But the one thing that makes cricket batting much more difficult than American batting is that most of the pitches (or bowls) are bounced off the ground anywhere from 1 to 15 feet in front of you. Another funky rule is that the bowlers are not allowed to bend their elbows upon delivery. It takes a lot of speed off the ball, but they can torque all sorts of spin into it.
Being a fair hitter in my high school days (DH on the fabled Nicolet Knights 1980 state tournament run!), I figured I’d swat the snot out of a few balls and mock the kids for not playing a real man’s game like baseball. Instead I faced about 20 balls from a 12-year-old and barely scraped the skin on a handful of them.
Ever since then I’ve had enormous respect for the game and the players, even though a match can take 5 days with very little action happening on the pitch. When I first came to India in 1991 I sought refuge in the game because it was the only normal thing I saw the entire month I spent on the subcontinent. I didn’t understand one aspect of Indian or Nepalese life besides seeing store owners watching sports – cricket – on TV all day. That much I could wrap my head around.
When I returned to Paharganj in 2000 I had two weeks to kill before my flight back to the states (Virgin Airlines refused to board me because I told them I had an infection so I had to buy a new ticket). I found a nice clean guest house and discovered the hotel workers spent every non-working moment watching cricket. I had absolutely no agenda whatsoever, so I too began spending hours a day watching cricket.
Although there are eleven defenders, they position themselves at any place on the field depending on whether or not the bowler is a fastballer or a spinner. Here, the defense is close with a spinning bowler.
It didn’t take long to figure out why the game is so popular. It’s popular because of its length. Whereas Americans complain about a baseball game or a college football game lasting four hours, the Indian sports fan can’t imagine spending their time doing anything else. In a one day test match one team is at bat for four hours; followed by two hours for lunch and then the other team bats for four hours.
I had two weeks to kill so eight hours of cricket just suited me fine. Actually I rarely caught both teams 'innings'. A team’s at-bat is called it’s ‘innings’ (There is no singular term ‘inning’ used anywhere in the game). I liked trying to get lost on a morning roll through Old Delhi and catch a few balls at the chai stands along the way. Then after lunch, I’d wash the city filth off my body and settle in with a pack of hotel workers for the final team’s innings.
On the one-day matches the defense bowls 50 'overs' of 8 balls each. The offensive team puts two batsmen up at a time, one in front of each wicket (three sticks jammed into the ground with a couple pieces of wood loosely laid on top of them) which are 60 ft. apart from each other. The bowler runs in from one end of the field and launches a ball towards the batsman who must make sure the ball doesn’t hit the wicket. If the batsman strikes it well enough, he runs across to the other wicket, trading places with the other batsman who has scurried across the pitch at the same time. If you both make it to the opposite wicket before one of the defenders touches the ball to the wicket – you get a run. If you knock the ball so hard that it rolls out of the playing area, or boundary, you get four runs. And if you smack the crap out of it and it clears the boundary on the fly – you get six runs.
The elusive border rope. 4 points if you bounce one over; 6 points if you clear it on the fly
But here’s the tricky part. If one of the fielders catches the ball on the fly; or you whiff and the ball hits the wicket; or you are thrown out trying to reach the opposite wicket – you are out. Your day is over. One out is all each batter gets. Each team has eleven batsmen so each batsman tries to stay at bat for as long as possible. This is what traditionally gave cricket it’s status as a boring sport. If a batsman wanted to, he could just simply tap the ball on the ground for days on end and never get out. During the five-day test matches this is still exactly what happens.
Wisely enough, the powers that be developed the one-day, 50-over strategy and that is the most popular form of cricket. One Day Internationals (ODI’s) are the format of all the major championships including the World Cup, which is the sport’s major event. Now there are 20-20 matches, made for international TV. Each team gets only 20 overs and they smack the cover off of the ball, not caring if they get out. Traditionalists hate it, but from what I’ve seen, it took the clothes off the old cricket emperor and turned it into a fast, crowd-pleasing sport.
One day in 2000 while roaming Paharganj, I stumbled upon the Connaught Cricket Grounds just a block off the main bazaar. Escaping to a baseball field in suburbia USA was always a great feeling. But just imagine if you lived in a cramped apartment above a garbage pit and shared a room with your twelve siblings. How good would a baseball field look then?
That’s exactly how amazing the Connaught Cricket Grounds are. In the middle of one of the most crowded, dirty urban hell holes on the planet lies an impeccably clean, spotlessly manicured huge grassy oval with stadium seating and nice crowds politely applauding graceful athletes in glistening white uniforms. It was hard to pull me away from a baseball diamond when I was young, but coming from Parharganj and seeing that place – I think I would have just pitched a tent and never gone home.
The elite section of stands at the Connaught Cricket Grounds. Not used for this match.
Luckily, the day before I left Delhi for Dharamsala, there was a one day match between the Punjab state team and the Delhi Railways squad. After knocking back a huge egg-fried rice lunch, I packed my bag with four liters of water and settled in for 50 overs of state league cricket – the equivalent of NCAA baseball.
There wasn’t a big crowd at the game, even though there was no admission. 20 years earlier it would have been packed, but now everybody works. I caught the first couple dozen overs in the stands, then one of the local players saw the white guy in the wheelchair and came up and sat with me. I told him I was a baseball player and was just getting into cricket and he invited me down on the field to take a closer look. Although there weren’t many spectators, there was plenty of press. The player took me down into press row and I spent the rest of the afternoon with the newspaper people. Not only did I have a great seat with the most knowledgeable people answering my questions – I was also served an bottomless cup of chai.
Always good to get in with the Press!
In the end the Railways team came from behind and beat the Punjabi’s morning run total of 305. They did it in the 48th over and used only six batters. This means in cricket terms that they won by four wickets. And the only way I can explain that logic to you is for you come to India and take in some innings with me!
All sports have lunatic fans including local cricket. Check out our hero in the white leisure suit. Picture 1- He's just in the stands listening to the radio broadcast. Picture 2 - He's got the look of mischief. Picture 3 - That's him busting onto the field and running straight for the players club house. Picture 4 - He's being escorted from the grounds by the military. Picture 5 - He's handed over to security for the final boot.