Nostalgia on Repeat

A Running Diary of Game 162

Manan Vatsyayana/Getty Images Pakistan vs India

So, Cricket? Maybe?

With labor trouble threatening the seasons of two of our four major sports, a pair of red-blooded Americans look overseas to fill the potential gap.

10:00 A.M. (PST),
May 10, 2011

Hello, sports fans, as well as fans of things that take nine hours to do! This is the semifinal of the 2011 Cricket World Cup — Pakistan versus India. An historic rivalry. It’s as though the Yankees and the Red Sox had (a) nuclear weapons and (b) an enduring blood-feud over the disputed territory of Stamford, Conn.

Today’s match is going to be amazing — or, rather, it’s going to have been amazing, as it took place two months ago. But at the time we were probably reading some blog comment-section discussion about who would emerge from spring training as the situational lefty for Triple A Pawtucket or trying to predict Ryan Mallet’s Wonderlic score, so we missed the outcome.

Let’s bring on some cricket!

We sit on Mike’s couch and pop in our bootleg cricket DVD, quickly finding that our DVD player can’t read it. We then realize that instead of spending the day watching the Big Game (“Big Match?” “Big Donnybrook?”) on a 42-inch flat-screen, we will be watching it while huddling around a 14-inch laptop.

We debate whether we should bother watching it at all. Surely Grantland can get by without 12,000 words on cricket, right?

We realize that we could either spend the day watching sports or actually go and do real work.

Hello again, sports fans!

Having propped up Mike’s laptop on two enormous books, we watch the kind of overproduced, operatically scored psychedelic opening that can only signal an international sporting event championship. It seems fitting, as this is probably the way most American cricket fans watch cricket — on a computer, furtively, maybe at work even, at a weird hour of the day. We now feel like the DVD-player fail is kismet. We are all in. Go Cricket.1

They show a get-pumped montage, in which the kind-of-doughy stars of Pakistani and Indian cricket get off of their respective team buses. These men are all business before the Big Match (it is “Match,” turns out. “The Mother of All Matches,” we’re told), iPod buds in ears, presumably pumping the South Asian equivalents of “Lose Yourself” or “Eye of the Tiger.” Meanwhile, the montage itself is set to some wispy, new-agey thing that sounds like the start-up screen of a Wii.

We are told that the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium — the pride of Mohali, India and the site of this semifinal match — is “one of the great venues” in all of cricket. The shots of the stadium grounds make this statement seem like the rantings of a lunatic. The field is cracked and patchy and threadbare. It makes the Oakland Coliseum look like Roland Garros. This makes us sad for cricket. Whether we end up liking cricket or not, we are sure the sport deserves to have greater venues.

We are further told it’s a perfect day for cricket, though we are not told what a perfect day for cricket is. Looks kind of sunny. Sunny is usually good for sports.

An on-field reporter gives an exhaustive report on the field itself, in all its parched, brown glory. He gets down on the ground and feels the dirt. He strokes the sad grass like it is the head a beloved grandchild. He could not be more excited about the conditions on the field today. It’s apparent that field conditions really, really matter in cricket, which makes sense: It’s a game that hinges on bouncing a ball. Mud must suck. “Parched and cracking” now makes more sense, in terms of a terrain worth celebrating. We still feel a little sad for cricket.

BRIEF DIVERSION: Our Cricket Histories

Mike: The only cricketer I have even remotely heard of is Sachin Tendulkar, the aging Indian ace, who happens to be playing in this very match. All I know of Tendulkar is that he is very good at cricket. If I were a fan of cricket, I would probably be offended by someone saying that all they knew of Sachin Tendulkar is that he is very good at cricket. When I was in college, I made a friend from Kenya who had never seen a baseball game, and when I asked him what he knew about baseball, he said that there was something called a catcher, and that there was “a man named Griffith Junior” who was supposed to be quite good. I found it endearing. Then I took him to Fenway Park, fully intending to teach him the game I loved quite quickly — by, say, the third inning. The first thing we saw as we entered the stadium was a batter hitting a double, which concluded in a baserunner being thrown out at the plate and the batter getting caught in a rundown between second and third — a situation that proved so difficult to explain I actually started giggling. I don’t think I converted him.

He was a cricket fan. I in some way think of this exercise as a way to repay him for completely failing to teach him about baseball.

Nate: I have two experiences with cricket, both related to my usual gig as a public radio reporter. Ten years ago I drove down to scenic Newport, R.I., to do a little story about this local cricket club. I hung out on this lovely field atop a hill with 360 degree views of Narragansett Bay and interviewed a couple of cricketers. They were very nice. They played every Saturday in the summer. They wore white. They had tea breaks. Their wives and girlfriends all hung out and drank lemonade. The main guy I interviewed looked like the British Superman. The whole thing seemed delightful. “You know, we could use another regular player. I’d be happy to teach you the game,” said British Superman, as his comely British girlfriend handed me a lemonade. I watched for a half hour, and mulled the offer. This didn’t seem half bad, what with the ocean breeze, a little athletic competition, international girlfriends, and the lemonade and all. I asked how long the game went on. He said sixteen hours spread out over two days. I quickly got in my car and drove away.

The actual World Cup2 trophy looks kind of chintzy — just a silver cricket ball supported by three curved arms. It is no Stanley Cup. Its closest American cousin is probably the Vince Lombardi Trophy, that boring metallic football on a boring metallic stand — as if the Silver Surfer buzzed past an equipment locker. Neither seems befitting of the honor it represents. On the other hand, the World Series trophy is a truly weird, spikey yonic nightmare, so maybe simplicity is the way to go here.

