Act V, Scenes I-V; End of Book One

And that’s that. The Ashes are done and dusted. England win 3-0 with today’s play, fittingly, ending in an umpiring controversy, in the London gloaming.

There’s not a great deal more to add at this point. The real dissections will come later from all sides. Kneejerk reactions to Test cricket do not do it justice, and it is always best to take a couple days and let the day, match, and series sink in.

But here are some things we do know:

1. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen are two of the most stylish and prolific batsmen on earth.
2. DRS is broken.
3. The bad light rule needs to be re-written
4. Australia are really poor, but not as bad as 3-0 makes them look
5. England’s bowling attack needs work if they are to bring the Ashes back home this winter
6. Cook has proven himself a capable and worthy England captain
7. The series was far more entertaining than it appears on paper
8. Test cricket is not just the heart and soul of cricket – it is the skin and the brains and the bones, too. It is the best format times 1,000.

And now we have that sense of melancholy that always comes with endings of much anticipated events: sport, vacations, long weekends, weddings, holidays. Few things make me more blue than the Olympic Closing Ceremonies and the taking down of the Christmas tree, for instance. I think about where I am now, and where I will be next year, or two years from now, or four years from now. All that is guaranteed is that I will be older, and that is not even a guarantee.

I was very much looking forward to this series, and now it is over. Just like that. And we will all wake up tomorrow and there won’t be a Test match to think about – after 46 days of thinking about the match ongoing, or the match that was, or the match that will be.

The good news, here, however, is that we all get another Ashes in just three short months – not to mention County Cricket and India v Australia and Pakistan vs South Africa and South Africa vs India and on and on and on. And so some of the melancholic wistfulness is missing – which is fine.

In cricket, there are very few actual endings. The cycles start up again almost immediately after stopping. And so I must say that while the melancholy of ending is there, it’s easier to shake than it usually is. Sometimes, in world cricket, it is nice to be able to put a cap on things for a bit – like we got today in London.

And now: back to our regularly scheduled programming.

All you have to do is win

Watching your team lose is never fun, but it is part of being a sports fan. We just kind of get used to it, I guess. If you follow a baseball team closely, for instance, even the very best teams are going to lose four out of ten games. And only one football team in modern history, Arsenal in 2003-04, has finished a top flight campaign undefeated.

Teams lose. That’s what they do. There is always tomorrow, or next Saturday, or next year.

But watching your team completely unravel, completely fall apart, complete disintegrate right before your eyes – that is something else entirely.

We have all been there at one time or another – that moment when you realize that things have gotten so bad that you are not even sure you want to tune in next weekend to watch them (but you do anyway, of course). Complete disaster. Dark tunnels. No way back.

This was Arsenal on Saturday afternoon at about 4:55 UK time. The team is broken. And at this moment it looks like it is going to be broken for a very, very long time.

And this was, surely, Australia on day four at Durham. The Ashes were already staying in England, but there was still hope for 2-2; hope for momentum into the one-dayers; and momentum into Ashes Part 2 in Australia this winter. Sure, there was still a lot wrong with the squad, but things were looking up for Australia and their supporters. And then Stuart Broad. And then collapse.

Completely failure. Unscalable cliffs. No way back.

Except, there is one way to change everything – and it is really simple: just win.

Australia: force the follow on and win by an innings this week at the Oval and all is forgiven.

Sport is a simple equation: 1) Win and all is fine. 2) Lose once and there’s always tomorrow. 3) Lose twice and the world is ending. But win, just bloody win, and things immediately start to look better – and it all reverts back to #1. The darkness is forgotten. And supporters regain their hope.

There will he an inquest at Cricket Australia after this Ashes series. Heads will be called for and heads will roll. But if Australia can win this week at the Oval a great deal of the pain will be forgotten – and many Australian crickets will be forgiven. 

Whether that is a good thing or not is up to you.

But winning is always better.

Some Arsenal fans will hope for them to crash out of the Champions League – a wake up call for the manager and the board. And some Australian fans are hoping for the 4-0 rout – so a similar wake up call is delivered to the players and coaches and selectors.

But I simply do not understand that.

Our team winning is why we all do this. We are aching for unblemished victories in our daily lives – yearning for pure moments when everything, EVERYTHING, is going to be okay – and sport is one simple way – maybe the only way – that we get such moments. Ever. At all. And therefore cheering for ones team to lose is anti-sport. It destroys sport. It renders all of this meaningless. 

Winning is always better.

And so, Australia – and so, Arsenal – just go out there this week and win. Win to be forgiven, win for your fans with the shitty jobs and the rotten marriages, win to create meaning in all of this trivial bullshit that is modern athletics, win for your teammates, for the players that came before you, win for us all.

There will be plenty of time for inquests and finding joy in losing campaigns later – this week, just this week: all you have to do is win. Just win. And everything will be better.

