A select XI cricket blog posts of 2020
How did 2020 affect cricket blogging? Despite there being a lot less cricket played and very much less spectated than most would have planned, we blogged on. For a couple of months in the early summer, our method appeared to have infiltrated the professional media, which switched from match previews and reports to traditional blogging fare: nostalgia, lists and ‘things I would change about cricket’ pieces.
It filled their column inches, but their efforts didn’t really come up to scratch, particularly when compared to the quality output highlighted here. What follows is my personal selection of eleven blog posts from the year. None, to the best of my knowledge, was written for money and none of the writers has been featured in my nine previous annual selections.
It turned out that cricket in the UK found a sweet-spot in 2020, between the first wave of the pandemic and the autumn resurgence. In the early summer, however, it had seemed that the recreational game would be prohibited. The writer and club cricketer, Roger Morgan-Grenville (@RogerMGwriter) articulated what so many involved in the game were feeling in Time for some (very) civil disobedience.
when the Prime Minister announced on Monday that recreational cricket was not free to go ahead, when we were all free to go into pubs to get pissed, shops to get coughed on and churches to pray in, I must admit that something in me broke. It had threatened to do so for some months, but now it just did.
Writing a week or so later, with club cricket officially sanctioned, Pete Langman (@elegantfowl) found his anticipation of the return to play – The silence of the stands – haunted by the fear of failure: a golden duck
It means we spent more time walking out to bat and back to the pavilion again than we spent in the middle. Dammit, we spent longer donning our protective equipment than we spent on the field.
In unsettled times, the past provides a refuge. The blog ‘Oldebor’ (@sarastro77) is dedicated to cricket before the war. My favourite of its long-form posts this year was the retelling of the story of Douglas Carr, the 37 year-old school master called up for the final Ashes Test of the 1909 campaign.
Where Oldebor does not dwell on the lessons of the past, Stephen Hope (@fh_stephen) draws conclusions from his early memories of the game which he would like today’s administrators to acknowledge – in particular the Sunday League, which “did a more than decent job regenerating the game.. thanks to the Beeb’s coverage and to games played in places that kids could get to. All told it was played on 127 grounds.”
County cricket has come to mean a great deal for @The_Grumbler The silent sanctuary of county cricket soothes this lost soul – but it wasn’t always this way.
Until recently I too considered county cricket as the most wonderful waste of time. Glorious but pointless. Now, in the most difficult period of my life, it has revealed a hitherto hidden purpose as salvation and sanctuary for my troubled mind.
The Full Toss first featured in these annual reviews in 2014. Founder James Morgan has kept the blog fresh, in part by recruiting guest writers. I particularly enjoyed Cameron Ponsonby’s (@cameronponsonby) writing, including an accomplished interview piece about the challenge of facing the fastest bowlers in the game: Watch the ball, play it late, don’t be scared.
Three young cricketers inspired two strong analytical blog-posts. Khartikeya (@static_a357) found a template for the future in the Pooran Way: “Pooran sees the value of his wicket in T20 for what it is. If he gets out attacking, so be it, but the value of hitting sixes in the middle overs outweighs almost everything.” Khartikeya’s argument is strengthened by the conclusion: “..it will all regress to the mean and we will wait for the next Trinidadian superhero to show us the way forward.”
Oscar Ratcliffe (@oscar_cricket) invoked Philip Pullman, Stuart Broad and Steven Smith in assessing the future direction of the careers of Dom Bess and Sam Curran: Showing some mongrel..
There was no lack of quality statistics-based blogging this year. From that genre, I have picked a single piece by Amol Desai (@amol_desai) which took a familiar question – does captaincy affect performance? – and wrung from the numbers (a lot) more insight than Sky Sport’s ex-England captain presenters have managed from their years in post.
Cricket coaching has its own small blogging niche which enables coaches to share ideas and debate best practice. From time-to-time, something of more general interest emerges, as is the case with David Hinchliffe’s (@davidhinchliffe) account of what happened during an indoor session with school age cricketers when one participant said, “I just want to hit balls I don’t care about the game” – All training is compromise..
The final post in the XI is written by someone who would not consider himself to be a cricket blogger, who associates his interest in the game with shame and concludes that he doesn’t really like the sport. But, hey, we welcome all-comers, particularly if they compose entertaining, opinionated cricket-based lists. Clive Barnett (@cliveyb) includes a seasonal message while choosing his top cricket books.
I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.
To complement my annual Select XI, I also nominate the ‘World’s Leading Cricket Blogger’ for sustained excellence and entertainment throughout the year. On this occasion, it was a sustained burst of daily blogging from 22 March to the 2 July. Bob Irvine, aka Fantasy Bob (@realfantasybob) was a welcome lockdown companion, with his Witterings covering art, music, the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak of 1964 and every step of pandemic policy – all through the prism of 4th team club cricket in Scotland. Public service blogging.
A Select XI Blog Posts of 2019
This year’s selection of blog posts is as diverse as each of the previous eight years’ selections, featuring authors from four continents, content spanning the international and recreational game, cricket of the early twentieth century, the modern and near future. There are themes, though: the summer’s World Cup provides material for four pieces; statistical insights inform three and concerns about how the game is run are found in three. The qualification for the Select XI remains that they should be independent and unremunerated writing from the web. Bloggers featured in any of my previous annual round-ups are excluded.
