Soil and Sky

A few weeks ago, I went to see the Rembrandts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, supposedly the largest collection of works by the Dutch Master in America ever.

It was amazing. Around every corner of the gallery lurked four hundred year old profound beauty waiting to be discovered. I loved every second of the forty five minutes I spent at the exhibition. I could have stayed for hours. I cannot wait to go back.

And thanks to law of Public Domain and its section on two dimensional works of art, I can repost images of his work here on the blog:

Rembrandt captured all the beauty and the joy and the complexity of the human existence in his portraits. He was a master of telling a complicated story with simple brush strokes. You look at his work and you recognize the subject’s deepest fears as your own. You are two parts chilled and one part in supreme and magnificent awe.

There is no true way to describe the experience of being surrounded by so much human genius in one small space. It would take a Rembrandt, to accurately describe what was like to behold a Rembrandt.

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Sport is often mentioned in the same breath as art. Last March, David Green of The Reverse Sweep compared Virat Kohli to Rembrandt. A decade ago, when describing a throw from the Seattle Mariners’ outfielder, Ichiro, to third base, a beat reporter famously said it (the throw) needed “to be framed and hung on the wall at the Louvre, next to the Mona Lisa.” Video here (warning: you are going to have to watch an ad).

And even I have compared athletic endeavors to artistic triumphs: calling athletes poets, for instance.

But I think in doing so those of us writing about sport are failing to keep our eyes on the ball, and thereby are, in small ways, assisting in the destruction of art. Sure, there are moments when sport transcends and fills us with the kind of awe that a beautiful piece of music can inspire. But sport is not art, it should not be placed next to art. That is not to degrade athletes or athletic competitions, but I think we are destroying art when we use its language to describe sport. It’s like using light to describe darkness, or vice versa.

It’s okay to use hyperbole, but it’s not okay to say that Ichiro’s bullet from right deserves the kind same recognition the Mona Lisa receives. We need a da Vinci to describe a da Vinci. A Japanese singles hitter does not suffice.

And by “not okay”, I don’t mean that it’s wrong. Or that sportswriters like myself who use such similes and metaphors are ignorant hayseeds, it’s just that the comparison is incorrect, is off-base, is low and outside.  Sport is terra firma; art, nirvana.  You cannot use soil to describe sky.

However, in one very important way, art and sport do belong in the same breath: They show us what we humans are capable of, if given genius, and talent, and time, and space. There are horrors unimaginable in this world every day, but there is also art, and poetry, and, well, sport. They all inspire hope, they do it in different ways, but they inspire it nonetheless. That there can be beauty in a world with so much pain is something we should be reminded of daily. It’s good for the soul.

Life is dark and sad and mournful. But in it we can find certain things sometimes that make us feel okay about being human.

Picasso. Ichiro. Kohli.

Ali:

Rembrandt:

Soil.

Sky.

Meaningless

Like most cricket fans, I have been enjoying the Sri Lanka v India ODI series. This morning, whilst following the ball by ball (men’s road race on TV in the background), I thought to myself: “the test portion of this tour is going to be fantastic. I wonder how many they are playing?”

The answer: none.

Forgive my ignorance, but sometimes I have trouble keeping up with all of these series.

But it just doesn’t make any sense: why would two test playing nations get together and not play any tests?

Of course this is all on the heels of the positively meaningless and stupid ODI series between England and Australia.

Shoot, at least Sri Lanka is a puddle jump for the Indian team, unlike the 24 hour long haul flight between Sydney and London.

And coming up Australia face Pakistan in a one-day-only series this August/September, and Australia (again with the Aussies…what the fuck, Australia?) face the West Indies in a one-day-only series next February.

Now, I know the one day formats have their place in world cricket, but they should be the appetizer or the dessert in relation to a test series, they should never, outside of a world cup, be the main course. (With the exception of the India-Pakistan series this winter: there are extenuating circumstances there.)

All of the above thoughts this morning reminded me of my discovery yesterday that on August the 15th, three days before the opening weekend of the Premiere League and two days before the opening weekend of Ligue 1, FIFA and UEFA and every other major football board have scheduled a literal boatload of meaningless international friendlies.

All of this sport, all of it so meaningless, all of it so obviously one big giant cash grab by greedy bureaucrats who haven’t stepped foot inside the lines in decades.

