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"It's a Hard Game": An American Looks at Baseball's English Cousin
By Tom Brennan

A mixture of blood and tears trickled down my face and dripped from the end of my ten-year-old nose, already swollen to twice its normal size. The baseball that did the damage rolled to the side of the dusty Midwestern street, and my uncle who threw it trotted over for a closer inspection. Relatives looking on from the porch of my grandmother's house murmured disapproval, and a posse of aunts set out to fetch my mother. The uncle retrieved the ball, mopped my nose with his handkerchief, and said, "It's a hard game, Tommy."

Fast-forward half a century to a cricket field, framed by the gray of an English sky and the soft green of an English summer. Foolish enough to bat without pads, I have just taken a fastball square on the shin, instantly raising a lump the size of an egg. As I hobble to the sidelines to find a can of painkiller spray, Frank, the cricket club's version of P. G. Wodehouse's "Oldest Member," strolls over for a look. He surveys the damage, shakes his head, and says, "It's a hard game, Tom."

Like many American baseball fans and one-time players, I had always harbored a vague curiosity about cricket. After all, both games are based on one player throwing a ball and another hitting it with a bat. But to the outsider, cricket seems like an unfathomable ritual involving white clothing, arcane rules, and games that go on for days, interrupted only by breaks for the opponents to stop and have tea together. Also, perhaps uncomfortably for Americans, our impression of the game includes a certain element of upper class British snobbery.

In my final year before retirement, the college where I taught asked me to manage its study-abroad program at a university in Norwich, England. My wife and I jumped at the chance to spend a year abroad, and I was determined, along the way, to learn first hand a bit about the enigmatic national pastime of the Brits.

I had only expected to be able to watch the university cricket team play a few games, and maybe find someone on the sidelines who could explain to me the basic idea of what was going on. Actually getting a chance to play hadn't seemed likely. But to my amazement I found, based at the campus sports center, an organization with the slightly intimidating name of The Norwich Retired Gentlemen's Cricket Club. I mean, really, how British can you get?

I went to watch them play and, since I was the lone spectator, some of them came over after the game to talk. As soon as they heard my accent they became as curious about me as I was about the game. They told me that they play year around, indoors in winter and outdoors in summer, the minimum age is sixty, and dues are one pound a year. Before long I had an invitation to become the first American member of the club. The members came from a wide range of backgrounds, and they welcomed me with no questions asked about my job, my finances, or my ancestry. So much for the legendary British standoffishness.

Not a lot needs to be said about the level of play I achieved during that year. By the end, I was embarrassing myself slightly less often than not. I made a few good plays and a few more bad ones. Having played baseball may actually put one at a disadvantage because the techniques are so different (at least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!). Cricket opened the door to a non-academic aspect of British society that would have otherwise been inaccessible to me, and I made friends I will not forget.

Cricket is more correctly described as an English rather than a British game, in that it is not played very much in the other countries that make up Great Britain. However, in past centuries the game became firmly established in the far reaches of the British Empire, and Australia, India, Pakistan, and the West Indies are international powerhouses today. Canadian cricket seems to have never quite recovered from a nineteenth-century incident in which the captain of a Canadian side touring England was arrested for desertion from the British Army, and the rest of the team went home. In 1877 there were even around three hundred cricket clubs in the former American colonies, but the game declined in popularity with the advent of baseball. Today cricket still maintains a tenuous U.S. foothold, particularly in the Philadelphia area.

It's easy to spot the most obvious differences between baseball and cricket. Cricketers (not "cricketeers," as the Disney-minded might have it) use a red ball, they throw it with a straight arm, and bat it on the bounce with a thing that looks like a canoe paddle. They only have two bases, but with a batter at each one, and the fielders don't wear gloves. If anyone doubts their courage, these gloveless fielders, in some situations, position themselves virtually on top of the batter, risking life and limb, or at least teeth and noses, for an out. Once you have been put out you really are out—you leave and you don't bat again. The umpire doesn't call anyone out unless a player on the opposing team appeals, and the way they appeal is to shout "How's that?" They don't spit tobacco, they don't have bench-clearing brawls, and they never, never, never argue with the umpire.

There is no strike zone in cricket. The ball can be thrown in front of the batsman or behind or right at him, high, low, or in between. In one of my first at bats against a rival club, the first ball came straight at my head (but slow enough that I could duck out of the way), followed by a good-natured cry of "There's an English welcome for the colonist!" Bob Gibson would have loved this game.

Beyond that it gets more inscrutable. I played for a year and still don't understand all the intricacies of scoring. "Bowl" means pitch, "pitch" means playing field, and the familiar term "wicket" has at least three distinct and unrelated meanings. I wouldn't even attempt to probe the netherworld of being called out leg before wicket or deciding when to draw the stumps. Trying to explain the details of cricket to an outsider is probably a fool's game, kind of like talking to Norwegians about the dropped third strike rule, so let's just leave it at that. One of the things the English like best about their game is that foreigners don't understand it.