BRIEF DIVERSION: The Basic Rules, Best We Can Tell
Super quick — and please skip this part if you know the rules of cricket — the basic situation in cricket is this (some of this we knew, or were able to piece together while watching and will be “discovered” in the text that follows, but it seems logical to explain it all here, if you’re newbies like us. And again, if you are not newbies, we are probably going to say super ignorant things about your sport that, despite our best intentions, will infuriate you, so, fair warning):

– Two batsmen, each standing in front of a wicket. The wicket is a piece of wood parallel to the ground, resting on top of three wooden sticks — the whole thing is nine inches across and 28.5 inches high. The wickets are 20 meters apart, almost exactly the mound-to-plate distance in baseball. This whole bowling/batting area is smack dab in the middle of a giant, round, irregularly-dimensioned circular field.3
– There is one bowler for each end. The first bowler takes a running start and throws the red or white ball overhand and straight-elbowed towards the wicket at the opposite end of the bowling area, bouncing the ball once on the bowling pitch.
– Batter then hits ball, in any direction he chooses, or just kind of blocks the ball from hitting the wicket. The batters can run or not run, depending on where the ball goes, and each tries to reach the opposite batter’s box area before the defense can break the wicket with the ball; each time they do this = one run. Ball reaches the boundary of the field on the ground = four runs. Ball sails over boundary on the fly (like a home run) = six runs.
– When the bowler in that direction has bowled six times, which is called one “over,” the opposite bowler bowls. The batsmen hit until they’re out.
– The main defensive objective is to break the wicket. Batter misses and ball hits wicket, ball hits batter’s body in direct line with wicket, fielder breaks wicket with ball while batters are running (before they get back across the batting line) — any of that happens, you’re done, as a batter. Or, if you hit the ball in the air and it’s caught, you’re done.
– When you’re out, no matter how it happened, you just leave, sadly, in a long slow walk of shame, with the full-throated foreign-sounding celebration of the other team and its fans showering you with misery, and the next guy on your team comes out to take your place.

It’s a weird effing game.

We are told that in ODI (One-Day International) tournaments, the team that bats first wins 72 percent of the time. This whole thing is basically NFL overtime. So when India wins the toss and elects to hit first, it strikes us as odd that the announcers would bother to discuss whether that decision is wise, but they do. They then do an interview with the Pakistani captain who does an admirable job of pretending that if he’d won the toss he would probably have just chosen to bat second anyway, but you can clearly tell he just died a little inside. Then they head over to the Indian captain who is handsome and oozes team leader. He is Steve Garvey-esque, and his interview is straight from the Nuke Laloosh school of sports clichés. Nate finds this vaguely disappointing, as he always wants foreign things to be more foreign than they usually are.

Hobbling around in the background: a large blue elephant mascot. As this match between India and Pakistan was recorded several weeks ago, it strikes Mike as possible that the mascot could have been Osama bin Laden, hiding in plain sight. He thinks this is hysterical. He then realizes that generic Vicodin is powerful stuff.

We are amid what feels like a 29-minute break while the Prime Ministers from both countries shake hands with every player from both teams, dozens of ICC officials, and then seemingly everyone in the entire stadium. The PMs of two countries that don’t like each other standing side-by-side does help cricket-ignorant Americans such as ourselves to understand the import of these proceedings.4

The announcers are predicting that this will be the most-watched match in history. Given that we are watching it, we are inclined to agree. They also claim that this is “the match the whole world is watching,” to which we respond: No. No it is not.

Mike proposes that should the teams meet again, the match should be played in Kashmir, for Kashmir.

The line-ups are announced. India is up first.

Because it’s just about scoring as many runs as you can, and because once you’re out, you’re out, it makes sense to bat your players roughly in descending quality, best to worst (with some game-specific strategy mixed in, we imagine). Thus enter the apparently-great Virender Sehwag, as well as Sachin Tendulkar, whose genius as a batter is put into words by the announcer thus: “Words cannot describe his genius.” This reminds Mike again how much more restrained and poetic European sports announcers are than their American counterparts.

A graphic points out that India has won 21 of 53 matches when batting first versus Pakistan, which bums out Mike in the same way he gets bummed out when someone says “Our team lost the game 4-9.”

The Pakistani bowler is named Umar Gul, who looks a lot like the Pakistani version of Stat Boy from “PTI.” Gul rubs up the ball. The fielders are positioned haphazardly around the circular pitch. Gul backs up to a position that seems to be several hundred yards outside the stadium. He then starts running, and continues to run for, like, ever. He rears back, plants his foot on a white line in the crappy field, skips the ball on its scraggly surface toward Virender Sehwag. And…cricket!

“Something happened.”

That’s the way Nate has summed up, after a beat, what happened. Gul bowled the ball, something kind of happened with Sehwag, someone yelled something, people milled around, and we have no idea what has just occurred.

(Settle in, people. This is going to take a while.)

Sehwag hits the ball very far and it rolls over the boundary, and people clap. This we kind of understand. Hitting the ball well enough to have it roll over the boundary is called, obscurely, a “boundary.” Four runs for India.

Soon, the first over is over, with India garnering four runs total on the six balls. It is unclear whether this is the equivalent of a leadoff homer or strikeout or what. But as the game slowly — and we mean slowly — unfolds in front of us, the general rules become clear, and the successes and failures become easier to determine.

A second bowler (there are two working at all times, one on each side) named Abdul Razzaq bowls to Tendulkar, who scrapes out two individual runs over six balls. So far words can pretty accurately describe his genius. The umpires are Aussies, wearing jaunty hats and red shirts. Until this exact moment it did not occur to Mike that some kind of authority figure would be out there making sure rules are generally adhered-to. This sport has the mood and pace of a Memorial Day barbecue.

We get a shot of people packed into the roofs of apartment buildings far outside the stadium, Wrigley-style. We also get the first of what we assume will be thousands of shots of a hot Indian woman in the stands with cool sunglasses. They have to show something. The internet has informed us that a quick game of ODI cricket lasts seven and a half hours.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Sehwag hits another boundary. And then another boundary, and another. All of these come off balls bowled to his inside, then deftly flicked to his left — he’s essentially hitting what would be foul balls over the third-base dugout, but getting four runs each time. Gul keeps bowling them there, and Sehwag keeps boundaryizing them. It’s like going belt-high inside to Albert Pujols, over and over. Then Gul goes outside and Sehwag gets another, whacking what would be an opposite-field line-drive single to right. 4 4 0 4 4 on the five balls of the over so far. And another. “It’s raining boundaries here!” says the announcer, somewhat contradicting Mike’s previous assertion in re: the poeticism of European announcers.

