Cricket for Americans: 31 Jan. 2019: Teamwork

The shadows are long in Antigua, as West Indies look to bat out the final few overs without losing a wicket. The day started off in their favor, as they won the toss and elected to bowl on a tricky pitch, taking a quick four wickets before Bairstow’s smash and grab half century and a lovely and calm partnership between Foakes and Ali steadied the ship. But it wasn’t enough and just like in Barbados England were bowled out for well below a par score, but at least they got into the triple digits this time around.

England’s attack came in with both guns — Anderson and Broad, the latter with something to prove after being dropped for the first Test — blazing and looked to take at least one or two wickets off the Windies in the tricky light, but the pitch flattened out and despite all their best efforts, Brathwaite and Campbell are holding firm. If they can see out the day, it will surely put them on top heading into the second day of the Test.

And, so, an intriguing day of Test cricket, but not one that will last long in memory. Just a good day out in the Caribbean sun, the sounds of the game keeping time, counting out the rhythm of an Antiguan January day.

The final over the of the day was just bowled, and Brathwaite and Campbell did indeed survive the session, putting the Windies clearly on top. And so that completes the story of the day: partnerships. If not for the late wicket stand of Foakes and Ali, England are in far deeper trouble. And if Campbell and Brathwaite don’t get through the new ball and see out the day, then the wickets could have fallen like dominos, but instead they open the day tomorrow with fresh legs and fresh eyes and fresh plans.

Cricket is a team game, you can’t win without your teammates, but it’s also one defined by individual efforts. The match winning double century, or the five-for from nowhere. But lots of times, like today, it is a game of partnerships, duos, two teammates on the same wavelength, feeding off of each other, working together to bring the game back into contention, or to save an afternoon, or to set up the rest of the Match for their side. It’s rare, in that sense, in the realm of team sports, where two person partnerships can define a game. Foakes and Ali. Campbell and Brathwaite.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 30 Jan. 2019: Canberra

Here’s one reason why I will be watching the 2nd Test between England and the West Indies that starts tomorrow:

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That’s just one reason, of course, because it will be quite the intriguing match on the pitch, as the West Indies look to pummel their former colonizers once again, but there’s just something to be said to tuning into a sporting event taking place in the sun and heat from the dark and cold and horrible north.

One of my favorite cricketing traditions is the Boxing Day Test match in Australia. In the US, the match starts in the evening on Christmas Day. And I love to tune in and watch the other side of the world bake as outside my window there’s snow and ice and cold, fresh off a nice holiday, and staring down a few well earned days off.

It’s funny how that works out, how seeing people in shirt sleeves on green grass under blue skies is enough to warm you up just a bit, to cozy your up your space a little, despite the howling winds outside. Earth is a big old place, and seeing cricket on the other side of it is just one reminder of that, and it’s just one more reason to watch.

Other matches of note: South Africa look as though they are going to chase down Pakistan’s 240 to take the 5th and deciding ODI, a hard fought series win that will give them confidence leading into the World Cup ramp up. There’s also the 4th ODI between India and New Zealand that will see the former rest players and the latter looking to salvage something from the series. I have always been a great fan of New Zealand, and I hope they can pull out off what appears to be a rather serious tail spin. Yeah, India are a very, very good cricket team — and have to be everyone’s favorite to win the World Cup now — but New Zealand barely showed even a hint of fight against them. Worrisome for the Kiwis.

And there’s Test cricket happening in Canberra, as Australia and Sri Lanka have their second Test starting tomorrow at 5:30 in the evening, US Time.

Note: Canberra is home to the Manuka Oval, a ground I was not familiar with until just now.  It’s been around for a while, but mostly has hosted domestic cricket with the occasional international limited overs match, and this is its first ever time hosting a Test match, that alone makes it worth tuning in for, I think. Also of note, and this is a little embarrassing, but just now is the first time I had ever heard of the Australian city of Canberra. And it turns out it is the country’s capital city! I had no idea. I just always assumed it was Melbourne or Sydney, but apparently it’s been Canberra since 1908 when a compromise was reached between those two cities.

I often talk about how cricket makes one a better global citizen, but that’s only true when cricket is happening. Canberra hasn’t hosted any Tests, so therefore it’s firmly in my blindspot. Still: it’s a little embarrassing that I didn’t know what the capital of Australia was. But, hey, I know now, and I guess that’s all that matters? Always be learning, in other words.

Canberra, who knew?

