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Our First National Pastime
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No one could be a greater baseball fan than me, but even I have to admit we don't absolutely need baseball.

We've got cricket!

Sure, cricket is a much nicer game than baseball. But we could all use a bit of refinement in our lives, could we not?

Besides, cricket's not quite as nice as you might think. These days, cricketers engage in some of the same shady practices baseball fans have come to know and love. They've even taken to throwing spitballs.

Cricket's a lot older than baseball, too. It was our national game long before baseball was even thought of. Cricket fanciers claim that during the Constitutional Convention, when Tom Jefferson and friends were debating whether their new country should have a presidency, those in favor included a delegate who shouted, "Well, even cricket clubs have presidents!"

You should also know that U.S. players participated in the very first international cricket match -- United States vs. Canada, 1844.

And how about a true World Series rather than the baseball version, which is just one bunch of North Americans against another bunch of North Americans?

With cricket, you get the real thing. Every four years, it's World Cup time, two months of top-level competition featuring the national teams -- in effect, all-star teams -- from the cricket-crazy nations of five continents. In between cup times, they play lots of other intercontinental matches.

Turn on the telly in any of the nations and you could be watching one of the international matches, or a local or regional match -- and all-year round. Unlike baseball fans, cricket aficionados are not forced to suffer TV withdrawal pains during the winter months.

Oh, and there are those lessons in the social graces taught by cricket, above all the virtue of patience. Three-hour games are about as much as most baseball crowds will tolerate, but cricket matches usually go on all day and often don't end until after five days of play.

Naturally, there are proper breaks by players and spectators for lunch and afternoon tea -- you know, cucumber sandwiches, scones, that sort of thing -- and conclusion of the day's play in time for a whisky and soda or two before dinner, or perhaps a spot of sherry.

There's a very good reason matches go on -- and on. Pitchers -- bowlers, they're called -- can retire batters -- batsmen, that is -- by slinging the ball past them and into the wicket behind them. But that doesn't happen much.

What usually happens is that the batsman stands up there banging the ball all over the place, but running only when he thinks he can score a run, by making it to another wicket behind the bowler before a fielder can get him out.

A batsman often whales away for several hours, sometimes for entire days, while the on-deck batsmen and more than a few spectators nap, catch up on their reading, visit and otherwise pass the time as best they can.

Slow it is, but eventually it results in massive amounts of the scoring that excites sports fans most -- much more, certainly, than baseball manages. Scores typically run into the several hundreds.

Sure, sure, I hear you saying, but cricket's for wimps. Don't you believe it. Except for the wicket keepers, as catchers are called, cricketers don't even wear gloves, and that ball of theirs, the size and hardness of a baseball, is thrown and hit at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour.

And though you once could accuse cricketers of actually believing that business about how you play the game being more important than whether you win or lose, major cricket teams, at least, have learned the great lesson of major league baseball.

They've learned that winning -- and making lots of money -- is what really counts. If talking trash to the other team helps, they do it. If scuffing or moistening the ball will get batsmen out, they do it. They intimidate batsmen by throwing the ball at them. They don garish baseball-like uniforms in place of their traditional white dress shirts and white flannel trousers in hopes of catching the fickle eye of the TV viewer.

Cricketers have even picked up that venerable baseball habit described by columnist Tom Rice of the London Daily Telegraph, apparently not a baseball fan, as "revolting, unnecessary, ill-mannered, slovenly, discourteous and plebeian." Spitting, of course.

Big-time cricket, noted another British observer, "has become something of a blood sport, performed by highly paid athletes before rambunctious crowds."

Sound familiar?

Copyright Dick Meister