It quickly becomes clear that this is relatively extraordinary. It’s early, but Umar Gul is already having a bad day, and the camera lingers on him like he’s Rick Ankiel in the 2000 NLDS. We also get many shots of Gul’s captain, Shahid Afridi, a handsomely bearded devil who right now looks like he would be thrilled if Umar Gul suddenly and irrevocably retired from international cricket. When Sehwag is awarded a free hit because of a foot fault by Gul — stepping fully over the line while bowling, which gives the batsman essentially a free chance to just whack away with minimal risk — Afridi can’t even look at Gul he’s so angry. The expressiveness with which Afridi displays his displeasure with his teammate, were it shown by Derek Jeter during a bad inning from CC Sabathia, would be the only thing the New York media would talk about for 11 weeks. Cricket Fans
There are different kinds of bowlers, just like pitchers — speed guys, technique guys, junkballers, etc. The power guys seem to be bowling about 82 to 90 mph. The batters, it occurs to Mike, are basically all Ichiro — because they stand in the center of a circular playing field, bat control is of the essence. It can be just as valuable to barely flick the ball as it rushes toward you, sending it almost directly backwards, as it would be to swing as hard as you can and try to power it to your pull side or back up the middle. The batsmen have the same few tenths of a second to decide what to do as baseball players, but the range of things they have to be able to do is much greater. It’s kind of inspiring to watch it done well.

As the crowd shot focuses on the Indian Kourtney Kardashian, we are told that the “Powerplay score is 47-1.” That surprises us, because we do not know that there is such a thing as a “Powerplay,” nor, certainly, that it is currently happening.5

They keep showing shots of some dignitary who looks like the Pakistani Dabney Coleman. They never tell us who he is. I’m sure it’s self-evident to cricket fans. But, I feel like TNT will tell you, when they’re showing David Stern (or whomever), that this is David Stern (or whomever). The dignitary must be a very big deal, but Wikipedia does not have face recognition technology so we’re pretty much screwed.

Something happened!

Sehwag is out!

We’re not sure why.

We try to figure out what happened.

Here’s what we think happened:

Sehwag had been on the sort of hot streak that even we were able to understand. Then the bowler bowled, and Sehwag kind of swung and missed and blocked the ball with the big pad that protects his leg. The ump determined that had Sehwag not been standing there, the ball would have kept going and broken the wicket (which is like striking the guy out). This is called LBW, or Leg Before Wicket. There was much jumping and screaming and rejoicing from the Pakistani side, none more than from Umar Gul, who was getting absolutely hammered. The only hitch, for Pakistan, is that Sehwag wasn’t buying it.

Each side gets two video reviews, and the Indians decide to use one — again, Sehwag is one of their best guys, so it’s worth it to try to prove the ump wrong. Instantly, an incredibly authoritative-looking computer animation from a machine called Hawk-Eye (the same Hawk-Eye used in major tennis tournaments, interestingly) — shows definitively that (a) Gul did not foot fault, and (b) the ball’s trajectory would definitely have struck the wicket had Sehwag’s padded shin not gotten in the way. The computer replay animation looks fantastic. The whole thing takes 20 seconds, and leaves no room for doubt. The crowd watches it on a diamond vision screen and for 40 seconds, the whole contest is turned into a video game, yet it is surprisingly awesome. The fact that baseball has not embraced replay for all matters concerning the game now seems like the craziest aspect of any sport in the universe.

Sehwag walks off the field like Charlie Brown in the Christmas special. For some reason, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” plays over the public address system. “Beat It” would make sense. “Smooth Criminal” would make sense, if you think he got robbed, maybe. But “Billy Jean” it is.

Gautam Gambhir, a lefty, comes in for Sehwag, whose total is 38 runs from 25 balls. The announcers can’t believe this incredible turn of events. The seven minutes it took us to figure out what exactly those events were took some of the excitement out of it for us.

Umar Gul is now getting hammered again. He looks like Curt Schilling in the 2004 ALCS, before the weird corpse-tendon surgery. No location, everything hit hard.

The terminology cloud is beginning to clear up. Does “seam bowler” = fastball guy? No — that’s “pace bowler.” Seam bowling, it appears, is about trying to bounce the ball right on the seam — there is only one on a cricket ball, like an equator — to make it bounce funny as it rockets up toward the wicket. This is different from a “spin bowler.” So, to review, putting it into language that we understand using current and former Red Sox:

Pace Bowler = Vintage Clemens
Spin Bowler = Mike Boddicker
Seam Bowler = Tim Wakefield

Mike’s teeth are beginning to hurt again, but not too much to try to see if he can track down and buy the superkickass green sunglasses worn by one of the Pakistani fielders.
(Note: He found them on the UK eBay site. Promptly decided against buying them.) Another of the Pakistani fielders, Mohammad Hafeez, has zinc oxide all over his entire face, like he’s in whiteface. We are offended.

12:02 PM
India now 65-1, meaning 65 runs with one wicket lost. A man named Saeed Ajmal is now bowling for Pakistani — a “very clever bowler” according to the announcers whose names we still have not caught. “Very clever” seems like how we might describe Jamie Moyer to someone who didn’t know who Jamie Moyer was. Then we see Saeed Ajmal bowl: 60 mph. He’s Jamie Moyer.

Gambhir hits a boundary. One of the jaunty-capped Aussie umpires lifts his knee and touches it, then waves his arm like he’s gently swatting flies away. That apparently means “boundary.” On the Weirdness Scale of Referee Signals, it’s halfway between “Illegal Man Downfield” in football and “Crazily Rush Forward and Hold Out Both Arms Like a Human Forklift” in Australian Rules Football.

The Indians have called for their Bowling Powerplay — so for the next five overs only two Pakistani dudes will be playing deep. Mike’s teeth are now really acting up, leading him to call for a Generic Vicodin Powerplay. Cricket is about to get a whole lot fuzzier!

