Reading matter

1. Michael Massing, writing in the NY Review of Books, recently drew attention to the paradox afflicting the media business: interest in news is at its greatest, and finances are at the lowest possible ebb. Long story, worth a read if you are into media matters — and while on that, check out a recent Pew Research report that suggests media credibility is the lowest it’s ever been [The full report here]. Here’s the fun bit:

Other studies have found that people tend to seek and agree with facts and articles that supports their views, whilst ignoring or discounting articles that do not. If an article presents viewpoint or set of facts that run counter to your preconceived beliefs, you (and I) are apt to label it “wrong” or “inaccurate.”

2. Marking the death of Norman Borlaug, a comprehensive profile from The Atlantic, and an extensive interview.

3. Discover magazine thinks NASA pulled off a cool party trick when it got mice to levitate. Judging by this New Scientist article on the same subjects, humans will have to wait a while before they can float free. Unless your name is David Copperfield. Or you can access some high quality weed [easier than being DC, and better].

4. Mid life crisis? In the mood for an image makeover? Be my guest.

5. Marking a year after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, Slate’s Daniel Gross suggests that within the country it was catharsis, in the world outside it was catastrophic. The Guardian, elsewhere, suggests that the collapse was due to mixed signals between the US and Britain [what unsubstantiated rot, says Kevin Drum] — so why the heck didn’t the US just up and say what it intended to do, or not do, argues Felix Salmon on Reuters.  In the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein says if the US didn’t intervene to save Lehmann, it unwittingly did the best thing possible. And James Stewart’s mammoth feature on the last days of Lehmann, mentioned in yesterday’s round up with some teaser links, is now up on the New Yorker site — if you are a subscriber. Just printed the thing out for later reading.

6. Startling stat of the day: Japan has a 99 per cent conviction rate. In other words, if you are charged with a crime, wave goodbye?

7. The best lesson in writing that I got was from a NYU professor of journalism, who once gave me a collection of clippings and told me to read them at my leisure, then get back to her. The clippings, which I read late into that night,

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

were all about one single event: the September 25, 1962 World Heavyweight title bout between Floyd Patterson the holder, and Sonny Liston, the upcoming challenger Patterson was being accused of ducking. The fight was at Chicago, and was both a journalist’s dream, and a nightmare. Dream, because there was so much of back story to the title bout; nightmare, because there was so little material to write with: Patterson was notoriously the least articulate of major boxing champions, and Liston thanks to his criminal record and his alleged links with the mob, was paranoid about the press.

Yet there was much hanging on the bout, so the major newspapers sent their best people to cover it, resulting in a Journalists’ All Stars landing up in Chicago: Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer… every big byline of the time, competing with each other in the writing stakes. Oh, did I mention the bout lasted only a minute and a half?

What the prof had given me was a compilation of their writings from Chicago — and it was an incredible eye-opener. You’d think there was just one way to tell this story, but each of them brought a different perspective, to the point where you thought you were reading about twelve different events starring the same protagonists; you would think there was just so much copy that could result from a minute and a half of boxing featuring two close-mouthed fighters, but Norman Mailer produced a riveting 20,000 page essay. The point the prof was making, which she later elaborated on, was that there is always more than one angle to a story, always more than one way of telling a story, and that it is lazy writing to fix on the most obvious storyline rather than explore the other possibilities.

I was reminded of all that just now, while reading this essay on Mailer’s life and works. I’m not able to find, online, his essay on that prize fight, but I found this interesting appreciation of Mailer’s boxing writings in this blog post. And to get a flavor of how he wrote, check out this classic piece from Esquire magazine, The Superman Comes to the Supermarket, Mailer’s take on the rise to prominence of John F Kennedy in course of the Democratic Convention. Bonus for inveterate readers — Esquire’s compilation of the seven best pieces ever published [including the Mailer piece on JFK], in a magazine that back in the day redefined how stories were written.

More as and when I stumble on them.

