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Leg Before Wicket


One way to escape the trauma of world affairs is to retreat into sports. If religion is the opium of the masses, sport is our speed, an upper that melts the world's crises away for a few hours. This may seem a strange observation from someone pitied by his American friends as being clueless about sports. American sports, that is. It's true that I've never been to a basketball game; I can't see the point of the boring, repetitive action. I've sat through only three "football" games (two college, one high school -- the bands were the best part); and I've watched, bemused by inaction, two minor league baseball games where batters flailed ineffectually at the ball.

If a sport comes on TV, I reach for the remote with the conditioned response of Pavlov's dogs. I'd rather watch Martha Stewart, or preferably Nigella Lawson and her sexy food show. Only good friends know my shabby little secret: I'm a sport-aholic for soccer, rugby or cricket.

Traveling home late at night from Raleigh a couple weeks ago, I was transfixed by an item on the BBC World News: the West Indies and India were locked in a titanic struggle on the second day of the five-day Test Match.

The BBC radio commentary brought alive the drama as West Indies captain Carl Hooper extended his overnight 108 not out to a majestic 233, his highest Test score and his first Test double-century. Hooper hit 29 fours and three sixes in his ten-and-a-half hour stay at the crease, featuring a record-breaking 293-run fifth-wicket partnership with his fellow batsman. Ninety one runs were scored before lunch on day two, while 93 more were scored between lunch and tea, including many fine drives through the covers with some excellent hooks over square leg.

My colleagues in the car demanded an explanation.

"What the hell did all that mean?" they asked. "What's a 'Test Match'? What are 'the covers,' and what on earth is a 'square leg'? And how come you have tea in the middle of the game?"

The appreciation of sport is culturally determined. Cricket is played fervently across one fifth of the globe, everywhere where Brits planted the flag of empire. Even in forlorn Afghanistan, the terrible Taliban let their cricket team play informal "test" or international matches in Pakistan, with special religious dispensation that allowed the Afghans to wear proper cricket attire of white shirts and trousers. Sadly, in America the game was transmuted into baseball, and much was lost in the translation.

Gone are the subtle delights of "bowling a maiden over" -- bowling (pitching) six consecutive balls (an "over") without the batsman being able to score a run. The distinctive crack of willow on leather is a sound that can't be duplicated, as the batsman drives the ball through the screen of fielders (the covers) on the "off" side (approximately between first and second bases). Equally evocative is the hook shot that sweeps the ball over the batsman's shoulder and beyond the reach of fielders positioned at 90 degrees (square) to the line of the pitch (the 22-yard-long strip of rolled grass between the wickets).

Rarely heard on American soil are the impassioned yells of "Owzat???!!!" as the bowler and fielders appeal to the umpire for a verdict of lbw, or leg before wicket.

This incomprehensible yell really is "How's that?" the question asked of the umpire when the batsman misses the ball, which goes on to rap his padded shins. The umpire has to judge whether the ball was moving in a line that would demolish the wicket (the three wooden stumps behind the batsman) had his leg not got in the way. If the umpire decides yes, then the batsman is out, trapped "leg before wicket." When I played, this was often my fate, deceived by the crafty spin of a googly or chinaman. (Don't ask; the explanation would fill this column.

Cricket is as much a ritual as a sport, a cultural calmer of tensions, and the soothing power of the game can be found in the most unlikely of places. At the public design workshop in Raleigh, my colleagues and I were busily trying to plan 60 square miles around the Research Triangle Park and the airport. There were many contentious issues, including my idea of a new urban village in the heart of the area along the route of the proposed commuter rail line. This concept was meeting resistance, including some probing questions from a black councilman representing one of the municipalities involved. Before the discussion got too heated, we took a refreshment break; while we sipped our sodas he asked me where I was from. I named my hometown in England, and he asked if it was near Yorkshire, what he referred to as "the home of Freddy Truman."

Now, I don't have many conversations in America about one of England's legendary fast bowlers, in his time the scourge of batsmen the world over. I explained that I lived at the opposite end of the country, but inquired how he knew of Truman.

"I'm from Antigua," he explained. That was all he needed to say.

"Wesley Hall!" I exclaimed. "Charlie Griffith!"

"Brian Statham!" retorted my new acquaintance with a wide grin.

We were instantly enmeshed in recollections of great West Indian fast bowlers Hall and Griffith, who terrified English batsmen with their ferocious speed, delivering balls at over 100 miles an hour, and of England's answering duo of Truman and Statham. My new friend particularly admired blunt-spoken Freddie, who would, without warning, unleash intimidating bouncers that leapt up from the pitch at head height, going 90 miles an hour and threatening to decapitate any reflex-challenged batsman.

By this time, my companion and I had attracted quite an audience, perplexed by this conversation in English as a foreign language. Regretfully, we returned to more urgent topics at hand, but the adversarial quality of our discourse had evaporated, along with his antipathy to my idea.

"Now, about this urban village," said the councilman. "What would it look like?"

Another West Indian wicket for Freddie! *

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