Here’s a secret: cricket’s a simple game. It’s about as complicated as baseball, and an order of magnitude less intricate than American Football. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but here’s the truth: you don’t need to know too many rules to enjoy the sport.
Start with baseball. The number of bases isn’t really critical to the sport, is it? If there were five bases instead of four, it wouldn’t change the complexity of baseball. Cricket has two bases. Big deal.
The number of strikes you’re allowed is just one, rather than three, and the umpire’s judgment has been dropped from the equation, because the “strike zone” is an actual target — so it’s easy to tell if it actually gets hit.
The “pitcher” has slightly different rules. In cricket, they’re not allowed to use the whiplike speed you can generate by bending your elbow — the elbow pretty much has to be held straight. In return, the bowler is allowed to run before delivering the ball. This action is rather like a javelin throw.
And the ball typically bounces before reaching the batsman, which allows the bowler to attack the batsman from differing angles or get the ball to move at the point of contact. The different ways a bowler does this are a big part of the game.
Instead of the pitcher doing their part and then getting swapped out for another, the bowlers take turn bowling six balls each. This is called an over. There are no substitutions, which changes the game quite a bit; everyone you need has to be already part of the team on the field.
In baseball, the teams take turns batting each time three batters get out. In cricket, the team bats through. That is, everyone on one team gets to bat, then they switch and the other team gets its turn.
None of these were terribly complicated or revolutionary, though the richness that comes from bouncing the ball will take some time to learn to appreciate. Here’s one change that does make a big difference: when the batsman hits the ball, they do not need to run — but if they do decide to run, of course, they have to make sure they can get to the other side before the fielders can get the ball back. Imagine a man on second base, and no one else on. If the batter hits a ground ball, the runner can choose to run or not, but if they do run, they better make sure they can get to third.
In addition, each batter stays in the game until the fielding team gets them out. It’s as if a runner who reaches home plate then picks up a bat and gets another turn.
This isn’t difficult to comprehend, but it changes the sport radically. It means that in cricket, the batsman is in control, while in baseball, the pitcher is. The rules are different than baseball, and the differences may take some time to learn, but they’re not more complicated than baseball.
Here’s something that honestly is a bit confusing. There are three forms of the game. You can think of the differences as similar to those between American and Canadian Football, or between baseball and softball.
The first and most venerable form of the sport is the longest form, which is usually what people mean when they just say cricket. Each team gets two turns to bat through, and there’s a time limit on how long the game can last, usually three or five days. That is, each team gets two innings to bat, and if they’re still playing without a winner after three days, it’s called a draw. Does that time limit sound absurdly long? We’ll talk about that later.
The second is One Day cricket, which lasts about six hours. Each team gets one innings each, and that innings can last a maximum of fifty overs (remember, each over is six deliveries). Whoever scores the most wins; there’s no such thing as a draw. If everybody gets out before those fifty overs are finished, that innings ends.
The third is 20-20, which lasts about three hours. Each side gets a maximum of twenty overs.
IS THAT ENOUGH? CAN I FOLLOW THE SPORT NOW?
No. In order to understand what’s going on, there’s more you need to know, and that body of knowledge almost never gets addressed.
A simple question: who’s winning? Surprisingly, it doesn’t have an obvious answer. Remember that in cricket, each team gives its entire lineup a turn to bat. So for most of the duration of the match, each team has had a very different number of outs, meaning it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the scores.
To take a concrete example, let’s assume it’s a one day game. Team A has scored 155 runs in the first 30 overs, and six players have gotten out. Who’s winning? It’s difficult to tell — the second team hasn’t even had a chance to bat yet.
Or: Team A batted and scored 275 in their fifty overs. Team B is now batting and scored 200 in 40 overs and lost seven wickets (that is, seven of their batsmen are out). Who’s winning? Again, it’s not clear, if you’re new to the sport.
If you’ve grown up watching the sport, you know who’s likely to win. But you know this by doing a host of calculations and doing them automatically. Here’s a very rough guide, assuming the opposition is normal.
In the two-inning form of the game, an average score is between 300-350. In one day cricket, an average score is 200-250. In Twenty-Twenty, it’s around 150.
However, remember that all the bowlers needed for the match have to be part of the eleven selected — that is, you’re not allowed to substitute. That means that four or five members of the eleven are selected for their bowling skills, not their batting. These typically bat at the end of the batting order. So if the score at some point is, say, 250 for 5 wickets, then the final score is not likely to be 500, it’s more likely to be 350 to 400.
AREN’T THE GAMES TOO LONG?
How long should they be?
When we say cricket games last too long, we’re comparing them to how long games last in other sports. However, that ignores the fact that the significance of one game in cricket is different from the significance of one game of other sports. Perhaps a better analogy would be one Test match versus a series in baseball or basketball, and each series of Tests could be compared to a season in those.
For example, a Test match lasts about 30 hours. In 2004, the Red Sox and Yankees played the ALCS, seven games for the sole purpose of deciding who moves on. These games combined lasted about almost 30 hours. The ebb and flow of a Test match can be compared to that of a series, too.
Of course, if you don’t know anything in baseball, you can still follow the progress of the series simply by knowing who’s won. Cricket lacks this. As we mentioned earlier, even figuring out who’s winning is tricky. And baseball does a good job of setting up mini-games that get resolved — the conflict between pitcher and each batter is a self-contained battle that doesn’t last too long, and can only end with one or the other winning.
In cricket, these battles are not as obvious, and it takes experience teasing them out. An opening batsman could decide to tire out the bowlers, making it easier for the rest of his team to do their jobs; winning that battle is very different from a rush to victory. There’s another major sport where the spectator has to put some work in to understand where the little dramas lie, and that is soccer. Soccer has a continuous flow, and does not split up naturally into little games that can be scored. You have to understand that the right winger recognized that he was over-covered, and held up the ball to create a pause in which he could pass back to the center back who could then one-touch to the left winger in a little more space, and this comes naturally only if you’ve been watching it since you were a baby.