To forget about life for a while

Local journalist Liz Fedor wrote a story for my former employer, MinnPost, earlier this week entitled Baseball acts as a balm for a summer of contention. It’s the usual story, one we have read several times before in various forms. Sport as collective healing, and personal healing. When a baseball team wins with a walk off home run, no one is thinking about politics or work or their leaky roof. It’s almost Zen in how we handle the moment in our minds. And that moment binds us together with our neighbors, no matter their political bent that might make them abhorrent to us.

The elusive sense of community that so many people are hungering for is present at baseball games, where people from all walks of life congregate, local citizens throw out first pitches and fans cheer for their community’s team.

That’s about right.

She also talks about how baseball is one of those rare public moments where no one is on their phone. They are talking to their friends and family. About the game. About their lives. About the sacrifice bunt and the phantom tag at second. Mays or Mantle. The ’27 Yankees or the ’98 Yankees or the ’33 Yankees. Who wants a beer, I’m heading up. How’s the wife? The kids? The job? All under the bright lights and the dark sky of an American ballpark in a middle American city. Save your divisive politics for another day, let’s talk about baseball and watch the young kid from Panama stretch a double into a triple and score on a wild pitch. America is splitting apart at the seams. But at the baseball diamond all is okay, and is a reminder that all will be okay again, someday. If baseball can survive, then we can too.

Despite all of their differences, cricket and baseball are very much the same. Bats, balls, runs. And a quiet place where you can talk to your neighbor, no matter their politics, and watch the game play out. There’s a rhythm to it. A cadence. That lulls one not to sleep but to paying attention. Other sports are chaos, cricket is harmony, order. There are no clocks, so it exists outside the prison of time, unlike the rest of our days.

England is, of course, cracking apart at the seams right now. Maybe even more so than America. I had my opinions on Brexit, of course, like most do. But then I sat next to a man at a Haley Bonar concert in Hackney the fall after the vote. He had voted to leave. And his reasons were coherent and made sense. But his family had voted to stay. And one of his sons didn’t talk to him anymore. Politics are splitting not just countries apart, but families.

And so when I watched the World Cup final in July, and saw the sea of people rise as one when Buttler knocked the bails off, I was reminded that sport’s power is nearly transcendent in its ability to bring us together, despite all of our divisions. Half of the crowd that day at Lord’s had voted to leave, the other half had voted to stay, but that afternoon in London none of that mattered. All that mattered was Ben Stokes. When I watched the last Test at Headingley, I thought of the same thing. England is being sliced open, but the cricket team is winning, and making people forget, maybe just for a little bit, forget about Tories and Labour and just letting the sun drift on their face and watch Jofra Archer take six wickets like he was king of the whole damn world.

Balms for all that ails. Politically, personally. This has been the worst year of my life. I am sad all the time. Every day is a struggle. But when Stokes hit that one six — you know the one — none of that mattered. I was okay. It’s dumb. But I will take any okay I can get these days. There’s a famous Roger Angell essay about game six of the ’76 World Series, where he talks about how sports is important because it involves caring. Really caring. Something that seems to have disappeared from the world. I feel whitewashed by depression and the drugs I take to get rid of that depression, but at the bar for World Cup final the fog lifted, and I cared, and everything was okay. I was out of my seat. I was excited. Smiling. For the first time in a very long time, I was happy.

There’s a second Roger Angell quote that fits here: “Whatever the pace of the particular baseball game we are watching, whatever its outcome, it holds us in its own continuum and mercifully releases us from our own.”

I will do just about anything these days to be mercifully released from my continuum. I don’t remember what it’s like to not feel this way. But cricket gives me glimpses, and it’s a gift I don’t reject. The game is a joy, and it gives it willingly and generously, to all who wish to drink from its cup.

Rise as one. Imagine.


On Ben Stokes, Kusal Perara and Unconscious Bias

This is not an easy topic.

Wikipedia defines “unconscious bias” as: “Unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.”

It exists. It’s a thing. It might very well always be here. And yes it’s in cricket too.

Thanks to Twitter friend Granger Gab, it hit my radar yesterday. And then I saw more of it on Twitter too.

It went something like this: People — myself included — fawned over Ben Stokes innings at Headingley. The press — most of them English but not all — called it the greatest Test innings of all time. And everyone just believed them. Again, including myself. Almost immediately, however, smart people started pointing out that it maybe wasn’t the best Test innings ever, or even this calendar year, as that honor belongs to Kusal Perara of Sri Lanka, who scored 153 not out against South Africa just this past February.

Perara’s side chased down 303 and won with a wicket to spare after a 73 minute, 78 run last wicket stand that saw the man at the opposite end of the crease, Vishwa Fernando, score only six runs but defend 27 balls to help bring his side home.

