LONDON-The format of a British tabloid forces you to choose your priorities. The front page shouts "RECESSION!" and "SCANDAL!"-but many readers flip over the whole thing and start at the back, with cricket.
If talk about the recession is difficult to escape in the United States, in the United Kingdom it's a practical impossibility. The nation's economy has been hit hard, very hard, by the financial crisis, and on the ground the signs are everywhere. The Recession Special is the marketing ploy of choice this year, offering budget prices on everything from haircuts to electronics. The pound has fallen against the Euro and the dollar. An ugly, anger-driven scandal is breaking in the press, as a mole leaked copies of astoundingly bloated expense accounts of Members of Parliament from both major political parties.
So, to escape it, I followed several thousand Brits to Lord's Cricket Ground, the beating heart of cricket. England was taking on the West Indies in day two of a five-day match. Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I'm sitting in the section for the honorable members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, an institution that until 1993 was the governing body of world cricket.
The MCC literally wrote the rules of the game in 1787-and since then has been the unchanging, unmoving face of cricketing tradition. The members are easily picked out. They wear red and yellow stripes, usually on their ties, but occasionally on their socks, and in at least one case, as the pattern on their jacket.
Not that there are many of them. My section is nowhere near half full, and the section to my left is only marginally better. The stands across the pitch look a little more crowded, but on the whole, the stadium seems desolate. Even England's cricket lovers are economizing. Later this summer Australia will come to Lord's to renew its fierce rivalry with England, and the speculation is that many fans are saving their hard-earned pounds until then.
Even at the cricket ground, hard facts about the recession are unavoidable. The Champagne and Oyster bar in one corner of the concourse has plenty of empty seats, even at lunchtime. At the official Lord's gift shop, sweaters costing £44 (about $70) are ignored in favor of miniature cricket bats costing £2.50.
On the field at least, England is doing well. The West Indies team is no longer a formidable opponent, and hasn't been since the '70s. And recently the team has suffered from the legal woes of alleged scam artist Sir Allen Stanford, a Caribbean-based Texan who had become a major booster of West Indian Cricket.
A five-day test match is divided into two innings, in which each team bats once. I arrive just as the West Indies retires England's last batters-that took a day and a half. I look forward to seeing Chris Gayle, the West Indies captain, open the batting for his side. Gayle is one of the best in the world, and after watching him for 10 minutes it is easy to see why. In cricket, the primary role of the batter is not to hit the ball, as it is in baseball. Instead, it is to block the ball, to deflect it safely away from the wicket behind him, which is made of three pieces of wood standing up and two pieces laid across. If he has time, he may then run to the other wicket, thereby scoring a run, but his first duty is to defend.
Gayle, though, seems above mere defending. England's first bowler is Stuart Broad, a fast bowler who begins his delivery way out toward the edge of the field, past the farthest fielder. He comes running in, and upon reaching the crease his arm whips over his head and the balls come whizzing in at 80, 85 miles an hour, spinning and twisting, desperately trying to get under or around Gayle's bat. Gayle sprays the balls left, right, dead ahead, and once, nearly straight behind. Several times the balls skid all the way over the boundary, earning Gayle an automatic four runs.
So England brings in a slow bowler, Graeme Swann. In contrast to Broad, Swann takes two steps and then lobs the ball in. It traces a long lazy arc through the air and bounces in a harmless-seeming area far away from the wicket. The ball's subsequent change of direction is so extreme it appears to defy the laws of physics. Watching the replay on the big screen above the field, that ricochet makes me feel uneasy and slightly sick to my stomach, like watching a knee bend the wrong way. Gayle is made of sterner stuff and he coolly redirects the ball to an empty patch of grass.
Gayle has been batting for a half hour now, and looks like he could stick in there all day. Broad takes another turn at bowling, and I begin to think about a cup of coffee, or tea, to guard against the chill wind blowing straight in. Then, before I know it, I am rising with my neighbors, a shout coming from my lips. Pieces of wood are flying though the air behind Chris Gayle, who is twisted around on himself. And Stuart Broad is running through the field with his teammates, his right arm stretched above his head. The ball had finally gotten away from Chris Gayle, spinning off the head of his bat straight back into the wicket, which cheerfully exploded into its separate pieces. Gayle slowly trudges off toward the players' pavilion, to drink a cup of tea perhaps.
Broad waves to the crowd and takes his place. The umpire resets the wicket, carefully balancing the crosspiece on top of the uprights. We sit and watch the replay on the big screen, not thinking about the economy, about our portfolios, about our dried-up credit, about bank failures or bailouts. And all our anger about a failed financial system, about a lying government, about Parliament members lining their pockets with public funds, about the seeming collapse of every traditional structure in society-it all fades away, and all of us, even the American novice, care only about those pieces of wood, tumbling into the mown grass as they have for hundreds of years.
• The main action takes place on the pitch, a rectangle 22 yards long in the center of the field. On either side are wooden wickets, made up of stumps (three vertical pieces) and bails (two horizontal top pieces).
• At any given time two active batters take turns hitting the throws of two active bowlers (pitchers). The bowlers take turns, bowling six times each from one particular side. The bowling team aims to retire the batter by striking the batter's wicket and sending the pieces of wood flying, or by catching a ball struck by the batter.
• Cricket is played between two teams of 11 cricketers (players) each.
• One team bats while the other team bowls and fields. Each team runs through its lineup twice. The two innings can take up to five days.
• The batter aims to defend his wicket by using his flat bat to keep the bowler from hitting the wicket. He scores runs by hitting the ball and then running between the two wickets before the fielders can touch the ball to one of the wickets.
• If the batter strikes the ball and it passes the outer boundary in the air, he automatically scores six runs; if the ball passes the boundary on the ground, it's four runs.