Cricket for Americans: A festival of Test cricket

In college I took an Art History survey course. You know the one. 12 weeks that take you from cave paintings through to Andy Warhol. Middle Ages, Gothic, Renaissance. Egypt, Europe, Japan. Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Expressionism. Baroque. Pop Art, Dadaism, Surrealism. Etc.

Architecture was of course on the docket too so the slight projector made a stop at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The professor, Professor Stoughton, was a small, well-spoken, impeccably-dressed, impeccably-groomed man in about his mid 50s though age is tough when you are 19. He told us how he visited St. Peter’s in his 20s when he was a grad student. And though he was raised as a strict Mennonite, when he stood under the domes of that beautiful old building he was so moved that he considered converting to what he called “God’s first Church.”

Test cricket is cricket’s first Church.

Sure, the World Cup was fun. Every day there was something new and it all ended with a smash boom final that none of us will ever forget, no matter how we felt about it. And the One Day International is a great cricket format. Enough time and space to allow the players to breathe, to allow for the possibility of magic, but all wrapped up in a tidy bow and done by dinner.

But the Test. Oh the Test. That’s the best format. That’s the format that will convert the strict Mennonites. 22 players. Flip a coin. Play cricket for five days. Unlike the ODI or the T20 there’s a second innings, and thereby a chance at redemption. There are no fielding restrictions. No countdown clock. Time stretches out, flattens. Just the rhythm of the run up and the delivery and the bat. Light applause from the crowd. Three slips and a gully. A leg slip. A silly point. And players who bat for hours. For days. The ODI is a comic book. Test cricket is a novel. Heroes and villains and plot twists and rising action and falling action. The gun you see in chapter 2 is always fired by chapter 5. Every character’s story is known, and every character is given the spotlight, and every character is integral. Test matches aren’t always classics, but when they are — and they often are, more often than you’d think — they are works of art.

And Test cricket season is right around the corner.

There is no season, of course, but there always happens to be times in the international calendar where we are treated to a plethora of Test cricket. Coming up we have the Ashes, of course, England vs Australia (five Tests), plus Sri Lanka vs. New Zealand (two Tests) and the Windies vs. India (two tests) (and also of note here is that they play their one day matches first and then their Tests which used to be the norm but really isn’t these days).

August 1 through September 17. Nine tests. 45 days of Test cricket in just 47 days (if we are very, very lucky). The magic dates to block your calendars for are August 21 through August 27. The second Test of the Sri Lanka vs. New Zealand series starts on the 21st at 11:30pm Central US time. The third Test of the Ashes starts at 5:30am Central US time on the 22nd. Three and a half hours later the first Test between the West Indies and India starts.

A festival of Test cricket. And a day to cherish. As while reports of Test cricket’s demise have been grossly exaggerated, one day it will go away, and so it’s best to enjoy the first Church of cricket before the heathens storm the barricades.

Chickens and eggs

Cricket and mental health issues have a long history together. Sadly. According to a study, and quoting from a 2001 article in 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 … .”

In England, 1.07% of men commit suicide — a horrifying statistic — while 1.77% of cricketers take their own lives, making them 75% more likely to commit suicide.

It’s not news, neither to us — the fans — nor to the players. We have long known of this sad and dark part of cricket. There’s a notion that some people cling to, that the game attracts the vulnerable, the sad, and that’s why certain people with a predilection toward depression are drawn to it. It’s a chicken and egg situation. But I don’t ascribe to this theory, even though part of me wants to, wants to know that I came to this game because it reached out to a very sad, very specific, very hidden part of me. It’s not that though. And believing that does a disservice to all those who are suffering. It romanticizes depression, which counter-intuitively does more to add to the stigma of mental illness, as it casts the depressed as sad dreamers who just need to shake it off.

As mentioned in the Guardian article, it probably has more to do with with the game itself. The long spells away from home. The lack of a chance for redemption at the crease. The constant uncertainty. It can wear on a person. And if that person is already susceptible to anxiety or depression or both, then cricket and its peculiarities can push those tendencies to the forefront. Just like a death in the family can, or a car accident. Or a divorce.

But still, I think cricketers are different in this regard, at least from those in other sports. The lack of bravado, of testosterone fueled rages, that you get in other sports, makes cricketers feel more human, more like us, and therefore easier to feel empathy for. When Jonathon Trott dropped himself from the England Test team due to anxiety, he was not lambasted for being weak, he didn’t have to make up some excuse, he just told people what was going on. And people looked at him and saw themselves, saw their own sadness and worry in his eyes, eyes all too human, all too close to our own, and therefore were able to feel empathy. That’s not to take away from the bravery it took Trott to publicly announce his illness, but just that, well, like in so many other ways, cricket is different.

