Cricket for Americans: 21 Feb. 2019: Gayle reconsidered

Scoring in cricket is one of the simpler rules to understand. You get a run every time one of the two batsmen runs from their end to the other without the fielding team returning the ball. In this way you can score one, two or three runs at most, usually, per hit. But if you hit the ball over the boundary rope after it takes a bounce, you get four runs. If you hit the ball over the boundary rope on a fly, it counts as six.

And so the “six” isn’t a new thing to cricket. It’s been around for ages. But before the invention of limited overs cricket, it really didn’t happen all that often. It was an aggressive and foolhardy shot in a game that rewarded patience and discipline. But now the short formats reward lightning fast piling up of runs. And so the six has become the SIX. And batsmen are being bred with more brute force. Some say it’s the natural progression of the game in a modern entertainment era. I say the game is not just evolving, it’s morphing into a completely different sport. But that is neither here nor there.

Yesterday I watched the highlights of Chris Gayle’s innings against England in Bridgetown. Six after six after six not just over the boundary rope but out of the stadium. And for the first time it really struck me how much the game has changed, even since I started paying attention. The players are bigger and stronger and can hit the bar with more force and for greater distance than they could even just 10-12 years ago. It’s not about the pure cover drive, it’s about pure strength, muscle.

In fact the game is changing so fast, and so much, in that regard, that soon it might require rule changes. They would be similar to football’s recent change to protect against helmet to helmet hits, or back in the 80s when they reconfigured the javelin because the elite were able to throw it too far and they were landing on the running track. Because that’s the thing: it isn’t just about changing the rules to encourage fewer sixes, or moving the boundary rope like they did with the college 3-point line, or anything like that, they are going to need to change the rules because someone is going to get hurt, or even killed. And it has already happened: in 2014 an umpire in Israel was killed after being struck by a straight drive.

Sixes and big hits over the shed are fun, but cricket’s governing body might need to step in and do something before it spirals out of control and becomes too dangerous for the players and umpires on the other side of those big hits.

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Speaking of Gayle. The always astute Independent sportswriter, Jonathon Liew, tweeted this yesterday after the Windies loss to England in the first ODI:

To cricketing newbs, including me, that seems ridiculous. His century was the only thing that made it interesting, and he got them to a par score of 360 that took England all but eight balls to chase down.

But Jonathon’s point is a valid one, and goes to show how complex the game really is, despite how simple it seems on the outside. Gayle’s innings, some might say, strangled the West Indian batting lineup. He batted too long, and too slowly, and let too many balls drift by his bat. Compare his innings to that of England’s opener, Jason Roy: 123 runs off of 85 balls for a strike rate (the the average number of runs scored per 100 balls faced, the higher the strike rate, the quicker a batsman scores) of 144.7, while Gayle needed 129 balls to score 135 runs for a strike rate of just over 100.

44 more balls — 7.2 overs of a 50 over match, or nearly 15% of all deliveries the West Indies faced — to score just 12 more runs. Despite all those sixes, all those big hits, all those oohs and aahs, Gayle’s effort was a stranglehold, and he focused too much on those sixes. Roy meanwhile only scored three sixes, but hit 15 fours. Gayle’s numbers were almost opposite.

And so while the six is fun, and can help batters score lots of runs very quickly, it doesn’t always win matches, and sometimes it can even lose them.

Cricket, eh?

The game has changed, but not completely, and maybe not forever.

Until tomorrow.

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Cricket for Americans: 20 Feb. 2019: Gayle force winds

Chris Gayle is back!

One of the greatest batsman of the T20 era has started his ODI retirement tour in the first ODI between The West Indies and England down in Bridgetown. And he did it with style, scoring a slow starting but innings saving 135 off of 129 balls with four threes and 12 sixes before Stokes bowled him in the 47th over. Being the opener, all told he batted for 216 minutes, nearly four hours. (In true West Indian character, though, his century will not be enough. Most of the rest of the lineup did little or nothing with the bat, and their attack has allowed England to score rather freely in the chase.)

It was a quintessential Gayle innings: aggressive but also somehow disciplined. He is best known for his blistering T20 performances in the IPL and for the West Indies, but he can also slow down and bat all day in a Test match if he wants. In 2009, he batted for nearly eight hours against Australia, grinding out a 165 not out to save a match. And he’s only the fourth batsman to score two triple centuries in Test matches.

But limited overs cricket, especially the T20, is where he has thrived: the fastest ever ODI double century, only the third batsman to score a century off of 11 countries in ODIs, the first batsman to score a T20 century, most sixes in T20 cricket, 10,000 domestic T20 runs, the fastest T20 half century (off of 12 balls!), highest number of sixes in a T20 innings. And on and on.

