Cricket for Americans: 10 Feb. 2019: We miss it ever summer

Today, the Melbourne Cricket Ground posted this on Instagram:

“Stumps for another Summer of Cricket” at the MCG, and in Australia. What started with an ODI against Pakistan in the first week of November — back on a day when Aussie fans had the entire summer spreading out before them — ended yesterday with Melbourne defeating Sydney in the Big Bash League. And thus ends another summer, one of so few that we get, and that always seem to go by so fast, and that we always feel like we miss, even when that summer takes places during the darkest depths of our winter, personal or otherwise.

Another year gets away
Another summer of love
I don’t know why I care
We miss it every summer

We only get so many, and then they are gone, leaving us wistful and trying to remember what we did, how we spent the time, whether we enjoyed ourselves or not.

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Like a lot of Americans, I struggled with the infinity of cricket. The seemingly nonstop cycle of matches and series and tournaments, stretching on forever without end. But there are ends, and there are beginnings, you just have to look for them, and then they appear, and you are grounded, and then you remember that every beginning has an end, and that you only get so many of each, no matter how limitless they seem some days.

Yesterday, the Australian summer of cricket ended. In a few months, the English summer of cricket will begin, and it will stretch out before us, a seemingly endless horizon, like a vast ocean of warm afternoons, and the World Cup, and the Ashes. But soon enough that will end too. And we will wonder where all that time went, where all that cricket went, and how it slipped like water through our fingers.

Cricket seems infinite, but it’s not, it’s just that its endings — and its beginnings — are more subtle, and therefore somehow more special, more melancholy. Maybe that’s because cricket’s endings are summer’s endings, and when summer ends we cannot help but wonder if we will get another, even one that’s not even in our hemisphere.

It’s a special game, cricket, defined by the tiniest of margins on the field, and the largest swaths of time off of it: razor thin edges to first slip, hairs breadth no balls, but also five day matches, months long tours, centuries old traditions. It’s poetry that whispers from a hilltop into a void filled with quiet mornings, tea breaks and short sleeves. And when the echoes of that whisper finally ease away into silence, they feel like they are gone forever, and that we never heard them in the first place.

Every beginning ends, and every ending reminds us of that.

Cheers to the Australian summer of cricket. We never knew ya, and now you’re gone. Let’s hope we get another chance to hear those whispers this summer in England, and that we remember to listen, and learn the words, and to hold that water in our hands just a little longer before it slips through our fingers, sinks through the clay, and falls over the edge of the world.

Until tomorrow.

*From The National’s “Guilt Party”
**From “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

Cricket for Americans: 9 Feb. 2019: Eve of Destruction

The first big bang domestic T20 league to pop-up was the Indian Premier League, which was founded — in rather shambalic circumstances — in 2007, with its first season in 2008. It attracted the best players in the world — to the chagrin of many — to play swashbuckling cricket under floodlights with pop music and cheerleaders. And it has been wildly successful, both in India and around the world. It’s the most attended cricket league anywhere, it’s brand value is 6.3 billion US dollars, and it was the first sports league to be broadcast live on YouTube. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no doubting its success. It’s so successful that most other cricket shuts down completely for the two month tournament, not even bothering to compete with what has become, to many, the future of cricket: glittering domestic T20 leagues with teams filled with mercenaries. It’s a doomsday scenario for many, but that’s where we are.

I am not sure who will carry this year’s IPL in the USA, but someone will. I suggest tuning in. Pick a team, follow along. It’s really something. Not my cup of tea, but no matter who you are, you can see the entertainment value.

The league has been so successful, that it has of course spawned similar leagues, hence the doomsday future above. Australia, England and the Caribbean all have formed domestic T20 leagues that attract international stars. The matches get TV contracts and people in the seats, padding the coffers — and lining the pockets — of long suffering national boards.

Included in that pot of new leagues is the Bangladeshi Premier League (BPL) which just wrapped up its season. Cricinfo has a little write up on the league: what worked, what didn’t. The pitches are problematic for exciting cricket, but the fact that it doesn’t have budget restraints on the teams — while the Australian league (the Big Bash League, or BBL) which runs parallel to it, does — means it will, over time, attract the biggest T20 stars in World Cricket. It will never compete with the IPL, because players can play in both, but sooner or later Cricket Australia will probably either need to move their tournament on the calendar, or watch their league slowly wilt under the bright lights of the BPL. My guess is that they will move it. So from December through May, it will be three back to back to back T20 domestic leagues featuring the same players — more or less — wearing different uniforms, playing in different countries. Then there will be a small window for international cricket or a World Cup or a domestic league like Shield Cricket in Australia or the English Championship (leagues that don’t attract international attention or player) just in time for England’s T20 Blast tournament to kickoff in London.

