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.

Tendulkar Wants You To Feed Him

Dhoni, on his first encounter with Sachin Tendulkar:

“I think that was in a Duleep Trophy match in Pune in 2000-01 or 2001-02 season. I was in East Zone squad and was carrying drinks. Tendulkar made 199 in that match and he was batting when I went onto the field to serve drinks to my team-mates in the drinks break.

“Suddenly, he asked me, ‘Can I have a drink also?’ That was my first meeting with Tendulkar, my idol. I did not speak a word to him and ended up serving a drink to him.”

Yuvraj, on his first tryst:

“My first conversation was when I was looking at him in awe at the dressing room, suddenly he said, ‘please pass on the biscuits.’” To this Tendulkar replied [at the launch for Yuvraj's autobiography], “I have not got those biscuits till now.”

The Polarization Of Cricket Is Nearly Complete

In 2012, I suggested that the cricket world was about to become neatly polarized — the brown teams would reassert dominance in South Asia, and the white teams would guard their respective fortresses in England/Australia/South Africa. India’s recent series loss to England at home hinted of another possibility, but I think it was more of an anomaly committed by a team in transition (?). At any rate, no one cricket team can now fully dominate the rest.

To watch Indian spinners confound the Australians over more than a month laid bare an old truth of cricket: white people can’t play spin, and brown people — er, non-Pakistani brown people, rather — can’t bowl fast. As happy as I am about the India victory, I live as ever in deathly fear of the upcoming tour of South Africa. Can anyone imagine Ishant Sharma and B. Kumar taking wickets there? Will R. Jadeja and Dhoni and Vijay and Dhawan — all key planks of the new Indian batting order — survive the inevitable barrage of swing and pace? Will we see another terrible drubbing abroad?

In one sense, the last few years of cricket have been some of the most exciting. No team has been good enough to transcend the boundaries of the post-colonial world. England threatened to do so (winning in Australia when no one has, and winning in India when they rarely have), but they were also whitewashed by Pakistan in the Middle East. South Africa are forever contenders to take up the mantle left by the West Indians and the Australians of yore, but they still lack a quality spinner (and have yet to recently win — rather than merely draw — a series in India). Australia, meanwhile, look unlikely to thrive for another few years, at least until people like Warner, Cowan, Hughes, Watson etc., fully mature.

And the same goes for the brown teams: Sri Lanka are not far away from the retirements of two of their greatest batsmen; Pakistan’s batting remains problematic, and India’s pace cupboard, while well stocked, seems filled with ingredients either not ready for use or past their expiration date.

I imagine we’d all prefer closely fought series, and the recent whitewashes will feed criticism that cricket’s home advantage is just too strong. But isn’t it a beautiful thing to see a pace bowler thrive in his native jungle? Weren’t we all amazed and thrilled to see spinners at both ends throwing darts at batsmen surrounded by fielders? We will likely have to wait some time until a new generation of cricketing heroes emerge and succeed universally; until then, I’m happy to watch these minor characters perfect their limited — but entirely well-suited — set of skills.

 

 

Three Thoughts on Australia’s HomeworkGate

1. Michael Clarke says that the punishment came after a series of incidents, and not just one. Let’s assume he’s telling the truth — that is, let’s assume he didn’t rest four players (including his best pace bowler) because they didn’t complete a “mundane” assignment (more on that later). Let’s also realize that the issue involves more than silly paperwork. The culture of an organization — in this case, a cricket squad — is immensely important. (John Wright, India’s first successful foreign coach, once marveled at how junior Indian cricketers would have to bring tea to the seniors– a tradition that no doubt unleashed waves of resentment, entitlement, etc.) For a team like Australia, where most of the players haven’t played many Tests, this period marks a dangerous moment: the rookies don’t know the traditions or the rituals or the customs, and they could set Australia on a course very different from the one it’s been on for the past 15 years. Listen to what Clarke says:

“We can’t accept mediocrity here. This is the Australian cricket team. Maybe I am biased [but] there is a big difference between this team and other cricket teams. If you play for Australia there is a lot that comes with that and standards, discipline, culture that is all a big part of what we are talking about here.” [emphasis added]

Clarke sees the future, and it’s bleak. He probably knows that Australia will likely not dominate the way it did in the 1990s and 2000s, but there’s a still a lot of room between South Africa and Bangladesh. We can disagree about where culture comes from, or how best to enforce its norms. [The Indians tend to favor a fatherly foreign coach who leads by example (Kirsten apparently moved Indian cricketers to become fit because he was, as a 40-plus-year-old, more capable than they were) or by gentle coaxing. Not really sure what moves Australians.]

