July 29, 2013

'How's the Test going?'

Try to follow the game outside the cricket-playing world and its bewildering complexities might alienate you from the locals
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Finding out the score in cricket isn't just about finding out the score
Finding out the score in cricket isn't just about finding out the score © Getty Images

A couple of months ago, agreeing with the theory Martin Kelner sets out in Sit Down and Cheer that football began to supplant cricket as the prime sport in the English national consciousness as a result of the 1953 FA Cup final, I cited Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. In it, the two comic characters on the train, Charters and Caldicott, ask every English person they meet how the Test is going. The modern equivalent, Kelner suggested, would be, "What was the United score?"

At the time I thought he was right, and in terms of his general point I still do, but over the past couple of weeks I've begun to reconsider. I'm in Argentina at the moment and, during the Lord's Test, I found myself regularly discussing with people how the Test was going. The tense, of course, is the significant issue. There are only two hours in which a football match is going, after which it has gone. That doesn't stop discussion, of course, but it does take some of the urgency out of the conversation.

This is one of cricket's great beauties, one it shares with cycling's grand tours and perhaps nothing else: for all the people who go to a game, or sit and watch it avidly on television, there are many thousands more for whom it goes on in the background. The nature of the game lends itself to that: you don't need to know what happened in each of the 540 balls of a day's play. You don't need to know every cut or drive, much less every defensive shot, merely that Joe Root played watchfully before tea and then opened out on his way to 178 not out by the close. His dismissal to a ramp shot the following morning probably will be remembered - for what it said about his selflessness, the modernity or his play and his fearlessness - but it is rare in that; cricket is essentially a game of summaries and statistics, and that makes it ideal for idle discussion when you're away from home and haven't actually seen any of it.

Argentina were early adopters of cricket - they claim, in fact, to have played an international against Chile before England played Australia for the first time, expats carrying their kit over the Andes by donkey - and there remain a handful of small but beautiful grounds in Buenos Aires. The majority of Argentinians, though, are bewildered by the whole notion.

Just after Christmas in 2010 I took my mam up to Iguazu to see the waterfalls that lie on the border with Brazil. The wi-fi in the hotel was appalling but after about half an hour of fiddling around in the bar, I got sufficient signal to discover England had reached 444 for 5 at the end of the second day, a lead of 346.

I think I probably let out a chortle of glee; at any rate, I was clearly happy enough for a pair of nearby Australians to grunt, "Cricket? How bad is it?" I told them the score, at which an Argentinian sitting nearby asked what that meant. "So England have won?" he asked. "Well, no, but…" Of course, there's nowhere simple to go from there. I have no idea how to begin to explain cricket to somebody who hasn't grown up with it: so many complications immediately arise.

I was still in London for the Adelaide Test of 2010-11, but was chatting via Google to an Argentinian as play started. "Hang on. He's run out! Katich is run out! For 0. In the first over. That's hilarious."

"Is that good?" she asked.

"Yes. Don't worry about it. Just accept it's a good thing."

Two minutes later. "Ha! Ponting's gone first ball. They're 0-2."

"It's two-nil?"

"It's just very good. I can't remember it ever being this good."

Seven minutes later. "Clarke's out as well! Exactly the same as Ponting. This is amazing. 2-3."

"It's three-two, now? So it's closer than before?"

"No. No. Don't worry: just accept this is the best thing that's ever happened in any sport involving England in 20 years."

"Have they won, then?"

"Well, no. Not yet."

"But they will?"

"Well, it's a great start, but there's a long way to go."

"How long?"

"Well, conceivably 29 hours and 50 minutes of playing time over five days, but it probably won't go all the way."

"!"

Recently I took a Norwegian to The Oval to see Surrey v Middlesex in a T20. He, to his enormous credit, had read Simon Hughes' book to try to at least get a grasp of the basics. Everything seemed to be going well. He correctly identified a player being out lbw. He seemed to accept that even though Ricky Ponting was "a former Australia captain, one of the best players ever", he could still be comfortably outscored by Jason Roy. I think he even grasped the notion of the Powerplay. And then he asked, "What's that number next to 'DL' on the scoreboard?"

My attempt to fob him off by saying, "It's really not important when the weather's like this," only piqued his curiosity.

