The Cricket World Cup: A Preview, Part 3

Cricket World Cup Logo

Let’s play some ball.

We’ve already reviewed (in parts 1 and 2) the top eight teams in the competition. What makes the World Cup so fun (or monumentally boring and drawn-out, depending on your perspective) is the presence of, in the 2015 version, six second-tier teams who could provide an upset or two. I (Martin) have to confess not knowing much about these squads, except to tell you that they have almost zero chance of winning the World Cup. But here goes.

Bangladesh should be much further along in their development as a top-tier nation than they are. Consistency is a problem here, despite having some genuine talent in the explosive opening batsman Tamim Iqbal and the all-rounder Shakib al Hasan. This team should beat Afghanistan and Scotland; but I can’t see them winning against the other members of their group to proceed to the next round.

Once the best team in the world, Zimbabwe are challenged by a lack of resources and instability. Nonetheless, in Brendan Taylor and the reliable Prosper Utseya they have dedicated professionals who’ll, with the rest of the team, put up a fight. I would expect them to beat Bangladesh, but that, unfortunately, is not saying much.

Seemingly on an unstoppable rise (and the subject of an inspiring documentary film), Afghanistan are the highest ranking non-Test playing nation, and now need to outperform a major side if they’re to take it to the next level. They’re in a tough group, however, and apart from beating Scotland (which they should) and Bangladesh (which they might), they need to beat someone like England (unlikely) or Sri Lanka (also unlikely) to make an impression.

Giant-slayers on their day, Ireland could beat West Indies and Pakistan as well as the United Arab Emirates, and make it through to the next round. I expect big things from William Porterfield and Ed Joyce and the mighty O’Brien brothers present a formidable duo. Surely the tournament favorites to cause a major upset.

Scotland and the United Arab Emirates
I have nothing to say about these teams. I’m prepared to be amazed and astounded and to learn of new superstars. I’m not holding my breath, however. I expect the other teams to set some records when they play them.


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The Cricket World Cup: A Preview, Part 2

Cricket World Cup Logo

Let’s play some ball.

Hot on the heels of the The Cricket World Cup: A Preview, Part 1, here comes the second installment, featuring the four other top teams.

South Africa
It’s fair to say the biggest hurdle that South Africa has to overcome is its own self-belief. This has been the case for decades, especially in one-day internationals (ODIs), and it’s still the case today. In fact, given South Africa’s strength and depth, it may be even more so. When Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis retired in 2014, many assumed that South Africa would need time to rebuild and would be knocked off the top position as the best Test team in the world. They weren’t. Instead, with the silky genius of Hashim Amla, the destructive brilliance of Dale Steyn, the infuriating consistency of Vernon Philander, and the ever-inventive swashbuckling of AB de Villiers, South Africa consistently outperform all-comers. With David Miller, Faf du Plessis, and Morne Morkel also in the line-up, South Africa are, to my mind, the best side in the tournament. If this team believe in themselves, I see no reason why they can’t finally fulfill the hopes of Proteas fans everywhere and finally win the Cup.

West Indies
The sad decline of Test cricket in West Indies has been balanced by the inventive brilliance of their T20 side. Unfortunately for fans of this very uneven side, ODI is neither short enough a form to allow for the free expression of the likes of Chris Gayle and Darren Sammy or long enough to allow their anchor, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, to rescue his side from yet another debacle. On any given day, Gayle, Sammy, Dwayne Smith, and others can wreak havoc. Unfortunately, those days are getting fewer and fewer, and I see no reason to believe that West Indies will miraculously turn their fortunes around in this world cup.

I (Martin) cannot imagine a single person—even the most avid Indian fan—who wouldn’t want to see Pakistan perform in the way that everyone knows they could perform, if that team actually showed up. There’s talent to burn and inventiveness and skill in spades. Pakistan thrashed Australia, for heaven’s sakes! Yet Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi is getting long in the tooth; and their bowling line-up—despite the literally enormous asset that is Mohammad Irfan (he’s reputed to be 7 foot one inch tall)—is vulnerable, especially with the artful Saeed Ajmal sidelined because of a dodgy action. You’d be foolish to write Pakistan off, but I don’t see them going far in the competition.

Ah, England! Rarely can a team have prepared for a major tournament so poorly. Having finally ditched their underperforming, but much-admired, captain, Alastair Cook, England will start the competition with few expectations of success. I actually think that’s a mistake, since England has a young side with a lot of talent: Joe Root and Jos Buttler join Moeen Ali and an inform Ian Bell to provide an enviable batting depth, while Steven Finn and Stuart Broad‘s height and bounce will pose problems on Australia’s fast pitches. England have a tendency to subside in the middle order and find it naggingly hard to defend defensible totals. That said—and not just because I’m an England fan—I’m not going to write off this side. If everything works right, England could make it through to the final stages.

