Cricket for Americans: 20 Jan. 2019: What did I miss?

Okay, so what did I miss?

New Zealand continued their winning ways with a T20 win over Sri Lanka, South Africa beat Pakistan in a Test match and in a One Day International, and Australia lost two ODIs to a rampant — rampant — India, an India who appear to grow into World Cup favorites more and more every time they take the pitch.

Plus there were matches in the ACC Western Region T20, the CSA Four Day Franchise Series, Three-Day Provincial Cup and One Day Provincial Cup, the Sri Lankan Premier League, the Ranji Trophy in India, the Bangladesh Premier League, the Big Bash League, Super Smash League, and a whole lot of tour warm-up matches across the globe.

And those were just the men’s matches. Last week alone saw action in several women’s international series and domestic competitions — T20Is between Thailand and Nepal, and Myanmar and Hong Kong, and Indonesia and the UAE and more in the Thailand T20 Women’s tournament; and domestic competitions in South Africa’s Women’s Provincial ODI and T20 leagues, New Zealand Cricket’s Women’s T20 League, and the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. It’s a post for another day, but the Women’s game continues to grow in leaps and bounds, as does the mainstream press’s coverage of it (though that’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation) and therefore must be part of any conversation with regard to the ‘future of the game.’

Off the field, there was news off a new CEO at the International Cricket Council (ICC), Scotland got themselves a new coach, Darren Bravo announced his return to the West Indian fold, there was lots of talk about MS Dhoni’s role in India’s World Cup squad, and the news that Logan Cup matches were called off due to civil unrest in Zimbabwe.

That last part deserves a little more attention.

In my last post before my vacation, I wrote about how Cricket was not a European sport, but the sport of a dead Empire. And because of just how vast said Empire was, cricket is popular in every corner of the globe, including in several places that aren’t entirely safe, are deeply corrupt, and that do not maintain the infrastructure — physical or economical — needed to fix those things. Zimbabwe is one of those countries. There have been general strikes happening throughout the country due to fuel shortages and rising costs of living, and with the announcement that the government would be further taxing gasoline, travel within the country has become dangerous and in some cases due to the lack of commuter Omnibusses, downright impossible. Furthermore, the government has suspended access to the internet in the country, making communication with outside organizations like ESPN — which has been trying to get in touch with Cricket Zimbabwe for clarity on the situation — very difficult.

And so while similar but far more innocuous protests in Paris receive global attention, the protests in Harare and its suburbs are largely under the West’s radar. ESPN is making efforts for information on what is happening, but is CNN, the BBC? Of course, they are, but it’s not news, it’s buried deep behind the American shutdown and Brexit.

This is why cricket is important: it is played just about anywhere in the same area code of a former English colony, so it sheds light on the corruption and poverty and government overreach that otherwise might go ignored by those of us in the West, including those of us who consider ourselves well informed. It’s a big old world, and there’s more than just Washington and London and Paris, it’s also Harare and Colombo and Lahore.

Cricket helps us remember that. It shines a light into dark places, and forces us to see the world from a broader perspective. Would I know about the problems in Zimbabwe if I hadn’t been a cricket fan? Maybe. But probably not. And that’s true for most Western-based cricket fans. Getting out of our bubble is important, and that includes the bubble of Western sport.

Cricket for Americans: 10 Jan. 2019: The Ashes

Oh, the Ashes.

It’s really the pinnacle of Test cricket, as far as I am concerned. Five Tests, Australia v England. A rivalry that dates back to 1882, when Australia first beat England in a Test match on English soil and The Sporting Times declared that English cricket had died, and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” The following year England went to Australia in an attempt to regain the Ashes.

And the rest is history. To date, the two sides have played 330 Ashes Test matches. Australia have won 134, England 106, and there have been 90 draws. At the series level, Australia have won 33, England 32, and there have been 5 draws. And so if England can beat Australia this summer, they will draw level with Australia in Ashes series victories, something that would have been damn near unthinkable back in, say, 2003.

Australia are the current holders of the trophy, having dismantled England 4-0 during the winter of 2017-18 in Australia. But things are a little different now. First of all, there’s the fact that Australia has not won an Ashes series in England since the summer of 2001 — winning the 5th Test at the Oval in London two weeks before the towers fell — and furthermore England have just come off a 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka, while Australia just crumbled to a series loss to India on their home soil for the first time. And Australia aren’t just a shambles on the field, their clubhouse and front office are a bit in disarray too. And, finally, the last blow to the Aussies: they only have one final Test series before this summer: two tests against Sri Lanka at home. While England have three Tests against the West Indies.

Advantage, in almost every aspect: England.

