Test 4, Day 5

Summer’s over.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough. Australia were too good, and as the Cricinfo commentator astutely pointed out, you always felt like England had lost one wicket more than they needed to see out the day.

And that’s the Ashes. Sure, there’s still the 5th test, and the chance for England to level the series and save a little face, but the teeth will be out of the game. Australia will rest players, especially those who played both the World Cup and all four Tests. And hopefully for England’s sake they give a couple other guys a chance, as the autopsy on the Test team begins now.

The ECB has prioritized white ball cricket for four years now. And the result is what you saw today in Manchester: a batting lineup that just isn’t good enough. One can of course point to the loss of Jimmy Anderson — losing their best bowler and forcing them to play the game one man down — but he’s just one man, and he’s not a batsmen. For me, England bowled pretty well throughout the series. And if not for Steve Smith, they might have restricted some of those big Aussie totals.

Speaking of: Smith is surely Man of the Series. Rarely do you see one person dominate three out of four Tests. But that’s exactly what he did. It was a joy to watch. He is a talent of the highest order. And a Test batsmen of the highest order. Patient, calm, yet also aggressive, violent. A champion. One who bats when his country needs him most. In the three Tests that he played in, Australia scored a total of 1,858 runs. Smith scored 672 of them. More than a third of the team total. Remarkable.

Are the results different if Smith sits and Anderson plays? Maybe. Almost definitely.

But there’s no changing things now. It’s all done and dusted. Australia home and hosed. Just a few more days cricket and then that big boat home where they will await Pakistan in November.

England, for their part, head to New Zealand in October for five T20s and two Tests. Those Tests are not under the World Test Championship umbrella, and so the popular notion is that they will rest their busiest players. Which means we’ll won’t be able to see if any major adjustments have been made until they play South Africa on Boxing Day.  That should be a fun series either way.

Now summer is over. Winter looms large. Soon it will be dark at dinner time and I’ll be watching Pakistan play Australia as a sharp north wind rattles my storm windows. The soundtrack for this summer has been city white noise through the open windows of my porch. The sunlight angled and dappled and low. But in the winter it will be plows out on the main road outside my window. The radiators ticking. And I will keep warm watching the shirtsleeves and green grass at the Sydney Cricket ground.

Cricket is relentless. It just keeps happening. Summer is over, sure, but it also never ends.

On to the next one then.

See ya there.

Test 4, Day 4: Bat all day

Bat all day.

That’s what England needs to do. And they have eight wickets to do it.

There’s really nothing I love more in a Test match then when a team is tasked with batting all day, and somehow they manage to pull it off.

All day. From 11 in the morning until the early evening. Just keep batting. Stay alive. That’s all you need to do. This isn’t about winning. This is about survival.

And I identify with that. Especially now. That’s life, for lots of people, including me: bat all day. Don’t worry about scoring runs, just get through to stumps. You don’t need a miracle, or to hit a double century, just block, just parry, just deflect, just defend; see out the overs, and get back into the clubhouse.

It’s harder than it sounds. For England it’s almost impossible, having already lost Root and Burns. But it always seems impossible for me too. And so tomorrow I will be rooting for England. I know I will probably wake up at 6:30 a.m. central US time — just before lunch in Manchester — and England will already be three or four or five down, but I will still be there in their corner tomorrow. I cheer for survival, for getting through the day, and that’s all England needs to do: survive, get through. Live to fight.

And I hope they do. I hope they are down to single digit deliveries remaining late in the day, hanging on by two wickets, or even one, Sunday afternoon just before twilight, and they find a way to hang on. And we all go to the Oval next week with the Ashes still in play. It’s the theater of sport at its zenith.

Bat all day. Just get through, You don’t have to win. You just have to make it through. Gracefully, not so gracefully, just to get the other side.

Bat all day.

Bat all day.

It’s what I say to myself every morning as I am lying in bad watching as the black sky turns to gray.

Bat all day. Earn the draw. Survive. Get through.

Cricket, more than any other sport, mirrors our every day.

Until tomorrow.

 

20 years on

**I occasionally use this space to write about stuff that isn’t cricket, feel free to ignore.**

***

20 years ago next month. October 1999. Upper Michigan.

The Becker cottages. Two miles down Dukes Road from the tiny village of Moran, an hour north of the bridge. Down a narrow lane with forest on the right and cabins and lake on the left. Two cottages halfway down the lane. A red garage abutting the road. The cottages blue and near the lake. Small. Three rooms and a porch each, mirroring each other. A rocky shoreline leftover from a concrete boardwalk that existed when logging money made the lake a destination. All that money left in the 60s. Now it’s fishermen and middle class families and a choppy lake.

