The Wide World of Sport

Today’s World T20 final was broadcast live in the United States on ESPN2. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first live cricket match ever to be shown on mainstream TV in America.

I was at the pub for the Arsenal match (the less said about that, the better), and they were generous enough to put the match up on one of the smaller TVs. It was the first time I had watched cricket outside of my home since I was in London during the 2011 World Cup. So it was pretty cool.

What was also cool was all the heads that were turned over and watching the cricket instead of the football. Now, surely, this had something to do with what was going on at Goodison Park, but it also definitely had something to do with the cricket. And why not? It was the first time most of the people in the bar had ever seen live cricket – and while they were not treated to the game at its zenith – they saw that it was more than just 22 guys in sweater vests drinking tea. It’s flashy and moves at a good pace. It ebbs and flows and has tangible energy. It’s subcontinental and therefore is attractive for its exoticness.

I am not sure if we won any converts. But it goes to show that American sports fans – especially those already interested in foreign sport – would watch cricket if given the opportunity to do so.

And speaking of which: ESPN has the domestic rights for the 50 over World Cup next year. I wonder if they will have the bravery to put the final of that tournament on one of its flagship channels? We shall see.

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For those curious, the first televised cricket match ever was in 1938 – England vs Australia at Lord’s. The match featured double centuries from Wally Hammond for England and Bill Brown for Australia – who carried his bat in the first innings – and it ended in a draw. The series itself ended 1-1 and Australia retained the urn. World War 2 would break out the next year and so it was the last Ashes series until 1946-1947.

Reading a bit about that tour, and despite the fact that of course there were no other formats to play besides the Test, Australia were in England from the last week of April until mid-September. On top of the five Tests – one of which was abandoned without a ball bowled – they played a whopping 27 tour matches. 27!!

Just further evidence that times have sure changed. On that day at Lord’s in 1938, there was one camera perched atop the Nursery End stand and Kerry Packer was only six months old. Today at Mirpur they played a format that is only two years older than Twitter and there were at least 20 times as many cameras – and the match was beamed all over the world – including to the cricketing backwater that is the United States.

Times change. But so does cricket. That, for me, bodes well for its future.

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We are the Robots

A couple weeks back, I predicted the outcome of all the matches at the ICC World T20s using the ICC’s very own ranking system as a guide.

It got one very big thing wrong right at the start, as the Netherlands qualified and Ireland did not, but it still started out with an impressive streak of eight matches in a row correctly predicted.

Now with two and a half matches left to go in the group stages, I wanted to take another look at how my predictions did.

Group 1:

Super 10; Group 1 Predicted Winner Actual
SA v SL SL SL
ENG v NZ NZ NZ
NZ v SA SA SA
SL v IRE SL SL
SA v IRE SA SA
ENG v SL SL ENG
NZ v IRE NZ NZ
ENG v SA SA SA
ENG v IRE ENG NETH
NZ v SL SL n/a

That’s seven out of nine correct – which means the ICC robots got 78% of its pre-tournament predictions right in this group. That’s impressive. If this was Vegas, the ICC would get kicked out of the casino for card counting.

As I type this, New Zealand are 23/4 and collapsing, so it will likely be a solid 8 out of 10 for the ICC’s rankers – a classy 80%.

But they got one match very, very wrong. For today in Chittagong, the Netherlands humiliated and hapless England. It was a simultaneously unpredictable and predictable result. Everyone knew that England were in a shambles, despite an impressive win over Sri Lanka. And despite the points they had built up in the T20 format over the last couple of years, everyone – save the ICC robots – knew that England might struggle against a spirited Dutch side. And they did. And that’s why we play the games. Because sometimes the things that really matter don’t show up on a stat sheet. I don’t put a ton of stock in the sports cliches of “clutch” and “hustle” and the like – I think it is more that good cricketers play for good cricket sides and those good cricket sides more often than not beat poorer cricket sides – but things like momentum and attitude and chutzpah and spirit and teamwork MATTER. And those are not tangibles. And that’s why we play the games. For the intangibles.

Onto group 2:

Super 10; Group 1 Predicted Winner Actual
IND v PAK IND IND
AUS v PAK PAK PAK
IND v WI IND IND
WI v BANG WI WI
AUS v WI AUS WI
IND v BANG IND IND
PAK v BANG PAK PAK
AUS v IND IND IND
AUS v BANG AUS n/a
PAK v WI PAK n/a

With two matches still to come tomorrow, the ICC robots are 7 for 8 for an impressive 88%. If Aus v Bang and Pak v WI go as predicted, it will end up at 90%.

