Robbie and Stuart

It’s day three of the third Test between South Africa and England at Port Elizabeth. The match started in the middle of the night on my watch. That nothing time when it’s still the night before but also when it’s already the next morning. 3 a.m. or so. When the world still isn’t sure what it wants to be. Night still has it in its ceaseless grip, but there is already a disruption in the stillness of the hour previous that cannot help but speak of morning, Sometimes in this strange hour, I lie awake and take comfort in the fact that cricket is happening somewhere. Somewhere there is something as soft and light and perfect as people dressed in white playing a game on an expanse of green under a warm sun.

It was around three in the morning a few days when my dog got me out of bed. He hadn’t been feeling quite right: drinking too much water, not eating his food. And he had to get outside to take care of what was obviously an urgent need. I live in an apartment and I couldn’t fathom him having an accident on the landlord’s nice hardwood floors, so I got up and put long underwear on and a hat and a sweater and jeans and socks and boots and a winter jacket and I put his harness on him and hooked up his leash and told him he was a good boy and we went out the backdoor onto the porch where he would hang out with me in the summer as I read and down the backstairs into the alley and the snow was dirty and cold and the whole world was dark but there was a hint of traffic and we walked around the quiet block and he went to the bathroom the required amount of times and we hustled back inside and I gave him treats and told him he was a good boy again and stripped off my clothes and crawled back into the still warm bed. And then it was night again. And we slept.

**

My ex-wife and I had adopted Robbie in the fall of 2012. England were touring India. On Nov. 15 India battered their visitors and won by nine wickets. Eight days later England returned the favor, one-upping their hosts and winning by 10 wickets. Every England fan remembers that second game. After India put up a par score of 327 in their first innings, England came to bat just before lunch. And then Alistair Cook batted out the rest of the day. All while I slept. He was calm and patience. A captain. It took 134 deliveries for him to reach his half century. He gave England what they needed: time.

I remember waking up with the dog after Cook’s innings. A Sunday morning, 2012. It wasn’t 3 a.m. like last week, but a more reasonable hour, when night was all but gone, and the day was fully in charge. Robbie was young and full of life and everything seemed okay. I checked the Test score on my phone as he wandered his new yard in search of the smell that would give him impetus to go. I saw that Cook had batted all night. And I smiled.

That was more than seven years ago. So much has happened since. The England XI that day looked like this: Cook, Compton, Trott, Pietersen, Bairstow, Patel, Prior, Broad, Swann, Anderson and Panesar. On the other side India sported the likes of Gambhir and Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni and of course the great Tendulkar, still a full year away from retirement. Those teams are almost unrecognizable today, just seven short trips around the sun later. That’s how much change there has been in cricket. Which only hints at the amount of change in my life, in your life, in all our lives. In 2012 we had just reelected President Obama. Today we are two days away from President Trump completing three of his four years in the Oval Office.

Time. Change. Life.

Through it all, through everything, through divorce and hardship and new jobs and new presidents and retirements and World Cups and moves and sadness and joy — through it all, everything — Robbie has been there. Quiet, sweet Robbie. A stable rock in a sea of change. His calm eyes guiding me home to a place that was safe and okay.

**

On Sunday night around 10 p.m. Robbie came stumbling out of the back bedroom. We had been watching a movie. He was shaking and panting. He threw up. And he kept shaking and panting. It was snowing outside. There was a 24 hour emergency vet just down the street. My partner went down and cleaned the cold, white snow off of her car. I put on Robbie’s harness and connected his leash and told him that he was a good boy. There was still light in his eyes. He seemed to be excited to be going somewhere. We went out to the porch and down the stairs just like we had countless times in the last 18 months. I led him to my partner’s running car and opened the back door. But he was shaking too hard to get up onto the seat. So I picked him up and put him in the back and he turned around and lay down and felt almost immediately asleep.

I will spare you the detail. There was a gall stone, and a tear in his pancreas, and nodes in his stomach and bile in places where there shouldn’t be. He stayed the night at the vet’s, we went back to our apartment. In the morning my ex-wife went to see him. He was going in for his ultrasound soon. Shortly before noon my ex-wife called me and told me that we were going to have to put him down. I kicked a chair. And cried out in anger. It was not the reaction I expected. Anger. But that’s what it was.

I met her there. The vet led him into a little room with us and a blanket and a couch and we sat with him and told him that we loved him and he seemed confused and drugged up and he looked a thousand years old. We cried and wailed and questioned. When we were ready the vet came in. He had an IV in his little ankle. The vet game him a muscle relaxant and a tranquilizer and then a third shot that would be his last. She put a stethsocope to his heart, and a few seconds later he was gone. We said goodbye. And left him laying there. On the cold ground. Silenced. Just a shell growing quickly cold, his spirit releasing into the ether.

