Archive | December 2014

A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2014

The Internet grazes and devours like a beast of legend. And we, the bloggers, are principal amongst its feeders. Tasty morcel, indigestible lump, essay, review, polemic. We cook them up day after day, the speed of service following and often surpassing the pace at which cricket is played across the world.

While most of what we write is good for the moment, fits a particular taste and soon goes off, there are pieces that can be reheated and offered up again, with flavours stronger and deserving to be savoured.

I have selected eleven blog posts. All were written, to my knowledge, for free. To that basic qualification applied in 2012 and 2013, I have added another in this annual review. I have limited (or perhaps, extended) my choices to bloggers who did not feature in either of my previous annual selections. Arbitrary and constraining, but something similar doesn’t seem to have done Wisden any harm in its annual selections. Introductions over; let the list begin.

2014 was a year of political, oppositional or campaigning cricket blogging. At the very forefront in the UK was The Full Toss, whose writers rebutted and dismantled each decision and subsequent justification offered by the ECB in trying to create a new era for England cricket. TFT responded to every idiocy of the administrators with posts that managed to be both passionate and measured. The cumulative effect was powerful, but each individual post stands alone. I have selected the open letter to the Managing Director of Waitrose, England’s principal sponsors. It is notable for the overt campaigning stance and the recognition that if the regime is run for money, those who provide its income should have the influence to make it listen.

Kartikeya Date (A Cricketing View) addresses all aspects of the contemporary game with fearsome logic and absolute self-confidence, while remaining highly readable. The post I’ve selected wasn’t dealing with the most significant issue of the year, but its forensic treatment of a matter of ethical and administrative importance – the ICC’s censure of Moeen Ali’s wrist band support for Palestinians – is characteristically unequivocal and informative.

Where does the ICC draw the line? […] Is Moeen Ali’s beard a problem? He has spoken of it being symbol of his faith. […] Typically, the ICC will probably say that the beard isn’t an article of clothing. The ICC does explicitly ban “visible tattoos incorporating any Commercial or Manufacturers Logo”. Perhaps Moeen Ali should consider getting the top of his head or arm shaved to depict the phrase “Save Gaza”. The ICC shouldn’t have any objections to that.

The third piece I’ve selected from the year’s output of posts taking issue with the running of the game comes from the West Indies. David Oram is an authoritative voice on the cricket in the region. When the West Indies team withdrew from the tour of India, Oram was a key source in understanding what was going on. In this piece, Oram begins by asking,

I’m not the only one in the Caribbean right now asking myself ‘do I really care anymore?’ If the players don’t, then why should I? Why can’t everyone just get on and play some cricket?

He goes on to consider the role of the media and the failure of local reporters to gain a profile outside of the region, meaning reliance is placed on the perspective of ex-players heavily involved in the staging of international games. Oram is a very useful counterbalance to those views.

Philip Hughes’ death was the most shocking occurrence of this and many years of cricket. King Cricket, providing outstanding daily entertainment for thousands of cricket fans, changed gear to cover a story that could not be ignored. I found the tribute, at a time when it was hard to know quite what to think, to be a clear and direct statement of why Hughes’s fatal accident meant so much to those of us with no direct connection with the talented, enigmatic batsman.

We don’t much care whether he would have been great or not. What we’ll miss is Hughes’s career, however it might have panned out. That was the fascination – in seeing things unfold.

Blogging is often at its best when focused on a detail. Christian Drury is rare amongst bloggers for being able to sustain writing over a much grander sweep. In ‘The sporting spectacle out and about in the imagined community‘ Drury dealt with the spectating experience at a cricket match, traditionally and how it has been upended by the IPL.

Being seen in the hospitality box at an IPL match – with Preity! Shilpa! SRK! – is confirmation of arrival amongst the elite of a new India, commercial and commodified. It is a place in a parade of parvenus, unlike the ingrained privilege of a Lord’s Test, society calcified over generation. 

Mobilising social and cultural theory with his own rich prose, Drury has produced several exciting and provocative essays in this vein that offer pleasing descriptions of the familiar alongside the spark of new insights.

