A time of innocence / A time of confidences

Two days ago Surrey County Cricket Club finished off their County Championship season against Essex with a last ball loss that denied them the proper end to their fairy tale season but still allowed them to celebrate on their home patch under the long shadows at the Oval in South London.

It was their first County Championship since 2002, the year I was married. And so since this year is the year of my divorce, the Surrey Championships bookend my entire marriage.

Surrey won the title in 2002 with an aging team of rock star 90s cricketers. Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe, et al. It was at the tail end of a period of great success in the Championship, with titles in 1999 and 2001, as well. That August my wife and I were married at her sister’s house in the middle of a Wrath of God, Old Testament-style thunderstorm. We were living in a downtown Minneapolis high rise and we spent our honeymoon just hanging around town, with the week off work, drinking beer and wishing the Twins were in town.

In the fall of the next year, we bought our first house together. I got promoted the following January, and two months later we brought home our first dog, Murray, on a dark late winter night. He was the light of our lives for the next seven years. Surrey for their part were relegated in 2005, won promotion in 2006, but were relegated again in 2008. My wife and I bought our second house the August of their first relegation, we both quit smoking in 2007 and I started following cricket, and then in July of that year we both took new jobs, leaving the jobs we thought we would end up working at forever. We refinanced our home, we laughed a lot, we walked the dog together every morning.

Surrey were never even close to promotion the following few seasons. I was laid off in 2009 and took the worst job I’ve ever had. I was miserable. But there was money coming in. And thus started a rather tumultuous but lovely time in our lives together. We cancelled cable and started going out again. Niki started playing music and formed her own band. I went back to school. We went to London and Paris. Murray aged. We fought a lot but we were okay, maybe more than okay, maybe happy.

In the fall of 2011 Surrey finally won promotion back to Division One by the margin of a single point, after winning their final four matches. The previous August Niki and I went to the wedding of my friend Rob in Ashland, Wisconsin. It was a magical long weekend full of friends and love. Maybe the best weekend of my whole life, surely the best weekend of my marriage. Murray stayed with my mother. When we picked him up it looked as though he had aged 1,000 years since we’d last saw him. He could barely hold his head up. A month later on a cloudy Tuesday September morning we said goodbye to our precious boy on the cold floor of a sterile vet’s office. We wrapped him in a blanket, turned out the light, and left him sleeping. We never stopped mourning. Niki got laid off one month later. Her dad got sick. Things were hard.

The following June the immensely talented Surrey cricketer, Tom Maynard, was killed under sad and heartbreaking circumstances. It cast a shadow over Surrey’s season, one in which they barely survived relegation. Meanwhile, Niki and I grieved. We walked away from our house. And then we came back. It was a hard, terrible, wonderful year. We adopted Robbie, a hound mutt with big floppy ears who made us laugh everyday. I graduated from school, and took a new job and started this blog. Life shuffled on. 2013 saw Surrey finish at the bottom of Division One, sending them back to Division Two, where they would stay until 2015. That same year, I took another new job, so did Niki. We went on trips and bought records and laughed a lot in our kitchen, just like we always did. We got a new car and a new roof and a new furnace. We saw live music and went for walks in the woods with the dog on fall days. Niki’s dad died. My sister got cancer.

On Friday, April 20th, Surrey kicked of their 2018 County Championship campaign against Hampshire at the Oval, winning by 133 runs. Two weeks later, I left Niki, left my home. One month after that, I got my own apartment in St. Paul’s West 7th neighborhood. Two days after I signed my lease we filed divorce papers in the cold cubicle of a paralegal in a soulless government building. Three weeks after that, our divorce was final. In mid-August Niki met someone else. One month later, at the New Road against Worcestershire, Surrey won their first County Championship in 16 years with two matches to spare.  And today I sit here alone, writing this, my tea growing cold, autumn settling in outside my window.

16 years between Division One titles. A marriage. A lifetime. So much happened. So much life, and so much cricket. 16 years. And the above was the only the big moments. The houses and the dogs and the promotions and the relegations. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of all that truly happened in that time period. All those long days at the Oval in front of sparse crowds as the players shivered in April, or the days of long shadows at Old Trafford in September. Or the quiet mornings with coffee and a walk, or movies together, or concerts, or dinners. Birthdays, anniversaries, inside jokes, secret lexicons. Trips to the bank. Trips to the record store. Oil changes and grocery shopping. Countless small moments that make up a marriage, a life. I cannot turn a corner without a memory smacking me in the back of the head, reminding me of all that’s changed, of all that’s lost.