Red Ball Data (@EdmundBayliss) has been one of the pleasures of 2019, providing frequent, ingenious investigations of cricket tactics and performance, with a focus on the red ball game, but in the example I’ve selected, looking at the interaction of one format (T20) with the others: On the decline of Test Batting
To counter-balance the rationalist approach, here is the romantic viewpoint: Mahesh dissects and celebrates a single shot from this year’s Test cricket:
Kusal Perera takes the smallest of strides forward, without the slightest of pretensions to get near the line of the ball, backs his hands to work at his eye’s command, and deposits the ball onto the roof of the stands over extra cover with a most pristine swing of the bat. Dean Elgar pulls down his sunglasses to see how far the ball has gone. Aleem Dar completes the formality of signaling a six but keeps staring towards extra cover as if he is trying to visualise that moment of perfection again.
From this one shot, the author builds an argument for the Six – a shot he describes as unnecessary to Test cricket – as testimony to the adventurous spirit of sports players.
Six appeared on the 81 all out site, alongside my favourite player appreciation of 2019, Yuvraj Singh and the journey from hope to possibility. Aftab Khanna describes the catalysing impact Yuvraj had on the India ODI team of the early 2000s. The core of his success with the bat was having the cleanest of swings:
There was a smooth, unbroken backswing, a stable head at contact, and a clean follow-through with a pristine extension of the arms. In the middle of the cacophony of a packed stadium, Yuvraj brought the tranquillity of the golf course to the art of swinging.
Yuvraj is joined in the Select XI by Wayne Madsen, whose milestone of reaching 10,000 runs for Derbyshire was marked in this affectionately written piece by Steve Dolman (@Peakfanblog).
2019/20 marks the start of the next four year cycle of building towards the 2023 ODI World Cup. Dan Weston (@SAAdvantage) used this as an opportunity to look backwards to the 2019 tournament cycle and forwards to address the personnel changes Pakistan and South Africa would need to make. In Managing the Overhaul, Weston mines his domestic limited overs database to pinpoint which players who could help those nations have more impact in the next World Cup. An article to read, bookmark and review in four years time.
The 2019 World Cup also features in You Couldn’t Write the Script, by Nicholas Freestone. The source of celebration is not simply England’s trip to the final, but the game’s reappearance on free-to-air TV in the UK. Freestone writes about the rise and fall of Channel 4’s cricket coverage, which ran alongside and informed his school days’ fascination with the sport. Days before the final, he concludes:
The sun will be shining on Lord’s and, no matter the result, it will be one of my greatest days as a cricket fan. It was over half my lifetime ago that Channel 4 was showing live England cricket, something that was seminal in my childhood.
Now it is back, and it will be something special – one day in which I can relive the greatest sporting coverage that I will ever see in my lifetime.
Blogging is for amateurs, aspiring professionals and for those who have already made it to the media profession. Peter Della Pena is a CricInfo correspondent, who used his own website to publish an account of watching a World Cup tie with Evan, a friend from his childhood in New Jersey. The Americans watching Afghanistan in England on the 4th of July might not earn Della Pena a paycheck but it makes for a fine, long-form blog, that weaves together a number of themes topical and timeless. Of the latter, there is the insight a cricket watching veteran can gain from accompanying a debutant:
Of all the things Evan could have come across at a cricket match to pique his interest, the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern Method would have been near the bottom of the list of things I would have ever imagined drawing him in. But it happened.
Neil Manthorpe, South African cricket broadcaster, is a dedicated blogger. In recent months he has detailed the crisis in South African cricket governance. My selection comes from the middle of this year: Manners’ reflection on that final in July, notable for its cool detachment as it considers What will the Greatest Final be remembered for?
They [the New Zealand players] held their nerve as well as they held their catches. Time and time again when the intensity of the moment demanded that somebody, or something, should crack, it was not them. They had learned the lesson from the last final, four years ago, when the occasion was too much.
But somebody did crack.
Going back 100 years, the Wisden of 1919 had little cricket to cover and featured obituaries of many players who didn’t make it to the resumption of regular play that spring. For its cricketers of the year, Wisden selected five public school boys. In Whatever happened to? John Winn traced the careers of these five promising youngsters, headed by future England captain, Percy Chapman.
Returning to cricket statistics, an increasingly fertile area for cricket blogging, Playing for Lunch and Tea charts whether batsmen really do alter their play as intervals approach. Karthik’s (@karthiks) exemplary analyses – on this topic and many others – provide eye-catching proof that this truism is statistically supported.
The Club Cricket Development Network (@ClubDevel) is about the only thing I have ever found of value on LinkedIn. It shares experience and good practice on issues that affect club cricket and has taken a representative and lobbying role with the ECB. This piece – The strange death of English cricket – skewers the innumeracy that underlies the grand strategy for the future of the UK’s national summer game and exposes the agenda that makes a particular number attractive to those in authority.
I will end this round-up, in imitation of Wisden, with my nomination of the World’s Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year – aka the blogger whose output has given me most reading pleasure in these last twelve months. Limited Overs is the work of Matt Becker who, from his home in Minnesota, bridges the personal and the global meaning of cricket, with a tender mix of emotion, humour and sincerity. Catching up on Becker’s recent posts, I came across this – characteristic of much of his writing – and apt to use in conclusion of this piece, this year, this decade;
Cricket is an old game. And with that age comes ghosts. And with those ghosts comes weight, and a sense of belonging to something great. I am not sure what that something is. Whether it is time or history or God or the universe. But when we allow ourselves to feel cricket’s ghosts, that is when the game becomes more than a game, and then we have no choice but to keep coming back, to keep that wonderful sense of doleful joy alive in everything we see.
Not easily mistaken for
I made my way to the wicket at the fall of the fifth wicket. I took guard, received the conventional information from the umpire and readied myself for the first delivery. As the bowler paused at the top of his run-up, a loud voice from cover point exclaimed:
What? Another leftie?