The final teams will be profiled in Part 3.

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The Cricket World Cup: A Preview, Part 1

Cricket World Cup Logo

Let’s play some ball.

Every four years, the world’s top cricket teams gather to play a series of one-day internationals (ODIs)—the 50-over form of the game—to determine who is the best. It’s the nearest thing that cricket gets to a competition that the entire cricketing world gets excited about and values. Twenty-fifteen’s version (from February 15th to March 29th) is no exception, and, unlike with previous tournaments, there’s no absolute favorite. Let’s take this opportunity to run down the teams and spot some talent.

As the tournament co-hosts, Australia has considerable advantage: home support, familiar pitches, and no jet lag. In David Warner and newly minted (and phenomenally successful) captain Steve Smith, Australia has two batsmen who can take the game to the opposition, with heavy-hitting Glenn Maxwell coming in down the order and the fiery (nay, terrifying) Mitchell Johnson steaming in to bowl. Their one weakness is injury: the ever-classy Michael Clarke and Johnson are prone to injury; their all-rounder Shane Watson blows hot and cold; and,if things don’t go their way immediately, they perhaps lack the psychological resilience of Australian teams of yore. That said, the Aussies are in much, much better shape than they were two years ago, and will be a very difficult team to beat.

New Zealand
Sharing hosting duties with Australia, New Zealand likewise have home advantages. Perennial underdogs, who have for years punched above their weight, the Kiwis will start the World Cup at the peak of their powers, having had a year that even their most optimistic fans wouldn’t have believed possible. Their bowling attack is fast and penetrating, and in Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, and Corey Anderson they have players who can take the game away from any opposition at any moment. The team is balanced and you underestimate them at your peril. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Kiwis will make it into the final four.

Sri Lanka
The also-rans to India in 2011, Sri Lanka are, I think, long-shots in this tournament, although they remain extraordinarily creative exponents of a form of cricket that they dramatically changed over twenty years ago. The Sri Lankans remain over-reliant on their batting, which admittedly contains Mahela Jayawardane, Tillakaratne Dilshan, and Kumar Sangakkara—the last of whom, aged 37, is in the form of his life, and probably the greatest batsman in the world today. A lot will be resting on these three, as well as Angelo Mathews (if he can get fit) to drive up big scores and hope that the opposition won’t take apart the bowling.

A lot’s changed for India since 2011, most notably the retirement of the old titans of the game, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and Virender Sehwag. The team is now young and hungry, and in Virat Kohli has a world-class one-day player in terrific form. M.S. Dhoni, relieved of the burden of playing cricket every waking moment, should return refreshed and eager to retire at the top of his game. As with Sri Lanka, the bowling remains a worry, although Ravichandran Ashwin—a genuine all-rounder—might prove crucial in stemming runs and adding some firepower down the order. You can never rule India out; but I just don’t think they’re going to repeat their triumph of 2011.

More to come in Parts 2 and 3.

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Good-bye, Mr. Sunshine

Mr. Cub honored in 2009 by Mr. President

Mr. Cub honored in 2009 by Mr. President

Ernie Banks is gone. He was the first African American to play for the Chicago Cubs, and has forever since been “Mr. Cub.”

A Hall of Fame inductee (1977), Banks is best remembered for his boundless enthusiasm: Let’s Play Two! Only the eternal optimist would want to inject himself into a broiling-afternoon doubleheader (National League Chicago played no night games then) on most of the Cubs teams he played for. Banks never appeared in a postseason game, and therefore remained something of a Chicago phenomenon. The Cubs have not won a championship since 1908.

Banks had tremendous power and in many ways is the prototype of the modern-day superstar-power shortstop: Cal Ripkin Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki.

God got a good one.

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Baseball and African-American Life

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Is baseball different from the other sports?

Gerald Early’s meandering yet compellingly honest essay, “Baseball and African American Life”, asks, “Why have Negroes not truly accepted baseball?” The answers are complex and perhaps inconclusive.

A first questioning is, “In what way?” Jackie Robinson opened a door that was chained and bolted since the dawn of baseball in America, the period prior to the Civil War and especially after as the popularity of baseball spread concurrently with Emancipation and Reconstruction. Freedom from bondage, civil rights, race relations, the ultimate existence of a united states in fact are of a piece and at the core. To this end, Early invokes William Wells Brown’s reaction to cultural Eurocentrism as well as James Weldon Johnson, a seeker of the preservation of black culture against its appropriation (jazz for example) by white America—after all, Rube Foster created the Negro National League at the start of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920.