16 years. That’s such a long time to wait for fans of Surrey County Cricket Club. Just look at all that can happen in that length of time. And that’s just my story. What’s yours? Kids and aging parents and new houses and success at work. Plus quiet nights on the patio with the sunset, or a mug of tea on a winter’s afternoon, its steam visible in the low sunlight from the kitchen window. All those moments that make up a day, a week, a month, a year. Now add up 16 years worth of those moments, and you start to understand how long those suffering Surrey fans had to wait, and you also understand why my heart is broken, even though I was the one who left.

All that time. All that life. Gone forever.

And watched out for a simple twist of fate

Think about where you are.

Now think about how you got there.

All the things that had happen for you to be sitting where you are right now. All the things that had to go right, all the things that had to go wrong. A million billion moments that broke one way when they could have broken the other, all of them leading you to the place you are at this very second: sitting in your cube, or on your couch, or in your bed, or in someone else’s bed.

I met my now ex-wife at a Halloween party in South Minneapolis in 1999 that neither of us were supposed to attend. I was friends with someone who was friends with someone who was friends with the host and I got dragged along at the last minute.  She knew the guys in the band that were playing the party and got asked at the 11th hour to help them drive their equipment into the city. We happened to be waiting in line for the bathroom together. The rest is history. We were together for 19 years.

Over those 19 years, I thought about that night a lot. All that had to happen for me to get there, for her to get there, for us to meet. All the twists and turns that led us to that party and in line for that upstairs bathroom at the very same time. And how different my life would have been if, say, one tiny thing had gone differently and one of us never made it to the party. I would lie awake at night and think: I could have never gone to that party, and we never would have met, and nothing would be the same. And it would have been so simple, so easy: one tiny decision altered and one of us isn’t there that night. Nothing monumental either, not some big life choice, but something minuscule: what if my friend and I decide to get a drink before heading to the party? That’s all it would have taken.

That night, and all that got me there, changed my life forever. I am 42 years old. That night defined my life for 19 of them. And will define my life for the rest of my days, even though we are no longer together. Because without her other life events don’t happen: jobs, trips, college, dogs, friends.

Everything.

One night. A lifetime. And everything in it. For good or for bad, it’s reality.

Today in Dubai India beat Bangladesh with the last ball of the last over. 50 overs; 300 deliveries; a pitch of random holes, seams, bumps, creases; wind; humidity.

Nine batsmen, six bowlers, 11 fielders. Humans. Flawed, perfect humans.

All of that. But still. Exactly 300 deliveries later, India win, somehow. All that could have changed, every ball that could have zigged when it zagged. Every mistake, every moment of brilliance, all somehow leading them to that last ball, those leg byes trundling down toward the boundary rope, giving India the Cup.

It’s amazing, when you think about it. All that could have been different, yet somehow wasn’t.

What a game.

What a life.

What a world.

My ’98 booming with a trunk of funk

India beat Pakistan by eight and then nine wickets this week in the Asia Cup. These two games ended a string of matches between the two old enemies that have been rather lopsided. There were the two Champions Trophy matches in 2017: one won by India by a bucket of runs and one won by Pakistan by a bucket of runs. Before that was their meeting in the 2015 World Cup which India won handily.

This mini-string of matches have led many to state that the India vs Pakistan rivalry — once the Yankees vs Red Sox of the cricketing world — is no longer living up to the hype.

Which is, of course, a dumb thing to say. Mostly because it’s the smallest of small sample sizes. The two countries have played each other in 131 ODIs, so the last five matches represent less than 4% of their total ODIs played. Further, they’ve also gone head-to-head in 59 Tests and eight T20s, so those five matches account for just 2.5% of all their matches played when you bring those two formats into the occasion. Not living up to the hype? C’mon. It’s five matches.

Also, though, India vs Pakistan doesn’t need to be a close match for it to live up to the hype. It’s become way more of an event than just a sporting contest. Sure, maybe the neutrals are a little grumpy, but Indian fans are still super happy, and Pakistani fans are surely still bummed. Lopsided string of matches or not, the winners are always fine with the result, boohoo that the neutrals didn’t get their classic.

Which brings me to my main point about this: what in sports ever lives up to the hype? How many snooze-fest World Cup finals have we all sat through? No matter the sport? We surely all remember the lengthy and intense buildup to the 2015 Cricket World Cup final, only to watch New Zealand’s danger man, Brendan McCullum, get bowled by Mitchell Starc with the fifth ball of the first over, essentially sucking all the life out of an eight hour match in the first minute. That about sums up most finals, most Super Bowls, most sports, and, yeah, you knew where this was going: most things in life.