Hang on. I’m confused. Remind me, which one’s the Saffer international?
The fielder had a fine sense of the ridiculous. The non-striker joined the laughter. My batting partner was Ryan Rickelton, SA junior international: 19 years old, fresh-faced, with a physique developed to excel at his other sport, rugby. I was not and had not. Other than the 22 yards of well rolled and cut turf, Ryan and I only really shared our left-handedness at the crease.
I was reminded of being not easily mistaken for Ryan last week. We had been teammates four years ago, playing a Sunday friendly with a scratch team at Sale CC comprising a few first teamers, some dads and some juniors. The recollection popped up while recording an interview for the podcast ‘81 all-out‘. The host, Subash Jayaraman – aka The Cricket Couch – had paired me with Dan Norcross, creating as unequal a partnership as I had experienced in cricketing matters since Rickelton and I batted together.
Subash wanted to get an English perspective on the World Cup final, in much the same way that the Sale friendly XI skipper had wanted a few lower middle-order runs from his pair of left-handers. My leg-side nudges and edged drives, set against Ryan’s crisp cuts and slog-swept six, can be read across to the contributions Dan and I each made to the podcast. Keep the pro on strike and enjoy the close-up view, I reasoned.
Just as Ryan had time for a mid-wicket chat and ran my singles hard, so Dan allowed space for my more parochial observations and humdrum notions of the greatest ever Cup Final. What I really enjoyed, though, was the thing out of my reach: the straight drive drilled back past me, and away to the tennis courts without losing speed; the fluent linking of multiple ideas, laced with humour and images both jarring and apposite – ‘drowning kittens’; ‘evil Kiwis’ (to have brought such bad fortune upon themselves). The easy, unforced flow of runs and of the spoken word are equally thrilling to witness.
I checked out the scorecard from that Sunday match. I was surprised to see that Ryan scored only five more runs that I had. The bald figures suggest we were closer to parity than I had remembered. But the cover-point fielder was a bringer of truth: I was not easily mistaken for a pro.
Listen to a pro in action here: http://www.81allout.com/world-cup-2019-final-you-win-some-you-tie-some/ You can subscribe to Subash’s podcast at all good pod aggregators, or follow him @cricketcouch
A Select XI blog posts of 2018
This 2018 selection of cricket blog posts features topical issues, stories from the past, the minutiae of the game, insightful numbers, artful descriptions and the deeply personal. All the pieces selected have in common that they are independent and unremunerated writing from the web (note 1).
Leading off, we have a measured and expert riposte to the ECB Chairman’s comments about the demise of the junior game. Neil Rollings addresses the question ‘Is Youth Cricket really dying?’ unswayed by nostalgia or any agenda other than giving kids the opportunity to play.
It is not batting and bowling that have become unfashionable, but sitting on the side or fielding in redundant positions. Seeking ever shorter formats does not address this fundamental issue.
Junior cricket and its wider lessons, even if unheeded by the adults who attend games, is the subject matter of a letter written by the 17th Man to his 15 year old nephew (‘Diary of the 17th Man’). Whilst the letter refers to incidents in the young player’s matches, it was written in early April, days after this advice could have averted the year’s biggest cricket drama:
When you are an adult you see how people behave and shift their ideas about what is right or wrong, fair or unfair, depending on the situation or the advantage they can extract from it…
When you know you have done the right thing your conscience is always clear. That is something to cherish.
Blogger ‘Cricket Stuff’ responded to the ECB’s ‘the Hundred’ proposals with a look back at the Lambert and Butler Floodlit Cup, held at football grounds in 1981, concluding: “It had been new, it had been inventive, but it had not been right.” Having introduced Cricket Stuff, I can’t recommend highly enough his work in another medium: the podcast series ‘Cricket and England Through Five Matches’ – a highlight of my cricket consumption this year.
The CricViz initiative made available regular innovative use of game data and quality analytical writing in 2018. While acknowledging the excellence of their work, I have selected a trio of independent statistical posts for this eleven:
- Introducing a T20 captaincy metric: Joe Harris (White Ball Analytics) is a data scientist who makes the most of the compressed and systematic T20 format to explore deep patterns and possible areas of advantage in the short-form game. In this case, Harris proposes a method for measuring the impact skippers make through their bowling changes.
- 1 schoolboy error that even elite batsmen make, also probed an aspect of T20 cricket – specifically, should a batsman try to hit a wide ball? The answer reached by ‘No Pictures in the Scorebook’ is, ‘no’ and in this respect, if no other in 2018, Virat Kohli’s batting was found wanting.
- No place like home, relied on fewer statistical techniques but on Kit Harris’s (@cricketkit) time-consuming research to trace the backgrounds of all 392 professional cricketers in the English county game. The outcome is a picture of the global and local in balance.
Another trio of pieces concerned the game most of us play: recreational, club, mixed age, mixed ability, weekend cricket.
With Quantum of Cricket (‘The Raging Turner’), Liam Cromar relishes the context (playing alongside his old junior coach, six youngsters and a dad), the anticipation and the tiny moments during and around the game (a balanced scorebook!), above all the catch:
The ball starts to die. Staying stationary will result in a half volley. At the last moment, I fall forward to the ground and pouch it at arm’s length a few inches proud. I rise and hold the orb aloft with one hand.
The entire movement forms a perfectly natural, fluid, indivisible quantum of cricket.
The description and the meaning of the moment communicate so clearly why we continue to play, despite age, dubious competence and our busy lives.
