It amuses me a little to see the spat going on in a corner of this site about who might be the best baseball team in the NE of the USA. Actually, it amuses me even more to see one of the writers have a dig at the violence of European football and then casually drop in a reference to throwing batteries at opposing fans as if this were all part of the fun (anyone caught doing that at an English ground would be banned for life); but let's pass over that, and move on to the main subject of this essay.

And that's cricket.

Ah, I see that 99% of my American readers have given up already. Now you know how we feel when you go on and on and on about the Superbowl or World Series or other such things that no-one outside the US cares about. =:P To the 1% still remaining, thank you for sticking with me.

Now, I like several sports - I go to quite a few motorsport meetings in the average year, for example - but if I'm wrong and there is a heaven, then I sincerely hope that the game played there will be cricket. Of course, there are a lot of myths about cricket, mostly lazy comments about how terribly boring it is. Some have a grain of truth to them: others are just plain wrong. Let's have a look at some of them.

1) "Hardly anyone plays cricket."

Well, this one is just silly. India has a population of over a billion, and cricket is by far the most popular, most influential, and most lucrative sport there. Sachin Tendulkar is even more ubiquitous in the media there than David Beckham is here, which is going some. When you add in the populations of the other top-line nations (England, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies - who play as one nation, South Africa, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh), you'll find that the numbers outstrip those for any other sport in the world except the inevitable football (ie soccer).

2) "It goes on for days and days."

Partly true. The most prestigious matches, played between the nations listed above, are known as Test Matches, and go on for five days. But so what? I don't hear golf fans complaining that the Ryder Cup isn't all over in two hours, or tennis enthusiasts saying that a fortnight is far too long for Wimbledon. As with those events, a Test Match's length allows it the capability to ebb and flow, to contain countless sub-plots within the whole story.

However, uniquely among major professional ball games, the same set of players will compete in both Test Matches and a completely different form of the game, the One Day International, which as the name implies takes only a few hours. And at domestic level, there's the Twenty20 Cup, which can be played in an evening. So we don't need to speculate about what a shorter, snappier form of cricket would be like, because we already know.

Most hardcore enthusiasts would plump without a second thought for Test cricket over the shorter form of the game, however much they might also enjoy one-day matches. A world with only one-dayers and no Tests would be like literature with short stories and no novels.

3) "It's a soft game."

Go and tell that to Steve Waugh, captain of Australia, and see whether you come back alive. And nothing that Manchester United (or the New York Yankees, for that matter) can offer can even approach the intensity of an India v Pakistan match. People sometimes talk about sport being a surrogate for war: on the subcontinent, you might be able to delete "a surrogate for".

4) "The rules are too complicated."

Well, it's true that the Laws of the Game, as they're officially known, run to quite a few pages of small print. But although it does take a bit of effort to get to grips with cricket's quirks, it's very rewarding once you do. To use a simple analogy again, it's the difference between knowing enough French to read a simple menu, and knowing enough to talk to real live French people. (Of course, some Dubya types would probably run screaming from the room rather than do that, but never mind...)

Anyway, at its most basic, the idea is as simple as many other sports. You have two innings per team (in a Test Match), and the bowlers try to get the batsmen out as cheaply as possible. The team with the highest aggregate at the end wins. If the game is still going on when time runs out, it's a draw. That's not exactly complicated, is it?

5) "It's obsessed with statistics and history."

And baseball isn't? =;)

Cricket has an advantage in this area, though. For one thing, the scourge of aluminium bats has been firmly rejected - all cricket bats, right down to the ones kids use in the park, are still made of wood. And the most well-known individual record - batting average - is still comparable with days of yore. No-one averages .400 in baseball anymore, yet 50.00 is still as much the mark of a great cricket batsman now as it was in 1930.

Why? Well, to summarise greatly, Steven Jay Gould says the decline of the .400 hitter in baseball is because there are so many fewer really poor pitchers and fielders than there used to be - in other words, the gap between best and worst has closed. (Ooh - how very socialist of you! =;) ) And part of that is surely because of the closed nature of the US system - it's essentially a domestic game only. In cricket, however, a new country is raised to Test status every few years, and so there's always a freshness about the sport.

That happens at domestic level too. England's County Championship this year was won by Sussex for the first time ever. The favourites, Surrey, had masses of cash, a tremendously starry squad, a vastly successful history and excellent fans. Yet they still lost. It is this uncertainty, which has been lost in so many sports on both sides of the Atlantic, that helps keep the freshness I mentioned earlier.

6) "The only reason people watch cricket is that their countries don't play baseball."

This is an odd one, but it does crop up occasionally. Mind you, it can be hit for six (or a homer, if you prefer) very easily. Baseball is very popular in Australia, yet the prestige of being the national cricket captain vastly outweighs anything baseball can offer.

7) "The fielding is less interesting."

Only if you're not paying attention. Any cricket fielder who didn't know how to do more than run after the ball, pick it up and hurl it back to the wicket-keeper wouldn't get near a professional team, let alone their country's. Close fielding (ie the infield) is enormously important in the fast, attacking style of play that has made Australia the world's best cricketing nation. And to see Jonty Rhodes of South Africa hit the stumps from side-on from 50 yards is one of the great sights in world sport.

8) "There's not much situational strategy in cricket."

Utter, utter rubbish. For example, it's very common for a good batsman and a lesser one to be in together towards the end of an innings. The captain of the bowling side (which is another difference with many sports: on the field, the cricket captain is far more important than the coach) will often deliberately encourage the better player to take a single run, thus bringing the lesser player to the crease.

Now, I should stress that I don't dislike baseball - it's actually my favourite American sport, perhaps because it has parallels with cricket, in that it's a traditional summer game under threat from more three-second-attention-span-friendly pastimes such as basketball (in the US) and football (in Britain). But cricket, though certainly an acquired taste, is simply not the boring and slow-moving sport its detractors make it out to be.

Right, I think I've talked enough now. (Not something that usually worries me, but still...) I confidently expect several reviews telling me I'm completely wrong, so off you go. =;)