We Americans share at least one predilection with our cousins from across the water: when we get drunk, we try to explain baseball through the lens of cricket, or cricket through the lens of baseball, depending on whose country we’re in at the time.
It’s a natural impulse. There’s a bat and a ball. The fielding team is all in the field, while the batting team goes up one (well, two, in cricket) at a time. When you get enough batters out the teams switch. Theoretically there’s a lot of common ground here.
That common ground vanishes about two beers in. Balks and infield flies do not translate well to extras and leg breaks, or vice versa. And unless one beery expert or another happens to be well-versed in both cricket and baseball, everyone’s statements that “it’s just like in cricket when…” or “it’s exactly like the part of baseball where…” are very suspect, since they probably don’t actually know the game in question all that well.
So despite several pleasant afternoons on both sides of the pond having cricket and/or baseball explained to me by the resident experts, I don’t know a damned thing about how cricket actually works. The words and phrases associated with it are totally meaningless. (I do a bit better with baseball thanks to some father/son bonding expeditions that have benefited me more than I knew or appreciated at the time, though I’m still no expert.)
But pencils and papers out, class, because I was reading an old Dorothy Sayers mystery with a cricket scene the other day, and I was struck by how well the important bits translated even to a reader with no idea how the game works. Let me give you an excerpt, with the cricket-specific phrases that mean nothing to an ignorant American bold-faced:
Mr. Hankin, with exasperating slowness, minced his way to the crease. He had his own methods of dealing with demon bowlers and was not alarmed. He patted the turf lengthily, asked three times for middle and off, adjusted his hat, requested that a screen might be shifted, asked for middle and off again and faced Mr. Simmonds with an agreeable smile and a very straight bat, left elbow well forward and his feet correctly placed. The result was that Simmonds, made nervous, bowled an atrocious wide, which went to the boundary, and followed it up by two mild balls of poor length, which Mr. Hankin very properly punished. This behaviour cheered Mr. Barrow and steadied him. He hit out with confidence, and the score mounted to fifty. The applause had scarcely subsided when Mr. Hankin, stepping briskly across the wicket to a slow and inoffensive-looking ball pitched rather wide to the off, found it unaccountably twist from under his bat and strike him on the left thigh. The wicket-keeper flung up his hands in appeal.
“Out!” said the umpire.
Mr. Hankin withered him with a look and stalked very slowly and stiffly from the field, to be greeted by a chorus of: “Bad luck, indeed, sir!”
“It was bad luck,” replied Mr. Hankin. “I am surprised at Mr. Grimbold.” (Mr. Grimbold was the umpire, an elderly and impassive man from Pym’s Outdoor Publicity Department.) “The ball was an atrocious wide. It could never have come anywhere near the wicket.”
“It had a bit of a break on it,” suggested Mr. Tallboy.
“It certainly had a break on it,” admitted Mr. Hankin, “but it would have gone wide nevertheless. I don’t think anybody can accuse me of being unsporting, and if I had been leg before, I should be the first to admit it. Did you see it, Mr. Brotherhood?”
“Oh, I saw it all right,” said the old gentleman, with a chuckle.
“I put it to you,” said Mr. Hankin, “whether I was l.b.w. or not.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Brotherhood. “Nobody ever is. I have attended cricket matches now for sixty years, for sixty years, my dear sir, and that goes back to a time before you were born or thought of, and I’ve never yet known anybody to be really out l.b.w.—according to himself, that is.” He chuckled again. “I remember in 1892….”
“Well, sir,” said Mr. Hankin, “I must defer to your experienced judgment. I think I will have a pipe.” He wandered away and sat down by Mr. Pym.
As the bold-faced bits show you, there’s quite a lot here that’s pure gibberish if you don’t know cricket. The uneducated American reader is unlikely to have a clue what l.b.w. is, or how one finds oneself out l.b.w., but the basic interaction is still clear: a player gets called out on a technicality and doesn’t care for the ump’s decision. Hard feelings ensue. It’s a British sport and not an American one, so the phrase “cocksucker” doesn’t come into it, but we’re all still familiar with the scene, and the author makes it work despite losing about one word in ten to the English/American language barrier.
There’s a good deal more of that cricket scene, and it’s all pretty digestible, which I call a sign of good writing. There’s enough interaction between players and emphasis on what they’re feeling about the game that I can tell whether the indecipherable cricket words mean a good thing or a bad thing for the player in question. As long as I’m paying attention to the people and how they’re feeling I can get by without the technical knowledge.
Bit of a lesson in there for all of us, when you think about it. Or maybe just the writers out there? I can never tell with these things.
Either way it made me want to watch cricket.
As an idle question for the commentors, does anyone actually know what l.b.w. means? I could Google it, but it’s more fun to read your explanations…