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Sports Beach Books – 2016 Edition

For the last two years, I have written blog posts recommending some sports-centric books suitable for beach-reading. That is to say, these books need to a) be somehow about sport, and b) need to be substantive – but not weighty (perhaps both in tone and tome, as it were). Though we are a few weeks into summer at this point, there are probably a few weeks left of beach time (at least for us in the northern hemisphere) and a chance to catch up on some summer reading. I will also point out that these are simply some of my recommendations – the excellent Sports Biblio website is a treasure trove for sports lit, and is certainly far more in-depth and complete that my meagre offering here. Finding a theme for this years list, I’d venture to place my recommendations into two categories – deeply bucolic and idyllic, and nostalgic in, perhaps, the most romantic and bittersweet way. Enjoy!

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – Larwrence Booth (ed.)

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Few things signal the beginnings of summer more for me than the publication of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Though the physical almanack is, perhaps, a little unsuitable for beach-reading per se, the “Shorter” Wisden – available for e-readers – includes all of the best written components of the Almanack without the many scorecards from county games and the like (though, personally, I download the shorter version for my Kindle and order the physical copy for my library). Wisden is perhaps most famous for its “Five Cricketers of the Year,” each year offers many original insights about the state of the game (2016’s version includes discussions ranging from the history of cricketing celebrations to exploring why there aren’t more British-Asians in first-class cricket), while the review section includes all of the annual round-ups of cricket miscellany: from cricket books and film to cricket on social media to the market for cricket memorabilia. There is also a wonderful obituary section which includes often moving write-ups of first-class cricketers and administrators great and small, the recaps of England’s international team, the domestic leagues, and cricket around the world. Every summer, I piece through Wisden – reading bits here and there – and it never fails to make me dream of perfect summer days at some county ground.

Sweet Summers – JM Kilburn

 

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“Cricket is of us, as the very breath in our lungs, makes poets of the incoherent and artists of the artisans. Not one of us that takes a bat or bowls a ball or watches a game but gives and receives a precious heritage.” So says JM Kilburn, longtime cricket correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, in this collection of his best cricket writing. Though Wisden is steeped in heritage, it is very much focused on the game as it is now. This collection, on the other hand, reveals a past where cricket – particularly at the county level – was truly important, and poetic, and a goodly heritage. Kilburn’s writing is idyllic and bucolic and wonderful in all of the ways that sentimental writing ought to be, with the added component that it is never saccharine and always done with the greatest affection. I find myself reading and re-reading sections of this book often, particularly when I find that life has gotten in the way of perfect leisure, and it reminds me of what once was, and could be again.

Not by a Long Shot – T.D. Thornton

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With apologies to boxing, few sports have seen such a vast decline in popularity – at least in the United States – as horse racing has in the past 80 years. That decline – and, perhaps, the romance that goes along with a sport that is still deeply loved by a few hardcore and dedicated stalwarts – is the focus of Thornton’s book about the (now closed) Suffolk Downs track in Boston. In equal parts autopsy and love letter, Thornton explains the decline of the sport while still demonstrating vast admiration for those places and people that keep it going.

Up, Up, and Away – Jonah Keri

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The Montreal Expos seem like a strange topic for such an engrossing book that is both autoethnography (Keri was a die-hard Expos fan) and history, but Keri does a remarkable job of weaving personal narrative, historical narratives, and interview material together to discuss the rise and fall of Canada’s first Major League Baseball team. Though the Expos left Montreal in 2004, there is a growing movement to expand or relocate to the city again. Given what Keri describes in this book, Expos 2.0 will have a long ways to go to live up to the drama, personalities, and fun of their predecessors.

Gambling as Sport Heritage

The Super Bowl, arguably the biggest betting day in the US, is a little over a week away. Casinos and on-line sports books are famous for taking all kinds of strange bets, called “props”, during the Superbowl – from how long the National Anthem will take to the outcome of the coin flip. Needless to say, betting is as much a part of the Super Bowl experience as the funny commercials, beer, and snacks.

But, can we consider gambling as sport heritage, and do many sport-based museums and halls of fame discuss gambling as part of sport?