And red ball cricket will slowly be left in the dustbin.

Again, doomsday scenario, and I waffle back and forth on whether it will actually come to pass, but it’s looking more and more likely. Who would thought have that when it first started that the BPL would attract starts like AB de Villiers, Steven Smith, David Warner and Chris Gayle? Not me. Yet here we are.

This is a blog post meant for Americans. And so the Test loving cricket fan in me wants to dissuade newbies to the game from watching these tournaments. But I have to admit their entertainment value, and their value as a big toe in the water for fans new to the game. And that’s what I hope they are, and what they continue to be: a gateway drug of sorts for the longer formats. A way for boards to make a little money which they can then invest in first class infrastructure.

The former might happen, but the latter never will, and already isn’t, which then in turn makes the former a moot point. And the new fans it does attract appear to be ignoring the longer formats, which is maybe because the quality has gone down because boards aren’t interested in investing in it. It’s a feedback loop that has no end, until the bells ring at Test cricket’s funeral, of course.

Sorry for the doom and gloom this fine morning. American fans: watch the IPL. It really is something. And then settle down in the summer with me and watch the Ashes, because that is cricket, while the IPL is just cricket’s preface. Neither will disappoint, and both will keep you coming back for more. Just don’t let the bright lights of the IPL blind you to what cricket really is all about: toss a coin, play cricket for five days.

Cricket for Americans: 7 Feb. 2019: Recessive

Now, I am no economist, but I do believe that the best way to make a recession happen is for “experts” to talk about how they are worried one might be on the horizon. People hear that, they get worried, they stop buying, and boom: recession.

Which is why I take umbrage with ICC Chairman Shashank Manohar’s comments today, as reported by Cricinfo: “… Test cricket is actually dying to be honest.” The best way to kill Test cricket, is to say it’s dying, over and over again.

But it’s almost more than that.

Manohar made the comments in relation to the World Test Championship, due to start (finally) after this summer’s World Cup, and how it might just be the shot in the arm Test cricket needs. He went on to back up his statement using television ratings and the like.

Fine. I get it. T20 does get better ratings, but not for the reasons that Manohar thinks. His reasoning is that people don’t have the time these days to tune into a five day match. Bullshit. They never did. And while the ratings might be down for Test cricket, people are still watching golf tournaments, which are more or less four day matches.

No, Test cricket’s ratings are down because the ICC and national boards invented a format in their own game that actively competes with it. Will people choose a three hour match over a five day one? Maybe, if you shove it down their throats. Which is more or less what they are doing, as domestic T20 leagues run rampant across the globe and boards actively neglect to develop batsmen who can succeed in the game’s longer formats. This, in turn, has decreased the quality and competitiveness of the matches.

What other sport would do that? Imagine the NFL or the MLB creating flashier formats that would compete with their legacy products in a market they have fully cornered?

Only cricket.

And so, yeah, Test cricket is in trouble, but it’s the ICC that put it there, purposefully, in their relentless pursuit of profit, profit, profit. And it’s things like ECB “hundred” that are only going to make the situation worse. The World Test Championship feels like a grasping at straws, not an actual solution. If it fails, and it could fail, then the ICC could be, like, “well, we tried, shrug” and they are off the hook.

It almost feels like it’s too late now. The World Test Championship is closing the barn door after the horse has run.

And here’s the thing: cricket fans like Test cricket. They will watch it, but only if the matches are worth watching. It’s not the format that’s the problem, nor is it the lack of a tournament, it’s the fact that Test cricket — despite putting up a couple classics now and again — has been slowly degrading in quality. The home team mops the floor with a visiting team, repeat ad nauseam. Changing who plays what and where isn’t going to fix that, it’s about making an actual investment in the players who play the matches, it’s about honing great Test bowlers and batsmen, not side-circus show ponies who can hit sixes, it’s about not creating new formats that actively compete with the first class game. And on and on and on.

Test cricket doesn’t need a shot in the arm, it needs the poison killing cut off at its source.

And that source is cricket’s governing bodies. They are letting the game eat itself alive. It’s insane when you think about it.

First step? Stop telling the world that Test cricket is dying.