Gayle is one of cricket’s great showman. He is also one of its most flawed individuals. His poor treatment of female reporters is well documented, and his fights with the West Indian cricket board over everything from sponsorship contracts to coaching styles — justified or not — tend to have overshadowed his performances on the field. Rightfully so, in the case of the former.

What will his legacy be? It’s hard to tell. I would like to think it would be as the person who saved West Indian cricket — the teams that he played for were not always good, and were sometimes downright terrible, but now the country boasts a stable of young talent. But then again he was a cricket mercenary who played T20 wherever the money was, while refusing over and over again to play for his national team. A harbinger of the dystopian domestic league nightmare we all worry about it? Possibly While his sixes in the IPL were fun, it’s his patient Test match tons which the game sorely needed.

And his treatment of women should be a lesson to all young players: don’t do this.

He’s a flawed showman, who will leave a conflicted and difficult legacy for the historians to parse through.

But he is still a joy to watch bat. And while that might not be his only legacy, it will be a big part of it. Maybe, for now, we just enjoy him while we can.

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Cricket for Americans: 19 Feb. 2019: And the guns fell silent

Via Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

On 14 February 2019, a convoy of 78 vehicles transporting more than 2,500 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel from Jammu to Srinagar was traveling on National Highway 44. The convoy had left Jammu around 3:30 IST and was carrying a large number of personnel due to the highway having been shut down for two days prior. The convoy was scheduled to reach the destination before sunset.

At Lethpora near Awantipora, around 15:15 IST, a bus carrying security personnel was rammed by a Mahindra Scorpio SUV carrying explosives. It caused a blast which killed 40 CRPF personnel of the 76th Battalion and injured many others. …

Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack. They also released a video of the assailant Adil Ahmad Dar (alias Adil Ahmad Gaadi Takranewala or Waqas Commando), a 22-year old from Kakapora who had joined the group a year ago. Dar’s family had last seen him in March 2018, when he left his house on a bicycle one day and never returned. Pakistan denied any involvement and Jaish-e-Mohammed leader, Masood Azhar, roams free in that country.

It is the deadliest terror attack on India’s state security personnel in Kashmir since 1989.

On June 16, India will play Pakistan in a World Cup group stage at Old Trafford, Manchester, England.

It won’t be the first time the two old enemies have played each other during heightened military action in the Kashmir region, but this is the marquee match up of the World Cup group stage. The match received double the amount of ticket lottery entries than even the final did. And so there are calls for India to boycott the match, or even the entire tournament, in protest of what many say is Pakistan’s unwillingness to curtail terrorists in their country, as the boycott would carry even more clout, considering all the eyes on this match.

I don’t think it will happen, I really don’t, there is simply too much money on the line for geo-politics to get in the way, especially since the match is happening on neutral territory. My only hope is that the safety of the fans and the players is kept in mind, and not sacrificed in pursuit of the almighty dollar. I also think calls to boycott matches would disappear if, quite simply, India played Pakistan more often. They have not done so outside of an international tournament in years, which puts undo pressure not just to hold the matches, but for the matches to be entertaining.

My opinions aside, this is just another example of the cricket is a very different beast. In no other sport are geo-political conflicts played out like they are in cricket. The Kashmir region is one of the more contested military hotspots on earth, and the two combatants regularly meet not on the battlefield, but on the cricket ground, where they show their countries and the whole world that peace is possible.

One of the more famous stories from World War One is the Christmas Eve truce, where the guns fell silent for one night in a series of unofficial truces, all up and down the western front. Famously, a football match broke out during one of the truces. It’s apples to oranges, of course, but in a way these kinds of truces still happen, every time India plays Pakistan out on the cricket field. For a few hours everyone forgets they have nuclear weapons pointed at each other, and everyone just enjoys the match. It’s a reminder that we are all human, enemies and friends alike. And so in that respect I do hope the match goes on, even if the reasons it will probably happen — profit — aren’t the most idealistic. We could all use a chance to forget the darkness the world has to offer, and instead focus on its joy.

They say that when the funs fell silent on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, it was like the voice of God. The guns can fall silent again on June 16, if even for a few hours. We just have to let them.

Until tomorrow.

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Cricket for Americans: 12 Feb. 2019: Rooty

Joe Root is the captain of England, and has been since February of 2017. He’s also one of the top five best batsman in the world right now. He’s not a towering presence at only six foot tall, and he’s soft spoken and a little baby faced, but he hits centuries, and he wins, and has won the respect of cricketers past and present the world over.

He hasn’t had the best Test series in the Caribbean this winter. As a captain, he’s gotten a lot wrong, and his batting has fallen off a cliff.

But Joe Root’s last few days have been a lot better. He scored a lovely century at Gros Islet in his second innings to put England firmly in the ascendancy. But more important than that, he called out an opponent for using a homophobic slur. No one is saying what Gabriel said, but Root didn’t like it, and so he said something. It seems like such a simple thing, but I think it took more bravery than any of this match winning knocks combined. It would have been so much easier to just keep quiet. But he didn’t. He held true to his convictions, and put Gabriel in his place. And it took on even more weight considering how well respected Root is among his peers.

