Ready For Cricket

Ready For Cricket

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The Cricket World Cup has started down in Australia and New Zealand, not just now but not that long ago.  While it’s a big deal down under and in the rest of the tea-sipping world, it’s a tougher sell than antiCoriolis effect toilets in the United States. We live in a post-post-extreme sports world, 23 years removed from Dan Cortese’s MTV debut, and there’s seemingly little attention left for a staid and admittedly attention-testing, day-spanning sport like cricket.

But popularity isn’t the alpha and omega of something’s worth, not in a world in which Macklemore is bigger than Mack 10. If you appreciate baseball for its athletic fielding, pitcher-versus-hitter battles, and the way late-inning tension builds to a when-will-Davvincii-drop-the-damn-bass level, you can appreciate cricket. If you like watching single-elimination high-stakes tournaments, you might also like the World Cup. And if you’re reading The Classical then you’re the kind of weirdo who should be watching cricket anyway. Here is what you will need to know in order to do that in a satisfying way.

The Venues

If you’re stuck grinding out a spreadsheet under fluorescent light or in the back of a Red Lobster scrape-scrape-scrape-scrape-scrape-scraping the day away, wouldn’t it be nice to be transported to a leisurely game played on lush, sun-splashed Antipodean grass fields? Like our homegrown baseball diamonds that we like to grandiosely call cathedrals, the cricket stadiums in the 14 hosting cities on either side of the Tasman run the quaint-to-quirky-to-inspiring-to-imposing gamut, from Dunedin’s 6,000-seat University Oval, nestled in a bucolic park between the hills and the harbour, to Brisbane’s massive Old Busch Stadium-esque concrete cauldron Gabba.

As in golf, you’ll hear a lot about how the grass and weather are affecting play. Most of the New Zealand grounds are near the sea, so wind can be a factor. Their fields are usually greener than in Australia so they’re fair for fast and spin bowlers alike. Two of the Kiwi grounds, Wellington’s “Cake Tin” and Auckland’s Eden Park (where a semi will be played), are massive modern multi-use stadiums where the grass wicket will be dropped in, not unlike how the Silverdome trucked in grass on trays for the 1994 soccer World Cup.

Australian pitches are generally less lush than their Kiwi counterparts, favoring fast bowling and higher scores. Dodgers fans, and to the extent that they exist also Diamondbacks fans, will recognize the Sydney Cricket Ground’s gorgeous Fenway-esque green stands; the old Candlestick faithful will feel a kinship with the sharp breeze that blows through Perth’s WACA Ground, affectionately called the Doctor. And with apologies to Warren Griffin III, the final will be played at the stadium known simply as “The G.

The Format

There are almost as many cricket formats as there are rappers with A$AP in their names. Each new version (of cricket, not the A$AP family) was born of a desire to deliver a game that ends in a reasonable amount of time while also producing a winner. That there has been such a struggle to do so speaks to the rulebook’s fundamental flaws.

Baseball is often romantically referred to as the game with no clock, but that’s not really true. Its rules ensure that you’ll be streaming for the exits in agony or ecstasy within three hours or so, barring extreme extra innings or the involvement of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Theoretically, a Paul O’Neill-type could foul balls off until our sun exhausts its core hydrogen, exits its main sequence, becomes a red giant, and engulfs the Earth. But in reality, each at-bat comes with a built-in expiration: three strikes, four balls, or contact that forces the batter to leave home. Test cricket, the sport’s most revered incarnation, doesn’t have the same restrictions. With a 360-degree field offering no foul territory, only one “base” to reach and no requirement to leave the crease at all on a hit, a batter can stay up for a test match’s full five-day length.

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While this has never happened—the closest it came was when Pakistan’s Hanif “The Little Master” Mohammad batted for a test record 16 hours and 13 minutes to help his side draw against West Indies in 1958—great batters routinely make obdurate daylong stands. That great difficulty in getting batters out, coupled with the fact that there are no rainouts (and, so, no make-up games), explains why 34% of all test matches end in a draw. Not a tie, of which there have been only two in test cricket’s 137-year history; simply no result.

