A Tale of Two Nations

Today Ireland and Afghanistan were promoted to Full Test Status by the ICC. This is great news for the boards, the countries, their players (current and future) and their supporters.

Ireland’s promotion—while fantastic—was always a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their goal was to be a full Member by 2020 and most right thinking cricket minds thought that was almost a certainty. Afghanistan’s promotion, albeit meteoric in cricketing terms, was the culmination of a long, rocky, uncertain road.

In other big news, the ICC has expelled the USA Cricket Association (USACA). This news is actually similar to the Ireland promotion in that everyone saw it coming, but it starts to get interesting when you compare USACA’s expulsion to Afghanistan’s promotion.

On the one hand, you have the United Sates, one of the richest nations on earth, with huge populations of ex-pats from cricket loving nations, with a board that has had Associate status since 1965. On the other hand, you have Afghanistan, a war torn nation if there ever was one, that has never hosted a home match, with a board that’s held Associate status only since 2013. And in that comparison, the downfall of USACA and the failure of the board to put a quality product together becomes even more distinct.

If USACA had followed a similar path to Afghanistan or even Ireland, they could have had decades of great tournament performances, a strong domestic league and a whole generation of young people raised on the game now raising their own kids with the game. Instead, we got corruption, a terrible product, a laughing stock of a domestic league and another generation who grew up ignoring the game.

But the past is prologue. USACA is—finally—gone. And cricket in America can finally move forward. And considering the explosion of the game here at the youth level, there’s the potential for huge and immediate growth with the right leadership at the helm.

Test status might be a pipe dream now, but there’s no way to go but up, and up we will go. I just know it.

The smart money would be on the American Cricket Federation leading the charge. They’ve been fighting the good fight for American cricket for many years now. Read their story here.

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Of course, the ICC gotta ICC, so today they also announced the formation of a new Test League … which Afghanistan and Ireland (and Zimbabwe) would not be allowed to participate in. The means that those three nations could only schedule Tests against each other or find windows in which to play against one of the other nine Test nations, and the latter will be very difficult considering the already packed to the gunwales fixture calendar. Basically what the ICC did today is create two ties of Test playing nations, promoted Ireland and Afghanistan to that tier from Associate Status and demoted Zimbabwe from full Test status to second tier Test status. One step forward, one step back (which is better than ICC’s usual M.O. of one step forward, two steps back).

They also announced a new ODI league (which Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe would be able to participate in) and, in an annual tradition, debated eliminating the Champions Trophy in favor of expanding the World T20s to every two years. I have always been a fan of the Champions Trophy, because I like the ODI, but I tend to agree that a 13 team ODI league and two T20s might be the better option for growing the game internationally. If—and this is a mighty big if—Associates are given spots in the T20s beyond the token handful they are allotted now.

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Finally for today, the Women’s World Cup (or, really, we can probably just call it the World Cup, since there aren’t any other World Cups happening in cricket right now) starts on Saturday. I am quite looking forward to it. It sounds like the field is wide open and it should be a great tournament. Here’s hoping England can avenge the men’s capitulation, but my money is on Pakistan surprising everyone (again).

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Match Day 15

And so the most unpredictable tournament in recent memory finishes with a fittingly unpredictable result: Pakistan not just beating India but blowing their doors off. The same Pakistan which lost to the same India by 120 runs not two weeks ago. I have never seen a team go from outright terrible to simply brilliant in such a short period of time. Two weeks ago it looked like they were on their way home, that they didn’t even want to be in England, while today they looked like they could beat anyone in the world and have fun doing it.

Today’s match makes it—by my count–six matches with results you wouldn’t have put money on. Pakistan beating South Africa, Sri Lanka beating India, Bangladesh beating New Zealand, England beating Australia, Pakistan beating England and Pakistan beating India today in London. What a tournament. It just goes to show us that for all our understanding of the one-day game, it can still throw up a handful of curveballs.

I used the ICC rankings to predict the tournament before it began. Of the 12 group matches I got exactly three right. That’s horrendous and should put my dumb little system into suspicion, but the last time I used it–for the 2014 World T20s–I got almost 90% of the group matches right. This time around? 25%. I only got one of the four semi-finalists while last time I got three out of the four. We’ll see what happens in England two years from now during the World Cup.

