Rules of Cricket: Your Comprehensive How to Play Cricket Guide

A few weeks back, I made a post about the Cricket World Cup and some readers said they would have preferred a more detailed piece on the basics of the sport because, let’s face it, the rules are incredibly confusing for people that don’t know the terminology. 

However, this is one of the most popular sports in the world and, if America gives it a chance, you will see why. Therefore, here is a very beginner-friendly explanation of cricket, along with some player names and reference materials that every potential fan should know of.

The ground:

Cricket is ideally played on a circular or oval grassy field, referred to as the ground. In the middle of each field, there is a rectangular patch of hard land called the pitch. Surrounding the perimeter of the field is a rope or fence, referred to as the boundary.

The positions/roles/players:

In cricket, there are essentially three roles to be taken care of: the batting, the bowling and the fielding.

Batting

Perhaps the most glorified role in cricket. On any given pitch, there will be two batters (or “batsmen”) on each end, rotating turns. A batsman’s job is to bring his team the points, referred to as runs, and there are two essential ways for the batsman to score.

Boundaries: When a batsman “gets a boundary,” it means that he struck the ball so well that it reached the rope towards the perimeter of the ground. If the ball gets over the rope without ever bouncing inside ground’s perimeter, the batting team gets six runs. However, if the ball did touch the ground before reaching the rope, the batting team gets four runs. There is a statistic worth mentioning here that the record for most “fours” in an international career is around 4023 (exact figures are a little more because statistics started being kept late in the game) while the record for most “sixes” is 381, which goes to show you how much more difficult one is than the other.

Running: The other way a batsman can get runs is by actually running on the hard patch of land. Suppose a batsman plays a shot that just isn’t going to reach the rope; instead of wasting that opportunity, however, the batsman has the option to run to the other side of the pitch. Not only does this give his team one run, it also makes it so that the other batsman waiting on the other end can come in and try his hand.  

Bowling

The opposite of batting, in that the job of the bowler is to stop the batsman’s scoring and get him out. A bowler comes running in and hurls the ball to the batsman, hoping to get him out. While there are quite a few different techniques to hurl the bowl, there are two broad categories: fast bowlers and slower bowlers. Fast bowlers run in from a longer part of the field and throw the ball quickly, while the slower bowlers run to the pitch from a short distance and throw it with less speed. There are essentially four ways a bowler can get a batsman out.

Bowled

Behind each batsman, there are three wooden sticks, a little taller than knee-height. If a batsman misses the bowler’s delivery at it hits those sticks (referred to as wickets or stumps), then the batsman is out; no three strikes here, just out. 

Leg Before Wicket (LBW): This mode is similar to the “bowled” because it really just means that the batsman failed to hit the ball. However, instead of hitting the wickets, the ball hit the batsman’s leg while it was blocking the wicket. Keep in mind that the only thing a batsman is allowed to play with is his bat so, if he is struck on the leg while the ball looked like it was covering the wickets, he is out. Also, here it must be said that the person who judges whether or not the ball was in fact going on to the stumps before hitting the leg is the umpire. Nowadays, they have some technology but it is only for limited referral of the umpire’s decision; ultimately, the bowler is forced to rely on the umpire to judge a batsman out.

Stumped

Suppose a batsman decides to really hit the ball out of the park by stepping out of his designated area (marked by a white line a few paces in front of the wickets) and smacking the ball. It’s effective but it’s incredibly risky because, if the batsman misses, a special fielder that is always behind the wickets (called the “wicketkeeper”) can grab the ball and dislodge the bails, a small piece of wood on top of the wickets. If the batsman fails to get back in line before the wicketkeeper does that, he is out. Note that this only happens with the slower bowlers because, with someone fast bowling, the wicketkeeper is standing farther to the back.

Caught

If a batsman plays a shot, or it just hits his bat or hand and then goes on to be caught by any fielder without touching the ground, the batsman is out.

Fielding

The system that ties a bowler’s strategies together. I already introduced a special fielder, the wicketkeeper, but keep in mind that there will be nine more fielders on the ground at any time. The job of the fielder is to stop the ball from reaching the boundaries and catch anything that comes his way. Also, the fielder can also get a batsman out not just by catching (which goes to the credit of the bowler in terms of who “gets the wicket”) but also by “running the batsman out.” The way to do this is that, after the batsman has hit the ball and set off for a run, the fielder must throw the ball onto the wickets before the batsman is able to cross that designated line of safety. Of course, since there is often a distance of an entire field between them, the fielder often just attempts to throw to the wicketkeeper or bowler, who both wait near the wicket whenever a batsman has decided to run, in hopes that they can use the ball to dislodge the wickets before the batsman reaches safety.

The Types of matches:

The most assailed aspect of cricket is its infamous length, but it actually varies depending on the format. There are three essential types of cricket matches

T20 International: This is the format that is most popular nowadays. Here, each side gets to play 120 legal deliveries and the one with the higher score at the end wins. The bowling side can use as many bowlers as they want, but each one can only bowl a maximum of 24 deliveries, but can only bowl 6 consecutively. After the 6th, another player must bowl for 6 more and then that earlier player can come back or the captain can choose someone else. Keep in mind that it often goes above 6 because many bowlers bowl illegal deliveries (if they don’t bowl within a legal zone or don’t run within the legal limits), which automatically gives the batting side free points and the bowler has to bowl that incorrect delivery again. This format is called the T20 because it stands for “twenty twenty,” which is the number of overs each side bowls. As you can see, each over therefore consists of six deliveries, which helps facilitate the switching I mentioned earlier.   