When rain washed out an England-Australia test in 1971, the two played the first-ever one-day international match to make up for the money lost on ticket sales.  The enthusiasm for the new format, which takes about eight hours to play, led to the first World Cup in 1975. The restriction on overs made batters more aggressive. No longer could batters make like Craig Biggio and grind out piddly singles for hours on end.

Still, many preferred the longer game, and the differences between the two formats allowed both to co-exist in peace for decades. But then came the over-in-three-hours Twenty20 version in 2003. Since then fans have gone ballistic for the short game, with the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League generating Pen and Pixel album cover-worthy piles of cash. Between “true” five-day tests and wham-bam three-hour Twenty20s, ODIs seem like the kind of half-stepping that both traditionalists and Big Daddy Kane abhor. It’s easy to see the Twenty20 championship surpassing the World Cup for preeminence sooner rather than later. But until players take T20 more seriously, and with a test championship unlikely to ever happen, the 50-over World Cup remains the sport’s ultimate prize.

The Teams

There are fourteen teams competing for the trophy; England, and thirteen other sides comprised of nations who were, or are still, under Old Blighty’s tea-and-scone-stained thumb. Ten of the fourteen are the test-playing sides. Listed in order of odds to win they are: Australia (at 8/5), South Africa (10/3), New Zealand (7/2), India (7/1), England (10/1), Sri Lanka (16/1), Pakistan (22/1), the West Indies (50/1), Bangladesh (250/1), and Zimbabwe (275/1). The four other contestants, Ireland (250/1), Afghanistan (1,000/1), the United Arab Emirates (2,500/1), and Scotland (2,500/1) qualified from a pool of associate sides that aren’t considered advanced enough to play at the test level.

These fourteen teams are split into two pools, within which each team will play each other once. Four from each pool will comprise the quarterfinals. The group stage alone, which has already started, will take a month to play out.

The International Cricket Council, the sports governing body, overreacted to correct the tournament’s bloat by declaring that 2019’s World Cup would only have ten teams. Cricket’s growth in new lands will be hampered as eight of those ten slots are reserved for the test-playing lands where the game is already ingrained. Next year’s T20 championship will feature sixteen teams, yet another sign that the faster-paced competition will surpass the World Cup as the sport’s marquee tournament.

The Players

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West Indies boasts the game’s most dynamic batsman in Chris Gayle. He slaughters the ball to all areas of the field with a lefty swing as beautiful as Barry Bonds while surveying the scene with Rakim’s imperiously serene gaze. On Twitter you’ll be treated to his bombastic Kingston nightclub adventures and tales of days spent by the sea enjoying goat’s head soup and icy Coronas.

Sri Lanka employs a battery of silk-smooth wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara and bowler Lasith Malinga. The “Slinga” captained his country to last year’s T20 championship but his violent delivery often leaves him injured. When he’s fit he conjures spectacular sequences, like when he tore through South Africa’s lineup to get four wickets in four balls at the 2007 World Cup. Defending champions India have lost the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, Virender “Sehwagology” Sehwag, and Harbhajan Singh but still have captain MS “Dos” Dhoni leading new stars like Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin.

Australia, the heavy favorites, features a squad deep in talent and Flowbee haircuts. Their sometimes comically-mustachioed star bowler, Mitchell Johnson, had to struggled with his velocity command. But he put it all together to dominate the last England-Australia Ashes series with 37 wickets in the five matches. Co-hosts New Zealand have some exciting young players emerging like Kane Williamson but it will be fun to see 35-year old Daniel Vettori get some playing time. He sports specs like Greg Maddux and, also like Maddux, uses guile and accuracy to shut down batters.

Perennial contenders South Africa have never won the World Cup, but they’ve already won this year’s all-name team led by captain Abraham Benjamin “AB” de Villiers and followed by Quinton de Kock, Francois “Faf” du Plessis, Morne Morkel, and Vernon Philander. England brings Ellen DeGeneres doppelgänger Joe Root, David Beckham-esque heartthrob Stuart Broad, and James Taylor, who hopefully will be as calm under pressure as his namesake was singing “You’ve Got A Friend” when Homer’s space mission went awry.  

