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Select XI Cricket Blog Posts 2016

select-xi-2016-page-001Eleven 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.

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A select XI: cricket blog posts of 2015

blogs

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

BeefyAs 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’

rank long-hop’

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…

Quick single: bit of a hero

Asked at the end of the second day’s play at Lord’s about the prospect of Brendon McCullum batting against the new ball on the next day, Moeen Ali said, “Yeah, he’s a bit of a hero of mine..”

Hasn’t the lad attended the ECB media management training?

What’s all this doffing the cap, mid-match, to the opposition captain’s style of cricket?

And the use of simple, clearly spoken words? It’s as if England’s whole vocabulary of performance development had been blown away.

It could be a watershed moment.

I am left to think that Moeen Ali is a bit of a hero of mine.

He didn’t even qualify the statement with an “obviously“.

Quick single: pitch predictions

The match preview on cricinfo for the Bangladesh v Pakistan 1st Test at Khulne, advised:

Spin has been king at the Sheikh Abu Nasir Stadium, unless someone with high pace creates enough chances. Batting will get progressively harder.

Over the last two days of the game 646 runs were scored for the loss of eleven wickets. Spin didn’t reign. 1,092 runs were conceded in the game by slow bowlers, who took 19 wickets.

On the day before the 3rd West Indies v England Test in Barbados, cricinfo forecast (comparing to the wickets prepared for the first and second Tests in the series):

the wicket in Bridgetown is anticipated to provide a bit more pace and bounce, which is good news for everybody. It is also a little drier so spin could play more of a part than the previous Tests of this series. In short, we might have a more sporting wicket.

At the end of the second day, the website’s reporter made the following assessment: “[England’s] advantage extended to 107 on a surface where every run was at a premium.”

A pitch anticipated to be ‘sporting’ had, within two days, hosted the most wickets (18) to fall in a single day’s Test cricket in the West Indies.

A couple of points about these two pitch predictions. Firstly, cricinfo deserves no more criticism for errant forecasts than any other source (and in fact, I could have found even grosser errors than these). Its match previews, although short, do tend to offer a more nuanced description of the conditions than the broadcasters, who serve up familiar formulations: “slow pitch”, “two-paced”, “breaking up”. Teams have been known, relatively frequently, to select bowling attacks unsuited to exploit the nature of the pitch.

Secondly, the predictions could be spot on, but the game forecast hasn’t occurred because of the players. At Khulna, the batsmen over-achieved versus the bowlers; at Bridgetown the reverse.

But I doubt it – so strong is our direct experience of the pitch conditions affecting the way a match is played.

There are inherent difficulties in predicting how a pitch will play. It’s an organic substance, affected by the climate as the match progresses. Analysis is literally superficial, focusing on colour, hardness, surface moisture and grass coverage. It may be that the pitch’s true nature lies a little bit deeper.

I just wonder whether we could do better at this game of reading the playing strip runes? And whether it would be a better game to play, or to view, if the players and the spectators were less surprised, less often by how the pitch behaved?

 

A game without heroes

presentation May14Striking a ball with a bat and propelling the ball at a target are both instinctive activities. Children, new to the game, revel in these basic physical challenges. Around those simple actions, cricket has assembled a dense patchwork of custom and law. Youngsters, enthralled by the essence of the sport, throw out challenges to its conventions. As a junior coach, I know that some of the required answers will not satisfy.

Take who gets the credit for dismissals.

‘Well done. Three wickets today.” I’ll congratulate a youngster on a successful debut.

‘No,’ I’ll be corrected, ‘I only bowled one out.’

‘Don’t forget the two catches your sister took off your bowling.’

‘But they don’t count as mine. I did get another one, though, when I ran out their opener’

Cricket’s laws governing the scoring of runs are perplexing. A boundary hit should be a bonus score, on top of the runs completed by the two batsmen trotting from one end to the other. When children realise one cancels out the other, some tend to settle for standing and watching the ball they’ve struck. Nonchalant if the ball reaches the boundary; wasteful if it pulls up short.

And mentioning boundaries, they’re not places a child would choose to field. Posts in battle haven’t been deserted as readily as by nine year olds told to sweep at deep backward square leg.

Fresh eyes bring a piercing clarity to some of cricket’s ethical dilemmas. Run out backing up – unequivocally out to the player who would extend no mercy to the opposing batsman whose stumps are broken while he has his laces tied by the umpire. A bowling arm that isn’t straight – patently unfair to the child who’s been working and working on her own action through indoor practice and chilly spring evenings.

Cricket’s laws and conventions only make good sense to those whose frame of reference is cricket. It is encouraging that children continue to come to clubs to play cricket, learning the techniques and thrilled at the challenge of the game. But fewer and fewer have already experienced cricket as a live spectator, or as a television viewer.

Cricket is drifting towards a status held by rounders or even British Bulldog. Pursuits for the playground and playing field, but not the living room or days out to matches with Mum and Dad.

While football anchors skills in its youngsters’ minds with references to the star players – the Iniesta two-touch, the Ronaldo step-over – most junior club members have only a hazy view of the cricketers they could be imitating. Spending time with young players convinces me that cricket risks becoming a sport without heroes.

Organised cricket may be a recreational choice of more UK primary school children than ever before. Many will carry on playing into their teens. But shorn of free to air TV coverage and overwhelmed by other electronic past-times, the game is losing its cultural position. Once the habit of watching, debating and obsessing about the game of cricket goes, so will the crowds at international match days, the big company sponsorship and eventually the essence that elevates cricket from a mere game, to a sport.

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.