Sticky wicket — my brief cricket career

In high school and college I played cricket — and football (soccer), and did a bit of boxing. But that is a story for another day. Today it is about one of the most popular and at the same time potentially perilous sports in the world.

Cricket is an ancient sport, invented in England in medieval times. It’s a clever, elegant game, far superior to the faulty sport of baseball, as I have explained in a previous article. Cricket uses the right equipment — a bat with a flat surface, and “wickets” which the batsman defends and the bowler tries to knock over. Hundreds of runs are scored during the course of a single match, as opposed to eight or so in baseball. Individual cricket players have scored hundreds of runs in international matches.

Cricket, as opposed to baseball, is not heavily weighted in favour of the bowler — or “pitcher” in the American game. The latter gets a raised mound and can hurl the ball at incredible speed (over 100 mph) at a batsman, who is equipped with a narrow round bat — basically a stick.

In cricket the batsman has a proper tool, and the bowler has to adhere to strict rules. He must deliver the ball with an outstretched arm in an overhead motion, as depicted in the following Wiki graphic. Everything else is called “chucking” and is illegal.

One of my problems in cricket was the fast ball, of which I was terrified. Imagine, if you will, a giant West Indian bowler retreating many dozens of meters behind the bowling stumps, snorting and pawing the ground, then running up at great speed and delivering the ball at lethal velocity. At least “bouncers” were, thankfully, illegal in our games. They are deliveries that are specifically aimed at maiming the batsman, and seem to be perfectly legal in international cricket these days.

I had my own strategy to counter fast balls: close your eyes, hold the bat in the general direction of the delivery, and pray. It didn’t work consistently, which was why I was usually put at the end of the batting line-up. That had its own grave disadvantage: “Don’t try anything tricky, just make sure you don’t blow it,” the captain would say. There must always be two batsmen on the pitch, and if I was out, so was the star who had scored a hundred runs and was on the path of winning the match. And everyone blamed me when we didn’t.

In the fielding phase they would put me in the most dangerous position on the field: it is called silly mid-on (really!), and is a spot that is close to the batsman, in exactly the direction he is most likely to hit the ball with the greatest force. In one game I heard the crack of the bat, closed my eyes and raised my hands to protect my face (my usual strategy). I felt the ball smack my palm and closed the hand. It was a “catch” and the batsman was out. I was a hero that day, and from then on I was always assigned to field at “suicide mid-on”, as it should be more aptly called. But hey, I lived to tell the tale.

So I was generally pretty useless: never made more than a few accidental runs as a batsman, and recorded just one great catch in my entire cricket career. But why did they include cowardly me in the team? Well, because I was, on occasion, a very competent bowler. I had mastered the technique of off-spin bowling, which involved whipping the ball around your index finger at delivery, giving it a very sharp clockwise spin. When it hit the ground just in front of the batsman it would veer to the right, into the stumps. Batsman, both right and left handers, would misjudge the flight, very often taking a swing at empty air, while the ball dismantled the stumps.

It was quite devastating, and a number of times I was carried off the field on the shoulders of my fellow teammates (well, at least symbolically). They called me Freddy Laker, after the legendary English off-spinner who was destroying batsmen at the time. Here’s some historical footage:

Watch Laker enter the history books. In their report the Daily Express showed a kangaroo in front of a headstone with the caption: “Here lie the Aussies of ’56, skittled by Laker for next to nix!”

But, as usual there was a catch: my off-spin success was erratic. Sometimes I was deadly, showing no mercy; and sometimes the batsmen smashed my deliveries all over the field, chalking up scores of runs. In such cases they had to take me out after a few overs, and after the game I walked off the field in shame, my teammates keeping a fair distance from me.

Why did this happen, what was the cause? Well, nobody told me at the time, and I was still too young to figure it out: the spin depended on the ball and the ground. If you were using a shiny new ball it would not spin after hitting the pitch; if the ground itself was fresh and hard, it would not either. And nobody told me about “sticky wickets”: on a moist pitch your spin is especially devastating. “Once the wet surface begins to dry in a hot sun the ball will rise sharply, steeply and erratically,” Ashley Mallett writes. “A good length ball becomes a potential lethal delivery. Most batsmen on such wickets find it virtually impossible to survive, let alone score.”

So I needed to bowl with a worn-out ball, one that had been in play for a couple of hours; and I was only good on turf or broken ground, especially when it was slightly moist. But none of this I knew — I attributed my erratic performance to the mood of the gods. I only learned about the physics of the cricket ball long after my active career was over, when I watched test matches on TV. Why oh why did nobody tell the schoolboy cricketer how these things work? Such a shame.

I dedicate this article to my Russian friend Peter, who has never played cricket in his life but is the most knowledgable person I know on the sport; and to Nigel who turned Peter into the cricket zombie he is.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.