Cricket clips

Two angst-ridden themes dominate the press today: the future of ODIs, ditto of the West Indies.

Much of the criticism of the one-day format centers around the middle overs where, experts agree, the game slips into stasis. Matthew Hayden has a contrary viewpoint:

But that’s where your main skill sets get shown: containment, ability to be able to play spin, fitness levels, mental stamina, all elements of the one-day game. And then you can time your run-in with the power play as well. If you do break it up, it will make the game even longer because there will be intervals. It is worth considering but there are bigger fish to fry. It’s time for a consolidation of the cricketing calendar.

Certainly, if you want batsmen to dominate the game then break it down, split the game up. But we have already got Twenty20 cricket. What I want to see in a 50-over game are the nuances of those middle overs. Granted, they can be painfully slow and, granted, in a 50-over game you can be on the end of a shellacking and you have to grind out the last few overs, but in any sport you get a bad day at the office.

If, however, you want to see the skill sets of cricketers tested you need to leave the game alone and let them go about their business. It’s not about moving with the times – we’ve got Twenty20 cricket, of which I am a major advocate. It’s key that we have the three formats of the game and I’m certainly not sure that tinkering round with it is the way forward.

Interesting deviation from the norm of current opinion, but I have a question for Haydos: in the days of high-decibel television coverage, does the average fan even care for the nuances the Aussie great holds dear?

As a mind experiment, try following a one day game only through the commentary, without looking at the visuals: you’ll find a remarkable degree of somnolence in those middle overs.

True, there is skill involved in consolidation. True, it is an interesting battle of wits — the fielding side wants to run through the overs of the lesser bowlers without incurring too much damage and, at the same time, rotate in the better bowlers often enough to try and take wickets and hamper the big push at the end. Against that, the batting side wants to maintain a 5+ per over run rate with a minimum of risk, creating a springboard from which to leap towards the huge total in the death overs.

But does any of that permeate the commentary? No. Bored mike-smiths talk of neckties [vide Arun Lal, yesterday], while keeping half an eye out for an edge that goes to the boundary so they can scream about what a fantastic shot it was [Again, Arun Lal yesterday, though he is by no means top of a list that includes the likes of Tony Greig and Jeremy Coney to name just two serial offenders].

Television coverage, which in the early years did much to make the sport exciting, has in more recent times done even more to take the fun out of it — and that is an area no one is looking at. Contrast Haydos’ impassioned defense of the middle overs with the take of a much-awarded sports writer:

The game has been rumbled. The players have worked it out. As a result, now that 50 overs is the standard format for a one-day international, we have a period between the end of the fifteenth over and the start of the 41st in which the batters tip and tap their way on in nudged and nurdled singles that the fielding side are perfectly happy to concede. Meanwhile, the bowlers send down slowed-down seamers or speeded-up spinners, aimed to prevent boundaries and there, by definition, to permit singles.

It’s become a convention, a sort of non-aggression pact, a Christmas truce that lasts for 25 overs. You score at 4.2 an over in this period and try to restrict the opposition to 3.7. You don’t score too fast and we won’t bowl too nastily. As a result, on Saturday England scored 95 runs during the truce period….

As a result of Barnes’s Law, 50-over cricket is now a busted flush. It is a game that has been totally worked out, to the extent that, like billiards, it has become nearly unplayable and all but unwatchable. Well-meaning tinkering — fielding restrictions, the bowling power-play, the batting power-play, the super-sub — fail to disguise the fact that 50-over cricket is obsolete. The players have become too clever, too competent, too conniving.

If that is how a star sports-writer sees the middle overs — unwatchable, obsolete, conniving, a truce where nothing happens –  how then do you expect the fans to catch fire?

