High individual scores… Are they good for the game?

Chris-Gayle-of-the-West-Indies-celebrates2West Indies’ cricketer—Mr. Cool himself—Chris Gayle became the first cricketer to score 200 plus runs in a World Cup game. Before this, highest batting scorebelonged to Gary Kirsten, who scored 188 against UAE in the 1996 World Cup. Until 2009, no one had scored a 200 in a 50-over game. Several had come agonizingly close. Since then, four have reached that score, including Gayle. The other three are from India: namely Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, and Rohit Sharma. Sharma has scored more than 200 twice in a 50-over game. In 2014, he reached an astronomical 264.

Why are these meaningless scores? Anyone who cares about cricket will tell you that the game is only good when batting and bowling have a fair chance. These scores can only mean that the balance was not right that day. Explanations for this recent trend can get a bit nerdy for most us. But, in short, the bias toward batting has to do with the playing area getting smaller in the modern era; the cricket bats getting thicker and meatier; the protective equipment in general improving (which makes batsman less afraid of the cricket ball); and, finally, the field restrictions that the ICC (cricket’s governing body) have made to encourage more entertaining hitting throughout the 50-over game.

Cricket is perhaps the only sport in the world that would allow the game to tilt so much in favor one aspect of its skill set. Batsman are ruling the roost at the moment. In golf, for example, as the equipment has become allowed the ball to be hit further, the courses have become longer and have become more difficult to maneuver through.

It would not be appropriate of me (Parth) to discredit these feats of greatness as merely average feats of sporting behavior. I genuinely feel that scoring 200+ runs in an innings is not easy. But I shudder to call them “great” because I don’t think they merit me using the word. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them “good.” I say this because, what makes cricket great is the elegance of the play—whether it is the poetry of the late outswinger or the artistry of the on-drive. And just like great art, we enjoy these shots when it happens rarely (perhaps with a glass of our favorite fermented drink). Of course, such an assessment might be merely the response of a fuddy-duddy who has never enjoyed loud music.These innings may have all the right art. But the gallery has too much of it to enjoy each piece and appreciate it to the fullest. All one can do is marvel at the monstrosity of the gallery owner’s collection.

Now, this should not mean that one can’t revere a big innings, on occasions that actually matter: Adam Gilchrist’s 149 at the World Cup final against Sri Lanka. Virat Kohli’s 183 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup. Kohli’s 133 against Sri Lanka at Hobart. Ricky Ponting’s innings in the 2003 World Cup final. Tendulkar’s innings at Sharjah. Tendulkar’s innings in the CB Series finals in 2007. These are some knocks that come to mind as memorable onslaughts. Such innings in a meaningful context and against a worthy opposition are much more memorable and delightful to those of us who still find 50-over cricket a valid format.

In the malaise in which cricket is played today, it’s very hard for an innings to be memorable. And for those of us who are don’t follow the game as much as we once did, or give credence to the meaningless cricket that occurs a great deal with the modern-day schedule, all those monstrous innings from the turn of the 2010s are, sadly, a big blur.

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Little Red Scooter

Herb Score: one of the great Might Have Been's in baseball history

Herb Score: one of the great Might Have Beens in baseball history

To Martin’s Broad Agonistes, I note two Major League Baseball parallels: and our Right off the Bat is thus chockablock, many being downright spooky.

On the night of May 7, 1957, left-handed ace Herb Score—called by Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and most significantly by Cleveland Indians’s teammate Bob Feller the greatest lefty anybody had ever seen (Score had fanned a rookie-record-setting 245 batters in an era of fewer free swingers)—was beaned by a batted ball from Yankees’s Gil McDougald, likewise a prodigious ballplayer. Neither Score nor McDougald were the same. Their careers declined in tandem.

Perhaps a fate even more tragic was visited on Tony Conigliaro. In his second season with the Boston Red Sox he became the youngest player to lead his league (American) in home runs: 32. He worked at being something of a pop star then, with 45s “Little Red Scooter” (b/w “I Can’t Get over You”) and “Why Don’t They Understand?” On August 18, 1967, Conigliaro was struck in the eye by a pitch that got away from Jack Hamilton, only recently coming from the NL New York Mets. (There was no interleague play in those long-ago days.) Tho eventually more or less returning to form, briefly, Congiliaro would suffer a massive heart attack and stroke, aetat. 37, succumbing at 45.