But this is cricket — Test cricket. And this is the Ashes. And this is Australia. And this is England. And Australia will have Steve Smith and David Warner back from their ball tampering bans. And England will have already had a long hard slog of a summer by the time the coin is flipped for the first Ashes test on 1 Aug. at Edgbaston.

I could see it going either way. Right now I am thinking 2-1 to England. But literally any other result could happen and I would not be too surprised. 5-0 Australia? 3-2 England? Series drawn? I wouldn’t bat an eye to any of those outcomes.

The good news for people in the states is that all five matches of the series are available on Willow.TV.

Here’s the rundown:

1 Aug.: Edgbaston, Birmingham
14 Aug.: Lord’s, London
22 Aug.: Headingley, Leeds
4 Sept.: Old Trafford, Manchester (no, not that Old Trafford, soccer fans)
12 Sept.: Kennington Oval, London

Savor these matches. Drink them in. They are the pinnacle of what cricket has to offer.

Well, they are the pinnacle until we get the Pakistan v India Test series that we all deserve.

 

 

Cricket for Americans: 9 Jan. 2019: Looking toward summer

As mentioned a few posts back, it’s a big summer for cricket. There’s the World Cup, and the Ashes, both of which take place in England.

The World Cup uses the ODI — one day international — format. That is: one team has 50 overs — 300 deliveries — or ten wickets (outs) (whichever comes first) to score has many runs as possible. Then the teams switch and the other team has 50 overs or 10 wickets to best that score. The games take, you guessed it, about a day, or about 6-8 hours depending on if both sides use their full allotment of overs.

The best ODI team right now — using the ICC’s rankings — is England. Followed by India and New Zealand. These three are, more or less, the favorites. The reigning champions, Australia, are ranked a distant 6th, but, annoyingly, you really can never count them out of an ODI World Cup.

Format wise, it’s something of a joke among cricket pundits, but it shouldn’t be so bad. It’s a single group of ten teams in the opening stage, with each team playing every team once. The top four teams then advance to the semi-finals, with the winners of those matches playing each other in the final at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London on 14 July at 4:30 a.m. central time. Mark your calendars. (The first match is at the Oval on 31 May. That’s right, the tournament lasts for six — SIX — weeks.)

Other than the hosts, England, and other three squads mentioned above, the tournament features South Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the West Indies. My guess for the semi-finals right now is England, New Zealand, India and South Africa, in that order. England will lose their semi, New Zealand will win theirs and then beat South Africa to lift the trophy. You heard it hear first.

There are some upcoming ODIs to keep an eye on as we move toward May: Australia play India in three ODIs starting on Friday, South Africa host Pakistan for five ODIs starting on 19 Jan., and England are in Caribbean for five ODIs against the West Indies, with the first one set for Feb. 20 in Bridgetown.

And then there’s the highlight series: New Zealand in India for their own set of five ODIs starting 22 Jan.

We will learn a lot over the next few weeks. Can England continue their strong run of form and beat up on weaker opposition? Can New Zealand win in unfamiliar conditions? Are Pakistan and South Africa good enough for the knockouts? What about India? Should they — and not the hosts — be the real favorites? Is Australia really in shambles, or are they just hiding in the tall grass?

We won’t get definitive answers to those questions, or course, but we will get close, and have a lot of fun along the way.

South Africa v Pakistan, Australia v India and West Indies v England are available for viewing in the States on Willow.TV, while India v New Zealand is on ESPN+ (formerly ESPN3).

At this point, I don’t know who is broadcasting the World Cup in the US. When I know, you’ll know.

Tomorrow: looking ahead to the Ashes. Until then.

Cricket for Americans: 7 Jan. 2019: Dukes of Hazzard

There are so many different plot lines in cricket that it’s impossible, even for someone paying attention, to keep them all in order. Pitch conditions, weather, light — all of these factors can affect play, and affect it a great deal. India have beaten Australia in countless series in India, but they just won their first Test series in Australia ever. Why? Playing cricket in Australia is simply very different than playing cricket in India. (Oh, and Australia are in shambles, but we can ignore that for now.)

Today I learned a new one:

The ball.

All countries use red or white Kookburra balls, except for the West Indies and England, who use Dukes balls, and India who use SG.

Huh.

I learned it while listening to Virat Kohli talk about Australia’s chances in the Ashes in England this summer:

“Dukes ball buries egos pretty quickly,” he said.

Test cricket matches might last five days, but they are still games of inches, of millimeters. Every little thing can either be an advantage or a disadvantage. And it’s the teams that figure out a way for the formers to outnumber the latters that win matches.

