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August 28, 2005 - Stumped

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill.

Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Inevitably, you ask an Englishman how things are in his country, and talk will eventually turn to either a) the weather, or b) the cricket.  As the weather isn't much of note (certainly not in comparison with the rest of Europe) at the moment, it's with cricket we must concern ourselves.  You'll forgive me if I sound somewhat distracted in the course of the following column, but it's being written on the pivotal third day of the fourth game of a crucial test series between England and Australia.  A series that is, I would wager, as compelling and as exciting as any sport anywhere in the world gets right now.


England versus Australia in cricket is, currently, rather like the U.S. taking on Cuba in baseball, or one of the former Soviet republics in ice hockey or basketball: the two best sides in the world, locked in (what's so far been) extraordinary sporting combat.  Much has been riding on these games.  After years of underachievement, if not outright failure, England finally has a team capable (and flat-out relishing the thought) of taking on anybody else.  Australia, after decades of dominating international cricket, have finally come up against a side capable of challenging them.


Cricket, like most sports, is a cyclical business, and national success depends not solely, but largely upon the current crop of players available to any captain or manager.  The English team presently in action boasts aggressive young talent (fast bowler Simon Jones, talismanic all-rounder Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff) blessed with the kind of all-conquering arrogance that doesn't come naturally to the English.  (Jones is Welsh, which may or may not offer an explanation.)  But these upstarts are supported and nurtured by elder cricketing statesmen - captain Michael Vaughan, spin bowler Ashley Giles - who've experienced first-hand the pain of past England disappointments.


Australia, on the other hand, are an aging squad - champions on the way out, one suspects - and part of the excitement of watching this current series is the thought that some kind of sea change is in the works.  Australia's key figures - bowlers Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, captain Ricky Ponting - are all in their thirties.  McGrath, generally regarded as the best fast bowler in the world right now, has spent the last few matches labouring away with yet another in a string of recent injuries.


I'll spare you too much cricketing trivia - it'd be like you subjecting me to the week's baseball results - but it's impossible to be in or around England right now without having some sense of the sporting spectacle currently unfolding.  An American colleague - and a female American colleague at that, far from cricket's usual fan base of well-to-do white men in matching hats and ties - stopped me on the street on Thursday afternoon this week to inquire of England's chances in the current match.


Further examples of how cricket is dominating the national consciousness: the Premiership football season - usually a source of such sporting hoopla - began in earnest two weeks ago, but has been comprehensively relegated to the inside sports pages while the home team's cricketing heroics hog the headlines.  The gripping finale of the last match pulled in as many viewers for its particular channel as the season opener of Lost and the last show in the current run of Big Brother.


Cricket's laws - and, yes, much is made of the fact it operates under laws, rather than the rules of any other sport - and terminology ("How's that?") remain tricky to get one's head around.  The sheer length of each test match (five days at a time) will always alienate certain viewers in an age of more immediate gratification.  But just as it's an exceptionally educational experience for a non-American to buy a hot dog and take his or her place in the bleachers for a baseball game, I've always thought that anyone wanting to know exactly what it feels to be English could learn a lot from setting up one's deckchair around the "boundary rope" that marks out cricket's playing area.


If you can't get over here in person - and test match tickets are like gold dust to get one's hands on, anyway - then visit BBC Radio 4, and click on the Test Match Special option.  (If you do this before Monday, you'll get to hear the final days of the current England-Australia match.)


Test Match Special is an extraordinary listen, and I doubt any other broadcaster in the world would ever quite sanction its mix of live cricket commentary with asides on the weather, the performance of the crowds, streakers, puns of variable quality, and reviews of cakes sent in by culinary-minded listeners.  Of course, it's the leisurely pace of the game which allows the time for all these things, and more.  One of the show's charms at the moment is the marked contrast between the regular BBC commentators and the less restrained analysis offered by the show's Australian contributors.


Cricket is one of the world's great political sports - again, it's not surprising, considering those laws - with controversy currently raging over security for England's planned tour to Pakistan later in the year, and pressure being exerted on the International Cricket Board to ban Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe from international competition.  A telltale sign that all would swiftly return to normal in the wake of the July terrorist attacks on London was that Test Match Special continued broadcasting ball-by-ball commentary on the matches taking place on those twin Thursdays.  The mood was, of course, more muted than usual, but the anecdotes and between-ball banter remained.


And why not?  Cricket's status as a premium source of anecdotes is unsurpassed.  Consider the following example of "sledging", the abuse fielding teams dish out to batsmen in the hope of psyching them out of the match.  (Australia are regarded as the foremost international practitioners of sledging. English players tend to be too polite.)  Legend has it the portly Zimbabwean batsman Eddo Brandes came out to bat one morning, only to be greeted by one Australian bowler asking "Brandes, why are you so fat?"  Brandes, without missing a beat, took his place at the playing crease, turned, and replied, "Because every time I f**ked your wife, she gave me a biscuit."  Erm, how's that?



Mike McCahill

August 27, 2005





Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm




Editor's Note:


I have preserved the British spelling and punctuation here, and the verb agreement.  "Australia are regarded…"  Since Mike is referring to the team from Australia, he sees that as a plural noun.  Quite logical. 


As for cricket out here?  Fifteen years ago while working for Hughes – they were making spy satellites and nasty missiles and secret electronic systems for the military at the time – we used to take a break from work by tricking our boss, a fellow from the West Indies, into explaining the rules of cricket to us.  He was always good for animated hour or more at the whiteboard, with his multicolored grease pencils, diagramming this and that, working himself into a spirited defense of the sport as just a wonderful thing.  But I never quite got it.


Brindley now work out at JPL – the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (government and Cal Tech) just north of Pasadena.  And he's probably working on explaining cricket to the rocket scientists out there, as your read this now.


See this - the Third Annual Los Angeles Open Cricket Tournament was held this July.


And there is The Southern California Cricket Association  - "the only cricket association in the nation, that boasts of four beautiful turf wickets."


A Late Note from Mike:


It takes a fair while to figure it all out, admittedly. (I think it's also a genetic thing: if you're born within a hundred miles of Lords' cricket ground, you're instantly blessed with a knowledge of things like "silly mid-off" and "backwards point". And what a "googly" is, obviously.)


Still, glad to hear it's not a completely alien concept over there.  Don't know if it's too late to add this as a footnote to my column, but I've just stumbled across this online.  As if to prove quite how everyone is getting sucked into the cricket, at the moment, it's a live interview with horror maestro George Romero, conducted at Trent Bridge, the venue for the latest Test, while the cricket is going on behind him.


Quite bizarre, but also rather sweet, in its own way...




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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