Under Blue Skies: 2013, A Year in Review

2013, despite being a rather eventful year for cricket, can be summed up in just two words: Ashes and Sachin.

Looking back over my blog – and while I freely admit that is a poor barometer – but when it comes to things actually happening on the field of play, those are the only two things that happened.

The Ashes. And Sachin.

I am speaking in hyperbole, of course, as there were other tours and matches and leagues and tournaments that produced thrilling chases and jaw dropping conclusions and brilliant stands. And there were other players that retired this year. Not just Sachin. Players like Kallis. And Swann. And Ponting:

And the first Ashes Test aside, the best Test cricket didn’t happen in England or in Australia. It happened in South Africa. And New Zealand:

And so really, maybe it was truly the year of Test Cricket and Retirement, not just the Ashes and Sachin.

And therefore, maybe, cricket in 2013 can be summed up in one day. July 11, 2013. Day two of the Ashes Test. The day Ashton Agar scored that remarkable 98. And it was also day four of the last First Class match ever for one Ricky Ponting.

Test Cricket. And retirement. The entire year summed up in one sentence and two tweets:

Two images remain from today, one of a 19-year-old lad who may already have played the innings of his life and the other from a 38 year old man who has no more left to play.

-The Old Batsman (full post)

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But that discounts the Champions Trophy, which really held its own as a 50 Over tournament and gave India and Dhoni yet another piece of silverware.

And so maybe it was the year of Cricket. And retirement.

But then again, that’s every year. All of them blending together. Until we all forget who retired what year and who retired the other year. Or if that 150 from that one player happened in Melbourne in ’03 or in Sydney in ’04. Cricket just keeps chugging along. Unaware that we have decided to arbitrarily flip the calendar over. But 2013 did produce those two indelible moments above, and those are the moments that I will know forever took place in the year of our Lord, two thousand and thirteen.

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Well, those two moments and Sachin’s 74 against the West Indies in Mumbai, of course. But that one’s a no brainer:

And the bus was gone. So was Sachin in the only way I’d known him. Never ever again.

– Subash (aka The Cricket Couch) from my favorite blog post of the year

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On the site, this was the year I invented the Twitter Strike Rate. And it was the year I linked Sachin’s career to my dad. And it was the year I wrote my favorite sentence ever:

There was no talk of war in the pubs or in the streets or in the House of Commons – war instead fell like a hammer from the sky. (Full post)

I also wrote an Open Letter to American Sports Fans. And posted daily recaps of each day of the Ashes – an exercise which I found both rewarding and phenomenally difficult. It was inspired by Gideon Haigh’s book about the 2005 Ashes series – which was more or less just a collection of his newspaper articles from the time. He wrote about every single day. Plus recaps and previews and travel logs. It was, like I said, inspiring, but it also taught me how difficult and relentless sports journalism truly is. Yes, it was Haigh’s JOB, but it is not an easy job by any means.

Oh, and I met Jarod Kimber this year. And wrote some stuff I was really proud of about cricket and World War One. And I found out that Cricinfo has some really strong Minnesota roots.

And, well, a bunch of other stuff. 131 posts according to WordPress. Which is a lot more than I thought there would be. Stats and summaries and posts about football and baseball and history and religion. A pretty good year overall, looking back.

Finally, it was my best traffic year ever. By far. Thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, retweeting and reblogging.

Happy new year. Let’s do it all again in 2014.

The End

And that’s that. It’s all over. Australia have won the Ashes. And the back to back five Test series we have been drooling over since July are all but done.

Sure there are two more Tests, but like too many cricket games these days, they are meaningless matches.

The Perth Test, though, reminded us all why we love this game. A deteriorating pitch, brave men making one last stand, bowlers showing us why they are the professionals and we are the bloggers, all on a sun washed and brilliant green underneath an expanse of blue on the far edge of the other side of the world.

It’s a great game, Test cricket. And I am a little down that the Year of the Ashes is now done – and its ending cast a pall on my entire day. From Ashton Agar to Ben Stokes. It’s been a long arc that bended toward brilliance – often cracking but never breaking – finally settling in Western Australia for its final act.

The end.

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When series end, the BBC or Sky or whatever will show a a highlight reel of the series with a musical accompaniment as it rolls its long form credits.

