—illegal and universal, like the spitball—trick of the swingbowler is to lift up the seam with his nails so that it offers more air resistance and bite when it hits the turf. The second part of the bowler's art lies here: what happens when the curveball strikes the grass. Experts cannot only curve the ball either way in flight but can make it angle either way on the bounce. The batter is faced with two very fast decisions—which way the ball will move in the air and which way again when it bounces in front of him. It may curve right and then break or cut farther right, or angle back left, and the same with a left curve.
In general this type of bowling is the hardest to score runs off. Many of our curveball bowlers are monuments of monotonous accuracy—fine for teams who want to steal their way up the standings, but hardly conducive to entertainment.
It is the third type of cricket bowler, the slowball expert, who has far and away the subtlest skills. He has to depend entirely on cunning, the mind of the fox. His two weapons are spin and flight. For spin the ball is flipped with the fingers, and often by a wrist flick as well, as it leaves the hand. When it hits the turf the imparted spin on the ball makes it move left or right of the flight line just like the English the cue can give a billiard ball. On a certain kind of turf, either softened by rain (a "sticky wicket") or turned to dust by too much sun (a "crumbling wicket"), this movement can be bewilderingly sharp. "Flight" is the ability—one of the hardest techniques to learn—to trick the batter over exactly where the ball will bounce. The effect of a well-flighted pitch is this: the batter thinks he knows precisely where the ball will land in front of him and starts out on an apparently easy half-volley drive along the ground. At the last split second he realizes he's been fooled—the ball is going to bounce short. But it is too late to stop his swing.
The Indians toured England in the summer of 1971 and gave us a rare opportunity to see a world-class quartet of slow bowlers at work. Such bowlers are a liability on a percentage-playing team, since they can be hit over the horizon if they pitch badly. Very few national teams these days have the courage to use them often. The Indians did, and won the series. The finest of their snake charmers was a small bearded Sikh named Bedi, who has the picturesque habit of wearing a different-colored turban for each day of a match. I think if any visiting American had dropped in on one of the India-England matches and seen Bedi in action, he really would have given up on cricket. He would quite rightly have assumed the English team contained the best batters in the country—and what did he see? A bizarre mini-rajah taking three or four lazy strides, then pitching balls at the kind of speed that would disgrace an arthritic grandmother, balls which her 10-year-old granddaughter could clearly have slammed every time into the cricket equivalent of the bleachers. Yet here was the cream of England poking and prodding, missing and scrambling as if bewitched. Invitation after invitation to swing, and not a run scored—most of the time not even attempted.
Bedi's magic can be explained. It was based on miraculous accuracy. The slower the pitching speed, the smaller the area of optimum bounce becomes. At Bedi's snail-like pace he was down to the equivalent of infallibly hitting a dinner plate at 18 yards' distance—remarkable enough, even without all the other tricks of spin, flight, pace variation and angle of delivery arm that he employed. He never quite pitched the same ball twice, even in the longest spells, though to an American they would have seemed identical. Bedi was a perfect example of cricket's only too frequent unwatchability to all but other cricketers. For the neutral cognoscenti it was like being in the presence of a superb sitar player; for English patriots it was like watching children, your own children, locked up in a cage with a king cobra: for the rest, alas, Bedi must have seemed a final proof that cricket was invented in a lunatic asylum by an incurable catatonic.
Bedi leads me to one advantage, a fortune of history, that cricket has over baseball: the fact that it is played as well at the highest level by a number of other countries (all former parts of the defunct British Empire) as it is at home in England. Much more important in international competition than the prestige of winning is the esthetic broadening in style and technique that results. Each of the major cricketing countries contributes a special approach, a spirit, a mood.
The Australian approach is in a sense the most Americanized—the most free of unnecessary frills and graces, the most pragmatic. Australians play a little harder to win—on top form, a shade nearer the ruthless machine than anyone else. The other five major cricketing countries are India, Pakistan, South Africa (at present boycotted), New Zealand and the West Indies. The South Africans and the New Zealanders play the game more or less in the aggressive Australian mold. The Indians and Pakistanis are more temperamental—and perhaps especially when they are touring over here, since our climate doesn't suit their style of play. They need sunshine and hard ground. The Pakistanis have more panache, the Indians more subtlety.
But beyond any doubt the greatest contribution to the modern game has come from the smallest of the six countries—the West Indies. They have given to cricket something of what the American Black South brought to the history of music—a kind of élan, a new rhythm and vitality, an athletic grace, a joy and exuberance beyond the compass of any white race. For a start, they are born gamblers, which means that whenever a West Indian is near the action there is an indefinable heightening of the tension. Their finest batters have a very characteristic wristy strike, slashing and explosive, and like the finest black jazz players seem always to have something in hand over the best of their white rivals. A great Caribbean "bat" will show an acuteness of timing, a ferocity of attack, that is incomparable. Purists sometimes complain that they lack the classical elegance of the best English masters and the no-nonsense practicality of the Australian-run machines, but for sheer spectator pleasure they are in a class of their own, and in any case one might as well blame them for their inspired unorthodoxy as criticize a calypso for not being a Beethoven sonata. Many West Indian players have either settled here or come over for the summer to play in our major leagues, and English cricket is now unthinkable without their presence.
