Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).

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… I love it!

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been getting into cricket recently.

In particular, I’ve started following county cricket and, in particular supporting (or at least having some interest in the progress of) a couple of teams. The first is Kent, since that’s the county I originally hail from (and I don’t have the option of supporting the county I currently live in as they don’t play cricket at this level). The second is Nottinghamshire, as I went to university in Nottingham (and first became at all interested in cricket while I was there). Conveniently, they currently play in different divisions of the County Championship – Kent are currently near the top of division 2 and Notts are fairly low down in division 1, so I don’t for the moment have to agonise over which to support if they play against each other (actually I don’t have to agonise anyway, as I’m sure the answer will be Kent when the time comes; cricket now joins a fondness for Shepherd Neame beers on my very short list of links with my home county).

This week both my teams have been playing County Championship matches. As usual for such games, these were 4 day tests; both started on Sunday and finished yesterday afternoon (and I first started paying attention to them sometime on Monday).

Kent were playing away against Essex (our arch-rivals and coincidentally the other team currently at the top end of the division 2 league table and probably the main contenders for promotion to division 1 at the end of the season). Kent went into bat first and had a disappointing first innings, followed by a very good one from Essex. On Tuesday morning (the penultimate day of the test) it looked like Kent were certain to lose by an innings as we were trailing by well over 300 runs and seemed unlikely to catch up with the Essex first innings total by the time we finished our second. The first part of the second innings went pretty much the same way as the first but when Sam Northeast (the fourth man in the batting order, also the team’s captain) took to the crease, he stayed there, gradually accumulating runs while his batting partners all fell by the wayside. The ninth man in, James Tredwell, proved to be a good match for Northeast, and between them they managed to bring Kent to within spitting distance of Essex’ first innings total before Tredwell was finally dismissed about 5 hours after he started. The remaining two batsmen only contributed 6 more runs between them but managed to keep the innings going just long enough for Northeast to take Kent into the lead (if only by 8 runs) before we were all out (Northeast, incidentally, was the last man standing – having batted for nearly 8 hours and chalked up 166 runs in the innings; Tredwell managed 124 runs – apparently a personal best; the rest of the team got about 61 runs between the lot of them!). This meant that, while victory for Essex was still inevitable, they did have to go in for a second innings and they won by 10 wickets instead of the innings and 200 or so runs that at one stage it looked like they would win by. While Essex undoubtedly played significantly better overall, the determination with which Northeast and Tredwell fought on in the face of near-certain defeat was admirable. While I don’t think it was ever very likely after the first innings that Kent could actually win the game, towards the end of their second innings it did look like we stood a reasonable chance of forcing a draw.

Nottinghamshire were playing at home against Lancashire and were second to bat. Lancashire cranked up a respectable 276 runs in their first innings and then Nottingham got 474 for theirs, so they appeared to be in a strong position to win. Unfortunately for them, Lancashire managed to plug away quite solidly in their second innings and still had 3 wickets standing by close of play, having retaken the lead (by around 100 runs). Because the team with the lower number of runs (Notts) had not completed their final innings, the result was a draw. This wasn’t quite as exciting as Kent’s (or at least Northeast and Tredwell’s) valiant rescue attempt in the other game, but it was quite interesting, as Nottinghamshire managed to take a couple of wickets early in the final day, to wonder if they would be able to take the rest of them and then claw back the lead.

As well as these games, I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye, for pretty much the first time, on women’s cricket and coincidentally also limited overs matches. My attention was first grabbed when I was browsing a cricket news website (probably the BBC one but it may have been the ESPN one) and glanced at an article (with a short embedded video, as I recall, though I’ve been unable to track it down since) about how the England Women’s team had soundly defeated their visitors from Pakistan in a one-day international and a batsman called Tammy Beaumont had achieved a particularly good innings (and, I gather her own personal best) with 168 runs. A little bit of further investigation revealed that Ms. Beaumont is, like me, a native of Kent (albeit the far end of the county from where I grew up) and, unlike me, plays for her home county (as well as for England). A couple of days ago, I discovered that England Women were playing Pakistan Women in a T20 match (a particularly fast-moving form of cricket that didn’t exist when I was being introduced to the game by my friend Tim 20 years ago and which is in many respects the polar opposite of the traditional multi-day test format) that afternoon. Out of interest, I tuned in and listened to more or less the whole match (2 and a half hours or so – rather more manageable than 4 days!) on the radio (or at least a streamed audio feed from the BBC website). It was very gripping stuff, not least because Pakistan apparently played the best they have so far in their tour and managed to give England a serious run for their money, so that the game was up for grabs until the last few overs. The one slight disappointment for me was that Tammy Beaumont (my current favourite cricketer, along with Sam Northeast) went out lbw for 5 runs. It was particularly distressing because it appears that the ball would probably have missed the stump anyway – still, even umpires must be permitted to make mistakes from time to time and at least this one was a fairly close call.

