Test 1, Day 1

Stumps, Day 1
England 357/5

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I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic. My sister and I attended St. Francis de Sales Catholic elementary school in Lebanon, Ohio — and my mother, sister and I went to Mass every Sunday (dad stayed home and took advantage of really the only free hour he had to himself all week). My mother was also raised Catholic, going to church every Sunday with her two sisters and their father (conversely, her mother, my grandmother, abstained from attending mass). My mother’s father initially converted to Catholicism when he was serving in the South Pacific during World War 2. A lifelong Presbyterian from a long line of Presbyterians when he enlisted, he saw that the Catholic boys were handling the blood and the death and the slaughter better than the Protestant boys, so on some weekday morning on some lonely atoll in the middle of the ocean, he converted. The sun on his neck; God’s first church in his heart.

When he returned from the war, he went to work, raised a family … and drank. But he also went to church, driving his big old boat of a Buick down the cobblestone hills of the coal black town of Pomeroy, Ohio. Every Sunday without fail. His faith was deep and strong, and he was immensely proud of his Catholicism. Decades later when my sister — his granddaughter — was confirmed in the Catholic Church he called it the proudest moment of his life. This is a man who saw the flag raising on Iwo Jima.

And so, being Catholic, Easter Sunday was a big deal growing up in that little one-story house on Hoffmann Avenue. We went to mass, of course, and were forced to dress a little nicer than usual: a spring dress for my sister, jackets and ties for my brother and me. But despite my mother’s devoutness, we also celebrated the more, er, Pagan side of the holiday. We colored hardboiled eggs with that little Paas kit and my parent’s would hide them throughout the house and yard, and we were given Easter baskets full of candy and hollow chocolate rabbits.

My sister adored Easter. I really don’t know why, but it was most definitely her favorite holiday — even more so than Christmas — and I think it had something to do with the basket full of chocolate we would receive. That’s my best guess anyway. My parents would put out our baskets in the living room after we would go to bed, so we would be surprised by them in the morning — the myth was that the Easter Bunny, similar to Santa Claus’s M.O., would deliver the baskets at night while the good little Christians with middle class parents slept in soft beds.

One Easter Sunday my sister was more excited than in previous years, and in her excitement she got me up way too early to go out to the living room and find our Easter baskets. In previous years, just like Christmas, 6am or so would have been reasonable, but it was far earlier than that. She dragged me out the living room and there were our baskets and she was so excited — I can still see the excitement in her eyes and hear the joy in her voice. Unfortunately, we had woken our parents up. After a few minutes my dad came out to the living room — clad in just a pair of Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs — and told us to back to damn bed, that it was three o’clock in the damn morning. I was scared, my sister was heartbroken, but we did as we were told.

Later we rose at a decent hour, rediscovered our Easter baskets full of chocolate, dressed in our nice clothes, attended Mass, came back home, hunted for Easter eggs, and had a lunch of egg salad on white bread at the kitchen table — the bright Ohio spring sun streaming into our windows. All in all, it was a perfect little Easter in our little house for our little family, despite its unfortunate start.

I have since lost touch with my Catholic upbringing. I no longer attend Mass and honestly have no desire to. And while I don’t believe in the basic tenets of Catholicism — that Christ was the son of God … etc. — I still consider myself a Catholic. But when Easter rolls around, I don’t think of Christ on the cross or chocolate rabbits or egg hunts, I instead think of my sister, and the excitement in her eyes that one morning all those years ago, of my father in his briefs quashing that joy, and the joy rising again later in the day — and I think of the lightness in my sister’s voice, sitting at the kitchen table, looking out into our backyard, eating her egg salad sandwich, all the morning’s disappointment long since forgotten.

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It’s a Drag

Up early this morning with the Royal London One-Day Cup on in the background. The match is on ESPN3 which I have legal access to because I am a Comcast internet subscriber, even though I don’t subscribe to Comcast cable television. It’s great to be able to watch the match, though it is bittersweet as it also whets my appetite for even more cricket, but sadly the game can be tough to find here in the states.

