Cricket for Americans: 29 March 2019: Opening Day

Yesterday it was baseball’s opening day here in the states. It’s always a big deal of sorts, for those that pay attention. Every game is a sell out — or at least an announced sell out — and some of the teams playing won’t sell out another game the rest of the season. There are fighter jet flyovers and everyone around town, at least here in Minneapolis, is wearing MN Twins garb. It’s like, for one day, everyone is paying attention to baseball, and then they promptly forget about it for the rest of the summer, unless the team gets hot and makes the playoffs, of course. In that way, major league baseball’s opening day is like Easter Sunday. It’s that one day of the year when people remember that baseball is a thing that happens in the world.

Over in England, the County Championship starts its 120th season one week from today. The County Championship is the oldest domestic league in England, and for a long time was the marquee domestic league in all of cricket. But no more. It’s status continues to drain away because of the IPL and even the England Cricket Board’s other domestic competitions, like their one day cup and T20 “blast.” Because the County Championship’s format is the first class, four day game, it is still used as a feeder league for Test Cricket, but the counties themselves have put less and less emphasis on it with the shorter formats being their money makers. The matches, for example, are for the most part shoe-horned into late spring or early fall, with high summer left for the shorter formats. This neglect of the Championship has, in the short term and in the long term, done damage to England’s test squad. Some of it repairable, some of it not.

All of that said, it’s a great tournament — easily my favorite domestic competition — and definitely worth paying attention to. The format is pretty familiar: there are two divisions: Division 1 with eight teams and Division 2 with ten teams. Most years, the bottom two teams of Division 1 are relegated to Division 2 and the top two teams of Division 2 are promoted to Division 1. (Last season, Lancashire and Worcestershire were relegated, while Warwickshire and Kent were promoted.) These year, however, only one team will be relegated while three will be promoted, so going forward — starting in 2020 — there will be ten teams in Division 1 and eight in Division 2.

Each team plays every other team in its division twice, home and away. Teams get 16 points for a win, 8 points for a tie and 5 points for a draw. They also can earn bonus points for both batting and bowling. These bonus points are no joke. Last season, the Division 1 Champions, Surrey, received 79 of their 254 points from bonuses —  over 30% of their total.

The season starts, as said, on April 4 with a full slate of matches. In Division 1, Hampshire play Essex, Nottinghamshire play Yorkshire and Somerset play Kent. Meanwhile over in Division 2, it’s Derbyshire v. Durham, Northamptonshire v. Middlesex and Sussex v. Leicestershire.

One final note is that the majority of players on each team are English (or taking advantage of the Kolpak rule) while only a handful are what are considered “overseas” players. This is of course an attempt by the ECB to use the Championship as a place to groom Test cricketers for the England squad, but the overseas players do add a nice flair to the games.

And so, in total, a great league with a great format and a great history. The only real drawback is that the games, as far as I know, are not available for streaming in the United States (please post in the comments if I am wrong!). But, each team does a great job with video and there always lots of highlights to take in. It all starts next week, be sure to follow along, you won’t be disappointed. (Unless it rains. And, believe me, it will rain.)

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 28 March 2019: US Men head to Africa

Today in Dubai the US Men beat the UAE  in a 50 over match by nine wickets — which is a real thumping in cricketing terms. Steven Taylor took a five wicket haul and scored 68 not out in the rain shortened match (yes, it rained again in Dubai). The result meant the US won the series 2-1, which made it a nice set up for their trip to Namibia and the World Cricket League Division 2 tournament.

That is a six team tournament that starts on April 20, with the final on April 27. (Talk about efficient cricket!) The top four sides from that tournament join Scotland, Nepal and the UAE in the Cricket World Cup League 2 and gain ODI status which no matter what happens is a big deal as it means the US will have the chance to play a lot more ODIs down the road.

The Cricket World Cup League 2 is a two year long tournament set to begin in July of this year. The top three teams of that league will advance to a World Cup Qualifier tournament in 2022, with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup to be held in India.

And so lots of exciting things to come for the US men. The 2023 World Cup is more than likely out of their reach, but the chance to play as many as 20 ODIs in the Cricket World Cup League 2 is a prize in and of itself. Which makes the upcoming tournament in Namibia worth paying attention to.

The other five sides in the tournament are Canada, Oman, Namibia, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. As mentioned, the tournament kicks off on April 20 and it’s a round robin style tournament with each team playing every other team once. The US starts their tournament against on the opening day against Oman, then plays Namibia on April 21, PNG on April 23, Hong Kong on April 24 and closes out the group stage on April 26 against Canada. Five matches in seven days. Woof. Then it’s a 5th place playoff, a 3rd place payoff and a final, all on April 27. I guess this means that the top four advancing sides will be decided by the group stage, not by a knockout stage, which is probably the best way to do it in the end. For while we as fans miss out on a must-win-to-finish-fourth match for the US, every match of the group stage will be, more or less, a must win.

It should be a lot of fun.