But today shouldn’t be about me. Today is about Pakistan. Better writers than me will sum up what they did today at the Oval. And I suggest you read them instead. All I can really say is that they blew me away these last two weeks. They played bizarre, efficient, brilliant, unpredictable cricket. Cricket that made no sense and yet made all the sense in the world. They played liked they didn’t care but not in the negative sense but in the sense that they were just going to play their cricket and who cares what anyone thinks. They played the kind of cricket I love: bursts of energy in the attack robbing teams of their balance, and long opening stands that drive teams into the dirt with their heel. They did a nation proud, but they also did all of cricket proud. All cricket fans should hold their heads high today, even those who wearing the blue of India.

This is a Pakistan team that not seven years ago was everything that was wrong with cricket. Three players were convicted of accepting money from bookmakers to underperform at a match at Lord’s, just down the road from the site of their triumph today. The players were banned, arrested, tried and convicted. It was a sore spot on Pakistan, and on the game. Corruption is cricket’s biggest flaw, and for a time Pakistan were the poster child of that corruption. But the past is the past. Seven years ago they were everything wrong about cricket, today they are everything that’s right. Pakistan, to put it simply, are why we love this game.

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And that does it for the Champions Trophy. It was a fun few weeks of cricket and I am sad to see it go. But, of course, the cricket doesn’t stop. South Africa’s ongoing tour of England kicks off with the first of three T20s just three days from now. And they open what should be a wonderful Tests series on July 6 at Lord’s. That full series–including the Tests–will be live on ESPN3 for those that live in the states. Meanwhile India will be touring the West Indies followed-up by a trip to England for the Caribbean side. Later this year England head down under for the Ashes and a trip to New Zealand, and then in 2018 Australia head to South Africa for what should be a highly entertaining four Test.

Round and round the cricket schedule goes, never stopping, always moving toward an invisible point on the horizon. And that’s probably why I like tournaments, no matter their stature. They give the international calendar bookends–something the game sorely lacks and, as an American, something I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around. This is also why I enjoy domestic cricket–and I am happy to see that the English domestic season is live on ESPN3, as well. Cricket with a start date and an end date and a champion: that’s something I can get behind.

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I am also sad to see the Champions Trophy end because it has given me a real chance at keeping up on this blog. I hope I can continue, despite not having the spine of a tournament to rely on. When I stopped writing for the first time a couple years back, it was mostly because I had run out of things to say about the game–which is odd for most people because there is always so much to stay about cricket. But it felt like I was writing just to write, not because I was saying anything original or even really enjoying myself all that much. But these last few weeks have been fun, and I hope to continue. Right now the goal is to write more about County Cricket in England, but we’ll see.

Until tomorrow, or maybe the next day.

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Match Day 14

Bangladesh isn’t very big. Less than 150,000 square miles, which is bigger than only 14 other countries. It’s 8th in population though, with 160 million people. The country also boasts the longest stretch of unbroken sea beach on earth, as well as the planet’s largest mangrove forest. There are 700 rivers and 8,000 kilometers of inland waterways. There are tigers, panthers, crocodiles, black bears, gibbons, elephants, black giant squirrels, cobras, boars, pythons, 6,000 different plant species including 5,000 flowering plants. It is small and beautiful and crowded.

The population is mostly Bengali muslim with a smattering of Hindus and Christians, and most of the people live in the country’s urban areas. There government is a unitary parliamentary republic (a president, a prime minister, and a parliament). Humans have lived in the region for over 20,000 years. The Mauryan Empire ruled the region for centuries before being succeeded by the Gupta dynasty in the 3rd century of the Common Era. The dynasty oversaw the invention of chess, the concept of zero and the theory of the earth orbiting the sun. Sanskrit language and culture flourished.

