Surrey vs Sussex at The Oval, County Championship

Surrey 351 & 308, Sussex 526
Match drawn

There is a lot Americans will never “get” about cricket. But number one on that list is surely the draw. And of all of cricket’s formats, four-day cricket is the one most likely to produce draws. The fact that a format exists where, for the most part, teams simply do not have enough hours to finish a game, would befuddle most American sports fans. (There were 81 draws in the first division last season, out of 304 total matches.) The five day Test? They could get on board with that, but the four day game would come across as meaningless.

And that’s too bad, because four day County Championship matches are, for the most part, endlessly entertaining.

I would argue that the time restrictions involved make the format more interesting than its five day cousin (on occasion) despite their tendency to force no results. Long stands like we saw from Luke Wells at the Oval, for instance, while match saving, tend to wipe out any chance of a result. Meanwhile, long stands like the one we saw from Hashim Amla at the Oval last summer, tend to bury opponents.

Furthermore, at the other side, the economical bowlers favored in the one day game, or in the five day game to eat up overs, are cast aside in favor of those that can take wickets and take them quickly. Expensive or inexpensive, doesn’t matter: take wickets.

To win at four day cricket, teams need to score runs quickly and take wickets quickly, which always makes for exciting cricket.

Unfortunately, we saw very little of the above from Sussex last week. Surrey opened with 351 all out in a day and change, and then Sussex, and Luke Wells, batted on and on and on and on. Wells’ finally tally was quite impressive: 208 runs, 412 balls, 526 minutes. 68 overs and four balls. Eight and three-quarters hours. Let’s see Chris Gayle do that.

It was after tea on day three before Sussex were done after batting for 157 overs. Their lead was 175 and they had about 100 overs to bowl out their opponents to win. But they couldn’t do it; they just could not take wickets. Chris Jordan took five Surrey wickets in the first innings, but none in the second; with an economy rate of over four.

The former needs to change, if the latter is to continue.

Graeme Smith was allowed to bat for over two hours. Gary Wilson for three. Vikram Solanki two and a half. It was a great stand for Surrey but I must say it was, to put it bluntly, poor from the Sussex bowlers.

And despite the double centurion Wells’ best, taking the wickets of Solanki and Zander de Bruyn in the 49th and 78th over himself, there just wasn’t enough time. Smith declared with a sizable lead and Sussex never even saw a ball in their second innings.

I have heard rumors that the pitch was lifeless. And it very well might have been. But 100 overs? That should be enough time.

*

In the end, it was probably a fair result. 100 overs was enough time but for some reason the attack just could not take wickets. Again, it might be only April, but that needs to change and change soon.

The draw leaves Sussex in sole possession of third place in the table. Next up: Warwickshire at Hove, May 1-4.

Warwickshire (1-0-2) are currently in second with a match in hand.

They sent a poet…

In case you missed it, Chris Gayle scored 175 off of 66 balls a couple days ago in Bangalore in an IPL match against Pune.

It was the highest score in the history of the format.

His 100 only took 30 balls, the quickest century in history.

He struck 17 6s, the most in a T20 innings.

The statistical superlatives go on and on.

*

I watched his innings, finally, earlier today. And while some of the sheen had been taken off because I knew what I was about to witness, it still was an impressive piece of T20 batting skill. It was Chris Gayle at his absolute best in a format that suits him like a glove.

(Also doesn’t hurt that Pune’s bowlers are not really anything to write home about; but that shouldn’t take away from Gayle’s accomplishment.)

It was the right player, at the right time, in the right place, against the right opponent. It was serendipity; and the batsman seized the moment and brought the house down.

And, hopefully, he inspired a new generation of Caribbean cricketers to look into picking up the leather and the willow.

*

Some of the accounts I read, however, had other ways of describing Gayle’s performance: vicious; brutal; violent; murderous; savage.

