THE BATTER stares at the pitcher and nervously cocks his bat; the pitcher winds and fires; there is a rising line drive toward center; the outfielder turns and gives chase.

But the ball doesn't bounce against the wall because there is no wall; the crowd doesn't come to its feet because there is no crowd, and the batter does not scamper around the bases, he runs back and forth between them, dragging his bat.

It's cricket, not baseball.

To most Americans cricket is significant for one reason: it is known as the forerunner of baseball. Indeed, the two games have many similarities - innings, runs and outs, pitchers and batters, bats and balls, infielders and outfielders.

The essential skills also are similar. Speed and power are vital. The pitchers, known in cricket as bowlers, are keys to a successful team, and a good defensive team will usually fare better than a good offensive team over the course of a long season.

But differences far outweigh the similarities. That may explain why cricket has never become popular in this country, even though it has been played here since 1640. In fact, cricketers claim that the first international athletic competition ever was a cricket match between the United States and Canada in 1864.

Cricket in the United States was and is played almost exclusively by immigrants carrying on a tradition of their native lands. Rarely has the game been passed on to the next generation. American kids play baseball.

The Washington Cricket League has existed since the mid 1960s, but has only been well organized for the last five years. There are games every summer Saturday and Sunday in West Potomac Park among the nine teams, six from Washington, two from Baltimore and one from Philadelphia. According to league match secretary Nick Zender there are three native Americans in the league, all members of the Metropolitian Cricket Club.

Zender, 28, is one of the three. He became interested in the game after he got out of the Marines six years ago. For five years he watched and sporadically played for the Louisville Cricket Club. When he moved to Washington in 1976 he hooked up with the Metropolitan team. His interest earned him his job as match secretary less than a year later.

"There are a lot of great reasons to become involved in cricket," Zender said as he watched his team bat in its second match of the season. "Not only is it an interesting, competitive game, it's full of comradeship. There's no baiting or arguing. There aren't any cheap shots. It really is a gentleman's game."

Like many converts, Zender can be more enthusiastic about his new love than those who have been involved with it all their lives. He is a walking encyclopedia of the game's history and its rules and he dreams of the day when cricket will be played widely by Americans.

Cricket rules are not terribly complex, as Zender pointed out. But they must be explained to the new spectator. Trying to learn crikcet by watching is utterly baffling.

The field, known as the "pitch," is 175 yards long and 152 yards wide. In the middle of the pitch are two wickets consisting of three thin poles, called stumps. A 22-yard mat lies between the wickets.

Each side has 11 players. The offensive team sends two men to bat simultaneously, one at each wicket. the defensive team has two bowlers who take tripes pitching, because it would be physically impossible for one man to pitch an entire match.

When the batter hits the ball, he decides whether to run or not. If he hits if far enough to run safely, both he and the idle batter run back and forth to the opposing wickets. Each time they pass each other and touch the wicket their team scores a run. If the ball rolls over the field boundary four runs score automatically; a ball hit over the line on a fly is six runs.

A batter can be put out in several ways. A caught fly is an out; if a fielder relays a ball into the wicket keeper (catcher) in time for him to knock the wicket over before the batter reaches it, it's an out. And if a bowler pitches the ball past the batter and knocks the wicket over, that also is an out. A team gets 10 outs in an inning, and games are one inning, total.

A bowler starts an inning by throwing six pitches. Then the ball "goes over" to the other pitcher. In games here, unlike international cricket, a team goes out after 40 "overs," even if it hasn't used up its 10 outs. Each team bats once in a league match here, and games generally take about five hours to play. Winning scores often exceed 100 runs.

"This is very much like village cricket in England," said Patrick Murphy, vice captain of the British Commonwealth Cricket Club. "It's quite friendly and informal, but each side has several good players. I think the players enjoy the socializing as much asthey do the competition."

Murphy's words are borne out by the lunch break the teams take after one side has gone out. The players mingle, talking in a variety of accents of the ongoing game or great games of the past. Each team plays 16 league games in a season between April and September, but also travels quite a bit to play "friendly" games. The BCCC team will travel to Bermuda for a series of games this summer.

BCCC is not one of the league's dominant teams, but it is still reversed because it was from it that the other local teams evolved. The BCCC has been in existence since the early '60s and many players on the other five local teams - The Windies Cricket Club (mostly Jamaicans); The Trindies Cricket Club (Trinidad); Metropolitan Cricket Club; Pakistan Embassy Cricket Club and Potomac Cricket Club - played for BCCC at one time or another.

The Baltimore teams - Baltimore Cricket Club and Maryland Cricket Clyb - also came into existence as the number of Washington clubs expanded in the early '70s. The Philadelphia team - Prior - has been around almost as long as the BCCC.

The league has had a problem with one team, the Windies, who completely dominate. No one can remember the Windies losing a match in their five-year history. To balance things a bit many Windies switched to Metropolitan this year.

Even though the players pride themselves on being "gentlemen" throughout a match, winning is still important.

There are no bums in cricket, and the umpire, who wears the same all-white uniform as the players, is never wrong. All the cricketers would love to see more than the 20 or 30 spectators who show up each weekend, and more American involvement, but they will survive without it.

"Cricket takes patience and many Americans are impatient," Mazharr said with a smile. "They don't know what they're misssing. This is too bad, really because there is more to cricket than baseball. All it takes is patience."