I believe the games will stream on USA Cricket’s website. Be sure to tune in and enjoy the US men’s team play entertaining and meaningful international cricket for the first time in a very long time.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 25 March 2019: Here we go again

The IPL has started. It will run like a virus scan in the background of our lives for the next few weeks. Tune in if you can, all the matches are available on Willow in the states. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has its moments.

And today was one of those moments.

As Rajasthan Royals’ Jos Buttler was chasing the target set by Kings XI Punjab, bowler R Ashwin committed the greatest cricket sin of all: he Mankaded him.

As Ashwin was running up to make his delivery, Buttler creeped out of his crease, Ashwin stopped short of bowling the ball and clipped the bails off of Buttler’s wicket. Out. And from there the Royals’ chase fell of a cliff, losing seven wickets for just 16 runs to lose by 14 runs. It was a perfectly legal move by Ashwin — there is nothing in the laws of the game that prohibit such a stumping — but it does, according to many, violate the hallowed Spirit of the Game. As such, there were confrontations on the pitch after the “incident” and Twitter went absolute batshit, with most people thinking the law needed to be changed yesterday, and that Ashwin should never be able to play cricket again (no one actually went quite that far, but people got close!).

There were other voices of reason who said that what he did was fine and that people need to chill out. Which is basically where I stand on the matter. Ashwin’s explanation that the move was “instinctful” confirmed my position. He wasn’t actively try to get Buttler out via some underhanded move, he simply saw him out of his crease and muscle memory took over so Buttler was out. All the pearl clutching across the internet over the move is a little silly.

Just another reminder that cricket is always full of surprises. And while the IPL can be a little much, it is still cricket, and cricket is always great. And it’s great because there’s something called a Mankad, and because there is an unwritten gentlemanly code that governs players’ decisions. Most sports have their share of unwritten rules — the phantom tag at second in baseball, etc — but no sport has as many as cricket, and no sport enforces them so vehemently. Cricket always stands out in a crowd — sometimes for good, sometimes for not. Today fell firmly into the former category. I like a sport that keeps you guessing what will happen next, and cricket most assuredly does that. What will tomorrow bring? Another Mankad? A 14 ball half century? A five wicket haul? A nonsense super over? A match won on the final ball? There’s only one way to find out.

Until tomorrow.


Cricket for Americans: 19 March 2019: Americans don’t do it better

When you first discover cricket — in the same way that Columbus discovered America — you see it as this alien sport, untouched by the relentless American capitalist machine. But then as the years go by, you see the Americanism that you were trying to get away from start to creep in around the edges of the game. Rock music between overs, cheerleaders, shouting commentators, brute strength rewarded over nuance.

And the latest sin: names and numbers on the backs of kits in Test cricket.

The always astute James Morgan of The Full Toss blog calls the move by the ICC an attempt at even further Americanisation of the Test format:

What concerns me is that the move is based on two recurring and flawed assumptions: (a) that test cricket as it is isn’t good enough and must change, and (b) that the Americanisation of the sport, for want of a better expression, is the answer.

Personally, I am of the opinion that the ICC just wants to sell more replica kits. No one — no one — gets blood from a stone quite like the ICC does. But James’ point is still a valid one: why do European sports see American sports as some sort of mentor to emulate? Playoffs, silly nicknames, camouflage ball caps, fireworks, rock music, basically everything that makes the game not about the game but about the atmosphere. It’s about distraction and $150 replica kits and getting seen on the jumbotron, and very little about what is happening on the field.

And that’s a shame. And so it boggles my mind that the people who run soccer and cricket and rugby look to America and say: we should be more like that.

Now, the main reason — at least the public reason — behind changes that can be described as Americanisations are that they will attract younger audiences. Fine. That’s a good reason to make changes. But I don’t think the changes the game is making will actually accomplish that goal. Cheerleaders aren’t going to fix what’s wrong with cricket, because there was nothing wrong with cricket in the first place. This relentless need for changes in cricket — especially in Test cricket — has always confounded me. It’s a great game with great pacing that still gets great crowds and great ratings. Stop messing around with it. It’s fine the way it is. And this goes for the other formats, too. The T20 didn’t need even further shortening, and the ODI is just fine how it is, thank you. Let the games breath, let small rule changes happen organically, and stop forcing changes down fans’ throats.

And, most importantly, and I can say this with some authority as I have watched American sports my whole life: Americans don’t do sport better. They simply don’t. The only thing we are really, really good at is creating superstars who dominate games and seasons and decades, who change the face of the sport they play. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. Americans are great at that, but I don’t think superstars that are light years better than everyone are good at much other than selling a lot more tickets when they come to town.

Keep what makes you different, cricket, it’s the only way you’ll survive.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 18 March 2019: Two notes

Two events of note happened this past weekend.

First, the USA played their first ever Twenty20 internationals, taking on the UAE in Dubai. They were well on their way to winning the first one, only to have a rare desert rain storm spoil the day. I mean, come on, what kind of dumb luck is that? It rains literally only five days a year in Dubai. It’s like the universe is saying to the US: “maybe cricket isn’t your game, friends.”