Islam came at the beginning of the last millennium, and the British East India company in 1757. The British partitioned Bengal in 1909 which created Eastern Bengal. And then in the following decades Indian independence grew fiercely in the region. During World War 2 the Bengal Famine claimed the lives of over a million people. In 1947 British India was partitioned and the Bengal region became East Pakistan, with East Bengal being Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan state. But they were dissatisfied with West Pakistan, and in the 1950s the first signs of an independence movement began. And that movement began in earnest of after the elections in December of 1970 with civil disobedience erupting across the state.

On March 23, 1971, the Bangladeshi flag was hoisted for the first time.

On March 26, 1971, the Pakistani military attacked East Pakistan. The army massacred hundreds of thousands (possibly over a million) Bengalis during what is know as the Bangladeshi Genocide. Millions more fled to India. There was international outcry against the actions of Pakistan, and inspired the first benefit concert: The Concert for Bangladesh, led by former Beatle George Harrison.

During the war, the Bengali government governed in exile in Calcutta, India, leading the fight back against Pakistani forces. The war last nine months and ended with Pakistani surrender. Bangladesh was admitted into the UN in 1972, and the country was recognized by Pakistan in 1974.

After independence the country was ravaged by the war and poverty. A nationwide famine occurred in 1974. But the economy has ramped up over the last 15 years and the poverty rate has been halved since 1990, and the per capita income has doubled since 1975. Political instability is still an issue, but the country is included in the Next Eleven–11 nations predicted to have the world’s largest economies in 21st century. They also are one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping forces. The people are educated and the culture flourishing.

Cricket is beloved in Bangladesh. The country played its first World Cup in 1999 and the next year they were granted Test status. In July 2010 they beat England in an ODI for the first time, and later that year they beat New Zealand. In 2011 they co-hosted the World Cup with India and Pakistan. And in 2012 they won a five ODI series over a full strength West Indies. They don’t win very often, but when they do it’s always special.

Yesterday in Birmingham, England, they played India in their first ever semi-final match in a knock out tournament. In the group stages they had seen their first two matches abandoned due to rain but took care of business in the their third and final group match, beating the World Cup runners up New Zealand with lovely centuries from Shakib Al Hasan and Mohammad Mahmudullah overcoming a shaky start from their openers. Against India, however, they didn’t quite have enough. Their batsmen seemed to feel the pressure and took shots they didn’t need to take. And part time Indian spinner Kedar Jadhav created panic in the ranks and they were all out for 264, which was never go to be enough. And so today, instead of preparing for a final, they are packing their bags and heading home, looking ahead to a visit from South Africa in the fall.

It wasn’t the dream ending, but it was a dream tournament for 11 men who live alongside rivers and tigers, whose country has seen famine and flood and war, but which still soldiers on. A beautiful country that plays beautiful cricket. Home to a cricket team that traveled 5,000 miles to watch it rain and beat New Zealand as tens of millions of their countrymen back home cheered them on, and another thousand in the stands that one Tuesday in June in Birmingham when they didn’t have quite enough against India. A day they will never forget, no matter the result.

This hasn’t been a good tournament, it’s been a great one, and it’s been a great one because of Bangladesh.

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Match Day 13

Oh, this tournament. England, most people’s favorites, lost today to Pakistan in Cardiff. Pakistan, the team that in their first match looked like they would rather be anywhere else. England, who did everything right in the group stage: beating Bangladesh, beating the World Cup runners up, New Zealand, and beating the World Cup winners, Australia. Six points out of six. Like it was scripted. But you can’t script sport, and you certainly can’t script Pakistan. What a bizarre, frustrating, talented, brilliant and awe inspiring group of players. It’s hard to think of another side—in any sport—that can compare. So talented, so frustrating, so entertaining. And they are in the finals, a spot which they richly deserve.

It’s too bad for England, of course, as before the tournament started, most pundits (not me, not that I am a pundit) thought that they would finally, after 42 years of trying, win a 50 over international tournament. They have been runners up five different times in two different tournaments, and semi-finalists a further three times. But today was just not their day. As the Pakistani attack overwhelmed their batsmen and didn’t allow even a single foothold in the Cardiff clay. We all knew their total was never going to be enough, despite Pakistan struggling to chase down 236 against Sri Lanka a few days prior. I feel for the England players in the same way I felt for the French players in last year’s Euro Cup final, but this is a young squad and they’ll be back. The 2019 World Cup is just two short years away, and it’s also on English soil.

