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.

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.