A cricket game in Port Elizabeth, a football match in Warsaw

One developing story that I have yet to comment on was the news that the traditional Boxing Day test in South Africa will be replaced this year by a Twenty20. Most pundits bemoaned the decision: calling it tragic, a disgrace, a break from holy tradition.

And at first, I agreed. If this had been Australia that had cancelled its Boxing Day test, I too would have been calling for heads, mostly because Australian test matches are Central Time Zone friendly. But since it was the South African test instead, I was able to approach the subject with a cooler head.

And I like the decision.

It shows some of that “outside of the box” thinking that cricket boards throughout the world are going to need to embrace if the game we love is going to survive this tumultuous period. Sometimes, tradition needs to be sacrificed for the overall sustainability of the organization the tradition initially supported. Vatican II took away the Latin mass; CSA takes away the Boxing Day test.

Unfortunately, the decision is quite correctly another check-mark in the Win column for the shortest format in its ongoing competition against the longest format, but the sooner we all stop thinking about it as a competition, the better. At some point, test cricket fans are going to need come to grips with the fact that the Twenty20 is here to stay. But then again so is Test Cricket. These are growing pains. Nothing more. And decisions like CSA’s, counterintuitively, are necessary evils in the pursuit of the over-reaching goal: the peaceful the peaceful coexistence of the two formats.

*

Today, there was a football match. Russia versus Poland. In Warsaw. On Russia Day. With a German referee.

It was terribly poor planning from UEFA. Now, I am not saying they should have cancelled the match, or moved the match, or swapped out the referee, but it all seems so…purposeful. Like they wanted to stoke the fires of Nationalism. They could have removed any or all of those qualifiers, but instead they let it all go forward. And they did so because they had a vested interest in the match: controversy sells tickets, it increases viewership, and it makes for a more lucrative product to sell to advertisers.

Their history is too long, and there is just too much potential for violence. Again, I am loathe to involve politics in sport, but UEFA simply should not allow Russia to play Poland, in Warsaw, on Russia Day, with a German referee.

Thankfully, despite reports of violence in the Russian’s pre-match march through the city center, and despite the Russians unfurling a massive “This Is Russia” banner during the national anthem, the match seemed to go off okay. The ref did a great job avoiding flash points, as one dodgy penalty call could have set of a thunderstorm of violence, and the fans for their part seemed more interested in what was an engrossing football match than they did in picking fights with supporters across the aisle.

Kudos as well to the players for not inciting violence with tasteless celebrations or gestures.

In the end, I guess, maybe UEFA is right. Maybe the game is bigger than petty nationalism; maybe fans, players, and referees can behave themselves no matter the history; maybe I am not giving anyone involved quite enough credit.

No such peace flags will be offered to the members of the media who covered the match, however, as they did not nothing for two days but salivate over the prospect of the ancient enemies doing battle on the football pitch. In Warsaw. On Russia Day. And the violence that might occur in the alleys or on the terraces.

For they know quite well that casual NASCAR fans watch for the crashes – and casual football fans watch for the riots. And the more viewers, the more money.

Which, at the end of the day, defines the real evil in all of this:

Money.

Whether it is a football match in Poland or a cricket game in Port Elizabeth. Money is the root of all decisions, be they good or bad.

Hopefully, for all our sakes, those decisions drive us closer to the former, rather than the latter.

Got them post-war blues…

A rain shortened dead rubber in Birmingham means more history here on Limited Overs.

*

England’s first match after World War 2 was against India on June 22-25, 1946, at Lord’s.

The Allies had officially declared victory at 2:41am on May the 7th, 1945, but despite the throngs that filled London to celebrate peace that spring, and despite what our history books tell us, the victory rang hollow and cold.

That summer saw the nuclear devastation in Hiroshima and Nagaski, as well as the beginnings of the Cold War. In July of 1945, Churchill was ousted from power by the Labor Party, and England was left alone by its former Allies to lick its wounds – the USA had cancelled lend-lease without notice, and only after much cajoling did congress agree to lend them money to rebuild: money that they would not fully repay until 2006.