One happy result of all this is that the West Indians' cricketing popularity has helped the underprivileged position of their large community in this country. It is not only the way they play but the way they watch. West Indian spectators have as little inhibition as American baseball fans in telling the players—their own or the other side's—what they think. They have stood the English style of watching—silence broken by a polite clap—on its dull old head. A good shot they bellow for; a glorious shot they stand up and dance to.
A few years ago I was at a famous London cricket ground, the Oval, for the last day of a historic match between the West Indies and England—historic because for the first time the West Indies were close to beating England in the home series. The ground was packed solid with immigrants and native Londoners. There came a point in the final inning when it seemed the West Indies batting might collapse. The most dangerous fast bowler in the world is the Englishman John Snow, who has the build and a fair share of the temperament of an angry young bull. The West Indian batter facing him was a little man named Rohan Kanhai, about half Snow's size. Snow began to hurl bumpers, bouncing them lethally up round Kanhai's head. Since bumpers pass high over the stumps and are dangerous in a putout sense only if the batter tries to meet violence with violence, the proper strategy for Kanhai at that fragile state of the match was to duck down out of the way and wait the storm out. He did that a few times. Then Snow charged up and pitched what was evidently meant to be the bumper to end all bumpers—a thunderbolt straight between the eyes. This time Kanhai made an extraordinary midair leap to get up to the height of the ball and took a full baseball swing at it. It was the swiftest human reaction I have ever seen, totally improvised and totally without elegance, for after he made contact he fell fiat. Meanwhile, the ball was sailing high over the ground limit for the cricket version of a homer—a six-run score.
I doubt if Goliath has ever been more comprehensively slain. The whole crowd, white and black alike, roared its recognition. Every white spectator there knew it was a shot only a West Indian would have had the speed or the flair—or the madness—to attempt. The match was a formality after that. I watched the unique sight of working-class Londoners, not exactly the spearhead of the movement for racial equality in this country, loving the West Indians and all they stood for—and willing them on to the victory they eventually gained. When that came about, for a few unforgettable moments there was no color, no hate, no suspicion; just a common humanity.
And yes, in sad fact we still don't give the West Indians equal rights in our society, whatever lip service we pay to the race laws. Nevertheless, I like to think that what happened that day belongs to a real future. And I've left out one small detail. When Kanhai hit that unhittable pitch, Snow had for a moment the incredulous eyes of a steer poleaxed out of the blue. But then he did something rare in stricken Goliaths. He raised his hands and clapped. I think that's a better ending than the one in the Bible, and it will help me to a final definition. Those sullen and malevolent bumpers Snow kept pitching were not cricket; but that spontaneous clap was.
1 "Cricket," first clearly recorded in 1598, means a small stick-or bat.
2 A running cricket batter cannot be obstructed or touched in any way; tagging is strictly confined to hitting the base stumps with the ball. On the other hand, cricket pitchers can legitimately aim at the batter's body—and pistol the hell out of him.
3 At least one London pub owner was paying graft for the ball park beer concession as early as 1668.
4 Recently and very successfully adopted by our major leagues—so successfully indeed that the standard three-day match may well disappear soon.
5 Later Lord Constantine, the first black man ever to sit in our House of Lords, in recognition of his brave and lifelong fight off the cricket field for racial justice. He was a trained lawyer, but in many other respects—not least in his dazzling speed and athleticism—he recalls baseball's immortal Jackie Robinson.
6 But pro baseball fielders, let me add in passing, are much more skilled than their cricket analogues—especially in throwing.
7 Originally underarm, the delivery was allowed to be made from shoulder level in 1835 and then as high as one liked in 1864—against the same kind of angry protest from the batters as base-bail pitchers were to hear in their sport a decade later.
8 The most famous fielding casualty in the game's history was Frederick, Prince of Wales. A cricket fanatic, he died in 1751 as a result of taking a hard hit in the side.
9 The first cricket bowler to have both curves was an American—the Philadelphian J. B. King, who could have made any international team of his era. The Gentlemen of Philadelphia, incidentally, played major league cricket here as late as 1908.
10 "Wicket" is used not only to describe the base sticks but also the turf between them. The commonest word for this turf, however, is the pitch—one of many linguistic traps for the American. With us a "fast pitch" means a turf giving a fast bounce, not a fastball.