ESPN3 carries a fair amount of cricket — though mostly now it is just home England matches and domestic English county cricket, and the occasional odd Twenty-20 tournament. It’s fine. No complaints. The picture is good and it’s better than a dodgy internet stream.

For other cricket, I have to turn to Willow.tv for $15 a month. They carry most Indian and South African tours and home matches, and the IPL too of course. Looking forward it looks like they have the Ashes this winter, so I will probably resubscribe around Thanksgiving (I have cancelled and resubscribed probably five times). There’s also a new player in town, Sling TV. I am not sure how it works, though it appears I need a Sling TV subscription AND a Willow.TV subscription. That’s highway robbery. But if they continue to be the provider for ICC tournaments, I will probably pony up — especially for the 2019 World Cup.

And that’s it. Other than dodgy internet streams and the Willow TV channel which — I think — is only available on Dish Network or something like that — that’s how we all watch cricket here in the United States. It’s not ideal, and I wish it was better, but there are options available and with a little money I can see most international cricket. I also have an adaptor so I can hook my Macbook up to my TV so I am not forced to watch with headphones at the kitchen table like I used to have to do. I do wish that I only had to pay for one service, or that ESPN3 would carry more matches, but it’s hard to complain. I mean, not 25 years ago, people in the USA relied on week old newspapers, long distance phone calls and IRC bots to access the cricket scores. We’ve come a long way.

Outside of the television, I of course have access to cricket coverage the likes of which the world has never seen. Match summaries and ball by balls and commentaries and online newspapers from all over the world — not to mention a billion different cricket blogs to choose from. It’s a true fountain of knowledge and one not to sneeze at. Further, I can listen to all sorts of cricket via internet radio — Test Match Special being just one example. At work this summer I will have the sounds of the England v South Africa test series in my ears most days.

All in all, it’s not so bad.

I bring this up because the ECB just signed another TV contract, and the big news is that a few matches will once again be available on terrestrial television. James Morgan of The Full Toss has a great write up on the deal. Sky will continue to air all England internationals, with the exception of a couple T20s starting in 2020 (haha) and a handful of women’s matches (which is GREAT for the game) that will be on the BBC. The bigger news, for me, is that the deal is worth over a billion dollars. A billion dollars! For a game that is supposedly not just dying but stone dead. One can hope that the ECB uses the influx to grow all formats of the game at all levels for everyone — men, women, boys, girls and everyone in between. But we know that won’t happen. They will use the money to promote profit friendly T20 tournaments across the land. And gosh I really can’t blame them. As much as I think it is the wrong call on their part, and is a terrible thing for the game, why would they invest in two formats that don’t make any money? Take the final I am watching now. It’s the final of the one day tournament, at Lord’s, featuring a team that plays right down the road, and there are whole stands completely empty. Sure it’s the first innings, and it might fill in, but still.

Morgan’s other issue is that only having T20 available on terrestrial TV will make it more difficult for young people to be exposed to the longer forms of game — just as he fell in love with the game watching Test matches on the BBC during his summer holidays in the 80s. And I get that — I fell in love with soccer because the 1986 World Cup was on over-the-air TV in the US. But that’s nostalgia talking. People — especially young people — access entertainment and sport in a million new and different ways. A lot of households don’t even have televisions anymore. Gone are the days of kids flipping on the telly on a summer Tuesday afternoon and watching the cricket. Even if it were available on the BBC kids still probably wouldn’t watch it. Because there are literally dozens of other options for entertainment: iPads, laptops, on demand. In the 80s in England there were, what, two TV channels? Now most people have dozens. And so, again, I don’t blame ECB for taking Sky’s money.