Sound familiar?

Only Sri Lanka did it not in the cozy confines of one their friendliest home grounds, but thousands of miles from home, under alien conditions.

The people pointing out Perara’s innings yesterday weren’t upset at pundits calling Stokes’ innings the greatest Test innings of all time — their point was more that the press seemed to be ignoring Perara’s all together. And this is not a new problem for cricket media and for fans of the big three countries. They all have this very narrow view that if it didn’t happen in Australia, India or England, then it never happened. All that matters is the men’s high level cricket happening in those countries. Everything else is background noise.

At first, this to me felt like sour grapes. But that instantly didn’t feel right to me. I have learned over the years that if someone’s complaint sounds to you like it is sour grapes, then you are in a position of privilege, and that privilege is clouding your judgement. So I took a second swing at Twitter and really listened. And not only did I start to agree with the people pointing out the narrow minded coverage of the — still, really great — Test match, but I realized that I had argued on their side before. All cricket matters. All of it. Whether it’s a Test match in Headingley or a Test match in Durban. And there is so much cricket happening outside the system that is just flat out ignored by the mainstream cricket press — and by the ICC for that matter. Cricket played and organized by people who love the game, who are doing their best to grow it at the grassroots level, and get very little if any money for it.

But then I started to think about it more. And the problem exists outside of just what the press is doing, as for the most part they are just giving the people what they want. And I started to think about race, and unconscious bias. And I remembered how during the World Cup final I saw loads and loads of Southeast Asians on Twitter living and dying with every ball, who all went ballistic during the super over. Would I have seen English fans doing the same if the final had been between, say, India and Sri Lanka? Probably not. Does that mean those English cricket fans are racists? Of course not. Does it mean they are guilty of unconscious bias? Probably.

Prejudices against people of color in the UK — be they from Southeast Asia or the Caribbean or wherever — are so deeply ingrained into the British psyche (see also: Brexit, pro) that it’s simply not possible for it to not come into play. The unspoken narrative was that Ben Stokes’ innings was the greatest Test innings of all time, because that honor could never belong to a person of color.

I am a white straight man in the western hemisphere. I am in a position of supreme privilege. So this means I am 100% guilty of unconscious bias too. Every single day. See the sour grapes comment above, just for one example. So I am in by no means pointing the finger at anyone else without first pointing it at myself. Man in the mirror, and all that.

For cricket, this is nothing new. That fact cannot be argued either. In the UK, the IPL is roundly sneered at and has been since its inception. That sneer comes from a lot of places, but one of those places is that it’s seen as cricket by and for brown people, and therefore not really cricket.

I am from America. The most racist country probably in the history of the world. And so like I said above I am guilty of this too. Terribly guilty. All I — and anyone — can do is recognize when it’s happening to us, when we notice automatic bias, and take steps to correct it.

Again, I am not calling anyone a racist. And I am not saying Stokes’ innings were not something very, very special. Far from either. What I am saying is that the English press and England’s mostly white fan base flat out ignored Perara’s innings out of unconscious bias, and that they need to recognize this.

The best thing we all can do after recognizing the behavior — myself included — is to listen. And so that is what I am going to do here:

Are you a person of a color? I want to hear from you. The comments are open. Have you experienced racism in cricket? Do you see unconscious bias when you follow the game? Or if you don’t want to wade into all that, then talk to me about Perara’s innings. Did you watch it live? What innings have you seen that were better — no matter the format — outside of England or Australia? Or, just talk about whatever you want. If you would rather post anonymously, you can email me and I’ll post it in the comments for you.

Like Frasier Crane — another white man of privilege — said: I’m listening.

The Miracle of Headingley Part II

Today was another “Cricket, am I right?” or “Cricket, blood hell” day. We have been gifted a lot of these this summer. But what happened at Headingley this weekend is easily the most remarkable thing that’s happened on a cricket field in a very, very long time. At least since I started paying attention to the sport in 2007.

If you are reading this, then I don’t need to tell you what happened. But just in case, here’s the moment as it happened from the Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentator:

Cummins to Stokes, FOUR runs, there it is! Flayed through the covers, Stokes has completed the Miracle of Headingley Part II! Holy hand grenades, Stokes is a monster! He throws his arms wide and roars! England win by one wicket and the series is level in the most heart-stopping fashion imaginable!

And, also, if you reading this, then go read some of the better recaps on the day. I don’t have the words to describe what Ben Stokes did out there. Above I said it’s the most remarkable thing to happen on a cricket field in a long time, but honestly maybe the best thing to happen in all of sport in a very long time. Just off the top of my head: there was Lebron winning the NBA championship with Cleveland. That’s really the only one that really sticks out in recent years. And I am not even a basketball fan. I think Stokes’ performance honestly can be called one of the greatest individual triumphs in all of sport’s history. That sounds hyperbolic, but I believe it just might be true.

