Cricket for Americans: 29 April 2019: Bristol

In September 2017, English cricketer Ben Stokes and his teammate Alex Hales were involved in a fight outside a nightclub and was subsequently arrested, tried and acquitted. He was also fined by the ECB and served a match ban. And on the cricket pitch, he really hasn’t been the same since — both internationally and domestically. He averaged in the mid-40s in the seasons before his arrest, but hasn’t gotten back there since. And while never one to put up huger numbers with the bat, he also hasn’t a century since 2017. He’s an all-rounder and his bowling has suffered too.

Hales, for his part, was not charged for his involvement in the fight. But the incident still haunted him. And he turned to recreational drugs. And today the ECB banned him for 21 matches — which of course will include the 2019 World Cup. The connection between his involvement in the incident and his drug use is, of course, conjecture — though conjecture supported by several esteemed cricket journalists — but one that cannot be overlooked. Both Hales and Stokes’ heads are still firmly stuck in September 2017 in Bristol, and they are both still wrestling with demons that came to life that night.

I think this makes them very human. Very much like everyone else in this world, and very much unlike athletes in other sports. And I think this is true for not just Hales and Stokes, but all cricketers. Which I think is why I — and others — like the game. The players aren’t supermen. They don’t look like super models. They look human. Their sweaters don’t fit right. They have paunches.  Their smiles can be shy and awkward.

They look like us.

And they suffer like us too. Battling anxiety and depression like athletes in no other sport. Just like everyone does. Sadly, also like us, some of them lose those battles. Per the Guardian, “English cricketers are almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male and have a suicide rate higher than players of any other sport, according to an international study.”

While this is surely cricket’s dark, sad side, it also makes it more human. More accessible. Somehow realer. These are people out there playing this game, not nameless, faceless athletes. We care about them, we cheer them on, we don’t heckle or haze. We support, and applaud, and want more than anything for them to bat all day.

Here’s hoping Alex and Ben come back soon, and stronger, and okay.

Until tomorrow,.

Cricket for Americans: 24 April 2019: We did it

The news today is that the US men’s cricket team has, by virtue of their defeat of Hong Kong, qualified for ODI status and a spot in the World Cup League 2. This means a guarantee of loads of international cricket for the burgeoning side over the next few years. A real blessing for a program in desperate need of such a shot in the arm.

Xavier Marshall’s hundred in the first innings set the table, and when Hong Kong failed to get off to the start they needed in the chase, they settled in and tried to protect their run rate, as they still have a chance to grab one of the last two top four spots, which would grant ODI status, as Oman claimed the second spot shortly after the US did.

Tomorrow, the US plays Canada — who are also still in the running for the coveted top four — with a chance to seal second or even first place in the tournament, giving them a spot in the final on Saturday.

The US men’s emergence from the shambolic ashes that was USACA is one of cricket’s best stories so far this year. They’ll now join ODI stalwarts Scotland, Nepal and the UAE in the World Cup League 2, and play 36 matches over the next three years, starting this summer. What a boon for the game in this country.

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Also of note is this Cricinfo story about the shrinking Australian summer cricket window. Not due to global warming, but due to other nations wanting in on the a piece of the pie that Australia has monopolized since the early 80s. Seven Test playing teams share the same summer window, but Australia has ruled over them all thanks to the fat TV deals they are able to ink. But now that all might be changing, as it appears as though Australia will likely have to travel to India for an ODI series in January, 2020: the height of summer down under.

This is all just another example of cricket’s bizarre nature. Every sport has its inequalities and they all do their best to appease the TV folks, but cricket does both quite like no other. For while in other sports the teams are restricted to a hard and fast season, in International Cricket there is no season. So it is ripe for chicanery and greed. Everyone wants a bite of the same apple, and they are all manipulating the system as best they can to get it. And, sadly, the big three — Australia, India, England — seem to always win out. Usually at the expense of a lesser Test side, but also, occasionally, at the expense of one their fellow big threes.

It’s all nonsense. Just play the cricket.

It makes me, sometimes, miss baseball and its structure of 162 games, playoffs in October, the end.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 22 April 2019: Sri Lanka

Whenever there is a terror attack in a Test playing nation — or some other national tragedy — I either like to write about it or not post anything at all that day, as to write about something else would feel a little gauche. Yesterday, upon waking to the news of the bombing attacks in Sri Lanka, I decided on the latter.

I write a lot in these Cricket for Americans posts about how cricket does make you more in tune to the rest of the world, gets you of your insular American bubble, and makes you more  global citizen. It’s completely true. Since becoming a fan of the game there have been terror attacks in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. And when those attacks happened I felt them more, as the people affected weren’t nameless foreigners on the other side of the world, but people I would see at the cricket ground, in the stands, their eyes full of smile.