What this shows us, I think, is that for the most part, the ICC rankings are pretty good, if not infallible. And so while I think they can and should be used a guide for tournament rankings and the like, I do think they are not quite good enough to be used to determine which sides should get into those tournaments and which stay home. And I certainly don’t think they are good enough for the proposed relegation/promotion system.

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And just as a reminder, here is how the robots predict the knockout stages:

Semi-Final #1: Winner
Sri Lanka v Pakistan Sri Lanka
Semi-Final #2: Winner
India vs South Africa India
Final Winner
Sri Lanka vs India Sri Lanka

A couple of results in the group stage still need to go the right way for those to hold true, but I think that looks about right.

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Why I Canceled my Willow.TV Subscription

There is more than one reason, of course, but I will spare you the boring ones like “I wanted to save a few bucks” and “been too busy to watch much cricket lately anyway” and “ESPN3′s been doing a nice job recently filling in the cracks when I do have time” – those are important and valid reasons, of course, but they do not tell the entire story.

I cancelled because the service – despite its best intentions – is no longer worth the $15 a month. And this is because it is catering not to the global cricket supporter, but to the Indian ex-pat in America. All you have to do to see the direction the service is taking is to look at the events page: mostly Indian domestic leagues – including the IPL, of course – plus a few International tours, most of them involving India.

Now Indian cricket is phenomenally entertaining – and the IPL alone is a fantastic product (if that’s your thing) – and so I do not blame the service for the business decision they have made – they saw a hole in the market and they exploited it, just like you’re supposed to do – but unfortunately their current roster of rights is just not worth my $15 a month.

But there is a larger story here, as Willow’s model adjustment makes it appear that the only way for an online cricket service to survive in America is for it to cater almost exclusively to one segment of the cricket watching US public – albeit, of course, the largest and most passionate, but still only one segment – and that goes to show that the sport really hasn’t taken any sort of foothold in the mainstream US sporting landscape. And this lack of solid footing for the game could spell the end of what was a truly a great time to be a cricket follower in America.

Of course, there is ESPN, with their coverage of ICC tournaments and other tours, but as the American based Aussie Rules fan will tell you, ESPN picks up and drops rights to “alternative” sports as it pleases and without warning. And so while ESPN might very well pick up the rights that Willow have dropped – England, for one; New Zealand, for another – then again they might not. And if they don’t, then the cricketing golden age here in the states might very well have reached its Zenith last summer, and simultaneously we might very well wave goodbye forever to cricket ever “happening” in America.

I hope I am wrong, and I might be jumping the gun a bit, but we shall see. At this point I don’t see another provider the size of ESPN – like an NBC for example – jumping in for any cricketing rights; and I really don’t think there is room for another start-up online cricketing service. And so we can only hope that ESPN expands its coverage, and fills in the gaps left by Willow.TV, or that Willow adjusts back to its past business model of showing a great deal more variety of world cricket (and if that happens, they will get my $15/month back).

Time will tell. Until then, I am back to the good old days of the ball by ball and the BBC.

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Rankings

When it comes to sports, there are certainly a lot of really dumb things, but for me, one of the dumbest is surely the ranking system certain leagues/sports use. From the BCS in college football to FIFA’s international football rankings to, of course, the ICC’s format rankings, it all seems so convoluted, and wrong, and random. The formulas are simultaneously too simplistic and too complex. They try to explain the intangible using the tangible, and that never works. It’s like trying to use statistics to describe the act of falling in love. It just doesn’t translate. And to use these rankings to decide championships and tournament seedings lends an air of corruption to the whole system.

The ICC’s rankings are, of course, some of the most ridiculously complicated out there, and we all tend to give them a bit of a hard time – but just how wrong – or right – are they?

Take the current T20 rankings, for example. They go something like this:

Team Matches Points Rating
Sri Lanka 26 2848 129
India 19 1843 123
Pakistan 40 3638 121
South Africa 31 2940 118
Australia 31 2869 115
West Indies 29 2690 112
New Zealand 29 2475 108
England 34 2811 104
Ireland 17 1106 92
Bangladesh 18 1034 74
Afghanistan 15 928 66
Netherlands 12 508 56
Scotland 13 545 50
Zimbabwe 17 589 45
Kenya 17 633 42
Canada 8 11 2

Is Sri Lanka really the best T20I team out there? I think so. Probably. But what about all the other places? Should Afghanistan really be behind Bangladesh? And India has only played 19 qualifying matches – shouldn’t that go against them? And is England REALLY that bad?

Thankfully, we have a T20 World Championship going on right now. So let’s test these out – see how silly – or how spot on – they truly are.