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 27 Jan. 2019: This and that

Interesting results in a few recent ODIs, as India pummeled New Zealand by eight wickets and 90 runs to win the first two of of their five match series. It’s not entirely surprising when you consider the ICC ODI rankings — India is 2nd while New Zealand is 4th — but what is surprising is how lopsided the two matches were. New Zealand are a good side, and they are on their home soil, one would think that they would put up more of a fight. This is a World Cup year, and to see the Kiwis lose so comprehensively to top competition has to give one pause.

Another result of note was Pakistan beating South Africa — again, rather comprehensively — to draw level in their ODI series. And, again, worrisome for the host nation. South Africa is one of the early picks to finally put down their demons to rest and hoist a major trophy this summer in England. Failing to beat lesser, but still competitive, teams, isn’t going to give people a great deal of confidence that this year is finally their year. (South Africa has a reputation of getting close but never getting over the line. Chokers, to use the American parlance.)

Pakistan, for their part, will be without their captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, for the remainder of the South African tour for, you guessed it, racist comments on the field. Four matches, a slap on the wrist, and back in plenty of time for the World Cup. Pakistan, for their part, consider the punishment too harsh because, you know, he apologized. Nonsense. He should be banned for a year and not allowed to play in the World Cup. At some point, the ICC is going to need to start getting real with regard to how it deals with racist behavior, especially on the field. Cricket Australia dealt out 12 month bans to Steve Smith and David Warner for ball tampering, while the ICC gave Sarfaz four matches and Pakistan were upset about it.

Something’s not right here.

Meanwhile, in Barbados, the Windies finished up their record breaking defeat of England, setting up what should be a fascinating Test in Antigua that kicks off on Jan. 31.

The circus that never ends continues to entertain.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 26 Jan. 2019: A different sort of game

Yesterday I watched Arsenal lose 3-1 to Manchester United in the FA Cup. It was a crushing, dispiriting loss and all around not good day. But, I was fine. My perspective has changed. I no longer lose my shit when Arsenal have a terrible afternoon. You can’t fall out of a basement, as they say, and with all that’s happened this summer, I have become numb to their tribulations. I still celebrate the victories with gusto, however, I just don’t mourn their defeats. It’s quite freeing.

On the train home I thought about all those England fans who paid all that money to fly to the Caribbean to watch their team collapse to the West Indies in Bridgetown. They weren’t moaning or mourning — according to Bumble their biggest complaint was the lack of replays on the stadium’s scoreboard — they were drinking beer and laughing in the sun in the Caribbean. Of course, part of their laid back attitude over the loss has to do with the fact that they are in Bridgetown in the sun, drying out after a long and wet and cold English winter. But I wondered if they, too, had suffered the kind of loss that makes sport failures feel not quite so awful. If they, too, have let go of the things that they cannot control, and just allowed themselves to enjoy the weather, despite the fact that their team is chasing down 628.

But maybe that’s overthinking it. I actually think it’s simpler than that, it’s just that being a cricket fan is different. Sure, there will be a great deal of consternation among the England fans on Twitter over the next few days: grumbles about team selection and Stuart Broad and Root’s decision making. But they will also be celebrating the return of the West Indies, and how great that would be for the game they love. And yesterday we watched England fans who had spent thousands of Pounds to fly to the other side of the world to see their team, stand and applaud Dowrich’s century and Holder’s double century. What other sport would you see that in? I mean, the goal that Alexis scored for United yesterday was of the highest possible class, is there a single Arsenal fan in the world who would have applauded the effort? I am guessing not.

It’s a different kind of game, cricket. And there’s really no other team sport you can compare it to. You want your team to win, of course, and it’s fun when they do, but when they lose to a side like the West Indies, who play swashbuckling but somehow still technical cricket, you take it in stride, enjoy the sun on your face, and you applaud the hometown boy’s double century that ground your lot into a fine pulp. Yeah, it’s a different game, one where you spend the majority of your time celebrating, instead of mourning. And if you’re tired of watching your team fail to make a breakthrough, you find a shady spot and have a little nap, safe in the knowledge that you probably won’t miss much, and if you do, no matter what, it’s just cricket, it’ll be fine.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 25 Jan. 2019: like the good old days

A magnificent day of Test cricket yesterday. 18 wickets fell in Bridgetown, including a spell from Kemar Roach that harkened backed to the West Indian fast bowlers of yester-year. Together with Jason Holder he ripped through the England middle order. Batsmen four through eight scored a grand total of 10 runs. 4-0-4-0-2. It was brilliant to watch. Violent and beautiful bowling. It was some of the best Test cricket I have seen in a very long time.