It is a theme rendered in verse by Marco Jackson (‘From inside right’): Ode to a Saturday village game. Four stanzas of four lines capture the game and its significance lightly and economically.
‘The Wait’ described by Hector Cappelletti (‘Yahoo over cow corner’), dives deeply into a rarely considered aspect of the game, as true of international players as it is of the club player who is being observed. The no.3 batsman, impatient and anxious, is followed from the the start of the innings until the seventh over when, after expending a lot of nervous energy he finally goes out to bat.
Rounding off the XI are a pair of moving, personal pieces. In 1982 Nick Campion (‘Smell the Leather’) recalls the emotional pinnacle of a dads v lads game of cricket. Nine year old Nick faces his first ball, bowled by his Dad:
I remember as I swung my bat with vigorous abandon being aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that awful moment between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the devastating sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.
Writer and broadcaster, Cate McGregor provides the most tender and revealing account of cricket’s role in her life. Mystic chords of memory exhibits enormous integrity, while writing so attractively about the difficulties of an extraordinary life.
As a bereaved kid it [cricket] gave me a quiet solace and a respite from bullying. As a trans woman it has given me acceptance and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity. By choosing to live that night in Adelaide I earned a second innings. I am following on.
With my XI selected, I must make my annual injunction that you should read not just these pieces but other of each bloggers’ material and continue to follow their blogs in 2019.
Finally, my nomination to the accolade (borrowed, of course, from Wisden) of World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year (note 2). The honour goes to King Cricket. If the King (and his court) is not known to you, may I humbly suggest that you are not doing this cricket blog following thing correctly. Long may he reign.
Note 1: the qualification for the select XI is that the blogger must (to the best of my knowledge) be unremunerated for the post, which must feature on an independent website and the blogger must not have featured in any of Declaration Game’s six previous end-of-year blog post selections.
Note 2: the ‘World Leading Cricket Blogger of the Year’ as a self-consciously over-blown title to award to the blogger whose work I have most enjoyed reading over the previous 12 months. The two past winners are Backwatersman and My Life in Cricket Scorecards.
Select XI Cricket Blog Posts 2016
Eleven pieces of writing, independent and unremunerated. All from the last twelve months and, in Wisden-esque fashion, excluding any bloggers featured in my four previous annual selections. Please read, enjoy and remember to support your local (i.e. global) cricket blogger with comments and social media plugs.
SPIN: A New Zealand Story (on the Mind the Windows website), by Devon V. Mace, manages to be both the story of the Vettori Era, and of the history of New Zealand spin bowling. It is a tour de force, intertwining its two narratives, with one clearly the culmination of the other. Nothing I read this year was more meticulously prepared and it repays a long, detailed read.
Jeremy Henderson’s Guerillas in the Night (Pointless Beauty) celebrates something very different: the drunken, impromptu broadcast by a pair commentators on the Internet’s insurrectionist Guerilla Cricket.
What a perfectly shitty morning it was – I’d just been to the vet, and held my beautiful 16 year old dog as she breathed her last. Tears, grief, gratitude and love were bouncing around my head. It was 44⁰ in the shade, and my mind was melting.
And then the extraordinary happened. Playing in the background was the stream of the previous night’s match between South Africa and England on Guerilla Cricket, when, all of a sudden everything changed. Two very familiar, and extremely slurred, voices materialised, announcing that, as it was 4.00 am and they were at a loose end, they had decided to commentate on England vs Namibia Under 19s. Thus began six hours of what may well go down as the most remarkable world wide cricket broadcast in history.
The next two posts were inspired by the very same match: the World T20 contest between India and Australia. Traveling On An Indian Match Day (The Chheeman blog) by @Risabhism describes the seven hour journey from Plibhit, famous for its flute manufacture, to Delhi, delayed by traffic jams, “the Shahid Affridi of road journeys”. Will he arrive in time for the match?
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, a respected and experienced writer on cricket, recorded on Sidvee Blogs the match-winning performance in The remarkable Mr Kohli. Kohli’s combination of ultra-attacking orthodox stroke-play and, as in this extract, restless gesturing, are captured vividly:
Virat Kohli grimaces. He is wearing a helmet but camera technology is advanced enough to show us his facial contortions. We are in the 16th over. The asking rate is two runs a ball. And Kohli has missed an offcutter from Josh Hazlewood. This, he seems to be telling us, is unacceptable. He practises the cover drive (which he had wanted to play), then imitates Hazlewood’s wrist-tweak.
Lev Parikian, in The Wisden of Solomon, wrote about fulfilling his lifetime’s ambition of featuring in Wisden – by entering its Writing Competition. He shares with us his two competition entries, the first of which, set a couple of hundred years in the future, looks back, with wry detachment, at cricket’s demise.
Despite its many faults, Cricket enjoyed the devotion of a significant, if localised, pocket of followers. But the rapid rise and global domination of Slog™ left its sister sport gasping for breath. So where did it all go wrong?
…Cricket died a quiet death. The last international game was between Slog™ minnows England and Australia.” (England won by an innings and 498 runs, whatever that means.)
Notes from a Cricket Novice, by NJ Brown, was the new blog I returned to most often in 2016. Brown had decided to take an interest in cricket for the first time in nearly 20 years; an interest that had him attending Lancashire county fixtures regularly. As Brown’s (and Lancs’) season unfolded, we found out more about the author. Reporting from Lancashire v Surrey, 23-24 May 2016, he writes about one of the passions that distracted him from cricket in the 1990s – the Manchester Music Scene. It’s his music cultural knowledge that he deploys so well describing Neil Wagner:
Wagner may share his surname with a classical composer, but his bowling is pure punk – hard, fast and often very short. It couldn’t be any more punk if he was doing it with spiked green hair and a safety pin in his ear. Certainly no bondage trousers, they would just spoil his run-up.