Say what you will about the Olympics and the money and the corporate sponsors and the TV coverage and the fact that it is no longer an amateur competition, but at least the events all feel meaningful. At least there is a facade of competitive pride from the athletes.

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With that all said, I took a peak at the upcoming international cricket tours (that include tests) over the next 12 months: India v New Zealand, India v England, Australia v South Africa, South Africa v New Zealand, Australia v Sri Lanka, South Africa v Pakistan (drool), New Zealand v England, England v New Zealand, and the Ashes.

Okay, I am officially excited. And most of those will be available on WillowTV.

Also: what big, big year this will be for New Zealand.

And with the exception of the Ashes, that South Africa v Pakistan series should be the highlight of the year.

A little meaningful sport goes a long way.

Until next time.

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Olympiad

The Olympics start tonight.

I love the Olympics.

I have loved the Olympics my entire life.

The first games I remember watching was 1984 Los Angeles. That was the year the Soviet bloc nations boycotted the Olympics in retaliation for the US boycotting 1980 Moscow which was in retaliation to the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (everything always comes down to Afghanistan…) Because of the boycott, the US cleaned up, medal count wise. They won 174 total medals that year. The next best was West Germany with 59.

Eight year old me watched with rapt attention for the entire fortnight. I didn’t give two shits about invasions or boycotts or geopolitical conflicts…I just liked to watch Carl Lewis tear it up.

(Link above goes to Lewis’s win in the 200 meters. Which is my favorite track and field event (despite the fact that I am long distance guy). Michael Johnson’s win in the 200 at 1996 Atlanta is one of my personal favorite sporting moments ever.)

I have watch large swaths of most Olympics since, and actually enjoy the Winter Games a bit more than their summer cousin. Though one of my other favorite sporting moments was during Beijing 2008: I was at a bar in New York City when Jason Leczak came from nowhere on the last leg to win the 400m Medley Relay and keep Michael Phelps’ dream of eight golds alive.

This year’s games are, of course, in London.  And this blog is, of course, about cricket.

And so: This summer there will be a tantalizing test match happening 200 miles north in London, but having international cricket in England during a London Olympics is not a complete rarity.

In 1908, the first time London were Olympic hosts, the England cricket team were in Australia for the Ashes, but the last match of that series (a series that England lost 4-1) was in February of that year. They did not play another match in 1908.

There was the County Championship, of course. Yorkshire won it that year (shocking).

However, in 1948, the second and most recent time London hosted the games, England played 11 test matches, including hosting the Ashes series. However, none of the matches were played during the two week period of the Olympics. England lost those Ashes, too, falling to the visitors 4-0. The series is known for being Don Bradman’s last appearance in England.

England also traveled to the West Indies in the spring of that year, and traveled down to South Africa in the Fall.

Glamorgan won the County Championship that season. It was their first title.

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Despite its immense and worldwide popularity, cricket has only featured in the Olympics once: in 1900 in Paris. There was one 12 a side match played between England and France, though the French side was made up of primarily Englishman.

England won by 158 runs.

Cricket has not made an appearance since.

However, with the popularity of Twenty20, I could see it making an appearance at some point. Shoot, if the Olympics can survive BMX bikes, Rhythmic Gymnastics, and Ryan Seacrest, it can handle cricket.

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Now off to watch the opening ceremonies. Expect more Olympic talk here throughout the next couple of weeks.

Hashim Amla

What else is there left to say about Hashim Amla’s knock at the Oval against England this weekend?

Very little. It has all been said already. My early read has Firdose Moonda saying it best so far, but that could easily change.

Forget all of the speculation about whether he was fasting for Ramadan or not, forget all the talk about how the pitch is a road (it’s not, just ask Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, and Kevin Pietersen), at the end of the day: this was everything I love about cricket, wrapped up in a nice little package.

Like Cloud Cult sang once: it was “like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July making love in the snow.”

This 29 year old, quiet, devout young man walked out onto a ground 10,000 miles from his home, that was built 148 years before he was born, and on a perfect July weekend on the far edge of the world’s greatest city, simply batted for 790 minutes, just a hair over 13 hours, scoring 311 runs along the way.

He only left the pitch when his captain said “enough.”

It was elegant, it was peaceful, it was everything I love about cricket.

Again, there just isn’t a whole lot more to say.

There are times when sport transcends itself. When moments are pure and the athletes poets. These happen very rarely. But one happened today in London. And the 25,000+ at the Oval knew and understood what they were seeing: as evidenced in the massive standing ovation they gave the man that was burying their team.