Meanwhile the win sets up a potential India-Pakistan final. The match-up isn’t really what it used to be in geo-political terms, but between the lines it should be a great game of cricket. Pakistan’s unpredictable swashbucklers against India’s efficient machinery—which is ripe for metaphor if you go looking, but I’ll skip it for tonight.

But considering the curveballs this tournament has thrown up (South Africa and Australia going home early, Bangladesh beating New Zealand, Pakistan beating England … and on and on) you can’t bank on that final pairing quite yet. The game tomorrow still has to give us a winner. Two weeks ago I would have said India moving on is a no brainer and bet the house on it. But not anymore. I’ve learned my lesson. I have always said that cricket’s predictability is part of its charm, but this tournament has been anything but predictable–and I’m not just talking about the weather–and it’s nice to see that this funny old game still has some tricks up its sleeve.

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Two matches left in the tournament and I have yet to watch a single over get bowled—except for the highlights on the ICC’s site. And that’s fine. Work has been busy and the weather has been nice on the weekends—so I probably wouldn’t have watched much anyway. But still, it would have been nice. For the final I might try and find a stream but we’ll see. I am also hoping that one of the local British pubs might throw it on—Minneapolis has a large Indian and Pakistani community, so they would print money if they did—but I am not seeing any updates about it. Oh well.

Until tomorrow then.

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Match Day 12

And so the semi-finals are set: England vs. Pakistan and India vs. Bangladesh. The smart money would be on an England vs. India final at the Oval next Sunday, but that same smart money was probably on Australia, New Zealand and South Africa qualifying for the semi-finals so really it’s all up in the air at this point. Which is fine. Cricket can be so predictable some times, and the unpredictability of this tournament has been a real joy. Sure, a lot of that uncertainty was caused by the weather, and yeah today’s match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan was really the only close match (and it was only close because teams were so deeply flawed) but I am able to look past that. We could have yawned and watched Australia storm through their group but instead we got rain and a fine England performance. I’ll take it.

Another interesting note is that there are three Asian teams in the semi-finals. The first time that’s ever happened in a major tournament since the 2011 World Cup (Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan) and the first time it’s ever happened outside of Asia. And of the semi-finalists, only India has won this particular tournament (2013) when they beat England by five runs in Birmingham. The final note of interest regarding the four squads in the knockouts is that this is Bangladesh’s first semi-final ever. Ever. If that doesn’t speak to the uniqueness of this tournament than nothing will.

It’s a shame that many pundits will tut-tut this trophy because of all the rain affected results, but I have said before, and will say again, rain is part of the game. It always has been, it always will be. It affects not just home many overs teams are able to play but how the pitch behaves after it rains, or teams hurrying up to get their overs in before the cloud bank over the terraces reaches them, or teams slowing up and praying for that same cloud bank to roll in and dump buckets. It’s another subplot in a game we love because of its subplots. And while I understand why Australian fans would feel justifiably aggrieved that their side is going home early, the rain wasn’t the reason their bowlers couldn’t silence the English batsmen who were playing a dead rubber, and the rain isn’t why Kane Williamson got run out three times which sent New Zealand packing, and the rain didn’t make South Africa do this:

So quit blaming the rain. That totally didn’t work for Milli Vanilli, and it doesn’t apply here either. The big teams in this tournament had their chances and flubbed their lines, while the teams that moved on won the matches they needed to. That’s the difference. Not the rain.

That said, the forecast for the final is still holding at 80 degrees F and dry. Fingers crossed.

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It’s going to be odd tomorrow to not have a game to follow, with the first semi-final not being until Wednesday when Pakistan play England in Wales. The Welsh ground has provided the most entertaining matches so far, and I am betting that it won’t disappoint. But as mentioned above, this isn’t the kind of tournament where you want to be betting on anything. Part of me wants to see an England win so the home side gets the chance to play in the final in their backyard, but I have also always had a soft spot Pakistan and how they never fail to entertain, win or lose. And the same is true for the second semi-final on Thursday. I adore India and admire their passion for the game but gosh it would be something to see Bangladesh pull off a shocker. I guess what I am trying to say is that I’ll be happy no matter who wins, and that’s a nice spot to be in for a neutral.