England was a shell of its former self. There was a housing shortage, a food shortage, and a morale shortage. The bombings had ceased, but so had the sense of community they had created. English society was fractured, their buildings destroyed, and their economy broken.

Their opponents at Lord’s, India, were also in a state of post-war flux. As an English colony, they had committed an all-volunteer army to the war effort – almost 2.5 million strong at its height. They fought in Western Europe, Italy, North Africa, and throughout Asia reclaiming territory for the allies after Japan’s surrender – almost 70,000 Indians were killed in the fighting.

Unlike England, but like the USA, India had not experienced any fighting on its home soil, and entered peacetime stronger than ever – especially financially. This strength would assist them in their formal declaration of independence in 1947 – making the series in the summer of ’46 their last series against England as a colony.

The only dark mark on India during the wars years was a devastating famine in Bengal – caused by overly drastic rationing. Historians differ on how many lives were lost, but the number hovers around 3million souls.

(Side note: as I was reading through a report on World War 2 casualties by country, I saw that China lost 10-20 million people during the war – mostly civilians during Japanese occupation. I had no idea. A sad commentary on the average American’s understanding of history.)

And that was the backdrop as the coin was flipped at Lord’s on the morning of June the 22nd. 30,000 people turned out that day, and the gates were closed by noon. India won the toss and chose to have a bat.

Sir Alec Bedser’s seven wickets restricted the visitors to just 200 all out. England responded with an entertaining 428 – thanks to a double century from the always elegant Joe Hardstaff.

India’s second innings was not much better than its first. Sir Alec took another four wickets and the visitors were bowled out for 275 – which put them only 48 runs ahead of England. The home side knocked those off before one o’clock on the third day – giving them a 10 wicket win to usher in the post-war cricketing era.

Between 1877 (the year of their first test match) and 1939, England had played in 243 tests: winning 100, losing 72, and drawing 71. A winning percentage of 42% and a win/draw percentage of 70%.

Between June of ’46 and their win at Trent Bridge last week, England has 679 tests: winning 229, losing 193, and drawing 257. A winning percentage of 34% and a win/draw percentage of 72%.

Obviously, those numbers are a bit misleading, as while some test teams, like India, have improved greatly since 1946, the number of minnows playing tests has been greatly expanded. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe account for 11 of those 229 wins and three of those 257 draws, for instance.

Either way, I don’t think the 10 point drop in winning percentage speaks of England’s decline – I think it is instead emblematic of their inability to maintain their dominance in an increasingly competitive cricketing marketplace.

Which, in turn, is a metaphor for the United Kingdom’s overall place in our modern world.

Despite the fact that the Germans were the capitulators in May of 1945, England’s victory did not launch them into the stratosphere, like it launched the USA or India. And that’s how war works, I guess. To the victor go the spoils? Not necessarily. The spoils go to those that remained out of range of the bullets.

*

Keep Going

Rain in Edgbaston this morning, looks as though the entire day is going to be a wash, so I’d thought I would take this opportunity to talk about the history between England and the West Indies:

The West Indies have played England in 145 test matches, dating back to June of 1928. England have won 45, the West Indies have won 53, and there have been 49 draws. (West Indies have also won three more ODIs and two more T20s.) And, so, at the very least, West Indian fans can enjoy the fact that their boys hold the advantage in the overall series history. A draw in the third match would make that advantage even safer, going forward. So I guess they have at least something to play for.

But back to 1928, and the first test between England and the West Indies: Lords, June 23-26. England won by an innings and 58 runs. They went on to win the series 3-0.

England traveled to the Caribbean in ’29-’30, and the West Indies earned a draw in the five test series.

They played three more series in the 1930s, England won in England in 1933, the West Indies won in the West Indies in ’34-35, and England won again at home in the summer of…1939.

The last match of the series in ’39 ended in a draw at the Oval on August the 22nd. One year and one day later, the Luftwaffe would carry out an all night bombing raid on London, thus beginning what is now known as the Blitz.