Even his opponents on the England team cheered for the South African. It was a remarkable moment. I get goose-bumps just thinking about it.

The series might have already achieved its zenith. I can very well see South Africa riding on Hashim Amla’s big beautiful wave all the way to a 3-0 white wash. In fact, it is already happening, just ask Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, and Kevin Pietersen.

Hashim Amla, cricketer:

The Local Club

Earlier this week, the sport of cricket, specifically the Minnesota Cricket Association, made the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A couple weeks back, the same organization made the front page of the lifestyle section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

My initial reaction was, quite literally: HOLY CRAP!

But after a few minutes, my reaction was more along the lines of: okay…sooo… when does England v South Africa start?

When it comes down to is that I don’t give a shit about the MCA. That sounds overly harsh, but there is no other way to put it. I also don’t give a rat’s behind about the USACA – whether it be on the pitch or off. My fellow American cricket fans are always all a-twitter about the organization and its crazy antics, but personally I just don’t care. I am far more interested in what Cricket South Africa or the BCCI is up to.

A few months back, when the USA were playing in the T20 World Cup qualifiers, my fellow American cricket fans were all firmly in the corner of their countrymen, while I was quietly hoping Ireland and Afghanistan would be the two teams that went through. I just didn’t care. I had no allegiance whatsoever to my home country’s cricket squad.

That is not to say that my fellow American cricket fans are fools – the exact opposite is true: I feel the fool for not supporting my country in the sport I love, for not supporting the thriving league that exists right here in my hometown. I feel like my fellow American cricket fans are doing real, solid good for this sport we all love, while I would rather sit around in my pants and read about Sussex’s chances in the knockout stages of the FLT20.

And all of the above is true for other sports I enjoy: I love, LOVE, football, but the MLS is completely outside of anything I am remotely interested in. I think I have watched a grand total of maybe 20 minutes worth of MLS in the last three years. I hear good things though.

Also, Minnesota has a thriving second division football team. They have an active and fun supporter’s group that gives out free beer before matches (seriously). And shoot they even won the god damn league last year. But I am lucky if I make it to one match a season.

All of the above always makes me feel like a bit of a heel.

I wish I was one of those guys that supported the local club no matter what. That took the time to nurture the game in their communities. That didn’t waste their time away in a pub watching a team play on television 4,000 miles away when there was real, live football and cricket to watch just down the street.

I have tried. But I am just not that guy. Nor will I ever be, it seems. I am happy for the MCA, and I am thankful the US has cricket supporters like Peter Della Penna, for instance, who support the grassroots cricket happening throughout the country, and I am thrilled to see the MN Stars put 4,000 people in their rickety old stands every Saturday night…but it’s just not for me.

And so, fellow American Cricket Fans: keep writing, keep reading, keep supporting. You are doing the Lord’s work. And I while I thank you, envy you, and respect you, I am not going to join you.

My passions lie elsewhere.

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(Note: the only real exception to the above is that I am a huge supporter of the US Men’s National Soccer Team. I nearly died with joy when Donovan scored for the US against Algeria in 2010.)

Race

“England’s not the mythical land
of Madame George and roses,
it’s the home of police who kill
black boys on mopeds”
-Sinead O’Connor, from Black Boys on Mopeds.

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Angry, naive lyrics from a young, angry, possibly naive, pop singer. Surely. Nothing more. But also a comment on the volatile racial viper pit that was London in the 1980s. The Brixton Riots. Colin Roach. Nicholas Bramble. This article from The Independent dated 21 November 1993 is a proper summation of what life was like for the black English in London at the time. It was a difficult time, a time when England’s racial problems took hold and threatened the civility of an entire nation.

And those problems have not gone anywhere. It was just seven years ago that the police gunned down Jean Charles de Menezes in the wake of the 0f the 07 July bombings in London. And earlier this week, the captain of England’s football team was acquitted of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, despite reams of evidence to the contrary.

There is not an Englander alive that won’t tell you that England doesn’t have a race problem. A problem that saw its genesis on the backstreets of Stoke Newington and one that continues today.

You can even see it in the faces of the country’s international cricket team.

