Figure it out

I read paragraphs like this and I shudder:

“The Caribbean Premier League and the English T20 Blast loom as possible platforms for Australian players to bide their time in the second half of the year. Under normal circumstances, CA must provide no-objection certificates for players to take part in overseas T20 leagues, but pushing players out of contract would open up the market in unprecedented fashion – not only in terms of competitions, but also the commercial and sponsorship rights of players.” – Daniel Brettig writing for Cricinfo.

When the best players in the world turn their back on the international game and its most vaunted traditions like the Ashes and look instead to play in as many T20 leagues as possible–like mercenaries sailing the seven seas looking for loot–then that will be what finally kills off this game.

I am not saying it is the players’ fault, nor am I say it is the fault of Cricket Australia, for who is at fault really doesn’t matter, for in the end an Ashes boycott would truly be the beginning of the end.

Sure, the sport might survive, but it wouldn’t look like the sport we all know, it would be a shadow of its former self. Picture the IPL but 12 months a year. And the players, and Cricket Australia, need to both take a step and realize what they are doing to the game they supposedly love. David Warner was quoted in the same article linked to above as saying that “if we don’t have contracts we are going to have to find some cricket to play somewhere else because that’s what we love doing,” If you love the game so much, Mr. Warner, then have some respect for it.

Again that’s me having a go at the players. Which is only half fair. In a second article (which I recommend wholeheartedly) Mr. Brettig takes a deeper dive on the unfortunate affair saying, in part, that “the inability of either party to communicate effectively with the other is the greater problem, one with roots going back at least five years.” That’s it. That’s all it is. The toxic atmosphere created by both sides’ inability to communicate like grown ups is threatening to postpone the Ashes and cast a long, dark shadow over the whole of the game. It’s time for both sides to do what’s right: pull their socks up, shake hands, make up, and cut a deal. The sport you love–and that has made you a lot of money–is on the line. And it is on the line not just for you, but for the next generation of young cricketers and the generation after them and the generation after them.

Many folks will read this and point to the Major League Baseball in the early 1990s–Brettig himself references this and mentions that it cost the league over $700 million–and those folks will say that despite the financial losses, baseball is stronger than ever. Attendances are up, owners and the union have avoided a single day’s work stoppage for over 20 years, players are fairly compensated, there’s revenue sharing to allow smaller market teams to compete, and finally there is a performance enhancing drug policy with some teeth it. And all those things are true. Baseball is stronger than ever. But it’s also nearly unrecognizable to those of us who grew up with it. Inter-league play, endless playoffs, games that last forever, little to no player loyalty, teams holding cities hostage demanding tax payer funded stadiums as ransom, instant replay, and on and on. The survived, but to survive it had to change, and those changes made the game worse, not better.

Of course that’s just my opinion. Cricket needs to change to survive too, and maybe this how it survives, by becoming a loose knit collection of international T20 leagues. Maybe this is what brings it the Olympics, and even, yes, to America. But I don’t think so. So let’s have it, Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketer’s Association. Come to the table. Figure it out.

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I am tired of writing about things like this. I am looking forward to actually writing about something that happens on the field instead of in a boardroom. Thankfully the first ODI of the Champions Trophy is just two weeks away. The tournament opens with England playing Bangladesh at the Oval. This is, truly, a must win match for both teams if they want to have any shot at making the knock out stages. For, as I pointed out in my last post, it’s an uphill climb for both of them.

And that’s why I rather like these quick-hit tournaments. For the lower seeded teams it’s more or less three knock out matches, and for the higher seeded teams it’s three hazardous icy patches they need to negotiate. That packs a lot narrative into a short tournament, and I am very much looking forward to it.

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We are the robots, part 2

There’s one thing you can say about cricket that you can’t say about most sports: it’s fair. 99 times out of 100 the better time wins. You don’t see giant killings like you do in other sports. They happen, sure, but they are the definition of rare.

And who the better team is is usually defined using the ICC rankings. And so, as I have done before, I thought I would take the current ICC rankings (as they are today, not as they were when the teams qualified) and see how the upcoming Champions Trophy would play out if the rankings were gospel. I.e. if the team ranked higher always won.

When I did this previously the robots got about 88% of the group stage matches correct (or thereabouts) and three of the four knockout stage teams right (they picked Pakistan which missed out, the West Indies taking their place). They got both semi-final winners right (Sri Lanka and India) and they nailed the final.

Not bad.

So according to the rankings how does the Champions Trophy shape up? Let’s take a look. (This is of course assuming there are zero no-results during the tournament which is of course silly because it’s England in June, but hey this is just meant to be fun.)