The West Indies could have forced the follow-on as they were ahead by 225 after England’s first innings. I.e. Make England bat again to see if they can hit the target. If they are bowled out without hitting the target, the match is over, without the West Indies even needing to bat again. It’s kind of an “eff you” thing to do. “Not quite good enough there, friend, how’s about you give it another go?” But teams don’t do it very often these days, which always use to confuse this American. Why not grind the opponent into dust? Kick them when they’re down, ride the momentum which is completely in your favor? And that used to be the case. At least it used to be more common. Especially during the days of the aforementioned West Indian attacks of the 70s and 80s. But now teams are a bit more cautious, and no one wants to bat on a day five pitch having to chase down a tricky 150 runs in fading light.

So now you know.

I still wish Holder had enforced it though.

Another item of note was the crowd. The game was in Barbados, but the fans were strangely silent as Roach ripped through England. That’s because the majority of the fans were Brits on holiday. Sure, a few West Indian fans trickled in as the day went on, but for the most part the crowd was upper middle class English folk on holiday. And this is the case in Sri Lanka, too, and most places with warm climates that England might travel to for cricket during January or February. Which, I don’t know, is fine. I mean, if the England fans weren’t there yesterday, the stadium would be more or less empty. And why is that? Is it simply because it’s a weekday and cricket doesn’t have the same draw in the Caribbean that it used to have? I guess this could be the case, as you see it all over the world. I watch Test matches from the late 90s and early 00s in India on YouTube and the stadiums are packed to the gunwales, but these days there are few fans in the shade and that’s it. That’s cricket’s problem to solve. And the Hundred and the T20 and cheerleaders aren’t going to solve it. It’s about putting the focus back on the the long format. And, well, marketing it better. It’s the most entertaining of all the formats, you just need to sell it a little better.

But was the Oval empty of locals yesterday because they were priced out? Has cricket in the Caribbean become a sport exclusive to rich foreigners? If so, then that’s a real shame. If you take away the local culture that each Test nation brings to the game, then it won’t matter how well you sell it, it will slowly die as it becomes a sterile Subway sandwich of a game. Gone will be the drums and the flags and the Calypso, replaced with pasty drunk stag parties from Cornwall.

Maybe I making too big of a deal with it. This is how the world is now, as the West slowly transforms every locale into its own image in what is more or less post-modern colonialism. But I just watched Jason Holder score a Test match hundred against England at the ground that he grew up in the shade of. If you take away the local Caribbean cricketing culture, you take away, down the road, moments like this, and you end up with fast food cricket played in front of 50 Brits on holiday at an otherwise empty stadium in Dubai.

That’s the real nightmare scenario.

Until tomorrow.

Of course, that sounds like hyperbole. But it’s not. I am watching him bat right now. He is disciplined and calm but expressive and swashbuckling, talking to himself after every delivery, gold chain glistening in the Caribbean sun, leading his team to a respectable total after Jimmy Anderson ripped through the West Indian middle order yesterday evening, and doing it all with this powerful sense of real joy, like he is really enjoying himself, that he understands just how much fun cricket can be, there in the sun on a Thursday morning in Barbados.

But more than that. As Vithushan mentions above, his batting style is simply just gorgeous to watch. Fluid and clean like a clear stream in summer. Inventive and interesting and creative and smooth. Like a ballet dancer or a jungle cat. A human being completely at ease in their own body, making something so incredibly difficult look so incredibly easy.

A Test batsman coming of age in the age of the Twenty20. And only 22 years old. Are we watching the future of West Indian cricket? Are we watching the future of Test cricket? Are we watching the future of cricket!? I might be jumping the gun here a little, of course, but it’s a real joy to watch a young West Indian batsman raised on T20 and the NBA plying his trade so magnificently against one of the best attacks in World Cricket.

It’s been said before, and it will be said again, but Test cricket is not dead, despite all the opinions to the contrary. And batsmen like Hetmyer are proof of life. Sure, it’s dying, but it’s always been dying, always battling against time, against progress, but it’s players like Hetmyer that continue to breathe life into this funny old game.

I look at players like Virat Kohli, who made his national team debut in the middle of the T20 generation, a wonderful cricketer, an aggressive and ferocious batsman, who can carry a team across the line in both forms of the one day game. He can hit for six like no one on earth, blasting ball after ball into the seats in the middle of the IPL circus. But then he put on the Test whites and ground out centuries and double centuries and lead his team to victory in the longest format everyone on earth, and he just won Test Cricketer of the year.

Sure, it’s dying, but it’s always been dying, and players like Hetmyer are here to make sure it stays on this side of the mortal coil.

Cricket for Americans: 23 Jan. 2019: Time zones

There’s cricket happening.

Test cricket.

In our hemisphere.

The English are in the Caribbean for three Tests, five ODIs and a T20 against the West Indies, with today being day one of the first Test.

