The Inside Scoop

Shahid Afridi

Shahid Afridi: Surgical strike

Now that I (Martin) have turned fifty, my doctor has advised me to get a colonoscopy, and dutifully I have scheduled one for later in August. At a pre-operation, getting-to-know-you meeting, my surgeon, a dapper gentleman by the name of Dr. Muslim, only had to hear me open my mouth to wish him a very English “Good Morning!” before replying: “You got crushed the other day!” I, being like the good doctor a passionate follower of the global game of cricket, knew exactly what he was talking about: England’s thrashing at the hands of Australia in the second Test match at Lord’s. Thus it goes within the international cabal of cricket fanatics: an immediate rapport and run down of vital statistics before we’d even run down my own.

It should be added that Dr. Muslim grew up in Lahore, and has—like many followers of the Pakistan team—an air of wounded bafflement as to why a side that has produced so many talented and exciting cricketers over the years has failed regularly to meet its potential. As Dr. Muslim ruefully acknowledged, the same might be said about the state, and we agreed (after Dr. Muslim had given me the inside scoop, as it were, on the procedure I would shortly undergo) that Pakistan’s cricket team performed remarkably well given the turmoil in the country. Dr. Muslim was trenchantly medical about what he called the “cancer” of Shahid Afridi‘s presence in the team (he agreed that Afridi was to Pakistan what Kevin Pietersen was to England). He anatomized that South Africa’s failure to achieve total dominance was due to a lack of “balls” (he didn’t mean the ones you throw). And he held little hope for England in the Ashes, although the fact that he’d acquired tickets for two days at the Oval in London (the site of the final game in the series) suggested to me that he at least believed in the statistical possibility that the series would still be competitive.

As a patient cricket fan and a cricket patient, I welcome Dr. Muslim’s probing analysis of my team and my body. I take it as a good omen that in an office off Union Square in Manhattan, an entirely unexpected examination of the state of world cricket could occur at the same time as the examination of my own state. One can only hope that my colon will prove more robust than England’s batting line up, and Dr. Muslim will be able to pronounce me Afridi free.

 

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The Problem with Flared Skirts

Nothing to do with the Georgia Peach, either

Nothing to do with the Georgia Peach, either

Auntie Beeb has interviewed veteran major-leaguer Mary Pratt of the Rockford Peaches. Never heard of ’em? Did you see A League of Their Own (1992)? The film is based on this all-women’s club from the 1940s, tho in real life the championship depicted was between the Racine Belles and Kenosha Comets.

In Right off the Bat, Martin and I talk a little about the state of the National Pastime “when all the men were gone.” This would be the summer of 1943, when the women’s league was founded, into the summer of 1945. (Per the photo, Rockford perdured till 1954.)

(Not talking this kind....)

(Not talking this kind….)

Skirt-uniforms were worn four inches above the knee—slightly scandalous for the times—and all the women playing hardball had the strawberries (not Darryl) on their thighs to show for their considerable efforts in such garb—while off the field “walking like ladies.” (If she had the opportunity, I’m sure my ultra-coordinated, wiry, and baseball-crazed [She kept score every day, when not at work, from radio broadcasts!] mother might’ve been a women’s-league bench-warmer if not actually in some starting lineup.)

Check out this delightful 4-minute interview with the indomitable Ms. Pratt.

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Baby, You’re a Rich Man…and I Guess a Free One Now

The posthumous sequel by Bernard Malamud?

The posthumous sequel by Bernard Malamud?

Bulletin: The Department of Justice will not appeal a court ruling that clears Barry Bonds of obstruction in a probe over steroids. Such ends criminal prosecution of Major League Baseball’s career home-run leader. Thank goodness for this news on the eve of the National Baseball Hall of Fame inductions. Is this bigger than a discovery of life on Pluto? Maybe I (Evander) could sleep much better now.

Naturally, there is also the court of public-sports opinion and more: the jurors consisting of the baseball writers who sit as deciders over which Major League ballplayers are honored in Cooperstown—the fictitious Eden of the American National Pastime. (Is the whole thing just a shell game?)

