Hello!" Geoff Hawes, organizer of Summerville's cricket club, the Summerville Sandlappers, says, waving down my car as it pulls up next to a small shed on the edge of a muddy field. Hawes' British accent tips me off: I've found the cricket field.
Hawes shakes my hand, introduces three players — Neal Patel, Sanjay Patel, and Andrew Mackay — and immediately goes into a whirlwind explanation of the sport. "You see, we've got a rectangle. It's supposed to be a circle but we've got a rectangle." Pointing to the field he shrugs. Apparently, cricket fields are supposed to be circular. I'm already taking notes as quickly as possible, knowing I'm going to have an even tougher time figuring this sport out than I'd previously thought. Neal and Sanjay are from India, Mackay is a New Zealander, and Hawes is from England. Their accents rise and fall against each other's, but their enthusiasm is the same across the board: These guys love cricket.
I keep up with the guys' explanations by constantly comparing cricket to two other sports I know very little about: baseball and soccer. They're kind enough to answer each query with, "Well, sort of." They stare at me when I ask "Does cricket have a world cup?" (At the time the Cricket World Cup was in its semi final round. Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world. My bad).
"We roll the wicket out and play on that," Hawes continues, as we walk towards the field. While the field is an unfortunate rectangle, it is, fortunately, not the actual surface the players use. A wicket is kind of like a carpet. A turf carpet. Oh, and, not to confuse someone who's never watched cricket before — but a wicket is also the physical object, three stumps and two bails — that a batsman stands in front of when he's batting. A stump is comprised of three vertical posts, while bails are smaller sticks placed on top of the stumps. And just to be clear — wicket also refers to an "out" in the game. At this point, I have to tell Hawes to slow down, because I have no idea what's going on. Mackay helps me, "We use 'wicket' to describe, like, 15 different things." Oh, right.
Nodding along to Hawes' explanations is Neal Patel, the manager of the U.S. Tigers, a professional cricket team associated with USACA (United States America Cricket Association). Hawes credits Neal with bringing teams from other states to Charleston to play the Sandlappers. They most often play teams from Charlotte, Savannah, and Atlanta. While the muddy field prohibited us from rolling out the wicket, the guys still got to strut their stuff for me in the batting cage.
When I first signed up for this article I had dreams of suiting up and playing the game. It took all of 30 seconds outside of the batting cage to realize that I would not be putting my new cricket knowledge to the test.
A cricket ball is hard. It's leather-bound and it is heavy. My interest in the sport quickly grew into concern for the four grown men on the field next to me. I asked if the players were not wearing gloves because they'd left them back in the shed. "Only the batter wears gloves," said Hawes. I cringed. "But, doesn't it hurt. It looks like it hurts." The guys agreed that you "get used to it." "If you catch it [wrong] you could break your fingers, so you learn real fast," continued Hawes. They all laughed and nodded. I stepped further away from the batting cage. Hawes listed some of the more common cricket injuries: broken fingers, sprained ankles. They told me about a few recent deaths in the international scene, caused by balls hitting heads. Most sports have an aspect of risk and danger, but few appear as refined as cricket. Or, as complicated.
Teams are composed of 11 players. On the field there are three or four bowlers, one wicket keeper, and the rest are batters. Think of baseball and then change a lot of what you know about baseball and you're halfway to understanding cricket. A bowler (the guy who throws that hard leather-bound ball) bowls to the batsman (the only guy who gets to wear padding). Bowlers have to keep their arms straight when they pitch the ball — and yes, that looks as weird as it sounds. The batsman holds a bat that has the shape of a blade, with a cylindrical handle. He can hold the bat in the air or low to the ground. Depending on where he hits the ball, he can get anywhere from one to six points.
After talking to the guys for about 30 minutes, I came away with two important aspects of the game: 1) There are special batters and there are special bowlers. Not everyone is good at everything. 2) Cricket is a physical game, but it's also very much a mind game. According to Neal, "The strong-minded win." He proves this point by showing me a YouTube video of a cricket match in which the bowler hits the batsman multiple times. Time and time again the batsman shrinks against the impact of the ball. I see what Neal's talking about — the bowler has gotten into the batsman's head. He's done.