Of course, as long as there’s been sport, there has been gambling on sport. Indeed, many sports – like cricket – were codified in large part because of gambling. Some of sports biggest and most notable moments – such as the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball – are integral in discussing and interpreting the sporting past.

But, do sports museums discuss gambling as part of their past, or indeed their present? And, should a discussion of gambling – either as in historical or contemporary terms – be part of more sports museums?

The Mob Museum in Las Vegas held an event last year about sports gambling – though, of course, this museum is not sport-based and many of its exhibits are about about gambling. It appears that both the National Horse Racing Museum and Kentucky Derby Museum make mention of gambling, though I don’t believe there’s the equivalent of a gambling simulator at either site. Online museums, like the National Pastime Museum, discuss famous gambling and match-fixing events in baseball. Of course, there may be other examples from sport heritage sites but, seemingly, sports gambling is largely ignored within sport heritage.

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In the wake of so many recent gambling issues – in tennis, cricket, soccer, and basketball among others – should sports museums be more proactive in discussing sports gambling, both past and present? Certainly, gambling plays a central role in the history of many sports – shouldn’t sports museums and halls of fame represent these pasts? Similarly, the fact that many sports leagues embrace sports gambling as part of the contemporary sport consumption experience – particularly through fantasy sports – shouldn’t museums play a role in discussing both the positives and negatives of sports gaming? Of course, many sports museums and halls of fame don’t want to touch topics like gambling with a ten-foot pole, but others might find that by discussing gambling at their sites they not only present a more holistic view of the sporting past, they also become part of the contemporary conversations about the role of gambling in sport.

The Sport Heritage Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us and, if you have someone in your life with an interest in sport heritage, gift buying can be difficult and quite expensive.  Of course, there are many gift options in terms of memorabilia, autographs, and the like – though, often times, these can be costly and sometimes difficult to obtain depending on the item. Other sport heritage-related gifts – such as attending a fantasy camp or an historic event like the Masters golf tournament or Wimbledon – can be equally expensive and inaccessible to all but a wealthy few.

Not to fear, however, as we have some gift suggestions for the sport heritage person in your life to suit both your budget and their interests!

Art

Though there are many options in the art/sport heritage landscape, the work of Paine Proffitt is particularly notable. I first encountered his work in the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium back in 2007 when on a research project, and I was thrilled to see that he is still producing magnificent artwork. Although much of his current work is based in English football, as an ex-pat American he also covers North American sports such as baseball and ice hockey. Visit his website at www.painproffitt.com – you’ll be pleased you did.

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(Some examples of Paine Proffitt‘s outstanding artwork.)

Apparel 

Retro and throwback sports jerseys and apparel are fairly common now, but weren’t always so. Several companies – most notably Ebbets Field Flannels and the Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company (or TOFFS) – now produce sports apparel from bygone eras, or from long forgotten teams, often in era-specific fabric (I have a replica 1950s canvas football jersey from TOFFS). I was amazed at some of the replica items of truly quirky teams and eras that these companies reproduce. For example, Ebbets Field Flannels, though mainly reproducing baseball apparel from various minor league teams from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, produced a replica jersey from the Edmonton Flyers – a  semi-pro hockey team that most people in my hometown of Edmonton had probably long forgotten existed. Much like Paine Proffitt’s artwork, people interested in throwback sports apparel would have a field day looking at all of the reproduction items available.

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Books and other reading material 

There are many, many, many sport history books released during the holiday season, as books are an easy fall-back as gifts. Of course, there are also several academic sport heritage books as well, some of which were covered in a previous post. However, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the holiday season is the best time to dream about the spring and summer to come. Few things are more enjoyable to think about during the cold winter months than a perfect day at the cricket ground and, for that, Wisden is your spot. This time of year, there are many cricket books on sale at Wisden – not the least of which is the famous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Memberships

Memberships to sports museums, halls of fame, and sports clubs make some of the best gifts. Even if the recipient is not living near the museum or club, it provides an opportunity to both provide support as well as give a sense of being a part of the organization. Most museums and halls of fame provide various levels of membership – including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – while some sports clubs have memberships for patrons living away or abroad, such as Kent Cricket’s affordable “13th Man” club membership.