Group A:

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Group B:

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Knockout stages:

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And so there we have it. Congrats to Australia.

I’ll check in on the robots during the tournament and see how they’re doing.

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Robots aside but that India v South Africa Group B match has “match of the tournament” written all over it.

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Boycott this

In December of 1979, Soviet Union troops–disguised as Afghani solders–entered the city of Kabul, Afghanistan and led a coup against the internationally recognized government of president Hafizullah Amin, who was killed after the Soviets stormed Tajbeg Palace on the evening of December 27. By next day the coup was complete, the Soviets held Kabul, and Russian tanks, troops, and vehicles spilled over the mountains in an effort to control town and cities throughout the country. It was a sign of unchecked aggression by a nation that most of the world would prefer to stay checked. Most saw the move, which horrified the West, as an attempt for the USSR to ultimately seize control of the entire Middle East and gain access to the Indian Ocean.

The international outcry was swift and severe. Ministers from 34 Muslim nations–including, interestingly, Ayatollah Khomeini, whose newly founded theocracy in Iran was a fierce enemy of most of the West–condemned the invasion and called for immediate Soviet withdrawal. The United Nations General Assembly issued a resolution protesting the Russian action. And the President of the United States, on top of his work with NATO to stem the flow of weapons into the region, famously issued an ultimatum to the Russians in January of 1980: withdraw from Afghanistan in one month or the USA would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics, due to be held in Moscow the following summer. The Russians stood firm, and the USA stayed home, as did more than 60 other nations. Four years later, the Soviets boycotted the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the ensuing guerrilla war, would last for nine years, one month, three weeks and one day. It would result in the deaths of over 120,000 Russian and Afghanistan troops, as well as the deaths of (estimates vary) at least 500,000 Afghani civilians, but probably a lot more than that.

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Starting in 1949, the South African government began to issue a series of Apartheid laws. There was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act; the Immorality Act, which banned sexual relations between people of differing races; the Population Registration Act, which classed all citizens into one of four racial categories; and the Group Areas Act, which began segregating the nation’s population based on their predetermined racial category. From 1960 to 1983, nearly four million citizens of color were forced from their homes and into segregated neighborhoods.

The worldwide outcry was not insignificant and notably included an arms and weapon embargo instituted by the United Nations. Also included in the backlash were boycotts of the nation by rock bands, orchestras and, of course, international sport organizations. For instance, four years before the USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics, 26 African nations refused to participate in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal because the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand after the All-Blacks traveled to South Africa for a Rugby tour.

Previous to the action in 1976, South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo; in 1968 the United Nations called for an international boycott of all South African sports that support Apartheid (this is the edict that New Zealand, and several other nations, violated); and in 1970 the ECB cancelled the South African’s cricket team’s tour of England after several nations threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Games to be held that summer in Scotland.

Apartheid would last until 1996. It is without a doubt one of the darkest stains on humanity, a stain that will never come clean.

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Apartheid and the 1980 and 1984 Olympics are arguably the most famous sporting boycotts, but there have been many others. Several nations did not participate in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for several different reasons; in 1988, North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua boycotted the Seoul Olympics; in 1996, Australia and the West Indies refused to play in Colombo due to security concerns; and in 2009 the England Cricket team cancelled Zimbabwe’s tour because of their government’s human rights abuses.

Every nation pulled out due to various reasons, but they were all justified, or at least logical. Be those reasons geo-political, humanitarian, or the safety of their athletes; Apartheid, unchecked Soviet Aggression leading to a decade long war or state sponsored protestor beatings in Harare. Even less politically sensitive boycotts, such as the ATP tennis players boycotting Wimbledon in 1973 could be seen as attempts to protect the rights of athletes. Sporting boycotts have always been a weapon of last resort, for good reason, as restless populations might see the boycott as a last straw by an oppressive government, and the isolation that ensues after boycotts can be see as detrimental to third world nations getting access to the West’s money and weapons. It is last resort, and the reasons have to be good ones.

India, meanwhile, want to boycott the Champions Trophy because the ICC is making an effort to fix a broken system.

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Related: BCCI Should Grow Up, via The Full Toss.

 

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Boats against the current

The IPL is happening right now, but I probably didn’t need to tell you that. It used to run in the background like a virus scan but now it is more akin to those constant Adobe software update reminders. Cricinfo, which used to more or less ignore it, is all in, with headline coverage every single day. They treat it now like it is an important cricket league, as opposed to the side show it actually is.

