Five Days in July

July 17, 2014

At 11 o’clock in the morning on July 17th, in the steamy cauldron of Lord’s Cricket ground in the heart of St. John’s Wood, London, a coin was flipped, and 22 players in white – 11 from England and 11 from India – strode out to play cricket for five days. 

In Amsterdam, Malaysian Airlines flight number 17 was idling at gate CO3.

It would depart 14 minutes later.

In the Gaza strip, all was quiet, as both sides held fast to a United Nations proposed humanitarian cease fire.

It would end abruptly two hours later.

**

England won the toss and elected to field. Play started slowly that morning. An hour in at drinks India were 25-1 under a scorching sun on a green pitch that was swinging both ways. At lunch India were 73-2 as Anderson steamed in over and over again and Indian batsmen blocked and blocked again. By tea wickets had started to fall as India’s luck was appearing to run out on the Lord’s green, and they returned to the clubhouse at 140 for 6. But India were far from done. Ajinkya Rahane was only on 26 at the break, but would end the day on 103, as he broke England’s backs with a relentless run-a-ball second 50 through the final session of the day before finally falling.

90 overs and one day in, the Test was well poised with India at 290-9.

**

In the Ukraine, just as Rahane was starting to find his stroke against the English seamers, at about 15:15 London time, Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with MH17. A few minutes beforehand, the Boeing 777 was hit by a Russian made surface to air missle and crashed near the Ukrainian village of Hrabove killing all 283 souls aboard.

A few minutes after that, with the temporary ceasefire no longer in effect, a Gaza resident posted this message to Facebook:

“I’ll tell you what is harder than dying in Gaza by an Israeli missile deluxe. What is harder is that you get a phone call from the Israeli army telling you to evacuate your home because it will be bombed in ten minutes. Imagine; ten minutes; and your whole short history on the surface of Earth will be erased.
Gifts you received, photos of your siblings and your children (dead or alive), things that you love, your favorite chair, your books, that last poetry collection your read, a letter from your expatriate sister, reminders of the ones you loved, the smell of your bed, the jasmine tree that hangs off your western window, your daughter’s hair clip, your old clothes, your prayer rug, your wife’s gold, your savings; imagine; all this passes in front of your eyes in ten minutes, all that pain passes while you are struck by surprise.
Then you take your identification papers (passport, birth certificate, etc.) which you have ready in an old metallic candy box, and you leave your home to die a thousand times, or refuse to leave and die once.” -Mahmoud Jouda, Gaza

As the sun set on the Holy Land, Hamas lobbed missles into Israel, and the Israeli Defense Fund thumped northern Gaza with hundreds of shells, killing civilians who would not or could not leave. A hospital was hit by tank fire. And Netanyahu ordered a ground invasion. Operation Protective Edge was in full force.

July 18, 2014

The next morning, Palestinian officials announced their latest casualty numbers: 248 killed and nearly 2,000 wounded since the conflict began.

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2,200 miles to the east, day two of play opened, Mohammed Shami was caught by Alistair Cook, India were all out for 295, and it was England’s turn on the tricky pitch.

English opener Cook scored 10 off of 29 in 40 minutes before Bhuvneshwar Kumar took his wicket. Sam Robson scored 17 off of 42 in 62 minutes before Bhuvneshwar Kumar took his wicket. Ian Bell scored 16 off of 56 in 72 minutes before Bhuvneshwar Kumar took his wicket. While Gary Ballance scored 110 off of 203 in…297 minutes – a hair shy of five hours - before Bhuvneshwar Kumar took his wicket. Just as with Rahane, the majority of Ballance’s runs came in the final session. And just as with Rahane, Ballance fell before the day was out, leaving England tottering but ahead at 219-6 when day two saw its final delivery.

It was a Friday. And was the hottest day of year so far in London, topping out at a whopping 30 degrees C.

*

In the Ukraine, the airplane’s black boxes were looted by separatists. And the finger pointing from all sides began. As did the denouncements. And the world mourned the tragic deaths of HIV/AIDS researchers aboard the plane, who were heading to a conference in Melbourne.

In Gaza, more death from above as missiles rained down on both sides of the Gaza-Israel barrier, but the world, all of sudden, wasn’t watching anymore. The world’s eyes were on the Ukraine.

July 19, 2014

On day three in St. John’s Wood, the English tail collapsed in short order, and despite the heroics from Liam Plunkett and his brave half century, the Indian attack had the home side all out for 319 before lunch.

Murali Vijay walked to the crease just before one o’clock, and that’s where he would stay for the next six hours – seeing 247 deliveries, scoring 95 runs and frustrating the English bowlers to their breaking point.

