Today marked day four of the first Ashes Test between England and Australia.
If you understand those words but do not understand the context in which I wrote them . . . well, join the club. As near as I can figure, my first sentence means that there is an annual international tournament called the Ashes that takes place between the Australian English cricket teams. The tournament is made of several days-long matches called tests. Australia and England are currently playing their first test. Please don’t believe my translation is necessarily correct; I have no idea what I am talking about.
Cricket may very well be the most confusing sport I have ever encountered in my life. Like football (soccer) and rugby, it originated in England.* It is played with a bat and a ball. Some matches can go one for days, and some are limited to ensure that they do not. I have absolutely no idea how to read a cricket score. When I hear Sky Sports News or read an article reporting on cricket, the language seems completely foreign. I can usually pick up the rules of a sport when I see it on television or on the Internet, at least enough to understand what is going on–not with cricket. Cricket is what you get if James Joyce watched a baseball game once, wrote the rules as he saw them three years afterwards, and gave his rules to non-athletes in another country with no knowledge of baseball to recreate the game. (Yes, I know cricket is older.)
Years ago, an obnoxious diplomat (I think he worked at the UN) wrote an op-ed in the New York Times trashing Americans for preferring baseball, and implicitly stating that we were not intelligent enough to understand the subtlety of cricket. Obnoxious diplomats aside, there is nothing wrong with the bat and ball sport that Americans perfected, although I admit to not liking baseball (Go Phillies!). Although I have very little interest in cricket, I am fascinated by foreign sports with large international tournaments. I now have some familiarity with Rugby Union and Rugby League, and I even know a little about Gaelic sports, Australian Rules Football, and Netball. Cricket, however, continues to elude me. It is not because, as our diplomatic snoot implied, Americans are too stupid to get it, but because the sport is too complex to learn about from a Wikipedia entry and YouTube clips. The truth is, cricket needs to be taught because of how needlessly complex the sport inherently is. Usually one is taught the sport at a young age. Since very few people in this country understand cricket, there is practically no one to teach it. I think in the United States, cricket will be slightly more popular than polo and slightly less popular than professional lacrosse. I may be giving a short shrift to polo.
Although football is the most popular sport in Britain, there is no sport more stereotypically English than cricket. England presents a certain image of itself to the world: (1) the country is full of stodgy, snobby highbrows, and (2) it once ruled the world’s most expansive empire. Cricket is the purest representation of this image. If you have ever seen a test match, the uniform is, for both sides, an all white getup: trousers, shirt, and sweater. (That the shirts are now filled with advertisements is a tragic reminder of the power of money over tradition.) Even though football began its life in the British public schools (which are the equivalent of American private schools), it easily spread to the working class and poor in Britain and around the world because of how simple and inexpensive the game is. Cricket is harder to play outside of the confines of the country club–or public school–because of all the required equipment. The rules of football are, for the most part, simple to grasp; the rules of cricket are not nearly as intuitive. Furthermore the top cricket nations are almost entirely nations that were a part of the former British empire: England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and the entire South Asian subcontinent. There are more countries, but I believe these are the main ones.
Even though I have very little interest in cricket as a sport, there is Cricket World Cup. Therefore, as with all World Cup sports, men’s and women’s, it is inherently interesting to me on a sociological level. With the exception of football, I think care less about international sport, than I do about the results of the sport’s World Cup (football excluded). I think basketball is missing out on a golden opportunity to ditch the Olympics and World Championships and have a quadrennial international tournament of its own.**
Because there is a World Cup, I wanted to know how to play cricket. What attracts so many people to such a nonsensical sport, at least to an outsider? Cricket is especially popular in India, one of the few nations (perhaps most notably the United States) that football has been unable to conquer. To add even more intrigue, cricket has been producing scandal after scandal which throws the integrity of the sport into question (take that, snooty diplomat!). Given that the epicenter of these controversies is generally Pakistan, international political relationships are touched upon if not directly affected.
So I still don’t understand cricket. I am not sure if I ever will, although I am going to keep trying, at least for the immediate future. Meanwhile if anyone knows how to read a cricket score…
* The fact that these sports originated in England has led to a double standard of sorts. Whereas in the Olympics (and the United Nations) England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all a part of the United Kingdom. In football are four all individual countries with their own teams, the so called “Home Nations”–a sore point to some other countries who see this as one nation getting four bites at the apple. However, this works against the Home Nations. Rather than one strong side, there are four sides of varying strength. As a result three of the four Home Nations will never again be competitive in international competition; the remaining country, England, has seen its standard of play slowly declining. Rugby also maintains that double standard, but to a lesser extent. Northern Ireland is part of Ireland in international test matches, and the British and Irish Lions tour the world. Rugby is also far less popular around the world. Cricket turns the double standard on its head: in international tests, Wales is part of England, Northern Ireland is part of Ireland, and the tiny English-speaking countries of the Caribbean compete internationally as “The West Indies.”
** Or perhaps not. FIBA would expect to control an international competition, and FIBA, despite being the ruling body of international basketball, could never do anything of that scale without the NBA’s approval. If FIBA tried to stand up to the NBA, the NBA could simply pull out all its players, thereby making a sham of the tournament (and a poorly watched one at that.) So long as there is only one important basketball league in the world, the NBA will rule the roost. This will not change any time soon.
Music I listened to while writing this: No music today. Just podcasts.