And so I bring you the highlights from all of my posts about the two Ashes series.

But first, your music:

And now, the highlights:

*****

14 wickets fell at Trent Bridge today in what was a thrilling day one of the first Ashes Test.

And as Ponting’s first class career was ending, Agar’s was launching into the stratosphere. A poetic end for what was a wonderful day for Australian cricket on the shores of England.

Yesterday Australia were sailing along, tonight they are lost in a deep, dark pit.

In Shakespearian dramas, the fifth act bring us redemption, resolution, and retribution. Let us hope tomorrow brings all three of those to the great stage that is Trent Bridge, that is the Ashes, that is Test cricket.

In the end, Jimmy Anderson proved too much, Haddin edged to Prior, and England celebrated like they had just won the World Cup.

Australia, England, Australia.

I am one of those Americans.

It is boring and it is slow, but it is also painfully and thoroughly and demoralizingly and tortuously effective.

Nightmare scenario for Australia…

And we’re back…

Otherwise this series is going to fizzle out like a doused campfire.

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, 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.

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.

I guess what I am trying to say is that England would make for a very good legal secretary.

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.

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.

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The curtain rises on Brisbane, and another Ashes series begins.

It was an inspiring and transformative time – to say the least.

Australia looked cool, stylish, talented. They had swagger and panache. And England meanwhile looked lost.

Confused.

Old.

And then the cricket was just not quite there either.

And since he is wearing the armband, his struggles are notable.

The play never stops ticking over.

Until it does.

Bell can bat forever, but I worry about Stokes, and when Stokes falls the weight falls to an out-of-form Matt Prior, and then the tail. And then it is Tea on day three and they are still 100 runs behind.

Now let’s just hope England can reverse the trend with a miracle today in Perth.

When the whistle blows and the clock runs out, that’s it. It’s over.

The Perth Test, though, reminded us all why we love this game.

****

Thank you for indulging me.

Looking forward here on Limited Overs: I have a couple recap posts on the Ashes I am working on, but I won’t be writing about each day for the final two Tests. I will also be going back to my bread and butter – the Associates – with a tribute to Ireland’s successful world title – and I have a year-end recap in the works, too.

Talk soon, then.

Book II: Act III, Scene IV

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Fellowship of the Ring.

One of my least favorite movies of all time is The Return of the King.

I disliked the former for many reasons. It’s heavy handed, too long, too slow and Jackson strayed too far from the book.

But mostly I hated it because of all of the false endings. You kept thinking it was over…but it just kept going…and going…and going…

…and going…

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There are no truly false endings in sport. When the whistle blows and the clock runs out, that’s it. It’s over.

We as fans do invent false endings however. Last night, for instance, when Cook got out for a golden duck, most spectators declared the series over.

But it’s not. It was a false ending. And let’s hope it was a very false ending. That England go on to bat all day. Delay the end for just one more Test.

Let’s not let Cook’s duck be Frodo and Sam surrounded by lava and waiting for the Eagles, let’s hope it is instead the end of The Towers. Let’s hope for many more false endings and new dawns. For I am not ready for this to be over yet.

Book II: Act III, Scene III

Not six months since beating Australia 4-0 in England, England are on the verge of going down 3-0 in Australia, to Australia, and in the process lose retention of the Ashes, a trophy they have held since 2009.

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Two Australian summers ago, Australia whitewashed guests India 4-0, only to lose 4-0 to the same opponent on foreign soil a year later.

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The above are just two examples of support for an opinion I see daily now: Cricket teams cannot win Tests away from home anymore.

The one major outlier is of course South Africa. They have – just since 2012 – won series in England, in the UAE, in Australia and in New Zealand.

But the question remains: are teams losing more on the road now than in years past? I am not sure. So I did what any dedicated cricket follower would do: I pulled up Statsguru and looked into it.

(Now, of course, if teams are losing more now than in years past, then a more interesting discussion would be on the WHY – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

(Note: there is one major flaw in this data. Statsguru counts Pakistan’s home matches in the UAE as taking place in a neutral venue, so those matches therefore do not have a “home” or “away” team, and are not considered in the data. I did not notice this until it was too late and I am loathe to go back and fix it. If this was my job and I was getting paid, I would do so, but it isn’t and I don’t…so I am not going to do that.)