Five months before the series started, in March of 1939, the Germans had invaded Czechoslovakia. Two weeks after the match ended, in September of 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, an event known historically as the official start to the War. Surely the fans at the Oval that day in August felt the winds of war on their cheeks as they watched the cricket. One last afternoon in the sun, before six long dark years of war.

It was a three day match. 1,216 runs were scored, but only 23 wickets fell. England opened with 352, an 80 from Buddy Oldfield and a 73 from Sir Leonard Hutton the stand out scores.

…Hutton suffered a compound fracture of his left arm during commando training in 1941, it took eight months of rehab to heal him, and when he was discharged his left arm was two inches shorter than his right arm. But he went on to play in 63 more tests for England, scoring almost 7,000 runs for an average of 56.67…

The West Indies responded with 498 runs, including 137 in just two and a quarter hours from Bam Bam Weekes.

…Weekes only played in two test matches. He moved to the USA after the war, became a nurse, fathered six children, and died in New York in 1998 at the ripe old age of 86…

England scored 366 in their second innings, but the match was well past any hope for a result. Hutton scored 165 in five hours for the home team, whilst the great Wally Hammond scored 138 in just three.

…Hammond is one of my favorite cricketers of all time. I will let Cricinfo do the talking for me…

According to Wisden, it was a well attended and highly entertaining match. The West Indians played “carefree” and joyful cricket, and Hammond’s lightning quick 138 included a crowd pleasing 21 fours – and for all three days the Oval was soaked in brilliant late summer sunshine.

But it couldn’t last forever.

And so on Tuesday, August the 22nd, 1939, at six o’clock in the evening, in front of 9,000 spectators, the players walked off the field.

England would not play another test match until 1946.

In the interim, 450,900 British citizens would die due to military activity. Just a hair shy of 1% of their total population.

*

Epilogue:

The first test of that 1939 series against the West Indies was played at Lord’s on June 24-27. England won by eight wickets. Playing in that match was none other than Hedley Verity, well known as England’s best pre-War slow bowler.

He had played in 378 first class matches for Yorkshire up to that point, and 40 tests for England, taking 29,145 and 144 wickets, respectively. His performance at Lord’s that June was just average, at least it was for a player like Verity. He took two wickets for a tidy 54 runs.

It would be his last test match for England. He would play a few more matches for Yorkshire that summer, and his last ever cricket match would see him take 7 for 9 to bowl Sussex out for 33.*

Four summers later, he would die as a prisoner of war in Italy on July the 31st, 1943, at the age of 38.

He received his fatal wounds whilst leading a charge on German positions in Catania, Sicily. Supposedly, his last words were to his men: “Keep going, keep going, keep going.”

Inspiring, truly.

*Cheers, again, to Martin for the correction.

Two Fantasies

Tomorrow is the first day of the last test between England and the West Indies. No one is really expecting a barn burner by any means, because England has of course already won the series, but also since England has decided to rest their best bowler, and well, because the West Indies simply are not a very good side.

If the World Test League was instituted, however, this would not be the case. The West Indies could be playing for more than just pride, they could be playing for their very survival in the WTL 1st Division. Would you rather play New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka next year? Or would you rather play England, South Africa, Australia, and India?*

The latter? Fine. Then win.

For the teams in the first division are the teams that will fill your grounds. Those are the teams that bring hordes of supporters along with them to fill up your pubs, restaurants, and hotels.

And to continue this fantasy, England are currently tied on points with South Africa, and need a win to keep pace with their rivals at the top of the table.

And with both teams needing a win, we would be treated to five days of blood, sweat, and tears. But instead, in reality, it’s a dead rubber, and we are going to three, maybe three and a half, days of sleepy, bland cricket, interspersed with maybe a moment or two of brilliance.

I think this WTL idea has legs, in other words. It needs some fine tuning, and would require a complete overhaul of how cricket is played throughout the world and at all levels and in all formats, but I think it has legs. (Note: I don’t actually think this.)

