Why does the Cricket World Cup matter?
At 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning, there might be a slight rise in the number of noise complaints made in apartment dwellings across New York City and many other metropolitan areas around the country. It won't be because of an unusual number of belligerent drunks returning from a late night out. It's because a few million fanatics have woken up early to log on to their computers or tune into their satellite dish service, making their excitement known as the first ball is bowled between India and Bangladesh at the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
For many Americans, cricket is stereotyped as the funny game that goes on for days and looks kind of like baseball, but not really, played by guys wearing sweaters who take breaks for tea. However, over the last 30 to 40 years, the game has undergone drastic changes that have made it more appealing, including the introduction of colored uniforms and shortened single-day formats like the one used for the World Cup.
Although cricket is a sport steeped in tradition and clings to its roots in order to preserve as much as possible, American sports fans might be surprised to know that cricket utilized video technology to aid umpires in making line decisions long before baseball decided to check the validity of home runs on replay. The Hawk-eye system currently used to challenge and dispute line calls in tennis was originally developed for cricket and is used as part of cricket's challenge and review system for overturning calls.
In fact, though cricket does have aspects similar to baseball, in reality it is tennis and racket sports in general that cricket shares most things in common. Like tennis, cricket is a sport where the ball is typically struck after bouncing off a ground surface. Tennis players adjust to the surfaces they play on -- grass, clay, hard court -- and must be able to anticipate the pace and deviation of the ball after it bounces. Likewise in cricket, a batsman must be able to anticipate the pace and deviation of the ball delivered by the bowler after it bounces off the pitch. Is the pitch flat and hard with consistent bounce? Is there extra grass on the pitch making the ball move around more than usual? Are there cracks that could cause a delivery to bounce higher or shoot lower?
Tennis players are adept at using angles to win points, i.e. serving the ball down the middle or going wide, choosing to go for a backhand down the line or stretching the opponent with a crosscourt shot, coming up to the net to volley, etc. Because there is no foul territory in cricket, it is even more of a geometric game. The cricket field is like playing on a billiards table because the ball can be played in any direction to achieve success. Like the Ty Cobb approach to batting, cricketers are also encouraged to play the ball along the ground rather than blast the ball out of the park. The highest scorers are the ones who can master the angles and pierce gaps between fielders to accumulate runs. Brute force is neutralized by finesse and skill. Although cricketers come in all shapes and sizes, some of the greatest batsmen in the history of the game -- Don Bradman, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar -- are all under 6 feet tall.
In addition to the elements of baseball, tennis and billiards that are present in cricket, skills that have been acquired and developed through other games can also be applied to cricket. Golfers would be perfect straight drivers in cricket. Ice hockey players could morph a slap shot into a glorious cover drive. Javelin throwers have the same run-up and launching technique required to be fast bowlers. Anyone who grew up playing "running the bases" should recognize the similarity to running between the wickets in cricket in order to score runs. Cricket is a hodgepodge of multiple games all meshed together under one roof. Americans who are active in many of these different sports would be surprised to find out how good they'd be at cricket if they gave it a try.
So if it's 1 a.m. at your dorm in Palo Alto and you hear cries of "SHOT!" from down the hall, there's no need to be alarmed. It's most likely just a fellow student reacting to Chris Gayle or Virender Sehwag flaying another ball to the boundary. Get used to the shouts for LBW and screams of joy at the fall of a wicket. It's cricket, lovely cricket.
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and "Wisden Cricketers" Almanack.
Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterDellaPenna
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