I’m not qualified to speak or write about cricket, but I do anyway. As my wife likes to remind me, I’ve never played even one single second of the game. And yet it’s all I can think about, read about, dream about. I see the lone batsman, dressed in his whites, standing in front of his wicket, a frail house made of wood. Death appears in the form of the bowler, also dressed in white. But the bowler’s white is not the white of the angels; it is the white of Melville’s existential dread, the white of the great white whale, the white of the pale hills in the distance, signifying terror and annihilation. Suddenly, furiously, a blood-red ball is hurled at the batsman, trying to rip apart his home and destroy him. Crowds look on and cheer, drink and wager on the outcome. Like an angel battling Death, the batsman’s only weapon is a blunt stick carved from a willow tree. Attack or defend? Quickly, now! You have only a sliver of a second left to live. As the ball leaves the bowler’s hand and bounces (bounces?) on the pitch as it speeds towards you, your very life, your soul, hangs in the balance. At least that’s how I imagine it.
This, from Wikipedia: “Many theories exist about the origins of cricket. One suggests that the game began among shepherds hitting a stone or a ball of wool with their crooks and, at the same time, defending the wicket gate into the sheep-fold (from Anglo Saxon ‘cricce’, a crooked staff). A second theory suggests the name came from a low stool known as a ‘cricket’ in England, which from the side looked like the long, low wicket used in the early days of the game (originally from the Flemish ‘krickstoel’, a low stool on which parishioners knelt in church.” (There is something compelling about the image of using a church kneeling-stool as part of a ball game. Angels again, and Death with his red ball, trying to dislodge the kneeling-stool. The batsman is either bowled out and sent off for eternity, or, he defends his home and sends Death packing. I also love the image of shepherds whipping stones or, more practically, balls of wool at one another.)
Cricket has been part of American life for a very long time, and was probably here even before baseball. Now it’s buried in the silt of our past. In 1844, a full ten years before Walden was published, the first official international cricket match took place, not between England and Australia (that wouldn’t happen until 1877), but between the United States and Canada. The venue was St. George’s Club, Bloomingdale Park, Manhattan. Historians think the park was somewhere around East 31st Street and First Avenue. In 1844, it probably wasn’t much more than a muddy field. The match lasted two days in late September. The US lost by 23 runs.
As an American, I can’t help seeing the sport through the eyes of a player and watcher of baseball. There are many aspects of the game that seem odd. I’ll mention just a few. When the batter hits the ball, he doesn’t have to run. Catches in the field, except those made by the wicket-keeper who stands almost directly behind the batsman and acts like a baseball catcher, are made without gloves. (It should be mentioned that a cricket ball is harder and heavier than a baseball). The ball bounces on the ground (known as the pitch) before it reaches the batter. When you are out, you are out for the rest of your team’s batting (or innings), unlike in baseball when you can come up to bat every two or three innings. There are no sacrifice flies in cricket. In fact, unless you are certain you can hit the ball over the head of the fielders, shots that skim along the ground are preferable. And sometimes matches can last for days and still have no winner at the end. Still, the ball is exactly the correct weight, size and color, the bat is exactly the correct width, the pitch, like the base paths in baseball, is exactly the right length; an inch or two longer or shorter would mean the world.
To paraphrase Joseph O’Neill’s narrator in Netherland, the cricket field is so big, it often looks like nothing is happening. A spectator of cricket needs both the attention and eye of the naturalist to spot the action in such a large field of play. Something so small and fragile, like a leaf dropping in a forest or a bird hopping from a branch, all unfolding in the middle of a pristine green oval.
The book I’m reading now, Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, speaks of cricket this way: “The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.” And this: “I have been told by members of my own family that there is no use or value in sports. I only agree with the first part. I may be drunk, but I’m not stupid. Of course there is little point to sports. But, at the risk of depressing you, let me add two more cents. There is little point to anything. In a thousand years, grass will have grown over all our cities. Nothing of anything will matter. Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”