Life rarely lives up to the hype. No matter what the event or the outcome. The joy is in the anticipation, the excitement. There’s little in life where the joy after an event exceeds that that existed before the event. Think of all those Christmas mornings. Those graduations. Those weddings. I don’t have kids, but I’m gonna bet that childbirth is probably the one thing in our lives that actually lives up to, or even exceeds, the hype that existed beforehand.

Public Enemy famously rapped: don’t believe the hype. But yeah fuck that. Believe the hype. Revel in the hype. Wrap yourself in the hype and wring out every last damn drop. Don’t fear the hype. Love the hype. Have faith in the hype. Because what comes next is probably going to suck, and so the hype might be the only joy you get during your long life on this dark little planet.

Anticipation is joy. Joy is anticipation. Don’t turn your back on it, it might be all you get.

 

Only words

The Asia Cup is happening, but I haven’t watch a single ball bowled. In fact, over the last two years, I have watched a grand total of zero hours of live cricket. It might even stretch further back from that. I think I might have cancelled my Willow subscription (for the second time) in late 2015, or thereabouts. Sure, I have listened to live cricket here and there, but I haven’t watched any on TV or on a stream in a very long time. I just haven’t had the notion to pony up for Willow, and ESPN doesn’t show as much as it used to, and even if I resubscribed for Willow I wouldn’t be able to watch much as I currently don’t have internet in my place (right now I am leaching off the wi-fi of the bakery next door).

And that’s weird, right? It’s weird to follow a sport and simply never watch it. Who else does that but US based cricket fans? Can you imagine a diehard NFL or NBA fan who loved the game and followed it closely but never watched a down or a free-throw?

Despite the weirdness of it, I get along just fine. Via articles on Cricinfo, and ball by balls, and the various blogs that I read, and the social media feeds of cricketers and teams and the ICC and reporters and fans. I feel connected to the game, like I am a part of it, like I know what’s going, even though I never, ever, watch it live. And I think that’s because cricket is the most literary of all sports. You can describe the action using language so accurately that you don’t need the actual images to know what it is going on:

Hasan Ali to Sharma, SIX runs, front-foot pull and it soars into the crowd behind square leg! Rohit is insane with this shot. For half a second it seems like he’s hurried, that the ball gets big on him, that maybe he’s even top-edged it. But it’s only as the ball keeps climbing in the air do you realise the timing he’s got on the ball.

I mean. We can all picture that pretty closely, can’t we? Sure you miss the atmosphere provided by television or radio, but as far as what is actually happening on the field, you have a solidly good idea in your head as to what it looks like. Cricket is simply one of those games that doesn’t need images or sounds, which is rather remarkable when you think about it. Some sports require both — like soccer, of instance — and some only require sound (baseball being the prime example) — but cricket is the only sport I can think of that requires neither. Just words.

As a fan of words, of language, I think that’s pretty damn cool.

But, I will admit, I miss watching the game. I miss the green and the movement and the pace of the game when broadcast on TV. I miss watching fast bowlers steam in, I miss a perfectly placed shot, I miss the images of crowds on the other side of the world. But when I have an active Willow subscription, I must also admit that I don’t watch it as much as I always assume I will. I always have great aspirations to watch tons and tons of cricket. Stay up late with tea and Twitter and watch matches around the globe. But I rarely do. I will watch a bit of the English summer when I can, and then a few matches in December in Australia and New Zealand, but then life gets in the way, I get tired, and I end up reading or watching Battlestar Galactica for the umpteenth time.

But. Despite that. I think when I finally do get the wi-fi up and running here, I will re-subscribe (for the third time) to Willow. I will watch what I can and not feel guilty if I don’t watch as much as I’d like. I mean, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka will be in Australia this fall/winter, and the latter two will also be in New Zealand.

Boxing Day Test at the MCG on Christmas Day, anyone? Yeah, I thought so. See ya on Twitter, where we will write as we watch, giving words to the action for those who can’t see.

**UPDATE**

After reading Neeran’s comment below, it got me thinking: is this a new thing for cricket? The fact that it only needs words? And I mean new as in the last 25 years? Or was it born of necessity not that long ago? Born of all the ex-pats from cricket loving countries all over the world relying on early ball-by-ball commentaries to follow the game?

It’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Does cricket work in text only because people were forced to do it and do it very well? Or were people able to do it well because the game doesn’t really require images and sound?

Maybe I am over-thinking it.

But we can all agree that Cricinfo changed cricket forever, for good or for bad, and Cricinfo exists solely because some grad students in Minnesota wanted to follow the matches, and were forced to do so via simple text. And so while the game has always, throughout its history, attracted great writers and inspired great writing, maybe the dawn of the internet and the mass migrations of people and the requirements of ball-by-ball commentary simply made it more literary, and less in need of anything other than words?