Not all, mind you, but some. In fact: many. Especially on Twitter. This is not an isolated situation: it’s a common way to describe a particularly powerful stint at the crease. This has always seemed odd to me, because cricket for all intents and purposes cricket is a terribly non-violent sport. Sure, there are flashes, the bodyline tour for instance, and the occassional pushing and shoving match, but of all of the world’s team sports, cricket is by far the most peaceful. (That point is of course debatable.)

*

Violent imagery is common in the description of most other sports, but what I have always liked about cricket writing is its ability to leave that cliche at the door for the most part (the one notable exception being that the bowlers are known as the “attack”). And so when a batsman puts on a show like Gayle did in Bangalore, I always cringe because I know I will soon be reading normally phenomenal cricket writers resort to war metaphors.

Cricket deserves better than that.

And here’s the thing: Gayle’s performance was not brutal.

Read the definition.

“Grossly ruthless.”

That does not describe what Chris Gayle did.

What Chris Gayle did was no different than what every batsman sets out to do in every T20 match the world over: score as many runs as possibly and score them as quickly as possible. He is just more skilled than every other T20 batsmen.

I would use words like transcendent; artistic; skilled; masterful; genius.

It was those things. It was not violent, it was not brutal, it was not ruthless, and it especially was not grossly ruthless.

It the best man who ever played the format showing why he is exactly that.

He was an artist painting us a picture of perfection. It was not savagery; it was poetry.

*

The above is all just a personal opinion, of course, and I freely admit to being a bit of a peacenik. But what has always drawn me to cricket is the great writing it inspires, and it pains me when cricket writing dips below the level that I am used – and innings such as Gayle’s always seem to inspire such a dip.

*

And in the interest of full disclosure; I understand the extreme irony of the above considering Pune’s nickname is the “Warriors” – and also my reaction on Twitter was as low rent as everyone else’s:

 

A Golden Age: Redux

Michael Brendan Dougherty, who used to be a political writer for the American Conservative, recently decided to write about baseball full time in a daily E-Newsletter called the “Slurve” – and a few weeks ago, on Baseball’s opening day, he penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he declares that baseball is in a golden age.

My regular readers will remember that I made a similar case for cricket a couple weeks ago.

And so I decided to re-post the pertinent sections of Dougherty’s article and see if his notions about baseball’s current condition apply, at all, to that of cricket’s.

**

In 2013 Major League Baseball’s opening day could not be more propitious. After a national-election year overstuffed with anxious national debates and alternating rhetorical wars on women and the Catholic Church in which umbrage taking became our defining national trait, it seems like the right time to take a break from the national obsessions and enjoy the national pastime. And lucky for us, we are living in what is unquestionably the golden age of baseball.

Now this I agree with, when it comes to cricket. Baseball, cricket, football, film, music, everything: they are all fine diversion from the things that divide. Whether it is a golden age or not has nothing to do with it, I don’t think. Cricket might be dying, or it might be thriving, same with baseball, but I think people will still tune in to forget about life for a while.

It’s a human endeavor, so baseball naturally has some embarrassments. Some franchises, like the Marlins, are in the hands of pathetic con men and subsidized to an absurd degree by the taxpayer. Others, like the Astros, seem determined not to compete at all. The lingering crimes and negligence of the steroid era threaten the sport’s own Hall of Fame, the institution that connects previous generations of play to the games of the day. Even after improved testing, some players on the leading teams are tainted by suspicion. Each year it seems that the owners and players make money far beyond the social value they create. The games too often have a slack pace.

Mr. Dougherty, while surely a gifted journalist, seems to have broken the golden rule about taking a stance and put the arguments against his case at the very beginning of the article, but that is neither here nor there.

Cricket’s problems are well documented: corruption at all levels, spot fixing, match fixing,  too many meaningless matches, and a whole lot of simply bad cricket. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Mr. Dougherty feels, however, that when it comes to baseball that the positives outweigh the negatives (though I think the sport has far more problems than those he lists). And when it comes to cricket: I agree.

But overall the sport has never been better. The league has achieved a wonderful balance of parity and dynastic success, feeding just enough hope to smaller-market teams and just enough resentment of larger, perennially competitive ones. Most of the league’s ballparks have been updated in the last 20 years, and on the whole they are better than the stadiums that preceded them, less claustrophobic, better staffed, safer, and, yes, more expensive.