Four and three quarters of those hours would take place on day three of the Test, a Saturday, as would 50 of the runs. Indian wickets would fall around him, but Vijay’s patience paid dividends and India were safely to 169-4 after three days play and 145 runs ahead with two days remaining. It was becoming more and more clear than India were going to do something that they very, very rarely do: not lose at Lord’s.

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As play was closing in London, a Hamas missile hit a Bedouin tent, killing a father and critically injuring a four month old child. The eyes of the world returned to the far eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea. The Palestinian death toll stood at 348. On July 19 alone, Hamas fired 94 rockets at Israel while the IDF hit 140 sites in Gaza.

That same day, a Ukrainian official told a press conference that they “have compelling evidence that this terrorist act was committed with the help of the Russian Federation. We know clearly that the crew of this system were Russian citizens.” And insurgents began removing bodies from the flight wreckage.

July 20, 2014

Hours before day four of the cricket, Israel and Gaza lit up the sky. An IDF armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket, killing seven soldiers. 120 Palestinians were killed in the ensuing conflict, many of them women and children.

*

In London, play resumed. And India continued to score. 203-6 at drinks. 267-7 at lunch. A 50 for Jajeda. 334-8 at afternoon drinks. A 50 for Kumar. And – finally – 342 all out at tea.

England were chasing 318, and the light was fading. And the pitch was seaming. And Dhoni unleashed new bowler after new bowler. Cook, Robson, Ballance and Bell all fell before stumps, leaving England reeling and India ascending.

July 21, 2014

Despite a glimmer of hope as England lost only one wicket before lunch on day Five, the Test belonged to India. The tail collapsed with only Prior scoring double digits, and for the first time in three years and 15 overseas Test, India won a Test outside of India. And they had done it at Lord’s against England. And it wasn’t just a win, it was a shellacking complete with fallout. Prior: gone. Cook on the verge. The ECB in shambles. And their best player, Jimmy Anderson, on trial for a charge that could see him miss the last two Tests of the series.

In the Ukraine, order was slowly being restored at the crash site. Observers were allowed in. The black boxes were in the hands of the proper authorities. Dutch and Malaysian emissaries had reached agreements to have their citizens’ remains returned.

But with Russia blaming the Ukraine and the Ukraine blaming Russia, the incident still brought to mind words like “Lusitania” and “Ferdinand.” The world is waiting with bated breath, hoping that cooler heads – and diplomacy prevail.

While in Gaza, war wages. 83,000 Palestinian refugees. 2,000 rockets fired at Israel. 2,800 targets struck by the IDF. 600 Palestinians killed – 400 alone during the five days of cricket. 30 IDF solders killed.

And those are just the raw numbers. The scale of human suffering continuing to happen in Gaza is beyond comprehension. And there is no end in site. In five days – just five days – the region has descended from the brink of peace into the depths of hell.

*

As the coin was being flipped in London, MH17 was still safely at the gate in Holland and a cease-fire was tentatively being honored in Gaza and in Israel. But since the first ball was delivered, hospitals in Gaza have been shelled, hundreds of innocents have been killed, and Russia let slip the dogs of war – all while an entire nation of Israelis lived in terror of the next rocket, and prayed for the safe return of their sons and daughters in the IDF.

It was a Test match. The world didn’t stop to watch. History marched on beside it. People died – sometimes once, sometimes a thousand times – wars began, lives were ripped apart, history was set in motion toward a dark and unforeseen end.

Only so much can happen during a 90 minute football match, but in five days, the whole world can change. And for many, during those five days in July, it did. Before for many more – in Israel, in Gaza, in a nameless field in the Ukraine - it ended. Over and over again. And will continue to end for days and weeks and months and years to come.

Let us all pray for peace.

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Old friends

After the Matt Prior story broke this afternoon, it got me to thinking about all the cricketers I have watched retire from the international game over the last few years. Looking back at the squad lists from the 2007 World Cup – the tournament where I started following the game – and seeing the names of all the greats that are no longer with us, for lack of a better phrase, I was overwhelmed with memories of days gone by.

Ponting, Gilchrist, Hussey, McGrath, Smith, Boucher, Kallis, Pollock, Dravid, Ganguly,Tendulkar, Flintoff, Pietersen, Strauss…and the list just goes on and on. It is a veritable who’s who of the best world cricketers to ever walk out onto a pitch, and it is also a list of the players who taught me what this great game is all about.

Cricket, like all sports, reinvents itself every 10-15 years or so. Superstars retire and new blood takes their place. Tendulkar stepped down, and in stepped Kohli.

But just as Virat will never fill Sachin’s shoes in the eyes of Indian fans, no other players will take the place of the ones I “grew up” with, that taught me the game of cricket, that showed me its magic and its passion – and those players include Matt Prior.

