cricket

   Cricket is a bat-and-ball summer game with elaborate ‘laws’ and terminology baffling to outsiders but very clear to initiates. It is played, under two ‘umpires’, by two teams of eleven on a level ‘pitch’ of closely mown turf twenty-two yards in length, in the middle of a grassed ‘ground’. Ideally elliptical with a seventyyard radius, grounds vary considerably in size and shape, which casts doubts on statistics of team and individual performances in reference books like Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack (annual since 1864). At the two ends of the pitch are ‘wickets’, three twentyeight- inch wooden ‘stumps’ set to give an overall width of nine inches, with two wooden ‘bails’ resting in grooves across them. ‘Creases’ are marked out four feet in front of each wicket.
   The captain winning the toss of a coin opts to ‘bat’ or ‘field’ first. In white trousers, shirt and pullover, wearing a cap (or visored helmet), padded gloves, leg-pads and other protection, and equipped with a willow bat four and one-half inches wide and thirty-eight inches long, including handle, the batsman ‘opening the innings’ takes his stance sideways on at the crease before one wicket; another batsmen, momentarily a virtual spectator, stands by the other. The batsman endeavours to score ‘runs’ by striking the ball at least far enough to allow him to run to the opposite wicket, as his partner runs to take his place. If time permits, more than one run can be scored from a single hit. Should the ball be hit over the boundary, six runs accrue; four are scored if the ball touches the ground on the way before going over the boundary. The bowler, rotating his arm through an arc above his head, casts the hard leather-covered ball (three and one-half inches in diameter) down the pitch towards the wicket guarded by the batsman. The bowler does not throw the ball: ‘throwing’, or jerking the arm while bowling, is outlawed. By delivering the ball at varying speeds (up to ninety miles per hour), and making it swerve in the air or turn to either side when landing on the pitch in front of the crease, bowlers aim to dismiss batsmen and prevent them scoring runs. On completion of an ‘over’ of six deliveries, the first bowler is replaced by another, who bowls from the opposite wicket at whichever batsman is then facing him. The alternation of ends is maintained throughout the innings. Selecting a suitable bowler at any particular juncture is a major responsibility for the captain. A batsman is ‘out’ (and replaced by the next) if the ball penetrates his defence and topples the wicket (or strikes his leg-pad in front of it), or if, while trying to defend his wicket or hit a run, he strikes the ball into the air and it is caught before touching the ground by the wicket-keeper (who stands behind the wicket wearing pads and gloves) or any of the fielders, whom the captain has positioned, at his discretion, to prevent runs being scored and to hold catches. The batsman is also out ‘stumped’ or ‘run out’ if in trying to strike the ball or attempting a run, he quits the crease and any member of the fielding side breaks the wicket with the ball before the batsman runs back. The batting side’s innings continues until ten of its members are out or the captain, judging the score high enough, ‘declares the innings closed’. Now the other side must try to score more runs. The new side wins the match provided it does. But, should it fail to do so, and if the side bowling second cannot dismiss all the other team’s batsmen, then the match is not a win for the first side, but a ‘draw’. A ‘tie’ results when scores are even. Ties are rare, but many matches end as draws, to the irritation of unsophisticated spectators. Most matches are decided, often in a lengthy afternoon, on a single innings by each side. Matches at higher levels involve two innings by each side and last from two to five days. ‘Tests’ — internationals between countries like Australia and India, whose cricket dates back to imperial times— are generally held across a summer in ‘series’ of from three to six matches. This is a long time, and the tempo can occasionally appear leisurely, but tension mounts up surprisingly, often to the very last moment.
   Cricket, an ancient game which underwent development in the eighteenth century, took its present form in the nineteenth century within the general evolution of sport for both spectators and participants, with the public schools playing a major role. Sometimes seen as character-forming— for example, ‘that’s just not cricket’ became a byword for underhand conduct—cricket is played and discussed with great earnestness and rumours of cheating are taken very seriously. In Test matches, England’s recent record has been disappointing. The County Championship, for the eighteen English counties that have over the last century acquired ‘first-class’ status and play four-day matches, has not much public support; the lower-level Minor Counties Championship, with two-day matches, has even less. To revive interest, gain television coverage and make money, various sponsored one-innings championships have been introduced since 1963; only a limited number of overs are allowed for each innings, and the result depends simply on scores without the possibility of a draw. Crowds at grounds and high viewing figures prove there is a following for this rather more exciting form of cricket, though purists disapprove.
   Traditional distinctions between ‘gentlemen and players’ (amateurs and professionals) were jettisoned in 1963, and though attempts by Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer to put the game on a different financial basis in the 1970s failed after causing disruption, pay has now improved. The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), founded in 1787, retains, like its famous Lord’s Ground in London, something of its mystique, but has had to yield authority to the Cricket Council and the Test and County Cricket Board, and may have to cede further ground to the England and Wales Cricket Board. Reforms are regularly mooted, but often opposed. Local leagues of every variety flourish at lower levels, particularly in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but school cricket has declined, with implications for the future of the game. Cricket is, however, gaining popularity in countries outside the Test match ambit, such as Holland; and women’s cricket, boasting a long history, has been steadily developing from a small base to impressive standards.