Rather than delving into the nuts and bolts of how cricket is played, a possibly more interesting—and certainly more comprehensible—aspect of the game to consider is its place as the English national pastime and its parallels to baseball in America. Like baseball, cricket has spawned an extensive literature, and from it we can learn a lot about how the English themselves see the sport.

The sense that both baseball and cricket mean something more than simple recreation to the respective national consciousness of America and England can be seen in a few familiar, and oddly parallel, quotations. Most baseball fans are familiar with the observation of Alexis d'Tocqueville that "in order to understand America, you have to understand baseball," and some also know that Ernest L. Thayer gave Casey at the Bat the intriguing subtitle, "A Ballad of the Republic." Well, there's one about cricket from British journalist Neville Cardus that even tops those: "If everything else in this nation of ours were lost but cricket—her Constitution and the Laws of England of Lord Halsbury—it would be possible to reconstruct from the theory and practice of cricket all the eternal Englishness which has gone to the establishment of that Constitution and the Laws aforesaid." Or maybe George Trevelyan's fatalistic conceit that the French nobility would have kept their castles, as well as their heads, if only they had seen fit to play cricket with the peasants.

The notion of "playing the game" in a spirit of fairness and civility had implications that reached far beyond the cricket pitch: it was a code of conduct that applied to every aspect of upper class British society, and in its idealized form it guided the conduct of gentlemanly behavior and the affairs of state. Saying that "it isn't cricket" was harsh criticism indeed.

All overblown nonsense? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it shows rather clearly the significance that we and the eternally English attach to these games, and that neither of us can resist inflating them to something transcendent, if not downright mystical.

One of the few pieces of cricket writing that Americans are likely to have come across is the tale of the epic match between Dingley Dell and All-Muggleton that Charles Dickens recounts in The Pickwick Papers. It is more of a spoof than a description of a real game, but in it we can glimpse a thread that runs through almost all of cricket literature, namely the game's association with village life in the English countryside.

A lot of very good, if occasionally repetitive, cricket writing follows in this vein. Descriptions of cricket matches, usually between teams from rural villages, abound in nineteenth and twentieth century English literature, either as the main theme of a short story or a sidelight in a longer book. Cricket was played in the slums of London and the grimy cities of the industrial Midlands as well as in the countryside, but in literature the rural setting is almost invariant.

Arthur Conan Doyle not only wrote about cricket in some of his non-Sherlock Holmes stories, but was also a fearsome bowler, so good in fact that he was sometimes barred from playing in friendly matches. Other cricket-playing writers included P. G. Wodehouse, Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, and A. A. Milne. Barrie, before he got around to writing Peter Pan, organized a team of writers called the Allahakbarries, who seem to have spent summers wandering about England in search of cricket matches and cheap pubs. A similar literary team called the Invalids inspired A. G. Macdonell to write possibly the funniest story I have ever read about any sport. In what seems like a slow motion replay viewed from many angles, Macdonell devotes three pages and twelve hundred words of England, Their England, to the final flyball of a cricket game, only to have the catch made by, of all things, a visiting American. Wodehouse, of course, eventually reached the entirely plausible conclusion that golf was even funnier than cricket.

The game was by no means the sole domain of male writers. Cricket also figures into the work of Jane Austen, Mary Russell Mitford, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Mitford was particularly outspoken in her distaste for the idea of someone actually getting paid for playing such a noble sport.

The notion of cricket, like baseball, recalling an imagined age of innocence and pastoral tranquility crops up repeatedly in English fiction. The realities of rural life notwithstanding, games are played under cloudless skies on the village green, set in the midst of rose and hollyhock gardens, ancient oak trees, and a flowing stream. A church bell chimes and somnolent cattle moo in the distance. Everyone from the stableboy to the vicar participates, hilarious and heroic feats ensue, followed by pints in the twilight at the village pub. The scene positively exudes Englishness, but it is not fundamentally different from the view we sometimes cultivate of the American game of bygone times. Both games are used as a way of evoking a mythical golden age of the nation's past.

However, some of it is not so funny, nor so innocent. If there really ever was such a thing as an age of innocence in baseball, it probably ended with the Black Sox scandal. On the other side of the Atlantic, the end came at about the same time but in the far more catastrophic form of World War I.

Most Americans do not really understand the trauma inflicted upon England by that war. To us it was a sort of campy affair, Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel and all that. To them it meant nothing less than the eradication of an entire generation. The war memorials in English towns listing the names of the dead often show two or three times as many killed in the First World War as in the Second. Three-quarters of a million died, from a nation smaller in area than the state of Arkansas. It was the end of a gentler age, the beginning of the end of the Empire, and the end of the Britannic myth they liked to cultivate around their game of cricket.