Until Wednesday.

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Match Day 11

Three of the four semi-finalists are locked in: India, England and Bangladesh. India booked their place with a romping win over South Africa in London, and go into the knockouts surely the favorites. They will more than likely win the group, and therefore would face Bangladesh in the semi-finals and then the winner of the England vs Sri Lanka/Pakistan in the final. It’s set up well for them, and if it can’t be England, I wouldn’t mind it being India.

Or Pakistan. Or Sri Lanka. Yeah I think I will be happy no matter who takes home the trophy, all four squads play fun and interesting cricket and none of them are Australia, haha.

I am curious if there are rain days scheduled for any of the upcoming knockout stage matches, but being that this is cricket and considering the final is on a Sunday, I am guessing not. The weather is looking good in Cardiff on Wednesday for the first semi-final, but there’s rain in the forecast for Thursday’s second semi-final in Birmingham, which would be a shame if the rain cost us a result. I mean, there HAS to be a result, so maybe they would play on Friday if they can’t get their overs in.

It’s still a week out but the forecast for London the day of the final is rain free so at least we have that going for us. And here’s hoping England is just getting this out of their system and will be warm and dry once the Tests against South Africa start up next month. Speaking of that tour, it appears those matches will be on ESPN3.com, at least the T20s are. There’s no sign of the tests yet, but here’s hoping that changes soon.

Looking past the South Africa tests, the West Indies travel to England for three Tests, five ODIs and a T20 on a tour of England and Ireland that lasts deep into September. Following that of course England travel down under for the Ashes (and more). So, lots of great cricket to come after this tournament. Interestingly, no southeast Asian sides (save Bangladesh which travel to South Africa) have any tours on the immediate calendar. I might be missing something, but it certainly looks pretty quiet for those sides.

I am getting ahead of myself. Tomorrow’s yet another quarterfinal, and should be an entertaining one. I sure wish I could watch but oh well, it’s a workday anyway. Until then.

 

 

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Match Day 10

In a, well, fitting end to Australia’s Champions Trophy, they lost to England in an abandoned match via the D/L method in soggy Birmingham. And so all three of their matches in the tournament were abandoned and in only one of those were enough overs played to have a winner. A real shame for the reigning world champions, but not a real shame for the tournament. I don’t mean to slog on Australia here, but I am sick of them winning everything all the time, and I am happy to see that some new blood (Bangladesh) will be playing for the chance at some silverware.

England’s win also means that the two teams that I predicted would go through from Group A (Australia and New Zealand) are packing their bags and taking Ubers to Heathrow. And with Group B still up in the air, the same thing could happen there too. We shall see. My money is still on India and South Africa progressing, but this tournament has thrown up its share of surprises so far, and the matches are far from un-winnable for Pakistan and Sri Lanka (Edit: or not. I was pretty tired when I wrote this is my excuse.) … so it could be an interesting couple of days, and then a very interesting semi-final round.

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In other cricket news, earlier today I was driving down to put air in my tires at the BP station across from a school about a mile from my house. In the school lot I often see people playing pick-up games of cricket. Mostly kids with only one set of stumps who look like they are just having fun. But today–this morning–it was a full blown match. Umpires, uniforms, cones to mark the end lines, two sets up stumps. I watched for a little bit but it’s Saturday and I had errands to run so I moved on. It looked like a lot of fun. Though I felt bad for the fielders: it’s hot–damn hot–today and windy too. And there were standing square under the sun in dark uniforms. They must have been scorching. But I smiled because they still clapped their hands and cheered on their bowlers after every delivery. The spirt of cricket is alive and well in Roseville, Minn.

I have, in the last couple of years, given up on the idea of the sport taking hold here. But here what looked to be a thriving little youth league–players were kids, but a little older than what I usually see, maybe between 12 and 15 years old–was happening on a Saturday morning, on a baseball field, in middle America USA. Maybe, just maybe, I was wrong, and the sport has a future here.

Until tomorrow.

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