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.

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, 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.