What is a sports game, anyway? Sports are already a game. Do we need a game of a game? Pong stuck to abstract representation of the most basic ‘play’ aspects of the sport; the genre gained increasing aspirations towards representing real players (Tecmo Super Bowl, NBA Jam). By the early 2000’s, publisher Electronic Arts, through their imprint EA Sports, had provided a full-featured franchise mode for every major American sport. In the EA Sports world, the player (sitting in the chair) was not only athlete (inside the game-world), but also head coach, front-office executive, and of course, fan. EA’s innovation was in turning fandom into fandom of yourself - your in-game exploits tracked through comprehensive franchise-mode statistics, your quest to top every in-game leaderboard against CPU-controlled players a mirror of the professional athlete’s quest to dominate their IRL competitors.
Today, EA’s Madden still dominates football, but NBA 2K (by Visual Concepts) took over the basketball market by introducing My Player career modes with the full celebrity experience: social media posting, press conferences, selfies, shade-throwing, champagne-drinking — the fantasy of being rich and famous. In baseball, San Diego Studio prides themselves on MLB: The Show and its “Road to the Show” career mode: take a minor-leaguer all the way to the big leagues! Exploited Athlete Simulator 2022!
My favorite football game of all time, ESPN NFL 2K5 seemed to see itself mostly as a toy for fans to act out being football fans. In NFL 2K5, you (the real human in the chair) could call up Carmen Electra or Steve-O (real celebrities, I guess, who lent their voices and likenesses to this game for some reason) to play a virtual football game featuring licensed NFL players against said celebrity. NFL 2K5 had a trophy room (“The Crib”) to display the virtual trophies you received for smashing your virtual toys together. You could put an air hockey table in your Crib and turn NFL 2K5 into Air Hockey 2K5. This game probably came the closest to what I personally want out of a sports game.
The less said about FIFA, the better; enough to say that entire generations of ‘lads’ are completely lost to the ‘bantz’ made possible through these games. Shooting the ball in a FIFA game replicates the experience of trying to put a watch hand back on the dial with tweezers that are just a liiiittle too big. Playing FIFA online replicates the experience of visiting a YouTube homepage full of Jordan Peterson videos.
All these are, generally speaking, sandboxes for sports fans to act out their ideal sports fandom interest — whether the fantasy of managing their favorite team out of perennial loserdom, or throwing a long touchdown pass just like Tom Brady, or placing a precise shot like Neymar, or terminating a player’s contract with a sadistic grin like Bill Belichick, or having a bunch of people take pictures of your outfit as you step off the team bus just like Russell Westbrook. (I guess this really is a thing people want for their lives, huh.)
Big Ant Studios’ Cricket 22 is mostly none of that. It is, sort of, about why anyone would actually want to play cricket.
Every sport has its key interaction points. Baseball is about the interaction between bat and ball, ball and glove, or cleat and dirt; very rarely is it base and ball (what a misnomer). Ice hockey: skates and ice, stick and puck, body and boards and then ice (keep your head up out there). American football is about the interaction between body and body, mostly: you get hit this way, crunched that way, pushing, blocking, swiveling past. Cleat and turf, hopefully gloves and ball; eventually, inevitably, body against ground. ESPN NFL 2K5 famously pioneered a ‘first-person football’ mode in which you played the entire game from inside a single player’s helmet. In its early 2000’s console way, it’s real; reminiscent of the time I, eighth-grade wide receiver, missed a diving catch on a slant route and crunched heavily onto my shoulder, a large divot of freshly mowed grass compacting itself inside my facemask. I understand that first-person is not the way most people choose to play Madden; perhaps it reminds them too much of CTEs and knee sprains.
What is cricket, then? Let’s construct the game from first principles. You’re a schoolboy in a 1500s English village; the sheep are out to pasture and you need something to do, or school sucks and you want an excuse to go outside. It’s nice out for the first time maybe ever in history (it is England). You and the boys have got your shepherd’s crooks, or some sticks; a large patch of grass; and some kind of ball made of sheep wool or a round-enough rock. You come up with this kid’s game, janky in a way that all innovation is janky: you stick some of the taller sticks in the ground, or play with a fence or gate as your backstop. One kid rolls the ball at you; swing your crook at the ground aiming for the ball, and if you hit it, run back and forth. And if the ball hits the gate behind you, you’re out and the next kid gets a turn.
It’s no wonder that adults didn’t pick this game up for a couple hundred years. They’re further from the ground.
