Picture thirteen men dressed all in white–cotton shirts, long flannel pants, studded shoes–standing around on a huge oval of carefully mown grass. Two of the men hold long wooden bats, and each stands in front of a set of three upright wooden sticks, across the top of which are balanced two small horizontal sticks. Another man holds a hard, red leather ball, which from time to time he throws but with a straight elbow–towards one set of sticks. Sometimes one of the men with a bat hits the ball, and other men scurry after it. Meanwhile, the scene is intently observed by two rather different men: they stand still in long white coats; often they wear hats; and every now and then they make strange signs with their hands.
Such, at first sight, is cricket, that quintessential sport of the British Empire that for generations has mystified Americans and other outsiders with its rules, its length (a “test,” or international match, can last up to five days) and even its language–“Witherspoon, bowling leg-breaks and googlies from the Pavilion end, might have had a maiden over, except that Tomlinson managed a glance past fine leg for a single.”
It is as much a mystery to the uninitiated as baseball, though of course superior (English males sniff that baseball is derived from rounders, a “sissy” sport for girls that no self-respecting schoolboy would be seen playing).
But cricket is not the only mystery that divides one coast of the Atlantic from the other. How about “real tennis“–or “court tennis,” as a handful of Americans know it–with its arcane scoring system and its huge court, complete with dedans and tambour? How about boules or petanque, a sport where the French of all ages gather around any piece of earth, be it sand or grit, to see who can cast, underhand, a heavy ball closest to a small one? Or pelota, where the Basques of France and Spain use a wicker extension of their throwing arm to hurl a ball at frightening speed against a walled court? Or badminton, where the racquet-wielding players flick a feathered shuttlecock across a high net? Or handball, where teams dance around each other trying to throw a smaller version of a soccer ball into a goal. Or darts, where pub players put down their drinks and line up to aim a small piece of flighted metal into specific bits of a circular target a few feet away?
In other words, there are plenty of European sports that will variously amaze, puzzle, or appall Americans. Sometimes the reasons are rooted in geography and climate. A Scottish sport such as curling, where a heavy stone is pushed across the ice-a sort of frozen version of lawn bowls-preceded by broom-carrying players desperately brushing the ice to ease its passage, is hardly likely to appeal in Florida. So, too, with ski jumping, a favorite of the Scandinavians. When such sports do cross the Atlantic, they tend to be confined more or less to ethnic enclaves-as with jai alai, another name for pelota, in Hispanic Miami.
At other times, the reasons for the transatlantic divide are historical. The crews of Oxford and Cambridge universities have been rowing against each other along London’s Thames River for a century and a half.
Indeed, “the boat race” is so famous that many of the world’s best oarsmen, often American, vie for a postgraduate place at “Oxbridge” in order to take part in the race. But even so, there are precious few Americans who will search their satellite and cable television channels to view something that the British watch by the millions.
But maybe the biggest reasons are cultural. Americans usually (the big exception is baseball) like their sports to be fast and furious and to end with someone winning and someone losing. The idea of a five-day cricket match ending in a draw seems absurd- though to any cricket aficionado achieving the draw could well be fascinating.
So, too, with soccer. True, women’s soccer (barely watched in Europe) has drawn huge crowds in the US, thanks to the prowess of Mia Hamm and her colleagues. But despite a generation of effort, men’s soccer, “the beautiful game,” as Pele called it, has still failed to find a prime time slot against American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. Could it be that Americans find the long sequences of play hard to take, especially when a match ends with just a couple of goals, or none at all?
It could indeed (American television networks, anxious to slot in commercial breaks, tried in vain to persuade the soccer authorities to change a game of two halves into one of four quarters). But by the same token, Europeans tend to find the explosive nature of Americans sports too staccato to be comfortable. Gridiron football, for example, has only a tiny following, even though a match of rugby, its sporting ancestor, can attract scores of thousands to a ground in the UK or France and millions more on television. Conceivably, basketball-increasingly popular in much of Europe, especially France, Spain, Italy, and the Balkans-will be the exception, but it will surely never reach the heights of the NBA in America.
The truth is that in sport as in so much else Europeans are different from Americans and will remain different. But it is just as true that Europeans are different from each other. The sports that unite them (and many other parts of the world) are British in origin: for example, soccer, tennis, golf, and rugby. Perhaps that is the result of fate, or maybe of military might-the Duke of Wellington once said that the Battle of Waterloo, when the English defeated the French, was won on the playing fields of Eton. But there are just as many sports that separate them: snooker, with its set of different colored balls on a billiard table, is a British addiction; handball a French one; and water polo a Spanish one. When continental Europeans line the streets for hours and spend days glued to their television screens watching cyclists race in the Tour de France, the British are as bored as the Americans. But who cares? The joy of sport is its very diversity.