How to follow test-match cricket

Question: What’s the best way to follow test cricket?

Answer: Team bus, then the pavilion, then at the wicket with your teammates.

Well, obviously! But the average cricket punter isn’t so fortunate as to play for England, and he is more than likely stuck at home. As such, cricket votaries must find another way to keep up with the latest developments 10,000 miles Down Under, even though things have not begun quite as England would have wished.

There’s television, radio, alternative-radio, newspapers, blogs, social media and your mate Dave who, to your immeasurable envy, has got an entrance ticket to the Gabba or the Melbourne Cricket Ground or wherever his unjust good-fortune has taken him, and from where he is sending you provocative texts and photos of the scene, knowing full well that it’s the middle of the night back home and freezing cold and you’ve got to go to work in the morning.

Mates, eh? But we live in modern times, do we not? And with great technology comes great… No, hang on, that’s something else… Here it is: With all this new media comes greater choice in how we might follow the cricket. So, just what is the best option?

Time gone by, when players wore facial hair for reasons other than Movember, you’d have waited for the papers, which in turn would have waited for the steamship. Or a decade or two later you might have gleaned the score at Sydney from the clipped and crepitating voice on the wireless in the corner. But today we have an abundance of media options. If you are yet undecided on how to follow the Ashes this winter, or are struggling to make sense of this babble of choice, then perhaps this will help:

Let’s begin the old fashioned way: with newspapers. Take your pick. Broadsheet, tabloid, Berliner—all of which publish full scorecards and ample comment. It’s comment, really, that most elevates the British press. We know traditional newspapers are struggling to make a profit right now, but their future viability is dependent on high quality articles, with greater depth and nuance, rather than the currency of their news, for which they cannot compete with electronic media.

The political environment is also somewhat hostile, but it’s difficult to see why either politicians or regulators might want to stop Derek Pringle and Mike Atherton venting their frustrations in black and white. Newspapers also tend to give a considered view. Cricket writers are able to spend the day percolating their literary conceits, and the reader gets to wallow in their joy or misery, whichever mood the players have roused in them.

But lack of immediacy is a genuine problem for newspapers. These days we like to have things 24/7, but we have to wait until the following day before reading about the exploits of Mitchell Johnson or Ryan Harris; and as play doesn’t usually finish until the sun is shining on Greenwich, reports miss the final hours of play. By the time the newspaper story gets to the reader, he already knows what has happened. Editors need to offer something more.

Which brings us to television: the Rolls Royce of cricket-following options. If you’ve got High Definition, all the better. Ball by ball, and to the very second, you can follow the action the other side of the world. TV — that most modern and culture-shifting of devices — allows the viewer to see, in full florescence and at various speeds, each snorting wicket, scintillating catch and glorious shot, all with expert analysis on hand to explain the action. And if we’re lucky, we might catch one or two fruity sledges. The commentator’s words are less important in this medium, mostly because we can see the action perfectly well for ourselves, but this is one instance when less really is more.

Yet there is a problem with television coverage: not everyone can get it. Each cricket devotee will have their reasons for not subscribing, but the most prevalent is, no doubt, cost. The coverage maybe good, but it isn’t cheap. So millions of cricketers are orphaned from the game, like waifs bereft of the thing that sustains them. Other options are required.

Up steps radio. Aficionados like to claim this is the ‘high art’ of the form, which may or may not be the case; but the real reason for the success of radio (or voice broadcast, as is more pertinent a description since we can now listen through the internet) is that it doesn’t cost a penny (apart from internet connections and computers and smartphones; but apart from that, it’s free).

With radio broadcast, the bucolic tones of an Agnew or a Blofeld, or the late Johnston and Arlott, sing through the air and we are transported to the field of play in a way that engages the imagination more effectively than the clearest of television pictures. Because we have to make an effort to imagine ourselves there, the rewards are so much greater than sitting passively in front of the TV. Some viewers are even known to turn the TV commentary down and the radio up — No offence, you guys!

If it can be said — and I don’t see why not — that artists prefer the visual medium of television, then poets probably prefer radio; and the comedy poets have emerged on the scene in recent years. In 2009, Andy Zaltzman, self-confessed comedian, presented a radio programme: Yes, It’s The Ashes, a humorous take on the oldest cricketing rivalry. But Test Match Sofa, recently acquired by The Cricketer Magazine, now carries the mantle of ‘alternative’ commentary. Taking a more matey and irreverent approach to live cricket-chat than BBC’s Test Match Special, it broadcasts every test match played by England.

