The Ashes

There are few reasons other than work, a good book, a whimpering dog, or Formula 1 that will get me up at 5 am, but the first test (actually any test) in the Ashes in one of them. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock or without the internets, the Ashes is the test cricket series between Australia and England. It happens about twice every four years and alternate between Australia and the UK. 

Test cricket is simply great. Its simplicity runs counter to modern convention in many ways.

The laws of cricket, like the official rules governing most modern sports are voluminous and complex. The game, however, compared to say American football or baseball, which is cricket’s closest relative, is simple. Bowlers alternate pitching the ball to a pair of batters who stand before a pair of wickets comprised of three sticks bridged by wooden bails. The batters attempt to score runs by hitting the ball and running between these wickets. At the same time, they seek defend their wicket from the bowlers. The bowlers attempt to get the batters out by either knocking over the batter’s wicket (dislodging the bails) or making the batter hit the ball in the air so that it can be caught by a fielder. It is also possible to run out a batter by striking the wickets while the batters race between wickets scoring runs. There are 11 fielders (including the two bowlers) who prowl the round field attempting to snag balls hit into the air and to stop runs from being scored by throwing the ball toward the batters wickets while they run between them.

Cricket lacks the kind of specialization that is so characteristic of modern sports. The only specialized fielding position is the wicket keeper who stands behind the wicket to catch any ball that passes the batter. The other fielders are stationed around the field in places where batters are likely the hit the ball. The places in the field have names and certain individuals are better at playing in certain places than others, but fielders do not have formal positions. The captain of the fielding team arranges the fielder in the best way both to prevent runs and get batters out. I’ve blogged about this before.  

Test cricket also cares very little about the time. The game is played over five days, which is simply a concession of modern travel and stadium schedules rather than anything inherent in the sport. Watching an entire test match requires a commitment from a viewer. Test matches are almost incompatible with the modern working schedule or daily routine.

Over the five days, each team tries to get all of the opposing team’s players out twice while scoring more runs. The scores for each side run into the hundreds over the course of two innings (one run through the line up) with the best players scoring centuries (100 runs) or half centuries (50 runs). If the side that has scored more runs can’t get the opposing side out twice over the course of 5 days, the game is simply declared a draw. At various times in the history of the sport, “timeless tests” were attempted and this wast the most common form of test cricket in the first 40 years of the sport. Travel schedules, however, soon put an end to this form of the game and the draw became a strategic possibility and more desirable than a loss in most cases.

The five-day schedule of play is simply wonderful. Test matches occur during the day and proceed in a rather leisurely way over three, 2-hour sessions with breaks for lunch and tea (which really means dinner). There are other little breaks as well. After every 6 balls bowled (each 6-ball bowling spell is called an over), the bowlers switch the end of the field to which they are bowling and this involves the fielding team switching sides of the field as well and rearranging their fielders. There are breaks while the fielding team discusses strategy (although umpires tend to try to speed these along). There are, of course, drink breaks every 10 overs. And players regularly request new gloves which also involves little breaks in the action. As a result, the game proceeds at a leisurely pace completely at odds with the modern attention span.

Strategically too, the pace of play is irregular. At its most gripping, test cricket involves episodes of furious activity as aggressive bowlers attempt to dislodge stubborn batters from their station before the wicket (call the batting crease). One strategy is to catch the batter blocking the wicket with his legs. This is against the rules. If a batter does not hit the ball with his bat and blocks the ball that would have struck the wicket, the batter is called out “leg-before-wicket” or LBW. Some bowlers are particularly proficient getting out batters LBW and some batters are famously prone to this mistake. Bowlers will look to exploit flaws in the batters techniques for over after over slowly and relentlessly increasing pressure on the batter until the batter makes a mistake. There is something deliberate and irresistible about the patience and discipline of an elite bowlers who will bowl a consistent “line and length” to a batter for delivery after delivery until the batter cracks.  

Batters for their part can attack disinterested or undisciplined bowing by unleashing runs at a furious pace. A ball that rolls to simple rope boundary marking the edge of the field of play is automatically scored as 4 runs. If the ball is hit and flies the boundary in the air, it counts as 6 runs. Confident pairs of batters can scamper between the wickets avoiding run outs and wracking up runs as well. 

At the same time, test cricket can wander. There is time during the match to consider strategy and when either the batters or bowlers can’t get tracking to score runs or take wickets, there are lulls. In fact, these lulls are among the most fascinating periods in cricket. The game slows down and tests the patience of bowlers, batters, and captains seemingly tempting players to make mistakes and give the game away.

Cricket also embraces the local in ways that most modern sports do not. The boundaries can be irregular in shape because the pitch, the area where the bowlers and batters stand, is not necessarily centered in the boundary. More than that, the character of the pitch itself varies from continent to continent and ground to ground. Because bowlers can and generally do bounce the ball on the pitch on its way to the batter, the character of the pitch is important. Some pitchers are bouncier than others and some reward a bowler who can spin the ball in the air so that it bounces in irregular ways and confuses the batters. Bowlers use the same ball for 80 overs before a new ball is available. As a result, home teams who know the bowling pitches also dictate the balls that are used. Like the pitch, the ball also can benefit or burden a team’s bowlers depending on their familiarity with conditions. 

I don’t want to claim that cricket with its lack of specialization, it’s ambivalence toward modern  schedules, and local practices is an antidote to our modern condition, but with the “Frog Days of August” upon us and first flavors of fall in the air, the Ashes offers an escape from the relentless pressures of modern world. 

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