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To compare era to era, I am going to use Cricinfo’s W/L ratio – which is simply the number of wins divided by the number of losses. It discounts the draws, unfortunately, but I think it is fair stat to use in this case.

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Looking first at the last 12 months: there have been 38 Test matches, and the traveling team has won exactly two of them, while the home team has won 26, for a W/L of a dismal .08.

But the last year is too small a sample size. I mean, shoot, India hasn’t even played a single Test – home or away – in the last 12 months. But the last year has seen most teams experience abysmal away form, which is probably why everyone thinks no one can win on the road anymore…but is this part of a long term trend? Or are people reading too much into the last year?

The last five years: Out of 139 Test matches, the traveling team has won 35 and lost 68 for a W/L ratio of .51. Better, but still not great.

In the five years before that (2003-2008) the W/L ratio for the traveling team was .32.

And so in that case, one could surmise that teams are actually getting better on the road, not worse.

Diving deeper:

The last 10 years: .47
The ten years before that: .44

Again, the last 10 years show an improvement of Test teams’ away form, not the opposite, despite all the punditry.

The last 20 years: .45
The 20 years before that: .43

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Just by simply looking at the above numbers, there is simply no way that one could argue that teams struggle more on the road now than they have in the recent past.

Skewing the data a bit, of course, is the dominance of teams like the West Indies (W/L ratio of 2.0 from 1974 to 2003 – which means they won twice as many Tests as they lost during that time period) and Australia, who consistently won on the road from the 70s through the late 00s.

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Looking by decade, and going further back, however, the data begins to get interesting:

2000s: .44
1990s: .48
1980s: .64
1970s: .65
1960s: .70
1950s: .74

That is a very real – and very downward – trend.

And so the conclusion here is: teams are losing on the road more than they were in the 50s through the 80s, but not any more so than they have in the recent past (2000 and onward.)

So this is a new-ish phenomenon, but not a brand new one – it is a longterm trend, and not the fault of, say, the IPL.

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But what (or who) is at fault? Of that I am not so sure…there are probably many answers to that question and they would all be correct in their own way.

My quick-hit opinion, though? Well, I used the word “trend” twice above, and so that is what I think this is. A trend. Nothing more. Due to certain reasons, teams are struggling on the road.  Boards and and coaches and players are aware of this, and will make efforts to correct it, and when they do, their teams will start winning on the road again.

That’s my two cents.

Now let’s just hope England can reverse the trend with a miracle today in Perth.

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Data dump for those interested:

Book II: Act III, Scenes I & II

England are in trouble.

Real trouble.

I am stating the obvious, but it is worth saying.

A sorely needed and decent 72 from their captain was the only highlight of their first innings, and now the entire weight of the Ashes rests solely on the shoulders of Ian Bell and Ben Stokes.

Bell can bat forever, but I worry about Stokes, and when Stokes falls the weight falls to an out-of-form Matt Prior, and then the tail. And then it is Tea on day three and they are still 100 runs behind.

All of the above is worst-case-scenario stuff, but none of it is out of the question.

Actually, worst case possible is if Bell falls early. And it is going to be nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit today in Perth. And that kind of heat – if one is not acclimated – makes everything more difficult and can affect judgment and reflexes. And today is Sunday, so the WACA is going to be a cauldron of noise – as the Australian supporters will know that if their boys can bowl out England before lunch, then the Ashes might very well be coming back to Australia.

But we shall see what happens tonight. In sport, nothing is a forgone conclusion.

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If – and it is a mighty big if – England can play out this match to a draw, then they will need to win back-to-back matches in Australia in order to retain the trophy.

England won two Tests in a row in Australia during the 2010-11 series of course – but before that you have to go all the way back to 1979 to find England beating Australia twice in a row down-under.

So it has happened twice – in 34 years.

The weight of the Ashes is on England’s shoulders, but so is the weight of history.

However if they can pull it off, it will be their greatest triumph – and it would go a long way toward improving the health of the game in England. And the retention would have every Cricket loving eye on earth watching the fifth Test – which would be great for the game globally.