It’s something I think about a lot. Depression and this game we love. Anxiety and this game we love. And what came first, the mental illness or the game. Surely the mental illness, but still. There’s substance to the latter too. In a way. Maybe more so for the fans than the players. The game is quiet, it gives you time to think. You can drift off and be on your own in your head and not miss anything. It’s kind. Or, at least, it tries to be kind. It’s on in the middle of the night, when those of us with insomnia are up roaming the halls anyway. It’s lyrical, romantic, sad. Cruel, mean, unfair. And despite the above, there is also redemption. There is okay, there is the other side. Ben Stokes shaking off Bristol. Yuvraj Singh shaking off cancer. It’s late afternoons in the summer that look somehow like those of our youth. It’s worlds light years away where nothing that hurts is near us. There’s blue sky and sun. And false dawns. And memories of better times. It’s tradition and history and time. It’s the players looking like us. It’s the players opening up to the world about their own struggles. Of admitting they are human, and they want to help. It’s the soft applause as a bowler returns to his fielding position after a good spell. It’s the home fans applauding the accomplishments of the away team. The game reaches out to the vulnerable and says: “this is an okay place for you.”

And so maybe it’s chicken for the players, and egg for the fans. Or maybe not. Probably not. I am probably just another depressed person who happens to like cricket. But when it’s as dark as it has been, you look for those patterns in the wallpaper, some reason for it all. Not for how you’re feeling, but some sort of proof that there’s nothing you did wrong, that it’s always been in you, and something tipped it over and everything spilled out and a flat dark rug was rolled onto your life.

This I know: when times are hard, I come here. When I am running away from everything I used to love, I am running here. To not just this blog, but this game. In that case maybe it’s not the chicken or the egg, but rather the salve. The distraction we need when the world feels so dark and you don’t know if there will ever be light again. Maybe that’s cricket’s real reason for existing for so long, for always fighting its way off the canvas, for battling against time itself and somehow winning: because we need it. We sad, infinite few, who take comfort in the idea and the promise that we are not alone.

‘”So do I,” said Gandalf … ‘

A few days ago, local hometown baseball team the Minnesota Twins hit their 200th home run of the season. July 25, and they have 200 home runs. There’s 60 games and change left in their season. Right now they are only 67 home runs shy of the MLB record set by the Yankees just last year. All they need to do is average about a dinger a game, and right now they are averaging almost two dingers per game, which means it’s highly likely that they will break the record.

Well, them, or someone else. Because every team is hitting a lot of home runs this season. And I mean a lot. The 1998 season — the height of the steroid era — saw just a hair over 5,000 total home runs. Teams hit a total of over 500 more than that last year. And 1,000 more the year before that. This year they have hit over 4,300 already, more than they did in all of 2014, just four short years ago. And as the season is only — more or less — a third of the way over, that means MLB players are on pace to break the 2017 record, and then some.

It seems, in baseball, we have hit the peak saber-metric dystopian nightmare old timers tried to warn us about, where every at bat is either a strikeout, a walk or a home run. Last season was the first time in MLB history where strikeouts outnumbered hits. (Bill Buckner just rolled over in his grave.) And it was only 15 or so years ago when these same Minnesota Twins — them of the 200 home runs before August — were nicknamed the “piranhas” and hailed for their “small ball,” bouncing infield base hits off of the metrodome concrete, moving runners over, executing the hit and run, and making smart base running decisions. And that strategy led them to division title after division title. Now? They are a completely different team. I have never seen a Minnesota Twins team quite like this before. No one has. Will it be enough to do something those early 2000s teams could not do? Mainly, win in the playoffs? Time will tell.

TL;DR: lots of home runs. Lots and lots of home runs. And the old timers aren’t happy about it. Claiming all the home runs and all the strikeouts and all the walks are ruining the game, slowing it down, making it boring. Gone is the bunt and the hit and run and the sacrifice fly. Now it’s all just dingers or nothing. Some say that’s boring. It’s hard to disagree but I kind of do. I grew up in the 80s when guys still stole bases and the suicide squeeze — easily the most exciting play in baseball — still existed. When shortstops never played on the wrong side of second base, and pitchers wore jackets when they got on base. (That last one doesn’t make a lot of sense in context here but still, I miss that.)

And you hear, of course, the same arguments about cricket. Too many sixes are choking the game, removing its nuance, taking away its creativity. All the players look the same. All the games look the same. It’s muscle bound hulks hitting balls into the terraces over and over again and then getting clean bowled. Yawn. And every time a new T20 franchise league pops up, and every time a once venerable Test side looks poor with the bat, and every time a once promising young cricketer quits Test cricket, the old timers pop their heads up and call it the end of cricket forever, that the Test is dying, that there’ll never be a great Test batsman again, all because of the T20.

The argument against the old timers is that baseball and cricket and all sports evolve and that’s okay. For some reason, though, baseball and cricket are the only two sports where that evolution is heralded as the end times. Right now, in baseball, it’s the era of the home run and not of the base hit, but it’s still better than the dead ball era, or the steroid era, or the Astroturf era, or the dome era. And whose to say we won’t return to the 70s when the base hit ruled the roost? And when we do we can guarantee that 30 something baseball fans who will become the future old timers will clutch their pearls and wonder where the real baseball went, the one with all the dingers.

