Once in a while, a sporting event becomes a must-watch spectacle. Even non-fans tune in for soccer's FIFA World Cup final, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. These aren't just the most watched sporting events on the planet, they're the most watched events, period.
Here in the U.S., one major international tournament will pass almost unnoticed. On Feb. 14, the ICC Cricket World Cup will start in Australia and New Zealand. Australia and South Africa are pre-tournament favorites, but one team's games will bring more viewers than the Super Bowl.
Over 1 billion people are expected to tune in when India kicks off its 2015 campaign against Pakistan. Though no hard data is available, it is estimated that 1.3 billion tuned in for a 2011 World Cup clash between these two cricket-mad countries.
Tickets for the match, which will be held on Feb. 15, sold out in less than 20 minutes, even faster than passes for host Australia's opening appearance versus England.
But cricket is so boring, right? Not so fast.
Misbah ul-Haq of Pakistan bats during the ICC Cricket World Cup warm up match between England and Pakistan at Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney Australia on Feb. 11. (Photo: Matt King/Getty Images)
There are different forms of cricket. The World Cup consists of one-day international matches (often called ODIs) that last five or six hours, not the longer five-day "test" matches or four-day "first-class" matches.
The game moves along at a quick pace. Since there is no foul territory on the circular cricket pitch, every ball is in play. And the tension is always high because each player only gets one chance on offense. Once a player is out (by having a ball caught or having the wicket knocked over), that's it for them for the entire game.
Another trait that keeps the game moving is the fact that one team bats all the way through the order (11 players), before the other team gets a chance. This means there's only one switch from offense to defense during the contest.
In ODIs, the batting team stays on the field until they reach the maximum amount of "overs." There are 50 overs for each side in World Cup play, with each over only consisting of six balls. The game could also finish early if 10 of the batters get out at any time before the 50 overs are up.
Cricket terms can seem confusing, especially when the commentators start talking about the different defensive positions. There are about a 100 unique places on the field, each with its own name. Defensive players move around to these different spots depending on who is batting, who is bowling and what the game situation is.
A general view of the ground during the ICC Cricket World Cup warm-up match between England and Pakistan at Sydney Cricket Ground on Feb. 11 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
These terms don't really matter to casual watchers, and the basic rules of getting out and scoring runs are quite simple. Even someone who has not seen a match before should be able to figure out the basics after watching a few overs.
The U.S. has a national cricket team and a number of semi-pro leagues. Most of the players are first- or second-generation transplants from the West Indies, Africa or South Asia.
The U.S. national team is usually three or four tiers below the world's best. Countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates — all World Cup qualifiers — would thrash the U.S. team if they met in any form of the game.
At the same time, it might be worth it to tune in to a match during the World Cup. The NFL season is over, baseball hasn't started yet and the NBA and NHL are in their mid-season doldrums. ESPN will be selling a tournament-long viewing pass that will allow U.S. subscribers to see every match for $99. Other countries will also be streaming the matches online for those savvy enough to get around location blocks.
There will be high drama when the players from India take the field on Feb. 15 with more than 1 billion of their countrymen watching on the TV. Overall, however, the World Cup might not be the best introduction to the sport of cricket.
Nathan Hauritz of the Thunder attempts to run out Riki Wessels of the Sixers during the Big Bash League match between the Sydney Sixers and the Sydney Thunder during a T20 match on Jan. 22. (Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
The fastest, most-fireworks-filled form of cricket is called T20. The matches in this version of the sport take as long as a baseball game. Since the amount of chances is limited to 20 overs (120 balls total), players are "swinging for the fences" on every ball. This is the form of cricket that has gained a cult following outside of the Commonwealth countries where cricket is traditionally popular.
Major T20 tournaments take place in India (in the springtime) and closer to home in the West Indies (in June and July). The West Indies tournament, called the Caribbean Premiere League, is broadcast online on ESPN3. Raucous crowds and gimmicks like comely cheerleaders, mini-carnival parades and break dancing contests make for interesting viewing even if you end up finding the game itself boring.
The Cricket World Cup runs from Feb. 14 through March 29. The Caribbean Premire League dates are not yet set, but it should kick off sometime in mid-June.
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