Googlies? The Egg and Bacon Brigade? Howzat? For centuries, cricket has been England’s national pastime—and a complete mystery to Americans. As Britain and Australia compete in one of international sports’ most celebrated rivalries, the Ashes, a “boundary babe” weighs in.
Cricket is the quintessential English sport—built on tradition, full of hierarchy, almost impossible for an outsider to understand, and perhaps the only game in the world that has luncheon and afternoon tea as part of a day’s play. An attempt to explain the rules would go something like this: A batsman goes out and is then in until he gets out. This goes on until the last batsman is out, apart from one who is still in and therefore not out. The thing is, you don’t have to understand it to enjoy it. In my experience, it’s safer not to pretend to know the rules and just take pleasure in the visual spectacle—not only the men in flanneled whites (though this does help) but also the ageless trappings and the sense of Englishness about it all. As a former member of the cricket WAGs (wives and girlfriends of players), I have many happy memories of afternoons spent lying on the grass and hearing the satisfying clunk of leather ball on willow bat, the bloodcurdling screams of “Howzat?,” and the ripples of polite applause that follow. I’m afraid that, unlike with tennis, my relationship with cricket is merely from the sidelines, or “beyond the boundary” in the correct vernacular. There you’ll have found me, trying to locate my man of the moment through a tiny pair of binoculars, though in truth the 11 players in each team always seem to look the same to me, in their whites and their caps, with copious amounts of sunscreen (yes, even in England). Above all, this is, in the days of widespread commercialism, a gentlemanly sport—a glorious, charming throwback to a kinder, gentler age. Welcome to the spirit of England that is cricket.
Cricket-Speak: A Glossary
Over: Cricket’s unit of currency. Six balls delivered by a bowler to a batsman. Some matches are prescribed by time (three days, five days, etc.) but others—known as limited-overs matches—by the number of overs bowled (20, 40, 50). These games aren’t over till they’re over, when all the overs are over. Sorry, I’ll stop that ...
Pitch: Where the action takes place. A strip of closely mowed grass in the middle of the grounds measuring 22 yards in length. This is the distance a batsman has to run after hitting the ball to register, yes, a run.
Wicket: Literally, a small door or gate. These are the three stumps (upright pieces of wood) atop which sit two “bails” (small pieces of wood set horizontally). A batsman must defend his wicket and prevent the bowler’s ball from hitting it. If he doesn’t, he is no longer in but is out, and instead of being out in the middle, he must go in.
Bouncer: Not a nightclub operative but a delivery (or, colloquially, a “ball”) from the bowler that is designed to intimidate the batsman by hitting the ground and then flying past his head. The reason that batsmen wear helmets.
Duck: The failure of a batsman to score a single run. It comes originally from “duck’s egg,” whose shape resembles a zero. A “golden duck” is getting out on your first ball, and a “diamond duck” is when you’re out in the first ball of an innings.
Googly: Nothing to do with the search engine but a sneaky type of slow delivery where the ball is tossed from the back of the bowler’s hand and then spins wickedly when it hits the pitch to confuse (or “google”) the batsman. The Australian Shane Warne was a master of this dar
“Howzat?”: A short form of the more polite “How is that?,” used by the fielding side to appeal to the umpire when they think a batsman is out. Best delivered at high volume and in unison.
L.B.W.: Leg Before Wicket, or when the umpire judges that a ball which strikes the batsman’s body would have hit the wicket. In this case, he will give the batsman an out.
Silly: “Silly point” or “silly mid off,” or fielding positions that are very close to the batsman. It’s because they’re dangerous, silly. Got it? Oh, well, it must be time for ..
Lunch: Thank heavens, something we can understand—traditionally, ham salad or sandwiches.
A cricket match can last anywhere from one to five days, although it is worth noting that in bygone years some games were not even timed. The last such test match was in 1939 between England and South Africa, and the only reason the game finished (in fact it was abandoned after nine days of play) was because the English team had to return home on their boat. Nowadays, the five-day test match—played between cricketing nations—is the longest form of the sport, and it is this format that is considered by the cricketing purists to be the ultimate test of a player’s skill and character. However, shorter formats—mainly 20-over matches (“Twenty20”), which last about three hours—are more popular with spectators and broadcasters. The matches are fast and furious, the finishes can be thrilling, and the players shed their crisp whites to play in garish colors, hence the nickname “pyjama cricket.” (The uniforms borrow something from baseball.) These high-octane games are not where you go for a snooze or to read your novel—that’s the five-day game.
Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood, London, known as the Home of Cricket, is one of the best grounds in the world to watch the sport. It was named after Thomas Lord, a shrewd businessman and cricketer who was asked in 1787 by a group of noblemen to set up a private cricket ground. Lord’s, home grounds of the Middlesex County Cricket Club, is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club, guardian of the laws of the game, whose members are known as the “Egg and Bacon Brigade” (a nickname derived from the gold and red club colors). One of the most famous rooms in the Victorian Pavilion overlooking the pitch is the Long Room, through which players enter the pitch. The MCC Museum on the grounds is among the oldest sporting museums in the world, set up in 1953 to serve as a memorial to all the W.W. II cricketers who’d given their lives in conflict. This year, there’s a new collection called Cricket’s Crown Jewels, a display of the best of the MCC Museum collection. Highlights include fascinating stories from early cricket books and the only known Catapulta, the first bowling machine.
Pilgrimage to Lord’s
Don’t Forget: A pair of compact binoculars, such as the Image Stabilizers by Canon. Buy a Lord’s One Tune Radio for ball-by-ball commentary so you can learn and be led through the day. Some would say bring a few newspapers and an umbrella (to do the crossword if it starts raining).
Getting There: The closest London Underground station is St. John’s Wood, but the Baker Street, Warwick Avenue, and Maida Vale stations are also within walking distance.
Best View: The Grand Stand and Mound Stand offer vantage points square of the wicket, while the Compton Stand and Edrich Stand near the Nursery Ground are directly behind the bowler’s arm. The Pavilion (and Long Room) is a top spot but restricted to members.
Picnics: Bring your own picnic lunch or pre-order one of the club’s hampers by Jamie Oliver to enjoy in the Coronation Garden, behind the Pavilion, or in the Nursery Ground, which has a great, low-key atmosphere.
Old Haunt: Swing by the Lord’s Tavern, situated next to the Grace Gates, after a match.
Ashes to Ashes
For us English folk, this summer is all about the Ashes—a series of test matches currently under way between England and Australia (arguably one of the most famous rivalries in sports). The name was first used when Australia beat England on their home turf at the Oval in central London on August 29, 1882, and The Sporting Times recorded the apparent death of English cricket, declaring that “the body [of English cricket] will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” A few weeks later an English team captained by the Honorable Ivo Bligh set out to Australia to win the Ashes back. They did so and were given a small terra-cotta urn said to be filled with the ashes of the bails in memory of the match. One of the most celebrated features in the MCC Museum collection at Lord’s Cricket Ground, this delicate artifact is only 11 centimeters (4 1/3 inches) high—a tiny trophy for one of the most keenly fought contests in world sports. Matches between England and Australia are usually marked by what’s called “sledging”—verbal abuse between players.