Mackay steps up to the pitch as Hawes prepares to bowl to him. Hawes jogs a short distance before flinging his arm in that straight-throwing motion and launching the ball at Mackay. Jogging before throwing is definitely a thing — according to Sanjay some bowlers run 20 to 30 yards before throwing. Mackay deftly whacks the ball, and it flies back towards Hawes. "That's probably four," offers Sanjay. He nods along as this bowling/batting continues. "Six for sure!" he exclaims as Mackay's ball comes dangerously close to my toes. Sanjay, of course, is talking about how many points Mackay is earning with each hit of the ball. Six points is sort of like a home run.
Beyond the batting cage I started to get a better sense of the sport, and the crazy fandom that surrounds it in countries around the world. We watched at least four YouTube videos, and while the footage started to look the same to me, Neal never took his eyes off of his phone screen. He was riveted. He is one of the millions of people who are 100 percent obsessed with cricket. In comparison, I felt a little silly for having such a hard time grasping even the most basic "sports" concepts.
The version of the game that the Sandlappers play has 20 overs, and usually takes a couple of hours to complete. An "over" is a set of six balls bowled from the cricket pitch. The games are high scoring, with final scores often something like 230/240. Neal says that this high-scoring aspect, along with the whole gettin'-in-your-head thing leads to suspenseful games. "You never know who's going to win," he says.
All of the guys agreed that test matches are their favorite version of the game. Test matches, played between countries, are four-innings matches which often last up to five days. Five days! Needless to say, this kind of long-form tourney is physically exhausting. The guys told me about back-to-back matches they'd played against visiting cricket teams. Hawes summed up the team's response to games that go longer than the few-hours-long games they're used to, "We don't lose very often. But we're too old to play [too many matches], so sometimes, we lose by default."
Hawes isn't all talk. He had a funny way of showing me this when he and Mackay switched spots and he stepped up to bat. After a few swings and misses, Hawes hit the ball — hard. He immediately yelled, "Don't kill the reporter!" (I guess so that the other fine gentlemen could step in front of me to keep the story alive). I survived Hawes' hits, but my bag did get knocked down by one fast groundball. I offered a meek "woo!" I repeated a question I'd already asked, "So no one wears helmets in the field? The bowler doesn't wear a helmet, ever?" The guys shook their heads. "You've gotta have good reflexes," Mackay responded. I backed away, again.
Hawes is a great cricket player, but he's also a great organizer. Mackay recalls the nights that he and Hawes would be at a pub, excitedly talking about cricket and the potential for a club team. Mackay says he was happily shocked when everything started to come together. Hawes credits the birth of the Sandlappers with the town of Summerville and Mayor Bill Collins, who helped fund the team. The Summerville Sandlappers currently have about 80 members (one female is supposed to be joining this year. Hint: it isn't me), representing seven different countries. The international background of the team shouldn't be surprising. According to Hawes, "anywhere you have foreigners, you have cricket."
Despite the large number of interested members, the team still has trouble getting 22 players out on the field at one time. Hawes shrugs off life's inconveniences. "Kids, families, jobs," he says. He really wants to get cricket into the local school systems so that enough kids can be interested in a youth cricket league. Neal seconds this desire, "We want to teach youngsters." Hawes is also working on putting on a promotional match at The Citadel or The Joe so that more people like me can see what cricket is all about.
After Sanjay gives the ball a twirl, and I avoid getting hit in the head with a death-weapon, we decide to call it a day. The sun has come out from behind the clouds and the gnats are swarming. The guys are sweating from playing, and I'm just sweating. I finally think that I kind of understand what I've been watching, hearing about, and almost getting hit by for the past hour and a half. Sanjay and Neal say their goodbyes and Hawes and Mackay start to pack up the gear.
I slurp at the last of my Starbucks and linger over my notepad. I felt like I was a part of the team now, and I sort of didn't want to leave my new mates just yet. Hawes hit me with the most inclusive question I've ever heard, "Fancy a pint?" Did I! And the day ended like all cricket matches are supposed to — with a couple of beers at the nearest pub. I knew I liked this sport.
For more information on Summerville Cricket Club, visit summervillecricket.com.