Those were my guys, my teachers, and now that entire generation is slipping away, seeping back into the periphery from which they came. And no matter how much I love to watch this new crop of superstars swagger up and down the pitch at Lord’s, or the MCG, or the Wankhede, they will never replace the players I saw in the Caribbean seven years ago, the players I saw in the England-India series the following summer, or the players that lit up the whole of England in the 2009 Ashes.

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When Tendulkar retired, I mourned his loss like the rest of the cricket world, but I also cried at the stories of how his career summed up people’s entire childhoods – and that with him gone, so was their youth. And while I have always bemoaned the fact that cricket does not benchmark my life, I can suffer the same slings and arrows as my fellow cricket followers when the cricketers of my “youth” retire. I was not a young man when I started watching Matt Prior, but I was young to the game, and with him gone, so is just a bit more that drew me cricket all those years ago.

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Nowadays teams at the club level turnover their squads with ruthless efficiency. You can watch your team win a championship only to turn around two or three years later and realize that there isn’t a single player left from that group of athletes that thrilled you so.

This is less the case in international sport, of course, where we are able to develop relationships with athletes that last a decade or more, but it is even less the case in cricket than other international sports, because of the high importance of international competition in cricket overall. And because of this, the relationships we have with cricketers are deeper, longer and more meaningful then they are with athletes from any other sport. It’s just one more thing that makes this game so special. And it’s why when players step aside, struggle at the crease, or pass away, we mourn so fiercely. Like we all did today – English, Indian or otherwise – when that grizzled old keeper was force to tell the world that he’d had enough. An old friend, a fixture on the English XI that beat the world, fading off into the sunset.

Watching proud men and women age is difficult. Sport forces us to do it every day. And in cricket, it’s woven into the fabric of the game.

*

Note: I know that Prior is only taking a break. But let’s be honest, he has played his last game for England.

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On World Cups…

Everyone knows that cricket’s World Cup is long. But just how long when compared to the two other major global team tournaments?

Taking a look:

2015 Rugby World Cup:

Number of teams: 20
Length of tournament: 43 days

2014 Football World Cup:

Number of teams: 32
Length of tournament: 31 days

2015 Cricket World Cup:

Number of teams: 14
Length of tournament: 43

Now, I love the cricket World Cup. I think it is an entertaining and competitive tournament that despite its flaws, usually puts on a pretty good show. And I think next year’s version in Australia will be no different – and that the 2019 Cup in England will be a true show piece.

But when compared to other global sports, it really is too long. It’s simply not marketable to a global audience as it currently stands.

Dropping teams is not the answer (not that that stopped the ICC’s Big Three), as it currently has six fewer teams than Rugby’s and 18 fewer teams than football’s – but still is tied with Rugby for the longest. The answer might be in the format. The Champions Trophy – especially last year’s iteration – is one example of a lightning quick, well fought, competitive ODI format. Unfortunately, that tournament leaves out the Associates and the bottom two full members. That right there takes the “World” right out of “World Cup”. But considering the drop off between the 8th ranked ODI team (West Indies) and the 9th ranked ODI team (Bangladesh), one could argue that leaving out weaker teams – while possibly making the tournament less global in nature – makes for a more entertaining – and shorter – tournament.

So the answer then becomes qualification. Start with all ICC member nations – seeded, of course, and grouped by region – and over the course of 18 months whittle them down to eight teams. Then it’s two groups of four, a semi-final and a final. 14 total matches. The whole thing is done in three weeks if not less.

As long as the Associates have the opportunity to qualify, then the tournament is fair and fun and balanced.

Except it’s not.

Because it’s cricket. And cricket is different than rugby. Different than football. Because unlike the “every given Sunday” nature of those sports (and most American sports), cricket, to quote Gideon Haigh, is “relentlessly” fair. 99 times out of a 100, the better team wins. And so in football while the occasional side – like, say, Honduras – will qualify out of a weak conference and make the “show” – that just wouldn’t happen in cricket. The game is too fair.

And it’s not global enough. South Korea and Cameroon are horrible football teams, but they qualified for the biggest sporting event on earth simply because they play in the right conference.

And so the Associates in cricket would still be frozen out of a World Cup even if they got to chance to play the big boys – which of course would never happen because of the balance of power in the game, but for the sake of argument – they would still be frozen out because they would always lose. And because the game is not global enough, and so a weak team would never get a shot at the spotlight just because they happen to reside in a weak conference.

*
So what’s the answer?

How to make the ODI World Cup competitive, inclusive and marketable?

I, of course, do not have the answer, as there is no silver bullet in this situation. But, that said, if football can do it – when you consider they are governed by one of the most corrupt organizations on earth – then cricket can do it too.

The first step? Wipe the slate clean. Keep the 2019 tournament in England but start RIGHT NOW in planning something different that makes the World Cup an event that everyone – cricket fan or not – tunes into the final of. Maybe even a couple of Americans.