*I know Pakistan is missing. They are going to win the 2nd division and be promoted to the 1st division. At the expense of the West Indies? I guess we’ll find out!

**While I was writing the above, Russ from Idle Summers made a fantastic comment on my original World Cricket League proposal. You should go read it. And then you should go read his thoughts on reorganization.

*

Tomorrow also brings us the first ODI between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Unfortunately, only our Canadian friends will be able to watch, as it is not available to US viewers on Willow.

I really have had no serious complaints with Willow over the last few months. The streams have only had one or two seriously wonky moments, and they haven’t tried to blackmail any more cricket fans into using their service. They have instead just quietly been there, day in, day out, carrying the cricket.

And that has to change. It really is time for them to crack open the wallet and purchase the rights to cricket matches on the subcontinent. The vast majority of cricket fans in the USA are Indian ex-pats, and they are not able to (legally) watch their teams’ home matches on Willow. That is a crime…and a business opportunity.

I have no idea how many subscribers they currently have, but I bet they could double it, easily, if they added all Indian home matches to their current stable of events.

Now, I realize, they are rights issues involved here. I bet the BCCI prices the rights to carry their matches online at astronomical levels. But this is where the ICC should step in. If they are serious about stamping out pirated cricket streams, then they need to make online legal streams of matches available to ALL fans throughout the world at a reasonable cost. (I think $25 a month is reasonable.)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s hackneyed post, cricket wants to be watched, and be remembered. The ICC, and the national boards, are depriving cricket of this simple and essential nutrient. A real shame, if you ask me.

*

What Cricket Wants

‘What the water wants is hurricanes,
and sailboats to ride on its back.
What the water wants is sun kiss,
and land to run into and back.’
 
-S. Stevens, from “Sister”
 

*

Yesterday, Jarrod over at Cricket With Balls answered the age old question: Is Cricket Gay? And he concluded that cricket is “like that old androgynous person who lives at the end of your street who likes cats and John Coltrane.”

Today, inspired by Jarrod, and Sufjan Stevens, I will answer the even older question: what does cricket want?

*

Cricket wants writers that can tell its stories
Calypso music
Captains’ innings
 
Cricket wants sun soaked afternoons
Pitches that dance
A day five queue
 

*

It’s really that simple. Forget over rates, and formats, and the ICC, that’s just over thinking it all.

What cricket wants is to be played, to be loved, and to be remembered.

Oh, and a strong West Indies side.

The World Test League, a Proposal

With the news of Kevin Pietersen’s retirement from international one-dayers, pundits, bloggers, journalists, and cricketers all joined in on the chorus that I have been singing since I started watching the sport:

Sing it with me now: There is too much bloody cricket.

And just to reinforce this fact, the news trickled out today that New Zealand would, more than likely, be missing four of its superstars in their test series against England next summer. Furthermore, we learned today that Jimmy Anderson would be rested for the third test against the West Indies – presumably so he is fit for the one-dayers that follow.

The outcry from the pundits is no more than I expected – just as the outcry before and after the one off twenty20 between South Africa and India was expected.

But despite all of this, nothing has changed. And to quote Douglas Adams: “And so the problem remained.”

And it is only going to get worse.

What cricket needs is a complete overhaul of how it schedules matches, how it balances formats, and who has all of the power: the franchise, the national boards, the sponsors, the ICC.

Tweaks here and there will not keep KP playing one-dayers for England, or keep Malinga playing tests for Sri Lanka – tweaks are nothing more than rotten shingles on a leaky roof. And we all known what the definition of insanity is. (In which case, the ICC is clearly out of its fucking mind – but’s a post for another day).

Cricket needs an entirely new roof. Nay. Cricket needs an entirely new house. Burn the old one down, walk away, start anew.

Let’s start with international cricket. Right now, the ten test nations play each other in a semi-regular, semi-random, cycle of tests, ODIs, and T20s. There are the Ashes, and Triangular ODI tournaments, and tours, and on and on, ad infitium. Ad nauseum.