On the other — the subject of West Indies cricket — two stories that, in the run up to Champions’, is worth your while. Peter Simmons laments that the game the islands dominated for so long has now turned that same team into an international laughing stock. And Peter Roebuck is even harsher:

Everyone is sick and tired of the West Indians. South Africa ought to withdraw its invitation to take part in the Champion’s Trophy. Let Ireland come instead — at least they want to play. West Indies have been treating cricket badly for years. It’s high time the favour was returned.

The Premadasa cup

How on earth does a ground manage to come up with a record as lopsided as this one? Forget the win-loss statistics — the real eye-opener is this:

  • They went on to amass a big score; in the same duration, the average runs-per-wicket of 30.71 in the first innings at the Premadasa is higher than any other venue in the country that has hosted more than one ODI.
  • They bowled India out cheaply; the Premadasa has the lowest average runs-per-wicket – 20.97 – in the second innings among all venues in that span of time. (Minimum of eight matches at the venue).

That’s a 10 run differential per wicket between the teams batting first and second at this venue — one hundred runs differential per team on average. Such aberrations take cricket out of the realm of skill, and reduce it to the spin of the coin — and when we talk of ODIs losing their attraction and of the need for reform, the topic that rarely if ever comes up is just how much loaded wickets contribute to the boredom.

Grant a lot of things about India’s performance in the final: Sachin Tendulkar turned the clock back — well, almost — with an artistic performance; as many as three top order batsmen played good knocks around the batting mainstay; Harbhajan Singh rediscovered — one hopes not momentarily — the virtues of flight and loop; two part-time bowlers, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, bowled 14 overs between them for 50 runs and two wickets…

If I were doing a conventional match report for Rediff, I suspect I’d at the end of the game have written reams about the triumph of will, about how India shrugged aside the record hammering of Friday and came out with all guns blazing, how when the chips were down the veterans aided by the captain set the game up for the bravura finish and how on the chase, despite bowlers and fielders being hampered by dew, the team helmed by its Captain Cool held its collective nerve to triumph over the invincible home team.

It is an easy narrative to construct. And when I made my living writing cricket, it was the narrative that came fluently, automatically, at the conclusion of a game like this.

And yet.

A truer storyline would be that India in the field did its utmost to lose the game, and was foiled by prevailing conditions.

The fielders — Yusuf Pathan and Virat Kohli in particular — dropped sitters. MS Dhoni uncharacteristically [uncharacteristically not because he is the best keeper currently playing, but because his glove skills have visibly improved since his entry into international cricket, and he is now a 'safe' keeper] missed a relatively simple stumping off Raina.

The overall standard of ground fielding was ordinary at best, creating such confidence in the opposition that batsmen repeatedly ran singles to short positions on the on and off [at one point during the Kadamby-Kapugedara partnership RP Singh, not the most distinguished in the field on the day, was reduced to fury by a fielding effort that converted a tight one into a cruise for two, with the batsmen even contemplating the possibility of a tight third].

It wasn’t a Cup-winning performance by any yardstick — and yet, despite an in-form Sri Lankan batting lineup that goes way down deep, India won with ease — and for that you have to give the Player of the Match award to the Premadasa curator, who more than any of the 22 players on the field exerted the utmost influence on the outcome.

Hey, India won without its two influential openers [and what I'd have given for the sight of Viru Sehwag in prime form on this track] and its most influential seam bowler, while coming off a layoff — so, glory be. But it is hard to avoid the thought that if the team is to do significantly well in the upcoming Champions’ Trophy, it needs an extended session in the dry docks of a training camp, where the support staff can go to work scraping off the inch-thick rust and getting lethargic arms and legs — and minds — moving again.

In passing, am I the only one who thinks the Sri Lankan bowling card was anomalous, and uncharacteristic of Kumar Sangakkara’s usually assured leadership? Thilan Thushara looked ordinary — and that is being kind — at the start, and yet he got to finish his quota while Nuwan Kulasekhara, who held a good line throughout, bowled two short. Even more inexplicably, Angelo Mathews bowled a mere three overs of tidy seam before being banished into some dark hole in the ground.