We were up there to hunt. My brother, my two uncles, and my older uncle’s two sons. We would walk through the woods for hours with cans of beer and loaded shotguns and look for birds with the dogs. Never seeing a single one. All the shooting we would do would be at our empty beer cans. I had been coming up to the cottages since I was tiny. But those trips were always during high summer. The lake warm and hot dogs over an open fire and mosquitos like clouds of smoke and s’mores and falling asleep with the windows open, the sound of the waves hitting the rocks lulling you to sleep.

But October was different. The sky was heavy with gray cloud, reflecting in the lake, taking away its blue, leaving it brown and dark. It would rain and the winds would whip  straight through you. Your hands raw on your gun. Thankful for your long underwear. The cabins warmed at night with space heaters and wool blankets.

The third afternoon it was too wet too hunt. It had rained all night with more in the forecast. And the wind was heavy out of the north. We would hang around the cottages with beer instead. And later head into town for more beer and to watch baseball and have dinner. It sounded, to me, far better than spending the afternoon with damp feet in the damp woods.

My older uncle had purchased kayaks earlier that fall. And on a whim my younger cousin and my younger uncle took them out of the garage and out onto the the lake. The shallows calm despite the wind. Whitecaps out past the drop off. They went out 50 yards. Then 100. My older uncle was worried. Out on the lake nearing the drop off in upper Michigan in October. The lake would be frozen over in a few short weeks. Rolling one of those kayaks would mean disaster. The cold lake would suck the life right out of you. But cockiness ruled the day. “We’re going to the dam, meet us there,” my cousin yelled to us back on the shoreline.

We got in a car and took it up the lane to the overgrown two track that weaved and bobbed through to the dam on the far side of the lake. It was a 30 minute drive. Potholed and mud stained. Watching for trappers coming out of the woods. We pulled up to the dam at the mouth of the Carp River where it emptied into the lake. It was flat and empty and there were cold damp fire pits and ancient beer cans. We walked to the edge overlooking the lake and there were my cousin and uncle, paddling up through the quiet waters in the shelter of the bay. We met them on the shoreline.

My younger cousin and my older cousin’s lifelong rivalry inspired my older cousin to want to kayak back from the dam to the cottages, despite my older uncle’s protests. And I was drafted to go a long with him. My brother couldn’t believe it. I never did anything like that. I always took the safe route. But there I was, in a kayak, my older cousin to my left, on the lake in October under a gray sky.

We go out into the lake and the wind picked up and with it came the chop. I had never been in a kayak before. The wind and the current pushed us off course, causing us to constantly re-correct, slowing us down. It was hard work. We were in the middle of the lake. Shore was 100s of yards off. Fighting the wind and the current, those two ancient enemies. The water was cold. In the spray from my cousin’s paddle I could feel just how cold it was. Fear crept in. We were working too hard. It was too difficult to stay on course. I didn’t have a life vest on. I wondered if I could swim to shore if I rolled the kayak. Or if I would freeze to death before reaching safety. My life felt on the edge. My hands were raw with cold and fear, numb against the paddle, catching crabs in the waves, slowing me down.

Home was still so far off. I thought about suggesting to my cousin that we head to the closest shore, to our right, thick with birch and pine, and find our way home via land. But I kept my mouth shut. My cousin was older and braver and would never let his younger brother best him at anything. He kept checking his watch, hoping we would beat their time across. I kept quiet. Kept paddling.

Then the cottages with their familiar sky blue paint, became visible. Two dots in the distance. We paddled toward them. The current becoming friendlier. It was going to be okay. And I thought to myself: what a thing I have done. What an accomplishment. I paddled across a freezing lake in upper Michigan in October. Effort and danger and overcoming. Things are going to be different for me now, I thought. I am going to be better. Everything is going to be better. I am going to figure it all out. I was a college drop out living in a filthy studio apartment overlooking an interstate and answering phones at a financial firm to pay the bills and buy beer. But now, things were going to be different. I had proven to myself that I could do better than I had.

We passed the drop off and moved into calmer waters. At a sandbar you could see the lakebed. My cousin hit the shore first, pulling his kayak up the narrow rocky boat landing in front of the cottages. He jumped out and grabbed the nose of my kayak and pulled me onto shore. My legs were aching. I couldn’t stand up. He hoisted me up and out of the boat by the armpits. He shook my hand. We were buoyant. We had done it. Beaten the wild. Things were going to be different.

