Explaining cricket to a baseball expert… now that the U.S. is apparently good at it

I watch grown men in pajamas hit balls with sticks, and then I write about it.

This is my job. It’s how I afford food and shelter. Some people are experts at cardiology or architecture or cooking or fixing automobiles, but not me. I’ve devoted my whole life to grown men in pajamas hitting balls with sticks, and I’m an expert in it. The world doesn’t need baseball writers, but I’m sure glad that they want them.

However, as a baseball writer, it’s extremely frustrating for me to watch cricket. Shouldn’t my expertise in grown men in pajamas hitting balls with sticks translate to that sport, too? It’s like a chef being an expert when it comes to cooking food in pans, only to be completely confused by pots. Aren’t they basically the same thing? How can baseball and cricket be so different, and why can’t I wrap my mind around the latter?

There’s no time like the present to figure this out, with the United States shocking Pakistan in one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport. It’s time to learn about this version of pajama stickball, so I enlisted The Athletic’s Richard Sutcliffe, a keen cricket fan when he is not covering Wrexham and Sheffield United, to answer some questions.

I learned a lot, and maybe you will too.


Grant Brisbee: Back in the summer of 2001, I was unemployed and “searching” for a job, while also collecting unemployment. I used this time to write the Great American Novel download a bunch of video games and play them all day. I was particularly obsessed with International Cricket on the NES because I was determined to learn the rules of cricket from it.

Even though it was the best idea (and summer) I’ve ever had, it didn’t work. So now I’m here to bother you.

Richard Sutcliffe: I think we’ve all had a summer or three like that. I’m probably a bit older than you and distinctly remember playing a Spectrum 48K (told you I was getting on a bit….) game about Formula One. I had no idea about the rules, even when it came to how many points each driver earned, but still loved it. As for cricket, I can see why it’s a game that confuses, even when playing International Cricket as much as you did, Grant. How much did you pick up? 

Brisbee: Very, very little. You might say that I picked up absolutely nothing at all.

I guess I’ll start with what confused me the most, which is the people running back and forth. Who are these folks? Why are they running between the sticks? Is there a way to stop them? When I looked up what a wicket was, I read a description of “sticky wickets”, which seemed to suggest that the people running were carrying the sticks back and forth. That can’t be true, can it?

The runners. I think we should start with the how and why.


Scotland’s George Munsey and Michael Jones run between the wickets against England (Matthew Lewis-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Sutcliffe: To break cricket down, and using a bit of my very limited baseball dialogue, the aim of the batting team is to score as many runs as possible. The bowling side, equivalent of the pitcher in baseball, aim to bowl the opposition out by taking 10 wickets, achieved usually by hitting the stumps or catching the batter out.

The batting team score runs by either hitting the ball to the boundary rope for four runs (six runs if your shot clears the rope without bouncing) or by running between the two sets of stumps — the ‘sticks’ of that lost summer of 2001 — after hitting the ball. Every time the two batters run between the stumps is one run. Again a bit like baseball, when the batter is running from base to base, the fielding side can run a batter out if they hit the stumps before the batter gets home. Not sure how clear that is. I might have even confused myself!

Brisbee: So are the runners there in place from the start of play?

Sutcliffe: Each team has 11 players. The opening pair — numbers one and two in the lineup — will go into bat first and they’ll both run between the stumps to score a run. Once one of those is out, batter number three comes in. And he joins the remaining batter to do the running between the stumps. This continues all the way until the 10th batter is out, meaning a team is ‘all out’. Then it’s the opposition’s turn to have a bat.

Brisbee: Clear as a plate of spotted dick. I guess the logical follow-up question is, how do the players make ‘outs’? Are the defending players trying to hit them in the head with the ball? Please tell me they’re trying to hit them in the head with the ball. That sounds awesome.


England’s Ben Stokes is hit in the head with the ball (Anthony Devlin/AFP via Getty Images)

Sutcliffe: The most spectacular way for a batter to be out is when the bowler sends the ball flying past the bat to shatter the three stumps. There’s something beautiful about seeing a stump or two knocked out of the ground at pace!

To try to soften a batter up, a fast bowler will, indeed, bowl very short from time to time so the ball bounces up and arrows straight for the head. The batter’s job is then to either duck out of the way (the sensible option) or try to hit the ball (brave, but stupid). Thankfully, the protective headgear that batters wear these days means injuries are very rare. But it does add to the drama.  

Brisbee: And the best possible bowl, in theory, is one that bounces right at the feet of the … paddle man … without going past and becoming an illegal bowl?

Sutcliffe: That’s right. Ping the ball at the toes of a batter — though I do like ‘paddle man’! — and then get ready for the stumps to go tumbling out of the ground. 

Brisbee: Do the stumps actually fly out and have to be reset?

Sutcliffe: In the days of the great West Indies team in the 1980s and 1990s), the stumps could fly 10 or 15 yards such was the pace that they bowled at. Then, yes, the stumps have to be put back in place complete with two bails on top. 

Brisbee: That sounds awesome. They should make the batter reset them for a bit of extra humiliation.


England’s Graham Dilley loses his leg stump to a blistering Malcolm Marshall delivery in 1988 (PA Images via Getty Images)

When it comes to baseball, fans have an obsession with power. There’s nothing better for most fans than when the ball leaves the field of play (a home run). When it comes to pitchers (our bowlers), there’s a particular fascination with the pitchers who can throw 100 miles per hour (161kmph) and blow it past the batters. 

Is there a similar fascination with balls that leave the field of play and extremely fast bowlers? Or is there much more to the game than that?