Dear, sweet Robbie. The only constant in a world of change. Gone forever. It was — and still is — an incomprehensible loss.

Today at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at the bottom of the world, England trotted out a completely different XI players than they did against India in 2012. Except for one: Stuart Broad.

Through all of that change mentioned above, Robbie had been there, but now he is gone. But Broad is still here, a memory of a memory of a time gone by. When Robbie was young. When I was young. When the whole world was young.

My dog is gone, and I can’t believe it, and I miss him so much. But just like many other times in my life since 2007, I find a slight, almost imperceptible comfort in the sport of cricket. For while the whole world has changed — even Robbie, the one constant for the last seven years of upheaval, is gone — Stuart Broad is still there. Still steaming in, all blond and quick. Many sports have players playing today that also were playing in 2012, but how many are playing for the same team, in the same uniform? Stuart Broad is. Still running in for England, in the stark whites, taking wickets for his country. And that is one more reason why cricket rises to the top: the dominance of the international game means men and women wear the same kits, with the same teammates, in the same home grounds, for years. Sometimes decades. A part of sport that no longer exists.

I know it is silly — maybe even a little odd — to take comfort today in the fact that Stuart Broad is bowling for England in South Africa this weekend. But when loss hits home, you take comfort where you can find it. Life has been all change, but through it all, Broad has been there. And I will hang onto that for as long as I can. And I will remember Robbie circling his new backyard seven years ago last fall, and how the night before Cook had batted all night long, while Stuart Broad — 26 year old Stuart Broad already somehow a seasoned veteran — sat in the clubhouse in Mumbai, 2020 a million miles from his mind. The same Stuart Broad that is still there today, in his England whites, a static presence in a blanket of difference.

Cricket is the giving tree, always providing some new comfort, all we have to do is look. History and time march on, but cricket is always there, and sometimes the same players are there, too, despite all the change, all the loss, we can still tune into a Test match and remember that some things are the same, that some things haven’t changed. We take peace where we can find it, and today I am finding it in the 11 overs bowled by a young man who doesn’t even know my name, who has always been there, and might be there for just a little while longer.

Life is change. But not always. And Stuart Broad has reminded me of that.

God speed, Robbie. You were a king among dogs. You were the best of all of us. You taught me patience, and resilience, and that to forgive is to love. I miss you more than I will ever be able to say.

And God bless you, Stuart Broad, thanks for still being there under blue skies.

IMG_7219

Give flowers to the living

I have been playing the game Go a lot lately. My partner, Liz, picked up a board that a friend was giving away, we pulled it out, played for literally like 30 seconds, and I was hooked.

It’s an old game, and I like all things old. And it’s nearly limitless in its possibilities and its room for magic. 361 pieces, 361 spaces on the board to the play them. And you can play them anywhere, at any time. There are no rules like chess that dictate what pieces can play where and how and when, all the pieces are the same and they can all do anything. The games are long, building slowly over time, until territories quietly start to emerge from what looks like chaos. And the best players of the game are artists. They don’t just want to win, they want to create something beautiful.

All of this probably sounds familiar.

And so I have been eating and breathing the game for the last two weeks. It’s all quite similar to how I fell in love with cricket all those years ago — 13 this April, in fact — especially considering I am trying to kick an addiction again, just like I was in 2007.

To feed my cravings for all things Go, I have downloaded practice apps, and ebooks, and played countless games with Liz at home and in taprooms. I have subscribed to newsletters and followed Instagram accounts. And at some point I will summon the courage to attend the Minnesota Go Chapter’s open gaming afternoon at a bar in South Minneapolis.

And earlier this week, I watched a movie about the game called AlphaGo (available for free on YouTube here in the states, just be sure to turn the captions on, because there are no subtitles when people are speaking Korean). The movie is about a company called DeepMind who believe they have finally found the computer gaming holy grail: a system that could challenge the best players in the world at Go.

All those that came before failed. The game was too complex, and required a sense of style that computers just couldn’t replicate. The famous computers that played Kasparov and other chess masters merely had millions of different chess moves uploaded to their mainframe. This didn’t work in Go. The scenarios were just too numerous. But DeepMind had figured it out. Not by teaching the computer — AlphaGo — how to be great at the game, but by giving it the tools to teach itself. AI. Machine learning. Real science fiction stuff.