Yet perhaps you feel you cannot devote all the hours of the night — the ones normally spent sleeping — to the cricket, while at the same time remaining either employed or married. It’s a moot point as to which is the more desperate creature: the cricket widow or the cricket widower; but spending twenty-five winter nights with men from Down Under whispering sweet sorrows and elations into your ear is probably not the healthiest of pastimes.

You might, then, try a podcast, to which you can listen at your convenience. Test Match Special unleashes Geoffrey Boycott for a good twenty minutes at the close of play each day. And Cricinfo offers a less frequent but no less interesting podcast. Or you could listen to the day’s radio commentary on the iPlayer while at work. Who’d know?

This is where technology begins to bamboozle us with choices. Choice is a good thing, of course, but the options seem to expand exponentially. Perhaps the most democratic medium — in that anyone and everyone can broadcast their opinion — is Twitter. There are other forms of social media, but we’ve all heard of Twitter. With the help of the BBC’s cricket correspondent or current and ex-cricketers or celebrities or your mate Dave, you can keep up with the action. The only limitation is the number of people we choose to follow. Though sometimes someone will tweet ‘THAT’S OUT’ two minutes after everyone else has done the same, thus inducing mild coronary because we think yet another batsman has fallen to the national malaise.

The thing about social media is that it allows us mortals to join in — up to a point. In earlier times the cricket devotee listened passively to someone else telling the story, occassionally profaning at the television or the radio if suitably inspired, but now he can offer his own wisdoms and witticisms — lot’s of them. Perhaps he has coaching expertise to impart to some batsman who’s just been castled or a bowler who’s just thrown down a long hop and been hoiked for six? They’d appreciate that, I’m sure.

It’s probably the invention and gifting to the world of Internet technology, by Tim Berners-Lee, that is most responsible for this proliferation. It’s not possible to survey all of the web pages so far made, but a brief internet search of the term ‘cricket’ reveals 497,000,000 results. Happy reading! There’s no end to the stuff. Much of it is drivel, and much is out of date, but there’s certainly something there to satisfy most people.

Journalists, as already mentioned, are having a tough time of it at the moment, and cricket writers are no different. But the Internet has released all sorts of new voices. There are many writers out there, some professional, some unprofessional (meaning unpaid rather than incompetent, though they might be that too), who offer interesting commentary. Cricket truly is the sport of poets. Perhaps more than any other sport, it has provoked great writing, and while much of it ends up in books, a lot is also written on the web. Allan and Alex Massie, father and son, frequently venture their views on the game (go on, internet them); and there are plenty of other blogs from which to choose. They might not all offer the scores, but they offer thought.

And that’s what the game of cricket is really about: thought, and the mind. It would be inconceivable to play any game for five days solid and expect to rely on brawn alone to achieve the ends. Skill, of course, is also required, but it is brains and mental fortitude that makes the difference.

Indeed, perhaps it is the meandering paths of intellectual intrigue, from selections to field placements to line and length to declarations and much more, that bewitches cricket lovers so much: to the extent that the love of it becomes a sort of pathology.

There: ‘Cricket as Pathology, Discuss.’

And perhaps this is why devotees enjoy seeking out so many complicated and obscure ways to keep up with the day’s play, especially when the series in question is the Ashes. But as it happens, there is no best way to follow test cricket. Just follow any way you can.


Jane Austen and the £10 banknote

We now know the new Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has decided the next £10 banknote will feature the image of Jane Austen. The issue of a new banknote doesn’t normally get much press. But not this time, for two reasons: that Jane Austen was a woman, and that a few odd people thought the best way to greet this revelation was to tweet incriminating obscenities, which resulted in the arrest of at least one of them. And the importance of her being a woman was raised a notch because Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, is soon to be replaced by yet another bloke on the £5 note – good old Sir Winston Churchill.

And that’s fine. If male-female ratios are how we measure right and wrong, then it’s a good thing that we shall be using Jane and not John-notes to buy books from quaint, old-fashioned bookshops. There is, however, a more significant reason than sex for choosing Jane Austen. It is important – or appropriate, considering the many other historical figures that would do just as well – because she is, above all, a great figure in English literature.