All of that said, I wish cricket was available on free TV for everyone in every part of the world. Because as much as I enjoy reading about cricket, or listening to cricket on the radio, or writing about cricket, I love — LOVE — watching cricket. A cup of tea plus a good cricket game is heaven on earth for me. And I am not that much different than other people, and so I think lots of people who would never even think about the game could fall in love with it too, if just given the chance. But we all know that’s never going to happen. And so I will take what I can get. And Surrey vs. Nottinghamshire in a One Day final at Lord’s on my laptop is — all things considered — pretty great.

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The England-South Africa Test series starts on Thursday. Going to trying and write about it every match day. We will see what happens.

Meanwhile the World Cup is ongoing in England and it’s still early days but it looks like it’s India or Australia’s tournament to lose. I hope that England can crawl back from an early defeat to India and make a good run. During the Champions Trophy I mentioned how an England win would be great for the game in that country, and the same holds true but even more so for an England Ladies win — because it would get people into the game that never would have given it a second thought before. This is similar to how people in Minneapolis who would never watch basketball get excited when our WNBA team, the Lynx, do well. The Lynx winning is great for basketball in Minneapolis, and an English ladies World Cup win would be great for cricket in England.

Until Thursday then.

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An Occurrence at the River Taff

The game of football has been compared to ballet. While gridiron football and rugby have been likened to war. Boxing is said to be a chess match. Baseball a poker game.

But a game of cricket, a game of cricket is a work of literature. A Test match is a novel, a story that crosses multiple generations and multiple continents, and the ODI is a novella, like Hearts of Darkness or Old Man and the Sea. While the Twenty20 is tight, compact, perfectly told short story.

In all three, villains rise and villains fall. Heroes come and then disappear into the night. Subplots peek out from behind curtains as the main story progresses, a main story where the conclusion is always in doubt.

Today I watched England play South Africa. The setting was Cardiff, Wales. A region that’s been populated for 6,000 years, 1,500 years before Stonehenge. An old city with old walls. Just across the Bristol Channel from Glastonbury, where day three of the famous rock festival rolled on, the notes lost in the waves.

It was the third match and a series decider and new characters arose from the previous stories. Dawid Malan, playing in his first international twenty-20, hit a six with the second ball he saw and for the next hour he was the lead protagonist in the tale, scoring 78 calm, easy runs before he got under one and was out at long on. And then his part in the story was over. He was forgotten, more or less, despite some nice work in the field later on.

Then the story settled in, made us wait for the next plot to arrive, to entertain. And it came in the form of South Africa’s death bowling. Their attack in the last five overs strangled England’s bats and left them wheezing at the wicket and 20 runs short of par on a cloudy gray day in Wales. This chapter featured Dane Paterson and Andile Phehlukwayo as the leads, wrecking England’s party, trodding on their good time, stealing their dates, drinking their liquor, turning over their nicely set tables.

Intermission.

And then England were back and the story turned again as early South African wickets were taken, bringing to the crease the hero we had been waiting for, AB de Villiers, riding in on his horse for one last afternoon out in an English garden, a chance to return home triumphant, knighted, adored. And he scored freely and easily, 35 off of 27, bringing the game back with touching distance.

But then up stepped Mason Crane, like Daniel in the lion’s den, punching 50 pounds above his weight, his horse natty and his armor borrowed, his face full of the acne of youth, but his heart full of passion and life and blood. He took the wicket of the great de Villiers and England were on their way home, their saddle bags full of riches. Crane finished his fourth over, his final spell in the story, and retreated to long off, where adoring fans awaited him, cheering his every move. Only 20 years and 127 days old from the magical sounding city of Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, the legspinner from nowhere was now, in that little corner of the ground, a folk hero. His subplot ended, and together with Dawid Malan, he faded off into the sunset, his time under the lights over.

The game marched on toward its now inevitable conclusion. The crowd sang as South Africa threw its last at England, but it was never going to be enough. The English heroes smiled and waved at the adoring fans as the sun sat low in a darkening Welsh sky.

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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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