Crowd shot featuring the Indian Colin Farrell.

Tendulkar slices a boundary — a truly lovely stroke. Camera cuts to the Indian Dabney Coleman sitting stoically. They show the replay, in glorious slow motion: beautiful swing, ball darts past an out-stretched fielder and then skitters and skips along the near-concrete surface of the glorious Punjab Cricket Association Stadium. A professional hit followed by a professional replay, until they let the replay run past the actual play and then again show the Indian Dabney Coleman sitting stoically, interminably, in glorious slow motion.

They keep cutting to a group of men sitting behind potted plants. For a while, we assumed this was another group of dignitaries or Indian celebrities whose fame apparently transcends the need for the commentators to identify them. But then we realize that this is the Indian cricket team. Instead of hanging on the railing of the dugout, baseball playoff style, these guys look like they’re hanging out in a luxury box at Staples. And for a team playing the biggest game of their lives — nay, the biggest game two entire nations have played in a decade and a half — they all seem like the nine through 12 guys on the Bucks’ bench, late in the first quarter of a mid-November game against the Raptors.

Something happened!

Tendulkar is out!

No, he isn’t. The play is reviewed and overturned. The ball hit his pads, and “Hawk-Eye” shows that had the ball not hit Tendulkar’s pads, it would have missed the wicket by literally .5 inches. Again they show the video game animation on the big screen. Again, we watch that video game and completely believe in its accuracy.

Imagine you’re a Rockies fan, and that in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the NLCS Troy Tulowitzki hit a three-run double that sent the Rockies to the World Series, but the ball was ruled foul. The replays clearly show that the ball hit the outer edge of the chalk. There is nothing you can do. Then he strikes out (on a terrible call from Angel Hernandez — again, nothing you can do) and the Mets go to the World Series instead. (Yes, the Mets. It’s a hypothetical.) Wouldn’t you be angry? You should get into cricket. At the very least, they don’t let archaic notions of “purity” and “human elements” ruin the outcomes of their games.

On the very next ball — Tendulkar is out!

No he isn’t. Again, the play is Hawk-Eyed and overturned. (It seems that while the teams have two replay requests each, the umpires can review as many as they want.) On this play, his foot was indeed making contact with the ground inside the “batter’s box” area thing when the wicket was broken, so it is not a wicket. Imagine that Tulo scenario happened on two consecutive plays. Aren’t you glad you’re a cricket fan instead of a Rockies fan?6

The announcer now says, in re: Tendulkar’s back-to-back luck-outs: “I can’t think of another moment in cricket where more people had their hearts in their mouths on consecutive balls.” Which is the dirtiest non-dirty thing ever said.

Shahid Afridi, Pakistani captain and handsome, bearded gentleman, begins to bowl. He is described as “leg break bowler,” which our capable editorial assistant, Wikipedia explains is a bowler who throws what are basically change-ups, or in 1980’s parlance, “Palm balls.”

(Leg Break Bowler = Bob Stanley)

In baseball, when thrown by a righty, these break down and in to a right-handed batter. But in cricket, when the ball bounces before it reaches said batter, the change-up rotation makes the ball break back away from a righty off the bounce.

Much more importantly, though, in Mike’s generic-Vicodin haze, he feels he has finally determined who it is that Shahid Afridi looks like, which is: Peter Facinelli. (Nate’s Google image comparisons show the resemblance to be tenuous at best. Mike should maybe take it easy on the generic Vicodin.)

The graphics on this broadcast continue to be phenomenal. They have a thing called the “Wagon Wheel” — an overhead view of the circular pitch, which shows where the batted balls have gone. Their colored-line trajectories look like spokes on a (very poorly-made) wagon wheel, which show you just how many different directions these guys hit the ball. Sachin Tendulkar’s wagon wheel’s spokes would provide adequate structural integrity for an actual functioning wagon wheel.

Tendulkar is out!

No he isn’t. He escapes again — this after a line drive is dropped by a fielder. Tendulkar is charmed. He’s the Derek Jeter of cricket, right down to the fact that he is 37 and hates A-Rod (we assume). We are currently awaiting crowd-shot confirmation that he also dates the Indian Minka Kelly. Eagerly.

The dropped ball has infuriated the emerging man-crush, Afridi. The commentators are tearing into the fielder for dropping a rocket line drive that he was trying to field, 15 yards away, with his bare hands. Dunno. Seems understandable to us. But we feel for Afridi.

How many chances can they give Tendulkar?

That is not rhetorical. We do not know if there is a limit to how many chances they can give Tendulkar.

There is an inexplicable break after over number 14.

Mike here: I think a Powerplay is starting. Or maybe it’s ending. I definitely know the generic Vicodin is working, because when the international feed just goes to a wide shot of the still field for two minutes — meaning that in other places they are watching a commercial break — I just stare at it and start to wonder where all those cricket fans live, and who they are, and what their hopes and dreams are, and not once do I consider getting up and getting something to eat or checking my email. I just stare, placidly, at the screen.

Nate here: When the camera pulls back and they settle into their commercial break long shot you get a sense how little the fan in the stands gets to see. The game takes place in the center of this vast circle and the most of the fielding action (such as it is) seems to happen relatively close to the stumps. If the boundary is about 240 feet away, figure that the closest seat to the wicket is, what? 300 feet away? So you’ve just spent 6793.5 rupees (1 U.S. dollar = 45.3 rupees) for a front row seat and you’re about 14 feet closer than the front of the right field bleachers at Yankee stadium. Can’t hear the crack of the bat out there. Can’t hear much of anything, I’d imagine. In just the few hours we’ve been watching, we’ve seen all sorts of plays that hinge on tiny little movements. None of which you’d be able to see from the stands. I’m having a pretty good time watching this cricket match but I’m beginning to suspect that cricket kind of sucks. I tell Mike that, but he is staring at the screen mumbling something about the hopes and dreams of the good people of Mohali.