I hope that Declaration Game provides a comfortable home for writing about cricket statistics. Seamus Hogan, though, operates on a higher plane of numerical manipulation. In his university department’s blog, he has written several articles about cricket. I sense a love of cricket kept in check by professional propriety. In a recent piece, Hogan sought an answer to a question that many observers feel is self-evident, ‘Are ODI scores increasing?‘ Applying the controls on comparisons that we hobbyists tend not to trouble ourselves with, Hogan’s conclusion is counter-intuitive.

The second post about cricket statistics comes from an unlikely source: Scott Oliver of The Reverse Sweeper. Oliver’s cricket writing includes interviews, musings on literary theory and his seven part series on Adrian Shankar deserved to do for cricket blogging what Serial has done for the podcast. My selection is Unvital Statistics a piece that demolishes, with the help of political theory, the case for introducing statistical measures of fielding.

Yet the fundamental problem with individualised fielding stats is that the game of cricket – all team sport – is about intangible, unquantifiable relations and human traits, chief among which is generosity. Looking out for your mates. Putting everything you have in the pot before you measure it

Rarely do I start reading a blog post with one opinion and am so persuaded by what I read that I finish it with the opposite point of view.

In hosting the cricket blogger survey in recent months, I have come across a lot of, for me, new blogs. Amongst those I have enjoyed are: Voice from the Stands, Jack Vittles, My Life in Cricket Scorecards. From the back catalogue of two ‘new to me’ blogs, I enjoyed these excellent pieces.

The profile of Indian cricketer and airforce officer, Sky and Seam: the dreams of Shikha Pandey, on Grass on the Seam (Snehal Pradhan), reveals so much about the player and also the challenges of being a top class woman cricketer.

The Reckless Swipe, as a blog title, is a poor description of the measured writing found on Nick Allbury’s website. I particularly enjoyed this piece – The IPL and the difficulties choosing a team to support – where Allbury struggles to come to terms with, or sustain an interest in, franchise cricket.

But with the IPL I can find no angle. The teams, though featuring the name of a city, give me no sense of locality and any individuality that can be derived from it. There is no underdog, just one businessman pitting his wares against another. I don’t even get a true sense of India. The IPL may be played on Mars for all I care.

Cricket blogging encompasses many subjects and approaches: polemic, profile, statistical analysis, cultural theory, etc. Its essence, though, is story-telling. My final selections are tales from writers’ younger days.

Gary Naylor wrote a short series of ‘Summer the first time’ posts on 99.94 about how cricket entwined the young Naylor in the 1970s. His piece on fast bowling and Michael Holding, in particular, may help to give new life to the early memories that many of us have about cricket.

In the heat of England’s hottest summer in living memory, I closed the curtains and watched, on our new colour television, every ball of the Fifth Test on the scorched grass of Kennington’s Oval. There was King Viv’s 291 and Dennis Amiss’ magnificent return to the colours, going back and across to counter what was coming at him. And what was coming at him, was the most awesome sight in cricket – in sport – Michael Holding.

Dmitri Old was in the vanguard of writers challenging the powers that be in 2014. But the piece that caught my eye, Straight Down the Middle, recounted a schoolboy trip to Holland and a challenge issued and accepted by a West Indian cricketer. It’s the sort of story with which Old and his teammates, in particular the captain, will be able to earn their dinners for years to come.

Which blog posts that you read in 2014 deserve another read or a chance for a fresh audience?

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Cricket book choice

booksThere’s bound to be a few folk who, receiving or giving a gift this Christmas, are surprised to discover that Lionel Shriver’s “We should talk about Kevin” has nothing to do with the ECB and KP. It’s a few years since I read the book, but it made a very strong impression on me and so I am sure there isn’t a single mention of cricket.