In 2016, Subash Jayaraman brought to a close his Couch Talk podcast interviews, but when inspired, or provoked, he continues to write on The Cricket Couch. A former England player and media figure was the main provoker. Jayaraman noticed similarities between an article on ESPNcricinfo and one published earlier in the Economist. After judicious enquiries, the blogger called out the plagiarism. Jayaraman followed and updated the story. I have selected the third piece in the series, Ed Smith pulls a Melania Trump, in which the author, respectfully and proportionately, rages against the double-standards of cricket’s premier on-line publisher.
The statistics post that caught my eye, came from Omar Chaudhuri (5 added minutes) who writes more regularly on football. In The batting age curve Chaudhuri carries out a deceptively simple piece of data wrangling to identify the peak age for Test batsmen – and it’s younger than unreliable received wisdom would have us believe.
Sam Blackledge is a proper journalist as well as a proper cricket blogger on Learning is Fun. In this post, 444-3. Extraterrestrial cricket. But where will it end? he reflected on England setting a new world record. Re-reading it in December after England’s Test series defeat in India, I think I have already attained the wistful bafflement Blackledge anticipates for some point in the future:
“Dad,” my kids will say one day, leafing through Wisden 2016. “Do you remember 444-3?”
I will smile and gaze off into the distance, before answering: “No…not really.”
The Full Toss featured in the 2014 Select XI, but reappears in 2016 courtesy of a post from a guest writer. Everyone wants to wax lyrical about cricket’s elegant stars, but Garry White chose a stodgier subject in About Gary Ballance, Batting and Toffee.
Ballance is one of cricket’s shovel wielding tradesman. An altogether cruel irony considering that he’s an old Harrovian. When, like Ballance, you lack the innate ability to deliver pleasing aesthetics then the only currency in which you can pay out is runs. When the “run” currency dries up your position plummets with all the restraint and control of the Zimbabwe Dollar.
Rounding off this year’s selection is a post from someone who had not sought to write about cricket. Carlie Lee (Diary of a country housewife) wrote about the cricket ground she circles with her dog. On Monday 8th February, Lee experiences the winter weather..
Today is a day of restlessness, I can feel it fizzing in my feet, my hands. Last night’s storm is still here, the wind spiteful and violent, sending rain to rattle on the pavilion windows like hard-flung pea-gravel.
.. continuing to describe just as beautifully how the ground will look mid-summer, as well as reproducing the sounds of its players to differentiate the 1st XI from the 2nds.
I am going to finish by flouting my self-denying ordinance of only mentioning bloggers who haven’t appeared in past years’ select XIs. Cricket blogging in 2016 was never more intelligent, nor more entertaining than that written by Backwatersman on The New Crimson Rambler – my nomination for Leading Cricket Blogger in the World.
Previous annual blog post selections: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.
A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2015
This is the fourth annual Declaration Game selection of cricket blog posts. For the second year, to the basic qualification of being unpaid on-line writing, I have added the criterion that the writer should not have featured in one of the previous annual selections.
Blogging is a disposable activity: posts disappear in the vastness of the web, days or even hours after surfacing. It’s easy to miss what’s new and interesting, so the purpose of this post, as in previous years, is to breathe a little life again into some of the articles I have most enjoyed reading.
I have also applied the criterion of including only a single piece for any one blogger. Given that most of the individuals have produced highly readable, independently minded material all year, my other hope is that I can tempt readers to peruse their wider body of work.
In rough calendar order, here are the Declaration Game Select XI blog posts for 2015.
Published in the first week of the year, Srinath wrote about visiting the Bombay Gymkhana. It is shortly after Philip Hughes’ death and this famous field, hosting multiple cricket matches, makes Srinath anxious:
Mid off from one game would stand next to third man from another, square leg umpires would stand with their unprotected necks, yes, the Hughes region, facing the lashing pull shot that could come their way any time in the day.
Bat on, regardless is a reminder that cricket in many places did carry on as before, even though we might prefer and caution that it should not.
Cricketmanwales was a new and very welcome figure in 2015. Practising a cascading, informal, Gonzo-journalism style of writing, he enthused equally about thrilling top-level cricket and bringing the enjoyment of the game to youngsters in his day job as a cricket development officer. In Which cricket? (April) he celebrated the vitality of the recently completed World Cup:
Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.
He finds links between that tournament’s success and his task of energising “the Youff of Today [who] are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction,” before questioning whether the official goal to grow cricket shouldn’t wait until we know ‘which cricket?’
June was the most fertile month. Dr Ayelet Lushkov, classical scholar, was first to show with the most memorable and extended metaphor of the year: an appreciation of Stuart Broad and streaky bacon.
It’s greasy, and crisps up in the pan, and it’s more than a bit American, which is fine, and, more importantly, wholly addictive. Once streaky bacon gets going, there’s no having just one strip, or even one pound. No, streaky bacon takes 7-44 on an afternoon, or 6-24, or scores a 165 at Lord’s. And struts around while doing it.
The month also featured a taxi ride with a West Indian fast bowler – the driver – taken by the Wandering Cricketer. The passenger, an American of South African background, has a project: to record cricket fans from across the world in their colour and their own words. The outcome is a highly distinctive blog, with luscious visuals and floating half-volleys of questions that bring out the best in the people he meets.
