A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2013
I have no firm fix on the number, but pressed to come up with an estimate, I would guess I have read somewhere between 250-350 cricket blog posts in the last year. What follows is a personal selection of eleven posts that particularly deserve either a first read if you have not come across them before, or a return visit. Each is a really fine piece of composition, but are they the very best? Probably not, they’re just my preferences. I encourage you to submit by comment or tweet the posts you think also deserve an end-of-year mention.
Opening for the select XI is a post by Devanshu Mehta on his Teesra ‘fake cricket news website’. This piece wasn’t fake news, though, but an inventive reappraisal of India’s failure to pursue victory in a Test against the West Indies: Let’s Talk About Dominica. In a scramble of quotations, newspaper cuttings, images, varying font types, sizes and white space, it builds a coherent argument for what went on that day in July 2011. The format of Declaration Game is too conventional to replicate meaningfully any of Mehta’s fresh composition – it needs to be viewed and enjoyed in its own context.
Retirement, for obvious reasons, was one of the commonest topics in blog posts this year. In my view, the outstanding piece was about a cricketer you may have thought had already ended his playing career – Steve Harmison – who was a cricketer about whom I came to be ambivalent. Brian Carpenter’s (Different Shades of Green) piece, ‘Unlikely Looking Lad‘, captured so precisely Harmison’s highs and lows, the frustrating combination thereof that explains my ambivalence. Here is one of the highs:
Harmison has been bowling at or around 90 miles per hour but this time he decides to throttle back and bowl the most perfectly-timed slower ball any England fast bowler has ever delivered. Clarke, in and set, is nearly up to the challenge. Normally a batsman plays early at a slower ball but Clarke sees it for what it is. However, recognition is one thing, combatting it very much another.
The quality of writing about cricket governance increased in inverse proportion to the practice of the topic. Nishant Joshi, Freddie Wilde, Devanshu Mehta are amongst the best to have landed blows on the activities of the authorities. The most consistent contributor and often radical thinker is the Dean-in-waiting of the yet-to-be established university department of cricket studies, Russ Degnan (Idle Summers). ‘Observations on Cricket Finance,’ commences thus:
What follows is necessarily inexact. Perhaps very inexact. Cricket has many issues that confront it, but by far the biggest is a lack of transparency.
Degnan proceeds, through extensive research and informed assumptions, to plot the flow of money around the cricket world, before offering a string of critical observations, perhaps best summarised by the statement: “cricket’s finances are fundamentally unstable”. Amidst this earnest examination sits a thing as beautiful as it is significant: Degnan has created a graphic to depict the movement of money between cricket’s nations. I stared at it, just as I used to study maps of trade routes and early modern ‘discovery’ voyages to the New World.
Russell Jackson (Wasted Afternoons) wrote the piece that made me laugh most. It is part 2 (the 1980s) of a triptych ‘History of English Cricket Advertising‘ – all of which should be read. Jackson explains his method in part 1: “a good excuse to pull boxes and boxes of ‘Cricketer’ and ‘Wisden Cricket Monthly’ magazines out of the garage and indulge in some whimsy.” There is something of Clive James in Jackson’s ribbing of another culture, knowing when to let the artefact stand for itself and when to nudge it towards deserved ridicule.
For followers of English and Australian cricket, their teams’ contests have dominated the year. An Australian account, written after the Brisbane Test, soared as the most readable, exciting piece of the Ashes year. Matt Webber’s (Matt Webber Writes) ‘Class divide defines this Ashes battle‘ delved into the writer’s own cricket background to illustrate the difference:
The Sydney Grade cricket competition remains a fierce cauldron. Week after week, boys filter in and confront men unwilling to make way. Bullies dish out hard lessons in the manner of their father’s fathers. Young resolve is either cracked or reinforced by memories of bruised ribs and stinging barbs all playing out on some hell forsaken backblock of a ground in a suburb that only just snuck in on the last few maps of the street directory.
To have played that cricket and to write about it so vividly makes Webber a rare all-rounder.
