England has just taken the Ashes, a little urn of cricket bat ashes from 1882 created after the test where Australia first beat England. Every two years the two countries battle for the right to "own" the Ashes. There are 4 - 5 days of play in each series, with four series total. England hasn't won the Ashes in 20 years, so this is a big deal. Pretty much everyone is glued to the tv for the duration.
Since test cricket is only played in the daylight, it usually goes from 1030 or 11am through 630 or 7pm. Watching cricket is a time-consuming hobby. The nice thing about it, though, is that because cricket moves slowly it doesn't matter if you multi-task or step away for awhile. You might miss some exciting developments, but they'll be others to come so you needn't stress. Plus, they have scheduled breaks for lunch and tea throughout the day and the telly coverage shows highlights regularly. You'll catch the major plays eventually.
Sidebar...can you imagine the NFL taking a break for tea during the Superbowl? Oh. And instead of featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake as the entertainment, throughout the series fans sing the hymn Jerusalem over and over, so it feels more like church.
Okay, back to the cricket lesson.
They say that cricket is dense and difficult to understand if you're not from here. I would disagree with this. In the course of the weekend I've figured out the basics and I'm really enjoying it. Keep in mind that I watch baseball, as well, so I'm pre-disposed to tolerating slow-moving games with batting and style.
Players must wear white or cream in test cricket. Uniforms look like baggy sweat pants and polo shirts with logos. FASHION NOTE: They tuck the polo shirts into the sweat pants, which looks really, really stupid. Each team has a colored hat, thus differentiating their whites from the other team's. If it's cold, they can also add a cream/white sweater vest over their shirt, and it has a band of color on the v-neck that matches their hat...kind of tennis sweater-y. The uniform is very Ralph Lauren, actually.
In essence, the point of the game is the same as baseball...whoever scores the most runs wins.
The field is an oval, and there is a little curb around the edge of the grass. In the centre, there is a rectangle where the batting happens. The fielding team spreads out in relatively standard positions (though there is a lot of liberty in that), and there are two batters standing at opposite ends of the little rectangle in the middle. They stand in spaces called creases. Within each crease is a wicket, wood sticks that can easily be knocked over.
So....the bowler (like a pitcher) takes a run and tosses a ball overhand at one of the batters. (One of the creases is designated as the striker's side, so whoever is there is the one that takes the ball.) The bowler has to have his arm totally straight when he throws, so it ends up looking like some sort of running, freaky softball pitch. 90% of the time, the bowler makes the ball hit the ground midway down the rectangle, which makes it change its trajectory and thus harder to hit. If the striker hits the ball, the two batsmen can elect to score runs, basically running to the opposite crease. Either part of their body or their bat must touch inside the crease to score a run. They can try for as many runs as they like per ball, but they have to have a foot solidly in the crease before the fielders get the ball back to the little rectangle and knock the wicket over.
What we think of as a pitch is a ball, and there are six balls per over. When an over is completed, the fielding side has to switch bowlers regardless. Not every player must bowl, but no player can bowl two consecutive overs, so you end up seeing three or four guys bowling in an innings. (FYI, they say innings in both a singular and a plural sense...see below.)
There are some automatic runs, kind of the home run and grand slam of cricket....if you hit the ball so hard you knock the ball over the little curb around the edge of the oval, you get 4 runs. If you knock it way out into the audience, you get 6. It makes for interesting fielding, actually, because players who think they might mess up the catch will jump in front of the ball to deflect it from hitting the curb, and then worry about picking it up and throwing it back.
Basically this goes on all day until 11 players for one team have been batsmen and 10 of them have been marked out, thus completing an innings. They always call it "taking a wicket" when a player gets one of the batsmen out, but you don't necessarily have to knock the wicket over to "take" one. You can catch the ball once a batsman hits it. The bowler can knock the wicket over with his pitch, or the batsman can fall into his own wicket or deflect the ball there. Batsmen can interfere with the ball by touching it once they've hit it, thus getting themselves out.
You can keep track of the progress by the weird score. If you see a score of 200-6, that means that the batting team has scored 200 runs, and the fielders have taken six wickets, so they need four more to close out the innings.
When an innings is completed, the teams switch sides and the other one gets the same opportunity to score runs. Over the course of the first four days, teams switch as play determines, so if there are only 2 wickets taken when play ends on Friday, for instance, they resume in the same place Saturday AM.
In the end, though, things get interesting. I haven't figured out all the formulas and rules for this yet, but I'll get it down eventually. On the last day of play (either day four or five,) team captains who have the lead can "declare", which has some protocol involved but I think it basically says, "Okay, we have enough runs now...you can use the remaining overs to catch us." It then becomes a hitting game to catch up for the team that's running behind. The other factor that comes into play happens on day five...they use some math formula to average the number of overs played over the last four days, and they determine a number of overs that must be played that day. The teams then fight to have enough overs as the batting side to score the most runs for the series.
In today's test, this factored into England's win...England was having a hitting streak. By the time Australia got their 10 wickets and got into the batting position, there were only 20 overs left and it was pretty much impossible for them to score the 300+ runs required to win. But there was also no way they'd actually give up 10 wickets in 20 overs, either (an average innings is around 90 - 100 overs.) Therefore, the test could not be completed and was ruled a draw. England had won two of the three previous test matches in the series, so they won the Ashes and now the country is celebrating.
There's a parade in Trafalgar Square tomorrow. I have about six colleagues taking the day off to attend. I won't be doing that, but I will admit I'm going to watch the next test that's televised. And if you visit me during cricket season, want to go see it live?