Such are connections not coincidences.

And there is Amiri Baraka, who in tumultuous 1968 writes:

We knew, despite the newspaper and the radio, who that was tearing around those bases. When we saw Mule Suttles or Josh Gibson or Buck Leonard or Satchel Paige and dug the Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees, Baltimore Elite (pronounced E-Light) Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons, and even the Indianapolis Clowns! we knew who that was and what they (we) could do. Those other Yankees and Giants and Dodgers we followed just to keep up with being in America. We had our likes and dislikes. “Our” teams. But for the black teams, and for us Newarkers, the Newark Eagles was pure love.

For Amiri Baraka, Jackie Robinson is a traitor—harshly put: an affirmative-action abomination. Integration ruined the unique African-American baseball experience.

How extreme are these feelings?

How many African Americans, to this day, attend Major League Baseball games?

Are the individuals that do wearing the mask?

On exiting a St. Louis Cardinals game, encircled by white fans and having attended unaccompanied, Early encounters three black youths. One sneers, “How was the game, brother?” “‘I don’t know’ I lied, ‘I wasn’t at the game. I don’t follow baseball’.”

The stats and lore, so beloved by SABR geeks as well as more casual fans, by Martin and me surely, are largely a white construct deriving from a sport that predates 1947 by more than a century. Part of the lore is the dynastic handing down of the game from father to son: Teenage Bob Feller pitching to his dad behind their barn; lead-miner Mutt Mantle teaching little Mickey to switch hit. It’s the white-world Father Knows Best setting, which informs even blue-collar white society— the ghetto family lives far from the Elysian Fields of white ball.

In Right off the Bat, a chapter is devoted to “Race and Empire.” We work in broad strokes and (to mix or coax a metaphor) without an overabundance of navel-gazing or embroidery. There are: the colonial dispensation; the enslavement, total exploitation of Africans; the British boarding-school mise-en-scéne from which cricket culture emerged—the high and difficult technique of cricket and the individualism-versus-team effort of baseball being offshoots of white-English colonialism. (We also touch on the 1940s “League of Their Own” women’s-only baseball universe, which remained segregated: never “to integrate” with the other gender.)

Black men in a predominantly white business….

Early invokes August Wilson’s 1986 play, Fences, about a Negro League player, representative of an oppressed (invisible) minority, and the contradictions of character required to participate amid and within the white mainstream. The fences, Early points out, are not only symbolic of that mythical one that encircles (that word again!) a field and a ballpark, “the pastoral Eden of the white mind,” but also a symbol of the boundaries of social non-acceptance placed on the black athlete and by extension the shoulders of every African American.

(The last major-league clubs to integrate were the good [Yankees, 1955], the bad [Philadelphia Phillies, 1957], and the otherwise OK [Detroit Tigers, 1958; Boston Red Sox, 1959].)

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Hat Size: $303K

That's one expensive baseball cap.

That’s one expensive baseball cap.

It was 80 years ago today that MLB taught Japan to play. Well, not exactly. But the 1934 barnstorming tour including the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, did begin a process of popularizing baseball in the Far East. (Although no one realized it yet, the time frame marked the beginning of a new era of stars-to-be: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bob Feller were shortly to electrify the public as the Ty Cobb-and-Ruth Generation faded.)

The collectibles’ market kills me (Evander). The hat Ruth wore during those depression days of touring recently fetched $303,277 at auction.

As for the games themselves, the major-league guys won all 22 by a whopping combined score of 250 to 45. (Though according to Geoffrey C.Ward and Ken Burns, the American team won 17 of 18 against the amateurs.) The sole bright spot for nevertheless ever-enthusiastic Japan was high-school pitching sensation Eiji Sawamura, basically the Bob Feller of Japan—at least for one day. (Eiji tragically died in 1944, serving in the Japanese Imperial Army.)

Below is the home movie by Double X, which records a modicum of the barnstorming glamour.

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Geopolitics Aside

Ruth in Cuba

Ruth in Cuba

The stunning announcement today concerning the opening of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba likely carries large implications for professional baseball, both within these two countries and for the internationalization of the sport (and business) based on the year-round model of cricket. Imagine a Major League Baseball franchise in Havana. Imagine elevating fields in Cuba to the standards of those in the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, much of Mexico and Central America. The baseball talent cultivated in Cuba must be, per capita, the greatest and highest in the world, perhaps excepting Panama. Babe Ruth found barnstorming Cuba much to his liking—not to mention betting on jai-alai—during his time there under always-truculent manager John McGraw. It is no exaggeration to say the restoration of ambassadorial and other ties among the two countries may be the biggest combination of diplomatic and sports news in our lifetimes.

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