That’s not the case with another American novelist’s most recent publication: Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch. Cricket, the sport, not the insect, gets mentioned twice during the long section set in the Las Vegas suburbs. Theo’s Dad, a shiftless sports gambler, watches it on ESPN (p255). Boris, as evidence of his precocious worldliness, has played the game (p273). Impressed? Not by Ms Tartt’s cultural jackdawism, I mean – but by my ability to drill unerringly into an 800 page tome and extract two isolated mentions of cricket. You see, I’m using it to claim authority in the matter of spotting cricket in books. Pickwick Papers, Netherland, we all know about. But did you know about these?

The Long Tail

long_tailChris Anderson, digital marketing guru and distant relative of the Burnley Lara, has written one of the most distinctive books about English Test cricket in the 1990s. You’ll read elsewhere about the struggles between captains and coaches, the years without a major series win. Anderson’s focus is on the selection and repercussions of fielding an 8, 9, 10, jack comprising solely rabbits. Tufnell, Malcolm, Fraser, Mullally, Ilott, Such are the hapless heroes. Layers of protective clothing, hours in the nets but Walsh, Ambrose, McDermott, McGrath, Cairns, Waqar and Wasim made made short order of England’s long tail.

The Illywhacker

illywhackerOne of the surprises of recent literary history has been the popular success of Peter Carey’s mixture of Australian villains and anti-heroes. In this less well-known piece, Carey turns on the captain who led England to a first Ashes victory downunder in 16 years, while also conceding a miserly 1.9 runs per over: Raymond Illingworth. It’s a revenge novel, whose heroes are the batsmen who did manage to give Illingworth a bit of long handle. It proceeds episodically, with scenes tending to be short, or very short, as Illy tended to take himself off whenever he took a bit of a whacking. One for fans of 1970s John Player Sunday League cricket.

Midnight’s Children

midnight's children25 June 1983, close to midnight in India, Mohinder Amanath traps Michael Holding LBW at Lord’s and India win their first World Cup. Rushdie uses this seminal moment in Indian modern history to weave a tale based upon the lives of children born at the precise moment of India’s victory. 25 years later, now adults, the fate of these special Indians draws them to Mumbai. Their paths cross at an event that is seen as the inevitable culmination of the national and cultural forces set loose by that evening in London. The cheerleader, the India Cements junior executive, the illegal bookie and the wristy middle-order batsman vie for prominence and the right to be the icon of 21st Century India at the first IPL final.

Fahrenheit 451

fahrenheit 451Bradbury’s fictionalised account of the Ashes series of 1934 is told from the perspective of scorer, Guy Montag. On the first day of the fifth Test, the dizzying speed of Bradman’s scoring and the heat of the day begin to effect Montag. He starts to hallucinate about a dystopian future for cricket: reduced to digital pulses and three hour matches. Montag works himself into such a frenzy that when Bradman is finally dismissed after adding 451 in just five hours with Ponsford, the scorebook erupts in flames.

One Day

one dayFor some critics, a clumsy device, for others an original narrative structure – David Nicholls tells the story of one day international cricket, year-by-year focusing on a single date: 5 January. On that date the first ever ODI took place in 1971 at the MCG. The book examines the shifting relationship of the brash youngster with its more mature counterpart – sometimes antagonists, other times partners – almost always involving India and Sri Lanka. It’s hard to conclude other than that it offers an exciting beginning and end, but falls flat in the middle.

Readers might want to identify other books where cricket has, unanticipated, made an appearance.

The final delivery of the 2015 World Cup

373121-saeed-ajmalThe 2015 World Cup was being hailed as the saviour of one day international cricket by the time the quarter-final places were settled. That first month of the tournament had seen regular close finishes, control of other games swinging dramatically from one team to the other (and occasionally back again). The associates had shown themselves to be competitive, with Afghanistan snatching a victory against Sri Lanka, who bizarrely opted to rest Jayawardene on a day his calm batting could have made the difference.

There were stories of renewal: the West Indies, four months after leaving India mid-series, their players and Board in dispute, dealt their erstwhile hosts a further snubbing with one of the most comfortable victories of the group stage. For India, this was a solitary defeat of a strong opening phase.

Alastair Cook also found vindication leading England to a record five World Cup victories on the trot, as well as being leading run scorer for his country. Defeat to India in the quarter-finals left England’s performance indeterminate – not poor enough to require a clear out, nor strong enough to dispel doubts.