Whiteface guy is now bowling. A Pakistani fielder boots a batted ball and turns what would’ve been two runs into four. Afridi throws up his arms in disgust. Seriously, Afridi, don’t ever play American sports. Your teammates would reward this behavior by filling a tube sock with oranges and beating you senseless.7

A second wicket for Pakistan. A spinning ball gets right by Gambhir, and the catcher grabs it and nails the wicket while Gambhir is out of the box. This is understandable without the use of Wikipedia and is therefore very gratifying. When the wicket gets hit it makes a super-satisfying cracking sound and explodes into a million pieces (actually, Wikipedia says it’s five, but it’s still pretty terrific). Gambhir’s total is a low-seeming 27 for 32 balls. Again, the PA system plays “Billie Jean.” There is no possible reason why that makes sense.

Another Tendulkar line drive is dropped. Afridi just tore out his own tongue and slapped the fielder across the face with it. He quite literally cannot believe how many times they have let Tendulkar off the hook. Neither can Tendulkar, by the way — he looks like a politician who got caught in a sex scandal at the exact moment SEAL Team 6 was dropping into bin Laden’s compound.

The announcers are absolutely ripping these fielders for dropping wicked line drives. (Again, they are not wearing gloves. Not even, like, wide-receiver gloves.) Speaking of ripping, Umar Gul, who isn’t even bowling anymore (bowlers are limited in how many total overs they can bowl, but can be brought in and out multiple times) is still getting ripped for wilting under pressure. Mike feels bad for Umar Gul. Failure on a big stage is an aspect of sports that transcends international borders. Nate thinks the dude should learn how the eff to bowl better. Nate can be kind of a dick.

A nice shot of four Indian dudes in bright orange wigs, wearing matching orange T-shirts. Good to know that idiot fandom also transcends international borders. The announcers, whose names just flashed on screen but too quickly for Nate (who was looking at the line-ups for the Red Sox/Blue Jays game starting in a couple of hours) to note or Mike (who’s hopped up on generic Vicodin) to jot down, are talking into weird old-timey mics that they are holding up to their mouths like they’re announcing the Normandy Invasion on Westinghouse radio.

Twenty-five overs are done, and India is 141-2. We’re one-fourth of the way through this match. And you thought baseball moved slowly.

Crowd shot cuts back to Indian Colin Farrell, now joined by Indian Teri Hatcher.

Pakistan picks up another wicket, as 22-year-old Virat Kohli — who just replaced Ghambir — hits an easily-caught liner and is gone after a paltry 9 for 21 balls. This seems like as good a time as any to cue Michael Jackson’s seminal 1983 paean to music industry groupies “Billie Jean,” and…yup, there it is.

Kohli is replaced by Yuvraj Singh…who is gone on the very first ball bowled to him. This, we find out, is called a “Golden Duck.” Cue “Billie Jean,” for the second time in like 30 seconds. The bowler behind this excellent display is Wahab Riaz, a wickedly fast lefty who now has 3 wickets, and is singlehandedly allowing Umar Gul to breathe. The only even remotely accessible analogy that works here is Luis Gonzalez and BH Kim.8

Sachin Tendulkar, for all the drama, is still in there, hacking away. We are beginning to understand how good he actually is.

This seems like as good a time as any to explain the differences between One Day International cricket (which we’re watching now), and Test Cricket, which, we gather, is the platonic ideal of cricket.

Ten teams spend most of their year participating in something called the Test Series. (We say teams instead of countries because one of the teams is actually comprised of players from 15 Caribbean countries. They are brought together Justice League-style to form one Super Team [or at least, one Generally Competitive Team] called the West Indies. They are usually referred to as The Windies, which is adorable. If they were playing in this match, we would totally be rooting for that rag-tag bunch of misfits.) The Test Series is a season of home and away Test Matches. Test matches are four innings long. So each team gets to bat four times through its 11 man lineup (which, we just figured out, actually probably means only 10 guys bat because you need two guys to run back and forth between the wickets to score a run. It’s a weird sport.) Here’s the kicker. That can take up to five days. Five days! It’s not a five-day tournament, it’s one game that takes five days.

Each day starts at 11:00 a.m. They play until 1 p.m., take a 40-minute break for lunch, play again from 1:40 to 3:40, take a 20-minute break for tea (the Drink of Champions) then play a couple more hours. For maybe five days.

The One Day International may last 7½ hours, on average, but it’s one day.
They created the ODI, in part, to entice people from our short-attention-span world to enjoy their beloved game. Perhaps a five-day game does not fit into the Twitter era. (Though, we are not sure that a 7½-hour game does either. Give us a 4½-hour, eight-pitching-change Red Sox-Yankees war of attrition any time.)

Crowd shot of the Indian Kelly Ripa.

Tendulkar has a single turned into a 4 by some shoddy fielding. After another near-miss, the announcers speculate that Tendulkar has been eating a lot of yogurt, which is apparently lucky in Eastern culture. (Mike has eaten a lot of yogurt in the last day and a half because of his teeth. He is currently feeling anything but lucky. “Weightless,” perhaps, or “hazy.” But not “lucky.”) Afridi looks like he wants to murder his whole team.9 Cricket
Gul is back in the game, brought out of the doghouse by Afridi, who speaks to him in a quiet, unanimated, distinctly non-Afridi way, trying to settle him down. “We need you,” we imagine him saying. “You can do this. If you don’t, I am going to garrote you with piano wire. But you’ll be great.”

Yet another Tendulkar line drive dropped. No joke. The announcers are going crazy. One of the announcers name-checks Brad Gilbert’s “Winning Ugly” in reference to Tendulkar’s performance today. Balls no. 27, 45, 70, and 81 have all been dropped. That’s at least four times the best player on the team should have been sent off.

Mike here: I now find myself hoping that Shahid Afridi himself gets the chance to put Tendulkar away for good. And it does indeed occur to me that I now have a very specific rooting interest, for a specific situation, in a sport I didn’t know anything about three hours ago.