Post–World War I cricket writing refers repeatedly to the theme of long-remembered cricketers, lost forever in Flanders or at Gallipoli or the Somme, and along with them the culture of Edwardian England and the way of life that they represented. The game is used as a means of expressing patriotism, nostalgia, and unspeakable tragedy. In his bleak Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Siegfried Sassoon describes a visit to a cricket ground where he had played before the war. The once idyllic scene is now "blighted and forsaken," with an unwound clock on the pavilion, deserted because there is simply no one left to play.

Sports historian Richard Holt points out that cricket writing during the interwar years also attempted to reassure the public that "the essence of England" was intact following the slaughter of the Great War, and that with time the nation's wounds would heal. The presumption seems to have been that if all was well with village cricket, then all was well with England. The period of wellness didn't last long, but England and cricket were to survive once more, despite Nazi Germany's best efforts to the contrary.

Modern cricket writing, by comparison, fares poorly, dominated by how-to books and the memoirs of twenty-five-year-old professionals, although Derek Birley's monumental A Social History of English Cricket is a notable exception. American baseball writing is actually in better shape; I don't see much on British bookshelves comparable to the more reflective work of Roger Angell, David Halberstam, or George Will.

Despite the good fellowship extended to me by the retired cricketers of Norwich, there is in cricket a striking historical parallel with the treatment of African Americans in baseball. Until recent times, social class in Britain was every bit as stringent and impenetrable a barrier as was race in America. As recently as the 1960s, cricket teams consisted of two distinct categories of individuals: Gentlemen and Players. Gentlemen were amateurs of independent means who came from aristocratic families and played for love of the game. Players were paid professionals who came from working class backgrounds and relied on payment for playing for at least a part of their livelihood. They played together as teammates, but their treatment was in no way equal. In addition to their responsibilities on the field, Players were expected to maintain the grounds and equipment, serve drinks, dress in separate locker rooms, and make their way onto the playing field by a separate entrance. In the scorecard, Gentlemen's first and second initials were placed before their last names, while the Players' last names came first. Announcers and newspaper accounts referred to Gentlemen as "Mr." while Players were called by surname only. Today these distinctions are as dead as the Negro leagues.

Cricket even has its own Babe Ruth figure in the person of Dr. W. G. Grace. Like Ruth, Grace was a larger than life personality, and he dominated the game for decades during the late nineteenth century. Overweight, boisterous, and sporting an enormous unkempt beard, he still somehow managed to fall into the Gentlemen category. Grace was qualified as a physician, but sometimes refused to see his patients during cricket season. The mention of "W. G." is as immediately understood in England as "The Babe" is in America.

There are also many similarities between the present states of baseball and cricket. The expectation for sportsmanlike behavior on the cricket pitch is still high, and I think we can safely say that it is substantially better on the baseball diamond than in professional basketball or football. However, the orchestrated antics that go on in a baseball park are definitely more exuberant than in the hallowed grounds of cricketdom like Lord's and The Oval. One might be tempted to generalize from this and say that it reflects a more refined sense of public conduct in British society. However, the generalization breaks down with the followers of British soccer, compared to whom American baseball fans, or even the Hawgs and Cheeseheads of the National Football League, are models of understatement and restraint.

Both games tend to be obsessed with statistics and the performance of heroes of yesteryear. Both are facing competition from the rising popularity of football (NFL here and soccer there). Both are trying to appeal to a generation of children who might just as soon play the game with a computer simulation as the real thing. Baseball and cricket are even identical in the perception that they are games handed down from the past, an essential part of the cultural heritage, but maybe no longer quite so dominant a feature of the national landscape as was once the case.

So, when the games, the players, and the fans are pared down to basics, maybe there's as much of the "special relationship" between England and America in cricket and baseball as in the wars and political alliances and shared language. They feel the same way about their game as we do about ours, and the two aren't so very different. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. Our fathers and sons and friends we don't have anymore did it, and so did theirs.

In both games the players and the fans take their knocks, physical and mental—"hard games," as old Frank and my uncle put it—but we keep coming back for more. Every spring we think this year our team will be there in October. I keep my glove oiled so that I can play catch all summer long, and I'm toughening up my fingers for some barehanded cricket when I go back to Norwich for a visit. I'm stocked up on arthritis medicine, too. Bring it on!


TOM BRENNAN is a retired professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He has written for a variety of sporting magazines and scientific journals. He grew up near St. Louis and is a lifelong Cardinals fan, but still misses the Browns.

© 2006 Tom Brennan


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