Okay, despite the cheerleaders and the pop music,”side show” is harsh. But really in the end it is just another domestic T20 league, awash in a side of domestic leagues, T20, 50 over or otherwise. Here’s a look at all the other domestic leagues having matches today, just today:

Dhaka Premier Division Cricket League
Pakistan Cup
Royal London One Day Cup
Super Provicinial One Day Cup
Malaysian Premier League
Million Cricket League

Of course, those leagues don’t feature (some of) the best T20 players in the world and aren’t played in the most cricketing mad country of all cricketing mad countries. And so I get it. But the IPL–whether it’s the style of the T20 played or the uniforms or the bombastic television coverage or the money or the corruption–has always bugged me. But it has also always been there. I am not only one of the rare cricket fans who has only known a cricketing world with the T20, I’ve also only known a cricketing world with the IPL. I started following the game in 2007, the first IPL was in 2008. And so it’s always been there, and so it would follow that, unlike old time fans of the game, I would be more accepting of it. And while this is true for the format, it is not true for the IPL.

I think one of my major complaints about the league is that all other international cricket pauses for seven weeks while the tournament is taking place. Not only is it the only domestic league in cricket in which international cricket pauses so it can take place, I think it is the only such league in any sport in the world that takes precedent over their international cousin. Could you imagine UEFA taking a hiatus from its endless series of friendlies and qualifiers because the English Premier League was deemed more important? Me either.

But bringing up the English Premier League brings up the point that cricket is also the only team sport where the international game is top dog and the domestic game is loved but that love is localized. There very few fans of County Cricket who exist outside England or Wales, and fans of specific county teams rarely exist outside of their county. And maybe the IPL is a sign that cricket is finally starting to move to a format that more closely resembles other team sports, where the domestic game is on top of the pile except for every four years when the World Cup happens (except if the trend continues I think it will be, for cricket, as it is for basketball, the Olympics which become the most important international tournament).

I don’t think this is a good thing.

If this happens, if domestic cricket taking precedent becomes the rule instead of the exception, and we are heading in that direction, then cricket will become a brood of international mercenaries flitting from league to league to league every few weeks. Never wearing the same shirt twice, constantly switching allegiances, with all the money going into the pockets of cricketing bureaucrats instead of back into the game. Meanwhile the international game–yes, even The Ashes–will suffer and, slowly, quietly pass it into the past. And lots of people that work at Cricinfo seem already resigned to this fate, which is why they have latched onto the IPL with both barrels. But if the international game loses out to the domestic game, then I think that will be what finally kills off cricket for good. And that, I think, more than any other reason, is why the IPL leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a harbinger of doom.

That is not to say that domestic leagues shouldn’t exist or should be weak. I believe the opposite is true. Domestic leagues in every cricket playing country on earth should be rock solid and entertaining and popular. They should just take a backseat to the international format, for the good of the game.

But all of that said, all the doomsday rhetoric and anti-IPL musings, I also believe–and I know this negates everything above–that you can’t kill cricket. Cricket is bulletproof. Cricket is like our current buffoon of a President in that every time we all think it’s down for the count, it comes raging back to life. I hope that’s true forever. And that’s why every time I write about the death of the game, I add one simple caveat: I hope I’m wrong.

For instance: Yesterday was Sachin Tendulkar’s 44th birthday. He’s only 44! He played so long that if you had told me he was 50 or even older I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I was reading about him yesterday and realized that he was only 19 when he played that one season for Yorkshire. He was their first player of color, and one of a very players that didn’t come Yorkshire proper. It was 1992, and that makes this the 25th anniversary of that summer he spent making waves across England. And while 25 years might seem like a lifetime, it is also yesterday. But so much has changed in the last 25 years, in domestic cricket, in international cricket, in England, in India, the world over. As Oliver Brown put it in this wonderful piece on that summer Sachin spent in Yorkshire, it made be only a handful of years, but the photos are already “bathed in sepia.” So much has changed, but cricket has soldiered on, bow beating against the waves. In fact it is one of the few constants in a world that lacks them also completely. And that is something worth celebrating, and that’s why I am not going to worry too much about the IPL. QED.

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A domestic USA television/streaming update: a lot of sites out there list Willow TV as the network that’s covering the Champions Trophy in the USA. This is only half true. Willow TV will be showing the matches on its television channel, but the matches will be streamed on ESPN3, not on Willow dot TV, Willow TV’s online component.

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This was hard, it was fun

On April 9 Facebook reminded me that it had been ten years since I smoked my last cigarette. This also meant it had been 10 years since I first discovered the sport of cricket, as I often credit my discovery of the sport–and the 2007 World Cup that was happening at the same time–as one of the reasons I was able to quit successfully. It gave me something to obsess over that I did not associate with smoking.