Amidst the drama and excitement, Australia exuded a sense of calm and purpose. Wickets taken, their batsmen reaching milestones, even victories were greeted with handshakes, slaps on the back and simple acknowledgements to the crowd. There were no extravagant celebrations or reveling in the misfortune of opponents. They approached the tournament as a campaign, conserving energy, pacing themselves and, of course, bearing the burden of the loss of Philip Hughes.

India, who had already shown unexpected toughness in the Test series in Australia that preceded the World Cup, looked Australia’s most likely adversaries. Their semi-final opponents, Pakistan, had played scrappy, wasteful cricket. Somehow they wrought disorder on India’s smooth progression and in a tight game of mini-collapses and lower order rallies, Pakistan were in their element and squeezed into the final.

The following day, in the other semi-final, Australia neutered South Africa. Michael Clarke played that match – the first time in the tournament he had appeared in consecutive Australian fixtures. His back, his hamstring and his energy levels needed to be managed. By playing alternate matches in the group stage, Clarke was kept in one piece for the knockouts.

Australia faced Pakistan in the 49th match on the 43rd day of the tournament. Pakistan batted first. A steady start was on the verge of spectacular acceleration as Misbah launched an assault reminiscent of his innings in the 2nd Test against Australia in November. Only five months ago, but feeling to Australians to belong to a different era. But it wasn’t to be a throwback as Misbah slipped, aiming for a fifth six, and buckled the stumps with his back leg to be out for a rapid 46. The innings closed on 282 – a total that Australia had exceeded four times already in the tournament, although never needing that many when chasing.

Warner and Finch opened with a partnership of intense, high-energy cricket. Seeking to score off every ball, but not with their characteristic boundary-clearing shots, they upset Pakistan’s calculations. By the 15th over, the score was 90 when Finch, finally challenging the boundary fielder, was caught off a lofted pull.

The bowler was Saeed Ajmal. The off-spinner was a major focus of pre-tournament conjecture. His new action had been cleared by the ICC in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His team’s own misgivings about the impact of that change were apparent when he didn’t make the eleven for Pakistan’s first two matches. But thereafter, he settled into a groove that made him the most economical bowler at the tournament. Ajmal limited himself to off-breaks and arm-balls, but batsmen, if no longer mystified by his variations, couldn’t find a method to collar him.

Finch’s dismissal derailed the innings. Over the next twenty overs, Australia lost another six wickets while runs were extracted painfully. Misbah made manifold bowling changes, seeming to disorientate the Australian batsmen. The most dizzy and out of sorts of all, was the skipper Clarke. Yet, he had enough tenacity to hold onto his wicket. If he was hoping for calmer times, harmony wasn’t to be his saviour. Instead it came in the form of a James Faulkner hurricane.

Hitherto in the tournament, Australia’s serene progress had meant Faulkner’s muscular batting was always kept in reserve. But at the Final, with his team finally knocked off its axis, he had license to let rip. Faulkner hit more boundaries in three overs than his side had in the previous 35. Ajmal was mauled with three successive slog-swept sixes. Faulkner found the freedom, which had eluded all batsmen in the tournament so far, to clobber the Pakistani spinner.

With only three wickets in hand and fifty still needed off seven overs, Clarke called for steadiness from Faulkner and took the lead role as they stepped down from the latter’s assault to a more measured and calculated approach.

Into the final over and Australia required eight runs to win. Misbah brought back Saeed Ajmal. Faulkner erupted onto the second delivery. Flat batted and batted flat it hurtled between two legside boundary fielders for a four. One of the required four runs came the next ball with an under-edge sweep to short fine leg. Michael Clarke was now on strike.

Ball four, Clarke shimmied outside leg and met the ball on the half-volley. He drilled the drive straight in the direction of the long-off boundary, but with one obstacle in its way. Ajmal’s left wrist took the blow and intercepted the ball, knocking it to the ground, where the bowler pounced and stayed down until the physio appeared next to him to apply analgesic spray.

