An American Watching Cricket

Yes, the game.

How England is like UNC basketball

There’s a similarity that I’ve been tossing back and forth in my mind for more than a year now when it comes to cricket, and the start of the Ashes brought it back to the forefront. Here’s my theory:

England, as a team, is like the University of North Carolina basketball team.

At first, second and 37th glance, this seems improbable. The Tar Heels are very tall, run a bit better than England’s cricketers and play a dramatically different game. But bear with me.

I’ve been a fan of Roy Williams, the UNC coach, since his days at Kansas, but those teams also suffered from a rather shocking fault: in many pressure situations, they simply could not cope with a change in plans. If the game wasn’t going the way Williams’ teams had expected it to, they could not adjust well enough to win. From a 2002 Chicago Tribune article:

Williams has been called a great recruiter who can’t X-and-O with his peers. Players trained in his offensive system, it is said, can’t adjust to unfamiliar defensive challenges in the tournament.

I don’t have stats to back this up fully, but my impression from watching a decent amount of Carolina basketball is that if the usual plan of pressing the tempo on offense isn’t working, or playing into the hands of an opponent, UNC is usually pretty terrible at moving to a Plan B. Sometimes it seems as if they don’t even try Plan B, as if there is no Plan B.

England is an awful lot like that sometimes. They play an orthodox game, and what you see is what you get. If things are not going according to plan, it’s a rare England captain who mixes things up. They can seem oddly stubborn, as was the case today when Steven Finn continued to bowl short at Ashton Agar as if he hadn’t noticed most of the previous attempts to do so were punished. This must be kind of infuriating for England fans, to judge from the Sky commentators’ comments alone.

Even the Cricinfo folks got into the act, writing at the start of the 62nd over: “Joe Root perhaps? Australia have gone about six-an-over this session…” Of course Alastair Cook wasn’t going to bowl Joe Root. Unless Jimmy Anderson’s right arm fell off, Root wasn’t going to get a crack. That wasn’t the plan.

There is a lack of … magic in all this, of course: the idea that a team can simply summon the right player and tactic at the right time is one of the cherished beliefs of a fan. “If Root got a bowl, he just might be able to do it!” That is not how England works, though, and that’s a sane and defensible position.

Sports - big-time sports - isn’t magic. It is efficiency and repetition and focus. As much as I enjoy watching, say, Pakistan blast its way to a come-from-behind victory, I can’t rely on it happening. So when there are bad days, like UNC’s absolute shocker of a loss to Florida State in January 2012, they seem all the worse because such things are not supposed to happen. There’s a plan, after all.

You can fault England for not having a plan for Agar, I guess, but what’s the logical plan for facing a debutante 19-year-old bowler batting at 11? Bowl short, try to induce him into making a mistake. That’s pretty much what England tried (although you can fault some of the execution), and mostly failed, to do.

It seems to me that Williams and England are willing to accept that there will be bad days (or sessions), but try not to overreact to them by making drastic changes. Neither wins via freelancing. If England wins this test, or the series, it probably won’t be due to some seat-of-the-pants decision. It may not look magical, but methodical. That’s the plan.

England Dethroned

Work, summer vacation and other pastimes have conspired to keep me from writing much here, but I did take the time to watch a good bit of the recent Test series between England and South Africa, which saw the visiting South Africans capture the top Test team ranking with a commanding 2-0 win.

My initial reaction was like that of Andy Zaltzman, who even before the final Test ended asked how it was that these two sides would not play Test cricket again for three years. It was, despite many miscues by England, riveting cricket. My friends who cannot imagine a 5-day sporting contest will find it hard to believe, but it was hard to break away.

I don’t quite have a favorite team yet; I’m not sure that I will ever have one, but since I’m a Cricinfo regular I get plenty of England news. Watching England is sort of like watching my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, play college basketball; when Pitt is playing well, victories come smoothly and with a machine-like precision. Pitt’s strengths are defense and ball control; it methodically squeezes the other team, forcing mistakes and executing to plan. But on those occasions when the other team is playing better, Pitt doesn’t have a Plan B. There are no big adjustments to be made.

England strikes me as much the same: you almost always know just what you’ll get, and until the last 9 months or so, that was usually good enough to win most of the time. Steadily constricting pace bowling, orthodox batting (KP and Eoin Morgan aside) and excellent fielding. This time, though, the fielding wasn’t particularly sharp, and the top-order batting was anything but orthodox. And there were no changes that would make a huge difference; bringing in Steven Finn for Tim Bresnan provided some help, but not enough to overcome the other shortcomings.