Two weeks later I went to a Halloween party in uptown Minneapolis that I wasn’t supposed to go to. I was in line for the bathroom. A woman came out with a blue wig and leather pants and a mesh shirt. “Did you wash your hands?” I asked. Later she would give me her phone number written in marker on a hair ribbon. Our first date would be two days later.

And then things did get better. Things were different. It was years before I linked the two events. The kayak, the Halloween party. But I had been right. I had paddled across a lake and then met someone who made it better, less lonely, easier. It took me years to realize it because that’s how life changes. Slowly. Over time. Like a river eroding away its banks. It wasn’t a lightning bolt of change and better, which is what I was looking for, it was quieting down, realizing what’s important, finding joy in the small things. So often we mistakenly give ourselves all the credit for the changes in our lives, but more often than not it’s not us, it’s the kindness of those around us. That’s what that kayak across that lake gave me: someone who was kind to me. I had proven something to myself, and given myself the confidence to talk to the pretty girl in the blue wig at the party and allow her to make it all better.

Years later I would be back in a kayak on the same lake. But it would be high summer, and the kayaks the open kind for kids on beaches. My wife and I would take them out just past the drop off and play in the waves, our old dog watching impatiently from the shore. The sun warm. The water warm. The sky blue forever. Life can change so quickly. You meet someone and the world starts to spin in a different way. But somehow you don’t even notice. Even though you had just kayaked across a lake in October in upper Michigan and told yourself things were going to be different. We don’t see the change. We don’t see the good. We don’t link the kayak to the Halloween party until it’s far, far too late.

Test 4, Day 3 — Only Test, Day 2

It was a fun day of Test cricket today. At Old Trafford in Manchester, there was rain early but there was a lovely middle session powered by a Root, Burns partnership, followed by some downright ruthless fast bowling from a downright ruthless Hazelwood which reduced England to 200 for 5 — 297 runs behind, needing 98 to avoid a follow-on — in the evening session before play was abandoned for the day due to poor light.

I am not sure what impressed me more, the partnership or Hazelwood’s bowling. The latter’s run-in might be the fastest I have ever seen. He looks like a sprinter. And it sounded like a mortar shot when he castled Roy. But the partnership was so steady, they built a solid foundation with good defense and then opened up to score some runs — Root leaving on 71 off of 168 and Burns — who batted so well during the tricky evening session the day before — leaving on 81 off of 185.

But it just wasn’t good enough. Today England desperately needed someone in their top five to bat and bat and bat, and score and score and score, and they just don’t have anyone that can really do that anymore. And so now they are back where they were at Headingley: hoping and praying that Stokes can pull another rabbit out of his hat and earn a draw to save the game and keep the series alive. It’s not impossible, but I don’t see it happening, not with the relentless Aussie quicks interspersed with Lyon’s spin and he was making the ball move all over the place in the breeze today.

England’s other prayer has to be to Mother Nature. Unfortunately, it’s not looking great for them, as the forecast for tomorrow and Sunday calls for a mix of clouds and sun with highs in the 60s. If it does rain, you will witness one of those weirdo cricket things when the fans will applaud for every drop, in the hope that there’s a deluge and England pull a draw from the clenched jaws of almost certain defeat. That’s right, English cricket fans who paid good money to be at the game would rather drink beer under a overhang during a downpour than lose to Australia.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, fledgling Test nation Afghanistan have the hosts on the ropes, with Bangladesh trailing by 148 runs with only two wickets left in hand in the first innings. Unlike England, Bangladesh has avoided the follow-on, but Afghanistan’s bowlers have ripped through their batting order like it was made of paper.

One of cricket’s best stories, Afghanistan have only played three Tests — including this one — and have won one with what looks to be another win on the way. They are a long way from being openly competitive with the big boys — though I bet they could hold their own with this England side (ouch) — but they are getting better and better and better.

The match in Bangladesh is on in the middle of the night on my watch, which is a shame, as I would totally tune in. I am going to try and stay up late tonight and at least watch as Afghanistan knocks off Bangladesh’s tail.

Now the question must be asked: who is in a better position to eke out a draw, Bangladesh or England? It’s a toss up, really, but if I was a betting man (I’m not) then my money would be on Bangladesh. England look lost, bored, and have won just one session during the three days of this fourth Test.

Until tomorrow.

Test 4, Day 2

Steve Smith.