David Mutton (Silly Mid-Off) has (at least) two distinctions as a cricket blogger. The first is his authorship of as close to a definitive guide to cricket blogging as you will likely ever find. The second is his role as conscience to the English cricket follower. Mutton, at the height of England’s recent success, reminded us of the unsavoury backgrounds of the coaching team around Andy Flower. On the 80th anniversary of the Bodyline tour, Mutton argued that two great pillars of the English cricket establishment, Plum Warner and Gubby Allen, were the true villains. This piece, Two scoundrels, is a magnificent polemic.
Satire is another strategy with which to irk the powerful. James Marsh (Pavilion Opinions) is cricket’s satirist in chief, writing from somewhere in Bohemia (presumably, exploiting some loophole in Anglo-Czech extradition agreements). The subject that prompted this particular piece – the ECB’s official Ashes poem – in no way deserved satire of the quality Marsh concocted in The Ashes: Alternative Poetic Bashes, in the form of five short, sharp and witty verses including titles: ‘O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman (as adapted by Ed Cowan for Shane Watson)’ and ‘Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith (as adapted by Frederick Flintoff)’.
Some famous writer once wrote something about knowing nothing about cricket if cricket’s the only stuff you’ve a clue about, I think. A piece by Backwatersman this autumn brought me up short with its sudden switch of the lens from its cricket subject to our own lives. An habitue of county and club cricket, Backwatersman was making a rare trip to the international game, via a photo of the Cricketers’ Wives of some of the England squad-members on the 1981 tour of West Indies. The roll-call was given thus – the names giving clues to the more serious under-current:
Mrs Kathryn Botham (looking wary, as well she might), Mrs Gail Bairstow (feisty, though I don’t think the word had been invented then in England), Mrs Brenda Gooch (regal), Mrs Sue Emburey (not unused to posing for the camera, I’d say), Mrs Elaine Gatting (apprehensive and possibly weighed down with jars of Branston’s), Mrs Helen Dilley and Mrs Angela Stevenson (perhaps, having seen Mrs Gooch, feeling a little under-dressed).
This year, the memory of cricket matches watched has been written about arrestingly by Brian Carpenter and Gary Naylor (99.94). A blog piece by someone who really has no need to blog, Jarrod Kimber (Cricket with balls), stood out. Sobers’ 254 and my Dad’s 252 at the G is a Kimber family tale and a celebration of the MCG and of Gary Sobers. But it’s the shaping of the memory and Kimber’s nagging of his Dad to validate details that elevate the piece.
When I ask my dad who else played in that World XI, he has no idea. He has no real memory of who was on either side. He thinks Dennis Lillee was there for Australia… Part of this is down to age. My old man is past 60. Partly it’s to do with the way Sobers has taken over that game in the memory of anyone who was there.
David Warner has had a packed 2013 – so busy that you may have forgotten that back in January the most controversial thing about him was his running between the wickets. Michael Wagener, on his Cricket Geek site, analysed the impact of Warner’s risk appetite for running runs. In a very neat calculation, the reward is shown to justify the risk: Warner.. “is effectively about 54% better than the average opener at finding runs in the field. This is a massive difference.”
Very many of the cricket stats posts around the internet are exercises in computation and list creation that are ultimately aimless. This piece appeals because it addresses an issue and, without overly-complex method, provides a clear answer. The Cricket Geek is the home of many similar, well-structured enquiries into the cricket we view, as well as the mini-session Test match analyses. Wagener isn’t just a stats man, though. His views on ethics and wrist-spin bowling are also worth absorbing.
It would infuriate the Old Batsman (“They’ve come to watch me bat, sir..”) to be positioned in the very tail-end of the order, although Jon Hotten may be less fussed. Ghost grounds, I imagined when I clicked the link in March, would be Hotten’s view on the sparse crowds that Test cricket is played before in much of the world. It wasn’t, it was much more satisfying.
It’s hard to write about a feeling as elusive as this one, yet it’s that elusiveness that makes it both rare and worthwhile. It happened the other day, for the first time in a couple of years.
Hotten has spied a cricket ground from his car that triggers a series of memories, although he cannot be sure they are really associated with this field. It connected with me because of the ever presence of cricket in his, my and possibly your mind. Sometimes below the surface, but liable to break out at any sensory stimulus.
