Thursday, March 19, 2015


Hot informs me that The Nation is on a revised publication schedule due to a special issue coming up, so no new puzzle today.  That makes it a good time for a subject calling for an extended post.

If you solve British crosswords (and if you’re a cryptic solver, chances are you will eventually tackle some British puzzles), you will sometimes encounter references to the game of cricket.  The ICC World Cup is going on this month in Australia and New Zealand; and amazingly enough, highlights are turning up on SportsCenter in the mornings.  There was a full minute and a half on the Ireland-India game last week, and the American anchors (or the people who wrote the copy for them) managed not to mangle the accounts and descriptions of the game.

If you’re curious about the game, the best place to go is Cricinfo, which has recaps and highlights of all the games, along with live ball-by-ball commentary. 

Unlike most American solvers, I look forward to seeing cricket references in a puzzle, since I actually played the game when I was younger.  I learned it as a freshman at Haverford College, which has the only varsity cricket team in the country.  After graduation, I played for Commonwealth Cricket Club (a West Indian club where I was the first native-born American on the team), the University of Pennsylvania, and Ardmore CC.  The shoulder injury that ended my playing career in hockey also brought an end to my cricketing, but I still follow the game: checking the World Cup results while waiting for the train and watching the Boxing Day Test on my computer.

Cricket is a bat and ball game like baseball, but there are more differences than similarities.  “Wicket” has three definitions: the set of three wooden sticks (“stumps”) with two “bails” balanced on top; the ground between the wickets where the ball is pitched (a “sticky wicket” is a rain-softened field that makes it hard for the batters), and the dismissal of the batsman. 

The ball is a little smaller, a little harder, and a little heavier than a baseball.  It can be red or white, depending on the format of the game being played.  The bat is a big flat paddle made out of willow; it feels really solid in your hands and makes a very satisfying “thwack” when you hit the ball with it. 

Each team has eleven players, which is why “team” or “side” can clue “eleven” or “XI” in a crossword  They bat two at a time; and when one is dismissed, another one comes out to join the remaining batsman.  When the last batsman is left without a partner (after ten wickets have fallen), the innings (always pluralized in cricket) is over. 

The fielding side consists of a bowler (what we Americans would call a pitcher), a wicketkeeper (“WK” in crosswords), and nine other fielders who cover the rest of the field as placed by their captain.  The position names are eccentric, but they don’t usually wind up in puzzles, so we’ll save them for another day.

The bowler runs up to one wicket, and slings the ball straight-armed towards the other wicket.  This is called “bowling,” not “pitching.”  The batsman’s first job is to keep the pitched ball from hitting the wicket.  If it hits the wicket, the batsman is out “bowled” (which can clue “B”). 

If the batter does hit the ball, he can run to the opposite wicket, changing places with his partner.  Each time the batsmen do that counts one run.  If the batted ball goes all the way to the boundary of the field (200-300 feet away, somewhat closer than in baseball), it’s automatically four runs, and it the ball is hit over the boundary on the fly (like a home run in baseball), it’s six. 

If the ball is going to miss the wicket, the batsman does not have to swing: there are no called balls and strikes in cricket, so the batsman can stay and bat through the entire innings as long as he doesn’t get out.  There are no foul balls in cricket, and a skilled batsman has a variety of shots in his repertoire, for hitting slower- and faster-pitched bowling, and for hitting the ball where the fielders aren’t. 

However, if a fielder catches the batted ball before it touches the ground, the batsman is out, just as in baseball.  It goes in the scorecard as “caught” (“C.”)  Even a ball tipped off the edge of the bat (a “snick”) and into the wicketkeeper’s gloves is enough to be out.  That wicketkeeper is the only fielder who wears gloves: everyone else is barehanded.  There is a definite skill to catching a fly ball or line drive bare-handed without breaking any fingers.

Fielders also figure in one of the other ways a batter can be out.  There’s a line in front of each wicket called a “crease.”  If the fielding team knocks the wicket down with the ball (either throwing it or with the hand holding the ball, and the batsman there isn’t in his crease, he is run out (“RO”).  Similarly, if the batsman swings and misses or lets the ball go by, and does not get back before the wicketkeeper gets the ball and knocks down the wicket, the batsman is out stumped (“ST”).

As I said, an innings goes on until ten of the eleven batsmen are out.  Since they can stay at bat indefinitely, as long as they don’t get out, an innings could (and sometimes does) last two or three days.  When one batsman scores 100, it’s called a century—I’ve seen that reference in puzzles too. In the original form of the game, teams play two innings over a period of two to five days. If the two innings aren’t done by the end of the agreed playing time, the game is a draw.  To prevent this, a team can “declare” its innings over and forfeit the remaining outs.  That gives them more time to bowl out the opponents and win the game.    

But times have changed.  Cricket went from being an upper-class recreation in the English-speaking world to a game for the masses of the British commonwealth and then a big-money spectator sport.  People wanted a faster form of the game, so one-day (or “limited-overs”) cricket was created.  These games are one innings long, and each innings is limited to a specified number of “overs.”  An over is six balls: counting balls that are hit, balls that are swung at and missed, and balls that the batsman leaves unplayed.  At the end of the over, the wicketkeeper switches ends, all the other fielders move around, and a different bowler takes over at the opposite end, bowling to the batsman who finished the previous over at the bowler’s end.  A limited overs game is typically 50 overs, and World Cup teams can score 250 to 300 runs or more in that time.  

But even one-day games last eight or nine hours, and there was demand for a more TV-friendly form of cricket.  Enter “Twenty-20,” where games last only 20 overs.  In Twenty-20, the emphasis is on scoring runs quickly instead of defending the wicket and picking up runs when the opportunity arises.  The batters swing for the fences and sometimes get out as spectacularly as they score.  Annual Twenty-20 tournaments like the Indian Premier League draw huge TV ratings and lots of sponsor income, while replacing some of the more traditional elements of the game like white uniforms and taking a break in the afternoon for tea with Americanized features like cheerleaders (I kid you not).

I suspect there’s a pretty good overlap between crossword solvers and folks who follow cricket coverage via the radio or internet.  The game goes on at a slow enough pace that there’s plenty of time for the commentators to digress onto other subjects while they’re describing the action.  Some look for puns; others talk about the sights they saw on tour while a camera captures the local scenery.  Some like especially flowery language, which when combined with the quirky vocabulary of the game, sounds like sentences you might see in a cryptic clue. 

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