2. I find it a bit strange to read posts about how Australia’s management technique appears to be ripped straight from Office Space, a 1990s film that lampooned the tedious, bureaucratic and often meaningless rituals of American managerial culture. So some people didn’t file their paperwork before a deadline! Big deal! What if they were training all day? Yeah, except this is what modern athlete management looks like. It means that players have to file tons of paperwork to let coaches know their fitness levels, how much they need to train, and rest, etc. When we were all praising England’s player management, what did we think we were talking about? This is the “price of modern cricket,” as I wrote in 2011 — someone records and analyzes hundreds of hours of video footage, then tells bowlers what’s wrong with their action, and then the players train obsessively to correct it. Or players go on the field wearing instruments strapped to their arm to measure every single step they take. The reason I find the Indian approach to cricket exasperating is that it is largely unplanned, ad hoc, and driven by often competing (and fickle) impulses.

3. In 2010, I quoted from David Foster Wallace’s incredible profile of Michael Joyce, in which he examined the kind of intelligence that is needed to succeed as a modern athlete. Wallace’s conclusion — that you have to completely zone out as many intellectual distractions as possible — suggests modern athletes are, basically, a special kind of dumb. Now, in that post, I wondered whether the same could be said of cricketers, whom I like to think are a breed apart from their colleagues in soccer or rugby or swimming or even tennis. The sheer complexity of Test cricket and its length of time require both discipline and strategic nous.

Or does it? Tom Moody’s reaction to the sacking was basically, ‘Well, fast bowlers aren’t the best at writing reports.’ But Mickey Arthur presumably wasn’t asking for intellectual manuscripts; he wanted his cricketers to reflect and think about their game. It’s a very common exercise in coaching — “Tell me what you think you did wrong” — as it forces you to get out of habit and to see your flaws. Wasim Akram once said that he’d often be frustrated when batsmen-captains hoped to get him to bowl better by saying cliched stuff like, “Line and length, line and length.” Wasim would think, “But why am I not bowling line and length right now? Why am I failing?” So, this wasn’t really that ridiculous an assignment at all — if you want a bunch of players who can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and express them clearly enough, then this makes perfect sense to me.

Have You Ever Watched A Test All The Way Through?

A hypothetical: Let’s say you’re either unemployed or wealthy enough that you don’t have to work. And then, let’s say there’s a Test match between reasonably interesting teams (like India and Australia). Assume there are no competing demands on your time. Would you really sit through all 30 hours of cricket?

I’m thinking about this because Gavaskar and Bhogle were talking recently about how scintillating the Chennai Test was — more than 1,200 runs scored, some 30-odd wickets, and an innings (from Dhoni) that will likely go down in the history books. And yet, even during that supposedly amazing Test, there were long stretches of nothing happening. Take, for example, the very end, when Sachin Tendulkar hit two consecutive sixes and then decided to play a maiden over with only one run left to win. As I watched, I thought about the absurdity of the situation: India, with eight wickets and all of time available, keeping everyone waiting.

The cricket fan’s standard defense against the “nothing ever happens in Test cricket” critique is to say, “Well, are you really sure nothing’s happening?” On Day 2 of the the second Test, Pujara and Vijay batted an entire session and scored a handful of runs — something like less than two runs an over. To the untrained eye, this was cricket at its worst — two very capable batsmen tiring out mildly competent bowling. But a cricket fan would say the pair was in reality setting up the rest of the day, particularly the post-Tea session, when they plundered their way to five runs an over.

Perhaps, but confess, all ye fans: Did you watch the morning session through without getting bored? Or did you do as I do — put the cricket in the background, browse the Internet, and occasionally check in with the game?

 

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