Cricket for Americans, Jan. 3 2019: from Neesham to Pujara

A busy day in cricket yesterday. New Zealand beat Pakistan by 45 runs in a One Day International that saw the return of James Neesham: who crushed 47 runs off of just 13 deliveries — including five sixes in one over — and would have cruised to the fastest ODI half century ever had New Zealand not simply run out of overs. Then the all-rounder came back and took three Pakistani wickets to seal the game.

And he wasn’t even Man of the Match! Those plaudits fell to veteran opener Martin Guptill who’s run-a-ball 138 to kickoff New Zealand’s innings were enough to put them into a good position and keep them there all day. With the World Cup around the corner, you have to give some thought to the idea that this might finally be New Zealand’s time. They currently rank third in the ICC’s ODI rankings behind England and India. And while you have to make England the favorite this summer on their home turf, New Zealand are really making a case for themselves. Either way, things are setting up for what should be a tight, highly competitive tournament this summer in England and Wales.

Meanwhile, up the road a bit in Sydney, India won the toss and chose to bat on the first day of the fourth and final Test against Australia, with a chance to take the series 3-1 before they move into the ODI stage of the tour. And boy oh boy bat they did, highlighted by Cheteshwar Pujara who continued his run of good form, scoring a slow-burn 130 not-out to lead Australia to 303 for four wickets at the close of play.

It really was a tale of two batsmen then. First you have Neesham, who scored 47 off of 13 in probably like 15 minutes — while Pujara has defended his way to three centuries already this tour and has spent over 30 hours at the wicket since the Indian plane landed in Melbourne. Many people have said that batsmen like Neesham who revel in the shorter forms of the game will end up ruining Test cricket’s methodical pacing, and so they will be warmed to hear of Pujara’s success down-under these past few weeks.

I believe, personally, that there is room for all styles of batsmen in cricket, no matter the format. And new styles will only serve to provide more color to older formats. It’s a big old world, and there’s plenty of cricket, let’s mix it up now and again. It gives the game a variety that other sports simply don’t have. Neesham and Pujara are barely even playing the same sport, and yet somehow they are.

And people have been saying that this or that is going to finally be the nail in Test cricket’s coffin, and it never is, because there will always be people like Cheteshwar Pujara who simply like to bat, and score runs, and want to do it all day, no matter the format or the venue.

It takes all kinds. And yesterday we saw two of them. Cricket is infinitely interesting. And the above is just one example of its near constant state of curiosity. It’s an old bat and ball sport played with 22 people on empty fields of green yet somehow every day it throws up something different for us all to enjoy. You tune in one day and watch a muscle-bound hulk score 50 runs in 20 minutes, and you tune in the next and watch a skinny kid bat all damn day. It’s almost a miracle.

Cricket for Americans, 2 Jan. 2019: Sachin, Sachin, Sachin

Sachin Tendulkar’s coach, Ramakant Achrekar, passed away at age 86. He’s the guy that told Tendulkar to focus on his batting instead of his bowling, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tendulkar retired a few years back, so if you are new to the game, he won’t be on your radar. But suffice to say he was — and is, as his shadow is long and infinite — a giant in the game. He was — and is — cricket personified. For nearly two decades he batted and and batted and batted for India, and he did it with style and grace and elegance and humility. He was a king among men. A God among men. He didn’t make cricket popular in India, but he made it a priority. People would watch matches just for the chance to see Tendulkar bat. He was Babe Ruth meets Roger Federer meets Michael Jordan meets Wayne Gretzky. No hyperbole. As India moved onto the world stage in the 90s and 00s, it was Sachin who was their talisman.

And to think, it could have never happened without the services of Ramakant Achrekar. Somewhere out there is a parallel world where Tendulkar was a middling fast bowler playing domestic Cricket in Mumbai in front of 20 people. That world is surely a much darker place.

My favorite personal memory of Sachin was his 100th 100. 100 times in international cricket he scored 100 or more runs. It’s a phenomenal statistic. But he sat on 99 for what felt like forever. The pressure on him was intense. The whole of world cricket sat on his shoulders, watching him bat, willing him toward that magic number. But it just kept not happening.

Until, finally, it did.

The relief on his face was visceral. Palpable.

Human.

Image result for tendulkar 100th century

There will never be another cricketer like Sachin.

Rest in peace, Mr. Achrekar.

