Cricket for Americans: How the Game is Played

Or, the strange combination of standing around and running

A game of cricket, like baseball, has its rituals and milestones, and this essay will explore some of them while also explaining the different formats of the game. Most of what is written here applies to cricket as it is played internationally; that is, contests between national teams. Most of these nations were either members of the British-led Commonwealth, with some exceptions.

You can read the introduction to this series if you like.


By way of a quick review, recall that the two sides are made up of 11 players each, one of whom is the captain. Before a match begins, the captains meet for a coin toss that draw more from American football than baseball: the winner of the toss gets to decided whether to bat first or bowl first.

This decision has many factors, including the condition of the pitch and the weather, but many home sides like to put the visitors into bat first, assuming that they might not be as familiar with the playing environment. Putting the visiting team into bat first also affords the home side the option of batting last.

Both teams also publish their list of 11 players, although unlike baseball, the batting order is flexible; if a captain wants to switch places or drop someone down the order, that’s no problem. The teams also get a substitute fielder, in case players get injured (either temporarily or enough to leave the game without returning), but as the name suggests, substitute fielders cannot bat.

There is no cricket equivalent to a pinch-hitter, then, although under limited circumstances an injured player may be permitted to employ a substitute runner while he bats. After the toss and lineups are set, it’s time to play.

The New Ball

In cricket, like baseball, the bowlers begin with a new ball. It’s just that in baseball, the ball is replaced much more often (after foul balls hit into the stands, home runs or whenever the umpire thinks it should be). In cricket, there are rules about when the ball should be replaced, and teams are permitted — within limits — to “shine” the ball between deliveries in order to try and take advantage of what is known as “swing”, the ability to make the ball move in the air (more on that in another piece).

A cricket ball used in test matches.

The ball pictured above is red, and that means it is used for test matches, the longest format of the game. White balls are used for the shorter formats, although a few other colors have popped up, too. Unlike baseball, cricket balls used in international matches between countries aren’t all made by the same manufacturer. Host teams generally provide the balls made in their countries or pick a particular manufacturer and stay with it.

The ball is roughly the size of a baseball, and is made from cork wound with string and covered by leather. The stitches are different from baseballs, and are more prominent at the seam. The ball can hurt you if it hits you in the wrong spot, and injuries are fairly common. An Australian research paper shows locations of cricket injuries among adults and children, usually from being hit with the ball or a bat:

The Partners

Like baseball, cricket is both a physical and mental contest. The batsman must try to work out what the bowler’s strategy is, with the added complexity of figuring out multiple bowlers and how the condition of the pitch is affecting the way the ball is moving.

The first two batsmen, called openers, are expected to endure the best of the opposition’s bowlers, which often means facing the quickest pace bowling. They also must score runs to help set a platform for the remainder of the team. In an ideal situation, the openers would bat for a long time together.

Unlike baseball, which is a solitary contest for the batter, in cricket one of the goals is to maintain batting partnerships between players, allowing batsmen to become comfortable and thus capable of scoring more runs. The importance of partnerships is illustrated in the official scoring of the game, which records not only how many runs each batsman has scored, but also how many runs each partnership has produced.

Why is this important? Because the batsmen need to work together to decide when to run between the stumps, since both players must run in order to score a run. One of the ways players can get out is to be outside the crease when the ball hits the stumps, and miscommunication between batsmen makes this outcome more likely.

The batting lineup starts with the openers, continues through the middle order and winds up with “the tail”, usually the weakest batsmen in the team. Much like baseball, the better hitters are near the top of the lineup, but in cricket the hope is that the tailenders won’t have to bat for long - or at all. Batsmen wear helmets against most bowlers, but some opt to go without against spinners.

The batsman who is facing the bowler is said to be “on strike”, while the other batsman is at the “non-striker’s end”. After an over is concluded, the batsmen switch ends, with the batsman at the non-striker’s end taking strike to face a new bowler, and the fielders shifting to new positions. This can give the impression at times that more action occurs in between overs than during them.

Batsmen come in all styles: those who patiently build up to a big score by either leaving alone or deflecting those deliveries that would invite trouble, those who aggressively (and with some risk) seek to drive the bowler’s deliveries out towards the boundaries through gaps in the field, and those who will try to hit the ball as hard as possible, almost without regard for where it goes. Bowlers, then, also need to know the habits of their opponents, and to bring to bear deliveries that will encourage the worst of them.

A team’s batting is finished when it is all out, or 10 of its 11 batsmen have been dismissed, or when it finishes the number of overs for matches that have a limit. In the longest form of the game, teams can also “declare” that their batting is over at any point.

The Attack

A team’s bowlers are often referred to as an “attack”, because they rotate turns in trying to get batsmen out. Unlike baseball, in which a pitcher who is taken off cannot return, bowlers often bowl in spells consisting of several overs (six deliveries in each over) at a time. So even if a team has an “ace” bowler, it cannot simply rely on that one player’s dominance to win. It has to have a variety of bowlers capable of taking wickets.

