SYDNEY -- Of all the aspects of British culture that are alien to Americans, none seems quite so preposterous as cricket. We can sooner reconcile ourselves to the idea of warm beer than to a sport in which they take a break for tea.
Moreover, the game seems incomprehensible to any American who picks up a foreign newspaper and reads accounts like this: "Steve Small ensured that NSW were in a comfortable position at 7-309 at stumps. . . . He was perched on 71 for 32 minutes, but was somewhat more animated through the 90s before deciding to hoick left-arm spinner Brett Williams over the fence and pass the 3,000 first-class run mark."
But after being bombarded here with cricket coverage in newspapers and on television, and venturing to the Sydney Cricket Ground to see the Australian national team -- the best in the world -- in action, I am not sure that all of our Yankee prejudices are well-founded.
Certainly, this is not the wimpish sport that many people envision. Cricket players are a tough breed, as they must be to swing a heavy, flat bat at a ball traveling toward them at 100 mph. The fielders are expected to catch rocket shots at short range, barehanded.
The fans aren't a wimpish bunch either, and tea is most definitely not their beverage of choice. The crowd on the grassy "mound" at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the local equivalent of the bleachers, bears some resemblance to the habitues of the infamous "Dawg Pound" in Cleveland. When the action gets a little slow, they amuse themselves by throwing oranges at the police.
It is, of course, easy to recognize in cricket the origins of American baseball. Instead of a pitcher there's a bowler, who takes a running start and flings the ball, stiff-armed, toward a batsman so that it (ideally) bounces just in front of his feet.
The batsman is out if the ball hits the wicket -- three vertical posts behind him -- or if the ball is caught on the fly by a fielder. The batsman produces runs by hitting the ball and running a short distance to a nearby wicket, scoring as many as four runs for a ball hit on the ground, six for one hit over the fence.
There are, of course, some major differences with baseball. In cricket, two batsmen are in the game at any one time. There is no foul territory and a batsman can score runs by tipping the ball behind him. But the big difference is that when a batsman strikes the ball, he is not obligated to do anything. If he hits a dribbler to the nearest fielder, nothing happens. If he hits a hundred such dribblers, nothing changes.
As I watched one of Australia's star batsmen, Geoff Marsh, in action against New Zealand, he wasn't scoring many runs or doing anything else useful, as far as I could see, and I gave a quizzical look to the fan next to me. "Don't worry, mate," he assured me. "Marsh just isn't very good at getting runs quickly." An hour passed and Marsh still had the bat in his hands. The fan assured me: "You'll start seeing a lot of runs in another hour or so."
Cricket comes in two basic versions: long matches, and very, very, very long matches. The latter, the classic version of the game, is called Test cricket, and lasts for two innings -- each side gets 10 outs to an inning. A patient batsman may stand there all day, doing little or nothing. That's why Test matches are allotted five days of playing time, with plenty of breaks for tea.
This traditional, sleep-inducing format dominated cricket for a century, until a new version of the game sprung up in 1977, a change spurred by money as much as monotony. When the media baron Kerry Packer couldn't get exclusive television rights for a Test series, he retaliated by creating his own "World Series Cricket" and hiring several dozen of the world's best players -- which wasn't hard to do, because at the time stars of the sport were making $10,000 a year or so.
The World Series was streamlined into a one-day format and the game was jazzed up with the introduction of colored uniforms to replace the traditional, staid all-white. Purists denounced the hybrid as "Packer's Circus" or the "Pajama Game," but when Packer introduced one more innovation -- night cricket -- nobody was laughing. A crowd of 58,000 showed up to see the first match under the lights in Sydney, and "one-day cricket" was instantly established.
By U.S. standards, it's still not a fast-moving game. Each team bats one inning, but even if it hasn't made 10 outs -- or, to use the proper terminology, if it hasn't lost 10 wickets -- its inning ends when the opponent has bowled 300 times.
The rhythm of cricket is different from the seesaw scoring that characterizes most sports, but it is a pleasureable, relaxed rhythm. You can arrive at the stadium an hour or so late and you'll know what you'll be missing: 20 or 30 runs. Go out for a couple of beers or a snack in midmatch and you've missed 20 or 30 runs.
And it's an ideal television game. When I doze off in front of the TV on autumn Sunday afternoons in the United States, my subconscious is always nagging me that Green Bay or San Diego may be scoring a critical touchdown. Here, I can fall asleep for a couple of hours with the certain knowledge that when I wake up Australia will have scored 20 or 30, and Geoff Marsh probably will still have the bat in his hands.