In this conversation, the driver says that the US cricket team asked him to play, but he refused because of the money. How much were you offered, asks the Wandering Cricketer:
“You don’t even want to know man…these guys sent me a letter. I still have it at home. They want to give me $400 a match. I make more driving! I like cricket, but I couldn’t go just because of the name, and what name do you make playing cricket in America?”
I hope one day soon that question will feel antiquated.
A more conventional, but no less compelling blog, was the third to yield a gem in June (as it did throughout the year). My Life in Cricket Scorecards is written by Peter Hoare, once of Kent and now living in New Zealand. It’s a receptacle for fond, well-articulated recollections of the incidents and the people Hoare has watched play cricket during his life. The relish with which he wrote about New Zealand’s World Cup campaign shows there’s much more than nostalgia here.
In June, Derek Underwood turned 70. My Life in Cricket Scorecards gave context to his appreciation of Underwood:
For years Playfair persisted in describing him as LM rather than SLA, which was true but missed the point, just as foie gras might be accurately described as meat paste. Underwood took the spinner’s role, to bowl long, constricting spells on good pitches and to attack when the ball turned. No commonplace spinner though, being quicker, Swiss-clock accurate and, at least early in his career, bowling cutters as much as conventional spin.
then adorned the description with a series of stories of Underwood’s specific achievements and their meaning for the author.
It was around that time in the summer of 2015 that Fantasy Bob published his 1,000th blog post. Admirable as that is, you don’t receive Select XI recognition for quantity. Fantasy Bob, Edinburgh club cricketer, sees cricket or its shadow everywhere: at the theatre, on holiday in Italy, in his record collection, in discussion with his wife. In August, the post titled, Grumpy, concerned a spousal conversation. His wife knew many of the cricket-related matters that could upset Fantasy Bob, but not the one that almost drew tears. Brief, profound and really funny.
Another post about club cricket was the next on this chronological list. Dennis Freedman is a digital phenomenon: unremitting; one minute he’s teller of truth to power; the next, utterer of puerile provocations; a moment later, creating an internet meme.
Dennis is normally puncturing the pomposity of international players, coaches, umpires or administrators. October 2015, however, saw him return to club cricket for the first time in 21 years. He was understandably eager to fit in with his new teammates:
The skipper wins the toss and bats. I can’t remember his name, but he is a friendly gentle soul who gives us a pep talk prior to the openers heading out.
I can’t recall what he said. I was too busy concentrating on whether I should tuck or untuck my shirt. After a quick count, I decide to remain tucked. Eight of us dress properly. I am still cool.
And cool he was after a fine comeback, culminating in debut use of the team hashtag #bloodscricket.
The second outstanding new cricket blog of the year was statistics based and with its title – We need to look at the data – challenged those who, in impugning Peter Moores, dismissed a numerical approach to the sport as shallow. Blogger Owen Benton cut and sliced numbers to inform questions that are usually addressed only anecdotally. But in his October post, investigating how long it takes for a batsman’s average to fairly reflect his ability, he used a computer simulation, rather than actual match data. The method and findings, as in all his posts, are presented with clarity and are accessible to anyone searching for insight beyond the familiar cliches of the sport.
In November, I was drawn to a site with a name unlikely to feature cricket blog posts: Growth Mindset. Its author, Richard Jones is an educationalist and active junior coach. He has applied his professional expertise to an issue that usually goes unacknowledged in the grassroots game:
Junior cricket, particularly at club level is a constant mismatch between players who have clocked up hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice against those who have maybe clocked up less than 20 hours in some cases.
Jones exposes how, instead of acknowledging this truth, we talk about the juniors with the hours behind them as ‘naturals’ and allow those at the outset of their experience to think of themselves as ‘no good at the game’. In Cricket, Falling Junior Participation and the Fixed Mindset, Jones diagnoses the problem, its longer term significance and then ventures a solution, which he plans to implement in 2016 at his club. I am fascinated to hear how his bold plan fares.
Many English cricket bloggers spent 2014 at daggers with the cricket establishment. Changes to the ECB regime reduced, by a notch or two, the intensity of that antagonism in 2015, although it was the focus of a lot of strong writing. Perhaps the best of the lot came in December, from Tregaskis: Caesar’s Wife and Sports Journalism: When is Close too Close?
In a wide-ranging piece, showing a mastery of sources beyond the reach of most professional journalists, Tregaskis takes to task the ethics of cricket writers and produces a measured, subtle polemic.
The burden of proof is shifting. Journalists now need to earn trust through their record of impartiality. Drinks, dinner and games of golf with sources may be trifles but they do not shift the burden of proof. ‘We’re just doing our job’ is a mantra that offers old solutions to newer, more complex challenges. We need assurances that working relationships are just that. We need assurances that the journalist is not always the last one to see when the tipping point is reached.
The final place in this Select XI goes to the piece of writing that I have thought about most often this year. And in the fine tradition of cricket selection, it’s a ringer: read in 2015, but written in 2009.
Deep, backward, and square no longer publishes, but did leave us, almost accidentally, with Going downhill quickly. It’s a Test cricket stats piece about wagging tails that discovered something unexpected:
The lesson is clear: what happens in the first half of an innings tells us nothing about what we can expect in the second half. For example, on average throughout test history, whenever the fifth wicket has fallen at a score between 50 and 99, the remaining batsmen have added a further 95.7; whenever the first five partnerships have realised between 400 and 449, the last five wickets have typically amassed… 95.3.
It’s not just the fifth wicket: “At any stage of a test innings, what has happened up until the fall of a given wicket is a useless predictor of what’s going to happen afterwards.”