The company scheduled five matches between AlphaGo and the person widely seen as the best Go player in the world, Korean Lee Se-dol. Go aficionados were confident that a computer could never beat their beloved champion. But that’s just what it did. Besting him in game one, then playing one of the greatest Go moves of all time (“move 37”) to win game two, then winning again running away in game three. Lee Se-dol, however, made the greatest move of all time (move 78, aka the Hand of God) to win game four, before losing again in game five.

At first the reaction to AlphaGo’s dominance was the anticipated but unfounded fear about the rise of the robots, destroying humanity as we know it. But cooler heads prevailed. The doomsday folks were reminded that AlphaGo was a human endeavor, designed by humans, coded by humans. The algorithms that allowed it to learn how to play Go were written by people, not by robots. AlphaGo was humanity’s achievement, one that could save lives when the technology is applied to science or medicine, not the harbinger of a Matrix style apocalypse.

Instead, the general reaction was that Go had entered a new phase. Lee Se-dol was a 9 dan Go player, the highest achievable ranking. But AlphaGo played like a 10 dan, or an 11 dan. A player that other human players could emulate and therefore become better players. Lee Se-dol himself called his defeat a “win for humanity.” The biggest change in style invented by AlphaGo are what were called “slack moves.” Seemingly unnecessary and silly and bad moves that no human player of any caliber would ever make. But that’s because all AlphaGo cared about what was winning. It didn’t matter if it was by a half point or 40 points. It just wanted to win. And that drastically changed its style. The movie ends on a high note of human accomplishment, and the dawning of a new age for the 4,000 year old game. A narrator says that AlphaGo would define Go’s next thousand years, and he meant that in hopeful way.

Unfortunately, all that hopefulness appeared to be for naught, at least as far as Lee Se-dol is concerned. He retired from competitive Go matches last fall at only 36 years of age. He said that he was retiring because no matter how good at Go he got, the computer would only get better. It had been three years since his 4-1 defeat to AlphaGo, but in those three years the computer had only gotten better. In fact, DeepMind recently released AlphaGo Zero, a completely self taught machine that is even better at Go than its predecessor.

And so what is next for Go now that its greatest player has concluded that there is no hope for any human to ever beat the machines created by humans? The game is still wildly popular, and for many years to come it will be just fine. But slowly, and surely, as the machines suck the humanity — and therefore the art, and the poetry — from the game, the game will die. 4,000 years of Go could be erased within our grandchildren’s lifetimes. Is that the worst case scenario? Maybe. But it is hard to see it any other way. For one brief moment — move 78, the Hand of God move — humanity had a shot, and then it was snuffed out.

Image result for move 78 go"
Move 78 is the white tile with the triangle.

****

Cricket, too, is dying. We all know that. It’s slowly being driven into pulp by big money and corrupt leaders and a world that is simply moving on. But the good news is that it’s not where Go is. At least not yet. Sure, we have DRS and statsguru and computers crunching every number possible in order to give players and teams the slightest of advantages, but when the coin gets flipped, there is no computer on the other side of the bowler. It’s 22 humans — flawed, beautiful humans — battling it out on the pitch. You can deconstruct the game mathematically as long as you want, reproducing simulation after simulation, but no matter what it’s people who have to play the games. For now, that is heartening. For while cricket might slowly be drifting off to ashes and dust, it’s not there yet, thanks to one the thing trying to kill it: its humanity.

I know there are a lot of Go fans and players who wished they weren’t living in the age of AlphaGo. But as cricket fans we are currently doing that. So let’s enjoy it. Let’s mourn cricket when the machines take over, and when the game finally loses every last drop of its poetry, but until then, let us give praise and thanks for the 22 flawed humans that provide us daily with so much frustration, joy, heartache and awe at what we are all capable of. We humans, we impossible few, we broken, impossible few. Stardust somehow writing poems with bats of willow and balls of leather.

File:Cricket picture.jpg
Image via Creative Commons

Late last night I heard the screen door slam

Joni Mitchell wrote her hit song “Big Yellow Taxi” while on vacation in Hawaii in 1970. She opened her hotel room curtains and saw the sea and the mountains but also a never ending parking lot. Hence the lyric, “they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

The song is, at its core, an environmental protest song, but it also has a personal side. Most famously this side can be found in the final verse, about a taxi taking her lover away from her. But the chorus that runs throughout the song can only be seen as personal, a lyrical moment we can all nod our heads and agree with, whether it’s a forest or a lover or an ocean or a home:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone

Don’t it always, indeed.

