The closest sporting comparison for the American cricket neophyte in terms of rules and gameplay is, of course, baseball in which a player also tries to hit with a wooden bat a ball propelled at her, and then, after hitting the ball, runs to a safe zone where she is safe from being called “out.” Fielders in both sports first attempt to catch the ball in the air, and, if they can’t, they must at the very least endeavor to keep the ball from going past them before throwing the ball back toward the specific safe zone to which the batsman runs hoping to curtail the batting team’s run total. There are innings and an outfield and an infield. Umpires, pads, masks, etc. The two sports are undoubtedly similar in this regard. So as I recruit players for the high school cricket team I have started, I tend to go after former or out-of-season baseball players the way an Italian language teacher might comb the Spanish class for dissatisfied students in order to boost the enrollment in his own class. These students already have the skills to learn a new language, they’ve already shown an interest in a foreign culture, and the Italian and Spanish languages are so similar that one who knows something of one invariably knows something of the other. In other words, it’s probably easier to teach Italian to someone who can already speak its sister language than it would be to teach it to a person who only speaks his native tongue (unless the native tongue is Italian; you get it). The same would be true, I figured, about cricket and baseball.
I have found, though, the opposite to be true during the early stages of my cricket coaching career. The twelve boys on the team—all of whom have grown up one way or another with baseball—actually have a harder time learning to play cricket correctly because of their previous baseball experience. It’s not the rules of course; the rules, they get. Cricket, as far as the laws go, is something of a simplified version of baseball, and so in understanding the rules of baseball, they naturally and easily appropriate cricket’s laws. Instead, the major issue comes from the discrepancy between the mentality of the batter in baseball, who looks to hit the ball cleanly as hard as he can each and every time up to bat, versus the cricket batsman, whose wicket is worth so much more than the baseball equivalent and whose aggression logically waxes and wanes throughout his innings. In baseball, a player typically bats three or four times a game—and five or more at-bats isn’t uncommon—and so getting “out” is not such a big deal, especially if the batter “hit the ball hard” but right toward a fielder who catches it and sends the batter back to the dugout. Hitting the ball hard in baseball more often than not leads to a positive outcome for a batter who sees just five or six pitches each time he enters the batter’s box, and so hitting into an out can indicate something of a victory for the batter, in that he’s outplayed the pitcher but has fallen victim to bad luck this time around and so can expect better outcomes by producing a similar display in future at-bats. It’s a like a bad beat in poker. You play the hand correctly, you have the better odds of winning the hand, you milk the opponent’s chips to the center of the table, and he gets a full-house with the last card to beat the flush you already have. Tough, but nothing you can do about it. You had the better skills and he had dumb luck. Too bad. Let’s play several hundred hands and see who’s left standing.
Cricket, though, it’s more like pinball with one ball. Before scoring, your first concern must be protection, survival even, because once you’re out, you’re out. In baseball, hitting a home run and a double (the rough equivalent of a six and a four in cricket) before getting out in your third at-bat—that’s an excellent return for a single game. Not so much in cricket. In cricket (and pinball) you must guard yourself primarily—protect your wicket—you must capitalize only when the chances of an out are slim or none, when the ball pitches shorter than the bowler intended, when the pinball rolls slowly toward a flipper primed to fling it toward the intended target. So a four and a six and an out in baseball—you’re a hero; in cricket—you more or less failed.
When I recruited the baseball players, I thought only of their enhanced hand-eye coordination, their ability to put bat to ball. The differences between the mindsets of the batsmen in the two sports occurred to me not. Thus, when we played a sevens match last week, I bowled out both teams within fifteen minutes for totals of eleven and nine respectively. One player hit a six and another a four, both being caught out on the following ball, both ending their days in the crease before their momentum ever got going. They don’t seem interested in blocking, they don’t seem interested in taking that single to rotate the strike. No: They want the bigger, better mega-blasts they witness on the baseball fields and on the golf course, and I am not sure how to change their mind. I’d like to get them into some real matches against actual competition, but until this part of their game changes, they’d never be able to compete—not because they haven’t the physical skills necessary for success against tough bowlers, but because they judge this success in physical distance rather than in tallies on the scoreboard: the number that actually matters.
Any suggestions, let me know.
Until next time.