NDQuesday: On Cricket and Basketball and the Future

I have this idea, it’s not a good idea, but it’s an idea nonetheless to put together an essay the NBA and cricket that brings together some of my research on the Bakken Oil Patch, on the age of austerity, and my interest in these sports. In my fantasy world, I imagine this as a penetrating essay in this fall’s volume of North Dakota Quarterly. In reality, these ideas are probably best left shoved deep down in the ole “idea box.”

On Cricket and Basketball and the Future 

I’ve been watching a good bit of cricket and the NBA lately. Most people tend to see the former as slow-paced, obscure, and unapologetically aristocratic and the latter as up-tempo, almost jarringly athletic, and deeply rooted in American urban experience.

Of course, these simplifications do not hold up to even superficial scrutiny. With countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan playing cricket at the highest level, it is hard to continue to associate the sport with a genteel aristocracy (to say nothing of the explosive play that characterized West Indian cricket and the recent rise in short-form T20 cricket). The NBA is now, more than ever, a global league with superstars hailing from Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia as well as across the U.S. In short, both sports are global in scope and whatever their historical roots, the significance of the game is now translated into numerous local idioms. 

What has intrigued me lately is that the NBA is undergoing some pretty significant changes in how it is played. When I started paying close attention to basketball in the 1980s, there were clearly defined positions that, with some variation, had clearly defined roles. Centers rebounded and scored in the low post, power forwards did likewise, but often had a bit more athleticism and range. Small forward and shooting guards were typically assertive scorers whose main distinction was range and size. Shoot guards tend to be smaller and more accomplished shooters and small forwards more athletic and slashing with a bit more size and defensive acumen. Point guards distributed the ball and generally had defensive responsibilities around the perimeter.

In the last 5 years, all this has changed. Point guards have become scorers; power forward and centers without outside shots have become one-dimensional role players; small forwards and shooting guards have become so interchangeable that teams generally play three guards without distinguishing. My team, the Philadelphia 76ers, has a 6-10 point guard, Ben Simmons, who can switch to playing power foward, small forward, or even center. In short, the idea of positions has broken down in the NBA and as a result, the game on a play-by-play basis has become a bit more chaotic, less predictable, and, for lack of a better word, elastic with the dominant tactic on any possession, to simplify greatly, to stretch a player to the absolute limits of their comfort zone. 

Cricket has always been a game where positions, particularly in the field, are fluid. Unlike baseball, it’s closest relative, there are only two defined positions in Test match cricket (which is the 5-day form of the game): a bowler, who pitches the ball, and a wicket keeper, who stands like a baseball catcher behind the wicket. Early in the history of the game, fielders were limited to one side of the field, and in shorter form of the game, there are some limits on how fielders can be arranged, but this never created designated positions for players. In fact, any player can play any position. I recall, for example, the great Indian wicket keeper M.S. Dhoni, taking off his wicketkeeping pads and bowling in a Test match in England and nearly getting out the great English batsman Kevin Peterson

I’ve always assumed that this relative fluidity in positions in cricket harkened back to its pre-industrial roots. Absent is evidence for the kind of specialization found on the assembly line (or in industrialized sports like football). In fact, the absence of industrial specialization of the players is also reflected in its leisurely pace stretching over five days in the purist form of the game and stretching the weekend to include Thursday, Friday, and Monday as well. In fact, what is curious from the history of cricket is that prior to the 1930s, timeless test matches were not uncommon meaning that teams would simply play until one side got the other side out in the second innings. It was shipping schedules, in particular, that doomed the timeless test as a number of the games were brought to a premature conclusion because one team had to depart home. Timed tests introduced the draw where neither side could declare victory and historically over a third of all tests have ended that way. Even today, a drawn test can be revetting viewing as one team eagerly pursues victory and another endeavors not to lose. I’d argue that draws remains consistent with pre-industrial practices because it separates playing the game from the need to produce a winner.  