One Day International: This is like the T20 International but it is from an older time, so the real difference is that each side gets 300 deliveries instead of 120. The scores are usually higher and the batsmen have to really play for long periods of time if they want to make or conquer a formidable score.

Test Match: This is the highest echelon, although many find it dull. Instead of there being a limit on the number of deliveries each side bowls, here the batsman can play out all five days if they want; yes, I said five days. The bowlers here have to get everyone out twice while the batsmen have to put up a score twice under which they can “bowl out” the opposition. First a side bats, then they bowl, then they bat again and then they bowl again. At the end, the one with the higher cumulative score wins or, if both sides are not dismissed within the five days twice, the match is a draw. So, if you have a side of all powerful batsman but weak bowlers (like India’s One Day championship team), the other side will pile on a massive amount of runs after playing for one or two days and then attempt to bowl you out. Also, the important thing here is that no one is required to bat twice if they have enough runs. So, for example, Team A makes 500 runs and Team B can only make 150 in response. So, due to the drastic difference, Team A can force B to bat again. At that point, if B still fails to make a cumulative 500, they are done. If they make 450 (bringing their cumulative to 550), then A will be required to make 50 to win. Note here that the “drastic difference” I mentioned must be greater than 200. So, if A makes 500 and B makes 301, A has to bat again. This eats up some serious time, giving the losing side hope for draw, while also allowing them another shot at victory if they can dismiss the opposition on a low score in the second innings.

The legends and the current greats:

As with any game, there are certain legends here that you should probably know of if you plan on watching the game; a lot of them don’t play any more but if you want to know the guys that define the game, these are it. Also, as a side note, I include any close seconds and also current players that are worthy.

The Batsman: Donald Bradman

Knighted for his services to the game, the legendary Australian is often regarded as the best batsman in the game. On average, he made 99.96 runs per match; the next closest doesn’t even break 70. Also of note is Sachin Tendulkar, a man who has currently made 100 runs in a match 100 times; the next closest hasn’t hit 70. Current greats include Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene from Sri Lanka, Virat Kohli of India, Chris Gayle of the West Indies, Younis Khan from Pakistan and Hashim Amla from South Africa.

The Bowler: Muttiah Muralitharan

The man who holds the record for dismissing the most men across both One Days and Tests, Muralitharan’s career was plagued by controversy because of his unorthodox action but no one can deny that he owns virtually every record worth holding in the field of bowling. Also worthy of notice is Shane Warne, another fantastic bowler that redefined how the world saw slower bowling. Amidst current players, the ones to keep an eye on are the South African duo of Vernon Philanderer and Dale Steyn and the Pakistani Saeed Ajmal.

The Wicketkeeper: Mark Boucher

Recently forced to retire after an unfortunate on-field accident that injured his eye, Mark Boucher served as the cornerstone of the South African lineup for years, catching everything that came his way while also proving to be tenacious with the bat. Also worthy of inclusion is Adam Gilchrist, a vicious batsman with the ability to score quickly and fearlessly, who was very efficient with the keeping. Current greats are tough to name because each team only has one but Kumar Sangakkara, the aforementioned batsmen, has always been very safe in the position (although he keeps less and less nowadays to focus on his batting). Plus, note how I have not mentioned other fielding positions because there are just so many of them and dozens of players that are experts in each one but the one that leaps out most is Rahul Dravid, one of the best batsmen ever and a great catcher anywhere in the field.

The Allrounder: Garfield Sobers

This “allrounder” goes to the men that excelled with both bat and ball, the prime example being the West Indian Garry Sobers. Knighted for his contributions to the game, Sobers had numbers above most other batsmen and even bowlers, making him the most complete package in cricket. Also worthy of note is Imran Khan, one of the finest allrounders ever whose last match was him winning the Cup (and yes, this is the same Khan that is the current runner in the presidential race in Pakistan). Current greats include Shane Watson from Australia and a particularly commendable Jacques Kallis from South Africa.

The teams: West Indies and Australia

Now, this is a bit tricky because these are two separate teams from different times but the West Indies team of the 1970s/1980s and the Australian team of the 1990s/2000s really dominated cricket like no other. With talent pools that were nearly limitless and accomplishments that were unparalleled, these two sides ruled over the cricket world. As you may have noticed in my current greats listings, the players that appear quite frequently are South African, which makes sense because they are currently the top-ranked team. Watching them play Test or One Day Cricket (the T20 mantel was recently awarded to the West Indies) is truly a breathtaking experience.

Therefore, I hope I have answered most of your questions; all Americans should really give this game a try. It will not only provide support for our struggling cricket team but will also allow us a chance to explore another great sport and add it to the lexicon of American pastimes. No other sport gets the kind of technology that football and baseball have; I hope that can come to cricket someday. For further information, be sure to visit ESPN’s website, the most respected publication on the sport.

As always, I make sure to answer any comments left for me in the section below so ask if anything I have explained is a little unclear and I will do my best to elucidate on this wonderful sport.