Do read these posts and do let me (and others) know which other blog posts of 2013 you believe should be revisited by means other than some random google search result.
Thank you to the cricket bloggers – some listed as blognoscenti in the side-bar to the right – for the free insight and entertainment provided. Keep on keeping on in 2014.
The Ashes series is decided. Australia have overwhelmed England at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. England’s squad is gathering itself for Melbourne and Sydney depleted by the withdrawal, retirement and impotence of first choice players.
Those of us protective of Test cricket laud the extended narrative of long series. We don’t hesitate to point out the unsuitability of the increasingly frequent two-off Test format that leaves so many contests undecided (two Test series = oxymoron). Yet, with the luxury of lengthy series comes the risk of one-sided contests rendering later matches irrelevant to the series outcome. It’s worth considering whether this lessens the significance and impact of the matches played. Firstly, though, a few numbers to evaluate how common the dead rubber is.
I looked at the progress of the 99 most recently completed series up until September 2013. 43 of these were two Tests in length; 41 lasted three Tests; ten of four Tests; and five of Ashes-length five matches. I extended the sample of four and five match series to 25 by adding the next ten most recent longer contests. It is worth noting an important bias in the data: longer (four/five Test) series are unequally distributed across Test playing nations. England contested 16 of the 25 series in the sample; Australia 11; New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh 0.
The frequency of dead rubbers is shown in the table below.
|Series length||Series (no.)||Dead rubbers||Dead rubber %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||13||52%|
Over half of longer (i.e. four or five) Test series ended with matches that had no bearing on the series outcome, compared to one-quarter of three Test series. Only one series had the ‘double dead rubber’ we are about to experience – England’s last but one visit to Australia in 2006/07.
One step back from the dead rubber in terms of predictability of outcome, is the series which reaches the stage where only one team can win and the other draw (‘2 result rubbers’). This analysis draws in the two-off contests.
|Series length||Series (no.)||2 result rubbers||2 result %|
|4 or 5 tests||25||16||64%|
The vast majority of two-off contests saw a positive result in the first Test meaning that only one team could win the series. A much lower proportion of three Test series had one team going into the final match with a lead of a single victory.
Many Test rivalries are played out for a trophy. The convention that the most recent winner only has to draw the current series to retain the trophy means that encounters where only one team can win the series and the other draw it have the potential for great excitement. The Oval Test of 2005, with England needing a draw to regain the Ashes and Australia a victory to retain the urn, was an exemplar of this kind from recent years.
Series that enter their final chapter with all three outcomes possible can be the most prized.
|Series length||Series (no.)||All 3 results poss||%|
|4 or 5 tests||25||3||12%|
This eventuality is as equally unlikely a culmination to a five Test series as it is to the abbreviated two-off contest. The three Test series most frequently delivers the ‘everything to play for’ finale. Cricket is a confounding sport, so it’s worth recording that not all series that enter that last match with everything at stake should not be cherished. Two high scoring bore-draws can presage an equally turgid third and indecisive Test match.
To consider whether matches in dead rubbers are a dead loss or are fought to the death, I’ve looked at the actions and outcome of the 23 dead rubber matches in the sample.
The majority (13) were won by the team that had already secured the series victory (included here was the match awarded to England in 2006 when Pakistan refused to take the field after being penalised for altering the condition of the ball). While that provides evidence that the winning team remains motivated to pursue the win, it does suggest that the dead rubber adds little to what we already know about the relative strengths of the two teams.
Four of these matches were won by the team that had lost the series. In early 2009, Australia and South Africa played home and away three match series – virtually a six match series across two continents. In an unexpected symmetry, the host lost the first and second matches of both series before recording a home win. The home teams also gained consolation victories in the other examples: England defeating South Africa in 2008 at the Oval in Kevin Pietersen’s first match as captain; and a thrilling victory for India in Mumbai in 1994 when Australia were skittled for 93 and a 13 run defeat.
The remaining six dead rubbers produced draws. There were some notable matches, including: Lara’s 400* for the series losers; Sri Lanka running out of time 101 runs shy of a world record 4th innings target with six wickets in hand. There is also the strong rebuttal to the notion that dead rubbers don’t matter from November 2011 in Mumbai. India, series victors, were set 243 to win the third and final Test. The match went to the last ball of the final over with India’s tenth wicket pair managing a single to bring the scores level.