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Pakistan Accomplish the Impossible

Misbah ul-Haq

Misbah ul-Haq: Sometimes it’s better not to look

You’d have to have the hardest of hearts not to feel for this Pakistan cricket team. Not only did they make the worst start to an inning in World Cup history, losing their first four wickets for only one run, but they managed to achieve what no other squad has managed: they turned the formerly fractious, despondent, and sinking West Indies into a coherent, joyous, and resurgent squad (at least until the next match). For a team bursting with talent, playing for a country passionately committed to the game, and under a captain (Misbah ul-Haq) who, as Walt Whitman would put it, contains multitudes, Pakistan’s side leave you on the edge of your seat for all the wrong reasons. It can beat anybody and lose to anyone on any given day; its players can pull off the remarkable and perform woefully—sometimes in the course of the same match. Given England’s equally dismal start to its World Cup campaign, it’s a pity that they won’t play each other until hell freezes over and they make it through to the play-off rounds. It would, as Hamlet‘s Polonius might put it, be a performance “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,” but it would be very entertaining.

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Broad Agonistes

Stuart Broad

Stuart Broad: Taking the knocks

Many years ago, I (Martin) was bowled by Sarfraz Nawaz, the Pakistan fast bowler. This is my greatest claim to fame as a cricketer. Our opposition—a team of modest talents if not attitude—paraded the genial Sarfraz before us with (I thought) an unseemly enthusiasm that spoke volumes about their desperation. Since these were the days before anyone wore helmets, I was thankful that Sarfraz, who by then was in his early forties, was bowling at perhaps half his former speed. Unfortunately, the reduction in pace somehow made the ball hoop around even more. I saw the ball leave his hand, waved my bat in its general direction as the ball made its way toward me, and then heard the rattle of the stumps. I had failed to trouble the scorers. As I walked back to the pavilion, an opposition player noted that I’d been moving backwards, away from the stumps, as the ball was delivered. I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t surprise me. I wasn’t playing Sarfraz the middle-aged ringer, I was playing the scourge of world batsmen in the 1970s and early 1980s. In short, Sarfraz had gotten into my head and psyched me out.

Last August, Stuart Broad was hit in the face by a bouncer from Varon Aaron, as he was trying to hook the ball. Broad was wearing a helmet, but the ball burst through the grille and struck him on the bridge of the nose. After the blood, bruising, and stitches, Broad shrugged it off and claimed he was fine. But it can’t have done his confidence any good when Australian Phil Hughes was killed by a ball to the head earlier this year, playing the same shot. Ever since, Broad, who used to be a punishing lower-order batsman, has been a shadow of his former self at the crease. As I did against Sarfraz, Broad is backing away as the bowler delivers the ball. Like me, he is playing the memory of pace and not necessarily the reality—even though Broad is often facing genuinely fast bowlers who will bowl bouncers in his direction, ones that can hurt him. Nowhere was this fear more in evidence than in his embarrassing dismissal against New Zealand in last Thursday’s World Cup match.

Baseball and cricket are as much games of psychology as they are of hand–eye coordination. The pitcher/bowler has the advantage over the batter/batsman in that the latter has only a split second to recognize the nature of the delivery and react accordingly. Broad may be telling his mind to stay focused and not move; his mind, however, is remembering what it felt like to have a ball smash into your face at over eighty miles an hour and his body is quite naturally involuntarily moving out of the way. There is no easy solution to this. Broad is a fine bowler, and he’s needed in the England team. However, he needs to bat at number eleven until—somehow—he regains his confidence. Until then, however, he is—as I was with Sarfraz—a walking wicket.

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Oh, England!

