Archive | January 2014

Below the line

I am going to address a paradox, discuss user effort and delve into my deepest motivations. This means going off topic. So, an early warning, this isn’t about cricket (although one cricket-naïve friend of mine thinks that might be true of the blog as a whole.)

I am descending, plunging below the surface of blogs. I am looking at the sub-blog realm of comments.

Seasoned bloggers, Backwatersman and Brian Carpenter, reflected on the changing experience of composing and publishing their thoughts on the game over the last five to ten years in comments to my recent review of blog posts in 2013. Brian noted:

It seems that these days fewer people comment on blogs. If they like something they retweet or favourite it, rather than taking the time to engage with it to the extent of commenting.

As a blogger with an inclination for numbers, I’ll respond first to another of Brian’s observations: “Interestingly, there’s never much correlation between numbers of comments and numbers of readers.” Plotted below are those data for Declaration Game (red squares are quiz posts).

blog comments.pdf-page-001

Brian’s right – but why? My guess is that it is because of the source of those surges of readers. They follow (very gratefully received) plugs from bigger names. Proportionately fewer readers of bigger blogs comment on what they read and they don’t alter that behaviour when on a detour to a more minor outlet. Commenting is also, however trivially, about establishing a relationship. A first time (or occasional) visitor is less likely to take the time.

Time is such a telling factor. All the concentration and coincidence of technology that enables blogging has made it absurdly easy to publish. Commenting on a piece can be just as easy. Very often, however, the effort (outside of the composing and typing of the response) is greater than that required to publish it in the first place. The threat of spam (Declaration Game has a spam to comment ratio of 99:1) sees bloggers erect barriers to their sites. It might seem extreme to call the requirement to recognise and type a dozen characters to prove you are human, a ‘barrier’. But that process, alongside an identity registration, often takes longer than is required to read the piece that inspires the comment. Add the fiddliness of a smart phone and many bloggers who want and deserve comments are deterring them.

But not all bloggers place their work behind those particular barriers, instead using programmes that detect spam. Readers, myself included, now have such a low effort threshold that the enthusiasm to contribute a comment evaporates in minutes. And there’s the immediate alternative way of expressing approval – Twitter – which also enables the reader of the blog to do the blogger the favour of promoting their piece.

I have come to the view that some bloggers (definitely not Brian and Backwatersman) don’t really want comments. That’s fair enough – so much of the pleasure of blogging is in the composition. Why then leave the comment function in place? A small number of cricket bloggers make no response to an interrogative comment or bat it away, refuting the point made. We could debate whether it’s a lack of humility or an excess of insecurity, but I have moved on and their writing doesn’t get the attention it probably merits.

I have asked myself the question, “Why do I want to get comments on my writing?” The uncomfortable consequence of delving deeply into my own motivations is the discovery of how shallow I am. The number one reason that I want comments, I have realised, is to have readers tell me how good, clever, etc I am. Some way behind this need for praise, is the enjoyment of discussion, of someone adding to, redirecting or correcting the argument of my piece. I think this attends to a basic need I must have to be taken seriously.

This exercise in self-examination has made me realise that there is a third kind of feedback that I don’t think I have received that would be the most beneficial to me. It is the kind of feedback that (I imagine) is routine in the mainstream media. It’s the input of the editor: highlighting what is unclear; suggesting alternative structure or challenging a lapse in style, an over-reliance on cliché. With the bloggers’ feted freedom to write whatever they want to write comes the custody of repeating mistakes and not developing as a writer.

Readers who contribute comments to Declaration Game are highly likely to either blog themselves, or know me. (This acts as a protection against the below the belt, below the line discourse that soils major websites: insults, rants and threats.)  In wishing for a more engaged readership, bloggers should acknowledge that confidence plays a part in who wants to appear below the line. Many readers are ‘shy’ or less committed to the subject and the medium. We should just be grateful that they visit and, all being well, read from beginning to end.

I have mentioned site accessibility, bloggers’ responses and motivation, as well as readers’ confidence as factors determining comment quantity. There is one cricket blog (and possibly more) where the action below the line, day after day, sizzles. Here is a recent example from the exceptional King Cricket – Dale Steyn: Lord Megachief of Gold. How do ‘they’ (is the ‘we’, royal?) do it? Simply put: seven years of day-in, day-out excellence. Short, fun posts, usually around mainstream issues, which don’t intimidate or close off other points of view. There’s a regular cast of commenters, but look what happened when King Cricket appealed for thoughts on the future direction of the site: Why in blazes do you read this website? Over 100 commenters, many surfacing for the first time to give feedback.

All that’s left for me to say is: What do you think? Am I great? Have I missed the point? Do I rely too much on cliché and commonly used constructions? How can I write with more impact?