While dead rubbers have been the occasion of some very notable cricket, on the whole, the sport would be better without them. In this sample, series comprising three Test matches provided the most sustained uncertainty over the series outcome. Nearly half of longer (four and five Test) series, fulfilled the final fixture with honours already awarded. My recommendation would be that three Test series should be the norm. Longer series should be reserved, as they are now, for the traditional marquee series, but also any contest between, say, two of the top three ranked teams in the world. This would require some flexibility in scheduling, something the BCCI has shown in 2013 is very feasible. Two-off contests should be limited to match-ups between teams separated by five or more places in the rankings.
Later this week, the first of two Tests starts with the Ashes already decided and the rubber, strictly, dead. The onus is on England to breathe some life back into the contest.
Do leave a comment, or tweet me, with your views of preferred Test series lengths and also of memorable dead rubbers.
It wasn’t long ago, just a week or two, that I was thinking that you hardly every hear about it these days. It’s something that seems to have left the game, a peril of the past, not a concern of the modern cricketer. Then… SNAP
One day before the third Ashes Test at Perth, Australian all-rounder, James Faulkner was facing ex-patriot English bowler, Aaron Onyon, in the nets. A delivery lifted and struck Faulkner on the right glove, fracturing his thumb. With Faulkner’s trip to the hospital probably went his hopes, after being 12th man at Brisbane and Adelaide, of featuring in the Ashes series.
There was a time in the recent past that England batsmen seemed to be contending with an eleventh mode of dismissal: broken digit. Leading the way, in the vanguard where he belonged, was Alec Stewart. On the 1994/95 Ashes tour, he broke his finger three times: in a warm-up fixture; in the 2nd Test at Melbourne; and then in his return against Victoria ahead of the 4th Test. The following English summer, Stewart made it through the first two Tests of the series against the West Indies before damaging the finger keeping wicket. In other news, Jason Gallian, on debut, was hit on the glove and fractured a finger.
Nasser Hussain, Stewart’s successor as England captain has referred to his own, “poppadum fingers.” One snapped while scoring a century against India at Trent Bridge in 1996. Another cracked while fielding in his second Test as captain in 1999. Ditto in a county match a year later, ahead of the Lord’s Test against the West Indies. The next time, against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2001, Hussain’s thumb was broken by Shoaib Akhtar. He returned for the 1st Test of the Ashes series later that summer. In the second innings, a blow to the hand from Jason Gillespie fractured another finger.
Steward and Hussain were extremes, but others were afflicted, too. Graham Thorpe broke a finger facing a net bowler on the morning of the final Ashes Test at the Oval in 1993. The following year he scored a century with a fractured finger at Old Trafford against West Indies. Robin Smith batted on with a broken finger at Antigua in 1990. Nick Knight’s ODI career was interrupted by a finger injury in 2000. His successor, Marcus Trescothick, missed Tests in 2002 with a broken digit.
I had been wondering what accounted for the quietening of this staccato of snapping bones. Had batsmen (and fielders) adjusted technique? Perhaps bowlers, or the pitches they pound, are less spiteful. Most prosaically of all, has the protection provided by batting gloves developed?
A little research shows that each of these may be true, particularly the glove design explanation, but my ear may just not be as well tuned to the snapping of bones as it used to be. In recent months, Graeme Smith, Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions (while fielding), Moises Henriques have all suffered breaks that make James Faulkner not look so much of a throwback.
So instead of theorising about the decline of a once common injury I’m starting to realise that finger injuries were more noticeable when England weren’t a winning team; when the player absent injured, we imagined, might have been the one to turn the tide. In more buoyant times, these setbacks are easily forgotten as the team motors on.
With England moving towards a probable Ashes defeat, I wonder whether we are about to enter another period of fragile fingered England batsmen.
The diffidence of British broadcasters towards international cricket highlights surprises me. None of the four main terrestrial channels is showing the daily retrospective of the current Ashes series in Australia. The caché of carrying sporting events live is understandable, but highlights programmes play a critical part in engaging the cricket following community.