Nowadays, the ball is bounced rather than rolled towards the batter, but cricket is still about the ground. The bowler’s spikes and the ground, as they run up to deliver the ball straight-armed. The ball’s specific form of bounce: whether the ground is wet, or cracked, or the ball lands on its raised seam, and which way it’s spinning. The batter’s feet and the ground — you don’t hear a lot about ‘footwork’ in baseball, but it’s mandatory in cricket. The ball’s speed as it rolls along the ground after being hit, usually. The fielder’s dexterity in fielding the ball off the ground. But in addition to the ground, the condition of the air matters too — humidity, barometric pressure. In overcast English conditions, the ball can curve through the air like a banana, per the laws of fluid dynamics, as long as one side is shined and the other rough, and the seam is upright, or perhaps just slightly angled away from the batter. In arid Indian conditions, not so much.
Air and ground, and water (when it’s been raining, or when the ball’s been hit into a fan’s pint of beer): all you need is fire, and you have the four ancient elements that make a human being feel most like the actual living breathing made-of-meat animals we are. It’s impossible to play professional cricket in a dome; the field is too big and the condition of the air is deemed Competitively Significant.
The upshot is that playing cricket will really make you feel like a human with a body who is decidedly Outside. Even watching live cricket will make you feel this way, in its own way. Cricket fans at matches regularly find themselves seated on a patch of grass on a hill overlooking the field; they bring picnic blankets and bottles of wine. The last time I went to a cricket match, a small frog hopped past me while I was sitting on the ground.
Due to a little thing called “British imperialism,” and everyone loving to beat the British at games they invented, this strange ball-bouncing game is the second most popular sport in the world.
The real game, the videogame
Given its relative irrelevance in the video-game-making countries of America and Japan (despite the best efforts of the Japan Cricket Association to make cricket as adorable as possible), and its nature as a sport that’s fundamentally about grass and dirt and air and other things that programmers dislike, what should a cricket videogame strive for?
- Accuracy to actually-existing cricket fandom? (Burn Effigies Of Your National Team’s Star Players Simulator 2022)
- Accuracy to the experience of building and managing a cricket team? (National Team Selector 2022: decide which player’s business connects to take bribes from, make selections, justify them with haha just kidding selections never need to be justified)
- Accuracy to the experience of being a British imperialist? (“By Jove, Roger, these natives are getting a bit big for their britches. Teen guna Lagaan!”)
Really, the only thing to be absolutely accurate about is the reason the game started in the first place — it’s the rare English summer, the sun is shining, the sheep are boring conversationalists. Walk out into the middle and swing your stick, try to survive while we pitch rocks at your body parts. Feel the wind in your hair.
I do mean survive: this is a sport which has its own list of fatalities on Wikipedia (four this century).
“A cricket ball consists of a cork core wound with string then a leather cover stitched on… Cricket balls are hard and potentially lethal… Cricket ball injuries are fairly frequent, including eye (with some players having lost eyes), head and face, finger and toe, teeth and testicular injuries.”
The general attitude towards this seems to be, if you die in cricket, that’s very sad, but that’s also on you. Wear a helmet.
This survival aspect is perhaps the thing Cricket 22 gets the most right.
Batting: cricket as survival horror
Let’s assume you’re doing this game the way we do it here at stylo HQ: The best mode is Career mode, and the best format is first-class or Test matches (the ones that last 5 days and have snack breaks so the players don’t pass out), and the best controls are Pro controls, and the best difficulty settings are always the ones you look up from the obsessive sports videogame fanatics on the forum they’ve been hanging out on for the last 12 years.
In cricket, all players bat, even the ‘pitcher.’ So assuming your virtual cricket player is on a team, no matter whether they are #1 or #11 in the batting order, eventually they have to walk that 400-foot-across grass field, step up to the little 22-foot-long dirt strip (‘the pitch’) in the middle, and get that hard-as-a-rock ball bowled at them. Your goal is to not let the ball hit the stumps, three cylindrical wooden posts that are planted vertically behind you to make a small sort of fence. Each stump is about as high as your virtual player’s testicles - this is not a coincidence. You can block the ball with the bat or leave it alone completely without penalty. If you are really ambitious, you can try to hit the ball past the fielders and run to the other side of the dirt strip. When you run to the other side, your AI-controlled batting partner at the other end will run to your side and take your place at bat. This is one run.1 You can score up to 6 runs per ball.
