The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Sports

The Sports Section

by

comment

When we told friends and family--whom we were visiting in Adelaide, South Australia--that we planned to see a cricket match, they usually responded with a single syllable: "Hmmm." Australians have produced a hybrid culture from elements garnered from Britain and the United States, a unique culture, that, in many ways, defies attempts to divide it into U.S. and British elements, but in their use of "hmm" Aussies tend quite heavily toward their British roots. An Australian can remain aloft in any conversation simply by resting on "hmm" and its various upswings and downdrafts. When we asked about cricket, most persons seemed somewhat embarrassed about it--as if it were bad enough that Australians have adopted this most British of games, so why would an American be interested--but in dismissing the sport they were at their most British. They didn't attack it, as an Amrican would, but instead let the whole thing slide in a particularly British fashion. "Hmmm," they'd say, tracing a small, descending melody in the air, in the manner of a bird warbling pessimistically to itself in a tree. "Yes. Well. The Oval is quite beautiful."

The Adelaide Oval is, indeed, beautiful. The oval itself is large enough to accommodate any of several different Australian football games--from Australian rules to soccer via rugby--and it is well manicured and tended, a lush green without bare patches. It is bounded by a short fence of wide, colorful advertising billboards. A grandstand follows the oval down one stretch and around the comer; it is of a single level, with the roof a soft-brown terra-cotta shade, offering protection from the sun for those below and a nice backdrop for "those yobs" sitting across the oval, on the slightly pitched bank that surrounds the rest of the field. Viewed from the grandstand, the Oval offers, to the left, trees at the far end, then a hand-operated scoreboard with characters in yellow and white on a black background. Behind the scoreboard rise the spires of Saint Peter's Cathedral; on Sundays its bells chime out above the play. A line of trees follows behind the bank of grass along the back stretch. To the right, above the grandstand at the far turn, rise the skyscrapers and cranes of growing downtown Adelaide--a sore point for our host of the day, Arch Campbell, 84, of Adelaide, who also happens to be a new grandfather I obtained in a recent transaction. He is a spry, lively, ageless gent, with a glint in his eye that is odd not so much for his age as for his former profession--schoolmaster. (Obviously, somewhere along the line a little puckish energy got passed in the wrong direction.) He proved himself knowledgeable about cricket and willing to instruct a couple of ignorant Yanks, but when he spoke of how beautiful the Oval was he ended by looking off to the right grandstand and the rising skyline beyond, and squinting he said, "They've quite ruined it, putting up those tall buildings," with that glint showing through to distort the seriousness of the remark.

That remark reflected an attitude--joking or not--most Cubs fans can recognize, with our reverence for Wrigley field; the Adelaide Oval, with its hand-operated scoreboard and its embankment of grass "bleachers" across from the grandstand, has charms that should be equally familiar. Except, of course, that the Adelaide Oval has no lights.

Arch gave us the basic idea of the game, but underscored it with one basic piece of advice. Watching cricket, he said, "is a slow and slumberous way to spend the afternoon." He also called the game "somnolent," and advised us that it was certainly all right to drop off now and then, because everyone did it and when you woke up no one would be the wiser and the game would hardly seem to have changed.

It was good advice. We were entering upon the third day of a four-day match between the home South Australian team and the visiting Tasmanians. This was not a test match between nations but a state match in the Sheffield Shield standings. Six of Australia's seven states have cricket teams, with the winner at the end of the season awarded the Sheffield Shield. It was summer approaching autumn in Australia, and the season was coming to a close with Tasmania at the bottom rung and South Australia not much better. This inherent lack of interest in the match was augmented by Tasmania's scoring a whopping 592 runs in its first innings, which took over a day and a half to complete. The crowd was small and dominated by elderly spectators.

For those not well versed in the slow, slumberous, somnolent ways of cricket: each player on the team bats once an inning, with two batters--one at each end of the 22-yard-long pitch--on the field at any given time. A batter remains on the field until he is out, which means until he hits a ball that is caught on the fly, until the bowler breaks his wicket, or until he is found to have illegally blocked a ball that would have hit the wicket, usually by deflecting the delivery with his shin pads instead of the bat. Also, if the batter runs and fails to make it to the next wicket before the ball is fielded and returned, that too is an out.

What is called the perfect balance between offense and defense reflected in baseball is never so apparent as when the game is compared with cricket. The offense has all the advantages in cricket, especially when the game is played on a pitch as true as the one at the Adelaide Oval. The bowler attempts to throw the ball at the wicket, and he may skim the ball off the ground in an attempt to get it past the batter--in fact, it's the way most deliveries tend to go. Yet the batter need only deflect the ball away from the wicket in any direction--there is no fair or foul territory, and the fielders are arrayed all around in the manner of a constellation--and once the ball is deflected the batter still need not run. He can sit there deflecting the ball this way and that in five-foot taps all afternoon if he so desires, and that's exactly what the South Australian team did, picking their spots for the big swings that would deliver three and four runs at a blow. (If a hit reaches a boundary, it is four runs; if it clears the boundary, it's six.)

