Is It Time To Root For Australia?

Like most cricket fans who matured in the 1990s, I have very little love for Australia. Here’s a team that won three World Cups in a row, along with 16 consecutive Test games. Here’s also a team that had some of the most arrogant (and capable) players on its scorecard — people like Hayden, and Warne, and Ponting…that is, players who inspired more respect than love. I had a friend in Bombay who told me once he always rooted for Australia, and it nearly destroyed our relationship. Because it signaled a lack of imagination — it’s like rooting for the sun to come up, right? (I felt the same way about Federer fans in the mid-2000s.)

But all that’s gone now. I don’t think Australia is as bad as people say, but they are clearly not as good as they once were. Should we bury our resentment and forgive Australia for their past sins? Do you still draw strength from watching them fail? It’s funny how time shapes our preferences and favors. I imagine there is a whole lot of fans from the 1970s and 1980s who still respect the West Indies team, despite the last decade and a half. I wish I could throw off my 1990s skin and like this Australian team, but then they go and do something silly like appoint Darren Lehmann coach. All of a sudden, the flashbacks appear — the brashness, the “I’m too stupid to understand sports science,” the masculine chumminess. I suppose it’ll take 16 consecutive defeats before I’m ready to urge on an Australian victory.

Cricket Sightings in America: NYC Edition

(For previous posts in this series, see: here and here.)

Was walking on the subway platform on my morning commute, when I stopped at this ad:

Go Park

 

Do you see it? Cricket: As American as canoeing, digging dirt, and a hot dog. Happy July 4th!

 

India’s Youth Transformation Has Been A Long Time In The Making

When India won the Champions Trophy, Nasser Hussain (and a few others) marveled at how quickly India has filled the holes left behind by out-of-form/retiring legends (such as Yuvraj, Sehwag, Zaheer, Tendulkar). I’m not sure “quickly” is the right word — since at least the 2007 World Cup, India’s official policy (first formed by Greg Chappell) has been to find and support younger players. A number of players currently at the top of their games — Dhawan, Karthik, Jadeja, Rohit Sharma — are on second-run tours in the national team, and it took a fair while before India dropped non-performing seniors (both in the Test and ODI formats of the game).

Am I merely quibbling with an off-hand remark? My point is that other teams in search of new batting talent (like Australia and Pakistan and the West Indies) should not think that India’s current largesse is the magical inevitability of having millions of dollars and a large supply of potential players. That certainly helps — as Dhoni said in his acceptance speech, one reason Indian fielding is so good now is that players aren’t deathly afraid anymore that they’ll die diving on brown maidans. But India has succeeded now because of many failures in the past (8-0 overseas, 2-1 against England), and giving youngsters time and space to perform is a messy, chaotic process.

I will say that it’s much more fun to watch a team of hungry youngsters win than a pack of entitled (but truly awesome) veterans. Watching this team, I was reminded a little bit of the 2007 World Cup T20 lads (of whom only Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and Karthik remain) — the naive self-belief and the raw (but untested) talent. During the final, I was amazed to find myself feeling that India, even with its top and middle order largely gone, would still achieve a good score, and that some bowler — Jadeja, or Ashwin — would take the wickets at the right time. That expectation of victory…well, it’s downright Australian. Time will tell where this team goes from here — will they follow the path of the WCT20 squad, or somewhere else?

Insulting The South African Cricket Team Properly

Just so we are all clear:

In order to use the current Champions Trophy as evidence that South Africans are (and forever will be) “chokers” at ICC events, they will have to lose a game after being in a seemingly commanding position. Mere losses do not count. We should be especially swayed by moments of utterly inexplicable irrationality, preferably while running between wickets. And if South African players turn daft after being called ‘choker’ on field by opposing players, we will have a prize exhibit on our hands (I’m referring here to the excellent tactic used by the Kiwis against Faf Du Plessis during the 2011 World Cup).

It could be argued that South Africa has preempted the ‘choker’ line by losing its most formidable players to injury. To take this point of view would be charitable and reasonable, especially given that the South Africans have some of the best players in the world right now and generally deserve more praise than scorn. However, as I have yet to decide how I feel about Du Plessis, I am not sure what point of view I shall take. Time will tell.

And for the record, I’d like to see either Pakistan or South Africa come through on this one. Pakistan, because they are now (and usually are) the most interesting team, and South Africa, because, well, they’re due.

 

 

OK, Cricket May Be A Little Complicated

A quick follow-up to my previous post on this subject: I imagine that some of you watched the wonderfully amateurish (and downright charming) coverage of the Ireland v. Pakistan game. Now, imagine that you were at the ground as a curious spectator. You’ve heard of this game “cricket” and you know the basic gist, but you don’t know much more than that. Let’s also assume you were rooting for Ireland.