The England squad that is to face South Africa in the first test of a hugely anticipated series is, with the exception of Ravi Bopara, as white as driven snow.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s squad features seven non-white athletes: Hashim Amla, Jean-Paul Duminy, Alviro Petersen, Robin Petersen, Vernon Philander, Thami Tsolekile, and Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

Now, I realize I am wading in dangerous waters here, and I realize that when it comes to racial problems, South Africa’s are incomparable to England’s, it’s not even apples to oranges, it’s apples to hand grenades, but I still think it is worth noting that England’s squad is noticeably whiter than that of South Africa’s: the country that stripped its dark skinned populace of citizenship not 42 years ago.

Who cares? That might be your response. And what does it matter what color cricketers are anyway?

Because I think a strong African English and Caribbean English interest in cricket is necessary for not just the continued growth of the sport, but for the continued bridging of the racial divide discussed above. I feel the same about Major League Baseball and African Americans: I think it is a shame that more African American kids do not want to play baseball; I think it is bad for baseball, and bad for America.

Why?

Because: there should not be white sports and black sports. Right now: cricket is a white sport, and it shouldn’t be that way. In America: baseball is for whites and hispanics; hockey is for whites; basketball is for African Americans, as is gridiron football (except for the quarterback, of course, and the kicker.)

The racial divide in sport among the two shining lights of Western style democracy is a chasm deep, wide, and bridge-less.

Yes, of course, football has a huge race problem, in England, and throughout the world. I get that. I am not saying cricket is the only devil here. I am just saying that it is a shame that while we demand racial equality in the workplace and in the schools, we allow it to fester between the lines of our favorite Saturday pastimes.

And so what do we do? How do we kick racism out of football? How do we get more Afro-Caribbeans interested in cricket?

In researching, and reading, I came across this article that I think is worth your time. There is also the Chance to Shine project, and many other worthwhile attempts to keep the sport healthy, vibrant, and diverse.

But otherwise, I don’t have any answers. I just think it is a shame. And really something that the ECB should actively be talking about. And it looks like they are. Good on them.

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If any of the above offends, please take a moment and remember that it was not meant to do so. It has been just something I have been thinking about the last couple of days. Please do let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Here is a hauntingly beautiful version of the song quoted above:

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All of the above, I am excited as can be for the series. See everyone on Twitter.

Why Cricket?

Note: I had shopped this around as a freelance piece but it went nowhere; so I thought I would just go head and post it here. And so without further ado: the story of how I fell in love with cricket:

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My name is Matt, I was born and raised in the midwestern United States, and I am 36 years old.

In 2007, I fell head over heals in love with the sport of cricket.

And the affair continues, all these years later, and in fact my admiration and respect for the sport and its participants has only grown, and I continue to find joy in it in different ways every single day.

So how did this happen? How did a middle-aged man who had spent all of his life in a country that ignores cricket fall so deeply for the sport?

Short answer: baseball, cigarettes, and the Internet,

Long answer:

I was born in Flint, Michigan, but moved soon after my birth to Cincinnati, Ohio, and it was there that I became a kid obsessed with the great American pastime of baseball. I loved the hometown Reds, but I also loved the Montreal Expos, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals. When I was nine, my maternal grandfather gave me two books: The Glory of Their Times, The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, and A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball; both defined how I felt about baseball, and about sport in general. I still have, and treasure, both volumes.

When I was nine years old, my family moved to upstate New York, and then later to central Michigan, and then later again to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Along the way, I lost track of the Reds, and simply supported whichever team I fancied. The seeds of being able to support teams that existed outside of my community, something unheard of in America, were being sown.

My attraction to baseball ebbed, and flowed, as I grew older. I discovered girls: ebb. I had my heart broken: flow. There was the strike in 1994: ebb. There was the steroid era: further ebb. There was the resurgence of the Minnesota Twins: flow.

Despite the ebbs, I still loved to read about the game, its history, its stats, its heroes, its moments.

At its soul, I loved the game. But I also loved the idea of it.

Still do.

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Sometime in 1995, I started smoking cigarettes. My addiction to tobacco was intense and all encompassing, but that is a love story for another day.

In April of 2007, I quit smoking.

This is where the cricket comes in.

Most fans of the sport will know exactly what was happening in April of that year: the Cricket World Cup, hosted by the West Indies.

The tournament is widely remembered for its empty stadiums and its bland cricket; it was too long, there was too much rain, and everyone knew Australia was going to win anyway.