Little things

The size of the cricket field and its 360 degree sweep of action give the spectator a variety perspectives and with that arise different appreciations of play. At a club or county match, where the ground can be circled, you can experience at your own pace how the game changes with the angle of view.

At an international match, these biases emerge when friends meet during the intervals and discuss the play. Those seated square on will comment on the pace of the bowling, the carry of the ball or the footwork of the batsman playing spin. Seated straight on and the movement of the ball from seam, swing or turn is revealed.

A single incident carries multiple images. A boundary catch off a top-edged hook is marked from some vantage points by the sudden lift the bowler generated; other spectators will be positioned to track the trajectory of the ball, certain it had shot straight up, or convinced it would carry the boundary; those sitting behind the fielder would have the thrill of seeing the player strain to cover ground and keep balance enough to clasp the ball safely.

This is a week of a month of a year when big things demand our attention. Bigger things than the third Ashes clean-sweep in 136 years. The game that has muddled on for so long may be considering (if given any choice) bold, radical changes underwritten by motives that repel many cricket lovers. Mutton, Haigh, Mehta, Degnan, Bal, Kimber, and many others must be read.

As a cricket blogger, these machinations freeze my ink. I am happy to defer to those I have mentioned. They have political and economic nous and calm minds that unpick what we’ve been told and calculate a prognosis for the game.

One sentence read today, however, from Matt Becker’s piece ‘The Highway is Alive Tonight‘, unblocked me and inspired this post:

The magic in cricket is in the little things.

I have wanted to write about something that delights me about the experience of watching cricket in a large crowd at a major ground, but it always felt so slight that I struggled for a reason to describe it. That the magic is in the little things, releases it.

Watching, say, a Test match: in between overs, the sound of applause, distinct but feint through distance, will drift across the ground. There’s no action for the crowd to respond to and nobody around you is clapping. But some 150 metres away a fielder is jogging or walking away from the square, with hand raised, holding hat or cap, towards a section of the crowd. It’s the bowler whose over has just finished, perhaps having taken a wicket, or completed a spell, but definitely having impressed. And now that bowler is returning to his fielding position close to the boundary, close to a section of the crowd who, independent of allegiance, identify with the bowler and welcome him back.

On the other side of the ground, the noise feels like a reaction to an event already viewed and understood. Or simply an echo delayed by the reach of the ground. At a distance, the harshness of clapping is tempered, not hand smacking hand, but raindrops on a roof, hooves on soft ground; insistent and gentle. Above all it’s the warmth of cricket and its people.

Now is the time to find the balance: getting the big things right, so we can enjoy the beauty of the little things.

Whitewash – the long view

whitewashAn England team has been humbled in Australia, losing five consecutive Test matches. The clean-sweep is a fair reflection of the home side’s dominance. The visiting team can look back at unfortunate incidents, missed opportunities and questionable selections, but a gulf in quality has been exposed.

That’s the predicament English cricket finds itself in at the start of January 2014. 93 years ago, its touring predecessors suffered the same series result. How do the two series and their consequences compare?

England travelled to Australia in late 1920 as holders of the Ashes, seeking a third consecutive series victory. But that provided little evidence of form as the previous encounter had been eight years and one World War ago. The tourists’ batting was thought to be their strong suit. Cardus, reflecting on the ‘wonderful’ summer of 1920 just past, observed (with an analogy that intrigues):

Look at the men who will bat for England in a few weeks in Australia – Hobbs, Hearne, Hendren, Woolley, Fender, Russell. Individualists all – some of them very Lenins of cricket!

The team was led by JWHT Douglas, who had a proven record as a captain overseas with victories in Australia and South Africa, albeit achieved before the Great War. He had not been first choice for the role, though. Reggie Spooner of Lancashire was offered the captaincy, but declined it because of business commitments (1).

Hopes were, of course, even higher for Cook’s team of 2013. Setting out to secure a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, with the first Test at Brisbane starting fewer than three months after the close to final Test of the 3-0 series win on home soil. Cook, himself had never lost a series as captain and had lead England to its first victory in India in 26 years.

Douglas’ squad numbered 16, half of who suffered illness or injury in Australia. The most severe loss was Jack Hearne, who became ill at the start of the second Test and played no further part in the series. Harry Makepeace incurred an injury ‘of its time’ – damaging a thumb when starting a car.

This winter’s tourists also lost a pivotal member of their batting order early in the series, with Jonathon Trott’s departure owing to a stress condition. Graeme Swann’s exit – retiring mid-series – might also be seen as ‘of its time’.

But all touring teams, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, can expect casualties and to need to select teams from a reduced squad. These matters provide background to stories of thumping defeats, but don’t afford explanations. A fast bowler – the quickest of his day – was where Australia’s superiority on the field was most pronounced. Mitchell Johnson, like Jack Gregory nearly a hundred years earlier, was too hostile for England’s Lenins. Gregory’s pace – “for which nothing in English cricket was adequate preparation” – found its  greatest support not from another fast bowler, but Arthur Mailey, whose wrist-spin took 36 wickets in the series.