A hit to the edge of the field is four runs. Over the rope is worth six. 50 runs and you’ve made a good impact on the game. 100 runs and that’s a ‘century’ and possibly Player of the Match. 200 runs, the whole league is talking about your exploits at the end of year highlights. 300 runs in a match at international level, and the world will talk about it for the next 50 years at least.
If you mess up once — one single time — if you miss and the ball hits the sticks (out ‘bowled’), or you hit the ball in the air to a fielder (out ‘caught’), or you’re a slow runner and the fielding team hits the sticks with the ball before you get to the other side (‘run out’), or you accidentally kick the sticks and they fall over (‘hit wicket’), or you block the ball with your body and it would have hit the sticks according to the umpire’s wise judgment, you little cheater you (‘leg before wicket’), etc etc - you’ve ‘lost your wicket,’ you’re OUT with capital letters, the umpire executes you with a 1916 Broomhandle Mauser, and your corpse is taken to the locker room for the rest of the innings. (This is the kind of sport where one-half of one baseball inning is called “an innings” - a great example of the endangered British Singular Plural.)
An innings can take multiple days of morning-through-evening play, with a lunch break, a tea break, a snack break, etc — again, we’re talking about one team finishing its batting order once. Each team has two innings (Plural Plural). Cricket 22 is one of the few sports games where a time-of-day indicator is crucial to gameplay.
If you’re really good at this whole process of stick-swinging and other-sticks-defending and not-getting-hit-in-the-nuts-ing, you get to stay in the game and keep doing it — for as long as you can do it, literal days, or whenever your captain decides they would rather just let the other team bat than watch you continue. (This is called ‘declaring,’ as in “I declare I’m sick of this shit, let’s get it over with, my wife is wondering where I am.”)
In sum - cricket batting is a game where you will always get out, and if you survive this next ball, your reward is getting the chance to try and survive the ball after that, one after another until you get out, get hit in the nuts, or everyone gives up. In this way it’s a lot like life.
Batting in Cricket 22 is the inferior version of batting in real life, if mostly because no one has invented a videogame controller that will punch you in the nuts. (Although, when they do, boy howdy is that person gonna be rich.) The batting system is a complex interplay of variables, which can be phrased as questions:
- Did you swing the bat at the right time?
- And less obviously, if you’re more accustomed to baseball: Did you move your feet in the right direction? (Depending on where the ball bounces, you’re really going to want to move your feet / left thumbstick forward, backward, or out to the side if you want to actually hit it.)
- And the most important question: Did you play the correct shot? It turns out there’s a lot of things you can do with a paddle made out of English willow aiming for a leather ball, and some of them are Correct whereas others will 100% get you out.
With custom difficulty settings, batting in Cricket 22 can fall into one of several camps.
Option A: You drive the difficulty up to the point that your player gets out to a split-second mistake of yours, random neurons misfiring in your brain. Although such “brainfades” are sort of the entire endurance appeal of cricket batting in real life, they invariably feel unfair in a videogame, and so you can choose to immediately quit, reload your save file, and continue batting as if nothing happened. In other words, you can cheat. Truly massive scores can be gathered this way.2 The highest first-class score of all time is 501 not out (yes, five hundred and one runs by one player over three days, ending in a drawn match, because of course).3 With enough savescumming, you can replicate this experience in Cricket 22.
But then there’s also Option B: You lower the difficulty settings such that you barely ever get out for a low score. This review believes this style encourages the player to shut their brain off and swing the bat until eventually, they get out to dumb luck. Far be it from me to tell you how to enjoy your videogame, however.
Real cricket demands 10-second bursts of concentration. Batters ‘switch on’ when the bowler is in his run-up, and ‘switch off’ shortly after the ball is dead. Between plays, they wander around, look at clouds, prod at the ground, etc. (Poking the ground with a large stick is truly one of the great appeals of cricket when compared to any other sport.) In Cricket 22, you manage your own attention span. You can skip directly to the next ball by pressing the action button, but that will require you to sustain your concentration on the game for longer spans. Alternately, you can choose to watch the virtual man or woman poke the virtual ground with a virtual stick, a sort of cutscene repast. In this way you can manage the difficulty of your Cricket 22 experience to become as close to, or far from, Real Cricket as the player desires.4
I lied earlier when I said there were two philosophies of difficulty in this game. There is a third difficulty, Option C — perfectly tailor your difficulty settings to your personal neuron-firing-speed and some imagined standard of realism such that it “feels real to you.” Let us be clear, this is the domain of psychos. (With all love to said psychos.) There are (not counting here) like 86 different difficulty settings in this game. You will not be able to get The Realest Experience That Cricket 22 Can Deliver. This is probably OK, in the grand scheme of things. You will not be able to walk on to the Indian National Cricket Team based on your Cricket 22 prowess. There are no stakes, really, other than whatever you feel like doing with this here software.