But I was enthralled. My nicotine starved brain had found the one thing in the entire world that it could not relate cigarettes to. I followed every match on Cricinfo, I read, and re-read, and read again all of the rules of the game. I studied its history, I watched videos on YouTube, and I still remember the thrill I would get in the lining of my stomach (not kidding, that’s where it was) whenever I thought about the game.

I freely admit at this point that I was intrigued with the novelty of it all, and was not yet truly a fan of the game. Many Americans stumble upon cricket, find it initially fascinating, and then fade back to baseball.

Further, I also admit that I was clearly insane with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Every ex-smoker will tell you of those odd first six months.

But I stuck with it. Thankfully, I had the Internet. And a cracking Indian tour of England that summer to follow on it. I started listening to radio coverage of County Cricket  mornings at the office. I rode my bicycle to Bryn Mawr Field in Minneapolis to watch the league of ex-pats play. I bought a bat. I started a blog. I made friends with fellow fans on the Internet. I subsribed to Willow.TV and woke at odd hours to take in important matches. I went to London and had my wife take my picture in front of Lord’s.

So what made me stay?

The game itself. And distant friends.

First: the latter. After college, or thereabouts, all my friends moved away: Wisconsin, Florida, Burma, Nepal – all the four corners of the world, in other words. And I felt a little isolated in my suburb, a little stuck, a little far away. I had a mortgage, and a job, and I had roots.

But cricket was my escape. At any moment, I could be in London, Mumbai, or Perth. Colombo, Dhaka, or Johannesburg. I could travel the world by following my sport.

But then there was the game itself.

The game.

It had its history and it stats, just like baseball, only its history went back hundreds of years, and its stats filled more than just notebooks, they filled data banks.

But more: I loved that the attacking team could change the game with a single ball, forcing the batting side to build momentum over hours, sessions, days; the opposite of baseball, and far more logical. And the batsmen, the best batsmen, bat for days, and days. What a magnificent and admirable test of patience, skill, and concentration. While the bowlers, the best bowlers, those that make the new ball sing, are like ballet dancers, steaming in again and again and again.

The game is just beautiful to watch, sometimes incomprehensibly so, considering all of the standing that goes on. But the power is in the spaces between the moments, like great poetry, or falling in love.

And more: the different formats: county cricket versus the Indian Premier League versus the Ashes. An infinite cycle of formats, players, and grounds: I love test cricket for its quiet dignity: flip a coin, play cricket for five days, but I also love an ODI in Chennai for its color and its energy, and I love a T20 in Melbourne for its brevity and its ferociousness.

And then there are the characters the game produces. Sure, the game has its pastoral side, but it is also made up of drunks, and sledgers, and criminals, and cheaters. It is a non-contact, bat and ball sport, but despite that there is violence in the short ball, in the attack, in  the 60 ball century.

Every pitch is different, some with green patches, some dry and cracked, some swing when its cloudy, some spin on day four, some crumble on day three. The ball travels vastly differently in the subcontinent than it does elsewhere – every ground is different, and therefore able to produce magic. The rigidness of the football pitch does not exist in cricket.

And then you spice the matches up with regional conflicts, colonialism, globalization, and the soup gets even spicer. The English with bacon and egg ties and their long rooms juxtaposed against one billion cricket mad Indians. Pakistan having two sources of national pride: cricket, and their nuclear weapons program. The West Indies throwing off the shackles and dominating the game for twenty years. Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Rebel Tours of South Africa. It is never ending.

And so I watch, and I will continue to do so. But I will also read, and write; because that’s the one thing about cricket that most people do not realize: no other sport lends itself to quality writing quite like cricket does. There are countless fantastic cricket writers in the world today, the vast majority unpaid and unknown bloggers. Romance, history, humor, drama…name the genre, and cricket will provide the fodder.

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That is the story of I how fell in love with cricket, and that is why I will stay in love with cricket, and that is why I will bunk off work tomorrow morning so I can watch the first T20 between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and that is why I will write a blog post about Kevin Peitersen’s decision to quit international limited overs cricket while doing so.

In the end, I am glad I stumbled upon the game. It is a great sport, albeit an unsure one: unsure of its future, unsure of its identity, and unsure of its place in the world. It also tries too hard to impress the wrong people, and tends to ignore the things that really matter, and strangely, despite all of its insecurities, seems to simultaneously think way too much of itself, especially when you consider all of its flaws.

Wait a minute, that also describes me, maybe that’s why I fell in love… we were made for each other.