There will be hundreds of articles about Stokes in the coming days. Some of them will read like poetry, or love letters. And, down the road, there will probably be books written about the Headingley miracle too. It will definitely take up the bulk of the 2020 Wisden, probably even more than England’s World Cup win earlier this summer. Because Stokes’ performance was just that almost unbearably remarkable. It transcends almost that entire tournament. And the Ashes are most definitely back on the table, after most pundits thinking it was all but over on Friday afternoon. But in true cricket style, England’s all out for 66 feels like a million years ago now. The game swayed back in forth in heavy wind for all five days. And then somehow improbably ended with Stokes hitting a boundary in the long shadows of a late summer’s afternoon.

135 not out off of 219 balls. Batting all told for five and a half hours.

Lost in all the (super justified) ink about to spilled on Ben Stokes is the performances of two men: Jack Leach and Jofra Archer. Stokes is the hero of the day, but you can’t win in cricket alone, no matter how great a day you’re having. You need someone at other end of the crease. Someone who can hold their nerve and get you the strike back. Jos Buttler only helped out with nine deliveries before he fell. Chris Woakes eight. Stuart Broad two. Archer — after his wonderful day with the ball earlier in the Test — saw 33. Hanging in there for over 45 minutes. Leach, though, went out into the middle of the field, in the simmering cauldron of the Ashes, knowing that his was the last wicket available. If he lost it, England wouldn’t just lose the match, they would probably lose the series, the Ashes. So he put up his defense and hung out against one of the best bowing attacks in the world for an hour. He only saw 17 balls and only scored one run. But defended his wicket and efficiently got Stokes back on strike whenever possible. It was of course nowhere near Stokes’ accomplishment, but for a bowler to go out there and keep steady and allow Stokes to win the game, to be the hero, was inspiring to watch. An hour, just 17 balls, which means he was on average only seeing a delivery once every five minutes. That’s a lot of waiting, a lot of running between wickets, and then all of a sudden Pat Cummins is bowling at you and your wicket is all that stands between Australia and the Ashes.

I will never be a Ben Stokes. He is one of those rare genius athletes that is just better than all of us. But we can all be Jack Leach’s. Do our jobs, work hard, celebrate the genius of a teammate, help them lift up the whole world. He’s a hero too. And his glasses and his smile make him seem almost human, unlike Stokes, who looks and feels like a superhero. We all love humanity in our athletes. And Leach was human today. Vulnerable, but still getting up every day, and doing what he can to keep all the hope possible alive.  

An hour. 17 balls. One run. I hope he enjoyed his post-match beer.


Cricket for Americans: 22 Aug. 2019: The World Test Championship

Cricket is different.

At first glance, the sport is nothing but a never-ending series of international friendlies. An infinite spiral of meaningless exhibitions. It can be difficult, at first, for an American to wrap their head around it all. It all feels so … drifty. Sure, the shorter formats have tournaments and championships and cups. And domestic cricket has seasons and playoffs and points tables. But Test cricket just drifts along, endlessly. While difficult at first, after a while one can start to enjoy the quiet flowing river that is Test cricket. It’s not about points or tables or playoffs. It’s about the best players in the world playing the game’s premiere format.

But not anymore. For good or for bad. Because on August 1 — after two aborted tries — the World Test Championship kicked off. Now, every series, every match, every ball, will have meaning. With the end goal being a final at Lord’s in the summer of 2021. Again, you can argue that the meaning injected into Tests is a positive. But the other side of that coin can be argued too: that the matches already had plenty of organically grown, intrinsic meaning. And that the Test championship paints the matches with a false sense of significance. But it’s all moot now. The Test Championship is here, and probably here to stay.

The world changes. Cricket changes. It’s how it survives.

Here’s how the Test Championship works. The top nine Test playing nations (basically everyone but Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan) will play Test series against six of the other participating nations, three away and three at home. Those nine teams will also play Tests against the three non-participants, but those matches won’t count toward the World Test Championship table.

Some of the series will be five match series, some of them will be two, three or four. And so not every team will play the same number of matches. England, as an example, will play 22 Test matches over the course of the inaugural tournament, while Pakistan and Sri Lanka will only play 13. (The latter, for their part, also don’t have to play India or Australia, and looking at the what teams the other eight miss out on, they just might have the clearest route to the final. We’ll see. I digress.)

Because of the uneven match count, the ICC adjusted the points earned from wins, draws and ties — so each series has a maximum of 120 points available to earn, no matter how many matches. A win, for instance, in a two match series will earn a side 60 points. While a win in a five match series will only garner 24 points. At the end of the group stage, the two top teams on points will play in the final at Lord’s. As this is now worth mentioning, a draw or a tie in the final will result in a shared trophy (phew).