Parity is often cited as a reason why baseball is doing well these days, but while some feel parity is a real problem for Test cricket, the other two formats are quite competitive. When the T20 World Cup started up last year, every squad save for the Associates had a decent shot at winning it.

Cricket needs competitive world cups to remain strong, and they have those.

I cannot speak for the parity of domestic leagues, but internationally, despite the issues Test cricket has, the sport has parity.

And Test cricket does too: sure there are only four teams that realistically have decent shots at being number one in the world, but New Zealand, Pakistan, and the West Indies are all enjoying periods of resurgence, and I know it was against Bangladesh but Zimbabwe looked like world beaters in Harare last week.

And for all the faults of the league office, the sport has effected a revolution in how we find the sport. Online watching allows fans to see every out-of-market game on their computers or on television. The league has opened up the data about itself available to the nerds. You now can quantify the movement of every pitch thrown.

Advanced statistical analysis has given us greater depth of insight into the players and the franchises themselves. But at the same time we don’t have to be intimidated by the spreadsheets. Some self-designated “old school” writers like Murray Chass complain that the new stat freaks think the game is simply a clash of abstracted probabilities. But the geek view of the game has not penetrated the experience of the ballpark or even the way the game is portrayed on television. During a televised game, we’re not told a player’s VORP—his Value Over Replacement Player—which would add nothing to the narrative drama of a televised game. But we’re still informed of his batting average, giving us a sense of what is about to happen. The fan’s experience of baseball has not become an embodied math problem. It is still a game of leather, ash bats, cleats. It remains an athletic endeavor. We just understand it better.

Cricket and baseball have the above very much in common. I have more access to matches than ever before, and it is only getting better. And bloggers and journalists and fans have access to mountains of data heretofore unseen, which allows us all to drill down to the minutia of the game, which in turn makes the game far more enjoyable, at least for some. Despite the heavy behind the scenes analysis however, the game is still “leather, ash willow bats, cleats” – it is still about bowler versus batsman.

The players themselves are more accomplished than ever. A generation of greats like Pedro Martínez and Albert Pujols gives way naturally to an even more impressive generation of Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts. In this era, even a pitcher’s career that seems defined by unrealized potential, like Johan Santana’s, turns out on inspection to be one of the 100 greatest at his position. The talent pool is just that deep.

That might be true for baseball, but unfortunately I worry about cricket’s talent pool. Kids just are not interested in cricket anymore, and that might be end up being the real disease that finally kills the game: not enough talent to fill the gaps.

But as I have argued before, if the U19 World Cup was any indication, then cricket is going to be just fine, talent wise.

I still worry though.

As long as we have baby-boomer nostalgia and Internet gossip, the tendencies to idolize or vandalize will be indulged. But alternating temptations to lift baseball into a civic religion or pull it down into a sty of frat antics have largely canceled each other out, and neither threatens to overwhelm the culture around the game. MLB’s own television network, though it sanitizes coverage of the league, sets a great example of nonhysterical, worthwhile coverage of the sport.

Replace the MLB network with ESPNCricinfo and that paragraph could very well be about cricket instead of baseball.

Furthermore, in both sports, there are lots of great bloggers doing great work that I think bridges the gap between the “civic religion” and the “frat antics”. However, I think Mr. Dougherty lumps us bloggers into the latter category. His loss.

An under-remarked quality also distinguishes baseball and sports in general from our other national obsessions. After the game is played, we all agree on the facts. Every reporter and fan walks away from a game knowing the score and agreeing on the number of hits. Fans of a losing team are not made to feel less American or less dignified than the winners. We do not suspect that this game and its players are destroying the American way of life.

For a long time as a political reporter and opinion journalist, I looked sideways at sports writing. So inconsequential, so trivial. (Wherever did I get the idea that political writing was usually of great merit?) But for the past few years, and against my own expectations for my life, sports have become more important to me: as a refuge from strife, as a preserve of human excellence in a culture that revels in mediocrity, as a place to reconnect with my friends who would otherwise drift away as their lives diverge from my own.

