Russia is definitely not the first country that comes to mind when the sport of cricket is mentioned. Many people in Russia will give you a blank stare if cricket comes up in conversation. Not knowing about cricket, however, doesn’t mean being completely isolated from it. As a matter of fact, Russia boasts a national game, called lapta, that’s very similar to cricket and baseball.

Lapta seems to have been invented a long time ago. Ancient Russian chronicles mention the game, and balls and bats have been found at archeological excavation sites in Novgorod, the Russian capital between the ninth and 12th centuries. All this begs the conclusion that lapta is at least as old as cricket, and without a doubt much older than baseball.

Peter the Great used the game for the physical conditioning of his elite guard. Two centuries later, Red Army soldiers played lapta for the same reason. Ordinary people played lapta as a leisure sport. The late 1950s were truly lapta’s golden years: The game was officially recognized as a sport, championships were held and lapta was even included in the national Olympics. Thousands of teams played the sport across the country.

Suddenly, for some reason, the sport’s development came to a screeching halt: nothing was heard of it for some 30 years, and sports organizations were not interested in it. After a government decree was enacted to development baseball, softball and lapta in the late 1980s, lapta slowly began its long recovery. The rich tradition associated with Russian lapta helped save the sport; it only needed state support to recover. The Russian lapta championships for men first took place in 1990 and have since become an annual event.

Today, at least 10,000 athletes in Russia play lapta on a more or less regular basis. This is, of course, far fewer than play football, hockey, tennis, biathlon, boxing or other more popular sports. Unlike these imports, however lapta is perceived to be a quintessentially national sport, invented in Russia and not imported from elsewhere.

  

How is lapta played? Lapta is a team sport, with six players on each team and each match split into two 30-minute halves with a five-minute break in between. Players use 60–110 cm long bats that are no longer than five centimeters in diameter and weigh around 1.5 kg; a tennis ball weighing 60 grams serves as the game’s ball.

After the official determines the serving order by drawing of lots, players take their positions: The defending team proceeds to the field while the server stands on a special pad. A teammate will throw the server a ball to be hit strongly and accurately; if the ball goes out of the field without touching the ground, it’s a strikeout. Once the ball is served, the batting team’s players rush forward with the aim of running up to the “kon” line and back “home” while the ball is in play. If successful, each player earns two points for the team. The runners may remain beyond the kon line until their team bats again, at which point they can run back. Tackling runners is strictly forbidden.

Fielders can take runs away from their opponents by tagging runners with the ball. After tagging someone, the fielder must run beyond the base line or home before getting tagged himself. Both teams may tag each other as long as any player remains outside the baseline or home areas. If a fielder catches the ball while it is in the air, the team gets one run. If there is no one to be tagged, the ball is given back to the picture. If a runner returns before completing his run, he is automatically called out and the teams rotate sides.

Fouls are punished by yellow cards, while repeated fouls, unnecessary roughness and brawls on the field are given a red card. As soon as a team has less than four players remaining, that team automatically losses the game.

Lapta is a year-round sport. In the winter, field lines are painted on trampled-down snow. Indoor lapta is played on a smaller field, with certain adjustments to the rules in cases when the ball bounces off the walls and ceiling. This doesn’t, however, detract from the game as a spectator sport. You can take my word for it: watching lapta championships is no less exciting than cricket matches.