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Getting Cricket Straight

In response to:

Not Cricket from the December 19, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Both David Coady and Steve Jones have got it wrong on cricket [“Letters,” NYR, December 19, 1996]. A comparative study of baseball and cricket batting averages can only mislead the unwary observer for one simple reason. In cricket, the ball bounces once on the ground before reaching the batsman. Therefore the character of the pitch (i.e., the grass strip on which the ball is hurled) exercises a huge influence on batting (and bowling) styles, as do the properties of the particular make of cricket ball used.

Pitches differ from country to country, era to era, and even month to month during the cricket season. In the early weeks of the English season, the green pitches and the moisture in the air tend to give bowlers an advantage; later in the summer, the pitches grow dry and hard and batsmen flourish. In Pakistan, where pitches are usually slow and low, high scores are common, but they must be accumulated with great patience. In Australia, the pitches are usually green and bouncy, and batsmen play accordingly.

W.G. Grace’s average of 32.29 in international cricket may seem modest by contemporary standards, as Steve Jones notes, but he was considered a master of the poorly prepared, often uneven pitches common in his day. As technology gradually improved pitches, making the bounce of the ball more predictable, batsmen gained the upper hand. Bowlers responded by developing new types of deliveries, new means of deception. The pendulum swings back and forth in cricket—and the history of the game is very much the history of the struggle between bowlers and batsmen for supremacy. As sociologists have noted, this struggle has a class dimension. The old amateur elite often disdained bowling, which they regarded as a species of manual labor, and preferred batting, considered a more aesthetic activity; it was therefore left to working-class professionals to perfect the bowler’s arts.

In recent years, test cricket, the classical five-day form of the game, has been superseded in many countries by a modern variant, one-day cricket, in which a batsman’s time at the crease (something like a baseball batter’s number of appearances at the plate) is limited. Consequently, averages reveal little about the quality of current play. The standard of fielding has certainly risen; players these days are fitter and more sophisticated in their technical preparation. And while cricket may have come to an “evolutionary dead end” in England, it is undergoing rapid development in South Asia, where 90 percent of the world’s cricket followers now reside.

Laments for a lost age of graceful batting and complaints about a decline in standards are commonplace in the English cricket world, but I suspect these have more to do with a cranky discontent with the modern world—and England’s loss of status in it—than with the realities of cricket.

Mike Marqusee
London, England

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