One of the world's largest sporting events is happening right now. And most Americans have never heard of it.
It's the Cricket World Cup, a tournament of the world's top national cricket teams that's held every four years — much like the (soccer) World Cup, which last happened in 2014.
This might not sound like a big deal, but consider that cricket might be the world's second most-popular sport, due to cricket-obsessed, populous countries like India, Pakistan, and Australia. The 2011 World Cup final, in which India defeated Sri Lanka, was watched by 135 million people in India alone.
This year, the Cricket World Cup is being hosted by Australia and New Zealand. Seven (out of an original 14) teams are still alive, and Australia, South Africa, India, and New Zealand are considered the favorites. ESPN has a great video that explains cricket in two minutes:
Among Americans, cricket has a reputation as being boring. But it's not true! Well, it's not entirely true. Cricket is a lot like baseball, only a bit slower. To non-baseball fans, that probably sounds terrible, but there's something magical about the way tension slowly builds during a match, sucking you in.
Here's what you need to know to watch this year's World Cup.
1) How does cricket work?
Cricket is a bat-and-ball sport that's somewhat similar to baseball — because both evolved from the same British folk games — but with a number of key differences:
- The pitcher (called a bowler) sends the ball bouncing off the ground, rather than directly through the air.
- When it gets to the batter (called a batsman), his primary goal is blocking it from hitting a set of three stumps stuck in the ground behind him, called a wicket. These stumps (roughly analogous to home plate) have a pair of small sticks (called bails) balancing on top of them, and if the ball knocks them off, the batter is out.
- Instead of four bases, cricket has just two wickets. The batsman's other goal is hitting the ball into the field, which allows him and the other batsman (there are two at any given time) to score runs by running back and forth between the wickets until the ball is returned.
- There's no foul territory: the batsman can hit the ball in any direction. If it goes past the boundary, he automatically gets four runs (if it bounced over) or six runs (if it flew over).
- There are no strikes, and the batsman doesn't have to run after hitting the ball. In the form of cricket played in the World Cup, each batsman gets one at-bat per game, but the at-bat can last a really really long time — it goes until he gets out, either by hitting a ball up into the air that gets caught, or getting caught running between the wickets, or by allowing the ball to hit the wicket behind him, or by blocking a ball with his body that the umpire thinks would have otherwise hit the wicket.
- Each team bats for one extended period of time (called an innings), then fields for the rest of the game, instead of switching back and forth like in baseball. A team's innings is finished when ten of its eleven batsmen are out, or when the other team has bowled a certain number of times (as measured in "overs," which are sets of six consecutive pitches).
- In the form of cricket played in the World Cup — called one-day cricket — each team can bowl 50 overs, and matches generally take about six hours.
TL;DR: Cricket's a lot like baseball, only different.
2) Isn't cricket boring?
No! This is a misconception.
On the surface, cricket might seem a bit slower than baseball. Batsmen are more conservative about running, and there are few slides or close plays at the plate — they just have to run into an area, rather than tag anything. And most cricket matches are much longer.
But cricket does have some fast, exciting action, if you look closely enough. It involves balls bouncing at 80 miles per hour off the pitch, batsmen reacting to their curving paths in split-second intervals, and fielders standing in the path of these rock-hard balls to make an out.
Cricket also involves a lot more scoring than baseball — in World Cup matches, teams often score 200 runs or more — and a lot of intricate strategy. Because they use a broader, flatter bat than baseball players, batsmen can use different types of shots to put the ball in different areas of the field, prompting different fielding alignments. Teams play with a certain target score in mind, and have to decide what sorts of risks (in terms of batting, running, and potentially sacrificing certain players) in order reach it.
Like any sport, it takes a bit of time to appreciate the nuances of cricket and truly enjoy it. But hundreds of millions of people love it for a good reason.
3) Where did cricket come from?
Cricket developed as a folk game in England sometime during the 16th century or earlier. The first known reference to it is from a 1598 court case, in which a man testified that he played a game called "creckett" on a disputed plot of land in the town of Guildford.
During the 17th century, British colonists brought the game to South Asia, the West Indies, and other areas, and the rules were codified for the first time in 1744. (It was played in the US around this time as well, but was eventually overtaken by a related game that evolved into baseball.)
Over time, regional cricket clubs — and eventually national teams — formed in most parts of the British Commonwealth, and the game grew in popularity. In 1909, teams from England, Australia and South Africa formed the International Cricket Council, which is still the sport's main governing body.
For years, teams from these countries — along with the other seven countries added to the ICC since — played each other, mainly in multi-day test matches. In 1971, the first international single-day match (with a hard cap on the number of overs) was played, and that version of cricket was used in the first World Cup, in 1975. More recently, a faster-paced form of cricket called Twenty20 (which has matches that take about three hours) has become popular, and is now used in domestic leagues where teams represent different cities, like in US sports.
4) Why's it called cricket?
It's not entirely clear. The most common explanation is that it comes from the Middle Dutch word kricke, which meant stick (perhaps as part of the phrase met de krik ket sen, which meant "with the stick, chase). It could also come from the Old French word criquet (post), the Old English word cricc (staff).
5) How does the World Cup work?
The 10 full members of the ICC (Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, and Zimbabwe) all got an automatic spot in the tournament. In 2015, four other teams made it through a qualification process: Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, and the United Arab Emirates.
Just like the soccer World Cup, there are two phases: group play and knockout play. In the first (which is finished), teams played each of the other six teams in their group over the course of a month. The top eight of these teams moved on to the single-elimination "knockout rounds," which started today and will culminate on March 29, with the championship in Melbourne.
6) Who are the best teams and players this year?
After a dramatic victory at home in the 2011 World Cup, India was expected to be a long-term powerhouse. But the team's ranking has slipped, and Sachin Tendulkar — one of the best batsmen in cricket history — retired after the 2011 tournament.
Currently, the favorites are the two home teams — Australia and New Zealand — along with South Africa.
Australia, a historically dominant team, has made it to the final of four of the last five World Cup finals and has a roster full of aggressive batsmen. New Zealand has a deep, balanced roster and, like Australia, could play every game at home until the final. South Africa is historically known for having strong teams that choke before reaching the finals, but is led by captain A.B. de Villiers, who might be the world's best batsman and recently set a record for the fastest century (individually scoring 100 runs) since one-day cricket tournaments.
7) How can I watch the Cricket World Cup?
If you live in the US, you can buy a special package from ESPN or Dish Network for $99, or try to find a pirated stream online.
I'll never understand cricket. Can I just watch a funny video instead?
Yup. Here you go:
Update: Based on a reader's suggestion, the video was added to this article, and an explanation of the leg before wicket rule was added.