Would you still be a fan of the game after the result? Ireland scored more than Pakistan did, but had a higher target because of the D/L method. At the end of the game, it wasn’t immediately clear if Ireland had lost or tied with Pakistan, and as with most instances in which D/L is at play, even the on-field captains appeared to be confused.

Now, think again to yourself in the stands, watching all this unfold.

— “Wait, didn’t Ireland score more than Pakistan?”

“Yes, but see, Pakistan had the potential to score higher if they had known they were only going to have 47 overs at the start of their innings, so they post a higher target.”

— “OK, but how do you calculate how much more they could have scored?”

“It’s on the ICC website, I’m sure. Or Wikipedia.”

I’m being a little harsh, because obviously the game was thrilling — Kevin O’Brien was doing something none of us expected. But the result only confirmed what many people think about cricket — this is a really complicated game that appears not to want more fans. If I’d spent more than four hours in all that wind and rain and gloominess, I would have wanted more clarity at the end. I can only imagine my German brother-in-law, who enjoys baseball, saying, “Huh? Where did Pakistan’s ghost runs come from exactly? Bullshit.”

 

T20 May Or May Not Be Cricket, But It’s Boring As Hell

Speaking with The Cricket Couch, Kartikeya Date lays out his case against T20 and the IPL:

A boundary is hit every 6 balls in a T20 match and six is hit every 26 balls. It shows in so many ways how you cannot structurally have any conventional contest between bat and ball because they are so unequal. In that sense, T20 is not a cricketing contest.

[…]

I’ll watch an over or two of an IPL match once or twice a week. If Dale Steyn is bowling, I’ll still watch even though I know that the batsman is going to slog the third one if he plays out couple of balls quietly. That’s why I find it boring as well and it doesn’t hold my interest. That’s why I find it difficult to understand that it holds the interest of anybody who says they like watching cricket.

This is mostly excellent stuff. Until now, I don’t think cricket traditionalists — for lack of a better word — have effectively articulated the case against T20. We have bemoaned the creeping commercialization, the cheerleaders, and the general quality of the game, but no one (that I have read) has laid out the theory as completely Date has. The problem is that people  think cricketing drama and excellence means only fours and sixes and down-to-the-wire scenarios, and they think that T20 gives them just that. But Date shows instead that what they’re actually seeing is a bunch of batting miscues/errors, a strategically “dumb” contest, and a commentary that wrongly borrows the prestige and language of the Test format (“proper cricketing shot” being my favorite example).

I say “mostly” excellent because I think Date goes too far by saying T20s is not cricket, but perhaps a different sport entirely. I worry about disqualifying formats because the truth is, most people who play cricket at the amateur level play a version of cricket that looks a lot like T20s, and not the Test stuff. I’m not talking here about quality; I mean, amateurs typically meet with friends, bowl a few overs, play fast and loose with some of the rules, and call it a day. To say that it’s “not” cricket means that fans don’t really have a chance to play the sport that they follow and love.

This is a minor point, yes, but I think we’ll have more success if we try to convince people that watching T20 is a crock of boring shit, rather than arguing that it’s a completely different sport entirely. Date has given us the language to do  that.

Cricket Sightings in America: P. Diddy Edition

Related to my previous cricket sighting in America: P. Diddy attempts to play cricket in a spoof of Downto(w)n Abbey. Watch the whole video here (Diddy jumps back against an incoming ball and cries, “What the hell?”).

diddy-plays-cricket

Why Spot-Fixing Offends

When a spot-fixing scandal emerges (and it seems to happen with an increasing frequency lately), cricket fans turn to their ethics textbooks. Is there a moral distinction between throwing a game (“match-fixing”) and throwing a wide, no-ball, or a given number of runs (“spot-fixing”)? If spot-fixing aims to ‘fix’ such small, mundane events, is there really cause for life-bans or moral opprobrium? This was the source of the argument between Harsha Bhogle, who pointed out the degree-of-difference on Twitter, and Dale Steyn, who replied that stealing a dollar or a bank still amounts to stealing.

I’m not that invested in this discussion because spot-fixing offends me for another reason. Cricket is now a modern game, which means that we have professional athletes who make a difficult bargain: In return for two to three decades of hard work, many injuries, and terrible odds for national selection, we offer them (a small group of them, anyway) money, fame, and the chance to be part of a country’s biggest moments. The money comes from the fans (mostly from their televisions), and advertisers. Policing these new commercial boundaries is difficult and often incoherent: We are willing to accept loud, incessant ads between overs, but we’re uneasy about inserting them into the game (“Karbon Kamaal catch,” “Yes Bank Maximum,” etc.). We’re still not sure how we feel about a player abandoning his country’s Test side for a made-up IPL franchise, but we’re extremely uneasy about an Indian team that either hides or misdiagnoses injuries for fear it may hurt a player’s chance to play in the IPL. We also understand the need for sponsors, but we’re not happy to see one of them own both an IPL franchise and head the organization that owns the IPL and the Indian national team.