Recent trends away from specialized position players in the NBA might seem like a revival of an older, perhaps even pre-industrial, style of play, but I wonder whether the convergence of a less specialized NBA and a historically less specialized cricket actually reflects key trends in the globalization of sport (and in global economics). First, as innumerable critics have observed our world is accelerating and the economic and technological realities of this rapidly changing world mitigate against any specialization that occurs at the expense of adaptability. Of course, this may have always been the case on the assembly line where management expected a worker to perform with highly efficient familiarity at his or her post, but the worker also knew that the assembly line was always being tweaked and updated requiring a kind adaptability in both the workforce as a whole and the individual worker. At the same time, the 21st century economy, defined by precarity and the radical deskilling of workers demands both efficiency and flexibility in way that makes developing all but the rarest forms of specialization undesirable. As we tell our students, we’re training you for jobs that do not exist yet.

Second, the breakdown in the trajectory of modernity and, its related logic of assembly line, occurs with globalization. Cricket has always been a global game, initially mediated by the scope of the British Commonwealth, but now articulated largely along national lines. The style of play, conditions, and traditions remain local, however, demonstrating the kind of hybridity that thinkers like Homi Bhabha have articulated as characteristic of the postcolonial condition. The result is a delicate tension between the tendency to demand specialized “horses for courses” who can play in certain conditions (e.g. on the dry pitches of the sub continent or in England’s fickle summers) and the desire to maintain a side that can triumph with equal proficiency at home and abroad.   

The globalization of the NBA lacks the keen attention to the local that persists in cricket, but is no less hybridized. The breakdown of specialization, for example, in the power forward and center position can be traced, in part, to the arrival of big men like Arvydas Sabonis and later Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Bazinga with skills honed in Europe and with the ability to both post up and play facing the basket at the perimeter. Today, of course, this is not limited to European imports, but a fairly common aspect of many big mens’ games. Hybridization eroded specialization as the basic logic of the game in one place encounters counter logic from elsewhere.    

In this context, cricket and the NBA both manifest the tensions of globalization that disrupt the neat linearity of modern progress. The skills involved in cricket evoke craft in their disregard for specialized efficiencies born of the assembly line. The archaic characteristics of the game has tempted me to call it pre-industrial. At the same time, the same features in the NBA appear to evoke the contingent dynamism present in a globalized modern economy and this tempts me to label them post-industrial. It may well be that the convergence of cricket and the NBA do not represent points on the modern continuum of progress at all. At their best, they may be places of protest where the economic logic of culture is rebuffed by the logic of practice. At their worst, the lack of specialization in these sports might reflect the global logic of precarity where the risk associated with valuing specialization is increasingly offset by a deskilled workforce that are as valuable as they are disposable.    

 

 

 

Anachronistic Books, Cricket, and Whisky

Book people are a funny bunch (and I count myself among them). I spend a good bit of time thinking about books, publishing and designing books, teaching from books, and sometimes even writing books.

There is nothing more fun than someone pointing me in the direction of a cool new book or an overlooked old one. Well designed books like those published by MIT Press genuinely excite me and make the reading experience more pleasurable and increase my willingness to be immersed in a book. I still think about the brilliant design of Manuel Herz (ed), From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of Western Sahara (Lars Müller 2013), for example, or the clever layout of Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margins (MIT 2016). My interest in the art and design sensibilities of producing an attractive and engaging page is one of the main reasons that I continue to work in the PDF format at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.  

Every year at Christmas, my wife gets me a copy of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Published every year since 1864, the Wisden is by an measure a quirky book. First, it runs to over 1500 onion-skin pages pages, which include articles on major matches and figures in the sport, descriptions of the various tours and domestic leagues, and their longstanding tradition of naming several Cricketers of the Year. 

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They also include the boxscores for all the international matches of the previous year and all the first-class English domestic matches.

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In other words, they include data, but not just data on each match, historical data as well both for each country and for various tournaments or series. For example, below is the list of record partnerships in the England-Australia test series colloquially known as the Ashes.