Again: the above is true for every sport and every form of entertainment at every point in history. I am not sure what, if anything, it has to do with baseball being in a golden age.

Mr. Dougherty then ends his article with a quote from Pete Rose, who was banned from baseball for life for gambling on games. Not really the kind of thing you would want casual fans to remember when trying to argue that the game is in a golden age, eh?

*

His points are all valid ones, but I think in a lot of ways, his case is not as strong as my case was for cricket; because not only does cricket have all of the above going for it save for possibly the deep talent pool, it it also has a true international grass roots effort to grow the game at the youth level, it has diversity in formats as well as athletes and fans, and it is truly a global game – baseball has none of those things, and it probably never will.

Another way to put it: Cricket might very well become popular in America one day; but baseball will never be popular in India.

*

Fore!

**

When I talk about cricket with American sports fans, I often use golf as an example. “It’s everything you like about golf and tennis and baseball all rolled into one,” I’ll say. And I stand by that.

And the Tweet from the Alternative Cricket folks brings up a valid question: if Americans can like golf, is liking Test cricket really a bridge too far?

The following is my long-winded answer:

**

On Monday, when I initially made the inquiry, there were nearly 400,000 Tweets with the hashtag “masters” over the previous seven days (source: Topsy.com). And while of course those were not all from American Tweeters, I am willing to bet that at least a quarter of them were. Which means that Americans banged out 100,000 Tweets in a week about a four day long, international sport where you have to be quiet a lot and nothing much can happen the first couple of days.

Furthermore, and this time specifically regarding Americans, the final round on Sunday drew a 10.2 overnight TV rating. Translated: over 10% of the televisions in the US’s 56 biggest media markets were tuned in to watch a South African beat an Argentinian at a game invented in Scotland.

**

And that’s the thing: it’s not like golf is American, like baseball or basketball. The game was invented in the UK, just like football and cricket. And it’s not like American athletes dominate the game: recent winners of the Masters have been South African, Argentinian, Australian…

**

And so back to the initial question: if golf can work here, then why not Test cricket? If not every match, then at least one or two matches a year or one big series every four years?

Why not?

Here’s why not:

1. Tiger Woods
2. Tradition
3. Participation

**

#1: Cricket needs an international superstar. They need a Tiger Woods, a Lance Armstrong, a Roger Federer, a David Beckham. Someone who breaks down barriers and turns a niche sport into a global brand. And it would really help if that person happened to be American.

But cricket has been around for centuries and has yet to produce its global hero; and chances are it never will. Then again, however, Tiger and Lance really came out of left field. So who’s to say there isn’t a brilliant all rounder in Montana with an English grandmother just waiting to set the world on fire? Certainly not me.

#2: The Masters has been around for 80 years. Even those that don’t like to watch golf like to watch the Masters. In the same way that people who despise car racing like to watch the Daytona 500, or people who despise gridiron football like to watch the Rose Bowl. In the same way that Americans like to watch figure skating and the long jump and swimming every four years.

Test cricket will never have that in America.

#3: Lots of Americans like to watch golf because lots of Americans like to play golf. A new golf course opens in America every single day of the year. And while the game for the most part belongs to white upper middle class males, that is changing more and more every day, thanks in large part to Tiger Woods.

For cricket to achieve such status in America, it is going to need at least another three generations of grassroots development.

That’s 90 years.

**

The above is not to say that Test cricket will never work in America, but it is saying that we are not ready quite yet, and that it might be a while. It is saying that it might take 100 years, and/or a bolt of lightning, and it is saying that golf’s current popularity is not a harbinger of America’s readiness to accept Test cricket.

All of that said: while golf’s popularity is not necessarily a sign that America is ready for Test cricket, it is definitely saying that the obstacles for cricket that most people cite (its length, its European pedigree, its requirement for longer attention spans and an appreciation of nuance and subtly) are not really obstacles at all; that there are actually bigger obstacles to overcome.