A local journalist here asked what I'd done last Sunday. When I told him I'd watched the golf on TV while listening to the cricket online (no illegal streams for me, Giles Clarke will be relieved to hear), he tried to humour me and asked what had happened. I explained England had beaten Australia by the biggest margin ever at home. Foolishly, I then corrected myself and explained I meant in terms of a runs victory, so not by an innings or by wickets. Understandably, he was soon hopelessly confused.

But in a sense that's half the fun. Cricket may be a bewildering ritual but it's our bewildering ritual. Discussing it in South America is a welcome link to home, a link that is strengthened by the way its complex and at times counter-intuitive nature excludes others. In the summer of 2011, I covered the World Under-20 football tournament in Colombia. The day after England had been eliminated in the second round by Nigeria, the circus moved on and I was left as the only guest at a finca on the edge of the city of Armenia. For most of the day, I sat on the terrace in a rocking chair, looking out over fields of cows and coffee, tidying some notes but mainly listening online to Alastair Cook scoring unfeasible numbers of runs against India at Edgbaston knowing none of the staff had a clue what I was listening to. I think it's the most relaxed I've ever been.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jackiethepen on July 30, 2013, 13:17 GMT

    The most knowledgable populace I have ever met regarding cricket was in Barbados. There didn't seem to exist a single person among the locals - the Bajans - who wasn't an expert in the most arcane details of cricket. When I went to a friendly match England played at a local ground at the Windward Club I was amazed at the knowledge everyone had of the England County seasons and our players. They were true cognoscenti. When I was asked by a waiter in a hotel the reason for my visit - I said cricket - I was immediately surrounded by everyone including the cook to discuss the latest Test match. Truly an island of cricket nuts. I have never felt so much at home. At the Windward Club Ian Bell - who had just been dropped - was dazzling the locals with his batting. They were all shaking their heads when Shah and Bopara came on to play. Bell was much better was their opinion. They had made their judgement. Today we can see clearly they were right.

  • on July 30, 2013, 10:54 GMT

    This is a fantastic article. Everyone who's a cricket fan who has lived in or has traveled to a nation that does not have cricket in its blood can attest to this. The very notion of 3 version of the game, different ways in which you can get "out", different ways in which you can win the game or just the fact that after 5 days you may not even have a result, is more than enough to confuse any person who does not know cricket and to leave him lost for a couple of days. But the best part of this article was how it highlighted how for a passive viewer, the whole game does not matter. In fact, some times more than who won the game, what we'd remember are individual passages of play, a particular innings, an intriguing session or an impressive spell of bowling.

  • on July 30, 2013, 9:34 GMT

    As a native Indonesian (where the sport is unheard of) Test Cricket has really become my heart and soul. Frequent visits to the nearest Aussie bar in town (some 1.5 hours drive from my house) and spending the whole day there from 5 in the afternoon to sometimes 1 or 2 in the morning watching the ashes for five days has really got me occupied to an extent that I was called crazy by my family.

    Ofcourse the prominency of T20 and one dayers is there, but it is test cricket really grabs my heart. I tried explaining it once to my father where after our conversation for 2 and a half hours he banned me from mentioning the word "cricket" with the exception of a reference to the animal.

    I consider cricket to be my so-called 'religion' now, following not just every international matches but also county cricket, sheffield shields and other FC matches. And there's nothing more fulfilling then impressing British, Aussies and Indians by my cricket knowledge ;)

  • blanchot on July 29, 2013, 9:50 GMT

    Ha, excellent piece. I remember trying to explain the game of cricket to a group of third-year Italian students of English at the university where I work (they had asked). I organised a proper lesson with a slow drip-feed of basic vocabulary to which I attached videos of that vocab in context eg. someone "playing a drive," instances of various wickets, fielding positions, etc. Then the devil in me took over and I played them a ten-minute excerpt from TMS, lovingly transcripted, just to see if they could identify at what point in the game it was. I soon realised the amount of collocations would take a lifetime to learn, "that hurried onto him," "I'd say it pitched in line but was missing off," etc. Their level of English was good, their patience however had run out. Needless to say I received no further requests of that nature.