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Of course, since the book is published in the spring, before the Northern hemisphere’s cricket season, and I receive mine in the winter, amid the Southern hemisphere’s cricketing season, the statistics are usually already out of date. Moreover, it’s easier albeit less fun to get up-to-date cricket stats from, say, ESPN’s Cricinfo, although these statistics tend to be a little less granular than those in the Wisden (and Wisden now makes their own database available online). On the other hand, it is usually far more convenient to use an online database than it is to flip through Wisden.

Every other year, I get a copy of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Like the Wisden, the Whisky Bible is idiosyncratic and quirky book. It consists of renown whisky critic, Jim Murray’s rankings of thousands of whiskies from around the world. Each review, which rarely runs to more than 100 words, reads like a little prose poem in its elegant description of the scent, taste, and effect of each whisky.

Murray and I don’t always agree on the rating, but his little reviews are a joy to read and while they often coincide with my impressions, they also have helped me describe the complex flavors of various whiskies in different ways. The creepy cover is just an added bonus.

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They layout of the book is complicated, of course, with myriad categories representing the place of distillation, the type of whisky, and the age and bottling, and the name of the distiller. Like the Wisden, basic information of whiskies and reviews are just as easily found online. Moreover, the book itself is densely printed with little room for margin notes or other annotations.

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The quirkiness of both Wisden and the Whisky Bible represent part of their charm. These books are not useful in a conventional sense. They do contain information and a certain basic functionality, but in practice, they are more counter-design studies that anachronistically evoke an era where books were the best source of complex data sets. There is something palpably cool about that. 

Curation and Mediation at the 2013 Arts and Culture Conference at the University of North Dakota

I’m pretty excited about this week’s Arts and Culture Conference. Its theme is Cultures of Curation (and features a super snazzy poster). Archaeologists (and historians) love curation. In fact, one could argue that archaeology is primarily a discipline of curation. We not only spend significant time fussing with publications, but we also are obsessed with the archival aspects of our work. This extends from how we plan to conserve and present the physical artifacts themselves to our interest in the distribution and archiving digital artifacts.

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And, yes, that is a sexy poster design by Joel Jonientz.

Curation is a hot topic these days (as this Ngram view shows):

Google Ngram Viewer

So, to get myself in the spirit, I thought I’d offer up three things that I want to think about at this week’s festivities.

1. Curation as Mediation. One of the most interesting aspects of curation in archaeology is how much it involves the archaeologist moving objects from one system (or context) to the next. This shift from one system to the next serves to make the objects of archaeological study accessible to different kinds of questions. In other words, an object located on the floor of a collapsed building has a different meaning than one on a museum shelf. In its “archaeological context” the object can speak to it use during the lifetime of the building, the history of building, and the formation processes that contributed to presence of the object on the floor.

The act of curating prioritizes some aspect of the object’s context – whether it be the object’s form, the object’s context, or the standing of the object as an example for a larger process – and recontextualizes it according to this value. The curator translates the objects from one context to the next (in both the Latin meaning of carrying across and the Medieval context of moving a sacred object from one site to the next). Curation, then, is the act of mediation as it emphasized the middle zone between one context and the next and how this unstable middle zone both imparts meaning and captures the inherent instability of meaning.

2. Curation and the Dynamic Archive. In my thinking about curation, I tend to think of it in the context of the object. I know, though, that the days of stable objects subjected to mediating influences are behind us. New digital objects are unstable, constitute and reconstitute themselves at the demand of the curator, the researcher, the querier, or the audience. The spirit of the linked-data movement see databases, for example, as entities that stretch extend beyond single creators, datasets, and users, and reconstitute themselves constantly and new data constructs new relationships.

In keeping with the idea of the curator as a mediator, curation become a decentralized practice the curator focuses on relationships rather than objects in a traditional sense. The managing of relationships within curatorial systems allows for decentralized collections to emerge and to constantly produce new contexts for existing material.

The most obvious example of this is a site like Wikipedia which houses perhaps the single largest collection of linked data in the world. The line between curator and contributor is blurred completely, and the links between entries and between the entries and other large datasets on the web (most notably spatial datasets) ensures that the structure of Wikipedia data is a significant as the actual data present in the entries.

