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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 second quarter of the eighteenth 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 1790) were club-shaped and slightly curved; thereafter a straight-sided bat with a broader blade (about 4in or 10cm) came into use, the front face being slightly curved across its width. Initially the top of the blade had sloping shoulders, so that the profile of the bat was like a champagne-bottle; the modern style of bat, with angular shoulders, developed between about 1820 and 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 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 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, hoping that by a combination of speed, aerodynamic manipulation and sheer luck the ball will pass the bat and disturb the wicket. 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. This is repeated until every batsman has had his turn; this concludes the first innings, and after a short interval the two sides exchange functions, the former fielding side sending two of its players to bat. In a full-scale match each side bats twice (has two inningses) and fields twice. If the side which bats last has not lost all its wickets at close of play, the match is considered to be drawn, with no victory or defeat; otherwise, the team which has scored the higher number of runs overall wins the match. (To be continued)

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