  • Derdeman on July 30, 2013, 11:50 GMT

    Last year I ( a South African) whilst travelling in Greece, was discussing cricket with a Welshman. At our table was a young Spanish girl, she overheard us and told us that she met a lady in England whose husband also played cricket. For some reason I asked the name of the cricketer. Bell, she said, Ian Bell. Is he any good, she asked?

  • omairhr on July 30, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    "A glance towards the fine leg" is where I start explaining cricket to the uninitiated ;)

  • on July 29, 2013, 23:39 GMT

    We have been playing street cricket (40 members) in Buenos Aires, Argetina and we could see the people coming in and asking what kinda of sport is this and compare it to baseball. But to our surprise there are people who still know what cricket is and feel proud that they know about it. Also met an English girl who was very happy and did played with us. AWESOME EXPERIENCE

  • volmitius on July 29, 2013, 16:01 GMT

    cricket may be alien to many people on earth...and its their bad luck !!!! good things are nt for everyone

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:38 GMT

    An American friend in Taiwan once asked me some years ago who had won the 5 match test series between SA and England. I replied it was undecided and ended in a draw. I could see the confusion and shock on his face. In the end he just remarked: "You mean they have played the whole summer and it is still a tie"!

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:10 GMT

    Cricket is timeless which is why trying to compress its description is meaningless. If the T20 can be described as a Haiku albeit of a frenetic variety then a test match is a Tintern Abbey

  • jackiethepen on July 30, 2013, 13:17 GMT

    The most knowledgable populace I have ever met regarding cricket was in Barbados. There didn't seem to exist a single person among the locals - the Bajans - who wasn't an expert in the most arcane details of cricket. When I went to a friendly match England played at a local ground at the Windward Club I was amazed at the knowledge everyone had of the England County seasons and our players. They were true cognoscenti. When I was asked by a waiter in a hotel the reason for my visit - I said cricket - I was immediately surrounded by everyone including the cook to discuss the latest Test match. Truly an island of cricket nuts. I have never felt so much at home. At the Windward Club Ian Bell - who had just been dropped - was dazzling the locals with his batting. They were all shaking their heads when Shah and Bopara came on to play. Bell was much better was their opinion. They had made their judgement. Today we can see clearly they were right.

  • on July 30, 2013, 10:54 GMT

    This is a fantastic article. Everyone who's a cricket fan who has lived in or has traveled to a nation that does not have cricket in its blood can attest to this. The very notion of 3 version of the game, different ways in which you can get "out", different ways in which you can win the game or just the fact that after 5 days you may not even have a result, is more than enough to confuse any person who does not know cricket and to leave him lost for a couple of days. But the best part of this article was how it highlighted how for a passive viewer, the whole game does not matter. In fact, some times more than who won the game, what we'd remember are individual passages of play, a particular innings, an intriguing session or an impressive spell of bowling.

  • on July 30, 2013, 9:34 GMT

    As a native Indonesian (where the sport is unheard of) Test Cricket has really become my heart and soul. Frequent visits to the nearest Aussie bar in town (some 1.5 hours drive from my house) and spending the whole day there from 5 in the afternoon to sometimes 1 or 2 in the morning watching the ashes for five days has really got me occupied to an extent that I was called crazy by my family.

    Ofcourse the prominency of T20 and one dayers is there, but it is test cricket really grabs my heart. I tried explaining it once to my father where after our conversation for 2 and a half hours he banned me from mentioning the word "cricket" with the exception of a reference to the animal.

    I consider cricket to be my so-called 'religion' now, following not just every international matches but also county cricket, sheffield shields and other FC matches. And there's nothing more fulfilling then impressing British, Aussies and Indians by my cricket knowledge ;)

  • blanchot on July 29, 2013, 9:50 GMT

    Ha, excellent piece. I remember trying to explain the game of cricket to a group of third-year Italian students of English at the university where I work (they had asked). I organised a proper lesson with a slow drip-feed of basic vocabulary to which I attached videos of that vocab in context eg. someone "playing a drive," instances of various wickets, fielding positions, etc. Then the devil in me took over and I played them a ten-minute excerpt from TMS, lovingly transcripted, just to see if they could identify at what point in the game it was. I soon realised the amount of collocations would take a lifetime to learn, "that hurried onto him," "I'd say it pitched in line but was missing off," etc. Their level of English was good, their patience however had run out. Needless to say I received no further requests of that nature.