Instead, it was South Africa who constantly applied pressure with the bat and the ball, frustrating England’s pace attack and then picking apart most of the batting lineup. By the time that England began attacking with the bat on the last day of the final Test, it was a move born of desperation rather than calculation. And it worked, for awhile, but this England team is not one for life on the edge.

In other series, the dropped catches might not have hurt so badly, but giving life to Hashim Amla, as methodical as any English batsman could have hoped to be, was an unaffordable luxury. Facing Dale Steyn as the third bowler (!) when the first two were taking wickets as well made it all but impossible. South Africa had a good plan and executed it very well.

Worrying about the form of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook would have been enough for English fans, but the Kevin Pietersen issue seems even more damaging. Strauss is, as a batsman, clearly on the down side of his career. Cook has time to recover. But KP is, like Darryl Strawberry when he played for baseball’s New York Mets, the straw that stirs the drink. He is the one batsman England has who can give virtually every bowler pause. Despite Jonny Bairstow’s fine performance as KP’s replacement in the final Test, the loss of Pietersen would dig the hole deeper for England. As a fan of cricket, I’d hate to see him sidelined to one-day matches in the IPL and other national leagues.

England has young talent, but the burden of needing to replace KP’s output immediately surely is something the team’s management would like to avoid. Bairstow batted at 6, James Taylor at 5. Can either be expected to slot in at 4 or, as KP has done, open the batting when necessary? I’m not convinced Ian Bell is the answer at 4, either, particularly when Jonathan Trott is one spot ahead.

England doesn’t play another Test until November, when it will be in India where the hosts will be looking avenge last year’s whitewash on British soil. Imagine if England arrives with an uncertain Strauss and without KP. Pietersen’s travails against left-arm spin are well-documented, but Strauss has had it better. The England captain scored two hundreds in one Test during his last tour of India in 2008. But the next match saw him out for a duck and unbeaten on 21. If Strauss’ form is more like the latter performance, where will the runs come from on the subcontinent?

Mind the Windows, Tino

One of the things that I’ve come to really enjoy about cricket is that when a batsman is very clearly in a groove (or, as the cricket phrase goes, “in form”), he gets to keep batting. And batting. Contrast this with baseball, where if a batter is feeling great, he gets to bat once and then wait an inning or three until another chance arrives.

The in-form batsman is a great thing to watch - the added confidence in attacking shots, not just playing defensively - but then there are the ridiculously in-form folks. Like Tino Best of the West Indies.

Eight years ago, he was told “Mind the windows, Tino,” by England’s Andrew Flintoff, in a jibe at his weak hitting. His career test average was 9.8 runs. He was the very last West Indian to bat last week.

But then he scored 95 in a brilliant display of showmanship and technique. He put the ball everywhere, including over the boundary. As Andy Zaltzman put it:

What the hell happened? Had Tino drunk a pint of strawberry milkshake laced with the DNA of George Headley? Had he borrowed Gordon Greenidge’s central nervous system for the day? Was this the first time he had ever batted without distracting himself worrying about whether the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva might prompt the instant destruction of the planet?

I got the sense that everyone at Edgbaston, save the England 11, was rooting for him to reach a century, which would have been the first for a number-11 batsman. At it was, he had to settle for the top batting performance by the last batsman ever.

Washington Post on Local Cricket

My local newspaper beat me to the task of going out to watch some of the local cricket league play. Liz Clarke’s story is accompanied by a "Cricket for Dummies" explainer, but more appealing to me is the mention of cricket programs in some area schools. Also, anyone who isn’t familiar with the Post, don’t mind the comments. They’re always like that.

Excellence in Cricket Commentary

From Cricinfo’s David Hopps:

England also had to contend with a Test debutant, Shannon Gabriel, an athletic Trinidadian with a strong action. Rarely for England these days, they had no footage of him, leaving Strauss to learn on the hoof. It was a bit like playing for England in days of yore - or sometimes like playing for the West Indies even now. Technically bereft, England coped rather well, which is a relief to know at a time when the financial markets are in such turmoil that everybody in the country might soon have to trade in their iPads and return to subsistence farming.

Book Review: More Than A Game

I’ve started to read some cricket books so that I can have a bit more than a passing familiarity with some of the names that are flung around by the commentators, bloggers and fans. I asked for a few for the holidays, and got two histories, including “More Than A Game,” by former British Prime Minister John Major.