Nate here: When I was little kid, my dad instilled in me a rooting decision-tree that stays with me today: If Your Team is playing, you root for them. If not: you root for the Underdog. If you are at a game in person and neither team is Your Team, you root (root root) for the Home Team. The only other variable is the Doug Williams Exception: if Your Team isn’t playing, always root for the black quarterback. It’s messed up that there aren’t more black quarterbacks. (I have not asked him if there has been a Michael Vick Corollary added to the Doug Williams Exception; will bring up at next visit.) Therefore, I am rooting for the underdog, Pakistan. It may not be the most patriotic choice I can make, but there’s no way a man as handsome as Afridi could’ve been in league with bin Laden.

Tendulkar flicks a liner right at Afridi, who catches it. He then tosses off his hat and throws up his arms to the heavens, like, “Was that so hard?” If you want something done right, you do it yourself. Mike is feeling exceptionally pleased with himself for calling the Afridi-gets-Tendulkar thing.

Tendulkar fell just 15 runs shy of 100, (a “century”), which would’ve been the 100th time he had done so. We barely understand what that means but love the idea of having seen someone’s hundredth hundred and are now honestly bummed we didn’t get to see it. Nate mulls adding “Earn one hundred hundreds in international cricket” to his bucket list alongside “Never die.”

As Tendulkar moseys off the field to the inexplicable and increasingly vexing strains of “Billie Jean,” the camera shoots an Indian TV star from “Coronation Street10 ” in the stands. She looks like the Indian Rachel Bilson. Announcer: “I am glued to” that show.

Mike notes that the glacial pace of cricket now seems incredibly pleasant. He further notes that this is likely the generic Vicodin talking. Riaz, who looks a little like Mariano Rivera and bowls like Aroldis Chapman, gets a wicket on Dhoni (25 for 42 balls). Cue “Billie Jean.” 205-6 is the total.

We debate who is the least likely celebrity that we could possibly see in the crowd here in Mohali, and arrive at the following list: Kid Rock, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla), Kevin James, Michael Imperioli, and Larry the Cable Guy.

Suresh Raina, batting for India, is starting to flex his muscles. He gets a boundary, then another. Poor Umar Gul is being lit up. Afridi is going to burn Umar Gul’s house to the ground. Then another boundary. What’s happening, Umar Gul?!

The announcers have indicated that 300 runs was once achievable for India, given its hot start, but Riaz has put an end to those dreams, and a late flurry just like this one will be necessary to try to get India to a respectable 250 for its 50 overs (it’s at 225 through 45.3 overs right now.)

As of September, 2010, “Billie Jean” has been digitally downloaded 1.964 million times.

Another wicket for Pakistan (from Ajmal, not Gul), another confounding “Billie Jean” interlude. Riaz is back in, and they show his stat line, which has like 50 categories, only three of which are recognizable. This stat line graphic is crazy. Without rewinding and actually checking, here’s what it looked like, in our minds’ eyes:

Wickets: 4
Dot balls: 29
Glimmers: 14
Fleemers: 2.21
PaPkk: 100
Posterior? Y/N/V777
Powdermilk: Zap
Snerkles: Portishead
Cricket? Yes.

Things are definitely nearing an end, as India recklessly tries to stretch singles into doubles. (Each side in an ODI gets 50 overs, regardless of how many wickets there have been or whatever, so toward the end there’s no reason not to make risky plays.) Raina gets a late boundary — one last blow to Umar Gul. Riaz gets another wicket on the final over as Khan goes down. (In 1991, Mike drove from Boston to Chicago and had only two cassettes to listen to: “Led Zepplin IV” and “Thriller.” That was the last time he heard “Billie Jean” this many times in one day.) The very last ball goes for two runs, and India settle at 260-9 through the complete 50 overs.

We have been watching cricket for almost five hours, and the match is half over.

Mike predicts he is going to need a lot more generic Vicodin.

So, Halfway Through: What Have We Learned?

We’ve learned the basic rules of cricket. This has been generally fun. Hanging out on a Tuesday afternoon? Couple of dudes? Sports? Fun! And learning the rules for any new sport is usually a good time. It’s why the best Olympic sports are often the obscure ones: You can spend half the time learning how the sport works, totally entertained, before you even realize you’ve spent two hours watching Team Handball. Also, you never know when knowing the rules of cricket will come in handy — one of us may wind up at some hoity-toity garden party at Kensington Palace. Or we may end up doing hard time in a Barbadian prison. It’ll be nice to know at least we can talk cricket.

But we’ve also learned that this is the slowest goddamn game in the world, even in its speeded up, ODI format. Gaining points only matters in the aggregate. The points pile up so gradually that even the players (the vital, passionate Afridi excepted) seem kind of blasé about the whole thing. Like they know that they’re going to be playing all day (or five days) and they don’t want to expend all their energy actually getting excited about something early on. All of your other team sports? One team gets a chance to score, the other team gets a chance to score. Cricket? One team gets all day to score, then you eat something, then the other team gets a chance. Seems like a fatal flaw. Sorry, cricket.

Ok, back to it…


After what appears to be a 45-minute break (for dinner?) that we mostly fast-forward through, Hafeez and Akmal stride out onto the pitch. In ODI cricket, they switch to a new ball at the halfway point, and new balls apparently tend to fly farther, since they’re harder and less beaten up, so Pakistan will definitely be looking to get off to a hot start. It hardly seems fair that one team gets to bat in the day time, while the other team has to bat in twilight and then nighttime, which it strikes us now might account for that 72 percent-of-teams-batting-first-end-up-winning phenomenon.

Zaheer Khan is bowling for India, and gives up a boundary on his first ball. The score, at this moment, is 260-4. What a weird effing game.

We are told for maybe the 15th time that Ashish Nehra was named as a starter for India — a controversial sub, for someone else whose name is now lost to history/we’re too lazy to look up. People can barely believe this has happened, this Nehra-in-for-Whoever, and it appears that there is some pressure indeed on Nehra and India to make this seem like a good decision.

Crowd shot of the Indian Linda Ronstadt.

