THE BATTLE OF THE BATS
Reading the Game: which is the better sport, cricket or baseball? Ed Smith deliberates between the two
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2014
Like parents and their teenagers, cricket and baseball are very much alike and yet determined to remain a mystery to each other.
Fourteen years ago, as a 22-year-old professional cricketer who spent his winters in New York, I began writing a book comparing these two sports. I joined up with the New York Mets and swung at some pitches. I lived through an all-New York World Series, trying to follow the path that leads from the baseball diamond to America’s soul. I wandered the streets of Manhattan in the days after 9/11 and watched the Yankees summon a moment of sporting ecstasy amid the rubble. “Playing Hard Ball” was the result. But one question—the big one—seemed too risky even to address. Which game is actually better?
Constraints came from both directions. I felt loyalty to cricket, which paid my wages and filled my dreams. Baseball exerted a different hold: a sense of joyous thanks, bordering on infatuation, towards not only a game but also a city. Now there are no such excuses; daunted but accepting, I must plunge into judgment. It’s a penalty shoot-out, cricket versus baseball, played over five criteria.
First: drama. Cricket, especially the five-day Test, has the ability to nurture deepening tension. The crowd hold several narratives in their minds. What might happen is as interesting as what actually happens, an imaginative depth made possible by cricket’s defining characteristic: time. But for sheer dramatic ecstasy, baseball has the edge. In its rarity and decisiveness, the home run—two extreme forces colliding with brutal symmetry—is like a goal in football (only less liable to be scrappy and untidy). One-nil to baseball—or one-and-oh, as pitchers say.
Second: beauty. Both sports are photogenic. Baseball’s archive of black-and-white photos—the slide home to base, studs high and mud flying, grace and clarity of purpose down in the dirt—matches anything in the museum at Lord’s. The double play, devastatingly complete and perfect, may even trump the direct hit that follows a diving stop at midwicket. But even the smoothest line drive must bow down before cricket’s cover drive. You could watch decades of baseball and never see the equal of David Gower driving. The bat held loosely, the swing an unfurling rather than a coiled spring, the effect gentleness as well as majesty: 1-1.
Third: psychological depth. Before I understood baseball, I used to think this was no contest. But I was watching the wrong things. I used to study the batter (my sporting cousin, after all), trying to enter into his mind, feel his struggle. But the psychological roles are reversed in baseball. In cricket, because he is expected to win any given ball, and because losing his wicket is utterly final, it is the batsman who lives with the guillotine hanging over his neck. In baseball, I eventually realised, that is the life of a pitcher. He, not the batter, is expected to prevail in the next play. Giving up a run in baseball is rare and potentially disastrous, so it has more in common with losing a wicket than with scoring a (cricket) run. This is sport’s ultimate paradox: the more you are expected to succeed, the greater the pressure. The scoring units are just a currency—the more numerous they are, the lower their value. When I saw the torment in the eyes of pitchers, how they live with the terror of conceding a run, how they are solitary and exposed, surrounded by teammates whose primary purpose is to score runs not to prevent them—grasping all this suffering, I felt suddenly at home.
Cricket at its best, however, offers a more symmetrical psychological contest. Baseball batters are not around long enough to go through as great a struggle. In cricket, when bat and ball are in perfect equipoise, each protagonist in danger of toppling over with only the slightest misstep, the pressure is equal on both. It’s 2-1 to cricket, by a whisker.
Fourth: is it fun to play? Any sport, at a level of mastery, offers deep satisfaction. So let’s focus on the experience of the amateur or the child. How high are the barriers to pleasure? Cricket’s technical restraints—bowlers forbidden from bending the arm, batsmen taught to remain stately and sideways-on rather than rotating like a lumberjack hacking at a tree—are bound up with its aesthetic potential. But they certainly don’t help the uninitiated. Baseball, more natural and less buttoned-up, is much closer to the way we throw and hit before we learn how we are supposed to do it. And the grass doesn’t have to be so manicured. In ordinary life, too, cricket’s hunger for time becomes a drag, with the club game relying on spouses being willing to put in a long shift as a single parent. Messing around in a field after a picnic? It’s got to be baseball; 2-2.
Judging the Booker prize, Philip Larkin set himself the ultimate test: “Did I care? If so, what was the quality of the caring?” All sports fans care. But not all sports allow the same complexity and subtlety. Every contest has a clear central story, but what about the subplots and counter-rhythms? Here cricket, which can lay on a series of five Tests, is unrivalled. It becomes something you live with. Baseball is a stirring symphony, cricket is the Ring Cycle.
So 3-2 to cricket? For now, yes. But if Twenty20—an effort to squeeze cricket into the three-hour slot that baseball has always occupied—consumes the whole sport, cricket will be just another game, lacking a USP and looking worryingly desperate to please.
Cricket can’t beat baseball by imitating it. The parent is rarely well served by copying the child.
Ed Smith is a former England cricketer and Times leader writer. He is now a commentator on “Test Match Special” and the author of “Luck”