Dukes ball? Who knew? I swear it’s something different every day.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans: 6 Jan. 2019: Time

There was a bit of a farcical end to that South Africa v Pakistan match I wrote about yesterday. Pakistan were finally bowled out with a 41 run lead at 6pm local Cape Town time — which was when play was supposed to end for the day. But the umpires had the option of offering the captains an extra 30 minutes of play. After a ten minute change over, that would have left South Africa 20 minutes to chase down those 41 runs and take the match and the series and give everyone two days off. (They initially were going to only have to chase down around 25 runs with 30 minutes or so left to play, but the final wicket was overturned due to a no-ball. The South African openers had raced into the dressing room to suit up for the chase, only to be called back onto the field. It was quite the scene. I had never seen anything quiet like it before.)

The umpires chatted with the captains after the final wicket was taken (for the second time) and it was decided that there just wasn’t enough time left in the day, and that play would resume the following day. (The groans from the commentators’ box mourning the loss of a day off in Cape Town were a highlight.) And, of course, South Africa did just that: chased down the final 41 runs — losing one wicket along the way — in a tidy 9.5 overs this morning.

And this is the thing about Test cricket that’s a little … off. At least it takes a little getting used to at first. We all think of it as this pastoral little game that exists outside the tyranny of time. A game from another age that is not governed by the almighty clock. But that’s not really true. Each day of Test cricket has a start time and a stop time. The latter can be a little loose, as long as one does not exceed the maximum number of overs that can be bowled in a single day.

“It’s not over until the full number of overs that are scheduled to be bowled that day, have been bowled.”

That’s from an infamous sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look that is truly brilliant but if you’re new to the game, you might not get all the jokes.

It’s a little weird, at first, but then you get to know the game and understand the reasons why they have to limit the number of overs. They may be professional athletes, but you can’t grind them into the ground with limitless overs. It’s the same reason they got rid of the golden goal or endless cup replays in soccer. And, somewhat more importantly, trying to hit a dark colored ball in fading light is darn tricky, and so forcing a team to bat in that tricky light when the opposing team got to bat in bright sunshine isn’t exactly fair. (Cricket might be a lot of things, but one thing it is for certain is fair. Relentlessly, almost aggressively, fair.)

Aside from that, Test cricket does, truly, exist outside of the tyranny of time. Not as much because of how the days are structured, but because it’s this anachronism that has been declared dead for decades, yet still somehow soldiers on. 22 guys on a field flip a coin and play cricket for five days. But this soldiering on is not a new thing. Test cricket came of age not in pastoral old England, but in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. It was a respite from the soot and black and filth of the time, and it still is.

Despite days like yesterday in Cape Town, Test cricket is most assuredly a quiet place away from the modern world, where one can drift in and out as they please, a lazy weekday afternoon in the shade, the Times and a beer and a sandwich, letting your mind wander, as 22 men in white keep the darkness at bay. Some sports — especially American sports — do nothing to take you out of the work-a-day world of invasive tech and social media. But Test cricket does. You just have to let it.

Cricket for Americans, Jan. 5 2019: Neither here nor there

Day three of the South Africa v Pakistan Test in Cape Town is on in the background. It’s 4:23 in the afternoon there, and a balmy 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Pakistan is batting in their second innings there at the bottom of the world. I am sitting at my kitchen table in St. Paul, Minn. It’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit here at 8:23 in the morning.

Cape Town is 8,808 miles away. But the signal from Willow.TV is clear and clean and perfect.

It’s a big old world, but it’s also a magical one.

Sure, we were promised flying cars and jet packs and day trips to the moon, but this is pretty good too. I get to sit in my apartment in Minnesota and watch a Test match on the other side of the world, live and in color, with only probably a 30 second delay. If that’s not the future delivering on a promise, then I don’t know what is.

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Pakistan are 214 for five. That is to say, they have scored 214 runs and lost five wickets. If they lose five more, they are dismissed. They only scored 177 runs in their first innings, while South Africa scored 431, so they have to score at least 36 runs to make South Africa bat again, and a whole lot more than that if they want to win the match or force a draw. In other words, it’s South Africa’s Test to win, but Pakistan is putting up a good fight here this afternoon, which is lovely to see. Pakistan has always been a favorite of mine. A friend once told me that while they won’t always win, they will always entertain, and I have always found that to be true. They are a real joy to watch, they play fun, swashbuckling cricket with a swagger and a smile. And their fight this afternoon is a great advertisement for Test cricket

If you are looking for a team to support this summer at the World Cup, may I suggest Pakistan. Their first match of the tournament is at 4:30am Central US Time on May the 31st.