This is not merely a statistical quirk. It strikes at the way we talk about and analyse the game, which so often employs projection forward from what we’ve observed so far: the wicket’s (not) playing well; the bowlers/batsmen are on top, etc. But it’s not just us, on the sidelines, who think like this. The players do as well. All of us expecting to see more of the same, when, beneath our eyes, the numbers show a different reality.
I am grateful to all these bloggers, as well as the Blognoscenti listed to the right (or below, if reading on a mobile device) for the pleasure provided by their work this year. I would really welcome readers’ contributions by proposing your own favourite blog posts of 2015.
The Declaration Game selections for previous years can be found here: 2012, 2013, 2014.
The psychology of pundits’ predictions
As the South Africa v England series approaches, the pundits and correspondents will roll out their predictions. The most predictable thing of all will be the shape of those predictions. Beefy, Nass, Boycs, Corky and co will fancy England’s chances to steal a rare away win. Polly, Kepler, Fanie, etc will be confident that the home team will bounce back from its defeat in India and prevail over England.
I have always assumed that this partisan predicting of the outcome of a close contest is somehow an artifice of being a media voice: it would be disloyal to downplay your country’s team; or poor form to admit on your host broadcaster that ‘our team’ won’t win and so the game might not be attractive to watch. It could be an extension of the “conviction, clarity of thought, even blind faith” that Ed Smith has identified as necessary in the elite sportsman, but trips up those same individuals when they climb the steps to the commentary box.
It turns out, however, that there may be something a little more subtle at work (footnote 1). Psychologists have found that however rationally we may believe we are behaving, we have difficulty separating what we want to happen from what we predict will happen. It’s not hard to see how those two concepts get confused when an individual is emotionally involved in the outcome – as a cricket follower is in the fortune of her team. But experiments show that it’s a stickier phenomenon than that.
In tests (the pseudo-laboratory kind found in experimental psychology, not that kind of test that stands at the pinnacle of cricket) participants have been given a role to play and then predict the outcome of a related event. Their predictions have been influenced by the role they were asked to assume; and that influence is in the direction of being more favourable to their temporarily adopted identity. Even when a financial reward was made available for the accuracy of the prediction, participants were inclined to over-egg the likelihood of the outcome that aligned with the role they played.
I imagine it is in these margins that bookies make a lot of their money. The odds on a Lancashire victory in a Roses match can be shorter in Manchester than Leeds as there are more punters on the west of the Pennines prepared lay money on a red rose victory, even though the returns are lower than those available elsewhere. Perhaps the internet makes this kind of arbitrage more difficult for the traditional bookmakers, but it must be part of the skill of peer-to-peer betting.
The consequences of this phenomenon can be far more serious than losing your shirt to the bookmaker or predictably skewed predictions from sports pundits. It provides the fuel that feeds disputes: each party believing that they can, and indeed should, get more out of a situation than is objectively likely. Lengthy legal cases and protracted industrial disputes can result, costing participants time and money that a compromise could avert.
So Botham, Pollock, et al are not simply being obtuse or stubborn in fancying their team. They are conforming to a very human trait that makes it difficult to distinguish what we want to happen in the future from what we predict will happen. If you want a pundit’s view of the South Africa v England series that is unsullied by wishful thinking, find someone with nothing invested in the result. Jeremy Coney would be my go-to man.
Footnote: see more detailed explanation in Tim Harford’s FT article ‘Wishful Thinking‘.
Quick single: avoiding prodigious turn
Earlier in the summer, watching the 1st Test between West Indies and Australia, I was excited to see Devendra Bishoo tease the Australian middle-order. I wrote about how he turned the ball sharply to get Steven Smith stumped and to bowl Brad Haddin. At first, I typed the words ‘prodigious turn’ to describe the delivery that had defeated Haddin. The phrase emerged easily onto the screen, but snagged my eye as I re-read the finished sentence. With a little thought, a bit more effort, I altered the description to something that didn’t cause discomfort when re-reading it.
I had avoided ‘prodigious turn’ and had identified a foe, a representative of a class of expression that I wanted to sidestep. With the ‘quick singles and short pitches’ initiative, I committed to writing more regularly. The faster pace of composition would mean less opportunity to reflect on my writing and the greater temptation to lean on familiar formulations in the rush to press the ‘publish’ button.
The particular class of expression I have wanted to evade is not the sport’s slang (e.g. ‘good areas’), nor is it cliche (e.g. ‘catches win matches’) because I would expect to steer clear of both. It’s a budding cliche; something that when it was first coined was probably fresh and distinctive. It involves the use of adjectives or verbs that are unusual and might give the writer a sense of erudition. But the sense is false, because the words are a formula.
I can think of two situations in which these expressions are used. The first is when a cricketer is spending her first days in the commentary box and there isn’t time to measure every word. The familiar but more sophisticated sounding formulations give more weight to utterances, so it seems. The second situation is in recreational cricket where the terms are used archly as players act out a pretence of playing the same game, requiring the same level of description, as their international heroes.
You may have started to identify phrases that fit these criteria. I think of the following as being on a par with ‘prodigious turn’:
‘inserting the opposition’ and its synonym, ‘electing to field’
‘extracting movement from the pitch’
‘bisecting the field’
None of these is poor English. Originality cannot and probably should not always be sought by those writing about the game. These expressions, though, have become familiar and in their regular usage, some of their meaning is being lost. Language, of course, is not stable and I am also very aware that there is also personal taste at work. At the moment, I am reading a collection of John Arlott’s articles on cricket. In a piece written in 1983 about Derek Randall, he wrote this:
One would have expected one of his bubbling enthusiasm to bowl furiously fast; or very slow with prodigious spin.