Donations

For the sport heritage aficionado who has it all, donations to organizations involved in the preservation and interpretation of sporting heritage make wonderful gifts. The International Sports Heritage Association has a list of member organizations – perhaps find one in a local area and provide a one-time or on-going donation as a gift. Another possibility are donations to organizations – such as the excellent Sporting Memories Network – that use the sporting past to tackle major health issues such as dementia and depression.

Empathy and Sport Heritage

One of the aspects which, I believe, separates sport heritage from other forms and types of heritage is that it is often corporal in nature.  That is to say, sport heritage requires us to continue to play and to watch sport in order to both compare with the past and to create more sport heritage for the future.  It must continually be made and remade through play, performance, and spectacle. No heritage building is more “dead” than an empty, abandoned stadium.

Perhaps because of the sensual and emotional nature of sport, we can understand and empathize with the sportsperson.  Even though most of us have never played at elite levels, or maybe not have played at all, we can still understand something of what it is like to taste victory and defeat.  In Sweet Summers, the collection of JM Kilburn’s cricket writing, the excerpt below perhaps best describes the empathetic connections between all those who have played:

Every boy who has defended a lamp-post wicket is in blood brotherhood with Bradman, and knows Hobbs or or Sutcliffe as himself…every man who has by reflex action or conscious effort flicked a boundary past point knows a thrill of intense physical delight when he sees Woolley bat.

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(“The Don” – Don Bradman. Do all who’ve played share a connection to him?)

In many ways, this goes beyond simple childhood imagination and flights of fancy, and rather an understanding of what it’s like to be a sportsperson. When I was an ice hockey goaltender in my youth, for example, it wasn’t that I was prentending to be Grant Fuhr or John Vanbiesbrouck or Ron Hextall when I played, but rather that I knew – like them – what it was like to make a fantastic save or let in a bad goal. We shared an emotional connection that only we, as goaltenders, could understand.

Perhaps our ability for empathy – or, perhaps, our desire to feel empathy for the sportsperson – makes certain sport heritage experiences both desirable and memorable.  One of my earliest memories of being at a sports museum was at the ski jump simulator at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Canada.  Using a point-of view immersive film screen, hydraulics, and several industrial-sized fans, the simulator gave me a taste of what it might be like to ski-jump, and provided me a level of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t have been possible by simply looking at the ski jump tower.  Of course, it was also a mediated form of authenticity – I could “ski jump” without actually ski jumping.  However, I never forgot that experience, nor could I ever forget the sensations and emotions it created.  It is also top of mind every time I watch ski jumping at the Olympics, knowing something of what each skier must be feeling.

Naturally, the ability to experience something of the athlete, particularly in a unique and historic place, is also one of the features that sets sport heritage apart. It can also be a way for visitors to create connections – such as fandom and support – with particular athletes, teams, and sports. Of course, all heritage sites – to some degree – use empathy by, for example, comparing our lives to those of our ancestors.  However, these are more cerebral connections; they are not immediate and current in the same ways that sport is, and perhaps not as sensually felt.  We often don’t think about empathy as a topic in heritage, and it seems that sport heritage might be a good vehicle for exploring it.

Of Time and Timelessness

It has become somewhat of a gospel truth that, in order to appeal to sports fans these days, games have to be (among other things) relatively quick.  That is not to say that the sports must be speedy in terms of the run of play itself – though, of course, this helps – but rather that a match cannot last an interminable length of time.  Get the game over with, and in under two and a half hours if possible.

Of course, there are massive – and massively successful – exceptions to this rule.  American football – be it NCAA college football or the professional National Football League – is far and away the most popular sport in the United States, and many matches can take upwards of four hours.  If one is actually attending a game, the commitment of time is much greater.  And, given that both college and professional football in the US normally involve a significant social component – tailgate parties (or tailgating) – the time commitment can stretch to several days.