3. Curation and the Web. As innumerable web-pundits have argued, the web is the single greatest curatorial enterprise (perhaps) in human history. Social media, blogs, wikis, and the like provide a constant space for individuals to assemble, collect, and mark web content for secondary consumption. With the massive expansion of Facebook and Twitter the web has continued the process of democratizing the culture of curation. Each individual curates a dynamic museum of content and shares it with a complex network of friends, followers, and readers. 

With this new environment for curation, the curator becomes both more secondary to the act of curation (we’re all curators, after all) and more individualized as the standards of curation drift across the varying tastes and practices of millions of users in the web. So the title of this year’s conference “cultures of curation” is particularly apt way to describe the practice of curation on the web. Culture perhaps best describes the distributive practices of curation in the 21st century. 

UPDATE:

Just for fun, I ran a Google Ngram on the words “curate” and “curator”. Curator is in red and curate is in blue. Both show a slight uptick in frequency over the past decade, but nothing like the dramatic ramping up that the word curations demonstrates.

Google Ngram Viewer 3

My temptation is to argue that the verb “to curate” and the individual, “the curator”, fail to capture the decentralized context of curation in the digital age. Curation remains a strong and persistent interest, but curating and curators are actions and agents of an earlier age.  

Something on the Ashes and Something on Audio

I almost overslept this morning after an almost four and a half hour Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks last night. I did managed to drag myself out of bed to watch the Ashes at Lords. After all, if the Queen herself could make it, then I could make it.

BoysofSummer

First, the Ashes.

Todays post will be influenced by the early hour and the need to keep one eye on the Ashes, but I wanted to opine on a situation from the first Ashes test. On the third day at Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad edged Ashton Agar to Brad Haddin. It wasn’t just a little niggling edge, it was a thick edge. The umpire missed it and Australia had used up their reviews so Broad’s innings with the bat continued. 

The commentators discussed at length whether Broad should have walked (that is, acknowledge that he was out even if the umpire got it wrong), and most felt like Broad did the right thing and the umpires were there to decide who was in and who was out and in this case they got it wrong. I’m not so sure about this reasoning. I would think that edging the ball – especially a thick edge like Broad’s – is one of the few times that the player was in a position to know whether he was out better than the umpire. Another such time is when a player makes (or misses) a catch. When Dinesh Ramdan faked a catch in the Champions Trophy earlier this summer and was caught on camera doing it, it received a substantial fine and a two match ban. While Broad’s sin was one of omission – he failed to tell the umpire that he had edged the ball – and Ramdan’s was a sin of commission – he blatantly faked a catch, the latter has to be the product of the same commentator logic. If the umpires are there to judge who is out and who is not, then one should do everything necessary to stay in or to convince the umpire that a player is out. If there is an “absolute” in or out that exists outside of the umpire’s decision, then Broad should have walked.

I can accept, of course, that sometimes a player genuinely does not know whether he’s edged the ball or not. For example, Michael Clarke on the fourth day edged the ball, but nevertheless called for a review when the umpire gave him out. While Clarke has taken some heat during the first test for his use of reviews (the so-called Decisions Review System), it seems unlikely that he’d call for a review if he knew he was out. Broad, in contrast, knew he edged the ball and should have walked. 

And some audio

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been dabbling with introducing some of my interest in music to this blog here (and here and here). I promise that I won’t begin telling you what I had for breakfast or about the antics of my cat. 

On the other hand, I was pretty pleased to have contributed to one of my favorite audiophile blogs this week: Confessions of a Parttime Audiophile. Everyone should click through to this site to read my post and to show the editor/publisher, Scot Hull, that I can bring page views to keep his sponsors happy. It’s been very interesting watching him develop the site from a single author blog to more of an online magazine. I’d pretty pleased to do my part, but hope that he can maintain the personal, practical, “lifestyle” tone of the blog even as it gets more contributors.

PTAudiophile

The Ashes

I’m taking today off from blogging because I’m hunkered down in front of the TV watching the Ashes. The Ashes, as many of my readers probably know, is the regular series of test matches between Australia and England. It’s named after the tiny urn that goes to the victors. Right now, England has the urn, and Australia has gone to England to try to get it back.