And in cricket right now we are in the heart of the T20 franchise era, of sixes and cheerleaders and cricketers who lift weights. But it won’t last forever. Eras never do. That’s the definition of the era. Soon the game will evolve again — cricket, despite its pastoral and traditional reputation, changes more quickly and more often than any other sport on earth — and it might change for the better or it might not, but it will change.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t.

And that’s the real fear here. That cricket and baseball have gone too far down their respective rivers to turn back. The ECB has turned its back on both the ODI and the Test. There is a new franchise T20 league every day, leaching players away from their county side and even more worryingly their national side. Players are becoming six hitting mercenaries who travel the world looking for the next five week T20 league to whack sixes in. First class cricket is dying, and instead of leaning back into the past and trying to fix it, the ECB, to keep picking on them, is leaning in the other direction, making the game even shorter, and making it even more conducive for the six hitting hulks to thrive.

Baseball? Same deal. Will there be a defensive style that finally once and for all is an effective weapon against the home run, strike out, walk offense? I don’t see it. You can only move the infield around so much. You can only throw the ball so fast or so slow or with so much movement. The only way out are rule changes. Deaden the ball. Raise the mound. Move the fences back. And these are the same changes that cricket would need to make. But can you imagine either the MLB or any national board doing anything even close to that? Anything that would actually stem the tide of home runs and sixes? I certainly can’t. The ICC for their part rewards boundaries and uses it as a tie breaker. I think that alone speaks for itself.

Because that’s the thing, people like home runs. People like sixes. Myself included. A moon shot into the night is something to behold. And a well timed six when a team desperately needs it in their run chase is even better. But there can be too much of a good thing. Both slow the game down, both take the nuance out of their respective sport, and both take away some of their game’s greatest moments: the running between wickets, the suicide squeeze. And neither is going away any time soon. And that, I must admit, worries me.

I’m sure I am wrong though. I know how this all sounds. Another aging sports fan shouting into the void against change and evolution. But the thing is it’s out of love. I love these games, especially cricket. And I hate seeing what’s happening to them right in front of us and we are all both powerless to stop it and equally culpable, as we are all still buying tickets and tuning in. Will sixes and home runs be the things that kill their sport? Probably not. Both will probably be okay. Steroids and labor disputes couldn’t kill baseball. The T20 didn’t kill cricket (at least not yet). But I worry.

All that said, there have been worse eras, for both sports. And so it could be worse. And the games evolved out of those, and no one knows what the future will bring. Neither sport will probably hit its zenith again. Those days are probably gone. But the eras of the six and the home run will, someday, hopefully, end. And people will start running between the wickets again, and people will start stealing bases again. Until then, though, the best we can do is enjoy this, think about how it could be worse, and look forward to the day when the worm turns again and a new era is ushered in.

Sports change, people change. All is only temporary. The 2019 World Cup was light years better than the 2007 World Cup, and the former’s final was the greatest final of all time. Things change. They get better. Sometimes they get worse. All we can do is enjoy the times we are in. And right now that means home runs and sixes.

There are worse things.

Cricket for Americans: 27 July 2019: Best to middling

England, as you are probably aware, just the won the World Cup. So did the American Women in the Soccer World Cup. The latter is considered the best women’s soccer team on earth. And so it would, of course, follow, that the former is also the best cricket team in the world.

Not so fast.

They are most decidedly not.

Because cricket is a funny game.

They are — probably — the best One Day International team out there. Though that is for sure debatable. They didn’t waltz into the final and blow the doors off their opponent like the US women did. Instead they backed in and won via two or three dubious rules and one not-so-great-but-not-as-terrible-as-everyone-thinks umpiring call. But, still, England are world champions. So best in the world, right? Again, not so fast.

In cricket there are three formats. England is good and maybe the best in exactly one of them. The ODI. This has been their sole focus for almost four years. To the very great detriment of their Test playing team. In fact, several of the players who will put on the whites and play Australia next week haven’t played with a red ball in a year. Most people agree that England’s middle order for Test matches might be the weakest it’s been in a generation, if not the worst all time.

But cricket is cricket, right? If you can hit a white ball in an ODI why can’t you hit a red ball in a Test? Because it’s different. Very different. Test batting requires patience and shot selection. You can’t waste your wicket. And the pitches are different after four or five days than they are after just a few hours. The games have a different pace, a different mood. The bowlers are different. The ball moves differently. And it looks different. It’s a completely different game. Barely, even, the same sport. The only thing that is about the same is the fielding. Everything else is night and day.

When England won the Ashes in Australia in 2011 in what was one of the more remarkable and amazing performances by an England team in recent memory, they promptly went out afterward and lost six of the seven ODIs against the very same team a few weeks later.

This year it’s the opposite. After winning the World Cup a couple weeks back, England now have to go play five Tests against Australia with that aforementioned middle batting order that will need to play out of their minds to win even just one of the five matches.

