December 22, 2014

Two chirps for cricket

I get One World Sports in my international satellite package. Its unofficial motto: "Covering all the sports too boring and obscure even for ESPN2." Like soccer, which I discuss at length here.

Some of the "obscure" sports are popular American sports played elsewhere (Japanese baseball, Chinese basketball). But most are obscure for good reason, such as snooker (nine-ball with a bunch of needlessly confusing complications).

Darts, though, is fairly interesting simply because of the math involved.

Then there's table tennis, which looks terrible on television. They should use an orange ball or try that puck-tracking technology once employed in a futile attempt to make hockey interesting to the American sports fan.

Badminton is better. The shuttlecock slows itself down by design. It still suffers from being a "volley" sport: an object gets smacked back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth) until somebody misses.

Volleyball is the best "volley" sport. The ball is big, easy to follow, and each team can do something interesting with the ball before hitting it back. Thus the athletic skills on display rise above the purely reflexive.

But no matter how impressive the skills, in the end it's the same thing over and over. Volley sports are definitely more fun to play than they are to watch (beach volleyball having found the obvious solution to that problem).

But there is one not-made-in-America sport worth watching. Cricket! Well, cricket matches with all the boring stuff taken out (true of sumo too: a day's worth of boring live sumo coverage can be wrapped up in thirty exciting minutes).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of baseball are obvious in the sport. Baseball "fixed" cricket the same way American football fixed rugby: by making it, to quote George Will,  "a game of discrete episodes" that provides for numerous "contemplative" moments.

Such moments of collective contemplation lead to offensive and defensive strategies that require the players to act together in a coordinated way over time, producing, for example, this 2-6-3-4-5-3 double play.

Because there are only two bases in cricket, there's no way to plan for or execute a base-running offensive strategy during play. Once the batting order is decided, its all up to the batsman to hit the ball as often as possible.

And some of them can really hit that ball! Cricket essentially turns batting practice into a sport. Now, as batting practice goes, it's pretty interesting.

The equipment makes it fairly easy to hit the ball. The ball is heavier and harder than a baseball, and it's bounced to boot, so it's difficult to hit well. Only the catcher wears gloves, so it's harder to catch too.

The batsman stands right in the strike zone. Hitting him is fair. That's why cricket batsmen are padded up like hockey goalies.

Runs are scored by running back between the two bases. One "strike" and the batsman is out. He can also get thrown out and caught out (like baseball). Hit a part of his body in the strike zone and he's out.

On the other hand, there's no foul territory. It's impossible for the defense to cover the outfield, and a good batsman can hit the ball where the fielders aren't. Though that does make defensive plays all the more remarkable.

The equivalent of a ground-rule double in baseball scores 4 points in cricket. An actual home run is worth 6 points. You can see why cricket produces scores in the hundreds.

Cricket also has the coolest, so-very-British terms for stuff in sports, like wicket, maiden, overs (always plural), beamer and yorker. A batsman isn't "out." He's "dismissed." How polite.

Cricket consistently creates highlight reel moments. The bowling (pitching) is wild and crazy. One batsman can score a hundred runs and the next zero. Catching "foul tips" and pop flies without gloves is pretty impressive.

But again, cricket's one major failing is the inability of the offense to mount any kind of strategy beyond the batter order. Cricket needs another base, and should switch sides every out or every set number of overs.

As far as that goes, it'd be interesting to score baseball the same as cricket: each base reached equals a run. A home run would score 4 and a base hit would score 1. It'd definitely revitalize the Ichiro Suzuki style of "small ball."

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