When Tendulkar plays in the field, he wears a large, khaki-colored, floppy hat. Like, that a lady would wear while gardening. This is apparently legal. Earlier, the Indian Captain batted without wearing a helmet. Admittedly, he had a great head of wavy hair, but, still, seemed more bananas than badass.11

Pakistan has 28 runs through 5 overs. Now that we know most of the rules, it’s kind of less exciting to watch. That seems contradictory. We are doing much more internet browsing than cricket watching now, to be honest.

Akmal lines out easily, having achieved 19 runs for 21 balls. Pakistan’s total is 44-1. Asad Shafiq comes in. A tall gentleman named Harbhajan Singh is bowling — he’s a “super spinner,” who takes a like four-step run-up, instead of the seemingly endless runway crescendos of the pace bowlers, and bowls about 50 mph in a crazy whirlwind of arms, legs, and weirdness. Imagine Tim Wakefield, but with 300 percent more spaz.

The Red Sox game is now on the TV, as we watch the cricket match on the computer. Sue us.

“The key for the Indian side is to take wickets,” says one of the announcers, a Dan Fouts-level obvious observation that completely obliterates any romantic notions Mike had about poetic color guys in other countries. But India appears to take it to heart, as Hafeez is caught easily on a soft back-hit. The crowd goes wild.

There is a kind of mathematical inevitability that starts to creep in here. When one team has a set total, and the other team starts climbing toward it, given that the players are hitting in roughly best-to-worst order you can just kind of plot the pace at which they are accumulating runs and determine fairly easily how likely it is that they catch up. At this stage India was 101-1. Pakistan is 70-2. It’s early, but Pakistan is already kind of screwed.

Pedroia steals second.

In stark contrast to their opposite numbers, the Indian fielders look super strong. While Pakistan several times either booted balls, allowing India to pick up extra runs, or botched them so severely that they scooted right past and rolled all the way to the boundary, India is grabbing everything cleanly. It’s also doing something called “crowding,” which is exactly what it sounds like — essentially playing the infield in, all the way around, confident that players can snag the little grounders that sometimes lead to single runs, forcing Pakistan to either gamble recklessly or remain scoreless.

Pakistan is doing nothing. After 20 overs, or two-fifths of their at-bat, the required rate to overtake India is 5.73 runs per over. Currently, Pakistan is sitting at 4.45. Pakistan better have some incredible intangibles, because math is taking over.

Jon Lester gets Yunel Escobar to chase a changeup. Sox 1, Jays 0.

It’s been 30 minutes since the last Pakistani boundary. They’re hitting all singles. This is a team of Juan Pierres.

A potentially devastating wicket, as Shafiq (30-39 balls) just plum misses everything, swinging right through a ball from Yuvraj. It seems to be fairly rare that this most basic of wickets — the batter just swinging and missing and the ball breaking the wicket — happens, and every time they show the slo-mo replay, they include the audio of that incredibly satisfying click when ball meets wood. Yet another thing baseball should borrow from cricket broadcast technology.

Misbah-Ul-Haq steps in. “There’s a mountain to climb,” says our still-nameless-to-us announcer. A simple graph shows “runs over time,” and Pakistan’s line is sadly lower than India’s. The whole crowd senses that there is kind of no way this is going to happen. This will not, however, stop this cricket match from going on for another like 50 hours.

Another wicket12 — Younus Khan, who has totaled only 13 on 32 balls. Ouch. The required rate to overtake India is now 6.37/over. Pakistan is in the low 4’s. It has been 41 minutes since its last boundary.

Mike here: Shahid Afridi, we learn for some reason right now, is the leading wicket-taker in the tournament. I am suddenly overcome with a wave of love for Shahid Afridi. All of his demonstrative nonsense suddenly feels like intensity to me. All of his cajoling and firing up of his teammates seems both warranted and necessary, in a game that moves this slowly, yet has this much at stake, national-identity-wise. He has a kind of universal athlete intensity gene which I admire. I know nothing of the man, really. He might be a terrible person, or a tax cheat, or a serial adulterer13 , but at work, the man wants to win, and his team is not really helping out.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I am very much rooting for Pakistan. I want to see Shahid Afridi happy.

Nate here: I feel like I am running out of things I want to learn about cricket. I started to look up the most runs ever scored in an at bat but then the Blue Jays started to get to Lester and I got distracted. One thing (besides the beard) that makes me share Mike’s Afridi excitement is that it appears that the Captaincy really means something in cricket. He is player-manager mixed with point guard. He tells the fielders where to stand. He tells which pitchers to come in when. He’s got a ton of decisions to make. And our man Afridi is doing it all with the signature passion and dashing good looks we’ve come to so admire in our few-hours-long relationship. Go Pakistan!

The first boundary in like an hour and 13 overs, by a man named Umar Akmal, quickly leads to a six — the first of the entire match by either team. It flies 83 meters in the air, and to two dudes who have been watching cricket for seven hours, it’s incredibly exciting. It’s a gorgeous, sweeping arc of a swing.

(Like the one that Big Papi just used to crush a Kyle Drabek fastball over the center field fence at the Rogers Center.)

Oddly, everyone on both sides seems very loose. The Pakistani guys who are waiting to bat sit in a “waiting to bat” box thing in the stands, looking like when the guys from the first national NCAA tournament semifinal come back into the stadium to watch the second semifinal to see who they’ll be playing.

Akmal hits another 6. (“At least he showed up today,” is what we imagine Afridi is saying to himself in the waiting-to-bat box thing.) Even so, the statistical inevitability lingers like a cloud of doom. The required rate to overtake India is now 6.67 runs per over, and their current rate is 4.41. This is a Presidential race in which the democrat has taken Missouri, Indiana, and Virginia — the republican hasn’t technically lost, but unless four million people in California suddenly switched parties, it’s not happening.

Especially since Harbhajan Singh just completely baffled Umar Akmal — “Who apparently didn’t show up after all,” thinks Afridi, maybe — and knocked the wicket clean off with a ball that seemed to move in slow motion before slipping right past his bat. Clink. The Pakistanis are now 142-5, and all their best batsmen are gone. They’re screwed. Mike is inexplicably sad, and his teeth hurt again. Now he takes a generic Vicodin to dull the pain of the inevitable Pakistani loss. Pakistan needs 118 runs, and has only 98 balls left.