Pakistan’s charismatic Shahid “Boom-BoomAfridi is a must-watch. His batting is as aggressive as peak Vladimir Guerrero and he can bowl a little too. He is the biggest icon in a country that hasn’t been able to see its team play at home since the awful 2009 terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team. At 34, his prime is behind him, but he may have one last show left.

How to Follow

The extreme time difference, with Australia’s eastern seaboard and New Zealand 19 and 21 hours ahead of our West Coast, respectively, means that there’s action at any hour of the day. Last time around ESPN offered the World Cup through its unsurpassed WatchESPN streaming and mobile service. They pimped the tournament hard with awkward Sportscenter features and even dispatched Wright Thompson to write up a suitably prestige-y Tendulkar profile.

ESPN2 scored impressive numbers when it broadcast the 2014 T20 final so you’d think they’d try to build the American audience even more with this World Cup. Instead they’re tragically charging $99 for streaming access. ESPN.com’s World Cup content has been aimed at introducing new fans to the sport and how it’s played, but it’s a stretch in this day and age to think that newcomers will shell out this much (or any) money for a sport they’ve never seen before. In ensuring that only the most hardcore will sign up, ESPN is settling for short cheese instead of long.

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Thankfully, sports fans make like American companies seeking tax shelters by crossing metaphysical international borders to get satisfaction. Plenty of streams will be up and running, and an added bonus of foreign streams is being able to see goofy ads like the Australian KFC spot starring Cameron Diaz’s lesser half.

ESPN’s Cricinfo is the most comprehensive cricket site on the web. Its photo series on the host cities is a must-peep. Jarrod Kimber stands out amongst its star-studded stable of writers. You can find his acerbic insights collected at his Cricket with Balls site, and he’ll be a regular video fixture during the tournament. The Guardian features Andy Bull and Mike Selvey, two of the sport’s most intellectually lucid writers. It’s also home to the often-imitated, never duplicated irreverent over-by-over live commentary. It’s where (mostly) England supports gather together to cowardly pray for rain, listen to My Bloody Valentine, and find out how a humble fish pie could almost destroy a marriage. Like most subcultures, it defies description and a rote recitation of its inside jokes would be as amusing as, well, an inside joke. Suffice it to say that, like Bill Walton at his best, it often strays from covering the match.

The Uniforms

Cricket uniforms are more utilitarian than baseball’s. Baseball jerseys, as heavy as they are, can’t be worn without undershirts. Add belted pants and you’ve got a outfit too cumbersome for the summer heat. Cricket players rock polo shirts, with collars often worn rakishly up like West Indian legend Viv Richards, and track pants for a breezy and comfortable look.

Like in soccer, cricket shirts are usually adorned with a small badge over the heart and a waste-of-marketing-budget corporate logo over the chest. But for the World Cup, the shirts feature each team’s name spelled out in a plain sans-serif font instead of a sponsor logo, which makes them look like the kind of generic “yay sports!” gear found at Old Navy. And with ads on the left sleeves, manufacturers’ logos on the right sleeve, and the World Cup logo on the left chest, the shirts are more cluttered than a Fox News screen.

The hats at this year’s World Cup, on the other hand, are uncluttered and thus allow each country’s beautiful badge to shine. Zimbabwe’s features its national bird sitting serenely atop a pedestal. England’s has the familiar three lions rampant in white set against navy blue. A disembodied Bengal tiger’s head floats in Bangladesh’s crest. India’s has the ominous sounding “Board of Control for Cricket in India” in its logo but its offset by the warmth of a tiny heart. But while you can go anywhere in the world and see someone sporting a Yankees hat, most cricket teams don’t make true replica hats available for sale as they cling to the archaic notion passed down from England that only players who’ve made the team have earned the right to wear the cap.

Most of the teams are sporting monochromatic looks with mixed results. Ireland and Australia, in highlighter green and yellow respectively, look like Oregon rejects from the Joey Harrington Administration. India looks pleasant in powder blue, while England looks stern in their navy. The West Indies rocks the best look of all at this year’s tournament in combining classy yet athletic maroon with slight yellow accents. Their logo is blunt yet graceful in reducing life for its cricket-mad people to its most essential: sun, sea, and stumps.

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