So now we have spot-fixing, which offends me because it basically abolishes these commercial-athlete boundaries (however made up they may seem). In essence, a bookie turns an athlete into a private employee and asks him to do his bidding over the most trite affairs — Place your towel into your pants! Shake your wristband! Give me a no-ball! The player becomes a financial product — a secret investment akin to an insider trading scheme. What’s forgotten is that a player (presumably) worked hard to reach his particular level, and his skills are now not subject to chance or fate or another player’s abilities, but to some shady operator at the end of a cellphone. What’s also forgotten, of course, is that a fan fully expects to see these skills. To watch the best do their best — that’s what a spectator can reasonably ask for.

Spot-fixing enrages me because it makes explicit what I’d prefer to repress. I know that cricket is a commercial game now, just as another modern sport is, and that it has been so for a long, long time. But I still prefer not to think of the game as a series of financial transactions, even though increasingly, the money equation seems to determine what we watch on our screens. We’ve made all sorts of bargains ourselves, as my second paragraph indicates, that we forget how much we have given away. The real difference here isn’t match-fixing v. spot-fixing; it is trying to place spot-fixing on a spectrum that now includes sponsorship, ads, conflicts-of-interests, and bad faith

Is Cricket Too Complicated?

From today’s joint press conference w/ Barack Obama and David Cameron:

It’s always a great pleasure to welcome my friend and partner, Prime Minister David Cameron. Michelle and I have wonderful memories from when David and Samantha visited us last year. There was a lot of attention about how I took David to March Madness — we went to Ohio. And a year later, we have to confess that David still does not understand basketball — I still do not understand cricket. [my emphasis.]

Cameron’s response:

Thank you for the remarks about the cricket and the basketball. I haven’t made much progress — I made a bit of progress on baseball; I actually read a book about it this year, so maybe next time we’ll get to work on that one.

Yeah, this is basically the conversation I have with American friends any time I mention I like cricket. They’ll either say “it’s too long,” or “it’s too complicated.” And I’ll reply, “I’m sorry, what the hell is American football even about?” This isn’t to say American football is complicated — I’m sure if I spent an afternoon or two watching a game with a friend, I’d get it. But I think that’s true of cricket as well! I learned cricket on my own as an 11-year-old; no one in my family follows the game closely (my siblings, despite growing up in India, have no clue what it’s about). It took me a while to figure out particular rules (follow-on, leg byes, and LBWs), but otherwise, it’s a pretty clear game: One side bats and tries to score runs, the other then bats and tries to score more. If an 11-year-old can figure this thing out, you can too!

So why does cricket appear impenetrable to outsiders? Because we cricket fans are snobs. The worst thing in my mind is to be a soccer fan — why follow a sport that everyone, including the newborn, can intuitively understand? No, I’m happy to talk about googlies and field placings and strike rates and swing. Let the simpletons scratch their heads.

Do IPL Franchises Mean Anything?

Samir Chopra has a good write-up on the Virat Kohli-Mumbai fracas. Excerpt:

Now in its sixth season, the IPL is still grappling with the problem of how to ensure a dedicated fan base, a problem made trickier given the transfer and auction rules, and the short season (by the standards of other sports leagues). But at least one city’s crowd has indicated that, for the length of the IPL, they are sufficiently committed to “their” franchise, even at the expense of those who do “national duty” on “their behalf” when the season comes to an end.

I’m not completely sure. An alternative explanation involves the dynamics of booze, adolescent silliness, and a controversial play on the cricket ground. I forget the particulars — and am too lazy to look them up — but Kohli may have effected a run-out after the batsman in question collided with the bowler. Is that enough to boo an Indian player? Well, two points:

1) Let me say that Kohli is widely considered an asshole — granted, an immensely talented one — but I’m sure many people would be, as I am, only too happy to boo him, even in Indian colors.

2) We’ll want to be careful about reading too much into fans’ jeers or cheers. As Amartya Sen reminds us, the “cricket loyalty test” is a silly one — as a fan, you express preferences for a range of reasons (a good, close game, for example, or fair play on the field) that may or may not have anything to do with nationalism/regionalism/identity. (I am a fan of the Rajasthan Royals for no reason other than Rahul Dravid and that amazing first season campaign. That’s it.) Also, just in my limited amateur cricketer experience, I have seen extraordinary fights between teams that exist technically only for one afternoon. I’m not convinced that anything like UK football rivalries will emerge in the IPL at least for another decade, though perhaps moments like this one will accelerate the process.

It is true, however, that IPL marketers face a difficult balancing act. I mean, it wouldn’t be too hard to stoke the nationalist fires — just have a team called “Hindu Hellraisers” play against the “Muselman Marauders,” and I’m sure all hell would break loose. Obviously, they can’t explicitly do that, but some aspect playing on regional rivalries is surely part of the marketing plan.

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