Of course, this is cricket, so there is controversy in how the league stage was scheduled, in a couple different ways. First off, while teams play an equal number of series home and away, they do not play an equal number of matches home and away. And as mentioned above, Sri Lanka and several other of the lower ranked sides miss out on having to play some of the very best sides. And vice versa. England and South Africa both miss out on “getting” to play Bangladesh — the lowest ranked Test side currently. But both have to play each other, India and Australia. In fact, all the big four Test playing nations — India, South Africa, England and Australia — play against each other. The charge here being that the tournament is less about crowning a champion and more about TV money. My answer to that is: is this your first day? Of course it’s only about TV money. This is cricket.

One final note is that, no, India and Pakistan do not have a series scheduled in this tournament. Which is a shame. They can, however, play each other in the final. Which is what I am pulling for. What a scene that would be at Lord’s in June.

I am already worried that it will rain.

In fact, though, there are tons of opportunities for a world class final, something for the history books. England vs Australia. Australia vs New Zealand. India vs Australia. The scenarios are almost endless, and are also almost all mouth watering. That’s the American in me talking though. I mean, did Test cricket need a World Test Championship to survive? Probably not, despite what the talking heads will tell you. Does the format lose a bit of its panache, its uniqueness? I think the answer there is an unqualified yes. For 150 odd years Test cricket has marched along successfully without a group stage or a knockout stage or playoffs to guide it. And that has been one of the things that has set it apart not just from cricket’s other formats, and not just from all other sports, but from all other forms of leisure time. It just existed, breathed in the background, invited you in to sit and just hang out for a little while. Lacking in format and structure did not hamstring it, not in the slightest. In fact it was maybe one of its greatest strengths. And now that strength is gone, painted over with playoffs and finals.

That said, I am off work this week. It was raining in England so I tuned into the first Test between India and the West Indies in Antigua. It’s a beautiful setting. The cricket is simulteanously tense and relaxing. Moments of aggression and violence and beauty swirled into a quiet lovely morning in the Caribbean. No one is talking about some future final, or the championship table. Bowlers aren’t forcing deliveries. Batsmen aren’t forcing shots. It’s still Test cricket. History and tradition and pressed whites. Day one with the match still finding its feet, figuring out what the story of the game will be. With plenty of time to do so. No rush. It’s Test cricket. Let the match drift in the Antiguan breeze, and see where it lands.

It might land at Lord’s in June of 2021. Or it might not. No bother. It’s still Test cricket.

Steve Smith and Concussions

I have a good friend who used to play on my co-ed rec soccer league with me. A few years ago she caught a ball in the face at point blank range. She came off and sat and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines. She seemed fine. As they were leaving she seemed a little wobbly on her feet, and she said she was feeling dizzy. So her husband took her to the emergency room. They diagnosed a concussion. And the symptoms just got worse from there. Soon she couldn’t stand bright lights, and then loud noises. She couldn’t read or drive or follow conversations. She couldn’t work. She slept 20 hours a day. It was months before she was her old self again.

In 2008 or so my neighbor was hit by a car on his bicycle. He was going straight through an intersection on the green and someone didn’t see him and turned left right into him, throwing him from his bike. He hit his head square on the curb. Elsewhere he had a broken leg and a lot of road rash but was otherwise fine. Except for a concussion. He had trouble working for years. And now more than a decade later he still has trouble finding his wallet and his keys. Earlier this spring his wife of over 20 years left him. That last part is without a doubt at least tangentially related to his concussion. Being a partner to a person with a head injury is not easy.

On a less personal note, I have seen concussions either shorten or damage the careers of three Minnesota Twins: Corey Koskie, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. All of the them — save Koskie — still had great careers, but for Mauer and Morneau there will always be “what ifs” surrounding their legacies. I have also joined in on the chorus of people lambasting the NFL and the NHL for their decades of turning blind eyes to the fact that concussions were literally killing its players.

And so because of all that, I have rather strong opinions about concussions. On this blog, more than once, I have called for strictly enforced concussion protocols in cricket. My reason being that unless the game can prove to parents that it’s safe, than parents will stop letting their kids play. And the sport will slowly die even faster than it is already. (Hey, we’re all dying.)

But, for some reason, as I watched the protocols get enforced after Steve Smith was taken out by an Archer bouncer, I found myself questioning them. First of all, in this case, they were not very well enacted. How in the world was Smith allowed to stay out there after getting hit? And the concussion substitute — something I have called for in the past — just rubbed me the wrong way when I finally saw it in action. The game doesn’t allow for substitutes for any other injuries — just a couple weeks back England themselves had to play a man down after Anderson pulled up hurt — so why for concussions? It seems arbitrary and a little unfair. It’s even, if I dare, a violation of the spirit of cricket — a set of unenforced laws that help to keep the games as fair as possible for both sides. And the argument in favor of the concussion substitute — that players won’t try to hide concussion symptoms if they know a sub can be brought on — holds no water because he didn’t come off after getting hit.