And it was the same yesterday morning. I read the news and thought of the stadiums in Galle and Colombo and my heart felt sick with grief — far more so than if I was not a follower of cricket. As trite as that sounds, it’s true. When the news broke of the fire at Norte Dame, the whole world grieved, spontaneously and with gusto. Why? Because most of us, in the western world, have been to Paris, have fallen in love with Paris, have stood in the shadows of that great old church. The tragedy affected us more because it felt closer to us, because we had been there. And while I will probably never travel to Mumbai or Dhaka, the terror attacks there in 2008 and 2016, respectively, hit closer to home, even though they are on the other side of world. And that was because of cricket.

It’s another silver lining of the game, if there can be such a thing on this dark day. It humanizes the whole world. There are 7 billion people on this planet. 1.5 billion of them live in India. Cricket makes them humans. People.

**

On the pitch, the US beat Namibia by two runs in a real barn burner to move to 1-1 in the WCL 2. They were falling off a cliff and on the verge of going 0-2 which would have put them in a hole they might not have been able to climb out of — until Ali Khan pulled a rabbit out of his hat and saved the day for the US with his first five wicket haul in List A cricket.

Elsewhere, Papua New Guinea beat Hong Kong, and Oman beat Canada, which puts the standings after two matches look like this:

Oman — 4 pts
Namibia — 2 pts
Hong Kong — 2 pts
USA — 2 pts
PNG — 2 pts
Canada — 0 pts

The teams all tied on two points are sorted by the tie decider, net run rate (run rate for divided by net run rate against — run rate is calculated by simply dividing the runs by the overs played. So a team that scored 100 runs in 10 overs, for instance, would have a run rate of 10. If they allowed 100 runs in 20 overs, they would have a net run rate of 2.0.) Update from a reader in comments: “Matt, excuse this quibble about a detail of another fine piece, but I wouldn’t want your American audience misled: net run rate is the run rate for minus (not divided by) the run rate conceded. In your example the NRR would be 5. More explanation here http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/page/429305.html.

The US’s next two games are against the team directly below them and the team directly above them. If they can split those two games, I think they will be in a good position, as their final game is against Canada, and as of now I see them winning that match.

No games in the WCL2 today. Action returns tomorrow at 2:30am CT over on the USA Cricket YouTube Channel. See ya there.

Until tomorrow.

 

Cricket dies in darkness — in defense of Peter Della Penna

Right now, in Namibia, the USA men’s cricket team is slumping to a loss against Oman in their first match of the World Cricket League, division 2. But, for me, the more important story is this:

Peter Della Penna, a freelance cricket journalist who has bylines all over the world, has been the one journalist covering US cricket for the most of the last decade, if not longer. He was there when the shitshow that was USACA was running the game into the ground. And he is there now, in Namibia, as the US men try to gain full ODI status.

But, apparently, he broke some sort of random protocol and the board banned him from the locker room, denying access to the one journalist who has covered them. Peter was the one exposing USACA for the corrupt and greedy organization it was, paving the way for USA Cricket to swoop in and save the day. Which, in a lot of ways, they did. I am more excited about USA cricket now than I have ever been. A lot of that is down to how the board has managed the game, and a lot of it is down to Peter’s coverage. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t know the half of it.

He is a fan of USA Cricket, of course, being an American, but instead of swooning, he does the one thing he knows how to do best in order to support the game he loves: cover it well and objectively as a journalist. And he is has done that. Putting in the long hours and the hard work and the hustle, giving us all back at home frontline views of the team as they play in backwater leagues and tournaments all over the world.

But more than that, he is the one journalist covering not just team USA, but a bulk of the non-Test world. He has covered these little tournaments with no fans and no cameras for years. To silence that voice, the voice you need to promote your game, you are doing nothing but shooting yourself in the foot. Twice. For not only are you cutting off access to the only American journalist covering you — no hyperbole — but you are also alienating your fan base. For every American cricket fan is also a fan of Peter’s work. We read every article he publishes, we follow him on Twitter, and we bloggers have a deep respect for his ability to simply churn out quality content on topics that literally no one else is writing about. He found a niche and he exploited it. He’s the moneyball of cricket journalism. And all of us struggling cricket writers cannot help but celebrate that.

The response on Twitter was swift and predictable. Here is but a sample:

That last one is important. Because what did Peter do this morning? He woke up, went down to the ground, and did his job. Because that’s what journalists do.