What it feels like to play Cricket 22
So what does it feel like? It feels like: Your team is batting first and has just lost their first batter for relatively cheap. You walk into the middle of the field at #3, with the score at 35 runs and 1 out (‘wicket’). You must face a set of 6 balls (‘an over’), unless you can score a run and have your teammate bat. Here is Bowler A, a fast-medium seam bowler. You decide to see what he’s got before you start swinging wildly. He bowls three balls that bounce well short of the usual, the last whizzing past your nose. This is a videogame that can’t actually hurt you, and that’s a bad ball, so for the next short ball you step onto your back foot, and flick the bat to the left side for an easy single. You’ve scored 1 run off 4 balls, and now you’re safely on the other end while your teammate faces this guy for the last two balls of his over.
After that first over, you’re rotated back up to bat. Now it’s a new bowler: a left-arm spin bowler. You watch as his deliveries loop in the air, spin off the ground and come back towards your gloves. Time to start defending! You block a few balls into the dirt with your bat. You try to swing at it once, but you mistime it. It’s lucky that you miss the ball entirely instead of nicking it with the edge of the bat: the opposing captain has positioned a fielder not five feet away from your face, and he’s ready to pounce on anything you touch. You survive the 6 balls through a combination of luck and defense, and now it’s your teammate’s turn to face the fast bowler again.
This is the basic batting gameplay loop of Cricket 22, and it’s to the game’s credit that it remains fiercely engaging: Every time you think you’ve got it figured out and are coasting, the AI reacts: a new bowler, a new field-setting, a new strategy. Switch on for ten seconds, watch the ball, play the ball, switch off. Repeat until you break Brian Lara’s record, or, as is only human, you err.
And assuming your player is an all-rounder, when you’re done batting, you get to bowl too.
Cricket 22 is curiously ambivalent in representing cricket’s embodiedness. Yes, you can get hit in the head with the ball; but your player (who can anachronistically choose to wear a brimmed baseball cap while at bat, instead of a modern helmet with full face grill) absorbs the rock off their cranium without injury. At this we shrug and say “well it’s a videogame.” Cricket 22 is suffused with “it’s a videogame”-isms. The humidity and temperature of the air which contribute to a cricket ball’s swing are, if the extensive settings menu is to be believed, abstracted to a generic ‘ball swinginess %’. The wear and tear of the ball is likely abstracted to a ‘wear percentage’ like it was a particularly niche Counter-Strike skin. Rather than the decelerate-overshoot-plant-pivot movement that anyone who’s run back and forth a bunch is familiar with, our virtual cricketers run between the sticks (‘wickets’) with a crisp hup-hup-hup sort of animation and gently and precisely touch their bats just over the line they intend to reach.
I can forgive these video-gamey foibles. Cricket 22 is created by a small developer (ironically named “Big Ant”), far smaller than EA Sports, the corporate behemoth. I’m inclined to cheer Big Ant for merely representing some of the daily motions of the sport accurately. Watching cricket itself barely looks real to an American viewer; basics like “catching a fly ball”, when translated through a paradigm of rock-hard ball and defenseless fingers, tends to resemble cupping your palms to catch a tossed frog, or pretending your hands are actually shadow puppet crocodile jaws. Boundary fielding: one fielder dives out of bounds to catch the ball, flings it into the air before he hits the ground, and another in-bounds fielder streaks over to receive the ball for the out - like baseball catches combined with football laterals. Batters can scoop the ball over their own heads directly behind them for runs (the field is a circle, you see). In its improvisational flexibility cricket is the jazz of sports.
To see the everyday motions of this sport represented in videogame is itself something of a marvel, doubly so when there is a certain fidelity to the feeling of those motions. The bat-swinging animations have seen a lot of care. Hitting the ball square is an audible crack; hitting it off the leading edge is a tonk; an errant swing produces a thin snick and you start praying to the cricket gods that it won’t carry to one of the fielders positioned right at your back. When it’s too risky to run and you want your AI partner to stop and book it back to his end, you press the “Cancel Run” button and your virtual player hollers a truly anguished “No!!”. If you watch a GoPro video of club cricketers playing the game IRL, you will hear this exact same intonation. The vibe is there.