And, so, again, cricket has a toothless law that solves nothing. But does that mean there should be no protocol at all? Hardly. There needs to be something. It is just very clear that this is not it. Unforunately, the ICC thinks it has now “done something” and so can wipe its hands of the matter and move on to money laundering or whatever they do in their spare time.

And that’s a shame. Because concussions can ruin careers. Can wreck marriages. Can lead to suicide. And this is where I waffle. Because in that sense they aren’t like other injuries. How many marriages have fallen apart because of torn ACLs? How many athletes have committed suicide because they pulled a calf muscle? So maybe we should allow the substitute, because concussions are different. Maybe the law when properly enforced will save careers and save lives. Maybe I should allow growing pains, for the umpires and the team doctors to get used to them. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

All I know is that it was really hard watching Smith bat after he got hit. It was obvious to everyone watching that he was not right. And the doctors and the umpires just let him languish out there, as his brain bled out in front of all us. Again, I don’t have the answer, I just know the answer is not that.

Cricket is a dangerous game. It always has been. I mean. Someone is literally throwing a ball at you. And the last thing I want is for that danger to be lessened. It should be dangerous, at least to some extent, otherwise it takes the teeth out of it. And I also want the game to be fair, as cricket’s fairness is its hallmark trait. And so maybe even just a slightly tinkered version of the law is all we need: you get hit in the head, you come off, no substitutes. That seems harsh, but I think that’s really the best way to keep the game moving forward. Because as mentioned, you need good concussion protocols. But what we have now just feels like a hackneyed PR move, instead of something that will actually A) keep the players safe and B) maintain the spirit of the game.

At the end of the day, brain injuries are evil. They ruin lives. And while I might not have a solution, I can say that the ICC’s is not there yet. But. It’s a step. And I can appreciate that.

Again, I waffle. And I hope Smith is okay. And that he is only allowed to play the next Test if fully approved by a neutral doctor. That I know for sure. You are young and a tremendous talent with a lot of great years at the crease ahead of you, Mr. Smith. Don’t let your ego derail your career.


Cricket for Americans: 15 Aug. 2019: The four day Test

The second match of the Ashes started this morning, one day late. Rain washed out the entire first day, and so it is now a four day Test, with a follow-on score of 150 (if a team fails, in their first innings, to get within 150 (normally 100) runs of their opponents, then their opponents can make them bat again immediately).

Four day Tests have been in the news a lot. The ICC likes them. Sponsors and television networks like them. But there is a lot of hand wringing among the cricket faithful, as five day Tests are tradition and shortening them is just another nail in Test cricket’s coffin, as the game stumbles into franchise Twenty20 oblivion.

But they are only half right.

The five day Test is the rule now — though that is changing as the ICC sprinkles in four day Tests — but it has not been for the entire existence of the format dating back to 1877. Not even close. it’s only been five days consistently since the 80s. Before that there were four day Tests and six day Tests (with a rest day). And going further back: prior to 1939 there were timeless Tests, where there was no limit on how many days it could go. The goal was just to producer a winner. There were 99 of them between 1877 and 1939, and during that time all Tests in Australia were timeless.

South Africa and England played the last timeless test in Durban in 1939, and it was the only one to finish in a draw, and is also the longest cricket match ever: 12 days with nine of those seeing play and the rest washed out due to weather. South Africa had set a score of 696 for England to chase down. They got all the way to 654 and had five wickets in hand, but they had to scurry off to catch their boat home. An interesting footnote to this story is that the England side featured Hedley Verity and Ken Farnes, both of whom were killed during World War Two. Verity was wounded in Sicily and taken prisoner, later dying on the Italian mainland. Farnes was a pilot and was killed when his plane crashed during an exercise near Oxfordshire.

All of this — including the anecdote above — goes to show that cricket is always changing, as is the rest of the world. It is okay to allow it to change, even if the reason behind that change — the almighty dollar, usually — is less than ideal. Cricket changes, evolves, and it does it to survive. Which it has. Most admirably. It has lasted through wars and its players dying in those wars and Kerry Packer and the underarm incident. It just keeps chugging away, adapting when it needs to, and chugging along some more. It’s really remarkable when you think about it. The game is night and day from what it was just 50 years ago. No other sport can say that, at least not to the degree that cricket can. And I see that as a strength not a weakness. A lot of games are far too overly reliant on tradition, to their own detriment. Cricket respects its traditions, but also understands that it’s okay to go against them, if the ever changing world requires it.

