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Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect

Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect

One of the leading cricket writers of the modern era, Matthew Engel began his career as a reporter in his home town of Northampton in 1972. After five years with Reuters he joined the Guardian in 1979 where he reported on more than fifty sports as well as domestic and international politics. Between 1993 and 2000, and again from 2004 to 2007, Matthew was editor of Wisden, the gap being as a result of his spending three years as the Guardian’s Washington correspondent.

When Matthew lived in the US between 2001 and 2003, his son Laurie also became a baseball fan. They watched the Baltimore Orioles together, and Laurie played for a Maryland junior team. Shortly after the Engels returned to England, Laurie was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; he died in 2005, aged 13. The Laurie Engel Fund was created in his memory and has raised one million pounds for a new Teenage Cancer Trust unit in Birmingham to make life better for future sufferers. Laurie’s story, and what his fund has achieved, and hopes to achieved in the future, can be found at www.laurieengelfund.org

Matthew, in the circumstances the best placed sports writer to do so, recently provided a superb introduction to Beth Hise’s new book and he has kindly agreed to CricketWeb reproducing it here. The book is highly recommended and there is also, until December 2010, an exhibition at Lords which it complements.

When, several hundred million years ago, this planet comprised one continent, all the life-forms must have indulged in the same activities. Sex and eating, one presumes.

As the world grew more complicated, it became more diverse. And eventually sport emerged as an expression of that diversity. The games we watch and play are among the defining characteristics of a modern nation. If you made a list of the differences between Britain and the United States, the fact that one plays cricket and the other baseball would be very close to the top.

But it has never been that simple. Jane Austen, writing circa 1799, mentions baseball as well as cricket in Northanger Abbey, and there never was a less Yankee writer. It is less contentious to write about religion or politics than the origins of these two games, but it seems safe to say they are both strongly rooted in English folk tradition.

In England, cricket very quickly smothered baseball, and as Britain acquired another empire to replace those uppity American colonies, cricket took root everywhere else that it conquered.

But it was not until the second half of the 19th century that the sporting destiny of the United States was settled. In 1859 John Wisden led an All-England tour that boosted interest in American cricket and might have meant that we would be thinking this summer about the prospects for the Tests in Chicago and Atlanta. Two years later, the Civil War erupted and the game never recovered.

Some historians concluded that the war was the deciding factor. Tom Melville, author of the very thorough history of US cricket, The Tented Field, disagreed: “Cricket failed in America because it never established an American character,” he concluded. Ah, if only they had thought of Twenty20. Instead, baseball became a craze, and then an institution.

Yet in neither country was the wipeout total. Some private American schools continued to favour cricket, because it taught old-fashioned virtues and offered international prestige. High-standard cricket persisted in Philadelphia into the 20th century, but only among the famously hoity-toity Philadelphian upper-class, who were also fond of fox hunting.

But no city in the US has a more raucous set of sports fans, and the idea that many of the Philly locals would ever have hushed, or remembered not to walk behind the bowler’s arm, is unimaginable. And for many decades American cricket retreated largely into such British expat bastions as Sir Aubrey Smith’s Hollywood Cricket Club.

In Britain, baseball-style games certainly never disappeared. Rounders was always popular in primary schools, and rightly so. Fifty years ago, when even seven-year-olds were expected to play cricket as an eleven-a-side game with a hard ball, rounders offered both more involvement and less fear. And it became an organised sport in Ireland in the 1880s under the aegis of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which promoted non-British sport as a means of instilling anti-imperialist solidarity.

In Wales, rounders mutated into a form of baseball: eleven-a-side, underarm bowling (not pitching), and with a run awarded for each base reached, not just for a full circuit. And that game still quietly thrives around Cardiff. In 1924 the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox met at Stamford Bridge in front of the King and Queen. The Times correspondent, however, was full of lordly disdain: “The long catches into the outfield are too simple for a private school boy to miss, if he has the advantage of a huge glove” The running between the bases was slow. In contrast, the New York Times treated the advent of Don Bradman respectfully and hailed him as the “Babe Ruth of cricket”. But he could have walked down Fifth Avenue unnoticed.

The mutual incomprehension continued for generations. The cricketing establishment regarded baseball as some sort of barbarous mutant; Americans regarded cricket as some crazed English joke, a view epitomised by Groucho Marx’s famous comment as he sat watching a match at Lord’s: “This is great. When does it start?”

But things slowly changed. In the 1980s, when English soccer was dreary on the field and violent off it, many sports fans began to look for alternatives. American football became a huge hit on Channel 4, and baseball became an obvious next step. There were cheap fares across the Atlantic, so many young Brits began to see for themselves. And locals would join expats in softball games in Regent’s Park.

