OK, so working on Right Off the Bat (It ought to have an exclamation mark there; we’ll talk to our publisher about it.) was not exactly a return to U of T (University of Toronto, during my year of apostasy from the Bronx). But as a baseball fan with little knowledge of cricket, besides the fact that it is complicated, that it is very un-American, that it derives from a smallish island that is sometimes part of Europe and sometimes its own thing, I had plenty to learn. And I still do!
Who knew cricket was covered at least as, if not more, thoroughly than the National Pastime in the early twentieth-century sports pages of the New York Times?
I did know cricket is played around the world and around the year. But who knew the level of fanaticism on the Indian subcontinent for example? These guys make your average Italian soccer fan look like Gandhi himself.
When I heard the words sticky wicket, I once upon a time reached for my revolver. I had visions of Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, or anyone named Nigel. I thought I was living in a Terence Rattigan play.
My former mentor, originally from upstate New York and Los Angeles, who has lived a good deal of his 70 years in the UK, tells me of the time his English brother-in-law gave him a withering look for cheering a great catch “by what you and I would call the center fielder.” What kind of sport is this? No yelling? Cricket seemed too heavy on sportsmanship, too light on nitty-gritty competition. I thought of cricket as a form of croquet, to be played by the likes of Alfred, Lawn Tennyson.
But wait! These so-called sissies of the field catch a ball that is every bit as hard and fast as a baseball, without the aid of basket-sized gloves. Try doing that. Yikes!
(Who knew? I feel like singing Dayenu!)
Then, we have “The Bowler.” Lawn-bowling anyone? Tennis anyone? A little badminton in the backyard perhaps? Curling without the ice or men with brooms (an excellent movie by the way). How about let’s roll a few lines at the local lanes? But as I learned, these fast bowlers have a wicked advantage over the pitcher, whose poor foot is cemented to the rubber (not with rubber cement, though). The cricket bowler runs and slings, building unimaginable speed and torque, depending on what he does with his shoulder, forearm, and wrist. (In the old days, he’d “bowl” underhand [not underhanded], hence the term.) And what’s that, you say the ball bounces? That’s gotta slow it down to Wiffle Ball speed. Wrong! The skid can speed up the ball; the bounce (a googly, which, depending on who is throwing and who is hitting (batting!) is an offbreak disguised as a legbreak: don’t ask), can do all sorts of things with geometric trajectory. Plus the same ball stays in play all the time, no namby-pamby changing of the baseball every few pitches or if one strays into the stands as we do in baseball. Hello!
As radical a change in baseball as the designated-hitter rule, stodgy, tradition-laden, and unclappable (per my mentor) cricket has many forms. Who knew? These are different games we’re talking about. The Indian subcontinent, to return there, is keen on 20/20, a baseball-like version of cricket, and to purists something like “Home Run Derby” or the home-run contest the night before the All-Star Game would be. With cheerleaders and pumped-up stadium sounds, it is closer to professional wrestling or roller-derby. (And next may come the even more souped-up 5ives. Good grief, the short attention span of baseball fans will soon resemble Confucian patience.)
Oh yes. Cricket is played and drooled over by at least a billion more people than play or follow baseball. To the cricket world, I hate to say, Major League Baseball seems small potatoes.