Ball five was the inside edge mishit that wins so many matches, but not this one as Clarke’s left ankle deflected the ball bobbling past his leg stump and through to Sarfraz Ahmed.

Clarke and Faulkner met mid-pitch, perhaps hoping to drift inconspicuously to each other’s station. Pakistani players, led by Misbah converged on Ajmal, who turned his back and waved away his teammates. Misbah, arms outstretched, face contorted, begged his bowler’s attention. Ajmal was full of quiet rebellion.

Clarke returned to the crease. He marked his guard, then stepped away, looked up into the ring of night sky framed by the MCG stands, inhaled and readied himself.

Ajmal stood thirty yards away, flexing his left wrist, bruised or worse by Clarke’s drive and flicking the ball with his bowling hand. The Pakistani fielders had retreated to their positions, shifted this way and that by their captain, but ignored, thought irrelevant by Ajmal.

Umpire Llong looked over his shoulder and mouthed ‘play’ to the bowler. Ajmal shuffled to the wicket. As he entered his delivery stride, Clarke stepped lightly across his stumps and his left foot began to stretch forward. Ajmal pitched his torso back, appearing to hesitate for a moment with his right hand lost to the batsmen’s view at the base of his spine. Lithe and loose his arm rotated upward, propelling the ball towards Clarke, who had lowered his body behind his front pad. The Australian’s bat swung from the off-side to fetch the ball heading for his off-stump. As the bat swept through its arc, the ball dipped. It pitched in line with Clarke’s intended point of contact. The bat’s true swing intercepted the trajectory of the ball’s travel, but the ball deviated left from the pitch, passing through to Sarfraz who parried the ball to the ground with his right glove.

Clarke, choosing to play a shot on one knee was left bowed at the moment of defeat. Ajmal raised his arms above his head, taking his turn to gaze at the Melbourne night sky. Sarfraz stood looking at the ball on the ground, two foot outside off-stump. Faulkner gesticulated, flexing his arm at Umpire Llong, who looked across at his colleague Dharmasena, seeking an answer. Llong moved his hand to his earpiece, where off-field assistance could be found, then lowered it again and carefully lifted the bails from the stumps. Clarke and Faulkner slumped. Misbah, in an echo of his bowler’s action seconds before, hesitated as he began to run to Ajmal, then pitched forwards to acclaim his bowler and banish doubt in Pakistan’s triumph.

 

Survey results: w(h)ither cricket blogging?

WordItOut-word-cloud-600385Post number three in this series on the results of the cricket blogger survey considers the state of the sector and where it may be heading.

Economists ask businesses to tell them their investment intentions as a guide to the future state of the economy. Similarly, we might interpret responses to a question about how bloggers see their frequency of posting new content changing over the next year, as an indicator of the health of cricket blogging.

The results, depicted in the heat map below, show there is plenty of energy there: around one-third are looking to post more frequently; another third staying the same; about one-in-twelve will stop completely.

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The characteristics of those planning to stop are that they all have daily views below 100; over half are currently posting less often than monthly; all have been blogging for three or more years

Amongst those planning to increase posting frequency there are high proportions of those with 100-499 daily views; blogging vintage of less than one year or 5-9 years; currently posting new material weekly or monthly.

If these plans come to pass, there will be more posts from the more popular sites. The responses to a question posed about the main challenges facing bloggers suggest those plans may not be realised. Time is a main challenge for 74% of bloggers, rising to 79% of those aiming to increase the frequency of posting new material (time is also selected by 78% of those expecting to decrease or stop blogging).

Readership levels are the second most commonly selected challenge, although amongst those reducing their commitment to blogging, a lack of enthusiasm for blogging came second to time.

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Respondents were asked to give their views on the current state of cricket blogging. 89 supplied answers, including nine who felt they did not know enough to give an opinion. Those positive about the sector hold a narrow majority, with a substantial minority expressing negative opinions.

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The comments of those pessimistic or critical of blogging mentioned the following factors:

Competition from new social media

The rise of micro-blogging and podcasting has made blogging an outdated medium. Anything that doesn’t sustain the attention of the easily distracted audience will be read by very few, unless it’s on a major sports website and easy to find.