I first heard the song when I was in college on a Joni Mitchell live record which I listened to over and over again. A few years later on the drive back from my bachelor party with my brother and my friend Derek we were listening to the new — at the time — Counting Crows record, Hard Candy. The album is a wistful goodbye to times long gone. It opens with the lyrics:

On certain Sundays in November
When the weather bothers me
I empty drawers of other summers
Where my shadows used to be

And closes with:

Fly away to someone new

But it actually doesn’t close there. As my friend would point out, a cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” was a hidden track on the album. We didn’t listen to it that day, which is probably for the best, for while it was one of their biggest hits, it is incontestably one of the worst songs of the decade. But I digress.

On that car ride home from Mankato to Minneapolis, I felt the weight of change on my shoulders. To the point where it was almost giving me a panic attack. There was a pressure on my chest as the miles ticked by, spiraling me into melancholy. For once, for one of the rare times, not just for me, but for everyone, I knew what I’d had, and I knew it was going away, and that I was going to miss it. I knew what I’d had before it was gone. Life was changing, the world was moving on, and I had no choice but to go along with it. Let the waves carry me into the unknown black.

And then to paraphrase Charles Portis: time just got away from me. And so much else that I didn’t know I had left me, and left me forever. Or I left it. “We can miss anything” is something I say all the time. And it’s true. We don’t know what we’ve got, until it’s gone, and then we can’t get it back.

Cricket is different.

Today I read a great piece from Jonathan Liew in the Guardian about Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.

There is, naturally, a slight risk of alarmism here. Test cricket is not going anywhere for now. But time – and television – eventually did for the music hall and one day it will come for Anderson and Broad too. Savour them, yes. But feel, too, the immenseness of what they will take with them: not just two battered bodies or a cluster of golden memories but very possibly a way of life.

In cricket, we know what we are losing. We know every time we watch a Test match, or listen to a first class match on the radio, we know that we are listening to something that is going to leave us, maybe even in our lifetimes. We know what we have, and we know what we are losing, and so we savor it as best we can. All of us do. And I have often thought that that is why cricket blogging is so important: we are bearing witness, we are writing cricket’s obituary, even as it still lives and breathes. We see it slipping away, and so we are writing about it, recording its last breaths, not just so people a hundred years from now will understand, but to give cricket — beautiful old cricket — the long, loving goodbye it so richly deserves.

And it’s another lesson from cricket for us all. At this moment — right now — we all have more than we will ever have again. All that is around us will one day go away. And if we can step back and see the last old masters plying their trade — in cricket or anywhere  —and realize how great it is, then maybe while we will still miss it when it’s gone, we will know what we have before it is. Which is a gift I think we would all accept. No matter how you feel about your life, you will miss these days. Savor them. For in that savoring, comes contentment, and from contentment comes happiness. For if we enjoy what we have before it goes, then we will have a chance to say goodbye, and when life changes, we won’t regret having missed what came before those changes.

I will be tuning in, and watching Broad and Anderson, bowl against time and aging, and I will recognize that they — and bowlers like them — are going away, probably forever. And we must all enjoy them for all that they are, before they disappear like steam into the dry winter air. We will miss them when they are gone. We will miss these days when they are gone. We know they are leaving. Cricket is no different than life, and we need to hear its lessons, and to find joy in the now, instead of always looking around the corner for what’s next.

Cricket is more than a game. If we let it, it can teach us so much. It can teach us how to say goodbye. It can teach us that life is fleeting. And it can teach us to savor the moments we have, for we will miss them all when they go.

Rain, I don’t mind

Into each and every life some rain has got to fall
But too much of that stuff is fallin’ into mine
And into each heart some tears got to fall
And I know that someday that sun is bound to shine

A lot of the time, I don’t mind the rain. Sure, sometimes I have gotten caught out in it on long bike rides, and yeah that sucks. And other times whole weekends of outdoor fun have gotten washed away in days’ long rain. I remember an Art-A-Whirl a few years ago. It’s this two music and art festival in Northeast Minneapolis. All beer and bands and studios. It’s always a great time. It feels like a smaller, less corporate version of South by Southwest. But that one year it rained all weekend. And yeah, again, that sucked.

But most of the time I don’t mind it. I get really terrible sun guilt, and if it is sunny I feel like I need to be outside doing … something, anything. Even in the dead of winter. And if I’m not outside doing something I get all this anxiety. It’s truly awful. But if it is raining, then it’s okay if I just sit inside and read or watch cricket or read and watch cricket or whatever I want to do. I was an indoor kid growing up, and rain helps me feed that old beast now and again. And so a rainy day and a window and a mug of coffee with a little booze in it and a good book is just fine with me most of the time.

As cricket fans, though, we all know that rain is the devil. Nothing makes our heart sink like seeing a few drops of the nasty stuff start to spatter on players’ shoulders. Or when the camera pans up to the sky and it’s dark and menacing and awful. Or, the worst, when we tune into a match that we had been looking forward to, and we are greeted with this:

Image result for cricket pitch rain

Makes my heart sink just looking at that.