They show a shot of a guy Nate thinks is Geddy Lee from Rush. Oh, sorry — that was at the Rogers Center. Getting the two viewing experiences confused.

Pakistan is actually picking up pace, perhaps out of sheer desperation, but the required rate is still twice what they are averaging. Another wicket, on Razzaq, does nothing to boost Mike’s flagging spirits. (Though the latest Vicodin is doing amazing things to both his tooth pain and general mood.) Nate is just almost exclusively watching the Red Sox at this point.

Afridi is now up to bat. Here’s Mike with the call:

My dreams of his on-strike redemption, of his lifting his whole team onto his shoulders Kemba Walker-style and leading his nation to victory, are buffeted by the Wikipedia-aided knowledge that he has gotten centuries in ODI matches twice in the past year. I also learn that his nickname is Boom Boom. He’s going to do it. And it’s going to be awesome.

So here he is, Afridi, chipping away. Nothing huge, and the future is bleak, but Pakistan is beginning to climb, “gently, gently,” as one of the announcers puts it, back into contention. They now need 80 runs from 54 balls. India needs four more wickets to end the whole thing.

Oops. I mean three. My boy Afridi just hit one of Singh’s slow, twisting balls just about straight up in the air — a ball it wouldn’t scare me to catch without a glove. “Baffling tactics from Pakistan,” says someone with a crazy-looking name who has a better English vocabulary than I do. Afridi strides off, 19 runs in hand. “Cricket isn’t so easy, is it, Shahid?” is what I imagine Umar Gul saying to himself (absurdly, since presumably both Gul and Afridi have been playing cricket all their lives).

Soon after this match ends, I will learn that Pakistan is considering replacing him as captain. All of this makes me sad in ways it’s difficult to articulate. This is the way the ODI ends, not with a Boom Boom, but with a whimper.

Pakistan 198-7. It needs 63 runs from 39 balls. The batting Powerplay is coming up, which is good for Pakistan, but the required rate is over 10 runs/over. Most of its heavy hitters are gone. This is roughly equal to needing five consecutive grand slams from Nick Punto.

The eighth wicket falls, as Wahib Riaz, the lefty bowler who did so well, hits the ball straight up into the air and it’s grabbed by none other than khaki-colored lady’s hat-wearing Sachin Tendulkar. This team needs Jose Bautista (who just hit his 11th of the year for Toronto, BTW).

The batting Powerplay is now in effect for these last five overs, meaning only 3 fielders are allowed outside the 30-yard box. The batters need to average 2 runs per ball. It’s crunch time, Pakistan. And who should stride in to take Riaz’s place, but…

… Umal Gul. They’re screwed.

The ninth wicket falls as Umal Gul is LBW (remember what that means? Why not?! We defined it for you, only 80 hours ago). Umar Gul is, to use the classic cricket term, “bumming super hard.” He got only 2 runs, from only 3 balls. He had a miserable, miserable day — a kind of athletic day that people in every country can understand.

Pakistan need 53 from 21 balls. The Indian fielders are crowding in as much as possible, to eliminate even single run attempts. “Look at the way India are closing in like vulture on their prey,” says someone. (Now that’s what we’re talking about, international announcers!)14

Misbah-Ul-Haq, who we suddenly realize has been batting for almost three hours, is suddenly on a bit of a roll. Two boundaries in one over give him a total of 48 so far, putting Pakistan at 223-9.

So here’s the situation, now, nine hours later, at the end of this One Day International match. Twelve balls remain and Pakistan needs 37 runs. Barring some miracle, this is basically impossible, but the atmosphere is weirdly tense. Tendulkar is caught by the camera biting his nails.

Suddenly, Misbah, hits a 6, and the total is down to 31 for 10 balls. Oddly, because Misbah is so much better than the other guy batting (Saeed Ajmal, who, remember, is basically Jamie Moyer), the Pakistanis are now turning down single runs even when they are easily achievable, because a single would put Ajmal in place for the rest of the over, and Ajmal, being Jamie Moyer, sucks at hitting. So they only run when they can get two, returning Misbah to the “on-strike” position, and pass up all other scoring opportunities, even while runs are at such a premium.

One over left. 30 runs needed. Forget it. It’s like needing back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs from six pinch hitters. And this may be the fundamental flaw of this game: not only is it really, super-duper long, you spend so much of that time playing out the string toward a more-or-less inevitable outcome. Does this mean that in Test Cricket there can literally be a whole day or more of hoping for a miraculous comeback but knowing that it’s not going to happen? Seems so. What a weird game.

So, a couple of wild swings, including a mile-high pop-up that is caught easily, and India is in the finals. Cue “Billie Jean.” We are done with cricket.

The Indian Prime Minister claps quietly. The Pakistani Prime Minister sits, taciturn, next to him. One final shot of the unknowingly lame-duck Afridi. The game ends “in a cloud of anti-climax,” a phrase which guys who just watched 10 hours of cricket find particularly vexing.

A few days later India will face Sri Lanka in the finals. After giving up 274/6 and having both Sehwag and Tendulkar dismissed early, they will come roaring back to win. So at least our boy Afridi and his side have that “we lost to the eventual champions” feeling, though (let’s face it) that probably fails to provide any consolation at all. We learn the results of the final on Wikipedia, and as we read about it, and about a lot of other weird aspects of cricket that are too arcane and trivial even for a 12,000-word piece like this, Mike’s teeth begin to hurt again. He fully believes it’s sympathetic pain for Shahid Afridi.

FINAL ANALYSIS: All in All, Was It Worth It?

Let’s put it this way: On Sunday, October 18, Australia will be squaring off with Sri Lanka in Colombo in the second half of their Test series. We pray that we are watching the Patriots play the Chargers instead.

Michael Schur is the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Nate DiMeo is the creator of The Memory Palace podcast. They are co-authors of the forthcoming, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. Go pre-order it now. It is funny.

Filed Under: Cricket, Sports