This morning I took part in a long-standing Melbourne tradition, attending the Boxing Day Test Match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I'll understand if you are confused. After all, Boxing Day was two days ago, and what the hell is cricket anyway?
Don't ask me where and how cricket started. I heard it was invented by crazy Englishmen who spent too much time in the noonday sun in India drinking gin and tonics, but apparently cricket is older than that. Here are some basics.
There are two teams. One team is in the field, the other is batting. The field is a big grassy oval, with a tan dirt rectangle in the middle. This rectangle is called the pitch, and is where pretty much everything happens. At each end of the pitch stands three thigh-high wooden stakes pounded into the ground close to each other. This is the wicket. A batter stands at each end of the pitch, in front of the wicket, so that two batters from the same team are up at the same time. On the defending team (or attacking, depending on how you look at it, since the bowler can look pretty darn violent when he runs down the pitch), the bowler stands off at one end of the pitch and the rest of his teammates fan out in various locations on the field.
There is no foul territory, the entire oval is in play, so fielders can be behind either batter, on either long side of the pitch, spread out, clustered together, and so on. Play starts by the bowler running into the pitch, hurling the ball before his foot crosses a certain white line. The batter being aimed at does his best to hit the ball, which can be traveling at speeds exceeding 145kmph.
The basic idea for the fielders is to catch the ball and/or throw it in to the wicket keeper (a fielder who stands right by a wicket) so that the batter can be caught out or tagged out. There are rules about how to catch it but they've escaped me now. If the batter gets a decent hit, he starts running down the pitch toward the other wicket, and the batter at that wicket runs in the opposite direction, so the two batters in effect exchange places during the scoring of one run. When the batter has a good hit, the batters can run down, tag their "crease" (their batting zone), and then run back to their original locations. In this case, two runs are scored. Sometimes, on a really flubbed fielding play, three runs can be scored. There are also rules where umpires automatically give credit for four or more runs.
Now we come to the part about scores. This is where things get murky for North Americans who are used to baseball. If you've ever watched BBC World News, you'll hear cricket scores reported something like this:
In the third day of the International Test Match at Melbourne, Australia has 347 runs in the first inning, and South Africa is 8 for 249. Play will continue tomorrow.
A "proper" cricket match, the best of the best, are the Test Matches. Why are they called this? Who knows. Probably because it's test of strength and skill to play cricket for six hours a day for five days. An inning lasts until 10 players are out. In the above example, saying South Africa is 8 for 249 means that 8 players are out, and those 8 scored a total of 249 runs while they were playing. South Africa still has two more batters, which means they could score anywhere between another zero (highly unlikely) and 50 or so (much more likely) before the 10th man goes out and the inning is over.
When Grant, Bryce, and I joined the Boxing Day Test Match already in progress, the game was still in the first inning and the score was something along the lines of what I gave in the example above. Game play is further divided into "overs" (a series of six good bowls), and then there are mandatory breaks. After one hour of play at the MCG, a giant bottle of Gatorade was wheeled onto the the oval and all the players and officials were given something to drink. After the second hour of play, everyone stopped for a 40-minute lunch break. That is when we headed out. It was interesting but I couldn't see staying for the full six hours of play on my first attempt, plus Bryce and I wanted to hit the Great Ocean Road.