I didn’t mean to turn this into a defense of the four day Test. Mostly because I get the argument that shortening Tests is a dangerous road toward a slippery slope, and I often share that opinion, especially when it comes to the invasive species that is franchise T20 cricket. But I also have believe in cricket, in the sturdiness of the game to survive, evolve, and survive some more. And so I also welcome change, because that’s what cricket does. It changes. It’s what it’s always done. And 142 years later they are still playing Test cricket. You can’t argue with a stat like that.


The second Ashes Test starts tomorrow at Lord’s and it is imperative that England win. For if Australia win then England would need to win three straight Tests to regain the Ashes, and that is super hard to do. Not just because winning one Test isn’t easy against a decent Australia team much less three Tests, but because it depends on things like the weather too. One of those Tests could lose two whole days due to rain and force a draw. And so if we want a competitive series — and that’s all I really want here, for it to come down to the final ball of the 5th day of the final Test — then everyone but Australian supporters should be pulling for England, as difficult as that might be for some of you.

Even if England draw at Lord’s it’s a steep hill to climb, and not one I think they are capable of making. So: win at Lord’s or else.

The good news here is England have history on their side. Kind of.

As I mentioned on Twitter, England have not lost two straight matches at home in the same series since 2008 when South Africa came to town. And they have not drawn following a loss at home in the same series since 2012, also against South Africa.

Over the course of an entire English summer, they last time they drew at home following a loss was in 2014 where they lost to Sri Lanka in June and then drew with India in July.

Outside of home, for the record, the last time they lost two Tests in a row was only 18 months ago. Against Australia, in Australia, where they lost the first three matches of the Ashes at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Both squads look different now, of course, but not that different.

The last time they lost two in a row to Australia at home, however, was 18 years ago in 2001. A series most England fans would like to have Eternal Sunshined out of their heads forever. They lost two of the matches by an innings and in the first one England weren’t even close to making Australia bat a second time.

And because there have been some rather woeful England teams in the recent past, you have to go way back to 1993 to find a time where England drew Australia after a loss at home. You have to go way back because they simply lost so many damn matches. Poor bastards.

So what does this all mean? Well, basically, England are pretty good at not spiraling out of a series at home, except when they are playing Australia. And so like I said: England have history on their side, but only kind of. These teams are very well matched, and so with history not able to show us much, it’s pretty much a toss up.

Which brings us nicely to what I believe will be the decider at Lord’s: the coin toss. There have been 23 Ashes Tests in England since the summer of 2003. (I picked that date for it’s my opinion that that summer was more or less when the modern era of cricket began, as it was the summer the T20 debuted. It’s an arguable stance but an argument left for another day.) Of those 23 Ashes Tests in England, England won the toss 13 times. Of those 13 matches, they won seven of them. Giving them a batting average of .538 when winning the toss. Over the same course of time, they loss the toss eight times and won only two of those matches, giving them a batting average of an even .250.

And so winning the toss more than doubles England’s chances of winning.

If England win the toss, they will win the match. You heard it hear first. Tune in early.

Cricket for Americans: 12 Aug. 2019: The first pitch

A neat story out of Baltimore: yesterday a young cricketer threw out at the ceremonial first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles baseball game.

Lisa Ramjit — a bowler who helped the USA National Women’s team whitewash Canada in a three match T20 series in May — was announced to applause from both the dugouts and the crowd. And then threw a strike.

Maryland is a bit of a hotbed of youth cricket, and Ramjit, 14, has been playing organized cricket since she was seven years old. Maryland’s youth cricket program is the most successful in the US, especially when it comes to girls’ participation. There are over 100 girls playing organized cricket in Maryland. Sham Chotoo and the Bowie Boys and Girls Club did it by getting into the schools, getting kids excited, and making the game accessible to all who wanted to play. It’s a pretty great success story — with Ramjit being the cherry on top — and goes to show that cricket can work in America, it just takes a little work.

It will take more than just getting kids excited, of course, you will need buy in from parents, schools and local sponsors. But it starts with the kids. The rest can follow. The blueprint here is soccer. It started as a youth sport in the 1970s ( and of course with a smattering of professional leagues that burned out and faded away, but that was more of a novelty sideshow than anything really) and then those kids — I am one of them — grew up knowing about and caring about the game and then got older and got jobs and expendable income and then the 1994 Men’s World Cup was here and the USA Women won the World Cup for the first time in 1999 and then European leagues found a home on cable television and the rest is history.

MLS’s cumulative attendance for 2019 is over 6.2 million in 297 matches. It’s apples to oranges, of course, but for comparison in 760 matches during the 2018-19 Premier League season in England the cumulative attendance was 14.5 million.

I digress.