   The quintessential English game, cricket has remained much the same for 200 years. However, this sense of stability and tradition has come under increasing threat from broadcasters, and their desire to secure and guarantee ratings, over the last twenty years. This is most clear in the growth of the oneday game, especially since the 1970s; county fixtures last four days, with drawn games common, but this is very much cricket for the purist, with the emphasis on classic technique and tactical thinking. One-day cricket is television-driven and has coloured kits. But while it has damaged levels of technique (except fielding), it is undeniably popular, since it only lasts one day, nearly always generates a result and brings considerable revenue into the game. It has long been a favourite of the television stations, and these games regularly sell out.
   England’s five-day Test matches against other countries have largely retained their popularity over the postwar period, with the Lord’s Test always one of the great social and sporting occasions of the summer. Although still essentially an upper and middle-class sport, cricket successfully spread its appeal to all classes (particularly via one-day matches), though some critics consider this more a problem than an achievement. It also has a strong cultural significance, reinforcing traditional images of England, like the old elites, the village green and church, fair play and other concepts of what it means to be English, a case argued by Prime Minister John Major, amongst others. It is no accident that Oxford and Cambridge Universities still play first class fixtures against the counties. The modern game comprises three one-day knockout competitions and the County Championship, with the season lasting from April to September. Crowds are often low, especially in the dark and damp of April, because each day’s play lasts until evening, and there are frequent lulls between periods of play. However, this just reinforces other cultural aspects of the game, with hampers and bottles of champagne common among spectators. BBC Radio 4’s Test Match Special is one of Britain’s longest running radio programmes, and has carved out a place all of its own in the traditional cultural imagery of ‘England’ (plans to drop it in the mid-1990s provoked a barrage of protest). Famous for its late presenter, Brian Johnston, typically eccentric commentators, genteel commentary and chocolate cakes sent in by listeners, Test Match Special (and by extension cricket in general) forms part of the core of Englishness and evokes images of a rural, pre-industrial England that for most people is no more.
   The county championship is contested by counties from all over England, plus Glamorgan in Wales. Cricket is played in Scotland and Ireland but only at a very low level, and in Britain it is essentially an English sport. The most recent addition to the county scene, Durham, arrived with much fanfare in the early 1990s, but the team has struggled badly. Indeed the absence of a relegation system that saves Durham is cited as one reason for cricket’s decline since the halcyon decades of the 1950s, in terms of attendances and playing standards. By the midway point in the season most counties have nothing to play for, and the lack of relegation means there is no reason to keep playing hard. Journalists have claimed for years that most players have no incentive to improve or entertain, to the detriment of the Test side and the sport overall.
   However, after various experiments with different administrative systems, it was decided in 1996 to change the game’s structure, with the creation of an England and Wales Cricket Board, though talk of introducing divisions into the championship (to sustain interest through the season) proved premature. There has never been an organized transfer market, but the strict rules on the hiring of new players were clearly not working by the 1990s, and some counties want a formalized system of compensation when players change counties.
   Kit sponsorship was only introduced in the early 1990s (usually attracting brewing companies), and cricket’s ethos remains rather ‘amateur’, even though professionalism was introduced decades ago. But the pay structure has become increasingly unbalanced, with Test players earning very considerable sums, and the rest far below them (in 1995, the minimum wage for a capped county player was just £14,500). ‘Benefit years’ were introduced to reward the long-serving ‘journeyman’ professional who never makes a fortune from cricket, but increasingly in practice, benefits have only come to help established stars; some lesser names actually lost money.
   But while football’s commercial ethos has been absent, winning in cricket has always been very important, especially at Test level, where success and failure have regularly become common (if rather debatable) metaphors for the state and mood of the nation. The 1980s and 1990s saw England generally perform poorly, or not as well as expected, and more significantly, saw allegations of bowlers illegally doctoring the ball, on-field rows between captains and umpires, and a drugs episode (a Sussex player was banned in 1996 for nineteen months for taking cocaine). There have also been allegations of racism by top English players, and racist arguments about the ‘loyalty’ of non-English born players (England have picked naturalized players from South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Indies and New Zealand since the early 1980s). Cricket is undoubtedly the English national summer sport, but it now has to face challenges from other sports (the football season encroaches a bit more on the cricket season every year), and from the demands of television. However, its very continuity and slow pace of change forms much of its appeal (the chairman of Glamorgan estimates that 1.4 million children play cricket each year, and 10.6 million people follow it), which represents an interesting problem for the authorities for the future.
   Further reading
    Green, B. (1988) A History of Cricket, London: Barrie & Jenkins.
    Wynne-Thomas, P. (1987) The History of Cricket, Norwich: HMSO.
   REX NASH
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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