The sleep sacrifice (or time shift) required to follow overseas tours live is only for the very dedicated or under-occupied. Most of the hours of play in internationals in the home summer clash with regular business hours, making live viewing out of bounds for many. An end of day highlights programme re-connects to the game these viewers, as well as all of the cricket followers who, for reasons of finance or principle, will not pay to take the channels of the live broadcast rights holders.
I feel I need to assimilate each day of Test cricket played by England: understand the relative positions of the teams, appreciate whose performances have influenced those positions, experience the instances or passages of play that exemplify a player, a contest or a theme. Unable to watch, or follow, most days’ play in real time, the highlights more than any other method have the potential to fulfil this need I have to internalise the day’s play.
In the UK, Sky continue to complement their live coverage with a highlights programme shown at two, three or four different times between the close of one day’s play and the start of the next. Channel 5 are the most recent terrestrial carrier of something similar for home Tests.
Although a fairly frequent viewer of these programmes, I am usually underwhelmed. This is most noticeable when the programme host is wrapping up the show, enthusing about a thrilling day’s play. I am rarely sharing their enthusiasm, experiencing, at best, a warm glow if England have prospered.
Is this distancing from the events of the day inevitable in a condensed, after the event presentation? Does knowing the score and the outline of the day invariably rob my viewing of its excitement? While it seems likely that these are inherent weaknesses of the highlights product, I was interested to see if their current format also played a part.
To get some more insight, I have completed some content and quantitative analysis of the Sky highlights show for day 3 of the Adelaide Ashes Test.
The programme lasted 58 minutes, eight of which were spent on two commercial breaks. I timed how much of the remaining 50 minutes comprised ‘live’ coverage (defined below) and noted how much of the day’s play, using the currency of deliveries, was shown.
By ‘live’ coverage, I mean from the bowler beginning his run up until a break in the transmission to show a replay or advertisement. Included in this category – along with the core bowler bowling, batter batting – would be reaction shots and some visual filler while the commentator completed a comment. There were 27 mins, 21 seconds of ‘live’ coverage – around 55% of the programming time available (net of commercials).
Day 3 saw 518 legal deliveries bowled. 82 (16%) made it onto the highlights show. Most of the 45% of programming time not spent on ‘live’ coverage comprised replays. 35 deliveries (43% of those featured) were shown in replay, most from more than one angle.
More detail is provided in the table below, divided into the three sessions, which conventionally match the portions of the programme separated by the two commercial breaks.
Table 1 – Highlights coverage timings
|Programme segment||duration (mins)||match coverage (mins)||live (min:secs)|
Table 2 – Highlights content
|Programme segment||Deliveries in session||Deliveries in highlights||Runs in session||Runs in highlights||Wickets||Deliveries replayed|
32 of the 50 deliveries shown in sessions 2 and 3 were boundary hits or wickets. 5% of deliveries that didn’t take wickets or get hit for boundaries were shown – 100% of those that had either premium outcome naturally made it into the highlights.
The broadcast was very effective at showing the top 10% most exciting and significant deliveries (the highlights!). The viewer’s appreciation of these moments was enhanced by replays from different angles, the players’ reactions and the commentators’ descriptions. But is too much of the context of the match sacrificed?
In the morning session, Michael Carberry’s dismissal came after five consecutive maidens were bowled by Harris and Watson. Dot balls do not make highlights. But would that passage of play have been conveyed more effectively if the 17 dot balls played by Carberry had been shown in rapid succession (c.50 seconds required) culminating in him pulling the ball to Warner at square leg?
To do that, the editor must find 50 seconds to take from elsewhere in the package. I have written before about the visual media’s fetish for wicket celebrations. I would trade some of those hugs and high-fives for a little more context in the form of additional ‘live coverage’, even of dot balls.
I doubt the broadcasters will be swayed by my argument. The highlights programme must be compiled rapidly at the end of the day’s play, making a more nuanced presentation unlikely. I also suspect that I – and you as a reader of a cricket blog – am not the target audience. I will return to this subject shortly. In the meantime, do highlights shows leave you a little low, or do you find they hit the right notes?