Then they lost the second T20 by 24 runs thanks in large part to Shaiman Anwar — who just turned 40 on Friday — and his lightning fast 62 off of just 30 balls (in comparison, the highest American score with the bat was Steven Taylor (one of only two American born players on the starting XI, the other being Jessy Singh) and his 49 off of 40, which was just too slow for the quick hit pace needed to be successful in cricket’s shortest format).

Despite the rain and the loss, this past weekend has to be seen as a success for the US squad. Two full international Twenty20s under the belt is nothing to sneeze at. US cricket has come a very long way in the last few years, and these matches were surely an indication of that growth.

Up next for the US men is seven 50 over matches — one of which is against English County side Lancashire, who were recently relegated out of Division One — including one played already today that they won by five wickets. Standout performances in today’s match included Aaron Jones’ 81 not out and Steven Taylor’s 4-38. Taylor, for his part, took the first four wickets himself, including Anwar’s, who was restricted to just 13 off of 11 balls.

The other event of note was that Afghanistan won their first Test match in only their second try, beating Ireland by seven wickets in Dehra Dun, India, chasing down 147 thanks in large part to Rahmat Shah’s 76 and Ihsanullah’s 69. They didn’t do it very quickly — it took them nearly 48 overs — but they got the job done in the end. An historic win for one of cricket’s best stories.

Ireland, for their part, have also only played two Test matches, but unlike Afghanistan they have yet to win one, losing their first to Pakistan last year by eight wickets.

No matter what, it’s nice to see some new teams don the white kits and play with a traditional red ball.

A good weekend all around.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 15 March 2019: God defend New Zealand

Cricket is a global game. It’s tendrils reach into all the far corners of the world, this giant world that is also somehow so small. And so as a fan, especially in our connected, modern age, you learn about countries that you never really gave a lot of thought to. And you learn not just about their sport, but about their culture, their history, their failures, their triumphs. And, thanks to social media, you get to know their people. You make friends. You humanize what was previously an alien world. The game allows connections that never would have existed otherwise. It is, in that sense, a real gift.

I used to write a lot about New Zealand. About their cricket, but also about their people.

My heart is broken this morning. I am glad the people I know in Christchurch are safe, but my heart is still broken for New Zealand.

One tidbit I learned about this lovely nation a few years ago is that, in 1987, at the height of the Cold War, New Zealand banned nuclear weapons. Sea, land, and air space became what are known as “nuclear free zones,” a status that is enshrined in legislation. They won’t even let nuclear powered submarines dock in their harbors.

I mention it because it reminds us that the people in New Zealand are a peace loving, progressive people. And because of that they will get past this, and be better for it.

Let us all pray for peace.

Cricket for Americans: 14 March 2019: Whine and Spirits

This is an absolutely bonkers story out of a lower Australian club league.

It seems North Suburbs of the Queensland Premier Cricket first grade competition declared their first innings at 14-1 in order to manipulate the final league standings. (Declaration is when a team says they don’t want to bat anymore. It usually happens when a team is way, way ahead and they are worried about running out of time to bowl the other side out.)

The team they were playing, University of Queensland, had racked up a score of 675-1 so North gifted them the innings bonus in order to avoid playing them again in the semi-finals.

This is not against the rules. A team, in First Class cricket, can declare whenever the hell they want. But after University complained, North were said to have violated, wait for it, “the spirit of the game” and University were only given 5 points for the innings bonus as opposed to the usual 12, so North they will play them in the semi-final, which North were of course trying to avoid.

Now, ignoring the fact UQ batted for 175 overs in a thinly veiled attempt to strangle the game into a draw which was somehow totally okay, this is one of those random cricket idiosyncrasies that confound folks that are new to the game, and fill old timers with joy at how the game never does cease to surprise. There a lot of rules to the game, like any game, but teams are always finding loopholes and it’s a real joy when one does.

But at the same time, what the heck? It’s not against any of the actual rules but it violated some random “spirit”? Oh, cricket, you are ridiculous most days, but on days like this you really do outdo yourself. I mean, we can’t expect the rule-makers to think of every loophole and proactively reach out to stop it, but what we can expect is for, well, the taste-makers, for lack of a better word, to not punish squads for violating a law that doesn’t even exist. I mean, it’s not cheating if it’s not against the rules! The best course would have been to clutch your pearls and then change the rules the next day, not punish the squad (and rather draconically, too, I mean, they also docked North 12 points from next season’s total!).

Oh, cricket. You never cease to amaze.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the “spirit of cricket,” I think it gives the game a bit of, well, politeness that you just don’t get otherwise. And I honestly cannot think of anything like the above happening in American sports. Teams cheat all the time and are caught all the time. And sometimes that cheating happens on a rule that doesn’t exist. But never have I witnessed a team punished for violating some touchy-feely “spirit.” It makes cricket stand out. I like that.

But still.

Cricket, what the heck?

Until tomorrow.