And to think. All of the great cricket writers around today, be they bloggers or journalists or both, were their writing chops improved, sometimes greatly improved, by reading all those text commentaries on Cricinfo? I think the answer is a resounding yes.

It’s a funny old game, as they say, and once you start peeling the onion, you really get to see all the countless layers. It’s not just a game. It’s not just a bat and a ball. It’s also technology and time and space and homesick college kids and a million people sitting in their cubes, watching the ball-by-ball scroll on by, changing how we follow the game forever.

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town

Time.

It’s a real mess. It whips by us when we aren’t even looking and before we know it weeks, months, years, decades have passed. And what do we have to show for them? A great deal, usually, if we allow ourselves to see it all. But sometimes that can be difficult, and so all we see instead is life passing us by. Not slowly, either, but like a freight train, barreling down some distant track until it disappears in the distance.

I’ve often written how sport is wonderful as it’s something we can all mark time by. Especially sporting events that don’t take place every year, but every four years, like the Olympics or World Cups. We watch the games and the matches and we think about where we were four years prior, and where we will be at the next World Cup or Olympics, four years down those aforementioned railroad tracks.

The Cricket World Cup takes place next summer in England, which means it will have been 12 years since the first Cricket World Cup I paid attention to, 2007 in the West Indies. A laughable tournament but one that caught my attention and held it square. 12 years was a very, very long time ago, but it also of course feels like yesterday, like I went to sleep one night as a 31 year old kid and woke up a 43 year old old man. I remember watching England and India crash out, I remember watching Malinga rip through the death overs like death itself, I remember a crushing Australia win in the final, Ponting and Gilchrist batting on and on and on, the latter supposedly with a squash ball in his glove, and the Sri Lankan fielders complaining about them trodding on the wicket, and the farcical ending via Duckworth/Lewis. A farcical ending to a farcical World Cup, but one that I remember with great joy and nostalgia.

Then we all blinked and it was 2011 and we were all watching India lift the Cup in Mumbai. It was less a victory than a coronation. That’s not to say that they didn’t deserve the win, that they didn’t grind out the Ws against good teams, but from the opening ball to the last over, you could just feel it was India’s tournament to lose. God smiled on them, and Sachin smiled back. As did the whole of India. That was seven years ago. Seven. I hadn’t even started this blog yet. Obama was still in his first term. The world was still reeling from the global recession. We all looked back as India lifted the Cup and thought about 2007,  about all that had happened and the time that had passed us by, and we looked ahead to 2015, and Australia-New Zealand, and all that potential, all of that time, all of that potential for something magical to happen in our lives.

Of course, it didn’t. And, of course, it did. Four years is a long time. The years between the final at the Wankhede and Australia’s defeat of New Zealand at the MCG produced a lot of everything and a lot of nothing. I watched that final at my kitchen table on my laptop with bottles of New Zealand’s MOA beer. And I thought about all that happened in the last four years, and during some overs it felt like life had finally started to happen for me and during other overs it felt like nothing at all had happened, that I had just spent the four years twiddling my thumbs, listening to my arteries harden, having perhaps one or two too many hangovers. Both are true. Neither is true.

And now we are all waiting for the calendar to turn over to 2019 and have it be summer in England and Wales. I will watch the matches and think back to 2015 and 2011 and 2007 and all of that potential for change and magic, and I will also feel old and worn down and wonder if it’s been worth it, about what I have to show for all those mornings I pried myself out of bed, all of that time that had passed me by.

Others though, people that have followed the game longer, will think back to the last time England hosted the World Cup: 1999. 20 years. 20 years of triumphs and little successes and hard days and time, time, time, ticking away mercilessly. They might have been children when the World Cup was last on English soil, now they are adults with mortgages and kids of their own. They will look back on those 20 years and wonder to themselves: where did it all go? Did I do okay? Am I all right? And hopefully they will look around and see positive answers to all those questions.

But even if they don’t, even if they see negatives, even if those are hard questions with harder answers, they are important questions, and important answers. We all should take a moment here and there and take stock, see where we are, where we are going. There are lots of mile markers in life that can provide that moment of reflection, but sport is a really good one, maybe the best one, because it exists outside our sphere, it is a shared experience, and so we can, unlike personal anniversaries or milestones, take comfort in the fact that millions of other people, the whole world over, are watching those closing ceremonies, those final few overs of the final, those few precious final seconds of stoppage time, and reflecting in the same way.

