The world’s first deep-sea webcam. I can see fish! Via Deep Sea News.
A statistical analysis of England’s batting wrt a lack of big centuries.
Watching Wimbledon, I was thinking about how much the appeal of tennis depends on the scoring system. You have to win games by a two-point margin and sets by a two-game margin, so at the key moments in the match, when it’s tightest, the drama is artificially enhanced: the balance can swing back and forth between the players. But on the other hand, a 40-0 game is worth exactly as much one that goes to deuce and a 6-0 set is worth the same as one that goes to a tie-break. And that means that there is always the chance for the losing player to pull back.
As a thought experiment: the minimum number of point you have to win in a five set match is, if I’ve got my maths right, 72. So what would tennis be like if you scrapped the games and sets, and the winner was the first to 120 points? I assume it would be much less entertaining, as one player would tend to gradually pull out ahead and the match would just peter out.
But what would happen if you altered other sports? Some have made the experiment for us. There are various forms of cricket that use basically the same rules but take different amounts of time to play; the extremes are test cricket (five days) and 20-over cricket (about four hours). The five day game is gradual, attritional; it rewards virtues like concentration, will-power and consistency. The short version is explosive and fast-scoring; it rewards power, flair and risk-taking.* Both versions can produce great drama, but they are quite different to watch.
It gives me the urge to tweak other sports. For example, I don’t know much about ice hockey, but when I have watched it, as a soccer fan, it seems like the ice is just too crowded; there’s not enough time and space for anything to happen. So how would the game change if the rink was four times the size? Hell, let’s do the same with basketball — a much bigger court, perhaps a couple more players on each team.
I’m not suggesting that these innovations would definitely make for a better sport: it’s just a curious thought experiment. Maybe there’s a something waiting to be invented, some simple change to an existing sport that would magically make it much much better: American football with smaller teams, ping-pong with bigger tables, soccer without goalkeepers, indoor polo. Perhaps (probably) these ideas are stupid, but who knows?
If any of these ideas are, unexpectedly, brilliant — well, we’ll never know. There’s the weight of tradition that makes sports fans scream bloody murder at the idea of tinkering with their favourite sport; but also it would often take years to find out if a radical rule-change was, on balance, better or worse. It’s not enough to take existing players, ask them to play to new rules, and see what happens: you need time to see how it develops, for thoughtful people to come up with ideas and try them, for a new style of play to develop. Time for the law of unintended consequences to kick in, but also for people to adapt to to it.
But it’s fun to consider the possibilities, so any suggestions about how to improve your own favourite (or least favourite) sport should be posted in the comments.
* I won’t try to explain why this is true, since I know most of my readers come from non-cricketing nations, and those who know about cricket will understand already. And for those who do know about cricket: yes, this is probably an over-simplification, but hey-ho, it’ll do.
There was a good documentary on last week about the West Indies tour of England in 1976. The tour was notable in part because before it started the South-African born captain of England, Tony Greig, said in an interview
“These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”
The West Indians, not surprisingly, took offence at his phrasing—it doesn’t sound any better for being in a South African accent, either—which gave the series had a bit of an edge to it. Here’s some frankly scary film of Michael Holding bowling to Brian Close. I know most of the people who read this blog probably aren’t really interested in cricket, but if you’re ever going to watch a cricket video, make it this one:
It was also the great heatwave summer in the UK, and a time of distinct racial tension in England anyway, including a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival. They had some great footage filmed in Brixton that year by a young black amateur filmmaker to compliment the film of the cricket and all the talking heads.
It gave me a kind of sweet and sour fake nostalgia. Fake I don’t remember 1976; I was a toddler, and presumably spent most of the summer being uncomfortable because of the heat and making sure my mother knew about it. But there’s nothing like a bit of 1970s sports footage to create a sense of instant retro.
Sweet and sour because, as a documentary about race relations in the UK, it was possible to look at it and feel we’ve come a long way in the right direction. These days no one worries that the Notting Hill Carnival is going to develop into a full blown race riot. But as a documentary about West Indian cricket, it made a sad contrast with the West Indies team currently playing in England.
That team in 1976 thrashed England, with particularly spectacular performances from Holding and Viv Richards; but it was just the start of a period when the West Indies completely dominated world cricket. After Greig’s ‘grovel’ comment, it was 13 years and 19 matches before England managed to beat the West Indies again. And that wasn’t because England were rubbish. Between 1976 and 1996, the West Indies played 39 Test series against all opposition; they won 26, drew 10 and lost just 3.
For a whole generation of people, including me, the West Indies was synonymous with cricket. They were the best and most exciting team in the world. They seemed to have an endless supply of terrifying fast bowlers; towering men whose bowling had a real physical threat to it. Their batsmen were pretty special too. Here’s a little compilation of the great Viv Richards playing against England:
The West Indies team in England this summer produced some good individual performances, but England won the series comfortably without needing to be ruthless or brilliant to do it. It’s not just that they don’t live up to the great teams of the late 70s and 80s; they are really quite bad. Their situation has become so desperate that it’s not even much fun beating them any more. The West Indians on the commentary team, including Sir Viv himself, were simmering with frustration at having to watch it.
It’s not just the falling standards of West Indies cricket that stood out, though. The crowds have changed as well. In the film of the matches in 1976, the crowd is full of black faces—the West Indian population of England turning out in force to support their team. It’s most striking at the Oval, only a couple of miles from Brixton. You can see it in this film of Michael Holding (again), notably in the pitch invasion when he takes Greig’s wicket. Notice, as well, how the heatwave has bleached the grass:
That kind of local support isn’t there any more when the Windies tour in England. And whereas at one stage there were plenty of British West Indians coming up through county cricket and indeed playing for England, apparently they too have largely disappeared. I guess this is a sign of increasing integration; cricket isn’t the most fashionable of sports, and if all the young men from West Indian backgrounds are more interested in playing football, it only puts them in line with their contemporaries. But it does make cricket matches between England and the West Indies just that bit less interesting.
Meanwhile, there are now a lot of players from Asian backgrounds playing county cricket and starting to come through to play for England. And when England play Pakistan in Manchester, the children and grandchildren of Pakistani immigrants come out in numbers, blowing horns and waving flags in support of Pakistan. I guess it’ll be a sign of that their position in Britain has been normalised when they lose interest in cricket. Perhaps the next generation of potential fans will be bored stiff by their fathers’ misty-eyed reminiscences about watching Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Yousuf, and just want to play for Manchester United.
The first international cricket match of the season started on Thursday; the F.A. Cup final is tomorrow. Which must make it the official start of summer.
I was watching the cricket on TV today and of all people, there was Kirsten Dunst, at Lord’s, drinking a cup of tea and watching England’s middle order knocking the West Indies bowling attack all round the park.
Presumably she was there in her capacity as girlfriend of Johnny Razorlight, but you have to wonder what she made of it all. I mean I like cricket and have been watching it for years, and I still find it somewhat slow. Perhaps Johnny filled some time by explaining LBW to her.
The cheerful-looking bloke I’ve edited into the picture above is Dan Lockyer, wicketkeeper for Glasgow University Staff Cricket Club. All I know about him is that Google found him for me when I was looking for wicketkeeper pictures.
All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.
Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.
Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?
It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:
Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.
I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.
Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.
Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”
A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.
The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.
The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.
Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.
Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.
A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.
The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.
And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.