A couple years later I started this blog, and for almost five years it was my daily companion. And while I don’t post here anymore, I still come back here a lot. I read my old posts and the old comments and it is part nostalgia and part embarrassment and part awe in what I was able to accomplish in this space.  All it took was writing a post every single day. I look back on the earlier posts and juxtapose them against the later posts and I see growth not just in my understanding of the game and all its intricacies, but in my writing too. Which was why I started the blog to begin with.

But I moved on. I wanted to do other things. I didn’t want to write about cricket anymore. Unfortunately, without having this site as my backbone, my foundation, I stopped writing altogether. Up until about a year ago, that is, when all of a sudden, for reasons I cannot explain, I started writing again. The words flowed and flowed. Medium posts and short stories and one unfinished novel and one finished novel and now a memoir about the 13 years, six months and eight days I was able to spend with my father.

When I say that I finished a novel, I mean I “finished” it. There’s nothing more I can do with it. It’s a good story, I think. It’s a love story at its heart but it’s also about how it is when someone we love dies and how sometimes good things happen that wouldn’t have happened if they had lived, and it’s about coming face to face with that irony. It’s about art and the meaning we store in objects. And yes there’s cricket in it. But’s also deeply flawed and so I am not sure what to do with it. Someone else needs to read it, and provide critique, but I don’t think I have the intestinal fortitude to go through that. And so I am taking a break from it, which is what brings me here.

I still follow cricket. I don’t watch it much outside of highlights and old YouTube clips. And I mostly steer clear of stories about corruption and everything that’s wrong with the game, preferring to stick to recaps and scorecards. But lately I have found myself once again getting deeply interested in the game, watching hours of old matches on YouTube and watching Flintoff bowl that one perfect over again and again and remembering what a great, just great, game this is. More than anything though–and maybe this is because the ODI was my introduction to the sport–I am incredibly excited about the Champions Trophy taking place this summer. Yeah, I know, it’s pointless and bloated but c’mon it’s going to be fun and I can’t wait.

And so I came back here. To write about this game I remembered that I loved, and to get away from the book I don’t want to think about anymore, and to keep writing in a space where I feel comfortable. I can’t promise daily posts, but I am holding myself to two posts a week, starting now, and then daily posts during the Champions Trophy. After that who knows? But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

It’s good to be back. What’s everyone been up to?

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England v The West Indies

England’s first three settlements in the Caribbean were failures. Colonies in St. Luica, Grenada and Guiana folded rapidly. But in the 1620s, settlements in St. Kitts, Barbados and Nevis took hold and soon the entire region became one of Britain’s most lucrative colonies – mostly thanks, sadly, to sugar plantations run with slave labor.

The African slave trade would last for almost two hundred years, and wasn’t finally outlawed in the British Empire until 1807. During that time, the Royal African Company would transport 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, which accounted for a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic.

The mortality rate for slaves during the crossing was one in seven.

One in seven.

But the trade was hugely profitable for those that happened to be born the right skin color, in Africa, in England (particularly for port cities like Liverpool) and in the Americas.

The trade greatly increased the percentage of the population with African descent in the Caribbean – raising from 25% in 1650 to 80% in 1780.

Slavery was finally outlawed in the West Indies altogether in 1839. 215 years after the first colony was founded, and 26 years before the United States ratified the 13th amendment.

It’s a sad and tragic mark on our global history.

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Following World War Two, England was bankrupt – and with anti-colonialism on the rise and not wanting to sink themselves into costly wars – they began a policy of peaceful disengagement from their colonies.

Most of the Caribbean declared and were granted independence in the early 1960s, with Guyana being the last in 1966. Several colonies, of course, chose to stay under British rule, but for the most part, the Caribbean was on its own. Finally. After 360 years.

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The first cricket matches took place in the Caribbean in the early 19th century, brought over from England by the British Military, which had cricket pitches integrated into their forts.

At first, the game was a tool of imperialism, a way for Africans to learn more about English society. But soon the game became – famously – a tool for revolution, for disproving the fallacy that one race is superior to another race. For throwing the shackles of colonialism off and beating the colonizers at their own game, on their own patch. It was the great unifier of the region, and cultural touch point for West Indian people from Guyana to Jamaica.

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The West Indies have played its former masters in two tournament finals: The 1979 World Cup and the 2004 Champions Trophy, both hosted by England. And the lads from the Caribbean have won them both.