Today was his day. He and whomever his partner was at the crease overwhelmed England, especially during the second session, the session in which the Ashes were more or less lost for the hosts. England were ineffectual and looked downright bored with it all. Maybe too much cricket for them this summer? Maybe it’s the cold/damp weather? Maybe it’s the lack of first class cricket under their belts? Probably a combination therein. Mostly, though, Steve Smith is playing out of his mind. No one can stand his way right now.

He scored 211 which gave him 589 runs for the calendar year. The most among all Test batsmen. And he didn’t start playing international cricket again until the first Ashes test a few short weeks ago. Ben Stokes has scored the second most Test runs this calendar year, but he has batted in 12 Test innings to Smith’s four. Smith is averaging over 147 runs over those four innings, but his strike rate is a conservative (but still really great for Tests) 65.01 which goes to show he’s not just slogging and getting lucky. It’s almost unbelievable. A fairy tale. Remarkable. And it’s all at England’s expense. Because they are the only team he has played.

Australia finally declared at 497 with two wickets in hand, forcing England’s openers to bat out the last 45 minutes of the day in tricky, fading light. And it worked. Denly fell after only seeing 24 balls, forcing England to send in the nightwatchman for the second time in this series.

Now England have no choice but to try to bat for two whole days. Do you see that happening? Neither do I. Over the last 12 months, only seven England batsmen have scored centuries. And three of them aren’t playing in this Test. While during the same time period, Stokes is the only player to average over 40 in Tests. But scoring isn’t the most important thing over these last two days. It’s simply staying out there. And for all players in all Tests over the last 12 months, Joe Root is the only England batsmen in the top 10 for balls faced (1,352).

Of course, stats are not everything here. England might be a little weak at the crease, but they are still a Test playing nation. Root, Stokes, Bairstow and even Buttler to smaller extent are all proven Test batsmen. And Burns proved earlier in the series that he has it in him too. They are not dead yet, to paraphrase Monty Python. But the vultures are circling, and those vultures are named Cummins, Starc, Hazelwood and Lyon. And stats aside again, it’s rather crystal clear now that Steve Smith’s absence is just about the only reason the visitors lost the Headingley Test, and England only did it thanks to a lightning strike of an innings from one player.

Buckle in and bat all day, England. Or it’s curtains. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.

Until tomorrow.

Test 4, Day 1

What a weird day.

It rained, of course, as we all knew it would. It’s Manchester in September. What’s the old adage? “If you can’t see the hills, that means it’s raining; if you can see the hills, it’s about to rain.” Or something like that.

The day started off in the sun though. The toss was on time and Australia chose to have a bat. Broad took two early wickets, including that of a very hapless and helpless David Warner, but Smith (who looks to be on the edge of another decent knock) and Labuschagne settled in and parried most of what England had to throw at them. But not what Mother Nature threw at them. Off and on the batsmen came, as the rains came and went. It would thunder down and then be dry and the outfield would be soaked and the light would be bad. The wind blew. The bails came off. Trash littered the ground. Maiden over after maiden over after maiden over. It “all went a bit village” as the Cricinfo commentator put it so eloquently. Late in the day, Overton took Labuschagne’s wicket — clean bowled — but then the rain came back and even though the sun came out the outfield was too wet so play was abandoned.

An inauspicious start to the fourth Test. Right now, it has draw written all over it. The forecast calls for rain tomorrow and Friday.

England has to win one of these matches, and so losing almost a half day’s cricket today was not ideal. Australia, for their part, have to be feeling pretty good right now. A nice stand, Smith at the crease, after surviving a tricky bunch of overs in the northwest wind and the northwest dark. Of course, Tests rarely, it seems, go for the full five days now, so they are not out of the woods yet. That’s speaking anecdotally, of course, but it feels like most matches only go four days now, or even three. A few quick wickets for England in the early session tomorrow and some clear weather (stop laughing) and we could very get a result.

But honestly I think for the next few days the story is going to be Steve Smith and rain. Rain and Steve Smith. Rinse. Repeat.

A weird day. A nothing day. A disappointing day. A wet day. Cricket isn’t always late afternoon heroics, sometimes it’s the teams in their clubhouses, playing cards while playing out a draw, as the rain beats down. We would all prefer the former, of course, but the latter is part of the game, too. Sure, we could put cricket in a dome, but then you lose the long shadows (I love the long shadows). Sure, we could move all Test matches to the UAE, but the US just had a match there rained out earlier this year. It’s simply part of the game, rain. The worst part — or one of the worst parts — but still a part. And like Longfellow wrote, behind the clouds, the sun is always shining. Some days are dreary, but that’s just how it works. “Into every life a little rain must fall.” Into every cricket match a little rain must fall. It’s how we appreciate it when it doesn’t.