119 of 162

Last night I went to a Minnesota Twins baseball game.

It was a perfect night, weather wise, and the seats we had were well above average. And while the Twins are not very good – at all – last night they played technically sound baseball and thanks to a two-hit, complete game shutout from rookie Andrew Albers, they beat the Cleveland Indians 3-0 in a very tidy two hours and 21 minutes.

Albers was just brilliant. He changed speeds at will – one pitch at 67mph with the next at 85mph – and the ball dipped and moved out of his hand and the opposing batters looked completely lost. It was a clinic. A real show. And great fun to watch.

And so despite the fact that the Twins are 10 games below .500, and despite the fact that they are 15 and 1/2 games back in the Central Division, the crowd of about 25,000 at Target Field rose to their feet as Albers took the mound in the 9th inning to try and complete his shutout (a true rarity in baseball these days) and we all cheered every strike and went positively wild when the third out was recorded, and Albers was surrounded by his teammates – hugs and high fives all around.

In that moment, that one moment, no one cared that the Twins are terrible, no one cared about the Twins at all in fact, all they cared about was this 27 year old journeyman left-hander, who was released outright by the Padres in 2010 and who had to wait a year before signing with another team – this soft-throwing lefty from North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada, who had just pitched a complete game shutout, in the Major Leagues, under perfect August summer skies, in the shadow of a great American city. It was a pure moment, the kind we only get in sport. And we all forgot about our jobs and our lives – we all forgot about steroids and tax-payer funded stadiums for millionaires  – and we all just basked in the moment. And I, for one, remembered why I like sports in the first place.

I love cricket, but because of how removed I am from it, it doesn’t give me what last night gave me. And it probably never will. And that’s fine, of course, I am not going anywhere, but last night it was nice to remember what brought me here in the first place.

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One other moment stands out: from our seats, we had a great view into the Cleveland Indians dugout. The Cleveland Indians are doing better than the Twins, but they are not very good either: a few games above .500, but seven and a half out of first place, and really, for the most, floundering. But despite the fact that this was game number 119 of a 162 game season, and despite the fact that it was a Monday night in front of a sparse crowd against a team also not in the playoff hunt, every single Cleveland Indian player was up off the bench and standing up against the railing, watching every pitch, for the entire game. It was just something you don’t see much anymore.

Athletes can come across as so utterly jaded these days, so completely and terribly disloyal – and so for once it was nice to see players actively showing a vested interest in the outcome of a what is truly a meaningless game in month five of a six month season.

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All in all, a great night all around.

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Oh, and be sure to follow me on Instagram.

Act IV, Scene IV

Sport, like everything, is all just a matter of perspective. Some people look at Jimmy Anderson and see a relentless bowling machine; while others see an artist, a creative genius at the peak of his powers. Some people watch Ian Bell bowl and see beauty and flair and style; others see a skilled professional who is seeing the ball really, really well all of a sudden.

It’s all a matter of perspective, of perception.

And in the end, depending on our mood, our background, our allegiance, or just about anything, we see what we want to see.

We see what we want to see.

*

I know of a couple of sportswriters who watch games with the sound on mute, so their perceptions are not colored by the commentary team. I am not sure how common it is, but in a lot of ways it make sense to me. Commentators see what they want to see, just like we do, and therefore their perspective has a huge affect on us.

We have all, for instance, at one time or another, gone to a game live and in person only to go home and read the recap and think “was this guy watching the same game?”

And so while you might look at this England team and see artists and poets and flair, I look at them and see a pressure cooker that sucks the life out of other teams. This is not a bad thing, mind you, and it does not mean that England are actually boring or devoid of personality, that is just simply how I perceive them. I see what I want to see. And I see slow suffocation, I see pressure cooker, I see relentless professionalism.

Until today, of course.

Today was different.

Today was something special.

Stuart Broad rolled up his sleeves and went to battle, decimating Australia and winning the Ashes for his country. He didn’t go out there after tea to pile on pressure, he went out there to slit throats. I apologize for the violent imagery. But that’s what I saw today at Chester le-Street.

He was not a metronome. He was not a machine. He was a human athlete: flawed, artful, menacing, and brilliant. Over-flowing with contagious personality.

There is room in Test cricket for every thing. Blocking, slogging, efficiency, and swagger. Pressure, suffocation, wide open spaces, and solitude. Machinery, poetry, and humanity. All of it. Every last ounce of everything possible in cricket. And Test cricket is at its best when it delivers all of the above – and we got just such a match this week in Durham.

Yesterday I was grumpy and bored and frustrated with cricket, with England, with the Ashes. Today I was alive and awake and in the mood. It is all perception, it is all perspective. I see what I want to see. And today I saw magic. I saw the opposite of rigidness. And it was just grand.