Personally, this is just an all around bummer. Here’s why:

After the shambles that was USACA, I thought my home board had finally turned a corner, and gotten past those dark years when Gladstone Dainty was in charge. But, alas, no. USA Cricket has proven to just be another run of the mill corrupt cricket board. A corrupt cricket board with a group of talented young cricketers who deserve far, far better. In fact, based on Peter’s note above, it’s even worse now. More closed doors, more decisions made without the light of the press on them. The other sports in America welcome press coverage, even the most unfavorable. And until USA Cricket does the same, they will just be another footnote not just in American sports, but in world cricket overall.

The decision has sucked a lot of the fun out of this tournament, a tournament that I was really looking forward to. But, I will still watch, and I will still hope these exciting young cricketers can qualify for ODI status. At the end of the day, it’s the players, not the board, that matters, that deserves my support. I just wish I could be proud of both.

**

Update: The US lost to Oman by six wickets. Let’s hope their fortunes improve tomorrow when they face the host nation, Namibia. First ball is at 4:30 a.m. CT. Contrary to my post yesterday, which I will update, the matches are all streamed on USA Cricket’s YouTube channel. Which I guess is at least one thing they are doing right.

Cricket for Americans returns tomorrow, with the promised post about the West Indies, and a bit of coverage of the USA men. Until then.

Cricket for Americans: 19 April 2019: The Squad

***Programming Note***

Tomorrow’s USA ODI against Oman — their opener in the World Cricket League 2 (a tournament for all those ODI marbles) — will be streamed LIVE on TV2Namibia’s YouTube channel. Hat tip to Peter Della Penna for this information. Check out his Twitter thread for a little more detail.

UPDATE: the games are all streamed on USA Cricket’s YouTube channel.

***

There are times when I know I am not maintaining the theme of these posts. They are supposed to be for Americans who are not familiar with the sport as an attempt to turn them on to this great game.

I realized this again yesterday when I was writing about two different things: cricket squads and the West Indies. I will cover the former today and the latter tomorrow. If you are not new to the game, and I get anything wrong or if you have a different take on either topic, please do post in the comments!

Okay, so, the cricket squad.

You need 11 cricketers to play a match. From 30,000 feet, there are four different kinds of cricketers: batters, bowlers, wicketkeepers and all rounders (people who can do both bowl and bat). Most squads breakdown something like this: five batters, four bowlers, an all rounder and a wicketkeeper. Sometimes that wicketkeeper is also pretty handy with the bat, so some teams will be more like six batters, four bowlers and an all rounder. There are lots of variations on the theme, too, of course, as some squads don’t have an all rounder, some captains like to have five bowlers, etc. But the above is more or less right.

Within each of the above four types of cricketers are even more divisions. For the batters, you have sloggers, openers, blockers and people who can do it all like Virat Kohli. And for the bowlers you have seamers, fast bowlers, leg breaks, spinners, etc. And it’s within these divisions that the squad debates really start to heat up. Who should open? Do you carry two spinners or just one? For while the starting XI will more or less pick itself, those four other players do matter, as they will be the ones the captain decides to swap in and out throughout the tournament, depending on weather, pitches, opponent, etc.

It’s more complex than baseball. Or, at least, very different. In baseball, a starting lineup consists not of 11, but of 24, considering all the moves managers can make during games: pinch runners, pinch hitters, relief pitchers. This allows managers to field seven or eight pure hitters and only worry about one throwaway out with the pitcher and maybe a shaky at the bat infielder. In the National League anyway. In the American League, it’s even simpler, since the pitcher doesn’t bat, so the manager doesn’t have to worry about any holes and can just put his best hitters at each position out there.

In cricket — while captains are allowed to bring in substitute fielders if a player needs treatment — the captain is more or less stuck with the 11 he picks. Which makes squad selection the hot topic that it is. Picking the wrong spinner or too many spinners or the wrong opener can lead to certain disaster and the captain will have no one to blame but himself. And if the selection committee leaves the wrong fast bowler at home, then they are to blame.

Yesterday I said it’s a lot of talk. And, really, it is. But there’s a reason there’s a lot of talk, and that’s because there is a lot to talk about. A thousand scenarios to hem and haw over. Knowing full well that the captain is locked into his 11 once that coin is flipped adds an even deeper level to the chatter.

Cricket is infinitely complex — and in some ways a little harsh — and squad selection is an example of both. But that complexity and that harshness are reminders that the game holds no quarter, and demands the best from its players, from the squad selection to the final over. And it’s something that makes the game so great. There is no phoning it in, no second chances, you have to say: “These are the guys I want to go to war with. These guys and only these guys.” And then you cross your fingers and hope you got it right.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 18 April 2019: The only stat that matters

The Cricket World Cup is just a little more than a month away, and we have entered a silly season of sorts, that time of the World Cup cycle where teams make their preliminary squad announcements. Most nations have released theirs — a list of the 15 players who will may or not make their final squad — and all the nations have until April 23 in which to do so. The only teams left to announce are West Indies and Afghanistan. Here’s a Wikipedia page has the full squad lists, if that’s your jam.

