A primer on cricket: There's a lot of baseball in it
NEW YORK -- Cricket is undoubtedly baseball's older cousin. The sports have myriad similarities.
They feature the same essential elements: pitch the ball, hit the ball, field the ball. Batters try to score runs and avoid making outs. Pitchers and fielders try to limit runs and record outs. Sound familiar?
There are different types of cricket matches. A test match, which is what Americans typically think of when they hear about cricket, can last up to five days and includes lunch and tea breaks. A limited-overs match is designed to be completed in a single day, with each team seeing 300 balls (pitches). The type of game being played in New York, Houston and Los Angeles is Twenty20, in which each team sees 120 balls. A T20 game, which has grown exponentially in popularity because the relatively small number of pitches leads to aggressive batting, is usually completed in about three hours.
Cricket -- a highly popular sport around the globe -- is played on a field similar to a baseball field, except that the batter and the bowler are in the middle of the field, on either end of a rectangular 66-foot-long pitch. One either end of the pitch are the wickets -- three stakes driven into the ground that support two horizontal bails. Lines are drawn around the wickets, creating safe "grounds" for batters and runners (think of them as bases).
A boundary is created around the outer edge of the field, creating a circle or oval. A boundary can be anything, but in professional cricket, it is usually made of padded, triangular cushions connected by rope. Like baseball, there is no standard size of the full playing surface -- boundaries are typically dictated by the dimensions of the field itself. There is no foul territory -- the batter can hit the ball in any direction. Hitting the ball to the boundary on the ground is worth four runs. Hitting the ball over the boundary on the fly (think home run) is worth six. And that's exactly what such hits are called: fours and sixes.
An "over" is a set of six balls thrown by a single bowler. The bowler must be changed every six balls (the umpire calls "Over!"), though bowlers can and typically will return to throw later overs. Twenty20 means each team gets 20 overs -- 120 balls.
An out can be made in a variety of ways. Three are most common: a fly ball, popup or line drive that is caught, just as in baseball; a baserunner who doesn't reach his safe ground (base) before the wicket is "broken" by a defender (the tag); and cricket's two versions of a strikeout. The first occurs when the bowler delivers the ball past the batter and the ball hits the wicket and dislodges one or both bails. The batter is said to have been "bowled out." The second circumstance occurs when the batter misses the ball, the ball hits him, and he is ruled to have interfered with the ball hitting the wicket. That's called "leg before wicket."
Ten outs -- called "wickets" -- constitute an inning (called an "innings" in both singular and plural form, but for this purpose, we'll use the singular so as not to confuse). In T20 cricket, it is highly unusual for a team to make 10 outs in its 120-ball inning; hence the aggressive approach to batting. In the other forms of the game, teams tend to be more conservative, trying to avoid making outs.
Each team consists of 11 players, including a wicketkeeper (the catcher). Some defensive players will be positioned near the batter or in midfield (think infield), while others will be positioned in what a baseball fan knows as the outfield. There are no set positions except for the bowler and wicketkeeper.
The offensive team sends out two batters -- they are called a "partnership" -- and they take their positions alongside each wicket. One of them will be the first to bat. The bowler takes a position any distance behind the wicket opposite the batter, runs toward the pitch and delivers the ball to the batter on one bounce. The bowler's lead foot must be touching the line in front of the wicket at the time of delivery. Think of that line as the pitching rubber.
If the ball is put in play by the batter but not caught in the air, the batter and his partner can run past each other to the "safe ground" around the opposite wicket. They are not committed to run and can instead decide to remain in their safe ground. Each time they both arrive safely at the opposite wickets, that scores a run. More than one run can be scored on a play. Whichever member of the partnership is occupying the space near the batter's wicket is the one to face the next ball.
Runners can be put out if the wicket he is running to is broken -- meaning at least one of the two bails is dislodged from the top of the wicket -- before he reaches the safe ground, either with his body or the end of his bat. A wicket can be broken by a defender who has possession of the ball, either from fielding it or receiving a throw from a teammate, and physically hitting the wicket to dislodge the bails. The ball also can be thrown at the wicket in an attempt to break it. A batter/runner who makes an out leaves the game and is replaced by the next available teammate in the batting order.
A ball on which no runs are scored is called a "dot," for the simple reason that it is recorded in the scorebook with a dot. A "free ball" is awarded when a pitch is determined to be unhittable. An out cannot be made on a free ball. A "safe" call on a runner is not called "safe." He is determined to be "not out."
When the first team has finished batting, its runs total is called the "target" -- the number of runs the other team must surpass in its inning to win the game. A "run rate" is the average number of runs scored per over. By comparing the run rate of the first team to the run rate of the second team while it is batting, a fan can easily determine whether or not the batting team is on pace to score a sufficient number of runs to win the game.
And that is what a baseball fan should find appealing about Twenty20 cricket: The bottom half is like one long ninth inning, and the game just might come down to needing some long balls on the final pitches.