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Cricket’s Legacy

Sometimes you read something and you remember why started doing this all in the first place.

North of Colombo there is a town called Chilaw. There is an ancient Hindu temple in Chilaw that was once visited by Gandhi. Every year they have the Munneswaram festival. It was once famous for pearls. And they have a first-class cricket team: the Chilaw Marians Cricket Club.

Shaminda Eranga comes from Chilaw.

Like many in Sri Lanka, the cricketers from Chilaw are largely invisible inside the system. There are Test-quality cricketers playing on the streets of the Hikkaduwa right now that will never play with a hard cricket ball in their life.

Eranga was not playing first-class cricket. He was not in the system. He shouldn’t have made it at all. But like his seam-bowling partner Nuwan Pradeep, he made his way to a fast-bowling competition. He bowled fast. But five guys bowled faster. Somehow the sixth-fastest bowler in that completion was picked for Chilaw Marians Cricket Club. Five years later he would clean bowl Brad Haddin with his second ball in international cricket.

Eranga is the closest thing Chilaw has produced to a pearl in a very long time.

-Jarrod Kimber, via Cricinfo

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Cricket is a bat and ball sport existing on the fringes of everything. But it inspires the best sportswriting on earth. Period. And Jarrod is one of the best. He writes about cricket the way cricket is supposed to be played: with abandon, freedom and caution. He swashbuckles like a West Indian seamer, yet he can also block like an English nightwatchman.

I find pieces like Jarrod’s inspiring – they remind me that cricket is a game that deserves respect from those that are lucky enough to write about it. It’s a marvelous game filled with escape tunnels and villains and turncoats and heroes riding into battle. It’s poetry and it’s madness. It has characters that no fiction writer could possibly imagine given a thousand years. And when we write about it, we need to give it its due.

Our work can’t be phoned in. Cricket deserves better than that. For the game’s legacy is determined not in the actions of the players on the field or the supporters in the stands, it is determined by those that write about it. Journalists, editors, bloggers…all of us hold cricket’s legacy in our hands.

Jarrod Kimber is providing this game we love with a legacy that will last a thousand years. And we need to do the same.

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#ICYMI

I have been doing some freelance writing, and I wanted to pass along the links in case anyone was interested.

For the brand new PasteSoccer.com I have been helping them out with their World Cup coverage. I wrote a piece about why Switzerland is going to shock the world this summer, as well as a couple more straightforward previews (Ecuador, France, Honduras and the Swiss), a stadium gallery and a few quick-hit video posts – with more to come, too.

Regarding cricket, I also wrote two short features for the ACF Champions League’s official site: a player feature on all-rounder Fawwad Latif and a team profile of the Arizona Scorpions.

Getting paid to write is both rewarding as well as far more tedious, as I tend to agonize over every word for the paid pieces, while here on the blog I just shoot from the hip – which is a bit more fun. That said, seeing the money show up in my PayPal account makes the agonizing worth it.

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Mankading

Earlier this week Sri Lankan bowler Sachithra Senanayake “Mankaded” English batsman Jos Butler and the whole of world cricket went completely mental.

Traditionally, while legal, the act of Mankading is seen to be in violation of the “spirit of the game”, and those four words tend to bring out the best of the best and the worst of the worst when it comes to cricket related debates (just ask Ian Bell).

I, for one, don’t really have an opinion on this particular run out* – as I support neither England nor Sri Lanka – but I will say that it was a legal maneuver on Senanayake’s part and until the law is changed, everyone should just get on with the game – and quit backing up in the meantime.

However, off the pitch, I love it when this kind of thing happens and we all get to talk about it for a few days. It’s these bizarre intricacies of this weird little game that – at the end of the day – keep us coming back for more. Making Mankading illegal maybe would shut everyone up, but it would kill off a little bit of cricket’s soul – a little bit of its spirit, if you will – and I think that would be the real shame here.

Jos Butler’s wicket is worth the sacrifice.

And debating the “spirit of the game” – and whether or not it’s being upheld or pissed on or both - is way better than talking about spot fixing, doping or any of the other actually really horrible parts of the game.

*

In baseball, they have outlawed the always controversial home plate collision, and I gotta say that while the game might be safer and mildly less contentious, it’s also 10% less interesting, and 10% more sterile.

Cricket has been castrated enough as of late, no reason to cut anymore.

*

*I actually do have an opinion: Butler was being lazy and England batted poorly. That’s what cost them the match. Not ICC playing regulation 42-11.

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ESPN and Cricket

About two and a half months ago, I wrote a post about why I had cancelled my Willow.TV subscription. In that post, I made the following statement:

And so we can only hope that ESPN expands its coverage, and fills in the gaps left by Willow.TV

Hope, fulfilled.

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