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Cricket is a game played with bat and ball in an open field by two teams of eleven players each. Long regarded as quintessentially English, the game seems to have developed in late mediaeval times in the agricultural south-eastern and central southern counties of England, where the necessary level open spaces were readily available; the earliest definite reference to the game is in a legal document from Guildford (Surrey) dated 1598, in which 'kreckett' is said to have been played some fifty years before. Cricket was at first a game for country-folk, but in the late seventeenth century it began to be taken up by gentlemen; Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of King George III, was an early enthusiast. Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), based in north London, has given laws to the game since about 1787, superseding the Hambledon Club (named after a village in Kent) which is mentioned by O'Brian at one point.

Cricket has a distant common ancestry with baseball and the two sports share some terminology even today (umpire, run, inning[s] etc.)


Requisites of the game

Cricket is played on a ground or field of short grass in the shape of a circle or a broad ellipse, preferably about 150 yards (137.05m) across and perhaps slightly greater in length; it should be (but often is not) perfectly level and free from irregularities and obstructions. At or near the centre of the ground is the pitch, a rectangle of closely-mown grass 22 yards (20.1m) long and 10ft (3.045m) wide (the width was not specified in the laws of the game until the 20th century).

The pitch is marked out at each end with creases, which are now painted in white; in early usage (until about 1870) they were sometimes cut or gouged into the turf itself. The bowling crease runs across each end of the pitch, terminated by short return creases at right angles to it, 94in (2.39m) apart. The popping-crease runs parallel to the bowling-crease at a distance of four feet (1.22m; originally 46 inches or 1.17m). At each end of the pitch, in the centre of the bowling-crease, a wicket is set up. In the canonic period this consisted of three stumps of turned wood, driven into the ground 3.5 inches (8.8cm) apart and standing to a height of two feet (0.61m), with a shorter stick called a bail laid across the top. (Between about 1825 and 1850 the stump height was increased to 27 inches (0.69m) and the single bail was replaced by two short ones. Until the 1770s there had been only two stumps; O'Brian mentions an argument among the spectators at a match regarding the date when the change took place.) The term wicket is sometimes applied to the whole pitch.

The ball is a very hard sphere of polished leather, about 2.9in (7.45cm) in diameter and traditionally dyed a deep red; six rows of white stitching run round its circumference, forming the seam.

The bat is made of willow-tree wood, about 38in (just under 1m) long including the handle which is bound with black twine. Early bats (until about 1780) were club-shaped and slightly curved; thereafter we find a straight-sided bat with a broader blade slightly convex across its width. Initially the top of the new-style blade usually had sloping shoulders, so that the profile of the bat was like a champagne-bottle; the modern style of bat, with angular shoulders, is occasionally seen before 1800 and became standard by about 1850.

How cricket is played

To put it in the simplest possible terms, the basic objectives of cricket are that

  • The player with the bat (batsman) should score runs by hitting the ball and then, before his opponents can retrieve it, running to the opposite end of the pitch: and
  • The player with the ball (bowler) should break the batsman's wicket with the ball; when this is achieved the batsman in question is out and must leave the field.

Much of the peculiar flavour of cricket results from incorporating this simple batsman-versus-bowler opposition within the structure of a team game.

The next paragraph describes the course of play as it would have been in Jack Aubrey's day. Changes since then will be very briefly summarised later in this article.

Before the match begins, the captains of the two teams (or sides) toss a coin; the winner of the toss has the privilege of deciding whether his team will bat or field first. The captain of the fielding side (let us call it team A) designates one of his team (or himself) as the bowler; the remaining ten members (fielders, fieldsmen or in the parlance of the day lookers-out) disperse themselves about the field as the captain directs. Two neutral judges (umpires) also position themselves, one behind the wicket at the end of the pitch from which the bowler intends to bowl, the other wide of the pitch at the other end. Then two members of the other team (B, say) come forth as batsmen. The one who is to face the bowling first takes his stand on the popping-crease in front of the wicket at the end of the pitch farther from the bowler; the other stands a little aside at the bowler's end. The umpire at the bowling end cries 'Play'; the bowler retires some yards beyond the umpire, turns, runs up to the wicket and, with one foot still behind the bowling-crease, delivers the ball with a straight-armed underarm action, usually intending that it shall bounce just in front of the batsman, and hoping that by a combination of speed, aerodynamic manipulation and sheer luck the ball will pass the bat and disturb the wicket. (In this case the unlucky batsman is said to have been bowled out or simply bowled.) If on the other hand the batsman strikes the ball hard and far enough to give him the chance of making a run, he calls out to his colleague at the other end and each player sets out for the opposite end, touching his bat down between the popping-crease and the wicket as he arrives. If both players reach their destination unscathed, one run is credited to the striker; he and his team-mate remain at the ends they have now reached, so that the second batsman faces the bowling. However, the batsmen may take more than one run from a single stroke.

When four successive balls have been bowled, the bowler's umpire calls 'Over'. The fieldsmen rearrange themselves in an approximate mirror-image of their previous configuration; only the batsmen keep their places. A second bowler is appointed, working from the opposite end to the first, and the four-ball sequence is repeated. At its end the players revert to their first positions.