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(Play Ball – and do it faster)

However, many traditionally leisurely sports – golf, baseball, and cricket among them – are looking for ways to speed up, mainly to enhance the spectating and television viewing experience, but – in the case of golf – to curb a large decrease in participation. A recent essay in The Economist about golf’s decline in the US and Europe points to several factors: economic decline in the US, the skills required to make golf an enjoyable experience, the time commitment and pace of play, the change in aspirational capital for the middle class, the rise of video games as a form of sporting leisure for young people, the fact that the sport is largely still hostile to women and minorities, and that white males – the bread and butter of the industry – are often significantly more engaged in child-rearing and other family and career activities.  As such, many people in golf are looking for ways to engage a time/money stretched population with ways of making golf – or versions thereof – enjoyable again:

Similarly, baseball – the most timeless of sports – is looking to speed up.  In particular, as this excellent article from Grantland explains, the sport that has no clock – where a game, in theory, could last forever – has introduced time limits, in particular for the time between pitches and the time between innings.  The reasons for this are similar to golf, albeit looking at the preferences of the viewer rather than participant.  In particular, the idea that a game should be finished quickly, that the pace of play should increase, and that the sport must attract the next generation of fans who, it is supposed, are not used to a leisurely pace in their leisure, are all part of the reason for these changes.  Timelessness, and perhaps a sense of stillness, is not conductive to contemporary habits, it would seem.

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(Under the floodlights at Headingley: T20 match between Yorkshire and Durham, July 10, 2015)

While golf is looking to attract more participants through changing their game, and baseball is looking to appeal to more (and younger) spectators through the introduction of time, cricket has been grappling with these issues for years.  Indeed, cricket’s introduction of different forms of the sport – the one day limited overs match, and the Twenty20 three hour bash – have, in some ways, both enhanced and divided the sport, particularly between those looking for a pure representation of the sport (such as exists with long – and multi-day – traditional formats like test cricket) and those looking for a fun, exciting, and enjoyable day or night out.  Personally, I am a huge supporter of test cricket and, if I was living in England or another cricketing country, I would almost certainly cast my support behind something like the county championship – with their four day matches – rather than any sort of limited overs competition.  Still, when I witnessed my first T20 match earlier this month at Headingley, I could see the appeal of that form of the sport.  Indeed, the ground was full, the weather was beautiful, and the match was truly exciting.

Sport – at least in the examples I provided – is a business, and the idea that tradition, ritual, and heritage must bend to the demands of Mammon.  Indeed, many of the golf pros I know both lament the potential changes to the sport while also acknowledging that something has to be done to bring people back to the course.  In baseball, I understand that viewing habits have changed, and that there is a desire to make watching a game – for lack of a better term – efficient.  With cricket, there seems to be more of a balance in terms of time – choose your “brand” of cricket, as it were.  But, the great success of, in particular, T20 cricket in virtually every cricketing nation has lead to suggestions that longer forms of the sport are inevitably doomed.

However, I wonder if something will be lost if we simply try to appeal to a perception of what non-or-casual participants and spectators want.  Indeed, I wonder if one simply “grows” into more leisurely sports.  I, for one, have noticed my palate changed considerably in recent years.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself at 15 or 20 wanting to watch baseball or cricket, no matter how many rule changes were introduced.  But, similarly, now I find that I enjoy the spaces between play that a golf, or cricket, or baseball allows (and for which hockey or cricket or football seeks to eliminate).

In his excellent article about test cricket, Wright Thompson wonders whether timeless – or, at least, time-intensive – sports like cricket might actually be welcome in contemporary society; that we go so fast and cram so much in to our days that a “slow” sporting event might actually be an antidote of sorts for our industrial lives:

I’m into the rhythm. I enjoy the silence. I work a crossword puzzle, looking up every minute or so to see the bowler begin his run. A thought assembles in the white spaces. Being here feels like a vacation, not just because the days are free of responsibility, but because they feel so different from the rest of my life. The world is full of people trying to slow down. There’s the slow food movement, a rejection of consumerism and industrial convenience. Knitting, baking, urban farming. There’s yoga. Folk music is inexplicably huge in England again. People are seeking something.