Randy Johnson is ready for his closeup in about ten days. So are Pedro Martinez (with little question one of the rarefied truly greats, as there is even a pecking order, in my view, within the Hall community), John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio.

In the meantime, all-time hits’ king Pete Rose finds himself crankily on Fox as “an opiner” as well as in ever-deeper doodoo amid fresh allegations that he bet on (or against?) his own team. (This blog has already covered organized crime and gambling, especially prevalent amid Pakistani cricket.)

But the leading steroid-suspects (none of these ever tested positive you realize)—Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, of course Bonds himself for starters—all must pay their way into the Hall for another year if not forever.

Yet another category of player exists, the one around which innuendo drapes like a cheap suit. This includes, above all, Mike Piazza. There are no specific allegations around Piazza mind you. But he was just so good and so strong that he must wait: he surely was on the Juice it is rumored, tho The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas, who works the airwaves with Rose), even larger, even stronger, never much of a fielder and something of a one-dimensional force, was eagerly and speedily elected in 2014, maybe as much for his tirades against PED as for his batting stats.

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England Subside Again . . . and Again

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when England win a Test match against opposition against whom they are “meant” to have lost, there will be much talk of “new beginnings” and “resurgence.” What is less universally acknowledged is that, a few days later, England will invariably show up to the next Test match against the same opposition and lose spectacularly. At that point, there will be much talk of “same old, same old” and “crisis.” England won in Cardiff and lost spectacularly at Lord’s. The did the same against the New Zealanders earlier this season; against the West Indies over the winter; against the Australians in England in 2009 . . . and so on, and so on.

Winning in sport is more than just about beating the other team; it’s about believing that you will beat the other team. Too often, against Australia especially, England seems to think themselves lucky rather than better, and the victory a deeply satisfying fluke rather than the natural order of things. The Australians, on the other hand, expect to win every game. When they lose it’s a disaster because the natural order of things has been inverted. The result is a redoubled effort the next time to ensure that normal programming is resumed as quickly as possible.

The question that now faces England as they prepare for the third Test match at Edgbaston is whether they actually believe they can beat the Australians. They’ve done it before, but they have to own that victory, in the same way that they have to dismiss the recent defeat as a fact of sport and not a revelation of the relative strengths of both sides. The danger is that, so great is the defeat, the Australians have gotten into the England team’s heads. In which case, sports fans, the contest is over.

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Fun and Games at the IPL

IPL Fireworks

It’s all cricket!

The news that the owners of two Indian Premier League franchises—the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals—have been suspended for two years for betting has been greeted in my (Martin’s) neighborhood in Brooklyn with a shrug and a yawn. I’m blessed to encounter many cricket fans of South Asian descent in the daily course of living here, and to a man—and it’s still only men at the moment—every one of them thinks the IPL is fixed, has always been fixed, and will always be about fleecing ordinary Indians. Such cynicism will only be affirmed by this latest ruling, one in a string of setbacks for a competition that has provided a huge amount of entertainment for cricket enthusiasts of all sorts—as well as some national pride for India in hosting a tournament that seemingly every player anywhere in the world itches to be part of. Of course, as Evander and I note in our book, Right Off the Bat, which is the fons et origo of this website, corruption and, specifically, gambling have been part and parcel of cricket and baseball since their beginnings. (Indeed, organized crime almost tore professional baseball apart in 1919.) Those who, in either game, like to talk of honor and character, fair play and high principle, sometimes forget that shady brokers and unreconstructed racists, beer-swilling drunks and snoring boors, and injections of armfuls of cash and arms full of other substances are also a part of the games, if not necessarily the fun, of cricket and baseball. Ironically, I missed all the hoopla of the IPL this year, having been so entranced by the ostensibly purer pleasures of this year’s World Cup ODI that the IPL seemed what it always is: excessive. Next year, of course, the IPL (replete with promises that this year corruption will finally have no part in the proceedings) will have the gaudy, fireworks-displayed stage to itself, and we can revel in its tawdry, magnificent glory once again.