Cricket for Americans: 5 Feb. 2019: On fielding

I dig this Tweet a lot.

I like knowing what he is talking about, in the same that I still get a thrill from seeing cricket scorecards and knowing what everything means.

But Peter Miller’s got a such better eye than me, than most people, really. I’ve seen that episode of Midsomer Murders, and I never would have in a million years caught the fielding nonsense that Miller did. But, that’s the cool thing about cricket: it’s an onion that you never stop peeling. You just never stop learning. It’s layers run deeper than, I think, any other sport — I realize that this goes against the grain of what I was writing about just yesterday — and it’s to the point where it doesn’t just have its own lingo and slang, it has its own fully formed language, with cadence and rhythm and a deep and wide vocabulary. Just looking through the replies to Miller’s Tweet proves that out:

“I’m assuming the bowler is also the captain to think that those dobbers merit two slips and some weird short gully.”

“The biggest TV cricketing scandal since Helen Daniels gave Jelly Belly Bishop out to a Lou Carpenter leg break that was missing the stumps by 6 inches.”

“He must have battled hard for 80 odd not out and then been put in the covers. Poor lad, I feel for him.”

“The skip can’t justify two grippers for those gentle mediums.”

“Attacking field though, he must have been ripping them”

“Only explanation is that the guy on strike is established batsman and the guy at the other end is new and lower-order. If that’s true, though, having a slip and a gully with everyone inside the ring makes no sense. Makes the whole rest of the programme untenable tbh.”

“Square leg umpire too close, square leg fielder standing basically behind the umpire, mid wicket in no mans land, mid on and mid off too close”

“I’m concerned the bowler was running in before the umpire was anywhere near in position. This game is a circus.”

You get the idea, but the gist of the comments is important: cricket people could talk about fielding setups literally forever. And that’s why I think cricket’s onion has more layers than even baseball’s: the fielding options. In Test cricket, you can literally put fielders anywhere you want, depending on whether the captain wants to attack or sit back, whether you’re bowling pace or spin, what the wicket condition is, what the weather forecast is, whether the batsmen are openers or middle orders or bottom feeders or any combination there of.

Just look at the almost countless names for cricket’s fielding positions:

Wicket Keeper
First Slip
Second slip
Third Slip
Fly Slip
Long Stop
Third man
Deep Gully
Silly Point
Deep Point
Cover Sweeper
Cover Point
Extra Cover
Deep Extra Cover
Silly Mid Off
Mid Off
Long Off
Straight Hit
Silly Mid On
Mid On
Long On
Forward Short Leg
Short Mid Wicket
Mid Wicket
Deep Mid Wicket
Short Square Leg
Square Leg
Deep Square Leg
Leg Gully
Long Leg
Leg Slip
Short Fine Leg
Deep Fine Leg

Unfortunately, as the game gravitates slowly away from Test cricket and toward the ruckus quick-hit atmospheres of domestic T20 leagues — for good or for ill, whether the fans or the players want it or not — fielding still matters, but I have noticed it matters in a different way: it’s less about the right number of slips, and more about the circus catches that make the ESPN highlight reel.

To wit:

Now, of course, it’s a symptom of a disease: T20 domestic leagues are all about big hits and cheerleaders, so it would follow that fielders would want in on the mix too. And if guys come out trying to score 50 off of 14, they are going to put a few balls in the air which will create more chances for these sorts of diving acrobatics. But I don’t like it. It’s nonsense. It’s a dumbing down of the game. I don’t mind T20, it’s a bit of a necessary evil and can be damned entertaining, but I do mind the format stripping down the layers, making it a fist fight instead of a chess match. I’d prefer a nuanced discussion on the fielding in fictional cricket game over a Jason Roy circus catch any day.

Thankfully, we are all alive and well in an era that features both.

Let’s enjoy it while we can.

Cricket for Americans: 4 Feb. 2019: Superb Owl

Yesterday was the Super Bowl here in the US.

And everyone has agreed: it well and thoroughly sucked.

From Deadspin:

It was a record-setter. Surely that can’t be a bad thing? Well, those Super Bowl records:

  • Fewest points in a game
  • Fewest points in a game by a winning team
  • Fewest points through three quarters
  • Fewest touchdowns in a game
  • Fewest passing touchdowns in a game (tied)
  • Fewest points in a game by one team (tied)
  • Fewest touchdowns in a game by one team (tied)
  • Most consecutive drives by one team ending in a punt

That last one? Woof.