And with that, cricket took a massive leap into the 21st century, opening doors to new fans, new players; young people who might now see that cricket is a safe place for them.

The game still has its issues, for sure, with race and gender and homophobia. But this one small bit of bravery from Root will do more for the sport than any “all are welcome” PR campaign could ever do.

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England just clinched the dead rubber against the West Indies, after a courageous 102 not out from Roston Chase forced the game into its fourth day — to hold your nerve when your team is collapsing around you is one of my favorite things in the game.

For England, it was a meaningless result, of course, but one they really had to win if they wanted to save any sort of face.

The result comes with a bit of an asterisk, of course, as the Windies’ captain and talisman, Jason Holder, had to serve a one match ban due to slow over rates in the first two Tests.

Now, this is one of cricket’s little intricacies that even the veteran fans get annoyed with. Ostensibly, the rules make sense: 15 overs an hour is the target rate for captains to hit, it keeps the game moving, makes sure that fans get all the overs that they paid for, and ensures that both teams have an equal shot at winning the match. But it can get tricky, especially if you employ more quicks than spinners, as the quicks take far longer to work through an over than the spinners do, and then when you add in match bans for the captains of the slower team, it gets even trickier. On top of all that, the bans feel arbitrary and tend to affect everyone but the “big three” Test nations (India, England and Australia).

And so with that in mind: full credit to Root and England for the win, but that asterisk next to the W looms large, almost as large as Jason Holder’s wing span.

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Elsewhere, Bangladesh are in New Zealand for a trio of ODIs. We will learn a lot about New Zealand in those three matches. Are they good enough to compete for a spot in a World Cup Final? Are they the true dark horse? Or are they just not quiet good enough? Bangladesh are not England or India or South Africa, but they are a tricky side that can test teams not fully prepared.

Also of note, what should be an interesting two Test series between South Africa and Sri Lanka kicks off tomorrow. Those two Tests are followed by five ODIs. Another test for another side that has dreams of lifting the trophy this summer in England, South Africa in this case.

Lots of cricket, just like always.

Until tomorrow.

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Cricket for Americans: 11 Feb. 2019: Concussed

In an interview with ESPN, Bob Costas — a long time broadcaster for NBC Sports — we learn that he was forced out of his job because he spoke out against the NFL and their lack of action to better protect players against concussions.

NFL has a concussion problem. That’s not breaking news. The men who are playing the game at its highest level today might not even be able to feed themselves 20 years from now. But for the NFL, this is a PR issue, not a health matter. It’s a big money league and if people stop watching, the money starts to dry up. And there’s a note of self preservation to the NFL’s concussion spin machine: if parents stop letting their kids play gridiron football, then the game slowly, but surely, dies.

Cricket has a concussion problem too.

The injury isn’t as widespread as it is in football, but they still happen — and are happening even more as the big hit T20 format increases in popularity — but the issue instead is that they are lagging behind other sports in how they affectively deal with head injuries. Allowing concussion substitutes, requiring teams to have team doctors and instituting a standard injury assessment protocol are three things that the ICC should implement at the Test level immediately.

Because here’s the thing: the NFL’s black eye when it comes to concussions creates an opportunity for other, safer sports. And one of those sports could be cricket. Make the game safer, and the game will grow. In America and everywhere.

Until tomorrow.

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Cricket for Americans: 10 Feb. 2019: We miss it ever summer

Today, the Melbourne Cricket Ground posted this on Instagram:

“Stumps for another Summer of Cricket” at the MCG, and in Australia. What started with an ODI against Pakistan in the first week of November — back on a day when Aussie fans had the entire summer spreading out before them — ended yesterday with Melbourne defeating Sydney in the Big Bash League. And thus ends another summer, one of so few that we get, and that always seem to go by so fast, and that we always feel like we miss, even when that summer takes places during the darkest depths of our winter, personal or otherwise.

Another year gets away
Another summer of love
I don’t know why I care
We miss it every summer

We only get so many, and then they are gone, leaving us wistful and trying to remember what we did, how we spent the time, whether we enjoyed ourselves or not.

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Like a lot of Americans, I struggled with the infinity of cricket. The seemingly nonstop cycle of matches and series and tournaments, stretching on forever without end. But there are ends, and there are beginnings, you just have to look for them, and then they appear, and you are grounded, and then you remember that every beginning has an end, and that you only get so many of each, no matter how limitless they seem some days.

Yesterday, the Australian summer of cricket ended. In a few months, the English summer of cricket will begin, and it will stretch out before us, a seemingly endless horizon, like a vast ocean of warm afternoons, and the World Cup, and the Ashes. But soon enough that will end too. And we will wonder where all that time went, where all that cricket went, and how it slipped like water through our fingers.