The teams are ranked 3rd and 4th in the world and smart money has England winning the series, but both sides are vulnerable in some way. 

Bear

Over the past decade, I’ve really come to like cricket. I might be obsessed. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Cricket is Simple. The basic rules of cricket are exceedingly simple. You have a bowler who tries to get a batter out by either knocking a pair of bails of three wooden stumps or causing the batter to put the ball in the air so that a fielder can catch it. The only really important rule that comes regularly into play is that you can’t block a ball from striking the wicket with your legs. 

The batter has to both protect his wicket (this is the stumps and the bails) from being hit by the bowler and to score runs by putting the ball into play and running to another wicket which stands opposite.

England chose to bat first this morning, and now it is Australia’s job to get all 11 England bats out.  Then Australia will have a go with the bat and England will try to get them out. Once that happens, England will have another chance, and Australia will follow. All this has to be completed in 5 days. To win a team has to score more runs and get the other side all out twice. If they don’t get the other side out, but score more runs, the match is a draw.

2. Cricket is Pre-Modern. I’m an academic historian and, as I have mentioned here in the past, academia is one of the last bastions of pre-modern work cycle where our pursuits are often better described as crafts than professions. Cricket is pre-modern in that a day of play stretches over close to 8 hours and makes no concessions for day of the week. The rhythm of play can be breathtakingly fast, but it can also creep along holding our modern attention spans in utter distain. Also, it is outdoors, played in natural light, and full of traditions maintained for the sake of tradition. 

My well-meaning colleagues often refer to cricket as boring, but that’s only because we’ve become so accustomed as rapid-fire, blurs of sports where constant action holds fast to our digitally-atrophed attention span. Cricket – particularly Test Cricket – requires patience, rewards attention to details that mark the ebbs and flows of the contest, and provides an oasis from the constant demands of modern life.

3. Cricket is Global. I’ve blogged on this before, but cricket is a truly global sport. While it originated in the colonial encounter – spreading throughout British Empire – the rise of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies over the course of the 20th century ensured that the game quickly became hybridized. In fact, cricket may be the game of the 21st century (even more so than Formula 1 or football/soccer which remains largely anchored in Europe and nourished by European capital – although this is clearly changing as money from Persian Gulf has fortified European leagues) as the India, in particular, has come to increasingly influence the shape of cricket on a global scale. Massively capitalized tournaments like the India Premier League (which features the shortest form of the game) has pushed international cricket to adapt their schedules and shift priorities. I am not much of a fan of the short form of the game, I can think of few other sports where the likes of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, can genuinely influence the global structure of the game.  

Moreover, cricket is a sport of immigrants in the UK, South Africa, and Australia where players with names like Nasser Hussain and Hashim Amla became stars and a 19 year old of Sri Lankan descent, Ashton Agar, earned his first cap this morning for Australia. Cricket reflects the shifting centers of global power and show how sport is place where new forms of culture are negotiated even as the importance of tradition remain intact.

I’ll concede that cricket is not for everyone, but for those of us in academia where the slow grind of simple tasks repeated meticulously, drenched in tradition, and ringed with innovation and perspective, there is something special and distinct about the sport. So, if you get a chance, head over to Cricinfo and check out the coverage of The Ashes this week (or anytime really in the next month and a half), revel in the simplicity of the Laws of Cricket, be amused by the bizarre language of cricket jargon, and ponder tensions between the simplicity of the action and the bewildering array of fielding positions.

Some Cricket Archaeology

For Christmas my wife got me a set of vintage cricket stumps. While she discovered these in Brisbane, Australia (owned by a member of the Queensland Cricketers’ Club), they have a known provenience to near Surrey, England and date to the first decade and a half of the 20th century (if not a bit earlier). Apparently the stumps are made of hickory. They are regulation height (28 inches) and diameter (1 3/8). They flair out slightly toward the base.