Twitter is killing the comment section and without regular comment section interactions, blogs are on the wane.

Lack of community

It has changed since I began, when there was a sense of being a member of a community of bloggers… I think that’s dissipated now

Predictability of content

too much focus on topics that get plenty of mainstream coverage

People are not as open to new ideas and want to avoid serious topics altogether. People should be encouraged to embrace new content, different points of views

Overcrowded blogosphere

saturation point has been reached

Poor quality of writing

Too many bloggers of mediocre quality have clusterbombed Twitter and Facebook with low-quality links

Another cause for pessimism was the departure of stalwarts from the early days of blogging, some of whom are now writing for professional media – whose infiltration of bloggers is also criticised.

Turning to the respondents who are positive about the state of cricket blogging, there is some overlap with the factors cited by those perceiving the activity to be in decline: e.g. the ease of publicity through social media; cross-fertilisation of the mainstream media with bloggers; and the crowded field:

I like the clamour of voices, and I like the democracy of it… There should be an element of chaos about it too.

Other of the factors mentioned already are contradicted by those who are optimistic:

Range of subject matter

Whatever you want to read, a little searching can find it for you

It is a jungle with so many bloggers hoping to be noticed but that’s all to the good for the cricket enthusiast.

Quality of writing

Much of the cricket blogging that I see and read is actually of a higher standard than the professional cricket journalism that everyone reads.

Many respondents picked up this thread of comparing blogging favourably with the mainstream media:

It is healthy and getting better, and very necessary as cricket journalism in the mainstream media is in serious decline.

The sullied demise of professional cricket writing has created a bit of a vacuum, for me bloggers write the best stuff I read.

Developing this theme further, some respondents found cause for optimism about blogging in the ability of some bloggers to take on the establishment

when issues matter – Big Three; ECB v KP – I feel bloggers have done an exceptional job in holding power to account, far better then mainstream journalists who have been compromised.

This post finishes with some data that may point to some future directions for cricket blogging – a theme that the fourth and final post in this series will develop.

Participants were asked, ‘What kind of assistance or opportunities would you value most in developing your blogging and getting more fulfilment from blogging?’ and given a list of 13 from which to select three.

Three kinds of help were clearly the most popular, each being selected by close to half of all respondents:

  • critical evaluation of writing
  • finding/developing a community of readers interested in the same subject(s)
  • interaction with players and journalists.

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Interest in technical skills to aid blogging or formal organisation of bloggers (awards, meetings) drew some, but not strong, interest.

Bloggers were asked which subjects they would like to see covered by blogs and invited to select up to five of a list of 21. The top ten topics are shown below, with size of font indicating quantity of preference. Cricket history was selected 45 times; player interviews and profiles, 21 times. I hope to rise to the challenge of satisfying the demand for more just, y’know, random stuff.

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Blogging is no longer a frontier activity, with other forms of on-line expression preferred by pioneers. It attracted a lot of pessimistic comment. However, the criticisms don’t seem to be associated with reduced commitment from most bloggers. The trajectory of cricket blogging’s rise may have leveled out, but its health doesn’t seem in peril. The challenge most commonly cited by bloggers – time – would probably be the modal response from any group surveyed about their hobby. None of the major challenges identified look as though they pose a grave threat to the activity.

In describing the current state of cricket blogging, the issue that respondents brought up again and again was its interrelationship with the mainstream media. For some blogging is a stepping stone to a career in the media; for others it is the moral high ground from which the media is observed. Blogging can be a thorn in the side of the media or a refuge from the compromises of professional writing. It will be interesting to see if this complex of dependencies and oppositions is resolved in the coming years.

However, there is a danger in writing about blogging as an entity. It’s an individualistic pursuit, with only limited collegiality. That’s a state that bloggers may want to reconsider: should they, whether for their own personal satisfaction, or for the sustainability of the enterprise, attempt some form of loose organisation and mutual help? That may be needed to provide some of the assistance that bloggers report that they would value most.