The qualifying matches are happening as I type, but if we use rankings alone, Ireland and Bangladesh will move on to the Super 10 stage.

Then Group 1 will look like this:

South Africa
Sri Lanka
England
New Zealand
Ireland

And Group 2 like this:

Pakistan
India
Australia
West Indies
Bangladesh

And based solely on ICC’s rankings – and just assuming for fun that there are no ties or no results – the Group 1 Super 10 stage will play out like this:

Super 10; Group 1 Winner
SA v SL SL
ENG v NZ NZ
NZ v SA SA
SL v IRE SL
SA v IRE SA
ENG v SL SL
NZ v IRE NZ
ENG v SA SA
ENG v IRE ENG
NZ v SL SL

And the Group 2 Super 10 stage like this:

Super 10; Group 2 Winner
IND v PAK IND
AUS v PAK PAK
IND v WI IND
WI v BANG WI
AUS v WI AUS
IND v BANG IND
PAK v BANG PAK
AUS v IND IND
AUS v BANG AUS
PAK v WI PAK

Final Super 10 tables:

Group 1 Wins Points
South Africa – 2 3 6
Sri Lanka – 1 4 8
New Zealand 2 4
England 1 2
Ireland 0 0
Group 2
Pakistan – 2 3 6
India – 1 4 8
Australia 2 4
West Indies 1 2
Bangladesh 0 0

Those results put Sri Lanka v Pakistan in Semi-Final #1 (Sri Lanka to win) and India v South Africa in Semi-Final #2 (India to win).

And then Sri Lanka will win it all, just as the ICC Ranking Gods decreed.

So why even play the games?

I am kidding of course. We play the games because sport exists outside the realm of math and science and statistics. Sure, they play their role, but at the end of the day, sports are played by humans, and humans are by nature completely unpredictable.

But just as an exercise, I will track the 23 matches above as they go – noting the actual outcome versus the robot’s prediction – and see how it all shakes out.

You have your way to enjoy a T20 World Championship, and I have mine.

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Moving On

Over the last couple of weeks, I have read quite a bit about supporters becoming more and more disenfranchised with their favorite clubs. Coventry City, Cardiff City and even my beloved Arsenal. They feel that their clubs are moving to a place – literally or figuratively – where they will no longer be able to support them. The barriers – financial or otherwise – are becoming too large. They feel as though their clubs have turned their backs on them, their most faithful supporters. And while true boycotts are few and far between, most of these supporters are nearing their breaking points.

All sports fans know that their favorite teams exist for one purpose: to make money for the team’s shareholders. We are not fans, we are products sold to advertisers. We are a demographic. We understand that, and for the most part are able to co-exist with it. It becomes a problem when – as Tim from the Arsenal blog 7amkickoff points out – you are no longer a prime demographic for the club. Because you don’t make enough money, or have the right degree, or live in the right time zone. And once that happens, your club slowly drifts away from you, and you are left with a choice: accept the new terms, or move on.

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Antoinette Mueller (aka @mspr1nt) discussed in a wonderful piece what cricket fans can learn from what is happening at Coventry City. So I am not going to do that here. Instead I am going to tell you my story about how I have – slowly, but surely – walked away from a team I once adored.

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I moved to Minnesota in December of 1987, two months after the Minnesota Twins won the World Series. They were a scrappy bunch of has-beens and never-will-bes (plus Kirby Puckett) and they were a true Cinderella story. I watched those playoffs from the sunroom of our house in Michigan and I instantly fell in love with them. These were my guys. This was my team.

As we all know, we do not choose which teams to support – the teams choose us. And the Minnesota Twins had chosen me.

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The Metrodome, now a laughing stock, was for me at the time a shining beacon of hope. It was loud and different and quirky and possessed a sense of magic that only little kids could sense. Furthermore, I was not happy in Michigan, and the move west was a chance to reinvent myself.

When we moved that December, we approached the city of Minneapolis from the north, and drove right past the “Dome”. It was a moment I will never forget. There it was. That inflated Teflon lid that had housed all of that October magic. Before that moment it had only existed on television. But then there it was. In all its glory.

It was evening. I can still picture it.

ows_136150308178517As a family, we would attend many Twins games at the dome. Sometimes just my dad and me, sometimes the whole clan. And from my basement bedroom, two years nearly to the day after my dad had passed away, I watched the Twins win another World Series in what was affectionately known as the “Homer-Dome”.

In the mid-to-late 90s, Twins fans – including me – suffered through some horribly lean years. The dome held 50,000 people but most home games saw crowds as small as three or four thousand. A few hopeful faces amid oceans and oceans of those uncomfortable blue chairs.