  • Derdeman on July 30, 2013, 11:50 GMT

    Last year I ( a South African) whilst travelling in Greece, was discussing cricket with a Welshman. At our table was a young Spanish girl, she overheard us and told us that she met a lady in England whose husband also played cricket. For some reason I asked the name of the cricketer. Bell, she said, Ian Bell. Is he any good, she asked?

  • omairhr on July 30, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    "A glance towards the fine leg" is where I start explaining cricket to the uninitiated ;)

  • on July 29, 2013, 23:39 GMT

    We have been playing street cricket (40 members) in Buenos Aires, Argetina and we could see the people coming in and asking what kinda of sport is this and compare it to baseball. But to our surprise there are people who still know what cricket is and feel proud that they know about it. Also met an English girl who was very happy and did played with us. AWESOME EXPERIENCE

  • volmitius on July 29, 2013, 16:01 GMT

    cricket may be alien to many people on earth...and its their bad luck !!!! good things are nt for everyone

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:38 GMT

    An American friend in Taiwan once asked me some years ago who had won the 5 match test series between SA and England. I replied it was undecided and ended in a draw. I could see the confusion and shock on his face. In the end he just remarked: "You mean they have played the whole summer and it is still a tie"!

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:10 GMT

    Cricket is timeless which is why trying to compress its description is meaningless. If the T20 can be described as a Haiku albeit of a frenetic variety then a test match is a Tintern Abbey

  • on July 29, 2013, 13:32 GMT

    I realized early on that the closest "hook" in cricket for someone devoted to football is IPL(in terms of simplicity and length of match) and took my Swedish colleague to the RCB vs PK11 match in Chinnaswamy in this year's IPL. She really enjoyed the game and got concepts like catch (she could relate this to Swedish baseball), runs, bowled out, six and four. All in all, I felt some justifiable pride in initiating her to our fine game. Btw, another senior Swedish colleague while expressing the usual incredulity about 5 days and no result, quickly grasped that in those games, the journey is as or more important than the destination.

  • Nuxxy on July 29, 2013, 12:51 GMT

    Test cricket is like a symphony. It's a comparatively lengthy experience, with different 'movements', and rising and falling action. It's not for everyone, but if you emotionally invest in following a good one, you will have a beautiful experience for your soul.

  • Hazim on July 29, 2013, 12:43 GMT

    I have had the experience of "sharing" the knowledge of cricket with my Swedish coulegues, and they also said the same "After 5 days you dont know who won???", but one of them got the game and is now following each and every game that is available on cricinfo.

    And now he is an expert in cricket, sometimes even predicts things we cannot see, and its very refreshing to know that I have had a role to play in getting another "non-cricketing" person to get into the gentleman's game :).

  • yorkshirematt on July 29, 2013, 11:48 GMT

    Nothing makes an Englishman, Aussie, indian or any citizen of a major cricketing nation feel more of an outsider in a non cricketing land than our wonderful game, as I suspect I'll find out when I move to Germany just in time for the Ashes series down under

  • on July 29, 2013, 11:32 GMT

    I have been living in the States for a few decades now and every time I discuss the sport of cricket with my Yankee friends the discussion drives me right up the wall. So you don't use a bat in a cricket but a "Paddle"?? And, your "pitchers" cannot pitch at 97 98 [mph]?? No amount of explaining that the distance is not 60'6" but it is 66" will not convince them. Oh so you play for five days but at the end you are not sure of a result? And no amount of explaining about the "pitch" [for cricket fans who are not familiar with baseball a pitch is a ball "bowled" by a "pitcher" to the batter] and number of runs scored by a batter and team and the inter-relationship of "wicket" doesn't make any sense. The discussion barely lasts two minutes before confusion and incredulous looks take over.

  • TomJP on July 29, 2013, 10:56 GMT

    In fairness, the confusion can be found much closer to home as well. My Girlfriend is Scottish and is still completely perplexed by the word 'Jaffa' and the concepts of the follow on and the declaration.

    Things are definitely progressing though, she enjoyed the IPL and Champions Trophy, and we're going to the Oval for the 5th Test.