Arch called it "slow cricket"; it was the game played at a pace where every delivery was like a solitary tick off a clock that is not running. The pitch was true, and South Australia had every hope of catching the 592 runs scored by Tasmania, but to do so they had to play cautiously and not squander any outs. Both the first two batters--Bishop and Hilditch--were well on their way to centuries (scoring 100 runs), but neither was taking any chances. They had begun batting the previous afternoon, and when we arrived just after 11 AM they had just begun the day's action. Bishop was the first to 100, and Arch said, "Now's when they get cocky and make a mistake." He made an out at 101, deflecting a ball straight back to the wicketkeeper (the catcher) in what we might call a foul tip. It was almost 1 PM and time for lunch.

In spite of the game's almost utter lack of time clock (an element it shares with baseball), the sport is extremely regimented, as if it exists in a dreamworld but with specific boundaries that are unhesitatingly stuck to. The day begins at 11 in the morning, then at 1 PM everyone breaks for lunch. At 1:40 the game begins then pauses at 3:40 for tea. At 4 the game resumes for its final session, which concludes at 6. On top of this, there are breaks for drinks for the fielders (nonalcoholic, or so we imagine) midway through each session. Arch ushered us downstairs for lunch, to the club lounge, where we dined on a smorgasbord of cold meats and salads, with just a dab of hot English mustard--the single spiciest element of the day.

The day's pleasant pace should not give anyone the idea that cricket is a simple or simpleminded game. The battle between batter and bowler offers all the intricacies of baseball's battle between pitcher and hitter, but instead of the struggle lasting five or six pitches, with one pitch setting up the next, the batter-bowler conflict has no set end, and a bowler may be looking ahead two overs (sets of six pitches apiece) in delivering a certain pitch.

This realization made us all the more sympathetic to the Tasmanians, even though we were rooting for S.A. The Tasmanians were led by Dennis Lillee, who we were informed was one of the greatest of Australia's fast bowlers and had recently come out of retirement at age 36 to accept Tasmania's captaincy. Lillee would march off, then return on his run. He showed the ball briefly by holding it forehead height just as he neared the far wicket, as if to say "Here it is, try to hit it." He then skipped, hurling himself forward, and allowed the arm down and then up over the shoulder for the delivery. (The elbow is not allowed to be bent or flexed in any fashion.) Time and again, he and the various other Tasmanian bowlers did this, and each time the S.A. hitter deflected the ball away and remained standing, or skittered it into a small gap and the two hitters changed places, then waited patiently as Lillee marched off his run again. The frustration became apparent, once, when the silence was broken by a piercing group of shouts. Lillee threw a high bouncer, which deflected off Bishop's replacement, O'Connor, and was caught by the wicketkeeper. The umpire ruled, however, that the ball had bounced off O'Connor's shoulder and not his bat and that he was not out.

S.A. continued to score in dribs and drabs. Hilditch completed his century just after lunch, but O'Connor was a much greater culprit in slowing the game. He blocked the ball here and there but rarely far enough to get more than a run or two; two hours later, he and Hilditch were still batting, but O'Connor had only 30-some runs to his credit.

The excitement was too much for my traveling companion; she went home just after lunch. Arch and I stayed on, however, chatting through the afternoon. He called it a day at the tea break. Just after I returned to my seat and the game had resumed at 4 PM, a large flight of gulls came over the far trees. They circled once over the oval and settled down like the snow in a paperweight. From then on, whenever a ball was hit into the farther reaches of the oval, a fielder had to go tearing after it, sending gulls fluttering into the sky with every step. It added something of slight pageantry, an exotic, tropical air to the game. Wrigley field may have ivy, but I've yet to see an outfielder scare up gulls or even pigeons in pursuing a baseball.

Hilditch finally went out in this session, fouling one back to the wicketkeeper, who caught it on the fly. He retired with 185 runs and with S.A. amassing 335 on its first two outs. The Tasmanian tally of 592 was looking more and more within reach, especially as one of the team's best batters, Hookes ("Hooksie," one nearby gent called him), was coming out. Hilditch, however, received the applause with nary a sign of recognition as he left the field; having made an out, one is evidently not to show an ounce of glee, no matter how many runs he has chalked up.

Hookes was in good form, and he used the oval's pitch to whack some long balls off the boundary. The score climbed higher into the 300s by 5, when I left. I walked home to where we were staying with relatives, through downtown Adelaide, stopping at what seemed the halfway point, the King's Head Hotel, where I had a Cooper's (a heavy ale much like Belgium's Chimay, especially in that it is fermented in the bottle) and watched the end of the day's action on television. Nearby, people watching the match were amazed at the scoring. Bishop and Hilditch are like the Dernier and Sandberg of S.A., and while both are fine players neither is expected to routinely go out and rack up a century. Listening to the talk of the S.A. fans was like sitting in Murphy's after a game in which both Dernier and Sandberg had hit three home runs. It wasn't your everyday occurrence. The following day, Hookes too completed a century, and S.A. went on to win 673-592 in a match called after first innings (normally, there is time for each team to bat twice in the four days). This we learned in Monday's paper, for one day of slow cricket goes a long way.

After finishing the Coopers I trudged on home, recalling, in particular, one especially sharp memory. Midway through the day, a shadow appeared near a fielder in the comer of the oval; it was too big to be a gull, too slow to be a plane. Looking up, I saw a pelican high in the sky above the field. It hung in the air without a beat of its wings, as still as a pendulum that has come to a stop. That, to my mind, was cricket.

Add a comment