And I will admit that my turnaround was not entirely an internal conversion, not even close – the comment on yesterday’s post, plus a couple @s on Twitter, gave me sincere pause – I decided I needed to step back and see the game differently, see England differently – so that’s what I did. And the comments and the @s are why I do this, why I write about cricket, why I write period. I put my perceptions into the ether in the hope that people will react to them – whether it be to challenge me, or agree with me, or whatever – just react. For those reactions to our perspectives are how we learn about everything that is important to us: sports, politics, religion, each other, and ourselves.

*

Congrats to England. Well played all around.

Act IV, Scenes II-III

I have to admit that I am kind of sick of writing about the Ashes.

England are relentlessly grinding down Australia…again; on their way to another comprehensive win…again. And there just isn’t much for me to say about that. It’s effective cricket, but it is also boring cricket.

Last summer, South Africa were good enough to overturn England’s style and use it against them (witness Amla’s bone crushing 311* at the Oval), and their bowling attack was superior enough to not allow England’s batting to lull them to sleep.

But Australia is not South Africa. And so you get what we have got here this summer. England sneaking into Australia’s bedroom at night, and slowly but surely suffocating them with their own pillow – and the game and the series along with them.

*

In football, this is called “parking the bus”. Setting up shop defensively, putting 10 men behind the ball, staying organized, working hard, and hoping to grab one on the counter. It’s effective – very effective even (see Chelsea in the Mourinho era) – but it is also boring. And while we can’t expect all teams to play like 1970s era Brazil or early 2000s Arsenal, you do hope for a little flair, a little attack, a little style now and again.

England’s cricketers, however, give us none of those things.

Don’t get me wrong, they are fine cricketers, very good at what they do. But they are a machine keeping time. A metronome. Ticking along over after over. They have none of the swagger and fun and flash we see in Indian cricket, South African cricket, Pakistani cricket. But at the same time, what they are doing is very effective. And they are winning.

And cricket is not a game that too often rewards style over substance like, say, basketball or football. It is a game that rewards pressure, consistency, and rigidness. Unlike other sports, where there is room for magic, cricket is highly organized – six balls per over, 90 overs per day – and so therefore rewards efficient, well organized, detail oriented play.

Play like we are seeing from England this summer.

“Efficient, well organized, and detail oriented.” I guess what I am trying to say is that England would make for a very good legal secretary.

*

All of this sounds like I am giving England a bum rap – that I am calling their style “anti-cricket” the way Arsene Wenger decried, say, Bolton for playing “anti-football”. But I am not. This is my way of congratulating them. They went out this summer with a job to do and they have done it. I love seeing personality and flair on the cricket pitch, but I can also appreciate well organized and efficient cricket – because in a lot of ways, that is how the game is meant to be played.

*

Until tomorrow.

Act IV, Scene I

I am hesitant to say that Australia’s poor performances this summer are all down to bad team selection, but it is something worth looking into.

In the first Test: Australia took two wickets using spin.

In the second: Zero.

In the third: One.

In the fourth: Four.

In other words, Agar took two total wickets in his two full Tests, while Lyon has taken five in just one Test and change.

It’s a small sample size, admittedly, and Agar is such a great story that I hate to rag on him, but maybe selecting him was just simply poor strategy, and might have cost Australia the Ashes – or at the very least cost us neutrals a competitive series.

What this might also mean is that this winter’s Ashes Part 2 might actually be a closer contest than most of us think. Australia, at home, with a proper strategy and a proper team selection might end up giving England a run for their money. We shall see.

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Slowly but surely getting the US TV Schedule fully updated. Lots and lots and lots of cricket coming up. If you live in the US, do be sure to check it out.

Act III, Scene V

Fin.

And that about sums it up: empty ground, gloom, umbrellas. The ultimate anti-climax. Game called on account of rain. England retain the Ashes. Nothing left to play for save pride in the final two Tests.

Really, though, we all saw it coming. The Pollyannas of world cricket, myself included, wagged our fingers at the naysayers, those saying that it was just a slightly above average England against a slightly below average Australia and it was just not going to be that interesting of a series – and we looked those naysayers in the eye and said that the occasion and the spectacle and the history would be enough to lift the games of both squads, thereby producing another classic. Well the naysayers were right, and the Pollyannas were wrong. And, really, deep down we knew we were merely kidding ourselves all along anyway.

Except for the first Test of course. That was fun. Remember that?

But now it is all over. After all of the build-up, all of the hype, all of the brouhaha, all of the sledging, all of the controversy, all of the really terrible hashtags (hoping Cricket Australia retires #returntheurn forever and the ECB’s Marketing Intern needs to be fired post-haste for #rise), after all of the press conferences, pre-match interviews, warm-up matches, predictions, and back page after page of punditry and statistical analyses and team selection dust ups and injuries…after months of anticipating…after everything…it’s over. Just like that. On a gloomy Monday afternoon in Manchester. With the covers on the pitch and the players in the clubhouse.

Only in cricket.

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See everyone in Durham.