From 1997-1999, I lived in a studio apartment that looked out over the Metrodome – pretty much the same view you see above. The Twins – and the Dome – were a near constant presence in my life those days, even if the team was simply terrible.

But then in 2001, the Twins all of a sudden were good again. My wife and I were living downtown and for the next few seasons attended games almost weekly. Sometimes it was just us – other times we were surrounded by friends. I remember so many wonderful walks to the Dome on perfect summer evenings. And I have oh-so-many fond memories of the Twins winning in brilliant fashion and leaving the stadium surrounded by joyous fans followed by an elated walk back home.

It was one of the happiest times of my life. Young love. Baseball. In the heart of the city.

We would always go to games on Tuesday nights – for it was half price night. Seats in the outfield bleachers were only seven dollars. And that’s the thing: the Twins at the Metrodome were always a bargain. And because of that they attracted a more blue collar crowd – a younger crowd, a more urban crown – then the gridiron football team in town, the Minnesota Vikings. They were our team. They belonged to us. The suburbs had the Vikings. We had the Twins.

You would go to indie rock clubs on Friday nights and the bass player of the noise rock band you came to see would be wearing a Minnesota Twins cap.

It was things like that made me love my city, made me love the Twins. They were mine. They had always been mine.

And then, all of a sudden, they weren’t.

In 2010, after years of wrangling, the Twins opened Target Field and left behind the Metrodome forever.

Target Field is a beautiful ballpark. A top notch facility in every way possible. But the team it hosts is no longer my team. They are a rich person’s team. I have been priced out. I was no longer their prime demographic and I was given the choice mentioned above: accept the new terms, or move on.

And in the last few months, I have chosen the latter.

Sure I have been to a few games at Target Field – and had some really great times – and I still check the box scores occasionally – and I still love baseball – but the Minnesota Twins are no longer my team. And they never will be again. They moved on, and so have I.

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The Minnesota Vikings – who shared the Dome with the Twins – had their new stadium approved in 2012, to be built on the same land as the Metrodome. And so my beloved old ground is being slowly dismantled. Every time I go by it, a little bit more of it is gone, and I think of all the memories and ghosts and moments – some baseball related but also many, many non-baseball related – friends now lost, summer nights, dads, and the magic of being young and in awe of sport – that were housed there. Those memories will be around long after the last pillar is demolished, of course, but the physical connection to those memories will be gone forever. And that breaks my heart.

The dismantling of the dome is a physical manifestation of what happened to the love I used to have for the Minnesota Twins.

They were my team.

Once.

But not anymore.

metrodome1-630x472

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Us, and our teams

They came to be elated and uplifted…raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. ….

Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives.

- Dennis Lehane,from Mystic River

Yesterday Arsenal lost 5-1 to Liverpool at Anfield. It was a dismal performance and very difficult to swallow.

Since the match was at 6:45am here in Minneapolis, I was forced to dwell on it all day long – and it cast a real pall on my day. I was in a funk from the first minute when Skrtel scored all the way through to much later in the evening when I finally had enough wine and non-football-related conversations to rid myself of the stink of the loss.

For the most part, I am able to shake tough losses, but yesterday was different for some reason, I am not sure why. It was the worst I had felt after an Arsenal loss since their 4-2 loss – again to Liverpool – in the 2008 Champions League quarterfinal.

I tried to watch the highlights of that 2008 match last night. I saw Diaby’s goal, and Hyypia’s leveler, and then Gerrard’s rocket. And then there was Walcott’s run. Charging through the midfield. Shaking off one, two, three defenders. Only 20 years old and playing with the kind of un-jaded freedom and joy that only the young possess. Pulling it back to Adebayor. Goal. 2-2 on aggregate. And Arsenal through to the semi-finals on away goals. But then tragedy. And I closed the browser window. I couldn’t watch Toure give away the penalty. I couldn’t watch Gerrard’s conversion. It was too much to bear. I have not watched the penalty since I saw it live. And I probably will never watch it again.

It is still so, so painful. All these years later.

We all know that feeling, of course, as sports fans. That gross pit in our stomachs after watching our side utterly collapse right before our eyes. Those lonely and cold and depressing walks from the stadium to the train station or the parking lot. Half drunk and grumpy and surrounded by strangers. And how that feeling sits on our shoulders for hours and days – and sometimes even years.

But why do we allow these silly little games to affect us so? And why are some tougher to swallow than others?

