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?”).


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.

Solving Cricket’s Commentary Problem

Harsha Bhogle has written a characteristically perceptive piece on what we can do now to improve cricket commentary. The most radical suggestion is to offer viewers the “no-commentary” option; that is, just enjoy the visuals and graphics without an annoying man injecting his interpretation (or, more typically, silly anecdotes) into your ears. Here are some general thoughts:

1) I am not a fan of the Indian commentary team (except Bhogle, of course), but I will always leave the commentary on when I watch a cricket game. I don’t know why this is; I think we’ve been conditioned to have both sound and sight together (and by ‘we,’ I mean kids born in the 1980s era, not you old radio-only fogies). Do other people feel this way? Would you prefer no-commentary to insipid commentary?

2) Bhogle argues that cricket viewers deserve more choice, since they are, ultimately, the consumers funding the whole enterprise. So if some, like Jarrod Kimber, want nerdy cricket talk, they should be able to get it; and if others want Danny Morrison, they should deserve to die in hell. (My words, not Bhogle’s.) This is part of the overall drive to customization that the Internet has unleashed (the “Daily Me,” as it’s known), and it’s good in that it seemingly empowers particular niche preferences, but it’s bad in that it does, in a sense, fracture the community. Didn’t we all once upon a time fall in love with Richie Benaud and hold his voice as the standard to be met? [Some may argue that the universal Benaud-love was hardly so, and instead catered to a particularly powerful community -- old white guys -- who had the power and now don't.]

3) Bhogle seems to think that because the visuals have gotten better (technology wise), the sounds should inevitably follow. That’s not quite right. There are plenty of professions that suffer from Baumol’s cost disease — the famous example is that it takes just as much time and effort for a quartet to play a Beethoven piece now as it did in the 18th century. No, one of the great attractions of commentary is that it is indelibly human. Commentators, as we know, make mistakes; they say annoying things; they go off on useless tangents, and they are also, quite often, insightful. Cricket telecasts have become increasingly artificial — the graphics, the silly 3D replications of a bowler, Hawkeye…Why not resist the perfectionist drive of technology and retain the flaws of the commentator?

Cricket Sightings in America: Downton Abbey Edition

An occasional series of cricket sightings in the home of the brave, to accompany my related effort to catalog Aaron Sorkin’s love for the game (see here, here and here). Episode 1 is slightly misleading — the show Downton Abbey is made in England, but it’s been discovered by the Americans (to paraphrase Ashis Nandy):

Forward defense

Cricket Commentary’s Math Problem

M.S. Dhoni has been giving some pretty interesting interviews lately, a nice contrast to his usual, “Well, of course, [insert useless, inoffensive, cricket player talk here].” I particularly liked this note about his future plans:

“I can’t become a television commentator. I would not be able to remember all those statistics and will have problems in matters relating to techniques,” he added.

Two points: 1) Why has commentary become so obsessed with statistics? There is this idea that all these numbers will yield some insight into what players are trying to do (i.e., their strategy), but there’s plenty of nonsense stuff — like wagon wheels. Has anyone looked at a wagon wheel and discerned any insight? Unless you come across a rare innings in which a batsman has decided he will absolutely not score anything on one side, wagon wheels just don’t tell you all that much. I’m also relatively neutral about pitch bowling maps: yes, on several occasions, they will show a bowler’s erratic ways, but most of the time, they show bowlers hitting the “good” or “full” lengths. Big deal.

I recognize that silly statistics — “Record sixth wicket partnership between two Jharkhand players for India in India against Australia at Rajkot” — are a long and respected part of cricket discourse, but is the emphasis on “analysis” as old? Wasn’t there a time when commentators preferred to deal in narratives, characters, and plots, rather than numbers? Say what you will, but I like Harsha Bhogle; I think he’s still up there with the best commentators precisely because he knows he needs to tell a story. The TestMatchSofa kids are similarly intriguing because they seem to resist the statistical nonsense; they treat their players like villains and heroes — and are more than happy to let us know (in the foulest of language) what they think.

2) It’s impossible not to read Dhoni’s statement about techniques as a pointed critique of commentators’ know-it-all tone. Dhoni seems to be saying, “I have a shit technique, yes, but I am also India’s best ODI batsman and enjoy a more than sufficient Test average.” Certain commentators — Sunil Gavaskar, definitely — act as if they wrote the cricket textbook, and they delight in pointing out players who violate the orthodoxy. Pedantry is terrible, and cricket pedantry is the most terrible.


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