Sutcliffe: Cricket is very similar in that respect to baseball. Your ‘home run’ is the equivalent of a six in cricket, in that the batter’s shot leaves the field of play — and the crowd laps it up.

Same with the bowlers and the speeds they achieve. My local ground is Headingley and when England play a one-day match here, the giant screen will tell the crowd how fast each ball has been. Anything over 90mph and, again, there’s a big roar. 

There’s all sorts of other aspects, particularly when bowling. Such as whether the ball swings in the air or if it spins to fool a batsman. But, the long and short of it is fans, particularly at one-day games, crave speed and power. 


England’s Mark Wood sends down a 90mph thunderbolt (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Brisbee: That’s good. I was scared that only Americans were going to be into the big, dumb, powerful things because we’re all like Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda”, but it seems that there are definitely some commonalities. 

One of the cool things about the sport, in my opinion, is that there’s no foul territory. In baseball, if a batter hits the ball directly behind him, it’s a foul ball, and he or she will see another pitch. In cricket, it looks like a ball directly behind the batter is in play. Are there strategies that take advantage of this? As in, are there players who are known for their ability to hit the ball directly behind them?

Sutcliffe: Top film reference, by the way. A true classic. “Don’t call me stupid!” was a catchphrase me and my mates used for a good few years. I also believe the John Cleese character would have been a big cricket fan. He just seemed the sort! Anyway, I digress. 

Yeah, you’re right, about the ball being in play, regardless of whether the batter plays it in front or behind themselves.

In recent years, it’s become an increasingly valuable skill to be able to play behind as, usually, there are fewer fielders trying to stop the ball reaching the boundary (earning four runs).


Wayne Madsen plays a “ramp” shot past wicketkeeper Lewis McManus (David Rogers/Getty Images)

Brisbee: Here’s a screenshot of that video game. What in the fresh heck could possibly be going on here? Can the fielders really get that close to the batter? Do they get hit in the face with batted balls regularly?

Sutcliffe: Oh yes, fielders can get very, very close to a batter. It’s a dangerous position to be, even with the helmets and padding that those fielding so close will wear.

I’ve actually seen a batter be out when his shot cannoned off a fielder standing three yards away and ballooned up in the air for another fielder to catch the ball. As it hadn’t hit the ground after being hit, the poor, unlucky batter was out caught.

Fielding so close also allows for plenty of the, er, ‘banter’ that cricketers enjoy.


Australia’s Wayne Phillips is out caught by David Gower (holding the ball) after his shot rebounded off Allan Lamb (right) (PA Images via Getty Images)

Brisbee: I’ve heard rumors of matches that last for days. Literal days. What’s the deal with those? Both baseball and American football have reputations for being extremely long games, but nothing compared to that.

Sutcliffe: A Test match is a maximum of five days long. And it might then finish as a draw. Which I know, from experience when talking to friends from the U.S., is totally unfathomable to some. 

I’m one of those who still loves Test cricket and can happily spend days watching it. But cricket is increasingly moving to the shorter form of the game, such as the T20 World Cup where the U.S. recently beat Pakistan. Each side bats once and the match lasts no more than three hours. It’s this form of cricket that will be in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Brisbee: Y’all make fun of American baseball players for wearing giant gloves on their catching hands, don’t you?

Sutcliffe: Not so much baseball, other than tagging the term ‘World Series’ on to a sport where only the U.S. and Canada seems to compete. But there were a few eyebrows raised on this side of the pond about the padding that American footballers wear. We have rugby over here, where there’s similar bone-shuddering tackles going in, but all they have in terms of protection is a gum-shield.


Australia’s Travis Head smashes a six (Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

I do think, though, that times are changing and there’s now much more of an appreciation of American sports.

That said, I was on holiday in San Francisco a couple of years ago. We decided to take in a Giants game against Kansas City (I think the tickets were $8 as we were up high behind the batsman). I really enjoyed the spectacle and the views across the Bay — it was a sunny June evening — were spectacular. But, maybe a bit like yourself with cricket, I didn’t have a scooby (doo – clue) as to how the scoring went. 

I got the rudimentary bits, like the need to get from base to base and the joy of a home run. It’s just how San Francisco won 6-2 that I couldn’t fathom. I still enjoyed myself, mind. Probably because I love sports. And I’m a sucker for a cracking sunset view.

Brisbee: Yeah, I’d be surprised if I saw the Giants score six runs, too.

Alright, I think I understand a lot more about the game than when I started, and I’ll have to check out a match soon. First, though, I have to ask about this.

In my summer of unemployment, I was obsessed with figuring out what this meant. First question: What does it mean? Second question: Are there any other awesome cricket terms? Because this one rules.

He looks so sad.

Sutcliffe: Sadly, I’ve known how he feels far too many times over the years.

Basically, he’s out without managing to score even a solitary run. Its origins are quite simple in that a duck’s egg is oval, just like the figure ‘0’. There’s also a variation where a batter is out for a ‘golden duck’. That meant they faced just one ball before being dismissed. The ultimate humiliation. 

Brisbee: When someone is out for a golden duck, does a giant disembodied hand grab him and drop him in the gully, like this?

Sutcliffe: If that doesn’t appear, then the makers of International Cricket really missed a trick!

Brisbee: I’ve learned a lot today, and I’m eager to catch a match now. Or a game. A set. A match-game. 

There’s still so much to learn. 

Thanks for putting up with my stupid cricket questions, Richard!

Sutcliffe: It’s been a pleasure. Enjoyed it. And next time I’m in the Bay area, hopefully you can teach me the finer points of baseball that continue to evade me despite that 2022 visit to Oracle Park.

(Top photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

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