The ICC rankings tell the story all by themselves. In ODIs, England are ranked number one. In Tests, number four.

But one also learns from those rankings that Australia’s Test side is struggling too, as they are ranked below England at number five. But what Australia has that England does not is a batting order that has played a lot of red ball cricket over the last year. And that will probably be the difference maker.

Sure, it would be fun for England to have the perfect cricketing summer. Win the World Cup. Win back the Ashes. But it’s probably not going to happen. Because it’s cricket, and being good at both games is not impossible, but also not easy, and not something England has focused on. For the last four years, it’s been all ODI, all the time., But now they have to play the Ashes. And the ECB has dropped all support for the ODI domestically. So the England players are like men without a country now. They are good at the one game their board no longer cares about, and middling at one that they have to play the marquee version of starting in just a few days. It’s an impossible and unfair position for the players.

And that’s the last thing to remember: none of this is the fault of the players. They go where they are told, play what they are told to play. When they are — very possibly — white washed in front of their home fans after the Champagne Super Over of the World Cup, then that will be a black mark on the ECB that the players unfortunately will have to bear the brunt of.

England are World Champions. But glory is fleeting. Even more so in cricket. And even more so this summer.

Lasith Malinga

As mentioned here several thousand times, the 2007 World Cup was my first exposure to cricket, and the 2007 final was the first cricket match I ever watched live. And that is probably why my first favorite cricketer was Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga.

When I first stumbled upon cricket, videos on Youtube of match highlights were a little hard to find. But I did manage to come across a Malinga highlight reel, and I was blown away. He didn’t keep his arm vertical like I had seen all other bowlers do, but dropped his armed to his side while still somehow keeping his elbow straight and flung the ball in like a sidearm baseball pitcher. Sidearm pitchers were always my favorite growing up. Dan Quisenberry stands out as the the most famous of the lot. And so it would logically follow that Malinga would be a favorite of mine.

And I watched him bowl during the 2007 final live and even though he struggled in that match — his figures of 8-1-49-2 were not his best but he was still Sri Lanka’s best bowler on the day — even though he struggled, he still entertained, steaming in with that stutter step, the ball twisting out of his hand, his mop of hair. He entertained. Which is all a neutral can ever ask of a player.

Injuries shortened his career, and over the years he became one of the first franchise T20 specialists, having a fantastic career with the Mumbai Indians. But no matter what or where or with whom he was playing — and even when his gut started to sag over his belt and his pace decreased — he was still fun to watch. And he still sent a ripple through the crowd when he was given the ball for a session. No matter what, he is one of those guys that gets you excited the second you see the captain toss him the ball. With Malinga, magic could strike at any moment.

Today he played his final one day international for Sri Lanka. Fittingly, he took three Bangladeshi wickets as Sri Lanka cruised to victory by 91 runs. A great end to a great international career.

Presumably, he will continue to thrill under the lights in the IPL for at least a couple more seasons, but never again will we see him the Lankan blue. Another ending. Another cricketer that I cut my teeth on gone from international cricket. Another 12 years in the blink of an eye. 225 ODIs, 338 ODI wickets. A remarkable run for a kid born in the coastal village of Rathgama whose dad was a bus mechanic.

According to Malinga himself, his sidearm action developed because he grew up playing cricket with a tennis ball on the sand banks and in the coconut groves hear his home. He was spotted by Champaka Ramanayake and found his way, somehow, into the system, where his sidearm action was frowned upon. The system tried and failed to get him to bowl in a more conventional style. And then the rest is history. There’s a lesson here. Or maybe a few of them. How many artists of cricket are there like Malinga? Slinging tennis balls on beaches? More than one. Probably several. Maybe dozens. And how many of them will be lucky enough to get spotted, find their way into the system and be allowed to create as they know best? One? Maybe two? Malinga came along and entertained the whole world for 14 years. But he easily could have been missed, left to toil forever on beaches, never once playing a game of hard ball cricket in his life. What a shame that would have been. What a darker world. And how bright would the world be if we were able to find all our artists, and give them the chance to shine their light on all of us?

The lesson here is we should never stop looking, never stop seeking out artists, and when we find them, let them work their magic they way they want to work it.

Happy trails, Lasith. You were a miracle and a joy.

Cricket for Americans: 25 July 2019: The Nightwatchman

Last night at Lord’s — after Ireland spent the entire day embarrassing a woeful and hungover England — one of cricket’s weird little things happened: the nightwatchman.

The gist of it is this: if a team has to come back out to bat at the very end of the day when the light is poor and the shadows long, they sometimes will send their worst batter out there, to keep from making one of their top order batsmen bat in tricky light and possibly losing a far more valuable wicket.

And that’s just what happened last night. England bowled out Ireland a few minutes before the hour, and so the hosts had to come back out and bat one over. Because they didn’t want to lose openers Roy or Burns before super important day two even started, they sent out number 11 Jack Leach to face the red hot Irish bowler Tim Murtagh — who had already taken five wickets on the day — as the sun set behind the terraces. Leach’s job was simple: don’t try to score runs, just survive and see out the day. And he did. He successfully negotiated six deliveries and got England back in the dressing room with all of their 10 wickets still intact.

