Despite being the second most popular sport in the world with over 2 billion fans, the first subject of this Better Know A Sport series is known more as the name of a budget cellphone company in the US. as Cricket, watched by an estimated 2.2 billion people worldwide, but rarely enters the consciousness of the American sports fan unless a crazy cricket catch from halfway around the globe makes the SportsCenter Top Ten, mostly there for well-paid sports television personalities to spout some form of “Hey look at this weird sport, huh?”.
Cricket is far more than a weird sport for Americans to gawk at, and in fact has early roots in the US. and Canada. The first international cricket contest in the world was between the states and our neighbors to the north in 1844. Even closer still, Forest Park in St. Louis was once home to a cricket oval, and the ground is still called the Cricket Field to this day, although it is primarily used for local rugby and vintage baseball, also great candidates for future editions of this column.
Getting to the basics here, cricket teams are comprised of eleven players, playing on a typically round or oval shaped field, with a small rectangular strip of turf cut incredibly thin and short called the pitch, where most of the action of the game takes place. On each end of the pitch stands a wooden target called a wicket, which is made of three wooden sticks, or stumps.
For familiarity’s sake, I will be comparing elements of cricket to their parallels in the sport of baseball. A batter in baseball only has one task: offense. In cricket, a batsman is not only trying to score for their team, but is also defending the wicket behind them from the bowler. A cricket bowler’s goal, like a baseball pitcher, is to fool the batsman and get the ball behind him.
Cricket has runs, outs, and even innings like baseball, but that’s about where the similarities stop. Unlike baseball, cricket innings are when one team bats all the way through, and the other team fields. Like baseball, cricket batsmen get “out.” An out in cricket is recorded when a bowler hits the wicket, a batsman hits the ball and is caught by a fielder, or if the batsman blocks the wicket with a part of his body that isn’t the bat, known as an lbw (leg before wicket). The fielding team’s goal is to get the opposing batsmen out before they can tally a high run total.
Did I mention that there’s always two batsmen on the field? One batsman stands at each end of the pitch, as the opposing team has to bowl from different ends after each over. An over is basically a unit of time measurement in cricket. An over is six balls bowled, and bowlers aren’t allowed to bowl consecutive overs. Think if in baseball, you had to have a different pitcher for every other batter. The two batsmen have to run in unison, darting past one another to the other end of the pitch to notch a run, and doing so multiple times to score more runs.
For most of cricket’s life span, from the 18th century until the 1960s, the only form of cricket was first-class, or test cricket. Named as such because it is seen as the “most complete examination of a team’s endurance and ability,” test cricket is played over the course of four days, for about seven hours a day.
Understanding that a game that takes over twenty-five hours to complete wasn’t drawing in spectators, limited overs cricket was developed, and was immediately profitable, with crowds flocking in. To pick up from the last paragraph describing the game, an over in cricket is six balls thrown by the bowler, and became a unit of game-time measurement in limited overs cricket.
Changing the average game from four days to six hours by implementing 50-over, one-day cricket was revolutionary. As Hasan Minhaj said on his Netflix show, Patriot Act, cricket went from a “live action Brooks Brothers catalog” to “something that was actually fun to watch.” In 1975 the International Cricket Council staged the first Cricket World Cup, and the twelfth edition of the tournament was won earlier this year by England.
Now it’s not wrong to think that six hours is still a hell of a lot of time to sit and watch a sport, because it is. Eventually the shine of 50-over, one-day cricket wore off, and the sport’s fans wanted a speedier, shorter, more exciting version of the sport. Enter the 2002 creation of T20, or twenty-twenty cricket. T20 matches take about three hours, like an average baseball game, and players could swing for bigger run totals, not having to conserve energy to be fresh for an entire day of cricketing.
T20 cricket really took off as the most popular format out of the three, as T20 cricket leagues popped up in Commonwealth (i.e. once ruled by England) nations all over the globe. The faster alternative to test and one-day cricket, T20 was finally a cricket format made for television.
No league proved this more than the Indian Premier League, which combined the quicker game with an almost hybrid of American and Bollywood production. Cheerleaders, loud dance music, and merchandise-adorned fans flocked to IPL stadiums across India. The IPL is currently in the middle of a $2.55 billion television contract with Star Sports in India, and the league itself has an estimated value around $6 billion.
Every sport, every league, is filled with hucksters, tricksters, and all sorts of slimy types who are just trying to make as much money as possible with little regard for the sport or the world around them on a grander scale. The previously mentioned Indian Premier League benefited particularly from the acts of one specific huckster, Lalit Modi.
The initial commercial success of the IPL saw Modi receive glowing profiles in English press, including a BBC article that titled him a “Maverick impresario.” In less than two years of Modi running the league, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) ousted Modi from his position for a number of charges, including rigging bids for IPL franchises, betting on IPL, selling franchises to his family, and money laundering. Incensed, Lalit Modi took to Twitter, and threatened to “expose certain individuals” within the BCCI. He was banned from cricket for life in 2013.
The BCCI knows a thing or two about illegitimately using power as leverage. The International Cricket Council (ICC) is at the mercy of the BCCI due to the profitability of the BCCI controlled Indian Premier League. The BCCI uses its power and cash to sway the ICC, one instance particularly notable for its name, “Monkeygate.”
“Monkeygate” was a 2008 scandal where a match referee claimed Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh called a black Australian cricketer, Andrew Symonds, a “monkey” during a match between the two nations. Singh denied the allegations, and the BCCI threatened to pull India out of the tournament unless the ICC dropped their three-match suspension on the Indian bowler.
This year’s edition of the Cricket World Cup saw fewer teams than ever, just ten, down six from the 2007 edition of the tournament. This is a creation of the BCCI, and noted by Hasan Minhaj on an episode of his show Patriot Act, fewer teams in the tournament means a higher percentage of matches feature the Indian cricket team, meaning more money from advertisers for Indian cricket.
Cricket is a rapidly growing, rapidly changing game. The game played by English granddads in the 50s is now a multibillion dollar worldwide sports operation like the NFL, NBA, or MLB. While the game is still difficult to get used to, particularly if you’re already used to baseball, it’s fan base in the US is growing, and there’s rumblings of a US-based T20 cricket league in the coming years. Hey, if #MLS2STL was a success, why not #Cricket2STL?