A bowler’s style (pace or spin) often dictates where and when they bowl during a match, and also results in adjustments in the field. Pace bowlers often have long run-ups towards the batsmen in order to increase the speed of deliveries, while spin bowlers generally have a much shorter approach, and usually don’t run.

There are a wide variety of deliveries that another piece will explore, but pace bowlers usually try to get the batsmen to mis-time their shots so that the ball goes in the air towards a fielder. This is often done through deliveries that cause the batsman to wave his bat at a ball that is moving away from his body, or by bouncing a ball near the shoulders and head of the batsman in the hopes that he won’t be able to react properly. The hands of batsman are considered part of the bat, so a ball that hits the hands and then pops into the air can be caught for an out.

Spin bowlers will try to turn the ball into or away from the batsman, causing him to mis-judge the path of the ball. Spinners also can benefit from the marks in the pitch left by players’ feet or by pace bowling, causing unpredictable bounces.

Some batsmen are known to be better or worse players of pace or spin bowling, so captains will try to deploy their bowlers to maximize the chances of taking a wicket. They do the same with fielders, moving them around in order to either entice the batsmen to try and place the ball in open areas or to have fielders in place to catch the ball.

The Catchers

One of the first things that differentiates cricket from baseball is the lack of gloves. Only one fielder in cricket gets to wear gloves: the wicket-keeper, who stands behind the batsman to collect deliveries or, hopefully, catch balls that nick the edge of the bat.

Australia’s Matthew Wade wears the gloves as England’s Ian Bell bats.

The wicket-keeper, like baseball’s catcher, often crouches in fairly uncomfortable positions and wears a helmet at times, too.

The rest of the fielders have no gloves, and thus must catch the ball, or stop it if rolling along the ground, with their hands, feet or bodies. There are quite a few finger injuries among cricketers for this reason. The best fielders often will be positioned closer to the batsman, sometimes very close.

This helps when a captain decides to surround the batsman with fielders, usually combined with a spin bowler:

This illustrates one of the key concepts in cricket: pressure. Pressure exists in baseball, but it is usually applied in ways that are not quite “organic” in the sense that everyone knows that a batter with two strikes is under pressure on the next pitch. In cricket, the captain and bowler can create pressure in different ways by restricting the opportunities for scoring runs or by forcing the batsman into playing shots he might otherwise avoid. He can surround the batsman with fielders or leave gaps to entice the batsman to try and steer the ball towards them, hoping for a mistimed shot.

Similarly, a batsman can put pressure on bowlers by disrupting their timing: batsmen can come down the pitch towards a bowler in order to hit the ball sooner, or he can change the direction of shots at the last second. Of course, there are risks associated with applying pressure, and time itself is also a pressure factor.

The Three Formats

In the introductory piece I mentioned that there are three forms of cricket played internationally: Test matches, One-Day Internationals and Twenty20. Time is a big factor in all three.

Test matches are just that: tests of endurance and skill. Two sides have five days to bat twice, and the goal is to play at least 90 overs each day, weather and light permitting. That’s a lot of cricket. Tests can be high-scoring, but usually don’t see the kind of per-over scoring rate that the other formats do. Batsmen and bowlers can be more patient in trying to work out their opponents, and there is no limit on how many overs a bowler can bowl. Tests have a consistent schedule: play is interrupted by lunch and tea intervals, plus shorter breaks for drinks.

Tests are won when a team outscores the other and bowls the opposition out. It is not enough to simply outscore them, which may seem odd when compared to baseball, but ensures that a side cannot simply do one thing well and win. A draw happens when the team ahead in runs cannot bowl out the other team; this causes some teams to play “not to lose” when they have little chance of scoring enough runs to win.

Nations playing tests against each other usually play at least two such matches, although the occasional single test match does occur. Thus a test series can last for weeks as the teams also receive some time off to rest. The series between England and Australia known as “The Ashes” consists of five tests.

Test cricket is often regarded as the “highest” form of the game, particularly by people you might call purists, but in terms of fan popularity and television revenue the shorter formats can be more appealing.

One Day Internationals (ODIs) are, as the name suggests, played in a single day, with each side batting once for 50 overs or until they are all out. After a short break, the two sides switch roles and play another 50 overs. ODIs encourage (demand, even) a more aggressive approach by both bowlers and batsmen; the batsmen need to score enough runs to win and the bowlers need to prevent them from doing so, all in a limited time. Bowlers are limited to a maximum of 10 overs in ODIs, and an ODI match can end in a tie if both teams score the same number of runs.

Twenty20 (T20) matches are even more compressed, consisting of 20 overs a side, with a limit of four overs per bowler. T20 has been credited for improving the general fitness of cricketers, since limited overs mean an emphasis on running, fielding and what baseball fans might call “power hitting”. Although created in England, the T20 format has grown popular in Australia, India and other cricket-playing nations.

The rise of ODIs and T20 have led to specialization among batsmen; some play mostly limited-overs cricket rather than test matches. The same is true with bowlers, but to a point: usually a good test bowler will be able to take wickets in any format of the game. In the next piece, we’ll look at batting and the many ways to lose your wicket.