What’s next for the Ramjit and her US teammates? The Women’s T20 World Cup qualifying tournament in Scotland later this month. It’s an eight team field divided into two groups of four. The top two teams from each group play in the knock-out semi-final round, and the winners of those two matches qualify for the T20 World Cup held next year in Australia. No small prize.

The US plays a warm-up match against Thailand on August 29, then the group stage begins two days later. The other teams in US’s group are Bangladesh, Scotland and Papua New Guinea. Group B consists of Ireland, Thailand, Namibia and the Netherlands.

It’s hard to gauge the US’s chances in the tournament. They are ranked 37th in the world but have only played in four qualifying matches. To provide context, Thailand is ranked 11th but have played 40 T20s. The other teams in US’s group are ranked 9 (Bangladesh), 13 (Scotland) and 16 (PNG), but they have all played far more T20s than the US has. Either way, while the rankings are not perfect, they do show that it might be a struggle for the US to book a spot in Australia, but it’s not impossible.

And no matter what, just being there is a success story all on its own. Turn your American cricket eyes toward Maryland, as that’s where it’s all happening in youth cricket. In just seven short years, Lisa Ramjit went from a seven year old playing on converted baseball fields in Bowie, Maryland, to bowling in an ICC tournament against some of the best teams in the world. Just seven years. Remarkable. Is cricket starting to happen here? Maybe. Just maybe. And just like in soccer it’s the youth — and the women — leading the charge. I’ll take it.


Baltimore Sun article
Hat tip to Sarah Egger with the Maryland Youth Cricket Association



Just for one day

Hashim Amla retired this week.

He was quiet, and devout, and unassuming, and could bat for days, and do it with an air of serene and calm. So he was of course a favorite of mine. I remember his triple century at the Oval a few years back. That is probably my favorite Amla memory. It was during the holy month of Ramadan so the rumor was that he fasted throughout his innings. I am not sure if I entirely believe that or not. I am sure he had water and vitamins and maybe a banana. But it adds to his legend: that he could bat for days and still sacrifice for his religion. God, then cricket.

Making his Test debut in 2004, and his ODI debut a few years later, puts him firmly in my list of cricketers that I came of age with as a cricket fan. And this week he became the latest to retire, alongside his South African teammate, Dale Steyn. There are so few left now, that I cannot help but feel a little wistful for the Pontings, the Cooks, the Dravids, the Amlas. All those giants of the game, all gone. And that’s just the tip of the retirement iceberg. Gayle will go soon. As will Jimmy Anderson maybe. And MS Dhoni is on his way out. Sure, cricket is filled with young, exciting crickets — some of whom actually play red ball cricket and play it well — Shimron Hetmyer springs to mind, so does Babar Azam — but it won’t be the same.

At the 2007 World Cup, the England ODI squad featured the likes of Michael Vaughn, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Kevien Pietersen, and Monty Panesar. India featured Dravid, and Tendulkar, and Sehwag, and Kumble. The players aren’t just unrecognizable these days, the game itself is, as the old guard moves on, and the T20 generation takes charge. That’s not to say that the change is a negative one, just that it is a change. And the fear here is that players like Amla, like Dravid, will never come back, as there just isn’t a place for that style in cricket any longer. Cricket awards not just the big bash, but the flamboyant, the loud, the angry, the emotive. Amla would simply walk onto the pitch, pray, and bat for days. I am going to miss him.

And I miss all the players from the generation previous. The last generation to cut their teeth before the T20 existed. Who only knew first class cricket and one day cricket. Who learned to bat and bowl with the Test being the pinnacle of the game. When the County Championship was no longer an after thought. When domestic competitions looked like Australia’s Shield and India’s Ranji Trophy bred Test cricketers not T20 specialists. When Tests still sold out stadiums. Those days are gone. For better or for worse, they are gone.

I get that I sound like an old man screaming into the void about the good old days. And to some extent I agree that I am. But I also think we are in a bit of a cricketing golden age. Sure, there are problems, but the Test still exists and in some cases is even thriving. We had a great World Cup. The US cricket team has ODI status. The women’s game isn’t just thriving but transcending. As is the youth game in the US. The T20 is keeping counties and clubs in the black. The players are well cared for with concussion protocols and the like. And the cricket is still exciting, and entertaining, and the battles on the field are well fought and as mentioned there is a whole host of young cricketers who seem to genuinely love the game. And in England a whole generation of young people watched Ben Stokes bat in the World Cup final and went out into their gardens to emulate their hero.

