Explaining cricket to three foreigners

Like most cricket enthusiasts, John Cornwell has tried at various times to explain cricket to people from non cricket playing countries, but with little success.

When I was a student in London I took a Greek friend, Theo, to Lords because he said he was interested in this puzzling game that he considered was the epitome of English eccentricity and inbred supremacism. Middlesex, the butt of my youthful Yorkshire hostility (how we hated their swashbuckling Dennis Compton and Lords’ claim to be the home of cricket, when everyone knew that was Yorkshire), were playing some other county and we sat near the Tavern and watched the action. I had already told him we would be there till 6pm or thereabouts and that most likely there were two more days after this one before the game would be over; but I believe he thought I was kidding.

Shortly before lunch he finally grasped that the two batsmen were on the same side and not leading two sets of fielders opposing each other as you might compete in a tennis doubles or volleyball match. In the early afternoon I lost patience with Theo as he had clearly lost interest and started muttering that he had always hated Corfu, the only place in Greece where the locals play cricket (introduced by the British during their occupation of the island from 1815–64). Matches there are held on the Grand Esplanade that normally serves as a car park, with teams playing on matting wickets after manhandling cars out of the way, whose owners had not read the notices to remove their vehicles before the start of play.

Mischievously I told him that if a batsman could hit the scoreboard he could add all the numbers currently displayed to his total and this excited him a little, although he was perplexed that no-one was attempting this feat. Shortly before tea it started to rain and the teams came off, so when I explained that cricket cannot be played in the rain, it only served to convince him that the English were even more absurd and peculiar than he had ever imagined. “With a climate like Britain’s”, Theo exclaimed triumphantly, “how could they invent a game that could not be played in the rain!”

Germans are, in my experience, even worse. When you mention cricket and suggest to them that it could improve their national psyche, they give you a pitying, condescending look that you might reserve for a dotty old relative who had in later life embraced one of the more ludicrous, obscure religious cults. Siegfried, my friend of many years, always maintained that playing and watching cricket was just another of those barmy things insular people did, like driving on the wrong side of the road or insisting on measuring in miles and stones.

I pointed out that cricket was not only the second most popular spectator sport in the world, but was played by people of all races across the globe. When I told him that the West Indies were preeminent in world cricket at that time, and for over a billion and half people in Southern Asia it was the only game in town, he just passed if off as post-imperial sentiment – hyperbole fabricated by the British to cover the loss of Empire. What he would have made of the fact that an Afghanistan team played in the 2019 ODI World Cup I do not know, although I have to pinch myself to believe that as well.

However, Siegfried was prepared to give cricket a go and when we returned another year to stay with him at his house in northern Württemberg, we were prepared and took an old bat with us. At the appropriate time we invited him to try his hand at batting and in their quiet, bosky cul-de-sac we pitched our wickets in the middle of the road. Actually just two rubbish bins 22 yards apart, but the road was smooth and looked as if it would take spin.

Of the 17 balls my son and I bowled using a soft tennis ball at slow to medium pace, he only managed to hit three. However, his delight at making contact was immediately snuffed out as my son, fielding roughly at extra cover, caught two of them and the third shot hit a neighbour’s car leading to an embarrassing exchange of angry words. The 17th ball was clearly LBW and when I tried to explain the rule he made an inappropriate Teutonic gesture and stormed off. Later I realised I did not fully know the LBW rule myself.

Image of children playing cricket in the street in Bangalore
Image of children playing cricket in the street in Bangalore
by manoj damodaran for Creative Commons

I have always found Americans more genuinely interested in trying to understand what cricket is all about. Perhaps it is because they play the only other significant hitting, throwing and catching game in the world. Although it is not a good idea to start by telling them that they did not invent baseball, rather that it was flourishing in English villages in early Tudor times and was called rounders. There is even documented proof that the name “base-ball” was used in a book of children’s pastimes published in England in 1744.

On a visit to the American branch of my family who live in rural Indiana, I got into a conversation with Cousin Wilbur, who claimed he always wanted to know about cricket and could I help him out. I soon found myself lost in all the stuff about being in and out, that I once found explained so much more clearly on a tea towel I was given as a Christmas present. As I recollect it said:

“The team who are in, send two batsmen out, to face the other team out in the field. When a batsman is out he comes in and another one goes out, until they are all out at which point they all come in and take tea, until they are ready to go out again etc.”

Perhaps it is the size of the team’s scores in cricket that intrigues Americans. After all, a 4–3 score in the major leagues is a runfest and Wilbur knew that individual batsmen in cricket could score over a hundred runs, a total that would take most baseball teams several seasons to amass.

For reasons that I cannot now fathom I changed tack and decided to describe a draw in cricket. Wilbur was just about still with me at this point and several other relatives had sidled up to listen to my explanation. I began:

“One side bats first and gets 523 for 6 declared after two days at the crease. The fielding side, now somewhat dispirited, can only manage 146 all out and are put in again. This time they perform marginally more creditably and manage to get 178 for 9 when bad light stops play on the last day. And that is a DRAW!!”

Wilbur claimed that he had understood and with considerable grace he thanked me for my explanation, but it was pretty clear that I had failed miserably to fire their interest further.

Sometime later, when back in Yorkshire, I related my abject story to a friend who was the doyen of sports broadcasters on BBC local radio. He told me not to worry, because when he had given a talk to a college symposium in Wisconsin about the rules and spirit of cricket they had all congratulated him, encouraging him to think that he had clearly made a breakthrough in transatlantic cultural understanding. That was until the chairperson, in moving a vote of thanks, said she was now really impressed by cricket: “Especially as they do all that on horseback.”

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