England’s much touted batting order faltered, yet found some consolation in the performance of the greatest star of all. Kevin Pietersen was England’s leading run-scorer but could derive but a fraction of the satisfaction that Jack Hobbs could from his performance. 505 runs, with two centuries, despite some injury problems. Pietersen has faced heavy criticism for the manner of some of his dismissals – from press, followers and possibly, coach. I suspect he would need to score more than 500 runs, or travel back 90 years, or find a correspondent as romantic as Cardus to receive this indulgence of a dismissal:

Hobbs, in the moment of crisis, so fascinated by his own art that he heeds not the dangers lurking about him! On this occasion, indeed, he was out ‘leg before wicket’, no doubt attempting to ‘damn the consequences’, with his own hazardous but ravishing glance to leg from a ball on the middle stump, the riskiest stroke, but as sweet as stolen fruit.

The heat of the Ashes contest infected the crowd, who jeered an antagonist in the opposition, then cheered loud and long when he was dismissed. Stuart Broad’s predecessor was ER Wilson, who earnt this reception by cabling complaints about the Australian crowd’s behaviour back to England, from where they bounced back to an Aussie audience.

The local crowd also jeered when they saw an England cricketer labouring in the field, failing to keep the batsmen to a single. The fielder was Hobbs, who was carrying a leg muscle injury. But according to Hobbs, the crowd made amends in “one of the most peculiar incidents in my life.”

The moment I appeared at the door of the pavilion, the spectators rose from their seats and cheered like mad, shouting, “Good old Hobbs!” They even sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” This was undoubtedly intended to make it clear to me that any chaff directed at my fielding had been due to ignorance of my injured leg

Could the team’s leaders remain in positions of authority after such a humiliating defeat? That’s the question preoccupying England cricket followers in 2014. Flower appears to have the backing of the ECB and he, in turn, supports Cook continuing as captain. In 1921, Douglas continued as captain. “Much has been taken from English cricket this winter, but much abides,” concluded Cardus. Yet, two Tests and two defeats later, Douglas was replaced.

Everything about Andy Flower’s role is twenty-first century. The tourists’ manager in 1920/21 was Frederick Toone. His sphere of influence was off the field. So highly respected were his organisational and diplomatic skills and so untarnished was he by the performance and scoreline, that he managed the next two MCC/England tours of Australia.

For precedents to apply to Flower, there’s a need to look to the more recent past. In 2007, Duncan Fletcher remained in charge for the World Cup campaign that followed the Ashes whitewash. Failure there led to his resignation, with a sense that he had contributed greatly to the development of English international cricket but that the team needed new leadership.

Mickey Arthur remained coach to the Australian team deep into 2013, several months after the 4-0 clean sweep to India. Failing to win a game in the Champions Trophy and with off-field controversy buffeting the team he was denied the chance to coach in the Ashes. Both Fletcher and Arthur exited having failed to conjure a recovery in their next assignment after being whitewashed. Maybe Flower is also being given an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the team quickly.

His situation, however, differs from that of Fletcher and Arthur, both of whom had successors ready to take over, men who also represented changes of direction from the previous regime. Peter Moores was thought to be more consensual than the man blamed for the stubborn selections in the 2006/07 Ashes, as well as having strong connections back into the county game from which Fletcher had distanced his England set up. Darren Lehmann, in England in 2013 with the Australia A team, enabled Australia to end their association with their first foreign coach and replace him with a leader whose style was player-friendly, not technocratic; warm, not aloof. Flower, perhaps as a result of his authority, has no obvious successor who would bring a fresh approach to the running of team.

Finally, returning to the longer view theme of this piece:

The England team fails to rally late in the series. As the fifth consecutive defeat is recorded, the players look drained and trapped in a pattern of repeated mistakes. Time away from cricket, or at least away from Australian opponents, would seem the best best remedy.

It seems cruel on the England of 2014 that many of the key figures in the Test series defeat – Cook, Broad, Bell, Bresnan, Root, Carberry – must stay on for a further four weeks, meeting their vanquishers in eight limited overs fixtures.

Douglas’ England team did get to sail home at the end of the Test series. But any hopes they may have had of putting distance between themselves and their opponents were not to be realised. Amongst the passengers sharing the voyage were the Australian squad on its way to England for the return series in the northern summer of 1921.


(1) I have also read that CB Fry was offered the captaincy, but turned it down because of injury.

Sources: A Cardus for All Seasons (Neville Cardus); My Life Story (Sir Jack Hobbs); A History of Cricket (HS Altham & EW Swanton); Wisden