The world stops to watch the World Cup, and together we all pause, and look back, and look ahead.

What a gift.

Image result for 2007 cricket world cup final

Where were you while we were getting high?

There’s an article on Cricinfo this morning: What does it really mean to be Asia Cup champions? It’s a good question, and a good article, though mostly it talks about the history of the tournament, and what we might see this year, rather than actually answering the question in the headline.

But the question is a valid one, and one that could be applied to all tournaments, all series, all sports. Why do we watch? And what does it all mean?

The cynic will tell you it’s meaningless, that we are not fans, we are a product sold to advertisers. Cogs in a billion dollar machine designed solely to make money for autocrats and dictators. We dress up like kids on Halloween and cheer on mercenaries playing a game designed for children.

The cynic’s foil will tell you that people should find meaning and joy wherever they can. Be it the novels of Proust or a Seahawks game. They will see the fans of teams care with such passion that their hearts will double in size to see all that caring, an action that many feel is slowly leaving our world, replaced with the cynical constructs above. And they will tell people that sport is community, and community is sport. We rally around the home team at the local watering hole, and rally around whatever team we want on Twitter, making friends all over the world.

In truth, for most of us, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. We know we are a cog, but that’s fine, it’s our leisure time, let’s spend it at a pub with a beer and some friends. Sure, life is very short, but it’s also very long, and there’s plenty of time for pursuits that might bring more meaning — whatever that is — to our lives.

Honestly, though, can any of us really answer the question above with any real certainty? Do we know specifically why we watch, and what it all means? Why we live and die with our teams, and why we lose our shit when they lose, and why celebrate for hours when they win?

There’s a famous Noel Gallagher quote about what the words to “Champagne Supernova” mean. I can’t seem to track it down online, which means he probably never said it, but the gist of it was: people were always asking him what the lyrics meant, but he never had a good answer for them. Then one night they were playing the song in front of 60,000 people and he looks out and there’s a shirtless kid sitting on someone’s shoulders crying his eyes out and singing along to every word. “That’s what the fucking song’s about,” he concluded.

And, really, that’s how it is with sports. It’s that moment of pure joy, pure unexplainable joy. That’s what it’s about.

So to answer the question posed by Cricinfo’s copy editor:

This is what it really means to be Asia Cup champion:

image2.png

 

A little KP, a little Freddie

Wow. Do I love this picture:

Freddie and KP, just 27 and 25 years old, respectively, KP just having made his Test debut two months earlier, posing in front of 10 Downing St. in a pair of ill fitting suits like two school boys who had just pulled a prank on their prep school headmaster.

Which, of course, they were.

The two of them — along with their England teammates — had pulled a prank on the whole cricketing world: beating Australia, winning the Ashes, and making England care about cricket again. They did it with substance and they did it with style. You look at that picture and you see youth, and ego, and that sense of invincibility that those two things combine to create. Bad luck injuries and controversies and the IPL and a short lived boxing career and Peter Moores were but glints in their eyes. The whole world spread out before them, nothing was impossible.

And that’s how we all are at that age, more or less. When you’re 25, even if you haven’t just won the Ashes, you still feel like you could take on the world. Aging and death are deep in the distance, and are barely concerns. You can drink all night and get to work in the morning. You can play soccer and take a hard tackle and not hobble around for days afterward. You can take risks — in work, in love, in whatever — because you don’t see consequences, you only see reward.

But you also feel like you are pulling off a prank on everyone. You are just faking it while everyone else around you has adulthood and life all figured out. You are wary of the future and scared of all that you don’t know. Time is moving fast, and the fear of life just passing you by while you try to figure out how to simply be alive and exist and be happy without the safety net of home.

One of those feelings goes away, the other never does. We are spend our whole lives feeling like we are going to be found out at any minute, that everyone will learn that we just frauds who are just faking their way through life. Meanwhile, we simultaneously lose our sense of immortality, our belief that we can do just about anything we set our minds to. It’s hard combination.

In the picture, you can see both. Flintoff, the elder statesman, who’s been playing Test cricket for seven years, who’s distant, serious stare speaks not of pranks or immortality, but of world weariness, of fear of creaky knees. While KP has the look of a total chancer, in love with the world that he is king of.

It’s the Yin and the Yang of life, of aging, of existence. And the key is to try to be both. To be humble in our fears, but to also remember that life is really damn short, and to live a life without a constant fear of consequences, to instead concentrate on its rewards. To be KP, and to be Freddie. To live in the present, to not worry so much about the future while still keeping a close on what’s to come, and to remember that we are all — every single one of us — just faking it, every single day.