**

Full disclosure: I do not watch golf.

Or car racing. Or the Rose Bowl. At all. Ever. No matter what.

I love the Olympics though.

#zimvbang

This just in:

Huzzah! Test cricket is back!

This morning I checked my usual sources to see if Bangladesh’s tour of Zimbabwe was going to be broadcast online (legally) here in the states, and came up empty handed.

I know ESPN3 owns the US rights to Bangladesh’s home matches, but not Zimbabwe’s – so I just assumed we were out of luck.

Tonight I checked Willow.TV’s site again, and I’ll be damned: there it was: two Tests, three ODIs, and two T20Is: all live on Willow in the USA.

The full schedule is here.

And the World Cricket Internet Schedule for U.S. Viewers has been updated accordingly.

The golden age continues.

Into the Fire

Acts of terrorism are not a fact of modern life. They are a fact of all human history.

Terrorists and terrorist cells have always been with us, and they will continue to be with us until the stars go out.

And terrorist attacks on athletes and sporting events will also be with us always.

The Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan; the Israeli Olympians in Munich; the Togolese footballers in Angola. The list goes on. Athletes are young, fit, vigorous, popular: perfect targets for those looking to inflict terror.

*

But the attack yesterday in Boston was not an attack on athletes. It was attack on people just like us, out for the day, enjoying the sun.

It was less like Lahore in 2009 and more like Atlanta 1996. Or Omagh 1998.

And that’s why, despite the fact that it was tenuously related to a sporting event, I don’t think I have anything to offer here on this cricket blog. If I had been writing this blog when Lahore, Munich, or Angola happened, I would put on my sportswriters hat and pen 1,000 words on athletes and youth and the meaning of sport in modern society, but that is not the case here.

In this case, I just feel sad. And a little distracted. But also full of hope for the human spirit, and humanity in general.

People ran toward the explosions to help their fellow citizens.

Toward the explosions.

Sport can inspire at times, but nothing inspires quite like that.

*

I have a lot of international readers, and consider myself, for lack of a better phrase, a bit of a global citizen – and so I have to stop and think about the fact that bombings like we saw in Boston happen every day all over the world and ask myself why I do not write posts about the bombings yesterday in Iraq, for instance.

Here’s my best attempt at answering that: I think it is perfectly okay to react and mourn more viscerally when events such as yesterday’s attack happen close to home, because they are just that: close to home. But we also need to remember that every day of the year, in every corner of the globe, there is terror and sadness but also heroes running toward danger, not away from it; we must remember that while simultaneously doing whatever we can to advance the cause of justice in our neighborhoods and around the world, so we can avoid another Boston, another Omagh, another Oklahoma City, another Colombo…and our heroes won’t have to run into anymore fires.

Instead they can just play cricket.

***

Musical interlude:

Inspired by this – a speech which I borrowed heavily from for the above, and for that I apologize to Aaron Sorkin. Please think of it as nothing more than an homage.

Though I must say that I prefer the original version of the above song, the Tori Amos version really does work in the context.

*

I have been to Boston twice.

Both times I was stuck out at a trade show in the suburb of Medford.

But one time I took the train from the Alewife station down to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. It was 10 July, 2004, the year they finally broke the “curse” and won the world series for the first time since 1918, so I like to take a least a little bit of credit for that.

I got down there early, had some beers, walked around, soaked it all in, and enjoyed a rock ’em, sock ’em 14-6 win for the home team over the Texas Rangers.

Despite the fact that driving there is a nightmare, despite the fact that the people, while not entirely unfriendly, have a tendency to give you a little hell before giving you directions or holding the train door for you, and despite the fact that June can be more dismal there, weather wise, then even San Francisco…despite all of that: I loved Boston. And while it breaks my heart to see it hurting, I now that if there is any major city built to withstand a terrorist attack, is it Boston.

Thanks for indulging me. Tomorrow: more cricket.

**

IMG_1581

**