(Speaking of club cricket, I went to a Minor League Cricket match on the West Coast recently. All 15 people in the audience who were not me or my girlfriend were clearly related to the players in some way. In this country, the only people who like cricket are those who have to like cricket, by profession or relation. In this way also, cricket is like jazz.)
In simulating the world of cricket, the incentives quickly begin to clash. See, a Cricket 22 career brings with a certain preordained career pipeline. At the beginning of the game, a voice on the phone purporting to be a cricket talent scout of some kind asks you which national team you aspire to play for someday. There’s the rub — there must be a goal tied to the real world. Your virtual cricketer plays for a local team (often computer-generated and racially inauthentic for their areas) that feeds into a district team (probably a real team with computer-generated players) that feeds into a national team (perhaps licensed). If you choose India, you’ll be aspiring to play with, or compete against for selection, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, etc. If you pick England, can you bat as well as Joe Root? Or Zak Crenshaw, for that matter? One desires to play the game ‘naturally’, but then one thinks “I really need my mate Cornwallis Rutherbupkinton to make the England squad before the next Ashes series so dear old Blighty can give Marnus Labuschagne and those filthy convicts down under what for!”5 This tension between career success and gameplay challenge obtains in all sports videogames, but it chafes a bit more in a game so unforgiving of momentary lapses.
And so we come back to the question: What is the point of a sports videogame? Are you playing it for the purity of the skill test? Or are you playing it so you can turn the record books into the funny pages and hit Blupko Donkbishop for six sixes in an over? The choice is yours, I suppose, but I know which way I lean.
Cricket 22 thus butts the experience of playing cricket - or more specifically, playing a cricket videogame, with all its virtual oddities - against the real life context of cricket in a way that is not entirely, but at least somewhat, unappetizing. Do we have to think about real life sports (and its attendant capitalist nightmares) every time we play a videogame? Can’t a sports videogame be the sports equivalent of playing with G.I. Joe’s and inventing backstories for the made-up players? Or do we have to look up the backstories on Wikipedia and find out that your new virtual cricket teammate was in real life the subject of a domestic violence lawsuit in 2016? As a preteen playing NHL 2000 I had no idea what an “Eric Lindros” was or why I should care. He was a Guy who lived inside my computer. He had Stats, you see. Once, playing with the superteam I assembled by having every hockey team trade me their best players for free (cheating, in other words), I broke the virtual plexiglass at the virtual hockey rink with a 115-mile-an-hour Eric Lindros slapshot. I don’t know if that’s realistic and I don’t really care.
I wonder how Cricket 22 would look if it ditched the trappings of league and player licensing entirely and just existed in the realm of AI-created spreadsheets full of imaginary player data. In other words, exist solely as a simulation of a sport with no ties to the real life sport. I understand that this is surely a financial death sentence and would probably lead to Indian fans chucking their computers out the window en masse6 but I still would like to see it. (Such a game would have sort of the same appeal as Football Manager - play God with the careers of a bunch of randomly-generated sports Waldos. If the computer generates you a 16-year-old wonderkid, will you select him for the national team straightaway? Or will you leave him languishing in domestic cricket for years because you don’t like his haircut? The real National Team Selector 2022 starts here!)
I must apologize, for this review is so very long. But rest assured, if you are a cricket fan, you don’t have other videogame options than Cricket 22, so why not play it. If you’re not a cricket fan, well, you won’t miss its presence in your life. But think on this: I wasn’t a football, baseball, or hockey fan, or even know the rules when I started playing Madden, NHL, or Triple Play 2001. And, well, I’m still not a fan fan. But I know a little bit more about the world now, and that’s interesting. If nothing else, as a 1500s schoolboy might put it: it’s something to do.
Score: 2.5/4 stars
Cricket 22 cheerily allows savescumming by not saving the most recent play until after the ball is blown dead. However, if you’re cheating for high scores, you can accidentally swing the bat so much that your stamina bar goes empty and your player is taken off the field for exhaustion. Most players will never encounter the stamina bar in normal play. Cheating creates neat edge-cases! ↩
Digression: There is an imposter game for Cricket 22 called Real Cricket 22, which is perhaps the ultimate search engine hack: Just take the name of whatever game you’re copying and add “Real” to the front of it, like you’re creating a Twitter username in 2009. Real Cricket 22 should just be the real-life game of cricket. Real Madden 22 and it’s the grave of John Madden, dearly departed. Real SimCopter cancels out, leaving you with just a copter. Etc. ↩
I assume this is how British cricketers talk. Google “Azeem Rafiq” to learn more. ↩