Whenever a wicket falls (that is, whenever a batsman is out), the next player from the batting side takes his place. When ten wickets have fallen, team B's innings is ended; it is now their turn to field while team A bats. In a full-scale match each side bats twice (has two inningses) and fields twice. The team which has scored the higher number of runs overall wins the match, provided all four inningses have been completed within the time available; however, if not all team A's wickets have fallen in their second innings, the game will be considered as drawn.

A batsman normally stays at the wicket until he is out, no matter how many hours this takes. As all the batsmen must have their turn, it can be seen that cricket is inevitably a long-winded game. A full match normally lasts three days.

Ways of being out

A batsman may be out in several ways besides being bowled. He may be

  • Caught A ball, struck by the bat, is caught in a fieldsman's hands before touching the ground. Any runs completed by the batsmen while the ball is in the air will be disallowed.
  • Stumped A fieldsman uses the ball to break the wicket at a moment when neither of the batsman's feet, nor the tip of his bat, is touching ground behind the popping-crease (i.e. he has moved too far from the wicket).
  • Run out This may be called a variant of stumping; while the batsmen are taking a run, a fieldsman breaks one of the wickets with the ball as above.
  • Leg before wicket (LBW) A batsman, while facing the bowling, puts a leg in the path of a ball which would otherwise have struck the wicket.
  • Hit wicket A batsman breaks his own wicket with his bat, either by accident or (occasionally) because he wishes to end his innings.
  • Obstructing a fieldsman A batsman wilfully gets in the way of a fieldsman who is trying to catch or stop the ball.

Ways of adding to the score ('Extras')

In addition to runs scored by the batsmen, the batting side can also have its total score augmented through defaults committed by the other side, as follows:

  • Wide The bowler sends the ball so high, or so far to either side, that the batsman cannot reach it (one run).
  • No ball The bowler's back foot has passed the bowling-crease at the moment of delivery; or (rarely) the umpire considers that the bowler's arm action is irregular (one run)
  • Bye The ball, touching neither bat nor wicket, continues so far beyond the stumps that the batsmen have time to run. (In the early 1800s the term 'bye' was sometimes applied to all runs not scored with the bat, i.e. to all the types of extra listed in this section.)
  • Lost ball Five runs.

These 'extras' are credited to the team as a whole, not to any individual batsman. A batsman can score runs off a no-ball (in which case his own run absorbs and supersedes the penalty run) but he cannot lose his wicket to it other than by being run out.

Matches 'against odds'

From the earliest days of cricket until the 1880s, it was common to apply a crude handicapping system by allowing the demonstrably weaker of two teams to play with a greater than usual number of men: fifteen, eighteen or even twenty-two.

Later developments

  • Overs The number of balls in an over was increased to five in the 1870s and to six soon after 1900. In Australia an eight-ball over has been used.
  • Boundaries From the 1860s, a batsman who struck the ball so that it reached the perimeter of the field without being stopped was credited with four runs, or six if it had not touched the ground between bat and boundary-mark.
  • Leg byes From about 1840, batsmen could take runs off a ball which struck some part of the batsman's body (not in such a way as to count as 'leg before wicket') and then ran off out of the fieldsmen's immediate reach.
  • Declaration Since the late 1880s, it has been possible for a captain to 'declare [the innings closed]' before every batsman has had his turn at the wicket. This is often done by the side batting third in order to allow more time for getting the opponents all out, thus reducing the risk that they will last until close of play and so force a draw. Previously, the only way to achieve this was for an individual batsman to hit his wicket on purpose.
  • Bowling styles Until about 1835, only the underarm technique was recognised by the rules. It was however gradually succeeded by 'round-arm' bowling (the bowler's arm is raised diagonally above the shoulder) and then by 'overarm' (the bowler's arm is practically vertical); since the 1890s all bowlers, whatever their speed and method, have bowled overarm.

'Should you like to be given a middle, sir?'

In The Fortune of War, Stephen misunderstands this question put to him by the umpire; he pats his stomach and remarks 'Thank you, I already have one.' What the umpire meant was 'Would you like me to help you align your bat in front of the middle stump?' It is usual for a batsman, on coming to the wicket, to choose one or two stumps which he will principally defend (since the bat is not wide enough to cover all three) and to engage the umpire's help in finding the right position of the bat for this purpose. This is called taking guard.

The cricketing scene in the film Master and Commander

In Peter Weir's film, the crew of Surprise are briefly seen playing cricket on one of the Galapagos Islands; Barrett Bonden bowls a ball to Tom Pullings, who takes a run off it. Pullings's bat is of the 'champagne-bottle' type and so appropriate enough to the period (1805); not so Bonden's bowling, which is in the modern overarm style. In addition, the wicket appears to incorporate two short bails rather than one long one.

In regard to the bowling, it has sometimes been argued that cricket matches in far-flung places would probably have included all manner of improvisations not recognised by the (very short) Laws of Cricket then in circulation, and that Bonden's bowling technique might be one of these. (In this context it should be mentioned that round-arm bowling was tried out by Tom Walker of Surrey and Hambledon as early as the 1790s, although the Laws current in the 1820s still treated the underarm technique as mandatory.) One such improvisation is seen during the run, when Pullings apparently hands the bat to his fellow-batsman as they cross; this was certainly never standard practice, but presumably the idea is that this bat is the only one aboard, so that the batsmen must share it. (Mr Lamb the carpenter could easily have fashioned another, given the material; but perhaps we must suppose that, after a long voyage involving some substantial repairs, there is no wood to spare for such a purpose.)

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