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The Big Mo

Moeen Ali (left) and Hashim Amla. Bearded wonders.

Moeen Ali (left) and Hashim Amla. Bearded wonders

In 2012, British distance-runner Mo Farah captured not only the 5000- and 10,000-meter gold medals in the London Olympics but the hearts and minds of the British public. His excellence, exuberance, and unabashed commitment to the country to which members of his family had emigrated when he was a boy of ten meant that the usual depressing questions that attend sportsmen and -women who come from “different” ethnic or national backgrounds were muted. (Farah’s long-time coach, Alberto Salazar, has recently been accused of doping his athletes; Farah denies it.)

Now, the land that formalized track and field has another Mo to crow over, this time in another game of its own invention: cricket. The position in the English national side of Moeen Ali, the all-rounder who last year sensationally spun England to victory against the India, had (inexplicably, for this blog) been in doubt before the start of the Ashes series between England and Australia. He didn’t spin the ball enough, was one complaint; he wasn’t effective enough with the bat was another. Now, after England’s victory in the first game of the series, where he scored 92 runs and took five wickets, it would seem absurd to leave him out. Coming in at number eight in the batting order, Ali (who normally bats at three for his home side) may find it a challenge accompanying tail-enders, which may in turn limit just how many runs he can score. But he’s an asset at any stage of the order.

What had escaped my (Martin’s) attention was that for the entirety of the match, the admirable Ali was fasting, since it is Ramadan. Now cricket may not require as much concentrated energy as middle- or long-distance running, but to perform at the highest level with only the residue of a pre-dawn breakfast or the promise of a post-sunset meal to keep you going still takes discipline and stamina, and is no mean feat. One would assume that there would be dispensations for this sort of thing. But, like Mo Farah, who bows in prayer at the end of a race, Ali is a devout Muslim, who prays five times a day. Like South African Hashim Amla, he wears a long beard and doesn’t drink alcohol, and has an unflappability about him that may (or may not) be a function of his faith, but certainly makes him a man for a crisis. It’s a testament to his character, and (one might hope) the greater tolerance and awareness of difference in sports in the U.K. and elsewhere, that Ali is as much a man of the moment and a representation of Britishness at its best as Farah was in 2012. Long may it continue.

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The Broad Identity

Stuart Broad

Stuart Broad: Point proven

Among the plaudits being offered following the England cricket team’s trouncing of Australia in the first Test match of the Ashes series, one man, in the humble opinion of this blog, is not getting his due. We agree that it is good news that Ian Bell and Gary Ballance have finally found some form with the bat. Alastair Cook had a tremendous game as captain, showing daring and imagination where before he had demonstrated only caution and rote-thinking. Joe Root, we concur, is surely among the best batsmen in the world; Mooen Ali surely is a match-winner with ball and bat; Mark Wood is a find; Ben Stokes continues to impress; and Jimmy Anderson remains the best swing bowler on the planet.

Yet Anderson’s long-time bowling partner Stuart Broad—whose penetrating and accurate spells of fast bowling did so much to set up the defeat of Australia—gets little acknowledgment. In fact, all Broad did was silence (temporarily) those critics who think he should be dropped, and give more ammunition to those who believe he should be pushed down the batting order, and Mark Wood replace him at number nine.

Yet Broad—whose batting, it is true, has fallen away dramatically since he was hit in the mouth by a cricket ball—is closing in on 300 wickets, and his average continues to improve as he ages. His speed is back up, his control is excellent, and he clearly intimidates the hell out of Australian captain Michael Clarke. The success of the ODI England team sans Broad and Anderson should mean that a properly rested and fully fit Broad gets a longer time in Test cricket, which, given that he is still only twenty-eight years old, should mean that he will match Anderson as the greatest wicket-taker England have had. Not bad for a problem player!

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