Maybe Test cricket is part of that search. Maybe slowness won’t kill Test cricket, but instead will spark a revival: the right game at the right time. Not long ago, I read a magazine excerpt of a new book, “About Time,” by astrophysicist Adam Frank. He believes we are living at a vital moment in the history of time. For thousands of years, we’ve been shrinking time, making minutes important, then seconds. Frank says we can’t shrink it any more. An enormous change is imminent. Oil will run out and with it cheap transportation, both of goods and people. He believes that, contrary to our view of a world always growing smaller, the planet will spread apart again. Only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford flying to Europe, for instance. Global shipping will regress. Email won’t be as commercially important since the businesses it exists to support will lag behind. “We’re at a breaking point,” he says. “We just can’t organize ourselves any faster. We’ve grown up with this amazing idea of progress. That’s operating with the mindset that science will provide miracles. There really are limits. One of the things I think about this generation we’re living in: This is the age of limits.”

Time is important in heritage; age often makes particular legacies more important and, in certain contexts, more saleable. However, the idea of time itself – and how we use it, or at least comprehend it – is often overlooked as a kind of heritage value as well.  As Wright says, we seem to be interested in aspects of antiquity – even from the recent pasts – as a way of slowing our lives down; that the choice of inconvenience might actually be a pleasure.  Certainly, sports have – and always have – adapted to suit contemporary tastes; Stuart Shea’s recent exploration of the Wrigley Field argues that this historic stadium was, through much of its history, considered rather modern, comfortable, and convenient. That said, perhaps not only its there a pleasure – and, maybe even a market – for slow sports, we have to question whether we can make sport any faster than it already is and, if we do, what would that mean?  Do we really want a baseball game to last an hour?  Isn’t the pleasure of sport that it is different from the rest of our industrial lives; that we can lose ourselves and feel something of our real selves and the real lives of others in a “day out” at the ballpark, or cricket ground, or golf course?  Shouldn’t sport be different?

 

Mementos in the the Digital Age

I love ticket stubs.

I love ticket stubs so much that I have a collage of them in my office.

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(Not sure how many ticket stubs are on the Stub Wall, but I seem to add to a new addition every month or two. It is also, admittedly, a childish collection…but I don’t care.)

As a kid, I would collect them – not just my tickets from, say, a hockey or football game, but ticket stubs discarded by others at those games as well (I’m sure my parents were thrilled that their son brought home dozens…literally dozens…of ketchup-stained football tickets). Seems old habits die hard, as I have ticket stubs on my wall, in various scrap books, etc, while also finding that they make wonderful bookmarks (and make for a bit of a wonderful discovery when finding them between the pages again years later). Ticket stubs were, and still are, a physical, tangible reminder of an event – whether it was the result that was memorable (I had ticket stubs from the two times I saw the Stanley Cup presented in Edmonton…now, sadly, lost or at the bottom of a forgotten box in some storage unit somewhere), or that the game was part of a vacation or while living abroad, or wanting to remember who I went to the game with, or if the ticket was particularly aesthetically pleasing (cricket tickets, in particular, are lovely). Some bring back great memories, while others (such as a ticket from the last Atlanta Thrashers hockey game) are bittersweet. Nowadays, I don’t save every ticket from every event I attend, but it is more about having a representative sample of different events for my Stub Wall. Perhaps the only exception are tickets from games when I have taken my son. I have a separate book for those tickets, though I have put a few memorable ticket stubs from father-son games on the Stub Wall:

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(Note the ticket at the top, Greenville Road Warriors v. Gwinett Gladiators. Not a particularly memorable ECHL minor league hockey game, mind you, but my son chewed on the upper left corner of the ticket throughout the first period. As a parent, you get sentimental about the silliest things.)

In any event, there has been some discussion – such as this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past summer – that the paper ticket, and the instant souvenir that comes with it, is rapidly on its way out in sport. The vast majority of tickets sold now are digital, and it makes sense. Digital tickets are more convenient, they can be sold or transferred easily, they are somewhat more secure, and they have all-but-eliminated tickets being lost or misplaced. The question is whether there is still a place for the physical ticket in the digital age. From the Post-Gazette article:

The ticket stubs are physical representations of memories, of games won and lost, of records set and time spent with friends and family, and like many other objects — photographs, books, compact discs and, yes, even newspapers — they are starting to disappear in the digital age.