Both Kent and Nottinghamshire will be playing some T20 matches later this week, so I look forward to seeing how those go (though I’ll probably have to catch up on them later as I’m likely to be busy while they are being played). I don’t know when England or Kent Women are due to be playing again (in any format) but I’ll be keeping an eye out for them too, at least while my current burst of cricket enthusiasm lasts. If previous experience is anything to go by, that could just be a matter of a few days. However, for the moment at least, I think it’s fair to say (quoting 10cc again) “I don’t like cricket – I love it”.

I don’t like cricket…

For the third time this season, I find myself unable to go sailing tonight. Unlike the thick sea fog and the heavy cold that thwarted me on the previous occasions, this time it was because nobody else from the regular crew was available. I think that Mark, our skipper, was able to borrow a few spare crew members from one of the other boats in order to get out this evening, but they all live quite close to Holyhead and nobody was able to give me a lift; unfortunately the bus and train timetables wouldn’t allow me to get home by public transport after sailing so I had to sit this one out. I must admit that I’m slightly glad that the weather here’s a bit overcast tonight (at least where I live – it could be glorious sunshine in Holyhead, but I’ll choose to assume it isn’t) so I don’t feel like I’m missing a particularly fine evening to be on the water. In any case, rather than moping about what I’m missing I thought I’d catch up on an opportunity to do some random blogging.

With at least two major sporting competitions (Wimbledon and the Euro 2016 football tournament) going on at the moment and the Olympics just round the corner, it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself going through one of my occasional bursts of enthusiasm for sport. However, just to be contrary, it’s not tennis, football (the association variety, aka. soccer, for the benefit of any readers from places who use the basic word to mean a different sport to what we call “football” here in the UK) or any of the Olympic sports that is grabbing my attention at the moment, but cricket. (At least, I’m not aware that this is an Olympic sport.)

I used to play a bit of cricket at school, during PE lessons. I don’t recall that I ever particularly enjoyed it or displayed a great deal of aptitude for it. I have enjoyed my share of informal cricket games on the beach or in parks, though it’s been quite a while since I did that. As with most of the people avidly glued to their TV screens for the tennis or the football this week, my current interest is purely as a spectator. Or perhaps more accurately an auditor, since I’ve been listening to a fair amount of radio commentary but not really watching a lot (not least because I don’t have a TV, so I’ve had to content myself with a few video clips of highlights).

The first time I can remember getting at all interested in proper, organised cricket was when I was a student. I had just finished a particularly difficult set of exams (including one on quantum mechanics) and felt like doing nothing more energetic than sitting in front of the TV for several days afterwards. At the time I lived in a shared house with a TV and a housemate who was pretty keen on cricket, so I joined him to watch two or three days of a test match (it was the first England v. South Africa test of their 1998 series, as I recall). My interest was largely stirred by the fact that Tim was able (and willing) to explain to me a lot of what was going on. It’s fair to say that cricket isn’t the simplest game out there, so having my own expert on hand was decidedly useful.

That was pretty much the only time I’ve really sat down and watched an extended amount of cricket. From time to time, over the years, I’ve listened to snatches of games (mostly bits of Ashes tests) on the radio or at least looked at the results online and had a go at deciphering the scorecards and other, slightly more extended, text-based summaries. While most sports, I think, probably benefit considerably from actually being watched (if you’re sufficiently interested), a lot of enjoyment can be had from cricket by just listening and reading. I also rather enjoy looking at the various statistics (such as batting averages) and trying to make sense of them.

I don’t want this post to get too long or too technical for the non-cricketphiles, so I’ll conclude it here and aim to follow soon with a post about the actual games I’ve been enjoying this week. So feel free to skip that one when it comes, if it doesn’t interest you.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the title of this post is a reference to the lyrics of “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc. The follow-up line, which will make sense of this one, will be the title of my next post.