I guess I don’t have the scientific answers to those questions, as I am not a psychoanalyst, but I think Lehane was half right above – as sport is the only place on earth where, vicariously at least, we are able to experience true victory. Our lives are, for the most part, winless. Unemployment. Car crashes. Deaths. There are victories, sure, but they are often tainted, often colored by tragedy.

“Life isn’t,” wrote Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, “a 2-0 home victory after a fish and chip lunch.”

And so I see why we celebrate our teams victories, as it allows us to taste pure winning.

But why then do the victories crush us so? If we only know defeat in our lives why are we so utterly saddened by the defeat of our teams?

I think it is because we have – as sports fans – come to rely on that vicarious winning, and when our teams do not deliver, we mourn not the loss of the game on the playing field or on the television, but the loss of the chance to feel truly good about something.

We are not sad because Arsenal lost. As there will always be another match. And Arsenal lose a lot. We are instead sad because the opportunity to feel the untainted and limitless joy of victory was taken away from us. And we are forced back into the drudgery of Monday, of February, of work, without having tasted of that joy.

“Win for me. Win for my kids.”

It’s silly, of course, because non-sports-fans go their entire lives without experiencing any of the above. They know joy and sadness and victory, too – just in other pursuits.

But I will say this, at the risk of being controversial: sports fans experience higher highs – and lower lows – than non sports fans.

I think this is similar to parenting. People that have children – while not necessarily happier than people who do not have kids – do experience higher highs – and lower lows – than childless people.

Again, Nick Horby:

…So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.

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But why do certain matches affect us more than others? It surely has more to do with how big the game was, with how much was at stake. And it again surely has more to do with how your team loses – 5-1 is easier than 2-1, for instance.

I guess I don’t have the answer to that question either. I don’t know why yesterday’s loss bummed me out more than, say, the 1-0 loss to Manchester United or the disastrous 3-1 home loss to Villa. I don’t know why I needed to taste joy yesterday morning more so than any other Saturday kickoff.

I guess maybe it has just been a dark winter. Full of drudgery. And I needed a little light. And I didn’t get it. And it bummed me out. And I mourned the loss of the chance for that light. And I will continue to mourn it for a long time, just as I continue to mourn the missed chance for joy that that Champions League quarterfinal had promised.

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Listen. Sports are stupid. And we are idiots. But I truly believe in all of the above. We all – sports fans and non-sports fans alike – are searching for meaning in our lives. We live for 70 years (if we are lucky) on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old and is spinning on the loneliest edge of an incomprehensibly vast, dark and cold universe. We do all that we can to eke out an existence for ourselves, our children, our friends. Hoping to leave something behind that says that it all mattered.

Life is hard. And there are vast chunks of it that lack any sort of meaning, but sport helps us find a pattern in the void, in life’s wallpaper.

And I don’t there is anything the slightest bit wrong about that.

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On England: One Bad Patch

George Dobell, on Cricinfo:

This England environment, in recent times, has a record of ruining players. A confused Steven Finn has regressed, an over-used Swann has retired, an exhausted Jonathan Trott has taken time out and the loss of form of the likes of Cook and Joe Root suggests that the schedule is part of an unsustainable business plan that risks running the greatest assets of all: the players.

The article is about Kevin Pietersen of course, which is why he doesn’t mention him – but he does oddly omit any mention of Andrew Strauss, who went from world beating captain to disgraced outsider all in less than 18 months.

And so what has happened to this England – this machine, this juggernaut – that created such a poisonous environment?

Nothing all that out of the ordinary, actually – at least in my opinion. Sure, they hit a bad patch of form – a bad patch greatly exaggerated because it was against the old enemy on cricket’s biggest stage – but this is not their first bad patch since reaching what most would see as the pinnacle of recent years: beating Australia in the fifth Test of the 2010-11 Ashes at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In fact, it’s their third since the SCG Test. I even plotted it out for us all to see:

England Test recordWith each bad patch came a series of knee jerk reactions from the ECB (Eoin Morgen’s last Test for England was against Pakistan in Dubai and Andrew Strauss’s lest Test for England was against South Africa at Lord’s – to name just two).

And now they are dismissing Pietersen.

Again, from Dobell:

It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that it is the institution at fault, not the individuals.

I cannot agree more.

The ECB, through mismanagement, and just since 2011, has ruined the careers of a half dozen of the greatest English cricketers of the last 50 years.

But a caveat:

As seen in the graphic above, each reaction from the ECB was followed by a period of relative success at the Test level – that cannot be disputed. And so maybe, despite what we all may think, the ECB upper management knows what they are doing better than the armchair journos, as they have the results on the pitch to back them up.

Maybe.

But probably not.

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