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They each have a brass cap on the top of the stump protecting the slot where the bails sat and providing a surface for them to be driven into the ground. A small brass pin secured each cap, but on this set only one pin remains. The brass caps show signs of regular pounding and the distortion of the caps matches the distortion of the hard wood at the top of the stump suggesting that these caps and stumps had been together for significant use.

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The bottom of the stumps are a bit unusual in my limited knowledge. There is no evidence that they had brass tips on them to protect the end of the stumps from moisture or other damage when they were driven into the ground. There is no evidence for pins on other clamps. In contrast to the relatively elegant flaring of the shafts, the tips look pretty crude and irregular There might even be a bit of evidence for retouching of the points.

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StumpTips2

Also curious was a series of semi-circular burn or clamp(?) marks on the shafts of the stumps. They are visible on the bottom stump in the first photograph and below. My working hypothesis are that these are marks made by a mallet or hammer used to remove the stump from the ground at the end of play, but perhaps someone has a better idea. 

StumpMarks

A brief surf of the interwebs has made it pretty clear that there is not a huge amount of information available about vintage cricket equipment so any additional information on these artifacts would be much appreciated.

Archaeology and Cricket

I spent the last few weeks watching – here and there – the Cricket T20 Worlds. This is the tournament for the shortest form of cricket where each side is limited to 20 overs. The team from the West Indies defeated the hosts, Sri Lanka, yesterday morning. As the West Indian side danced Gangnam style to celebrate their dramatic win, I got to think about hybridity and the post or, even, trans national moment that we find ourselves living through.

As I (and undoubtedly others) have argued that cricket is a paradigmatically hybrid game. As a sport, cricket expanded and developed along colonial lines as all of the most serious cricket nations were former members of the British Empire, and as a result, it has a distinctly post-colonial complexion with the style of play and individuals from the former colonies influencing the metropole as much as the metropole has influenced colonial practice. The popularity of cricket in south Asia where some of the most penetrating critiques of post-colonial nationalism have emerged (e.g. Chakrabarty, Bhabha, Spivak, et al.) only make the point more obvious.

So it is no surprise that the final four teams in this week’s tournament – Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan, and Australia – all have their unique histories as both cricket playing sides and as national or post-national entities. For example, the West Indies has a “national” anthem even though it is a team that represents players from around the Caribbean. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have both had recent and persistent issues surrounding their sovereignty and political and ethnic divisions. In the broader tournament almost every team bears the marks of contested or negotiated nationalism:  sides like England which featured South African players, a competitive team from Afghanistan – the quintessential post-national state – and, the South Africa team which continues to see sport as an important place to manifestat the re-imagined nation.

In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided cricket forms an intriguing lens for considering the same post-national critiques which have become embedded in recent debates in  archaeology. The appropriation of cultural forms at the so-called periphery that were so recently valued by the traditional center manifests the hybrid character of objects in post and transnational discourses. The desire of the Turkish state for the return of objects removed from Asia Minor during Ottoman times makes clear that significance of hybridized meanings to process of nation building. The hybridized objects that emerge as cultural currency in debates over the repatriation involves both challenging the ascribed value of objects at the center and the projection of the nation through time. Artifacts associated with antiquity in Asia Minor mean a different thing to the Turkish state than they do to international museums who include these objects in their collections, but both sides do understand the other side’s perspective as both independent from and deeply embedded within their own. 

Cricket, Gangnam style, and archaeology represent the trade in artifacts whose meaning derives from very particular cultural circumstances. The building of nations and identities in our globalized world involves the intentional and systematic misrecognition of these cultural objects.

Postcolonialism and Cricket on ESPN

A rare Saturday post. I woke this morning to see an image from the Cricket World Cup on the main page of ESPN’s website.  In other words, cricket graced the webpage on opening weekend of baseball and on the day of the Final Four showdown in College Basketball.

In case you don’t believe me:

CricketonESPN

Cricket is the quintessential postcolonial sport. The World Cup Final is Sri Lanka versus India, and just over a billion people really, really, really care who wins.

You can read Homi Bhabha, scrutinize Said, ponder Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak’s Postcolonial Reason, or spend a week or so watching cricket