A world in love with cricket (except in US)

Today, amid pomp and circumstance, cricket's World Cup begins in London.

To Americans, the sport remains an enigma. Cricket terms such as "fine leg," "first slip," and "long leg" mystify (they are fielding positions).

Cricket's World Cup (May 14 to June 20) is held once every four years and brings together the top 12 cricket-playing countries. With an estimated TV audience of 2 billion, the event ranks in popularity just behind World Cup soccer, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl.

Yet the American media have little room for it, except perhaps for a cameo on CNN or a spoof on the ABC sitcom "Sports Night," where no one in the network's newsroom knew what cricket was or how to explain it.

In this global village where arts and sciences flow freely across boundaries, team sports has bucked the trend. An American may have every Rolling Stones album but still not have the faintest idea that Mick Jagger or Elton John are die-hard cricket fans.

Baseball and cricket always had a special place in their respective national psyches. Franco-American educator Jacques Barzun once said, "Anyone who would know America must first learn baseball." British cricket writer Neville Cardus had similar thoughts: "England would have to be torn and rebuilt for any other than cricket to be its national game."

As an American who's known cricket for many years, I see a good dose of old-fashioned Yankee typecasting in regard to cricket. Mention cricket to the average American, and it's likely to conjure up images from some episode of Masterpiece Theatre or a chapter of P.G. Woodhouse - flanneled dons gracefully flitting over the panoramic lawn of some Georgian country house.

But cricket has changed radically in the past 25 years. The bleached flannels are being replaced by splashy uniforms that show up better for the floodlit night games now popular with fans.

Even the notorious "sticky wicket" - a colloquial expression for a wet playing area - has become pass in this era of tarps and AstroTurf. Like other pro sports, cricket is run by agents, promoters, and financial executives.

And if you carry this demythologizing a little further and strip away all the stereotypes that surround cricket, what you're left with is a fairly simple "you-hit-it, I-catch-it" bat-and-ball game.

As far as I can see, cricket and baseball philosophically differ in two ways: First, cricket's a game of character, baseball of opportunity. Secondly, cricket magnifies success and failure, while baseball disperses it.

Here's how: In cricket, there are no balls or strikes, and no foul territory. Nor does the batter have to run when he hits the ball. But if he does, he's only got to scamper 60 feet to score a run. Under these conditions, where the fielders, not the rules, get you out, the cricket batsman can assert far more personal control over his destiny than can his baseball counterpart, whose time at bat can be cut short by a check swing, an intentional walk, or other circumstantial variables.

On the flip side, once a cricket batsman is out, he's finished for the rest of the inning. (World Cup games are one inning long, while some others, known as Test matches, play two innings.)

I disagree with the claim that baseball is the ideal game for hero-worshippers. In baseball, a five-for-five day at the plate is wonderful. But a cricket batsman has to face every pitcher (or bowler, as they are called) and constantly keep track of the ever-changing fielding positions, and still might score, 50, 75, or even 100 runs.

I'm often asked, "What's the best way for an American to learn about cricket?" That's easy. If you know somebody who plays cricket, borrow a bat and have someone toss you a few. You'll see how neat it is to guide, coax, and cajole the ball here, there, and everywhere. It's more than enough to see cricket for what it really is: not a better, not a worse, way to have fun with a bat and ball than anything else you know ... just different.

* More information on cricket can be found at www.99worldcup.com or www.cricketworld.net

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