Quick single: an evening without Boycott and Aggers
Geoffrey Boycott and Jonathan Agnew brought their cricket anecdote and banter show to one of my favourite venues, the Bridgewater Hall, last night.
Agnew’s smooth and precise commentary has accompanied almost all of England’s ups and downs of the last 20 years. For someone so familiar and so ever-present he is rare for developing no particular idiosyncrasies that irritate. When it’s Agnew’s turn at the microphone, I sense myself become calm. He has control and a proportionate response to whatever the action brings. His words can be trusted and he delivers no shocks or alarms.
When Boycott came to commentary, he fulfilled the American term for the summariser: ‘colour commentator’. He was sharp – in both senses of the word: acutely observant of technical matters and cutting in his description of cricket that was mediocre or worse. Boycott, oddly given his approach to batting, also had a sense that he was in the entertainment industry. Strong opinion and contrarian attitude could make for a more interesting programme. After the blandness and ignorance of the late Bailey and Trueman years, Boycott entertained and informed.
I didn’t go to the Bridgewater Hall last night.
As well as being the BBC’s lead commentator, Jonathan Agnew is the corporation’s cricket correspondent, with responsibility for reporting on the game’s news. As England’s governing body has led the game down several blind alleys, Agnew has been slow to recognise the rot and dilatory in calling for change. I have no doubt he’s commented and written criticism (for example, he has long warned of the dangers of the heavy international schedule on the wellbeing of the top players), but recall he’s urged England cricket fans to forget their complaints and get behind the team.
When news of the ICC palace coup broke in early 2014 on Cricinfo, the BBC website failed to cover the story for several days. It was, after all, unconfirmed. When confirmation did come, the cricket correspondent made no telling move, offered no deep analysis and, to my knowledge, asked no uncomfortable questions of those who awarded themselves power. From time to time, Agnew, in sharp contrast to his calm commentary style, was sulky and vituperative towards those on social media who dared to criticise him – often with the charge of being too cosy with the establishment.
Boycott’s instinct for strong opinion has over time become an addiction; a fulfilment of what he must imagine the audience wants from him. Much of cricket isn’t played at the extremes, but Boycott now lacks the subtlety to convey that. He isn’t interested in helping the listener develop an appreciation of the game but in forcing his interpretation onto us.
And somehow these two figures have developed a ‘partnership’. It’s a pairing that is contrived and inelegant. Neither character enhances the other; merely drags the other one towards parody. It derives from some crude concept that we need to have a Saint & Greavsie, Saturday night light entertainment double act explain cricket to us. I detect no special chemistry between those two chums, just a bad recipe mixed by an organisation seeking a device that will make its coverage of cricket have a broader appeal.
Quick single: r/CRICKET
Last month, Jarrod Kimber hosted an AMA that was heavily upvoted, building major karma.
Gibberish? No, it is reddit-ese – the jargon of reddit, the service with the red-eyed alien logo that calls itself ‘the front page of the internet’.
There is a sub-reddit – a folder or page – dedicated to cricket (r/CRICKET). It has around 23,000 subscribers, with precisely 77 of us logged on at this moment in time.
Like most interesting things on the web, reddit isn’t easily encapsulated. It acts as an aggregator: drawing together links in one place to all the major news stories of the moment. It’s a forum, where debates, ding-dongs and discussions prattle away. It has wiki features, where questions can be posed, from the highly specific (What happened to Mike Whitney?) to the endearingly naive (Tips for attending my first Test match). It’s crowd-sourced: the prominence of posts depends upon the reaction of redditors. Linked to which, it’s a game: collect as many karma points as you can for the posts you link or comments you contribute.
At its very best, r/CRICKET is Jarrod Kimber hosting an ‘Ask Me Anything’ post about cricket writing. I’ll come to its less good side very shortly.
Last autumn, I invited other cricket bloggers to take part in a survey. One of the topics covered was how bloggers promote their material. Reddit came last of ten listed options bloggers might use – below even LinkedIn, Google+ and direct contact with readers. This seems to be a missed opportunity for a couple of reasons.
The first is that reddit can be a very rich source of readers. Last month, about 40% of views of Declaration Game emanated from Twitter, drawn in by over 60 tweets I sent promoting my wares. Almost 30% of views came via reddit – generated by just two posts with links to Declaration Game blogs. This high rate of converting posts to readers comes about because of the ‘democracy’ of reddit. Every post submitted can be seen by every redditor – unlike twitter which limits your tweets’ exposure to your followers (and those of anyone who retweets you). Posts on reddit submitted by redditors with high karma get no more favourable treatment than posts submitted by newcomers. What happens to those posts, whether they stay buoyant and visible high up the list of posts, depends on the reaction of redditors.
The second reason that the limited use of reddit by cricket bloggers is wasteful is because of the cricket sub-reddit’s weakness. Too often, the page of top posts reads like a summary of recent cricinfo or Wisden India articles. For a site with the potential to be highly pluralistic, it tends to draw from a very narrow range of publishers. Partly, this is because few people who write about cricket (professionally or as a hobby) make use of reddit. It is also because self-promotion is frowned upon by reddit. Modest amounts of self-posting are tolerated, but the ethos is very different to twitter.
My contention is that r/CRICKET is an interesting side-road of cricket’s journey across the web. It could be greatly improved if the diversity of imaginative, personal and independent blogging activity was represented there. To do that, blog readers and writers need to engage with reddit and post the pieces they enjoy (perhaps not this one, though).
Remember, if it’s good enough for Jarrod Kimber…