Personally, I don’t have a team. I never really have. I have tried. But nothing has stuck. Pakistan, England, New Zealand, IPL squads, County Cricket teams, like water through my hands. But that’s never really taken away from my enjoyment of the game, in fact I think it only adds to it. I am a true neutral, and therefore while I never enjoy the highest of the highs, I also am never forced into the lowest of the lows. All I care about is if the cricket is enjoyable or not.

The game also just has so many wonderful personalities, and each match it seems a new cast rises to the top for us all to savor. And, in that way, it’s similar to golf or tennis — almost an individual sport in the guise of a team one. You can have your favorites and it doesn’t matter which uniform they are wearing. And while I am a neutral, this is true for most fans of the game. If a player scores a beautiful ton or double ton away from home, the opposing home crowd will applaud the effort, express the appreciation for his wonderful batting. It’s one of those little cricket intricacies that I love.

In Cape Town, Pakistan are collapsing to 221 for 7. They have three wickets left and 33 runs to get. The match is slipping away from them and there’s nothing they can do. South Africa is running downhill now. But I am neither overjoyed nor am I miserable. I am simply enjoying the cricket, the shadows long in the late afternoon at the bottom of the world. The crowd murmuring, bits of song, voices rising with each potential wicket. Players in white against the green of the Newlands’ turf. The sound of bat defending ball, of bowlers racing in, of batsmen tapping their bats against the hardness of pitch. The commentators droning on, their voices like music. Pakistan fighting on despite the odds.

Saturday afternoon in Cape Town.

8,000 miles away.

Cricket for Americans, Jan. 4 2019: The Spirit of Cricket

India’s Virat Kohli is just about the best batsman in world cricket. A couple other guys come close, but he’s probably the best. He’s the Captain of his country, he’s been successful in all formats, and he’s simply a joy to watch. In short: he’s a great cricketer.

Which is most likely why he was booed by Australian crowds during India’s current tour down under (he was also treated to a rousing chorus of “Kohli is a wanker” chants in Melbourne).

No biggie, right? That’s sports. People get booed. It’s how it works. Heroes get booed. Goats get booed. Villains get booed. It’s part of the fun, right?

Wrong. Not in cricket.

The Australian crowds’ behavior was slammed not by Indian officials, but by former Australian Captain, Ricky Ponting, as well as current Australian commentators and officials.

Reactions to the booing can be summed up using this quote from commentator Tim Lane: “I must say I thought the reception he was given as he came out was poor and it was graceless in that he is the captain of a visiting team.“

That, right there, is the spirt of cricket in a nutshell.

And that’s how cricket is different from every other sport, yet again. There are a series of rules — some written, some unwritten — that everyone involved in the sport must follow, otherwise there is pearl clutching from some and sanctions for others. One great example of this is what’s known as Mankading. In a nutshell, using the definition from Cricket Australia’s website, Mankading a batter is, “when a bowler runs out a batsman who has left their ground at the non-striker’s end during the bowler’s delivery stride.” Basically, the bowler pretends he is going to bowl, so the batter leaves his crease, only the bowler doesn’t bowl and instead knocks the bails off the wicket, so the batsman is out. It’s named after Indian bowler Vinoo Mankad, who deployed the method several times during India’s 1947 tour of Australia.

It is a perfectly legal way to record a wicket. Down to the letter of the law laid out in the Rules of Cricket, there’s nothing wrong with it in the slightest. Even the Spirit of Cricket laws don’t specifically mention anything about it.

Yet, if a bowler — gasp — happens to use the method to record an out, it is met with great consternation from the world of cricket the likes of which you have never seen. You would think the bowler had killed someone.

Another famous incident is when an Australian bowler bowled underarm to a New Zealand batsman, thereby making it impossible for the batsman to score the six runs needed to force a tie. There’s a great YouTube video of that.

Underarm bowling is now illegal, but at the time, in that competition, it wasn’t. But still: great consternation. (Watch the video all the way to the end.)

Cheating, and unsportsmanlike behavior, are of course frowned on in other sports. But for the most part, it’s against the rules and punished accordingly. But in cricket, there are unwritten rules that all must follow. It gives the game this secret lexicon, this secret code, that makes it feel like you are in a special club of people. It lends tradition and a polite pastoral feel to the game. It can be frustrating at times, but for the most part, I think it is one more bit of cricket that elevates it over other sports. What’s wrong with a wee bit of politeness and grace in this mad, mad, mad world?

And speaking of Indian batsmen: Pujara and Pant have pummeled the Australian bowlers and it looks like they will be going home with a series win — the first time that’s ever happened. Australia — who’ve won three out of the last four World Cups, appear to be in shambles. Sure, this is their Test side versus their One Day side, but losing like this on home soil is no way to kickoff a World Cup year. We shall see what happens in the rest of the tour.

Until tomorrow.