    I just have to hope I can stop her cheering for Australia now.

  • blanchot on July 29, 2013, 10:06 GMT

    I should point out, if any English language teachers are reading this, that the above lesson was in fact a series of about five lessons spread across two weeks. To go from "in" and "out" to "you can't bowl on Graeme Smith's pads" in a single lesson would have been ridiculous. And, up to the TMS "challenge" I set them, they'd been generally pretty intrigued. Blofeld's to blame.

  • blanchot on July 29, 2013, 10:06 GMT

    I should point out, if any English language teachers are reading this, that the above lesson was in fact a series of about five lessons spread across two weeks. To go from "in" and "out" to "you can't bowl on Graeme Smith's pads" in a single lesson would have been ridiculous. And, up to the TMS "challenge" I set them, they'd been generally pretty intrigued. Blofeld's to blame.

  • TomJP on July 29, 2013, 10:56 GMT

    In fairness, the confusion can be found much closer to home as well. My Girlfriend is Scottish and is still completely perplexed by the word 'Jaffa' and the concepts of the follow on and the declaration.

    Things are definitely progressing though, she enjoyed the IPL and Champions Trophy, and we're going to the Oval for the 5th Test.

    I just have to hope I can stop her cheering for Australia now.

  • on July 29, 2013, 11:32 GMT

    I have been living in the States for a few decades now and every time I discuss the sport of cricket with my Yankee friends the discussion drives me right up the wall. So you don't use a bat in a cricket but a "Paddle"?? And, your "pitchers" cannot pitch at 97 98 [mph]?? No amount of explaining that the distance is not 60'6" but it is 66" will not convince them. Oh so you play for five days but at the end you are not sure of a result? And no amount of explaining about the "pitch" [for cricket fans who are not familiar with baseball a pitch is a ball "bowled" by a "pitcher" to the batter] and number of runs scored by a batter and team and the inter-relationship of "wicket" doesn't make any sense. The discussion barely lasts two minutes before confusion and incredulous looks take over.

  • yorkshirematt on July 29, 2013, 11:48 GMT

    Nothing makes an Englishman, Aussie, indian or any citizen of a major cricketing nation feel more of an outsider in a non cricketing land than our wonderful game, as I suspect I'll find out when I move to Germany just in time for the Ashes series down under

  • Hazim on July 29, 2013, 12:43 GMT

    I have had the experience of "sharing" the knowledge of cricket with my Swedish coulegues, and they also said the same "After 5 days you dont know who won???", but one of them got the game and is now following each and every game that is available on cricinfo.

    And now he is an expert in cricket, sometimes even predicts things we cannot see, and its very refreshing to know that I have had a role to play in getting another "non-cricketing" person to get into the gentleman's game :).

  • Nuxxy on July 29, 2013, 12:51 GMT

    Test cricket is like a symphony. It's a comparatively lengthy experience, with different 'movements', and rising and falling action. It's not for everyone, but if you emotionally invest in following a good one, you will have a beautiful experience for your soul.

  • on July 29, 2013, 13:32 GMT

    I realized early on that the closest "hook" in cricket for someone devoted to football is IPL(in terms of simplicity and length of match) and took my Swedish colleague to the RCB vs PK11 match in Chinnaswamy in this year's IPL. She really enjoyed the game and got concepts like catch (she could relate this to Swedish baseball), runs, bowled out, six and four. All in all, I felt some justifiable pride in initiating her to our fine game. Btw, another senior Swedish colleague while expressing the usual incredulity about 5 days and no result, quickly grasped that in those games, the journey is as or more important than the destination.

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:10 GMT

    Cricket is timeless which is why trying to compress its description is meaningless. If the T20 can be described as a Haiku albeit of a frenetic variety then a test match is a Tintern Abbey

  • on July 29, 2013, 15:38 GMT

    An American friend in Taiwan once asked me some years ago who had won the 5 match test series between SA and England. I replied it was undecided and ended in a draw. I could see the confusion and shock on his face. In the end he just remarked: "You mean they have played the whole summer and it is still a tie"!

  • volmitius on July 29, 2013, 16:01 GMT

    cricket may be alien to many people on earth...and its their bad luck !!!! good things are nt for everyone