The American in me thinks that the nightwatchman tradition is dumb. It’s the batsmen’s job to bat. And to send a bowler out there to be sacrificed after he bowled all afternoon while they sit in the dressing room is a little shameful on their part. And lots of cricket fans — even the non-American ones — agree with me. You job is to bat, you bat. No matter the light or the time of day. You bat. Do your job. If you can’t negotiate six deliveries without tossing your wicket away then maybe you shouldn’t be wearing the whites in the first place.

But, at the same, it works. Well, at least it worked last night for England, and then some. Leach got through the over and in the morning came out and scored 92 off 162 deliveries including 16 4s, barging England back into the game. To be fair, Leach is no stranger to the bat, and has scored almost 1,000 first class runs, but his highest ever test score was 16. So maybe England also got a little lucky — again — that they were playing Ireland. Sure, the Irish bowlers bowled beyond admirably yesterday — punching far above their weight — but if England’s opponent had been India or Australia, then yesterday’s little nightwatchman stunt might not have worked out so swimmingly.

It’s just another little bit of cricket nonsense, the nightwatchman. One of those traditions that probably served a purpose at some point but now is all but obsolete. But people still use it, despite the fact that as bowlers and batters become more and more specialized, bowlers become less and less competent with the bat, so you are risking more than ever losing a wicket before close of play and making a top order batsmen bat in bad light anyway. Or, the nightwatchman losing his wicket first thing in the morning when the bowlers are rested and the pitch is tricky, so you start your innings already one down after only a couple overs.

According to Cricinfo, there have been six centuries scored by nightwatchman over the years. Including two from Mark Boucher whose status as a nightwatchman is a little debatable. The last one was in 2006, Jason Gillespie for Australia against Bangladesh. His was also the only double century, as he racked up 201 runs for his team after being brought in as nothing more than a sacrificial lamb in what would be his final match in international cricket. Talk about leaving on a high note.

At the end of the day, it’s one of those cricket tactics that just doesn’t exist in other sports. I mean, can you think of anything similar in soccer or baseball or gridiron football? I sure can’t. Which makes it, I don’t know, kind of great and cool. Just one more thing that separates this lovely game from all the others — and Test cricket from the sport’s other formats. And so, in that spirit, I love the nightwatchman, and I hope it’s something that never disappears from the game.



Why We Write, part 6

Okay so I upgraded. You are welcome, WordPress. I just could not handle the ads any longer. People would be reading my long posts about my divorce and have to scroll by an ad showing a bloated foot and talking about heart attack symptoms. It was just too much. And so the man won in the end. is finally

I tried to upgrade a few years back on the five year anniversary of the blog, but someone had squatted on the dot com domain and I didn’t want to be dot net or dot org and so I shelved the idea and moved on. But the domain was free this time so here we are.

Also, I changed the style and layout. The ancient stock WordPress template I had been using was embarrassingly out of date. It looked like your dad’s blog from the 90s and I just couldn’t take it seriously anymore. So, a new layout, plus I ditched the folksy Lord’s Cricket Ground sign for my favorite (public domain) picture of a cricketer ever. It’s Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi in, I think, Mumbai. Made Indian’s captain when he was only 21, he was widely known as the greatest fielder ever. He was also the  titular Nawab of Pataudi from 1952 until 1971, when the system was abolished. He played for Sussex and captained Oxford and was Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1968. And he did it all with only one good eye. I love this picture because it defines what the sport means to me. Cricketers are human beings, more so than in any other sport, and that is the face and stance of a human being. A cricketer. One of us. A tourist. Young and in love with the world.

I also decided to upgrade after reading Will Leitch’s weekly email last weekend. In it, he talks about how when he was in his 20s he read Stephen King’s how-to book on writing and how there are different levels of writers. I will quote directly since Leitch says it way better than I ever could:

King’s argument is that you can’t make a bad writer good, and you can’t make a good writer great, but you can make a competent writer good. The trick for any budding writer is understanding, and more important accepting, that you are in that middle level — that you will never reach that top level, and that all you can do is do the best you can to be as competent as possible. King then has a book’s worth of practical advice (he’s particularly smart about the overuse of adverbs, using an analogy about a lawn with too many dandelions on it, and I have absolutely, unquestionably, consistently, all-encompassingly ignored that advice to my own detriment ever since) all based around that basic premise: You’ll never be great, but if you want to be good, here’s how.

Leitch goes on to say that that theory changed his life because he realized he will never be a great writer, but if you work hard enough, and you’re kind (to paraphrase Conan O’Brien) then maybe just maybe you can be a good writer.

And that is what I have decided to do. To become a good writer.