Sports franchises are rapidly moving to digital ticketing as a means of gathering data about customers and generating revenue by collecting fees every time a digital ticket is resold, something not possible with hard-copy tickets, but the movement has the unintended consequence of eliminating a cheap memento for fans and a collector’s item for others.

The article goes on to argue that ticket stubs also become mementos when the unexpected occurs, such as a no-hitter in baseball, and that teams have responded by issuing physical tickets retroactively. However, this suggests that value of a ticket stub is only related to the events on the field. Of the tickets on the Stub Wall, only a handful of them are there because of a particularly important moment that happened on the pitch/field/ice. Most are triggers for other memories, and that the outcome of the events are in the background. For example, I have a ticket from the Fourth Day of an England v. New Zealand test match at Lord’s in 2013. Yes, I remember that 14 wickets fell that day with England winning the test, but it was more about taking my son to the game and having him charm the people around us, or talking cricket with my mother and father who attended with my wife, son, and I, or the fact that I was watching a test match at Lord’s! Point is, there is value in these object that go beyond either the result itself or the utilitarian value of allowing one passage through a stadium gate.

As such, I wonder if there might be a market for fans like me who want the physical ticket because of a kind-of anticipatory nostalgia. I would be willing to pay for, say, a physical ticket for my son’s first sporting event, or a game attended spent on a special occasion with family or friends, or just because I want to add to my collection. Of course, the question is whether it is worth it for teams to go to such lengths for an seemingly shrinking market, and whether they would be enough of a trade-off from the digital benefits (such as transfer revenue or the customer data) for a memento. That said, there is something to having a beautiful, perhaps fading ticket stub, and being able to say “I was there.” The hope is, particularly for collectors/sentimentalists like me, whether this will be possible to do in years to come.

Cricket, Heritage, and the First World War

This week marks one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War.  The war impacted virtually every segment of society, including sports, and few – if any – athletes or sports organizations remained unscathed.

Sport plays an important role in how the War is remembered and commemorated.  In particular, the now infamous Christmas Truce football match has become a focal point for how we understand the War (Ross Wilson’s excellent article about football and the the heritage of the Great War outlines these contemporary uses in greater detail)  While different authors and sports organizations have looked at the sport history and heritage aspects of the First World War from different regional or national points of view, the War’s impact on cricket in England, in particular, seems to have attracted a great deal of attention.

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The third test match between England and India in Southhampton this week was one of the focal points for cricket’s commemoration of the First World War.  Both the England (above) and India (below) test teams paid their respects to the cricketers who fought and died in the War.  The War’s impact on England’s test team, as well as first-class county cricketers, was immense.  Hundreds of cricketers enlisted, and many – including four from England’s test team (basically, a quarter of the “national” cricket team) – never came home.  July 29th’s Test Match Special podcast from the BBC featured a discussion about the players who served and died, as well as the impact the game had on domestic competitions and county cricket clubs.  Many clubs nearly went bankrupt in the War, while competitive cricket was largely abandoned, only resurfacing for occasional charity matches to help fund various wartime causes.  Other recent publications have looked at cricket and the First World War in England and, though I have not read them yet due to North American release dates, I look forward to reading books like Wisden on the Great War and The Last Over.

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The interesting aspect of India’s part in this week’s commemoration is less about remembering Indian cricketers who died in the First World War, but reminding the wider world the immense role that India played in the war effort.  By 1918, nearly 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the War with nearly 130,000 casualties, 75,000 of which were deaths. Despite the contribution India played in the war, the country’s role is often overlooked, diminished, or ignored entirely in official commemorations. Part of this, as is suggested, certainly has racial overtones, but also points to another heritage issue, that of whose heritage gets remembered, by whom, and why. If nothing else, India’s test cricket team being (seemingly) an equal part of this recent public commemoration points to sport being used as a vehicle to perhaps address some of these larger heritage issues.

Addendum: Many thanks to Andrew Renshaw, editor of Wisden on the Great Warfor sending this article that was part of the England v. India match programme from the third test at Southampton.  In it you will find more details about both English and Indian cricketers that served, and were lost, in the First World War.