The 'Crack!' of Willow on Leather

Summer in Australia brings out a passion for cricket, the country's 'only national sport'

YES, there was a time when cricket was played by gentlemen wearing pure white linen. The game built "character" in men whose destinies lay beyond the Khyber Pass. But that was yesterday.

Today, as the headlines say, it's "Blazing Stumps."

White is out. In some matches, cricket players are as colorful as parrots; some matches are over in hours, not weeks; and some players suit up for A$250,000 (about $189,000) a season, not for honor. Games are on television and women are allowed to join most cricket clubs, which used to be all-male.

For better or worse, cricket is approaching the 21st century. And few countries play it harder or more fanatically than Australia, where 550,000 men and 12,000 women play the sport. "It's really our only national game," says Ian Johnson, who captained Australian national teams from 1946 to 1956.

In Australia, this is a summer filled with the sound of leather on wood (bats are made from English willow). India and the West Indies are Down Under for a series of matches.

On Feb. 22, nine teams - including South Africa - will compete in a World Cup, played every four years. It will mark the first time South Africa has played international cricket since 1970 and its first official sports outing since sanctions were lifted last year. The finals are on March 25 and the winning team takes home $37,800.

The national season opened up in mid-October and moved into full swing Nov. 1 with the start of matches for the Shefield Shield, Australia's version of the World Series. This 19-game series (each game lasts four days) continues to the final on April 1. Each state fields a team.

Within each state there are different levels of play as well, ranging from age 10 to age 70. The Cricket Association of New South Wales estimates there are 200,000 active players in the state. The game is even played in the bush on pitches (fields) used as fodder by kangaroos.

"Cricket in the country is more social than serious. You either go to the pub or play cricket," explains Ian Kirk, who has only played on the dirt pitches of Wangaretta, Victoria.

In a way, that might be closer to the roots of the game. Tom McCullough, director of the Australian Gallery of Sport, says the game dates back to the middle ages, when shepherds threw a leather ball that another shepherd would try to hit with his crook. Modern-day cricket evolved in the 1700s.

The shepherds wouldn't recognize the grounds now. In Melbourne, the game is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), which is being expanded to seat 110,000. Even with the expansion, there will not be enough seats to meet the demand. There are 80,000 people now waiting to become members so they can watch cricket in the summer and Australian Rules Football in the winter.

American Bill Harper, a resident of Kauai, Hawaii, recalls that he applied for membership in 1939. He actually gained membership in 1956. In 1969, Mr. Harper applied for membership for his son, who will likely get his seat around the year 2000.

More typical would be the North Sydney Oval. On a hazy Sunday, 7,639 people are stretched out on the grass or sitting in the stands to watch New South Wales play Tasmania. The covering over the stands is in Federation style, making the venue feel like a return to a different era. Children munch hot dogs while fathers explain the fine points of the game. Admission is $6 for any seat.

Some Australians find cricket the perfect accompaniment for domestic activities. Pat Evans, a Turramurra homemaker, says she gets a lot of housework done while listening to cricket on the radio.

"Everything gets dusted and polished," she explains, "and when something exciting happens you rush to watch it on television."

SOUNDS a lot like baseball, right? Mrs. Evans's husband went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston and wondered what was going on.

"Nothing happens," he says. "It's just a lot of people standing around."

Actually, some of the cricket players are taking lessons from baseball coaches. Dean Jones, a Victorian cricketer, says baseball players taught him how to take an extra step (called a crow hop) to get more of his body into his throwing. In October, the New South Wales state team asked Doug Ault, a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays, to help teach the players how to throw and field better.

The game was a bit of a mystery to Mr. Ault, who tried to teach the players how to take the ball off stadium walls. He wasn't aware it was an automatic four runs if the ball gets to the wall.

His confusion is understandable. Cricket is not played widely in Canada or the United States. The main center of cricket in the US is Philadelphia.

In 1990, Australia sent a team to the US and Canada to demonstrate the sport. Forty-five thousand people turned up at the Skydome in Toronto, but only 5,000 came to watch during a rainy day at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

"I think Americans would like the game under the right conditions," says Mr. Jones.

Cricket, however, is a passion in the West Indies, where the national team is considered one of the best. In 1990, Australia beat the West Indies in the one-day matches but lost the longer test (series) matches, which some consider to be "real" cricket. Test matches may last five days. "It was the first time the West Indies has had to contend with anyone in 15 years," says Jones, who was part of the squad.

Australians take their cricket very seriously, which explains why the game sometimes goes beyond the level of sport.

In 1932-33, England came to Australia to play a test. The English bowlers (equal to pitchers in baseball) decided to teach the Australians a few manners. Instead of bowling the ball at the stumps, they aimed at the head and chest of the batsmen. The Australian batsmen were battered. The Union Jack was burned in Adelaide.

"It almost caused a break in relations between the colony and the imperial power," says Mr. McCullough.

From this incident came the phrase "That's not cricket." And ever since there has been an intense rivalry between the two nations' cricket teams.

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