Cricket seems infinite, but it’s not, it’s just that its endings — and its beginnings — are more subtle, and therefore somehow more special, more melancholy. Maybe that’s because cricket’s endings are summer’s endings, and when summer ends we cannot help but wonder if we will get another, even one that’s not even in our hemisphere.

It’s a special game, cricket, defined by the tiniest of margins on the field, and the largest swaths of time off of it: razor thin edges to first slip, hairs breadth no balls, but also five day matches, months long tours, centuries old traditions. It’s poetry that whispers from a hilltop into a void filled with quiet mornings, tea breaks and short sleeves. And when the echoes of that whisper finally ease away into silence, they feel like they are gone forever, and that we never heard them in the first place.

Every beginning ends, and every ending reminds us of that.

Cheers to the Australian summer of cricket. We never knew ya, and now you’re gone. Let’s hope we get another chance to hear those whispers this summer in England, and that we remember to listen, and learn the words, and to hold that water in our hands just a little longer before it slips through our fingers, sinks through the clay, and falls over the edge of the world.

Until tomorrow.

*From The National’s “Guilt Party”
**From “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

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Cricket for Americans: 9 Feb. 2019: Eve of Destruction

The first big bang domestic T20 league to pop-up was the Indian Premier League, which was founded — in rather shambalic circumstances — in 2007, with its first season in 2008. It attracted the best players in the world — to the chagrin of many — to play swashbuckling cricket under floodlights with pop music and cheerleaders. And it has been wildly successful, both in India and around the world. It’s the most attended cricket league anywhere, it’s brand value is 6.3 billion US dollars, and it was the first sports league to be broadcast live on YouTube. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no doubting its success. It’s so successful that most other cricket shuts down completely for the two month tournament, not even bothering to compete with what has become, to many, the future of cricket: glittering domestic T20 leagues with teams filled with mercenaries. It’s a doomsday scenario for many, but that’s where we are.

I am not sure who will carry this year’s IPL in the USA, but someone will. I suggest tuning in. Pick a team, follow along. It’s really something. Not my cup of tea, but no matter who you are, you can see the entertainment value.

The league has been so successful, that it has of course spawned similar leagues, hence the doomsday future above. Australia, England and the Caribbean all have formed domestic T20 leagues that attract international stars. The matches get TV contracts and people in the seats, padding the coffers — and lining the pockets — of long suffering national boards.

Included in that pot of new leagues is the Bangladeshi Premier League (BPL) which just wrapped up its season. Cricinfo has a little write up on the league: what worked, what didn’t. The pitches are problematic for exciting cricket, but the fact that it doesn’t have budget restraints on the teams — while the Australian league (the Big Bash League, or BBL) which runs parallel to it, does — means it will, over time, attract the biggest T20 stars in World Cricket. It will never compete with the IPL, because players can play in both, but sooner or later Cricket Australia will probably either need to move their tournament on the calendar, or watch their league slowly wilt under the bright lights of the BPL. My guess is that they will move it. So from December through May, it will be three back to back to back T20 domestic leagues featuring the same players — more or less — wearing different uniforms, playing in different countries. Then there will be a small window for international cricket or a World Cup or a domestic league like Shield Cricket in Australia or the English Championship (leagues that don’t attract international attention or player) just in time for England’s T20 Blast tournament to kickoff in London.

And red ball cricket will slowly be left in the dustbin.

Again, doomsday scenario, and I waffle back and forth on whether it will actually come to pass, but it’s looking more and more likely. Who would thought have that when it first started that the BPL would attract starts like AB de Villiers, Steven Smith, David Warner and Chris Gayle? Not me. Yet here we are.

This is a blog post meant for Americans. And so the Test loving cricket fan in me wants to dissuade newbies to the game from watching these tournaments. But I have to admit their entertainment value, and their value as a big toe in the water for fans new to the game. And that’s what I hope they are, and what they continue to be: a gateway drug of sorts for the longer formats. A way for boards to make a little money which they can then invest in first class infrastructure.

The former might happen, but the latter never will, and already isn’t, which then in turn makes the former a moot point. And the new fans it does attract appear to be ignoring the longer formats, which is maybe because the quality has gone down because boards aren’t interested in investing in it. It’s a feedback loop that has no end, until the bells ring at Test cricket’s funeral, of course.

Sorry for the doom and gloom this fine morning. American fans: watch the IPL. It really is something. And then settle down in the summer with me and watch the Ashes, because that is cricket, while the IPL is just cricket’s preface. Neither will disappoint, and both will keep you coming back for more. Just don’t let the bright lights of the IPL blind you to what cricket really is all about: toss a coin, play cricket for five days.

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