I have written novels and memoirs and novels disguised as memoirs and on and on. All my life I have wanted to be a writer. To call myself a writer. To have writing be my job. To have a novel come out in hardcover with a handsome dust jacket photo. To get a glowing review in the Paris Review or the London Review of Books. To do readings in famous bookstores in faraway cities. To have Lauren Mayberry instastory an image of my novel and say how much she loved it.

But that, realistically, isn’t going to happen. I mean. It’s just not, it’s not in the cards. I simply don’t have the chops. And it took until I read Leitch’s email newsletter (which you should most definitely subscribe to because it’s fantastic) for me to realize it. And just like with him, it was freeing.

I will never be like Faulkner or Foster Wallace or Knausgaard or Kushner or Cusk. I will never be great. However, there is something I am good at:


I am good at waffling on about cricket. I have gotten mentioned in the Times of India and in the Wisden Almanack (twice). Harsha Bogle linked to one of my posts. I am good at this. I am tooting my own horn here but I think that’s okay now and again. And while that is all fine, I can get better. So much better. I can make this little thing that I am kind of actually good at something really special. Instead of using this space as a layover between what I have deemed Important Writing Projects™, this should be the project I focus on. Because I am good at this. And I can get better.

And so I upgraded. I forked over the $96 to WordPress and changed the layout and have committed to writing here more often, and making this a destination for people who like to read about cricket but also about all sorts of things tangentially related to cricket. I have often scoffed at people who spend money on, say, a fancy new journal because they want to start journaling. No, before you spend a bunch of money on that new journal and fancy new pen you need to make sure you actually want to be a person who keeps a journal first, then after you write daily on a legal pad you stole from work you can spend the cash. (Pro-tip: everyone is that person. Everyone should keep a journal and everyone should write in it every single day. Do this.) But I have proven that I can keep this up, and so here I am. I’m excited at what’s to come next.

Plus, no more creepy ads.


Other posts in the Why We Write series.

Why We Write

Why We Write, part 3

Why We Write, part 4

Why We Write, part 5

No idea what happened to part 2, or if it ever existed in the first place.

Cricket for Americans: 19 July 2019: So what’s next?

So much.

Just this summer:

The Ashes — which really if the series is competitive is cricket at its zenith. All 3+ Test series are great, but this is the granddaddy of them all.


The ICC Women’s Championship
The Women’s Ashes
A Test between Ireland and England
India’s tour of the West Indies
New Zealand’s tour of Sri Lanka
All the fantastic domestic cricket in England

And that’s just this summer!

Looking farther ahead:

South Africa travel to India in the fall, Pakistan and New Zealand both tour Australia in the winter/fall, and India visit New Zealand right after that. Plus both the women and men have a T20 World Cup in 2020 — in February and October, respectively.

Welcome to the show that never ends.

In the blink of an eye

“I played against Ross Taylor in the first World Cup I played, in 2007, and now, in the blink of an eye, I am playing him at Lord’s.” – Liam Plunkett, 15 July 2019

On April 3, 2007, I quit smoking. After smoking almost two packs of Marlboro Reds a day for 13 years, I crumpled up the pack I had in my pocket while sitting at my cube at the toy company in downtown Minneapolis and tossed it into the wastebasket and never looked back. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.

That was 12 years ago.

A few days after quitting, I somehow stumbled onto the sport of cricket. Looking back, it was probably via a thread. All I remember is following the World Cup via the BBC and Cricinfo and feeling like I had found the world’s perfect game. I didn’t smoke. I followed cricket. And it was wonderful.

You probably remember that tournament. It was a farce. From beginning to end. If you bring the 2007 World Cup up around any cricket fan, they will roll their eyes and scoff. But all I remember is joy.

And the final.

Two days before, my wife, Niki, called Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis to make sure they would be showing the game. They would be. And so on that Saturday we drove down and parked nearby and walked into the bar and they were showing the game in the main bar area and the host tried to seat us there, but then I saw the game was on in the Long Room and we went in there and the game was on a big projection screen and the room was packed with cricket fans.

It was the first live cricket match I would ever watch.

I was in heaven. I’d found my home.

We found stools along the wall with a shelf and we ordered beers and watched the game. If you have ever quit smoking — or quit anything, really, anything terrible for you — you know the exhilaration of those first few weeks. The knowledge that you are squashing a demon is a powerful drug in its own right. And as my wife had also quit smoking when I did we were both flying. Having this wonderful, perfect day. A little tipsy, taking in the cricket match, Niki asking questions about the rules. We made pals with the guy standing next to us. The match was at the gorgeous Kensington Oval in Bridgetown. After rain the sun came out. It was the last vestiges of those great Australian teams — Gilchrist and McGrath — against Sri Lanka who featured players of supreme joy, Malinga, Dilshan, Sangakkara.

You remember it from there, probably. After early rain the match was reduced to 38 overs a side. Ponting won the toss and chose to bat. Gilchrist put a squash ball in his glove and batted forever. Sri Lanka tried to chase it down but wickets kept falling. And then the farcical ending. The players were brought off due to poor light. Then the overs were reduced again. Then they played the final overs in almost complete darkness, with Australia agreeing to only bowl spin.