Now, I get it, sport, like all other forms of entertainment — art, music, literature, movies, whatever — is a matter of taste. Some people like action movies, others don’t; some people like heavy metal, others don’t; some people like the NFL, others like Test cricket. Neither side is right, and neither side is wrong. There is quality and there is dreck, that’s the difference, it’s not the medium or the genre. Which is why I will freely admit that Test cricket has produced some woeful matches over the years — many of them in Barbados and Antigua featuring the same two sides, which is why the sparse crowd was primarily vacationing Brits there more for the drink and the sun than the cricket (and fair play to them) — and that the NFL has put on some hugely entertaining games — but there’s no way on earth people could stand up and say that NFL is the superior product — something many, many Americans believe. NFL fans, more than any other, consider their league the greatest show on earth, and would never allow for the argument that a bat and ball sport from England where the players wear sweaters could be more entertaining than their showpiece game.

But it can be. Just like, on occasion, the NFL can be vastly more entertaining than Test cricket.

We paint with such broad strokes when we discuss matters of taste. It creates an insularity that keeps us from trying new things, from experiencing events outside our comfort zone. I didn’t tune into last night’s NFL game, but I like to think that it was more a matter of logistics than anything else (I don’t own a TV). That said, however, I can be just as guilty of the above as anyone else.

There’s quality, and there’s dreck. Just because it’s the NFL doesn’t mean it’s consistently one or the other, same deal with Test cricket. But this past weekend, the NFL was surely pure dreck, while Test cricket was a real joy down in Antigua.

And, so, NFL fans, give cricket a chance, you might be disappointed, but you also might not be, and either way: you can say you tried something new. And you will have something to flip over to during another interminable five hour game that’s 90% commercials. Oh, wait, there I go again. I promise to give your game another chance, now and again, just give mine the same courtesy.

Related: Last night while you slept.

Until tomorrow.



Cricket for Americans: 3 Feb. 2019: Greatly exaggerated

After Australia’s first Test win on English soil in 1882, a satirical obituary for English cricket was published in The Sporting Times. English cricket had died, it said, and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia” for burial. Hence, the Ashes.

Yesterday, after the Windies wrapped up the second Test against in England in Antigua, James Morgan, writing for his really great blog, The Full Toss, said, more or less, that the ECB had no interest in the long format of the game and that unless something changes, English test teams outside of England are screwed, and that there’s zero ambition from the board room to change that. Which is just a fancy way of saying that English cricket died yesterday afternoon at the Sir Vivi Oval.

Meanwhile, writing for the Independent, Jonathan Liew said that:

We frequently hear about players exploring the outer limits of their talent. We hear a lot less about exploring the inner limits. How long can you stay in the fight? How far are you willing to go in order to find a way? How much, ultimately, do you really, really not want to get out? But England don’t really seem that interested in those sorts of questions. Perhaps because they’re terrified of what they might find. Perhaps they’re worried that, if they deconstruct their games and search deep within, they might find nothing at all.

“In a sense, it’s a form of intellectual laziness,” he continues. “A fundamental inability to reflect, a fundamental absence of thought.”


And that’s just two sources. England cricket fans from the sportswriters to the average fans were collectively losing their shit yesterday. The gist of it is summed up in James’ post: the ECB doesn’t give a shit about anything but turning a profit, and are slowing strangling the Test game to death.

And he/they might be right. This might be the final nail for Test cricket in England. Writes Morgan: “(W)hat young player coming through the system wants to score 1,000 runs in the championship when they can make a lot more money in a hell of a lot less time by prostituting themselves to a shiny new Hundred franchise from next summer onwards?”

I don’t have an answer to that.

Wait. Yes I do. And his name is Shimron Hetmyer.

22 years old. Raised on the NBA and the IPL during a time of terrible West Indian cricket teams. But there he is, donning the whites and grinding out runs all the same. Why? Because the glory — the real glory — is in the five day game. Despite all the ECB’s efforts to the contrary, it’s Test cricket that turns heads, that makes kids want to be cricketers. It was that way before, it is that way now, and it will be that way forever.

This is a blip, not a trend. A speed bump, not a roadblock. English cricket didn’t die in 1882. And it didn’t die yesterday in Antigua. Yes, there are problems, and yes they need to work toward solutions, but an Ashes series win this summer in front of packed houses will inspire ten times the kids than next summer’s farcical “Hundred” will. Kids are smart. They see through the bullshit. They know the real heroes are the ones scoring those 1,000 Championship runs and winning Test matches all over the world.