Whole matches have been lost to rain. Whole series. One stands out, when England retained the Ashes in 2013:

To quote myself, as I am want to do:

after all of the press conferences, pre-match interviews, warm-up matches, predictions, and back page after page of punditry and statistical analyses and team selection dust ups and injuries … after months of anticipating… after everything … it’s over. Just like that. On a gloomy Monday afternoon in Manchester. With the covers on the pitch and the players in the clubhouse.

Cricket fans hate rain. It’s a cricket killer. It’s the old enemy. Before the corruption and the greed and The Hundred, there was rain. There has always been rain, and there always will be.

But.

Sometimes the clouds part. And the covers come off. And the umpires do a light reading and check the outfield and all looks good. And there’s a call for a restart in 25 minutes. And the sun comes out from behind a cloud and burns all the white and gray into blue and green. And the fans drift back to their seats. And the players trot out into the golden day. And it’s only one o’clock in the afternoon, and all that waits in front of us is more cricket. An endless sea of joy in this grand old game.

Are those afternoons made brighter, better, more enjoyable because of the rain storm? I will give that a hesitant yes. It’s easier to enjoy something when it’s been given back after you thought it was gone forever. And with cricket, we all know that the rain could come at any time, even in the UAE — just ask the American cricket team. Every game could see the covers come on at any moment. So it’s both a relief when the game comes back, and a reminder that nothing is guaranteed forever.

But what’s is guaranteed is that at some point the rain will stop, and the sky will clear, and the covers will come off. It was not sunny forever, and that’s how we know it won’t rain forever.

It’s another lesson cricket can teach us, if we simply let it:

The sun always shines again. Maybe not this afternoon, maybe not even tomorrow, but it will shine again. And there will be cricket. And there will be joy. Nothing in cricket — and nothing in life — is guaranteed … except that.

Sometimes, we turn the TV back on, and see this:

Image result for cricket stadium sunshine

And those are the days we should cling to when the skies grow dark and the camera pans up to black and blue and the umpires look worried. Because the days above always come again. Always.

My skies are clearing, everyone.

But there’s one thing I know
The blues they send to meet me
Won’t defeat me, it won’t be long
Till happiness steps up to greet me

**

Side note: a huge thanks to Declaration Game — a great blog run by a cricket nut who knows and sees the game very well — for his kind words about this here site:

Quoting now:

I will end this round-up, in imitation of Wisden, with my nomination of the World’s Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year – aka the blogger whose output has given me most reading pleasure in these last twelve months. Limited Overs is the work of Matt Becker who, from his home in Minnesota, bridges the personal and the global meaning of cricket, with a tender mix of emotion, humour and sincerity.

It blows me away that people read this site at all. And it blows me away even more that people seem to like it. Seeing this yesterday was a real shot in the arm for me and my writing and this blog. I love writing here, and I don’t want that to ever stop, and kind words like this make it so much easier.

Thank you to everyone who reads, comments and retweets. Happy New Year.

 

Like Cricket in the Movies

Yeah you’re worth the trouble and you’re worth the pain

For the most part, I fly pretty far under the pop culture radar. Rarely am I plugged in to whatever is happening in the zeitgeist these days. Occasionally I will watch the “it” show on HBO or Netflix, but for the most part the entertainment I choose is not of the mainstream. And it’s become a point of pride, to the chagrin of many. I like to make it abundantly — painfully — clear that I have no idea what happened on The Bachelor and never will, which I know can be really damn annoying. People just like to have fun.

And so while I knew that there was a live action version of Cats, the Musical, hitting theaters, I also knew it was something that would never enter my insular little world even in the most remote manner. It would never even touch me. It would exist completely outside my bubble and then it would be gone. But I was wrong. The other day on Twitter someone posted a minute long clip of the movie on Twitter.

I won’t post it here.

Because it was the most horrifyingly awful thing I have ever experienced.

This is what we have become. This is what our movies have become. A once great art form has been reduced to this. Whatever this is. The same city that brought us The Godfather and Deer Hunger is bringing us this terrible nonsense schlock. It’s not almost heartbreaking, it is utterly heartbreaking.