Major’s enthusiasm for the sport is readily apparent; it makes it easier to see him as more than the stuffy guy who got beaten by Tony Blair (particularly the bit about Major being passed notes of cricket scores during Cabinet meetings). He does a good job of explaining how various innovations developed, such as over-arm bowling, and of introducing some of the giants of the game and their most important backers.

To a certain extent, Major tries to tie in cricket’s development with England’s, including political and social changes and the rise and ebbing of its empire. These are mostly fleeting, however, and they seem aimed at a British reader to boot. But the stories of overseas tours to Australia and South Africa are very well done, and make it seem like test cricket really would benefit if we switched back to teams traveling by ship.

The book is not exactly a smooth read, and Major’s joy for the sport outpaces his talent as a writer. And as a non-Englishman, a map would have helped during the county cricket sections. But for someone largely ignorant of cricket’s beginnings, “More Than A Game” does a solid job of explaining how cricket came to be the national sport of England, and the (almost exclusively) men who made it happen.

Not Alone

It’s a basic tenet of blogging that even when you think you have a niche market cornered, you don’t. The Internet is just too big for that sort of thing to happen anymore. So it is with American cricket bloggers, as I discovered last week when I stumbled on American Cricket Fan, which has been around for at least 20 months or so.

The goal of that site: “I want to help bring cricket to people who grew up completely ignorant of the sport as I did.” Well, that pretty much includes me, except for those two patches that described in the first post.

But I do like that the author intends not only to watch and write about cricket, but to play it as well. I’ve thought about this, but it seems a little far-fetched. Again the web comes to the rescue - there’s a store that sells cricket gear in Gaithersburg, not too far from where we live. And of course there is a local league, the Washington Cricket League, which just began its 2012 season last week (as well as the Washington Metro Cricket League).

The first step, I think, is to go and watch a local match some weekend - the WCL seems to be playing T20 games to start its season, so that’s only a few hours. Not having seen cricket in person for more than two decades, it’ll be an adjustment to watching on television, where you can see from multiple angles, with replays and Hawk-Eye. I’m not totally sure what to expect, as most of the local fields don’t seem to have seating, either.

But it seems kind of silly to watch and blog about cricket and not go out and watch it. I’ll report back.

The Formats

International cricket is now played in three formats, each distinguished by the length of the match. I enjoy watching them all, but at this stage of my cricketing experience I prefer two of them over the third, although all of them are enjoyable largely because of the pressures involved. I’ll explain what they are and my preferences.

The Test format, which traditionalists hold fast to, is the version that can last for up to 5 days, with both sides given the chance to bat twice (although there are circumstances in which one side can avoid having to bat the second time, much like the home team in baseball doesn’t need its last inning if it has the lead). In Test cricket, the pressure usually builds slowly, and can be reversed slowly, too, as Australia did to the West Indies last week. Watching that unfold - knowing that any given delivery isn’t supremely important, yet realizing that all of them are opportunities to apply or release pressure - is really appealing to me. The same holds true for when less-talented batsmen are given a chance to hold on for a draw, and seize it.

The one-day international, or ODI in the parlance, last for 50 overs (6 deliveries per over) each side, or roughly 7 hours of play, give or take. Unlike Test matches, ODIs have a finite ending, so the last few overs are known as “the death,” and captains try to save some of their most dangerous bowlers for those overs (ODIs limit the total amount of bowling that any one person can do to 10 overs). Fifty overs is long enough to give multiple batsmen to grow into a performance without having to start swinging for the boundary, so there have been some batting performances that are just as impressive as those in Test cricket, and just as demoralizing for the opponent.

Twenty20 is the shortest form of the game, lasting 20 overs a side, or about the time it takes to play a baseball game. It is increasingly popular, particularly in India, where it is an easy fit for television and encourages batsmen to take plenty of risks in order to score runs. Personally, I think T20 is slightly out of whack with how cricket should “feel” in terms of tempo and pressure. It can still be fun to watch, but I do think that it does tend to make it harder for younger batsmen to develop patience and construct an innings over time. I do not, unlike some others, think that T20 is ruining cricket, because it obviously draws the attention of fans, and of different kinds of players.

But the day I sit in a stadium and watch a live match for the first time, I’d prefer it to be a Test match. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems right.

The Tail Wags

I recall a test series last year between India and the West Indies in which India won the first of the best-of-3 series, then the two sides drew the next two. That meant, in terms of the series results and international rankings, that India had won the series, 1-0.