Until tomorrow.

With ticker tape, ticker tape

Yesterday was the last day of summer.

In the United States it was anyway. And it’s of course a traditional last day rather than an actual last day. In the past, when we lived in a more agrarian society, school started the day after Labor Day so kids could spend as much time helping out on the farm as possible. Now that’s obsolete, and most schools start in mid-to-late August. Still, though, traditionally if unofficially, Labor Day is the last day of summer. Neighborhoods go quiet during the days. Traffic picks up. Work gets busy again. The whole vibe of the world changes. And with that change comes the melancholy of autumn, of missing yet another summer, of time and life passing you by. There’s this sense of a winding down, of loss, of aging.

And as summer slowly fades into fall, the Summer of Cricket fades away too. India’s entertaining tour of the West Indies has come to a close. New Zealand and Sri Lanka only have the one T20 left. The Ashes has life in it, and there’s hope there, and the County Championship goes for another few weeks. But we are in the falling action now. It’s slipping through our fingers.

Tomorrow is September 4th. That means it will have been 16 months since I left home. It feels like yesterday. It feels like a million years ago. And with each minute that passes it’s a another step away from the life I knew. It’s like my heart is slowly being peeled. With each season that drifts past, it gets harder. Never easier. That’s not how it all works. Our grief maybe gets smaller, but it also intensifies. Nick Cave — who knows a thing or two about grief — said that “if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined.” It’s not until I started writing this that I thought about that. There’s a reason I grieve for the life I walked away from.

I keep grasping for things that will help keep summer alive. The baseball season has a full month left. There are those two Ashes Tests mentioned above. Plus County Cricket. And for a lot of my readers, summer isn’t ending, it’s around the corner. In Australia, the AFL playoffs are happening, a sure sign of winter’s end. And even after the English summer ends, there’s still more cricket. There’s always more cricket. The summer never ends for cricket. But maybe I would be better off not fighting against the inevitable passage of time. “The sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” The seasons change, they always change, it’s how it all works, and as long as the world is spinning, we are moving ahead.

One year ago yesterday I wrote that “summer never came, and now it’s already gone.” One year ago today I wrote about Alistair Cook and change. A year. I want to say that the person who wrote those posts is now unrecognizable, but he’s not. Loyal readers will know that I write about summer’s end all the time. I looked back at those posts from Septembers gone by just now and there is melancholy but also hope — hope for a short winter, an early spring. That is who I find unrecognizable now. The person who looked at summer’s end and said: it’s fine, we’ll be fine. In September of 2014 we went to see The Replacements at Midway Stadium and it was a perfect night. I have not had a perfect night in so long. Everything is covered in a lead blanket. I used to dance in the kitchen, I don’t do that anymore.

Cricket is an old game. And it has chugged along for a century and a half. Through wars and plagues and depressions. It just keeps going. People have said it was dying since it was born. But that’s true for all of us. The minute we are born, we start dying. But cricket decided to subscribe to Red from Shawshank Redemption’s philosophy: we can either get busy living, or get busy dying. Cricket decided to live, and live it has. There’s a lesson there. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Or something like that. But that’s the advice that is so easy to give out, and so hard to actually take to heart and act on. I want to be okay, but I am not okay.

Last year’s “end of summer” post did end with hope. I paraphrased Hanif Abdurraqib: “Today I am sad. But tomorrow I might not be.” That’s the definition of hope. But I don’t have that anymore. Summer is slipping away, and might not ever come back, and I feel like I am going to be sad forever.

But summers do come back. They always come back. There’s always a second innings. I understand that intellectually, but trying to catch it in my hands is impossible. Summer is ending, and it’s so hard. I don’t want it to end. More than anything, I want it to stay. But even though I might not believe that it’s going to come back, it will happen. At a U2 concert a few years back, Bono said that “there’s no end to grief, that’s how we know there’s no end to love.” While that might be true for grief, it’s not true for everything. We know sadness doesn’t last forever, because happiness didn’t last forever.

Summer will come back.

Today, though, I am not ready to say goodbye to yet another summer. There are two Tests left in the Ashes. 10 days of cricket, if we’re lucky. So summer is still alive, at least for now. That’s what I am choosing to believe. Summer is still here because of this great game. A quiet arm on our shoulder giving us a short stay of execution before the leaves fall and the light in the evening fades. It might be 60 degrees and raining in Manchester, but it’s still summer, because there’s still cricket.