My suggestion, and I have no idea how this will actually work, is to divide the ten teams into two divisions, based on the ICC test rankings. Over the course of each 12 month period, each team will play the four teams in its division in three tests, for a total of 12 tests per year. The winner of the top division is the World Test Champion. The last place finisher in the top division is regulated to the second division, whilst the winner of the second division is promoted to the first division.

What about the one-dayers? Well, between each test, there will be room for a single one-day match – either a T20 or an ODI, it will be up to the boards involved to decide. And that’s it. Oh, there will still be the World Cup every four years, and the T20 World Cup every two years, and the IPL and the Big Bash League, and all the other domestic competitions, but gone will be the countless, and meaningless, and interminable, international one day matches – which would of course free up scheduling room for aforementioned domestic competitions.

Now, of course, there are problems with all of this. It would be a scheduling nightmare, you would have to do away with traditional competitions like the Ashes, and the cricketing boards would have to find other ways to line their coffers other than countless one-dayers – and those are just three of the problems with what would be a monumental overhaul in the way cricket works.

But I think it could be done. And if not the above, then something else needs to happen. And I truly believe that something else will happen sooner rather than later, as more players defect from their international duties, and more test series are diluted of their talent due to domestic competitions like the IPL.

Well, I believe it will, but if it doesn’t, this might truly be what finally kills cricket in the end.

Your thoughts, dear reader?

Begun, the Format Wars, Have

A great deal has happened in our favorite sport over the last couple of days: Kevin Pietersen retired from international limited overs cricket, the ICC’s cricket committee made some rather sweeping changes to the ODI format, Sri Lanka positively THRASHED Pakistan in a T20I, there were rumors of the Champions League T20 moving to South Africa, Edgbaston was announced as the host of the 2013 Champions Trophy Final, and the details regarding England’s 2013 international summer were announced: the two most imporant parts of that last bit where that the New Zealand series is going to conflict with the IPL (or vice versa) and the Ashes are going to open at Trent Bridge.

Those were all of the major news stories regarding cricket (with one exception, which I will get to a minute), and all of the them save for the last item revolved around the one day format.

Now, that is just coincidence, of course, but I think it makes for an interesting backdrop for a discussion on KP’s decision to quit international limited overs cricket in order to focus on test cricket and, presumably, the Indian Premiere League. He is choosing the two most diametrically opposed formats in the sport; and he is doing so supposedly out of physical necessity: there is just too much cricket to play, his 32 year old body is starting to break down, and he needed to make a choice: retire from international limited-overs cricket, become a T20 mercenary in order to make big, quick cash, play some tests here and there, and then retire before it all goes south – or get hurt playing a meaningless T20I against New Zealand and die penniless.

He chose the former, and I personally don’t blame him in the slightest; just as I didn’t blame Malinga when he quit the test format; as it all comes back down to the fact that there is too much bloody cricket. Limited overs cricket has taken over the entire sport to the point where the ECB can’t find room for a fourth test against South Africa this summer, but they can find room for 13 (!!) one day internationals.  The national boards are squeezing the life out of their players, and the sport in general. The onus is no longer squarely on the IPL, nor was it ever, really – it belongs on the shoulders of every cricket board across the globe.

Now, however, the players are starting to revolt, and I think it’s great. And not just any players, but two of the most exciting players in the game. I am not an England supporter, but I was heartbroken to learn KP will not feature in this fall’s Twenty20 World Cup.

Now, we fans just need to join in on the revolution, and maybe the boards will start to listen.

*

The one news story I left out concerned discussions regarding the resumption of cricketing ties between India and Pakistan, which I think it is just fantastic news.

In order to thrive and grow, cricket needs a lot of things: to list all of them is a post for another day, but a strong West Indies side is one such thing, and India playing Pakistan on a regular basis is another.

And so let’s hope the two nations can figure out a way to peacefully co-exist, on the cricket pitch at the very least.

Until next time.