This such a rare treat. Well, it happens every winter about this time, but it is still nice when it happens. Bridgetown, Barbados — where the first Test is — is only two hours ahead of me here in St. Paul. So I can follow the match like a person is supposed to, rather than some creepy night owl.

I have written about this before. But when people ask me if cricket will ever work in America, I usually say no, because the time differences just aren’t conducive to people taking in the best the sport has to offer. London is six hours ahead of my watch. Mumbai 10 and 1/2. Melbourne 17. Sure, sometimes it works out — the first session or so of Test matches in Australia are on during Prime Time in the USA, for instance, and day/night matches in England take place during non-insane hours — but mostly international cricket takes places while most of America is sound asleep.

Except for those matches in the West Indies.

I fell in love with the game during the 2007 World Cup. Most right thinking cricket fans think that’s insane when I tell them. The 2007 World Cup was a bloated, wet mess that stretched on for weeks and weeks and weeks — with most matches happening in front of maybe two or three bored fans. But! I say, it happened in my hemisphere. I could show up at the office and put on my headphones and listen to entire matches via the BBC at my desk. If the World Cup had been happening in any other Test playing nation, I might not be writing this today.

And really this is the biggest challenge of following cricket. The time zones and, quite simply, the length of the matches. So much of the game will happen while your asleep, or in meetings, or putting gas in your car. But once you are aware it’s happening, you fall into a bit of a pace with it. You can’t watch, but you know it’s happening, and you know to check the scores when you wake up, or when you get out of a meeting, or when finish dinner. You can almost sense the cricket in the background, running alongside you, quietly keeping time like a metronome as bowlers steam in again and again and again. And then it’s lunch, and tea, and drinks, and stumps. The pace of the day matches your own, and you begin to understand the amount of space and time a Test match can fill. Only so much can happen during a two hour football match, but during a Test match the whole world can change, whether you’re watching or not. And with that understanding comes the knowledge of just how difficult it can be to not just win in the game’s longest format, but win over and over again.

But if you want to watch, here are some tips:

  • Matches in the West Indies are your friends, savor them. The West Indies might not win a ton of matches these days, but they play disciplined, interesting cricket, and have a good sense for flair.
  • England is fine too. Test matches start at 5 a.m. CT and lunch is at 7 a.m. with the second session starting at 7:40 a.m., so you can take in most of the day without losing too much sleep. ODIs are good too, with the chases starting at 8:30ish in the morning for a day/day match and 11:30ish for a day/night. This bodes well for an enjoyable World Cup for US based fans. New to the game? You’re in for a treat. Just don’t get used to it.
  • South Africa is two hours ahead of England so it can get tricky but I’ve taken in a lot of great ODI chases from down there over the years.
  • Australia, as mentioned, and New Zealand, are great during December and January, as they play lots of Tests during those months, and the first ball is in the heart of American Prime Time. ODIs and T20s can be problematic, but I watch more Test cricket beamed from those two countries than any other. However, I was forced to stay up all night to watch the ODI World Cup final in Melbourne in 2015. You might have to get used to doing that.
  • Now is when it gets difficult. India is 11 hours ahead of St. Paul, so the first ball of a Test match happens just as I am getting ready for bed, and then day/night ODIs start in the middle of the night. I occasionally will catch the end of a chase first thing in the morning, but most cricket in Southeast Asia happens as I sleep. Which is a shame, really, as they play a ton of great cricket in that part of the world, and the sport is more popular there than anywhere else on earth. (The exception here is the IPL — the Indian Premier League, a domestic T20 competition that attracts the best in the world but can also be a bit of a circus — as the chases for that league kickoff in the mid-morning US time. It’s worth tuning in. They can be a little much, but they can also serve up some great T20.)

And that’s your lot, more or less. It’s not the easiest sport to follow, and you might find yourself yawning a lot, but some nights? It’s so, so worth it. Here’s a piece I wrote about staying up late to watch a New Zealand v England Test match. There’s something to be said for being up in St. Paul in the dead of winter watching the conclusion of a classic on the other side of the world, where it’s summer and green and blue, all while America is asleep.

*Update from reader Tim @ 6:11 p.m. CT:

“The CPL and the T20 Blast in England are two other great competitions you didn’t mention. The CPL games are in prime time ( some are played in Florida and you can go and watch them live, which I have done), which is great if you are a Mets fan and they have played themselves out of contention by August. The T20 Blast games start around 11 am to 1 pm ET, perfect for the weekend and good for killing time at work. Finals Day in the T20 Blast is hands down the most fun sports day on my calendar since I discovered it. Two semifinals and a final all in the same day, plus a mascot race after the first game. I definitely want to attend one of those one day.”