It’s a lot of hooey, as the teams can swap in and out players willy-nilly up until seven days prior to the tournament. In that sense, it’s like the NFL Draft, in that it just gives people and pundits something to talk about when there aren’t any games to watch. People have been droning on and on for months now about squad selections, mostly debating around one or two players. Because that’s the thing. The majority of the 15 man squad — including the bulk of the starting 11 — pretty much picks itself.  While the players being debated more than likely will make little to no impact on the tournament whether they are selected or not.

Cricket is like all sports. It’s a lot of talk. When in reality no one really knows anything. All we have to rely on, that’s concrete and real, is the games that have come before. And we can find those stats in the ICC Rankings:

misc_1

I know it’s not as fun, but that’s really the only stat I need. England are number one by a hair’s breadth, but have played 17 fewer qualifying matches than India, which I think actually puts India on top, with New Zealand and South Africa rounding out the top four. It’s not a foregone conclusion that those four will be your semi-finalists this summer in England and Wales, but I would put money on it, no matter who ends up leaving the hot young bowler or the aging batsmen at home.

What I am trying to say is this: cricket, like all sports, is a lot of talk. It’s part of the fun. All the conjecture, arguments, and prognostication. But at the end of the day, it’s what happens on the field that matters. And what happened on the field over the previous 3-4 years (depending on the time of year, it’s complicated) is listed in black and white above.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 15 April 2019: WCL2

The big story this week for American cricket is the USA men’s appearance in the World Cricket League 2, which kicks off on Saturday. It’s “all to play for,” really, as the USA Cricket website so aptly put it. A finish in the top four means ODI status and a spot in Men’s Cricket World Cup League 2. The latter brings with it a chance to play 18 One Day Internationals over a two year period, and would put USA Cricket just two steps away from qualification for the 2022 ODI World Cup.

Here’s a breakdown from USA Cricket of the path to India in 2023:

I don’t think the USA will qualify for the World Cup, but I like their chances in Namibia this week, and I think that alone will be cause for celebration. As USA Captain said:

Qualifying for ODI status means an entry into a completely new world of top level professional cricket. It would be a ray of hope for the aspiring youth of the country to consider cricket as a potential full time career. It gives the opportunity for us to build a solid domestic cricket structure as well as the power to try and promote the game bottom up, right from the school and university levels to the national and international levels.

He’s not wrong. While I am a big believer that the key to growing the game is with youth programs, you don’t get buy-in on the infrastructure and capital needed for those leagues without some success by a marquee team — either men’s or women’s — at the international level. And while Joe on the Street won’t give two licks about ODI status or qualification for World Cup League 2, something like “two steps away from the 2023 World Cup” might grab their attention.

Plus, more than anything, it’s the chance for the USA to play 18 high level ODIs. That kind of experience is invaluable for both the players and the whole of USA Cricket going forward.

Another interesting note is the ages of the USA squad in Namibia.

Saurabh Netravalkar (27), Jaskaran Malhotra (29), Steven Taylor (25), Jan Nisar Khan (37), Roy Silva (38), Monank Patel (25), Timil Patel (35), Aaron Jones (24), Hayden Walsh Jr. (26), Elmore Hutchinson (36), Muhammad Ali Khan (28), Nosthush Kenjige (28), Xavier Marshall (33), Jessy Singh (26).

That’s their best squad for the tournament this week, but half of them are already north of 30 or will be when the WCL 2 wraps up. The average age is just hair shy of 30. And so while age related decline in cricket doesn’t happen as rapidly as it does in other sports, the squad is still, well, old. Or at least on the older side. Do the older players move to the side to allow younger players to gain the valuable experience of the WCL 2? Or does USA Cricket stick with what got them there? Are there even enough talented young players available to fill the shoes of their older colleagues?

I guess the key question here is: does the USA see qualification for the 2023 World Cup as a legitimate possibility, or are they playing the long game and see WCL 2 as one small step in a very tall ladder? We will find out if the USA qualifies and when we see their squad selection.

The glass is half full side of the above is that USA has seven players in their mid-20s who will, if they qualify, have the opportunity to play in 18 ODIs over the next couple of years. That paints a rosy picture for the future of USA Cricket.

No matter what, exciting times down in Namibia this week. I’ll be tuning in, you should too, we all might get a chance to see a little history being made.

Until tomorrow.