#

Unrelated, the Afghanistan national team earned direct qualification for the 2020 T20 World Cup (note that this is a different World Cup than the one later this summer; the One Day International World Cup is this summer, this is the T20 World Cup, a shorter version of the same format). Basically this means they won’t have to play a qualifying round.

And, that’s right, Afghanistan.

This is the cool thing about cricket, it exposes you to countries nowhere near your sporting radar. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. And Caribbean nations like Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. You learn their politics, their culture — both sporting and otherwise — and their history. No other sport, not even soccer, gives one such global perspective.

Until tomorrow.

Cricket for Americans, 1 Jan. 2019: The show that never ends

Welcome to the show that never ends.

And by the show, I mean cricket.

I have followed the game since April of 2007, and I still have not gotten use to the game’s relentless pace of matches. There is always something happening, and always something on the horizon. Right now, for instance, India is touring Australia, Pakistan is touring South Africa and Sri Lanka is touring New Zealand. Plus there is the Big Bash League, the Women’s Big Bash League, the Bangladeshi Premier League and on and on. Down the road, just this year, there is the Indian Premier League, the Ashes and a World Cup. What does that all mean? We will get to that later.

It’s going to be a great year. And I hope to be your guide going forward.

As I said, I have followed the game since 2007, and I have written about the sport since 2011. I am by no means an expert. But from the perspective of my friends who know nothing about cricket, I sort of am. And so that’s what I decided to write about going forward: daily posts about the happenings in the sport for anyone who wants to learn more. But it’s not going to be a daily vocabulary lesson, it’s going to be: here’s what is happening, and here’s why I think it’s cool, and here’s why I think you will like it. In that respect, it will be just as much for the lifelong cricket fan as it will be for the cricket newbie.

Because, the thing is, there is always something to learn about the game. Always a new opinion to take in, swallow, and accept or spit out.  And that’s why the sport is infinitely interesting and infinitely entertaining. The game itself is not a straightforward lay up or home run, it’s this opera of plot twists and tunnels and open roads. It’s like baseball only the team in the field is on offense (wrap your head around that). There are heroes and villains and cheating and glory. And it isn’t just one format, or one league, it’s this unending cycle of tournaments and tours and cups and trophies.

There is always something happening, and it’s always worth knowing about.

Matches happening today include a handful of Big Bash League games and a full suite of Ranji Trophy ties. The Big Bash League is a domestic league in Australia that attracts international players from all over the world. The league uses the T20 format which is only a couple years older than Twitter. We will get to that later. Plus the Ireland A squad is in Sri Lanka. Ireland just recently was promoted to Test status, which means they hang with the big boys now. England, Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the West Indies (not a country, more of an area), Pakistan, the aforementioned Ireland, and Afghanistan — also a recent joiner of this elite club. These are the heavy hitters, the show. They each have their own domestic leagues — some more popular and/or historic than others — and they also tour each other’s nations now and again for international play. The Ashes, for instance, is a trophy given to the winner of the Test series between England and Australia. These series that happen every couple of years or so. Sometimes every year. Sometimes in the same year.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The next matches of note include the first day of a Test Match between Australia and India in Sydney at 17:30 central time tomorrow, the first day of a Test Match between South Africa and Pakistan in Cape Town, and a One Day International (ODI) that sees New Zealand playing Sri Lanka in Mount Maunganui. The Test Matches are the five day matches with the sweaters and the white uniforms that you probably picture when someone says “cricket.” The ODI is a shorter form of the game that takes place, funnily enough, on a single day. It’s like the cricketing equivalent of a short story, and is a new format but not as new as the T20, which is about the length of an American baseball game. All three formats have their plusses and their minuses. Well, except Test cricket, which has zero minuses.

And that’s just tomorrow.

It’s the show that never ends. And it’s one helluva ride. And you picked a great time to hop on.

For viewing in America: ESPN has some matches, but you need a subscription to ESPN3 or whatever they call it now, and I am not entirely sure how one goes about getting that (does anyone really know? or is it one of those human mysteries like Stonehenge that we will never solve?), and Willow.TV. The latter is a funky little homegrown streaming service that seems really shady but is apparently perfectly legit and priced right and brings you a ton of cricket. I’d recommend it.

Honestly, though, the game is just as entertaining in a text based environment. For that, I’d recommend ESPN Cricinfo. They do ball by ball coverage of every match on the planet. Bookmark it. It’s a great way to get to the game and its vast lexicon.

And then there are the blogs. But that’s a wormhole for another day.

This is going to be fun.

Until tomorrow.