Australia won by 53 runs, winning their third straight World Cup.

A few days before the match, my wife had a drawn up a new budget, allotting a certain amount to spend on the weekends. When we got the bill that day at Brit’s we had blown over the budget on the very first weekend of the new budget. I was a jerk. She was upset. We fought. We left without saying goodbye to our new friend, without seeing the trophy presentation. It was a beautiful day outside, despite being only April. We fought in the sun on the walk to the car. Later, though, we were okay. We went to a friend’s house and sat in their backyard. The fight forgotten. We could always do that. Find a way to be okay. It was what made us great. What made us work.

Four years later we went to England for the first time. Neither of us had ever been overseas before. We packed up and flew to London and took the train to the city center and checked into our hotel and fell in love with the city. In a bar in Covent Garden we were having pints in the afternoon and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ came on and we started quietly crying to ourselves, overwhelmed with how far we had come, where we were, and where we had been. This was near the end of February. And so the World Cup was happening in India. The games were on in various bars. We’d look up and there would be the cricket. It was almost surreal. Like we were on another planet. For cricket to just be right there. We left for home on March 1. On March 2 I watched via a stream Kevin O’Brien hit 113 off of 63 to beat England in one of the most bonkers bits of cricket I have ever seen.

A few weeks later I watched the final, staying up half the night as India beat Sri Lanka to lift the trophy on home soil. I remember you could feel the whole of India willing MS Dhoni along. Literally feel it. It was this energy put out into the either that filled the whole world. At the end of the match one in every five televisions in India was tuned to the game. After the match the Indian team carried Sachin Tendulkar on their shoulders in a victory lap around the stadium.

The 2015 version of the World Cup was in Australia. I paid very little attention to it. The US stream was expensive and I can be a bit of a miser. And the matches were on in the middle of the night and I was working a new job and couldn’t stay up all hours like I could in 2011. This was a grand time for my wife and I. After so many years of hating my job I had one I liked and paid well. We bought a new car. We started talking about going back to London again. Something we never thought we would do. Life was quiet and happy and calm. There wasn’t much to it. But that was fine. We were okay. Like we always were.

I bought the discounted streaming package so I could watch the final. Hosts Australia versus co-hosts New Zealand. With all apologies to my Australian readers, I was pulling for New Zealand with all my heart. I went and bought MOA beer from the liquor store. And I set up my laptop to watch the match in the kitchen, the spot I would describe to my wife quite often as my most favorite spot in all the world. My seat looked out over our big beautiful expanse of backyard and it’s where I would write, and read, and eat dinner with my wife, celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, or just sharing a quiet moment, her with her puzzle, me with my book, our dog on his bed in the corner.

As the game was on so late my time, I sat up and watched all the pre-game build up, the commentators whipping themselves into a frenzy over how the whole match was on a knife’s edge. Everyone was picking Australia, but no one was counting out New Zealand. The Kiwis had won all six of their group stage matches (including against Australia), demolished the West Indies in the quarterfinals (Martin Guptil scored 237 of their runs all by himself), and squeaked by South Africa in the semi-finals. But Australia were Australia. They had won the whole thing four times. And they would be at home in the expansive MCG.

But I had hope. I closed my eyes and saw Brendon McCullum scoring 300 and Australia getting bowled out. Instead, though, Mitchell Starc bowled McCullum with the fifth ball of the first over and New Zealand were all out for just 183. Australia chased it down with ease, despite losing Aaron Finch in the second over, and won the game by seven wickets. I watched halfheartedly. Drinking beer until I heard bird song and then going to bed. My wife got up at dawn and let the dog out. It was a unseasonable warm Sunday. And the sun came out. And melted away the last of winter.

This past Sunday I watched the World Cup alone. I woke up in my little apartment overlooking a bakery and watched the first few overs on my laptop on the porch in the heat of the morning. All the other World Cup finals I had watched had been in late spring. A time of beginning anew. Sunday’s final was in the height of summer. Everything was still and hot and quiet. My ex-wife was sleeping in our old bedroom 10 miles away. There was a pit in my stomach, the same one that had been there for a year.

At 9 a.m. I walked into Brit’s Pub to watch the remainder of the match. There was a smattering of people there, but the crowd grew. The Long Room where Niki and I had watched the 2007 final was closed for a private event, so we all watched in the main bar area. I sat at a stool and ordered a beer and watched the greatest ODI the world has ever seen. You know the story. Stokes, Buttler, Archer, Williamson, Neesham, Ferguson. The Super Over and the controversy and Buttler knocking the bails off and dancing into the night in the long shadows at Lord’s.

The match was pure joy and pure heartbreak. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. But my mind drifted. I didn’t think about four years ago, or four years from now, as I usually do during World Cups. Instead I thought about 12 years ago. And that sunny day and the fight and the squash ball in Gilchrist’s glove and how we always found a way to be okay until we couldn’t and then I was alone.