Meanwhile, in the US, cricket surged for totally different reasons. There were waves of immigration from, first, the Caribbean and then the subcontinent. The migrants brought their game with them and used it as a badge of their identity. American cricket became a hard school with an ethos far removed from Sir Aubrey Smith. But soon huge numbers of Asians were playing in all the major cities. And cricket administrators licked their lips at the prospect of this fabulous untapped market (at least until they started dealing with the feuding barons who ran the American game).

The truth, though, was that the overwhelming mass of Americans were as distant from cricket as ever. And the attitude of newspapers has reversed since the 1920s: The Times habitually provides good coverage of the World Series; its New York namesake (“All the news that’s fit to print”) declined to print a solitary word – not one – on even the 2005 Ashes.

Perhaps cricket is like Marmite; unless you are exposed to it by the age of three, you are unlikely ever to acquire a taste for it. And it is hard to imagine even Twenty20 having any impact now. What would it offer Americans that is not already available in baseball? A discerning baseball fan might, however, notice a similarity between Twenty20 and the Home Run Derby, the novelty event (a sort of six-hitting contest) that takes place before the annual All-Star game.

Yet at root baseball and cricket are not that different. I see them as blood brothers, separated at birth but genetically linked. I peered uncomprehendingly at baseball for ages until I suddenly realised there was a wicket – the strike zone. It’s just invisible, that’s all. Once I saw that, I saw everything. The techniques may be different but the duel is the same: pitcher v batter, bowler v batsman, the one trying to outdo the other using pace and/or duplicity.

The duel is between individuals, but that is hidden inside what is ostensibly a team sport. It is bad form, especially in cricket, to be seen to elevate a century above the needs of the team. Yet what are the most resonant records? They are individual. Bradman’s 99.94 Test average trips off the tongue as does Ted Williams’ .406 season. No need to look up Lara’s 501 or 400 or Ruth’s 60 home runs. What’s the highest Test total? Some dreary match on the subcontinent, wasn’t it? Must be in Wisden somewhere.

And the appeal to the spectator is the same too. They both have long soporific periods of nothing-much, broken by sudden, unpredictable climaxes. They both offer bottomless strategic profundity. They both have revered traditions, with a rich literature as well as endless statistics. Perhaps above all, they are both sports of summer – in which a magnificent game can become entwined in our minds with the memory of a perfect day.

Cricket offers the advantage of the ball bouncing, making the terrain a crucial extra element, whereas in baseball it hardly matters. Cricket is played over 360 degrees whereas baseball is confined within the 90-degree angle of the diamond. And cricket offers the concept of the draw – as beautiful as a cry of “Sanctuary!” at a church door, and so scorned and misunderstood by Americans.

Baseball, though, knows what it is. A game is a game: nine innings a side, more if they are level, taking an average three to four hours. Its rhythms are immutable. Cricket is in torment over its format, caught in an undeclared war between those who love it as a game and those who value it as a business. Baseball was lucky enough to get rich quicker. In the 1980s the Hampshire captain Nick Pocock met a big-league American who asked him how much he earned. 4,000 pounds, he said. “How many games do you play a year?” Pocock totted up all the different county competitions of the era and reckoned he played about 45. “Gee, 45 times 4,000, that’s not bad.” “No, no, you don’t understand. It’s 4,000 pounds a year. Cricket salaries have gone up, but the average on the New York Yankees roster is now heading for $8m a year.

Many cricketers have thought the grass was greener. Ian Botham fancied his chances, not unreasonably, but he was way too old by then. Ian Pont of Notts and Essex was picked as starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in a pre-season contest but ultimately became a county bowler with a distinctive baseball snap to his action. Ed Smith’s experiences with the big leaguers helped make him a writer, but not a millionaire. There is no reverse flow, though many Australians, including the Chappell brothers, played baseball as kids.

There is every reason why these two games should understand each other better. Cricket people ought to be less snotty about baseball; baseball people should make the tougher journey to grasping cricket. Both sides would gain a lot: by understanding the delights and the problems of the other world, administrators, players and spectators would learn a lot about their own world too. I hope this pioneering exhibition and book help start this process.

We are indebted to Matthew Engel and publisher Scala Publishing (www.scalapublishers.com) for their kindly agreeing to allow us to reproduce Matthew’s introduction to Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect . You can read CW’s review here. The book is available now, published at GBP20, as the old cliche goes, from all good bookshops.


Made me chuckle:

[QUOTE]High-standard cricket persisted in Philadelphia into the 20th century, but only among the famously hoity-toity Philadelphian upper-class, who were also fond of fox hunting.[/QUOTE]

Comment by Shri | 12:00am BST 16 August 2010

It is a fascinating subject. IIRC early baseball players often had a cricket background and used some of those skills in baseball and a few decades later Bart King helped refine swing bowling in cricket using some of his baseball skills.

I learnt about the history of cricket in the US only recently. I find it amusing that the first international cricket game was between the US and Canada. In fact it was probably the first international game in any sport and USA-Canada in cricket is apparently the oldest international sporting rivalry.

Comment by Dissector | 12:00am BST 17 August 2010

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