During the last test, in Dominica, India had the lead and could have (should have?) won, but instead stopped the match needing 86 runs from 90 balls to win, and offered a draw to the West Indies. This led to some outrage among cricket fans, but what puzzled me most of all was the fact that India played not to lose, and that was a part of the game.

In most American sports, “playing not to lose” is at best infuriating to fans and at worst an epithet. College football eliminated the possibility of tie games years ago, forcing a winner even if the scores start to reach basketball levels. Baseball doesn’t allow ties, either. But they work in cricket.

Case in point: the current West Indies-Australia test in which West Indies churned its way to 449 before declaring, seemingly putting Australia in a tight spot to fight its way back into the match. (Before I go further, declarations are awesome. I wish other sports had them - basically, it’s a team’s way of saying, “We’ve scored enough, and we believe we can hold your scoring down.” That and the follow-on are two seemingly odd yet crucial aspects of the game.) 

Anyway, sure enough, Australia’s batters ended the third day at 248 for 5, setting up the Windies to bowl out the tail in the morning of the fourth day and add to its lead. Australia’s tail - the last few batsmen - had other ideas. Ryan Harris, who in two previous years had scored a combined 83 runs in test matches, put up 68 (not out), driving the Windes to utter frustration at his refusal to just get bowled or something.

Harris wasn’t alone, joined in the fun by Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Lyon. Together, the three Australian bowlers added 132 runs. That’s the 9th, 10th and 11th batsmen, the very last ones out there. It’s the baseball equivalent of the guy hitting eighth hitting a home run, then the ninth guy doing the same and running backwards around the bases shouting rude comments about the pitcher’s mother. And then doing the same thing the next at-bat.

Tail-enders are fascinating to watch because usually they aren’t expected to show the discipline of specialist batsmen; everyone expects them to get out quickly. So when they show some defiance (usually by trying to club the ball) or, more wondrously, skillful and measured batting, it’s fun to watch. Unless you’re the opposition. At one point, one of the commentators praised Harris for hitting “like a batsman”. He wasn’t just grinding it out, either; his strike rate - the number of runs he scored divided by the number of balls he faced - was third-best for his side.

I imagine that, for those bowlers who enjoy batting, it must be a true delight to deflate an opponent with the bat, and then get the chance to do the same with the ball. So after failing to get the Windies all out in their initial attempt, the Aussies also declared, hoping to seize the game from their dispirited opponents. It worked - Hilfenhaus quickly removed the top order before the West Indies staggered their way to 71 for 5.

A day before, it looked like fairly smooth sailing for the hosts. With a full day remaining, Australia could win this thing. And they’ll have their tail-enders to thank.

The Yorker’s On You

Learning about cricket isn’t a simple task for an American, but there are some effective ways to go about it. The first is Wikipedia, which has voluminous entries on the sport itself, its lingo and many of its major figures. I’m also reading a book about the history of the game by former British Prime Minister John Major which, while clearly written by a man who loves cricket, is at times as exciting as Major’s public persona suggests.

But I have a source of cricket knowledge that makes understanding the variations, nuances and complexities of the game much easier: British comedian Andy Zaltzman. One of the hosts of The Bugle, a great satirical podcast, Zaltzman also writes a semi-regular column for ESPN’s Cricinfo that is part statistical analysis and part lunacy. For example:

As wake-up calls go, for England, after a year in which they touched extraordinary heights against some far too ordinary opposition, this series was the equivalent of being whacked in the face with a live barracuda at 3.30am by a man dressed as a cross between Freddie Krueger and Richie Benaud. Bracing, unexpected, and hopefully not to be repeated.

Cricket can be a maddening sport to try to explain, let alone play - you watch players mount a splendid innings with the bat and then give it all away reaching for delivery that has all of the certainty of mist. Sometimes humor helps, perhaps not conveying a full understanding, but closing the distance between you and a sport that seems to have no end of rules and habits.

So when Zaltzman asked for questions for his podcast, I figured I’d take the opportunity to see if A) I could ask a semi-intelligent question about Monty Panesar’s fielding abilities and B) I could get some cricket blogging advice. Here’s the answer:

I guess I would stay, stick with it, cricket blogging is going to take over America. In 20 years’ time, they won’t make films in Hollywood, they’ll just blog about cricket. It’s going to be a multibillion dollar industry. In fact, if Brad Pitt was alive today, he’d be a subeditor at Cricinfo.

Maybe I should have mentioned that my dad’s name is Bob Willis. No, not that Bob Willis, but still. Anyway, you’re stuck with me until this thing breaks big.