My uncle Will is a huge movie buff. At least he used to be. I honestly am not sure if he is anymore, so I will talk about his love for movies in the past tense, despite the fact that he is very much alive. He used to see everything. He would go to the theater all the time, and watch anything he couldn’t make it to on cable or via VHS from the video store. He loved movies. He told me once that he didn’t think he had ever seen a movie that he didn’t like. All movies were good. All movies had redeeming value in one form or another. You just had to look a little harder for it sometimes. I remember when Titanic came out and it was roundly poo-pooed by critics and pseudo-intellectuals (like myself) because it wasn’t, you know, smart. He said that if you don’t like Titanic, then you don’t like movies. I have ascribed to that theory ever since he said it to me. It was okay to like movies that weren’t smart, because all movies were good, in their own little way.

I don’t know if that is true anymore.

First run theaters are overgrown with crap like Cats and bad sequels and reboots and remakes and an endless stream of movies based on comic books. It’s like the entire industry has lost its soul. Movies aren’t good anymore not just because they aren’t fun anymore, but also because they are all the same. It’s disheartening. And it only seems to be getting worse. The classic cinema of the 70s is gone forever, we have known that for a long time. But now I am even nostalgic for 90s film, or early 00s. That’s how far movies have slipped away.

The parallels to cricket here are rather obvious. A once glorious game stripped down into nothing but a slick, vapid capitalist nightmare. Once The Hundred takes over we will long for the early days of the IPL. You think I am kidding, but I am not. And you know it. You read James Morgan’s blog just like I do. The ECB is obliterating England’s red ball domestic game and that might be the final nail in the coffin of the world’s most beloved format. It can’t help but make one feel almost intolerably sad, full of bottomless melancholy, as the world moves on and away from what was once great, and will never be again.

But.

In movies, there is hope. Millions of people took three and a half hours out of a recent Saturday to watch Scorsese’s brilliant work of art, The Irishman. In the past year, I have seen movies at art house theaters and museums that have blown me out of the water. The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Honeyland. Long Day’s Journey into Night. They are not reminiscent of what was, they are not people trying to make Pulp Fiction for 2019, but rather people finding new and amazing and interesting ways in which to tell stories using film as a medium.

Hollywood’s soul might be black and dead. But movies are still very much alive.

Is the same true for cricket?

It can be hard to tell. There’s no such thing as arthouse cricket. All cricket is either mainstream or so far outside the system it can be hard to even know it exists. Is Ben Stokes winning SPOTY cricket’s equivalent of a beautiful movie about beekeepers in Macedonia? Probably not. Moments of brilliance on cricket’s biggest stage are salves for what ails the game, but not cures. No, the cure is somewhere else, somewhere hidden, somewhere hard to find. It won’t be easy to find. It will take work. And I don’t even know where to start looking, But I know it’s out there. Too many smart people have loved this game for too long for it not to exist. Soul’s don’t die. Not even cricket’s.

Somewhere, out there, someone is turning cricket not into a bad carbon copy of its glory years, awash in pointless nostalgia, and not at all into the mainstream sugar soda corporate cricket we see everywhere, but instead into something new but also familiar, and somehow difficult and challenging and beautiful. It’s out there. Let’s find it together. Let’s find cricket’s equivalent of the protagonist of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, skateboarding switchbacks across street car tracks down the hills of America’s greatest city cut into the rocky shoreline overlooking a bay in the fog.

This might all sound crazy. But today I have hope for this game. And I am going to lean into that hope. And when I read about The Hundred, I am going to think of this:

Image result for last black man in san francisco skateboard scene

If the soulless movie industry can make that out of the hellscape that is Hollywood, then cricket can do it too.

 

 

Kids and sports and Mesut Ozil

Sports are stupid.

We all know that. All of us get it. Professional sports especially. Sure, we all watch, and we all eat, drink and breath it, and it’s sometimes fun, but we also all get that it’s a nonsense capitalistic enterprise run by gangsters and driven by toxic masculinity, gambling and alcohol consumption. Not exactly mom and apple pie these days, despite what those old baseball poets try to spin.

Yesterday I was reading Will Leitch’s newsletter. He is one of the smartest people I know. A real hustler who just works and works and works. And it pays off. He’s also one of the best writers on the internet, and honestly seems like a pretty decent guy overall. Flawed, but understanding of those flaws. That’s all we can really hope for in the end. Yesterday he was writing about how much time he spends thinking about sports. Sports. Games for children played by spoiled millionaires (I can say this stuff because I am a sports fan too). And how he didn’t even know what he could accomplish if he didn’t spend so much time writing and thinking about and watching sports. And, I don’t know, that made me kind of sad. A guy that smart could have done so much more. Could have written books that mattered. Not that his books don’t matter, not that the work he does, the work of entertainment, isn’t important — we all need leisure pursuits — but it’s still a bummer that we missed out on what he actually could have accomplished if he hadn’t started writing about sports.

