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The Non-Expert

What the Fuck Cricket Is

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week, we solve one of Earth’s trickiest mysteries involving bats, balls, and scuttlewicks.

St├ęphane Calais, Badmind II, 2004-2008. Courtesy ZieherSmith, New York.

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Question: Seriously what the fuck is cricket. Please ask one of your British correspondents to lay it out. —G.S.

Answer: In order to have a decent game of cricket, you must first ensure that it isn’t raining.

For a game invented in that global capital of rain, that dominion of drizzle, England, this fact alone should give you a sign that cricket is something special.

The English have thousands of words for precipitation, but only one way of calling off a game of cricket because of wet weather: “Rain stopped play.”

Cricket, like photographic film, or Tara Reid, is light-sensitive. A game can be called off simply because it’s getting a tad gloomy. This, from a cold, rainy, overcast, gloomy nation like England seems incongruous. But cricket was invented for a reason. And that reason was sandwiches.

A game of cricket is not something to be rushed, nor should it be played on an empty stomach. A cricketer, like any athlete, needs sustenance. But not the sort that builds muscle, or provides the correct sugars in just the right proportions. No, the fuel of the cricketer is fresh bread, a fine local cheese, and some pickle to give it that sweet and sour tang. All that, and a large pot of freshly brewed tea.

With your weather and snacks prepared, you are ready to play a game of cricket. Don your pads, your box, and your helmet, my friend. It’s time to grasp the willow.

A Sport of Gentlemen

To play the game, you need to arrange your playing area. This is simple: Measure the steeple, and within it the pitch and the thurrascue. At each end of the pitch, place your wicket, ensuring it is the precise required distance from the popping crease, the ley line, and the first umpire’s left toe.

Players are divided into two teams, sorted firstly by the name of the school their father attended, and secondly by the number of ancestors who have been Members of Parliament. Scuttlewicks are permitted, but only when particularly deserving, and even then never for Test matches.

The aim of the game is simple: A bowler hurls a leather ball towards the wicket at the opposite end of the pitch, aiming to dislodge the bails and get the batsman out. The batting side, meanwhile, attempts to knock the ball as far from the pitch as possible and run from one end of the pitch to the other, thus scoring runs. One run equals one run, although since there are always two (and sometimes even five or six) batsmen on the pitch at any one time, one run can also equal as many as 12 runs.

There are, of course, many other ways to get a batsman out. You can catch the ball he has just struck, force him to arrive late at the crease after a particularly enjoyable sandwich break, or trick him into discussing politics, which is banned at the crease and liable to get him thrown out by the umpire.

Scoring a game of cricket is even simpler than playing it.

Players do not merely attempt to get the highest number of runs. Instead, winning a game of cricket is all about ensuring that your opponent does slightly less well than you do. Then both sides can congratulate the other on a game well played, a job well done, and an excellent selection of sandwiches consumed. No pride is hurt, and everyone can retire from the pitch feeling that honor has been satisfied. Even the losers are, strictly speaking, still winners. They just didn’t win as much as the other side did.

A winning score may be counted in runs (uncouth, but allowable) or wickets or a combination of both. Not winning is a far greater skill, of course. A game not won may be drawn, or perhaps tied. It goes without saying that a tie and a draw are not the same thing.

This is why cricket is the sport of gentlemen.

The Etiquette of the Thing

Test matches are, as the name suggests, trial runs for the real thing. A Test match may last many days, but that’s only because of the number of sandwich breaks required.

It’s important to play many Test matches, because one day your team captain may write you a letter informing you that you must go to the next level: You must play First Class. Attending at this level requires more expensive tickets, but provides superior seating and complimentary tea.

Non-cricketers often make fun of the names used to describe the positions taken on the field by fielders. They find terms like “silly mid-on” and “fine leg” amusing. What they don’t know is that these names were invented by cricketers to keep the true names of those positions secret. Cricket is a club, a secret society. No one who plays at “Vicar’s midnight sermon” or “Village lass grown up lovely” wishes to reveal these ancient secrets to the non-cricketing fraternity. Hence the artificial official names.

Official Name
Secret Name
Square leg The bearded shoes of St. Barnabas
Slips Fifth man
Fine leg Dally-by-the-water’s-edge
Third man Minister’s alley

What cricket fans value more than anything else is the “spirit of the game.” This is a level of sportsmanship far and above any found in other competitive team activities. A cricket player must take into account the honor of his team, of his opponents, and of their wives, who may well be watching and making sandwiches back at the pavilion. It is not in the spirit of the game to let your side down by doing too well, showing off like a footballer, or simply forgetting to tie one’s stumps together before taking the crease. To play is to play properly.

Let’s take a look at a typical game. Where scuttlewicks are concerned, the toss of a coin decides whose back foot shot is dinked. As long as no players are out for a duck, no further gouging or sprigging will be permitted, unless the inswing has been declared vertigant. All players scoring leg byes off limited overs during lower-order looseners are expected to do so after luncheon. Gardening is discouraged. Trundlers are expected. A cow shot is ungentlemanly, a pig shot is unworthy, a goose shot is unlikely, and a bucket shot is unwelcome. Scuttlewicks are allowed to wear hats, but must remove them in between overs and when addressing the umpire, a lady, or anyone responsible for sandwiches. Played in this manner, you’d expect to see a perfect score of 147.

Cricket Is Thus

Cricket is watching the sun set behind the clouds on a slightly chilly summer evening with your wife in one hand and a glass of Pimm’s in the other.

Cricket is reaching the summit of a large hill, perhaps even a small mountain, with your favorite dog at your heels and a flask of warm tea in your haversack.

Cricket is catching a fine fish from the river that runs through one’s estate, and proudly returning it to Cook with instructions to rustle up something special for the family this evening.

Cricket is the fine ironwork of the gates at the end of Downing Street. It is the fabric of England’s ancient cathedrals, her circles of standing stones, and her countryside pubs with their pint glasses of Belgian lager.

Cricket is Her Majesty’s Royal Train, carrying the Queen over our nation’s ancient, partly electrified but fully privatized railway network.

It is a glorious, marvelous, English thing.

That, my friends, is what the fuck cricket is.