I have always found World Cups to be a gift. Moments to mark time by. Every four years. A chance to look behind, and to look ahead. To live the examined life. To think about where we were four years ago, and where we will be four years from now. Usually, it’s a joyful practice. We can see how far we have come, and how, somehow, everything was worth it. On Sunday, though, for the first time, I looked back four years and saw only mistakes and regret. I looked ahead four years and saw nothing. A blank page. And I just kept going back to 12 years ago, in the same bar, just a few steps from where I was sitting on Sunday, my wife and I — my ex-wife and I — laughing, talking, being okay. And now I am never okay. I am lost. And all I wanted to do was go back. Shake myself. Make myself see how great it all really was. 

After the trophy presentation I slipped out into the sun and the heat and the haze of a downtown July day. All pavement and shimmer and bare skin. Summer in the north is like nothing else in the world. I caught the train home. 12 years ago we were somehow okay. On Sunday I was not. Four years from now no one knows. But no one knew four years ago either. And that’s the part about all of this. About time. We say that the past is behind us, that the future is ahead. But that is not the case at all. The future is behind us, as we cannot see it. All we can see is the past, it’s right in front of us, staring us down. The present is Ben Stokes batting England back into the game. The past is ahead. The future is behind.  And so no one knows what the 2023 World Cup final will bring. The final will be on March 26. Five days after the first day of spring. We all might watch New Zealand’s redemption, or India’s coronation. And we will all look back to Sunday. And think about where we were. And wonder if it was all worth it. Right now, I am still thinking about 12 years ago. And wondering how it all went wrong, and how I can put it all back together again. Reach forward into the past, make it all okay, like it once was.

And that’s the real magic of the World Cup. A chance to not just pause and reflect, but a chance to see what brought us to that bar stool alone on a Sunday afternoon, and what we can do differently so that four years from now I am better, we are all better. In other words: hope. That’s the lesson here. “There’s always next year” is an old baseball saying. For the World Cup, there’s always four years from now. For New Zealand. For India. For all of us.

12 years. A lifetime. All in the blink of an eye. Time passing like falling leaves until the tree is bare.

Cricket for Americans: 16 July 2019: The World Cup

For a couple days I have hemmed and hawed about what to post under the Cricket for Americans banner with regard to Sunday’s final. There was so much to say, but none of it felt right. Thankfully, Twitter friend Tim Lowell and stepped in helped me out:

The bar I was watching the game in is a popular spot downtown. It gets a great brunch and lunch crowd most weekends, especially since it’s close to two busy conference hotels. There was a private event in the bar’s Long Room where they usually show British sporting events, so we were all out in the main bar area. As such, group after group of folks were led through our loud tipsy mob to their tables up in the dining area. I watched them as they were led by the host, and I would spot a couple sports’ fan looking guys peeking at the screen. Some showed mild curiosity, others showed what appeared to me to look like disdain (as an American soccer fan, I know this look by heart), but most showed no interest whatsoever.

And, so, Tim is right. We were let in on a secret, a wonderful secret, and because of that we were treated to those nine wonderful hours of cricket on Sunday. Meanwhile, 99% of American sports fans missed out. They maybe watched the tennis or some golf or a little baseball or just spent the day doing other things. Which is too bad. Because it was something really, really special. And I feel so lucky that for some reason 12 years ago when I quit smoking I stumbled onto this game.

What was so great? It had everything. Twists, turns, momentum changes, great bowling, great batting, great fielding. It was a final worthy of the name which you don’t get in sports these days. Hundreds of deliveries leading to not one but two ties. And then the home team lifting the trophy in the end.

But the best part about it was that there were no goats. No one lost the game for their team. And there were no enemies if you were a neutral. Every one of the 22 guys out there played until their guts hit the floor and did so with grace and humility and style. You don’t get that in other sports. There are always goats. Always enemies. I watched a bit of the NBA Finals and winced as the Toronto crowd cheered Kevin Durant’s injury. That would not have happened yesterday. You would have liked all of them, and wanted all of them to win. Even if you supported England your whole life and have dreamed of a World Cup for 44 years, your heart still broke for New Zealand.

And it’s a bummer. Because everyone missed out. I came to work on Monday and never even brought it up. No one I know in real life watched it. It happened and it was magic and no one even knew it was going on. What a shame. And how many things are there like that in this life? Hundreds and hundreds, surely. Something every single day happens on TV or in our neighborhood that is somehow a miracle in a life that offers so few. And it’s not just sports. It’s music and art. Every day we miss out on perfection. And that’s the lesson here. I do not, it seems, feel badly for those that missed it. I am instead just feeling lucky that I did not. And, maybe, next time, when the cricket is on and you are being led to a table in the upstairs dining area, stop and take it in for a minute. It might be worth your time. I promise to do the same the next time I walk by a group of people transfixed by something alien, foreign, but also perfect.

Miracles in life are so rare. I got to see one on Sunday. And I am so lucky. Don’t miss the next one.