Until tomorrow.


Cricket for Americans: 2 Feb. 2019: Unshackled

The first sugar plantation in Antigua was establish in 1674. Within four years half of the island’s population was made of up African slaves — most of them from West Africa. As the industry grew, there was at one time as many as 190 slave labor sugar plantations on the island.

Slavery was abolished in 1834. But many former slaves and their descendants continued to work on the sugar plantations for paltry wages.  The sugar plantations in the Caribbean were the birthplace of western capitalism. And they are a rotten smear on our shared history. Whole generations of Africans were kidnapped and shipped across the ocean to live in horrendous conditions in the service of white masters.

The largest sugar plantation — Betty’s Hope, which produced 20 plus tons of sugar a day — housed some 400 slaves. But while many of us are aware of how sugar built the British empire, very few of us are aware of the day to day lives of those that did the actual work. To this day, very little is known, other than the fact that the island’s population is comprised mostly of descendants of those British owned slaves.

This afternoon at the Sir Vivian Richards Oval in Antigua — five miles or so as the crow flies from the site of Betty’s Hope plantation — those same descendants pummeled their former masters at their own game. England played poorly, surely, but that shouldn’t take away from how brilliant the Windies were. England were out-batted, out-bowled, out-thought and out-played. It was a thorough and aggressive beheading of what was though to be a very good England side by a Windies side that no one really gave all that much thought to.

Watching Campbell put Anderson’s first ball of the third over into the seats to win the match was about an emphatic an ending as one would hope for. A whallop that traveled back in time and sent a warm breeze through the worn out hands of their great, great, great, great-grandparents.

Trivially, it’s been said a thousand times before and it will be said again, but cricket needs a strong West Indies team, and that includes their Test playing team. Today we saw 11 Windies players play Test cricket at the absolute height of brilliance, wiping the floor with the 3rd ranked Test team in the world. A team of Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson, brushed aside with ease by the long arms of Jason Holder. If this is the future of West Indies cricket, then it’s the future of cricket, and that future looks very bright indeed.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 1 Feb. 2019: Chance would be a fine thing

Cricket — especially Test cricket — is a relentlessly fair game. 99 times out of 100, the better team will win. Upsets are the rarest of the rare. You don’t get giant killings like you do in other sports. This has to do with how long the matches are, of course, as over five days the better team normally rises to the top, but also because the game removes that one thing that Davids have relied on against Goliaths throughout history: luck.

There is shocking little luck in cricket. Good or bad. The matches are engineered to the point where a good captain leaves absolutely nothing to chance: who to bowl from which end and when, where to place the field, who to drop, who to keep. There are no deflected shots spinning into the back of the net in cricket. Other than the occasional rainstorm which can save a draw for a team on their way to a loss, there is less luck in cricket than just about any other team sport. That’s just the nature of team games: you get that many people out on a field, strange things will happen. Just not in cricket.

Except of course for the coin toss.

Before every Test match, the two captains don their sport coats and head out to the center for the coin toss. With the winner deciding whether they want to bat or bowl first. I was thinking about that today as the West Indies ground down the English attack once again — Darren Bravo has been at the crease for an impressive four hours plus — and I remembered the coin toss yesterday: won by Jason Holder who chose to bowl on a pea green damp pitch that had his bowlers salivating, and they had England on the ropes, panting, right out of the gates. But then the worm turned, as they say, right about the time England went out to bowl, and they have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the Windies but just can’t get them all out. And Bravo just keeps batting on, and on, and on, and on, and on.

If England had won the toss and were given the chance to bowl on that same friendly surface, does their attack scuttle the Windies in the same manner? Maybe. More than likely. The West Indies have a long tail and if those first few wickets fell, then it could have all been over before lunch.

But it wasn’t. Because of a coin flip. And so, in this case, you could say that a coin toss — the epitome of luck — decided the match.

Of course, that’s not entirely true, they still have to play the game, but it still had a rather large impact on the match.

There’s been talk of late to get rid of the toss altogether. To do what they do in England’s first class league: allow the visiting captain to decide whether they want to bat or bowl first. But, I don’t know, I rather like the coin toss. It’s tradition, of course, but more than that: it adds just a swipe of fate and luck into a game devoid of free will, of chaos. And I rather like that about it. Toss the coin, see how it lands, play the game.

Until tomorrow.