I am not saying Will is a bad dude. Or that the work he does isn’t great. Or that he’s selfish. Or anything. I am just saying it’s a bummer. And by the tone of his note yesterday, I think he would more or less agree with me.

Also yesterday I watched my beloved Arsenal — a team full of those spoiled millionaires mentioned above — play out a dire, listless, boring, lifeless 0-0 with an equally awful Everton. Two clubs with a combined worth of north of a billion dollars and that was the product they decided to put on display. During the match, and after it, the fans sang a song about how they wanted Arsenal Fan TV “out of (their) club.” I am not familiar as I really tend to only watch the games these days, but apparently Arsenal Fan TV is a YouTube channel about Arsenal that is a little toxic and the fans were sick of that toxicity. Later after the game the same traveling fans surrounded the YouTube folks and it was, well, a scene.

The whole thing is rubbish. These are grown ups. Toxic masculinity. Alcohol consumption. It’s a game. Played by adults. Designed for kids. It all cannot help but make me feel a little silly sometimes. It should make us all a little silly. I will still watch, you will still watch, but I think moments like yesterday might help us keep it all in perspective a little more.

Missing from yesterday Arsenal’s match was German midfielder Mesut Özil. Interim manager Freddie Ljungberg dropped him from the lineup because in the match before Mesut threw his gloves and kicked them after being subbed out.

This reminded of a moment from my childhood. And it made me realize something. Yeah, sports are stupid. But they are also important. Like, really important. For one reason and one reason only: the kids. Not the kids as fans, but the kids playing the games, on fields and courts and patches all over the world. Organized, disorganized, whatever.

The Mesut story reminded me of little league, the season in the spring and summer during and after 7th grade. My last season of little league ever. My dad would die the following autumn and that would be that for my truncated childhood. One of my teammates was Lane Kiffin. The name might ring a bell. Headcoach of the LA Raiders for a disastrous couple of seasons. Later head coach at USC and Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. And Lane’s dad, Monte Kiffin, was our coach. Monte is not quite as famous as Lane, but he’s one of the more respected defensive coaches of all time, the bulk of his career was spent as Defensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1988 when he was my little league coach, he was the Linebacker Coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

Early in the season, in what I think was just a scrimmage game, I struck out. Like I always did. I sucked at baseball. And I threw my helmet. And my bat. And Monte Kiffin got in my face and tore me up, right there in front of everyone. A hot summer blue sky day and a guy used to yelling at 300 pound linebackers was screaming at me. It was horrifying. “We do NOT do that on this team, understand?” I started to cry. It was too much. The kid next to me on the bench could have teased me, could have called me a crybaby, but instead he told me it was all right, that everyone strikes out now and again.

I think about that kid a lot. And that was lesson number one from that day.

I digress. Two days later Monte called the house. I wasn’t home. He told my parents that he was really sorry. That he hoped I wouldn’t quit. That he really wanted me on the team.

And I didn’t quit. And I went on and had the best season of my life. Monte put trust in me, batted me up the lineup, put me at first base, something no other coach did. And I responded in spades. He threw batting practice before each game, throwing 10-15 mph faster than the opposing team’s kid pitcher would throw, so the pitches in the game looked like they were in slow motion.

I don’t remember if we won many games. All I know is that I played baseball out of mind. I loved baseball as a kid. But I always sucked at it. Until that season. That one season.

That season taught me so much, lessons that I have carried with me my whole life. Perseverance. The power of a good coach. The power of trusting someone. Humility. Kindness. Sportsmanship. And so many more. Lessons that I have carried with me my entire life. Lessons I might not have learned otherwise. That’s the power of sports.

Now, I played baseball because I loved baseball. Like most kids. I soaked in the game and played because I wanted to be like my heroes. Not every kid who plays every sport can be so lucky.

Which brings me to the cricket side of this post. This morning a tweet hit my radar and it stood out for me:

I consider Jamie a friend and an expert in the field of youth cricket. Together with a handful of organizers, he has made the youth game in Maryland something really special. Brought the game to kids who never would have experienced it, kids that will become lifelong cricket fans because of people like Jamie, despite the fact that there is no American Cricket League, or that cricket isn’t in the Olympics, or that we don’t have a strong national team. Those kids are learning the same lessons I learned from Monte Kiffin, those same invaluable lessons, because of cricket, and people like Jamie. His quibble with USA Cricket is beyond valid. It is terribly important. Cricket needs people like Jamie, dedicated people who love the game and want kids to experience it, because kids need cricket.

Kids need sports.

And that’s what it all comes down to. Sports are silly. Run by gangsters. Fueled by the worst kinds of tribalism, the same brand of which we see in American politics. But they are still important. Still vital. For the reason mentioned above: kids.