And so I am supporting England.

I am supporting England because I want a competitive fourth and fifth Test. I am supporting England because retaining the Ashes would be great for this game I love. And I am supporting England because more than anything, Test cricket needs a competitive five-Test series.

And so: come on you England!

The Streaker

Last night I met Paul Molitor at a fundraiser.

Molitor was a favorite of mine growing up. He was a member of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers team that lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals – which was the very first World Series I remember watching, so it holds a special place in my heart.

Plus Molitor is also local guy, growing up just down the road in St. Paul. And he is a big supporter of the camp program I work for – donating his entire signing bonus in 1995  – over $100,000 – to help us buy our first permanent camp.

He also built the camp a ball field:

Molitor Field Sign

One of Molitor’s most famous accomplishments as a player was a 39 game hitting streak in 1987. For the baseball ignorant among you, that means he got a hit in 39 straight games – the fifth longest in the modern era.

The longest ever was Joe DiMaggio’s absolutely incredible 56 game streak in 1941. It is just one of those records that will never be broken.

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Cricket has a couple of those – records that will never be broken – Sachin’s 100 centuries springs to mind, of course – but what the game does not have…is streaks. At least not at the individual level.

When Googling “cricket streaks” – Google thinks I want “cricket streaker” instead. Or wants me to read about Zimbabwean cricketer Heath Streak.

And so I did some thinking, and a bit of searching, and decided that the closet thing to a hitting streak in cricket – that I could come up with anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts – is consecutive Test innings without a duck.

The longest streak ever? 119 innings for David Gower from August of 1982 to December of 1990 – nearly decade without getting out for naught, that’s really amazing.

What’s even more interesting is who has the third longest streak: Sachin Tendulkar.

And the who is not the interesting part, the when is.

Sachin’s streak lasted from July of 2008 to November of…2013.

That’s right. Sachin’s streak of 91 straight innings without getting out for a duck did not end because he get out for a duck, it ended because he retired from Test cricket.

Truly amazing when you think about it. During the last five years of his Test career – as his skills at the crease supposedly were in decline* – he did not get out for naught.

Not once. In 91 straight innings.

Even after his retirement, he still doesn’t cease to amaze.

Anyway, here’s Paul Molitor and me:

*EDIT: His prowess with the bat did not start to – relatively and subjectively – go downhill until after the 2011 World Cup. I did not mean to imply otherwise. See comments*

Book II: End of Act II

Cricket is addictive.

That is of course obvious to all of you reading this blog – because otherwise why would you be here? – but it is a fact nonetheless.

It is addictive for many reasons – the characters, the history, the tradition – but it is also because of how the game itself is built.

Each match reinvents itself every six deliveries. No other sport ticks over play at that pace. And so while the matches last for days, you still find it hard to look away, because each over brings a new promise of hope for the attack, and another new wave of fear and trepidation for the defense.

Every new over brings the dawning of a new era. That’s 15 new eras an hour. 90 new eras a day. And as the matches go on and the pressure builds, it becomes impossible to look away. And you find yourself praying for a drinks break so you can let the dog out – because you dare not turn leave the room, not even for a second, for who knows what you might miss.

They say fielding in cricket is mentally and physically exhausting, because you spend hours and hours with nothing to do, but always there is the prospect that a catch might present itself, and you pray you don’t put it down.

The same is true for watching the game. Sure the ball gets soft and the part time bowlers can you lull the match to sleep a bit, but still, every six deliveries: a new chance for magic.

And it reinvents itself again with each new bowler brought into the attack. And again with each wicket that falls. And again as the morning’s dew becomes the afternoon’s clouds becomes the evening’s long shadows. And again with a new ball. And again with a new innings. And again with a new match, in a new ground, hundreds of miles away.

The play never stops ticking over.

Until it does.

But for now, for England, it is still ticking.

And that is why we will keep watching, that is why we won’t look away, even as neutrals, despite the fact that Australia are two-nil up and cruising, because there is always room for a new dawn in cricket. Every new match. Every new morning. Every six deliveries.

There are three matches left in this Ashes series. That’s potentially 1,350 overs.

1,350 reinventions to anticipate. 1,350 new dawns to savor.

I can’t wait.