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The battling bugs of Beijing

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / November 13, 2011

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Cricket is a very old and complicated game, and it obviously played a part in the invention of baseball. Although, historians at Plimoth Plantation here in Massachusetts believe our game has a much closer genetic connection to stool ball, which colonists brought here directly from England, where milkmaids in the 1400s fashioned their milking stools into wickets (think: home plate) and swung some manner of a bat at balls bowled toward the milking stool. Obviously, not many dull moments in the barn.

Somewhere along the way, Abner Doubleday no doubt offered his opinion on the cricket vs. stool ball controversy. But then again, few baseball historians, if any, believe Doubleday truly invented the game, as made-for-Cooperstown folklore contends. Truth is, baseball owes its invention to evolution here in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, although today it often seems a stretch to say that the players evolved, too.

Personally, I’ve never seen a stool ball game, although it is still played in parts of southern England, mostly by women, few of them likely milkmaids. I’ve attended a few cricket matches, including during an early ’70s trip to the UK, where I quickly became far more enthralled by the sheep dog exhibition at an adjoining field in the English countryside.

The dogs had it all over the cricket players. They were obedient, focused, artful, coy, eerily stealthy, and it was near-hypnotizing to see them stalk and round up the sheep, answer to their masters’ commands, including sharp, shrill whistles. I have an even greater appreciation for the sport of sheep dogging today because my own dog, Brock, answers only to the rustle of a food bag and responds to but the one-word command, “Treat!’’ He is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, about 5 pounds above lapdog limit, and he has trained his master to be a pathetic softy.

There was a fascinating cricket story in the print edition of last Sunday’s New York Times, but it focused not on the field game that may or may not be embedded in baseball. Rather, it was about cricket fighting, in China. China is not particularly known for cricket, but it is known for fighting crickets. The sport puts two seemingly innocent bugs inside a clear plastic bowl and has them battle it out, until one of them surrenders, be it due to exhaustion, total boredom, profound timidity, or perhaps a fractured antenna.

The sport goes way back, more than 1,000 years to the Tang Dynasty, according to Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, who penned his story on the sweet insect science from Beijing, where peasants sell the bugs in bulk lots of some 200 for about $1.60. That’s less than a penny per potential prized heavyweight, the envy of directors of player development around the professional sports world.

Just a few of the fascinating bug bits in the report, which carried the headline: “Chirps and Cheers: China’s Crickets Clash’’:

■ Banned in China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976, the sport has become increasingly popular, especially among young men, in recent years.

■ Formal cricket fighting associations have sprung up across the country, with 20-plus websites devoted to the blood sport.

■ Fatalities are extremely rare, and injuries typically not debilitating. Defeated crickets are usually discarded on the spot, plucked from the bowl and literally kicked to the curb in some instances. Winners are carefully scooped up in small wire nets and kept in tiny ornate houses that can cost hundreds of dollars.

■Big matches in Beijing are shown on large screens in public places. Such attention, of course, fuels illegal gambling. Not unlike the far more menacing and disgusting sports of cockfighting and dog fighting here and in other parts of the world.

■ Some of the best fighting critters hail from the Shandong Province, which juts out into the East China Sea, much like a fighter would lead with his chin.

■ A particularly caring owner/trainer may allow his prized fighter an herbal bath and feed him a juicy maggot or two the night before a big match, then lavish him with a procession of female visitors to sharpen his fighting spirit.

From a Western point of view, cricket fighting seems far crazier than cricket, although it gets points for the simplicity of its rules. If one day I found myself dawdling down a back alley in Beijing, I can’t say for certain that I’d elbow my way into a small scrum of men chirping over the lefts, rights, jabs, and hooks exchanged by two crickets in a small plastic bowl. Frankly, the whole thing seems, well, buggy. And I sure as heck wouldn’t be spotted bowlside without a 6.5-ounce can of OFF!

Then again, I’ve caught glimpses of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, another blood sport now popular here in America and other refined, developed countries. UFC is populated by bare-chested, tattooed men, usually bald and maniacal looking, who clobber each other silly with everything but the tire iron from their Harleys.

Be it cricket fighting or UFC, I am left to ask, is that really sport? Between the two, the nod here definitely goes to the crickets, because they’ve kept the customers coming back for more than 1,000 years.

In his report from Beijing, Jacobs wrote of a 33-year-old finance worker, Zhang Zheng, who offered his take on why the Chinese have fallen back in love with an old cultural favorite.

“It’s in our nature to be aggressive, but fighting is illegal,’’ said Zhang. “So we project our emotions onto crickets, and when they win, we feel proud, but then perhaps we become a little less aggressive.’’

Proof, I suppose, that fighting is fighting the world over, be it two-fisted and grunting or four-legged and chirping. In China, they think the whole thing’s cricket.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.