People like Monte Kiffin, people like Jamie Harrison, they are why sports are still important. I like Mesut Özil, and I respect the dedication of the traveling Arsenal fans, but neither of them are doing sport any favors. And that’s a shame. Not because we need something to do with our leisure time, but because kids need sports. They need to have heroes, they need to have coaches, and they need to learn the lessons that only sports can teach. Yes, only sports.

Will Leitch closes his post about what he would do if he didn’t spend so much time thinking about and writing about sports with a joke: that he probably would just have done drugs instead. It’s a joke. He’s kidding. But it’s a valid point nonetheless. Sport keeps kids safe. It’s just one more reason why kids need sports, and why they are important, not just for kids, but at the end of the day, for all of us. And so whenever I see a player like Mesut act like a brat, I can only assume he missed out on a coach like Monte Kiffin. Maybe Ljungberg is finally that coach, even if he has already been replaced. Sports can always teach us. We can always find mentors. We can always learn and get better. We can always listen to a coach or a boss and learn how to do life just a little bit better. And maybe that’s sports greatest lesson:

Listen to your coach. They want you to succeed. It might not seem like it, but they do.

That’s what Monte Kiffin taught me all those years ago. And it’s a lesson I have carried with me my whole life.

What a gift.

Stats

There’s a lot to unpack in this article. First and foremost is the that darts is finally, as the headline says, getting its stats revolution.

Most sports already have had theirs. Especially the repetitive games such as baseball and, yes, cricket. The latter is weighed down with so many numbers it becomes almost a caricature of itself. It’s a laundry list of scenarios and qualifiers that bordera on the ridiculous: he’s scored one fifty in a day-night Test in Asia when the moon was full and the other team had a person named Isaac playing and there were exactly 1,156 people in the crowd, not counting ground employees,  and 145 of them were legally drunk.

That’s a joke, of course. But it’s not too far off the truth. But since cricket has always been stats heavy, they really never had their revolution. The moment when the old guard who talked about guts and clutchiness and good locker room guys and hustle, bristled against the young whipper snappers and their stats that turned their game, their beloved game, into a math problem. Stripped the soul out of it. That happened in baseball. The players — like the dart players — weren’t on board at first, but they got there, and now stats are part of baseball’s DNA. But it never really happened in cricket. You can’t have a revolution if the game has always been analyzed the same way. Sure, there are new stats, new benchmarks, but nothing that has anyone up in arms. Sabermetrics and its spawn changed baseball forever. Cricket has changed, too, but not in the same way.

Which brings me to the second part of Liew’s article that stuck out for me. Quoting now:

Perhaps the rise of the analysts is merely a sign that darts, the game of the English pub, is evolving into something else entirely.

Maybe cricket never really happened in the USA because there was never a revolution. The game just soldiered on. There was never any reason for 20something stat heads to collect data and make suggestions based on that data. Cricket already did that. Americans aren’t interested in cricket because they haven’t figured out how to bring capitalism to it. In fact, cricket is doing that all on its own just fine, with the T20 and the 100 and etc.

This is all just conjecture. But when I see games like darts start to take off in America, it always confuses me. What is it about cricket that makes it impossible for it to make inroads? This is just one more theory. Darts, the British pub game, is now a worldwide phenomenon. Who would have thunk it? Not me. Not before cricket finally made it here anyway.

There are literally scores of reasons and theories about why cricket hasn’t happened here. I have written about most of them. No half-way decent national team. Racism. Not in the Olympics. Expensive equipment. And on and on. And it’s probably a combination of all of them. You can add “lack of statistical revolution” to the pile now, I guess.

The game has evolved though. More so than any other sport, it races toward change in the hopes that the next big shift around the next corner will be the thing that finally makes it thrive and puts it up with the big time global sports: the NFL, soccer. But it hasn’t found it yet. So the old guard continues to bristle, as the new guard continues to ignore the game. And maybe that’s the change cricket is missing: young people changing the game to suit their desires. Like baseball. Like darts. Instead cricket is the old guard making changes that their peers dislike, and so the game exists in some sort of horrible feedback loop.

Cricket changes for the sake of change, it seems. While darts has changed for the sake of modernity. Maybe that’s the difference. Not the stats, but the injection of new ideas from young minds. Cricket has never had that. Maybe someday it will. But ideas like the 100 and countless T20 franchise leagues aren’t gonna make it happen.

That’s what I am on the lookout for though. A young person doing something in and for the game that’s never been done before, that turns the game on its head, even though the game remains the same. That doesn’t just make it shorter, or faster, but makes it better.