As near as I can tell, there are six ways of using the word wicket. The word refers, most directly, to the wooden base at the end of the pitch that is made of three stumps on which sit two bails. Wicket is also a word synonymous with dismissal, or an out, so one can say that the fourth wicket fell at 198 runs. Batsmen possess wickets, too, so one can say that the Australian captain, Ponting, “gave up a wicket early.” It appears that the two batsmen on the pitch (working together, referred to as a partnership) can also be a wicket—in “the first wicket established a target of sixty-eight runs.” The word wicket also refers to the pitch itself, so that a player might say that “the wicket at Adelaide favors our spinners.” And, finally, batsmen “run between the wickets,” scoring a single, stretching a single into a double, or taking a triple on a long ball that does not make the boundary.
It’s all wickets and beamers, yorkers and maidens, stumps and boundaries here in India. We don’t have a television in New Hampshire, and yet the tube is glowing cricket games here in our Pune flat. It’s a good thing, too, as this past weekend, all holed up to share a very generous stomach virus, we watched the Indian national cricket team beat Australia in the finals to take their first Tri-series championship. The aging Australian team—the fearsome and longstanding champions led by master batsman Ricky Ponting—were taken down by a youthful Indian squad led by the charismatic captain, Mahendra Sing (M. S.) Dhoni. The Tri-Series championship is one-day cricket. Each team has fifty overs (an over is six pitched balls, Nathaniel determined when we first starting watching cricket during the Test Series in January) for their inning. It all begins with a coin toss. One team then elects to bat first or to chase the score established by the team in the opening inning. Each inning, in a one day match, naturally, takes about one-half of the day. So a one-day match, including the lunch break, runs about 6-8 hours. (Test matches can run for many days.)
Just a day before the national team took the second game at the Gabba (in Brisbane), the Indian T20 team defeated South Africa in the World Cup final. So everyone is talking about a possible shift in the cricket world order. This is not surprising at all to me. For among my first lasting impressions of India were boys playing cricket in the parks of Delhi. A few days later, as we were rolling out of Delhi on the train we passed through village after village—really desperate looking places—where in every case, in open field after open field, children were playing games of cricket. Since then, we’ve encountered the game everywhere, including in our living room, where Nathaniel and Ellinore (and sometimes mom and dad) bowl and bat with a soft sponge ball, cracking boundaries off the wall and sixes off the laptop computer screen. When I e-mailed my friend Dave from New Zealand to tell him of our recent experiences with the game, he wrote back to say that we will indeed mow a pitch in the back field when we get back to NewHampshire and bowl a few games.
Just as we are picking up a bit of Hindi and Marathi here in Maharashtra, then, we are learning to speak the international language of cricket. Gubber, gully, googly, doosra (actually a Hindi term for a certain pitch by a spin bowler), jaffa, mid-off and mid-on, run out—the list of cricket terms goes on and on. We’ve been fortunate to be watching as Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary Indian batsman in the world of cricket, and a genuine sports hero in India, bat his first hundred in Australia (he has more centuries than any active player, I believe). I guess it’s like watching Wilt Chamberlin or Larry Bird or Erving Magic Johnson. We’ve marveled at Harbhajan Sing’s feisty spin bowling and the scary fast pitching of the wiry thin (and endearing) nineteen year old Ishant Sharma. And so, along with most Indians we were on the edge of our seats as the Australians came back in their inning, chasing a relatively low run total of 258, and then were bowled out by India, dramatically, as the young men in blue took the last two Austrailian wickets in the final over, for 249.
So, much to our surprise, we are saying things like “Tendulkar and Dhoni put down a century partnership for the third wicket!” and we are actually understanding one another. And, a neophyte student of the game, I’m already ready to say that cricket is more interesting than American football, baseball or basketball. The levels of complexity run deep in cricket, as does the strategy of choosing players—bowlers or batsmen, fast pitchers or spinners—and the statistics and algorithms for running the numbers is much like baseball. “Baseball is to cricket as simple addition is to calculus,” observes Shashi Tharoor, “the basic moves may be similar, but the former is easier, quicker, more straightforward and requires a much shorter attention span.” Cricket is exciting, though one has to be patient. It is something like spending the day watching Japanese Noh drama. There is something to the deliberateness and the patience required for players (and fans) that appeals to me. It was remarkable to watch Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, open the first game of the finals with a century (a hundred runs). The guy is pulling off remarkable shots, against different bowlers, with a hard cricket ball bouncing up at him reaching speeds up to 140 kilometers per hour. He stays poised. And he doesn’t make mistakes. He puts down singles, punches doubles into the outfield, lifts his bat to catch a high pitch and angle a ball over the catcher (like a foul ball, I guess) that then runs behind him all the way to the boundary for four. And then, with exquisite timing, he steps into a Yorker on the rise and lifts a ball in a high arc over the boundary for six. The game is, in the words of our ten-year old indian friend Nisthula, “So damn cool.”