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From the Ashes to the Big Bashers

Warwick Holt settles back for a big summer of cricket-watching at the Side Project blog.

Captains Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke place their thumbs on the world’s least impressive trophy
Photo © 2013 AAP One/Dave Hunt

Thursday sees the beginning of the latest instalment in a grand and noble sporting tradition that dates back more than 130 years. A tradition that Australians grow up with, built on passion, pride, rivalry, and the smack of leather on willow.

I’m talking of course about cricket-watching. 

This summer the calendar is chock-a-block with a variety of formats, so it’s important to get yourself in peak condition before the first click of the remote. 

Cricket-watching may at first appear a simple game, but as seasoned players will tell you, it’s not all beer and skittles. They’re called “wickets”. 

Terminology is critical if you want others to take you seriously. You’ve got to know your first slip from your third man, your drive through extra cover from your reverse-sweep to deep backward point. No matter what anyone tells you, silly middle leg is not a cricketing term.

To the uninitiated, the object of the cricket-watcher - watching cricket - can appear a dull waste of time. It takes half the time of an entire Olympic Games to play just one match, a match in which most players spend at least 95% of the time doing nothing.

But it’s in statistics like these that the secret to enjoyment may in fact lie. For even to those with little or no sporting ability, cricket is a treasure trove of facts and figures. (After all, the commentators have to have something to talk about in the 30 seconds it takes a bowler to walk back to the top of their run-up.)

Averages, partnerships, strike rates, run rates, and more records than you can shake a copy of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack at. Years of dedicated study won’t get you across all the trivia. Even my uncle doesn’t know it all, and he’s like the cricket stats version of Rainman.

In fact stats are such a key part of cricket-watching that they have an enormous impact on cricket matches themselves. Individual milestones are often trumpeted over who’s won or lost the game. The difference between scoring 99 and 100 runs is an enormous gulf – just ask young Aussie spinner Ashton Agar, whose agonisingly close 98 on Test debut in July was nearly as great a tragedy as us losing the test by 14 runs.

Still, for a couple of days he had an average rivalling that of the great Don Bradman, whose 99.94 average remains legendary. His failure to score the 4 runs needed in his final innings for a truly astonishing career average of 100, was allegedly due to tears in his eyes from the reception he was given. 

It’s in stories like these that cricket-watching gains its true meaning. At their best, these five day matches are like epic narratives. From the toss, via a gradually-deteriorating pitch at the mercy of the elements, it can be hard to say who’s in front at any given time. A single ball can turn a match on its head. Heroes and villains do battle for the psychological upper hand. Great long-form stories didn’t begin with “Breaking Bad”, but they may just have their origins in “Bat and Ball”.

Cricket’s oldest legend is that of The Ashes, whose latest instalment starts tomorrow. After Australia’s first Test victory on English soil, in 1882 (thanks to a 14-wicket match by Fred “The Demon” Spofforth), obituaries for English cricket appeared in their press. No-one seems to be sure what is actually in the tiny terracotta urn that Australia and England have fought over ever since, but it probably wouldn’t fetch much on Antiques Roadshow.

Of course there’s nothing better than doing your cricket-watching in the flesh – and I don’t mean naked in front of the TV. But in recent years, live cricket-watching technology has changed. These days, a day in the outer involves mid-strength beer in plastic cups. Don’t leave it on the Hot Spot or you will be caught out.

Speaking of which, scoreboards now come complete with replays and decision reviews. That means you can be the fourth umpire – the one who cheers or jeers the third umpire’s decision.

And five-day test matches are far your only option as well. There’s 20/20, a game that lasts just three hours, and is sending traditionalists to wax nostalgic over 50-over one-day matches that they once regarded as a sacrilegious abomination. But the players don’t seem to mind it. Especially those million-dollar Indian Premier League contracts.

The local 20/20 league is known as the Big Bash League, and is for the first time this season appearing on Free-to-air TV (Network Ten no less). As distinct from the state teams that have ordinarily played each other, the BBL teams are named after capital cities, with watchers in Sydney and Melbourne being offered the choice of two teams each, in the hope that intense rivalries will break out, if not riots.

The BBL brings with it boundary fireworks and boomy snatches of hit rock songs to make sure you don’t miss the replay of something happening. Some would say it’s just not cricket – and we can all agree it’s not just cricket.

Perhaps in the future we’ll see the ball catch fire as it’s hit with lightsabers, and we’ll measure scores in explosions and riffs. And when Canberra Killeroos beat the London Ultralions in the first ever 1/6th-1/6th tournament, we can take home The Ash.

But for now, it’s time to switch on the talking Warnie doll, pour a plastic cup of mid-strength and start sledging the Pommy bastards. C’mon Aussie!

As well as being The Project’s writer, Web Producer and cricket tragic, Warwick runs a Media Empire, and occasionally tweets @wokholt.

The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.