Brendon McCullum

Brendon McCullum: raising his game

It is now with great regret that we are compelled to talk about the England cricket team—soundly trounced, thrashed, taken to the cleaners (choose your metaphor) by New Zealand in the World Cup on Thursday. Now don’t get me (Martin) wrong; New Zealand are revealing a discipline and a talent that must have more fancied teams (South Africa, India, Australia) quaking in their boots. Tim Southee bowled one of the best spells ever seen in World Cup cricket, delivering several unplayable deliveries to the English batsmen. Brendon McCullum destructiveness revealed yet again why his arrival at the crease empties bars, and his captaincy was imaginative and creative.

Where the Kiwis are organized, clearly enjoy their cricket, and have oodles of self-belief, the England team is floundering. Their captain, Eoin Morgan, is in a batting rut that he failed to escape from against New Zealand, and several of the batsmen had no answer to Southee and Trent Boult‘s penetrating bowling. Only Joe Root played anything like a responsible innings. England’s bowling lacks discipline. It is, simply not ready for prime time.

This being the World Cup, there’s still a chance for New Zealand to screw up (it almost did the other day against Scotland) and England have a chance to go through by thrashing the supposedly lesser teams (Scotland, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh). England have lost to the two best teams in their group, but they will have to beat Sri Lanka—and on this form they won’t.

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In the Beginning

I bet you never saw it in blue before.

Bet you never saw it in blue before

To affirm that hope springs eternal, as the thermometer dips to 2 degrees F, a New York City/Right off the Bat HQ record for any February 20, teams are assembling to begin Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues training. Yesterday and today!

(Of course, as reported in this blog the World Cup perdures down under.)

The Sporting News has already gone out on a limb (maybe), predicting great things for the Chicago Cubs to end a 106-year championship drought. Theirs is a young, fast, and scientific team managed by the ultra-competitive Joe Maddon, who moved on from Tampa.

No matter the temperature, we know at least somewhere in North America it will be a long, hot summer. The aforementioned New York City, for example, is home to a couple of major-league clubs that are short on offense and questionable in various departments of pitching.

It’s even before early, right? I (Evander) kicked off the season by purchasing the 100th edition of Who’s Who in Baseball, the bible of baseball that I’ve been collecting almost since my baseball beginnings. After reading the anniversary-edition foreword by Marty Appel, I’m not quite sure this is the 100th year of publication. Though, theoretically, this also is “the book to settle all arguments.”

Whatever. Disbelief is suspended and hope springs….

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Game Changer

77b985ea-2d84-4739-9873-e3a37c8d4f6c-1020x673As our colleague Parth Taneja notes in this blog, the rivalry between India and Pakistan—fraught with religious, regional, historical, and political overtones—is one of the most passionate and freighted in world cricket. Cricket has been the vehicle for the most bigoted forms of nationalism and yet also the means whereby that bigotry can be contained and dissipated. That strange ability of sport to upend prejudice can be seen in this photograph of Pakistan supporters gathered in Karachi to watch the India versus Pakistan World Cup match (more pictures here).

To judge from portrayals by Western media, Pakistan is a seething hotbed of religious conservatism, with heavily armed fanatics running rampant, targeted shootings of children, and the curtailing of women’s rights. Some of this is true; just as some of this is true of the United States. What this photograph reveals to me, Martin, is a group of young men and women, studiously (and tensely) watching the game. It’s a good bet that every one of the people sitting here is a Muslim. Many of them may consider themselves devout. The Pakistan colors and flags that they have painted on their cheeks and wear on their backs suggest to me that these young men and women may well be as passionately committed to the continued survival and thriving of the state of Pakistan as its cricket team. They might also hold strong views on the future of Kashmir. Yet, note also: the women are uncovered; men and women sit together without an orgy breaking out or the religious police beating them; there are even women expressing an interest in cricket—although one appears to be texting rather than watching!

The photograph is a reminder, to me at least, to remember that sport—like life and politics and faith—is, pace Kierkegaard, rarely either/or, no matter how much either may separate the winners from the losers. Instead, complexity, subtlety, richness, and yes, mutuality and cohabitation, abound—when, that is, we allow them to.


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