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Wicket Games

Amid a renewed push to make cricket an Olympic sport, one writer goes to bat for this shockingly aggressive — yet delightfully civilized — pastime


Pakistan’s legendary Imran Khan faces
English batsman Derek Randall in a 1982 match.
(Getty Images)

ONE AFTERNOON IN MAY 1944, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was in London in advance of the D-Day landings, some of his British staff suggested he take a break from planning the invasion of Normandy. Naturally, they brought him to a cricket match. Several hours later, Ike emerged somewhat shaken by the experience. “It wasn’t like watching baseball back home,” he reported. “There was a nice crowd, sure, but those guys on the field were mean to each other.”

Forty years later, sports fanatic Richard Nixon spent part of a day absorbing the English national pastime. After an hour, this was how the former U.S. president described the action: “You’re standing in the middle of a busy freeway, and cars are coming at you at 80 miles per hour. Some of the cars swerve at you at the last second from the outside lanes. Every now and then one comes at you doing only 20 miles an hour, but the next one is back to full speed. Your job is to stay alive.”

One doesn’t need to have logged time in the Oval Office, however, to see that cricket is a hard game. It’s a sport whose essential feud is between one man armed with a wooden club and another man who interacts with him only after a 20-yard sprint, at the climax of which he hurls a cherry-red leather ball designed to bounce off the ground toward his opponent’s face. As Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricket star of the ’70s and ’80s, said to me once, “It’s the most beautifully tense and skillful sport known to man. And it’s not for sissies.”

All the more reason to include it in that great pantheon of sport, the Olympic Games. The International Cricket Council is making a bid, encouraged by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, to admit cricket into the games. It’s an honor well overdue. Personally, what I love about cricket — a sport that began 500 years ago as a gentle form of exercise for the English aristocracy — is that at its heart is a balance between aggression and decorum. Or as Khan put it, “It’s all about politely assaulting the enemy.” There’s the spectacle of adrenaline-fueled hulks trying to knock each other’s heads off amid the gladiatorial atmosphere that pervades most international games … and then there’s the elaborate etiquette that, among other things, sees the teams periodically troop off the field for a tea break, or generously applaud a successful opponent even in the heat of battle.

It’s the gloriously eccentric nature of cricket that explains its appeal. There was a fashion in the 19th century, for example, for contests between one-armed and one-legged men. “Smokers versus non-smokers” was also a popular pairing, while the annual “gentlemen versus players” face-off — which made the distinction between those who played for money and those who shunned anything so base — remained on the English sporting calendar until 1963. In 1823, a full-scale cricket match was played on the Arctic ice between the crews of two whaling ships in search of the Northwest Passage. Play was suspended upon the arrival of a polar bear.

It’s little wonder that, over the years, cricket has counted a rich variety of poets and dreamers among its most devoted fans. James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, had an almost messianic belief in cricket, “an idea of the gods,” which he saw as a revolt against the soul-destroying uniformity of certain other sports, with their “unrelieved aggression.” In the early 20th century, Barrie formed his own touring team, which included the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne and Arthur Conan Doyle, who once managed to set himself on fire when batting in a cricket match (a ball struck him on the outside of his thigh and ignited a box of matches he kept in his pocket). Samuel Beckett played two professional games some 40 years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Fittingly, in the one surviving account of his brief sporting career, the author of Waiting for Godot was described as an “enigmatic” player.

Sure, cricket has its longueurs, as anyone who has sat through a full five-day “test,” or international match, will agree. But the length is part of the appeal: Spread out over four or five days, the action tends to ebb and flow more freely than in the average sport. A team can be way ahead on Thursday and still end up losing badly on Monday.

Regardless, whether you’re there for days or hours, cricket can be wonderfully therapeutic. In August 2011, as riots broke out on Britain’s streets, I was at the cricket ground in Birmingham, England’s second city, watching the national team play a close-fought test with its archrival, India. I’m not suggesting that cricket is the answer to the world’s social ills, but I will say that at Birmingham that day, a good-natured crowd of all ages sat in the sunshine with picnics, and sometimes broke into rousing song. Opposing groups of fans mingled in a way you somehow can’t imagine happening at a high-stakes soccer match. At the end of the game, everyone shook hands. There were no public order problems. Unless you count a bunch of grown men hurling things at each other’s heads. Politely, of course.

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD, a British writer now living in Seattle, has yet to actually set himself on fire while playing cricket.

A cricket glossary

Anchor: A batsman capable of batting slowly for a long time, to the distress of the bowling team and often the spectators.

Cherry: The cricket ball, which is traditionally red (except on those occasions when it’s white). Not to be confused with fruit salad, which describes a bowler’s delivery of a different type of ball every time, or peach, a well-aimed ball, often fast.

Corridor of uncertainty: A good area in which to bowl, often tempting the batsman to go fishing or flashing.

Donkey-drop: A ball bowled high into the air that falls to earth in the general area of the batsman’s head.

Fishing: When a batsman attempts to hit a ball he might be better advised to avoid. In its more aggressive form, this is called flashing.

Gardening: A batsman’s prodding at the turf with his bat between deliveries; of no known horticultural benefit.

Googly: A deviously spinning ball.

Gully, leg-slip, slip, silly mid-on, silly mid-off, fine leg, long leg, third man: Fielding positions broadly equivalent to first base, second base, etc.

Luncheon: One of two all-important refreshment breaks taken during a day’s play, with the other being tea.

Nelson: A score of 111 runs, either by a single batsman or the total for the side, thought to refer to British Adm. Horatio Nelson’s lost eye, arm and leg (though, as he actually had both legs intact, the third missing body part is mythical). Odd things are said to happen on this score.

Sticky wicket (or sticky dog): A field affected by rain or sun, causing the ball to bounce or spin unpredictably.

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