So instead of railing against the inevitable passage of time and the change that comes with it, I am more mourning the simple passage of time, of the mean fact that we all age, and our heroes age faster, somehow, disappear, fade away. And when are heroes are gone, what is left? When I first started following cricket, the best player in the world was probably Jacque Kallis. He is my age. All the aging cricketers are around my age. And so watching them retire and fall away is another reminder of my own mortality, my own desperate stumble away from relevancy in a world that moves so fast. All the players now are young with light still in their eyes. Hetmyer is 22. Azam, 24. Babies. And they can’t be my heroes because of that. I can respect them, and admire their talent, but once you reach 40, the age of the hero has passed you by.

Hero is defined as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” And so while it seems silly to call cricketers my heroes, it fits. In July of 2012, when Hashim Amla walked out into the Oval and batted all day and then some — all while fasting — he was my hero. And now he is gone,. Along with all the rest, never to return.

I have heroes outside of cricket, of course. Politicians, authors, directors, leaders — sometimes the occasional musician like, I don’t know, Jeff Tweedy or Thom Yorke or Beyonce — people who have transcended their genre. Geniuses. And also people I know in my day to day life, people with qualities that I wish to emulate, to see in myself. My mother and her selflessness, for instance, or my sister and her courage, or my boss who not just a spirited and challenging leader, but she is also one of the smartest people I know. And my heroes are the people that no matter how dark the world is, can see joy in everything, and everyone, despite political party, or any other doctrine.

But sports heroes are different, just like sports are different, are not real life. In sports our heroes are sometimes more fictional than characters in novels. And so, in that sense, more heroic. They seem, in their moment, in their prime, ageless, like they could bat forever. But then they age, and they break down, and they leave, and you are left with memories and the dust of those memories, and with the insistent albeit tender reminder that time is passing, and there’s nothing we can do to slow it down.

Amla was a joy. And now he is gone. And with him so much that once was, in cricket and everywhere else. The world has moved on, and there is no going back.

God speed, you glorious batsman, you hero. They broke the mould, though I desperately wish they hadn’t.

Good news for people who love bad news

There is always so much bad news in cricket.

Sometimes it’s on the field. Like, the World Cup final. It was easily the most entertaining ODI in recent memory — maybe the greatest ever — yet it was still marred by controversy: bad umpiring, weird rules. Etc.

A lot of times, though, it is off the field. Which is even more of a shame. It feels like whenever I visit the home page of Cricinfo, the lead story has nothing to do what’s happening in an actual cricket game. Of course, this is true for all sports, as they are all 10% action and 90% chitter chatter, but in cricket it feels like the news is always bad, always disheartening, always a reason to turn away from the game: the player protest at the Global T20 in Canada, terrible umpiring, corruption in Zimbabwe which might end up killing the game there, USA Cricket mucking up the country’s first ODI’s on home soil, and the list goes on. And that’s just today.

Even the good stories — Jofra Archer torching the opposition in a Second XI fixture — is tainted, as just when England need to have players involved in red ball cricket, it’s the time of the summer when the ECB makes it abundantly clear that it only cares about white ball cricket. Just one more nail in the coffin of the game’s best format from the country that invented it.

And yesterday morning I read an inspiring story about former Indian spinner, Maninder Singh. At least, it was inspiring at first. A person hitting bottom and then bouncing back. But then I read some of the responses to the piece and I saw the dark side of the story. Singh was touted as the second coming, the spinner to save India, but the BCCI threw him into the deep end too early, and it nearly killed him. All that talent — almost bottomless talent it seems — and potential and youth, all wasted.

Where is the good news, cricket? Where are the good stories? The ones that keep us coming back? They happen on the field, occasionally, but more and more often the stories on the field are about soulless franchise leagues and cash grabs by national boards. But a long time ago I wrote a post about the little things in cricket, the small moments, the ones that sometimes pass without us really knowing they happened, we are only aware of their essence. A certain long shadow late in the day. A quiet moment where the batsmen share a laugh at the center. One good ball in a spell of mostly bad balls. That sound when the ball hits the wickets. Or hits the pad plum on. A fielder getting his helmet and his box and moving to silly point because the captain or the bowler saw something. One smooth and perfect cover drive after a half dozen maidens on a quiet day in an empty stadium.

Cricket is a beautiful game. I love watching it. All of it. And that’s because of the moments above. Those are the moments that keep us coming back every single day. It’s so easy to lose sight of them, to only see the big picture, but to keep coming back we have to keep looking for the small moments. Or at least let our minds be open enough to let them pass through us. If we keep looking for the big stories, we will only find bad news, because the good news only happens on the field, and most of that news is little moments of time where for a split second everything is perfect. Cricket gives us those every single match, several times a match. There’s always good news, it’s just sometimes it’s not obvious. It’s not shouting at you, or demanding your attention with lights and rock music and strobe lights. You have to look. And so when you see it, it’s that more rewarding.

It’s another one of cricket’s gifts. It doesn’t need to shout, it just is.

And so whenever the news on Cricinfo gets too depressing, I think about this.