On Sunday they will meet in a final for the third time.

Nearly 400 years after British sailors first walked up the beaches of St. Kitts, the former Empire will play its former colony on the other side of the world on the home patch of another former colony.

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On the field, Cricket is a complicated game. It’s one of the reasons we all like it. The sport is filled with back-alleys and tunnels and twists and turns and cloverleafs. But off the field, the game – with its colonial history – is just as complex, and makes the games even more riveting. On Sunday, The West Indies, with its team of mostly Africans, will face England, a team of mostly whites. And while the themes of colonizer vs colonized and slaver vs slave seem rote, they add both to the complexity and richness of the game.

West Indies have only been playing Test cricket since 1928, but in more than one way, they have been battling England since 1602. And that is just one tiny subplot in a match – and a sport – that is full of sub-plots. And will be just one more thing for us all to think about as Chris Gayle of Kingston, Jamaica strides to the crease in Kolkata – a city that under British rule had a Black Town and a White Town – to face the blue eyed Peter Willey of Northampton, Northhamptonshire.

Layers upon counter plots upon layers.

That’s cricket, ladies and gentlemen.

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On Ashton Agar

Two images remain from today, one of a 19-year-old lad who may already have played the innings of his life and the other from a 38 year old man who has no more left to play.

-The Old Batsman (full post)

Around the 12 or 13th over of Sunday’s India v Australia match, a substitute fielder came on for an Australian bowler. I think the subbed bowler might have been Faulkner, but I am not entirely sure. It’s beside the point. The point is actually who the substitute was: Ashton Agar. He of the once-in-a-lifetime 98 at Trent Bridge during the first Test of the 2013 Ashes.

For those that don’t remember – all two of you – Agar, a 19 year old kid making his Test debut in the simmering cauldron of the Ashes – came in to bat at number 11 when Australia were falling off a cliff at 117/9. He then didn’t do much but bat for two runs shy of a debut Test century and the highest ever partnership for the 10th wicket (since broken). He kept Australia’s hopes alive in the first Test only to have them dashed in the end, falling 15 runs short of the rare successful chase of 300-plus runs.

It was a truly magical innings for a 19-year-old on debut, and his grace under such extreme pressure made me think Australia had itself a real special cricketer on its hands. But then he struggled with the ball, fell ill, returned home before the fourth Test, and hasn’t made a Test appearance for Australia since.

In the years between his 98 and his substitute fielder appearance on Sunday, he has played a lot of domestic cricket and appeared in a handful of ODIs. But all that promise that was on display that day in Nottingham has not re-appeared. (However, it goes to show the Australian team’s faith in his ability to handle pressure by throwing him into the field in front of a hostile ground in what was for all intents and purposes a knock-out match.)

And so it seems we have what The Old Batsman predicted above: a 22-year-old kid who played the innings of his life when he was only 19, and while he might very well prove someday to be more than just the answer to a Pub Quiz question, for now he exists forever 19, forever smiling the perfect smile of a kid “in love with absurdity of it all.” And that’s okay, I think. Well, it’s okay, of course, but it’s also a little tragic to peak so young, to be 22 and know that your best moment on a cricket pitch is always behind you, lurking.

But, that said, just as it’s better to have loved and lost, it’s also better to have scored a 98 in an Ashes Test than to have not scored a 98 in an Ashes Test – no matter the age you were when it happened.

I just hope that those two runs don’t haunt him too much.

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Forgotten from that day due to the Agar Show was the man at the other end of the crease: Philip Hughes. Hughes who batted for nearly 4 hours that day, scoring 88 off of 111 balls. Hughes who would die so young and so tragically not 18 months later.

While Agar’s story might be tinged with a bit of melancholy for potential and promise never fully realized, Hughes’ story is of course far sadder. That said, both stories serve to remind us of one very important point: what happens off the cricket field is far, far more important than what happens on it. Agar’s life will not be defined by what happened at Trent Bridge, just as Hughes’ loss is not felt at the batting crease as much as it is felt in the hearts and minds of those that knew and loved him.

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A footnote: in the quote above The Old Batsman is referencing the fact that Agar’s knock came on the same day as Ricky Ponting’s final First Class innings.

And to quote The Old Batsman one final time:

The gap between it and Ponting’s at the Oval, that brief window of time in which sportsmen have their lives and all of us are young, closes before anyone notices. What a day it was today.

Which is one more lesson that Ponting and Agar and Hughes and, well, cricket can teach us: life is short. Damn short. So enjoy the moments we are given, for they – along with the people we share them with – are always gone far too soon.

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