We wonder what we can do to earn our national living in this age of growing international competition. Whether we think EU membership, monetary stimulus, sound money or deregulation (or all, or some, or something else entirely) are the policies best able to help us do this, it is essential that we also recognise what it is that we do well – and celebrate it. That, among other things, is literature, not least because of our great British literary tradition, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Byron, Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot and many more.

There’s a lot of men in that list, I admit, but women do feature more prominently towards the end – and I stopped in 1880 with the death of George Eliot (her name being Mary Evans at birth). Successive years since then have seen a continuing shift upwards in the prominence of female writers; and, today, seven of the thirteen nominations for the 2013 Man Booker Longlist are female. I know it’s not an exclusively British prize, but the balance shows how the literary landscape has changed.

The cynic might say the male-female balance achieved by the judges is suspiciously close to fifty percent, with the error in favour of women just to make sure no one can cry discrimination. But this is absurd. A brief look at the fiction bestsellers list shows that the top five books are all written by women. This should not surprise us. Women, we are told, are now about a third more likely to start a degree course than their male counterparts. They are also, so the surveys suggest, more avid readers of fiction than men. Soon we might need a movement to redress this new imbalance!

But if literature is what is important, could the figure chosen by the Bank of England to adorn the £10 note not have been a man – say, Dickens or Shakespeare? As worthy as Jane Austen is, these two figures are surely more significant in terms of international recognition. Another way for Britain to earn a living is tourism. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside, along with Dickensian caricature bring ‘em in, so to speak. I’m not so sure Jane Austen has the same pull factor.

The answer, however, is no. It is entirely fitting to have a literary figure on the note, but it is better that it is Jane Austen and not another man. It would be absurd to have not one female – excepting HM The Queen – on the four major notes in circulation. No, really, it would. The reason is not one of equality. Equality, other than the one about equality under the law, can lead to strange and often patronising outcomes. The reason is much more simple: Why on earth not? Just as children like to see a mummy and a daddy in the home, why would we think they would not like to see a mummy and a daddy figure (By that I mean a man and a woman, not their actual parents) outside the home and, for instance, on their money – when, of course, they are old enough to get their little mitts on the loot.

One word of caution, though. We are told that Jane’s portrait is ‘adapted’ from a rough sketch. In other words, we don’t know that it’s a true likeness. I’m not saying it’s a fake, rather it’s not entirely real – a fiction you might say (Yes, you can take that as a double pun). Let us, therefore, hope our new monetary guardian, Mark Carney, knows how to look after the value of our currency as much as he knows how to make it look attractive and appealing to a cross-section of society. Let’s hope the new, Jane Austen-adorned notes are not going to end up a mere fiction.

Digital paywalls still have a way to go

I imagine one of the top questions keeping editors and proprietors of newspapers and periodicals awake at night is how to keep their organs profitable. We might like to think that all they worry about is how to bring the truth to their readers, but, deep down, we know that the bottom line is… well, their bottom line. Journalism is about business as much as anything else. Unlike countries, if newspapers cannot balance their books they will simply go under.

Revenue, therefore, is king. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from – if the revenue stops then the publication stops. Either that or it becomes an amateur affair, which doesn’t do much for a journalist’s career. Sales, advertising, associated commercial activity, subscriptions, licence fees, donations and charitable foundations all fund journalism.

What is important, however, is that the funding model works. If that model is based on readers paying for what they read, then they should pay. It’s like tax. No one particularly likes paying tax and most of us think about avoiding it (in morally acceptable ways, of course), but we kinda know we should pay what we are supposed to pay. Governments and most members of the public do not like it very much when people do not pay their dues. Likewise, the movie industry doesn’t care for piracy, the music industry doesn’t care for illegal file-sharing, and the publishing industry, I would imagine, doesn’t much like it when their readers circumvent expensively erected paywalls.

More and more publications are going behind paywalls: the Times, the Spectator and the Telegraph for starters. There are probably more, but my reading list is limited. I should probably branch out a bit. But never mind, these examples are enough. Advertising, as a business model, has its limitations, and some publishers obviously see merit in the exclusivity of making readers pay up front for their offerings.

The problem, however, with technology, especially the cutting-edge variety, is that errors are common. I bet Johannes Gutenberg, for example, had a few teething problems when he first brought the printing press to Europe in the mid-15th Century. Early-phase glitches are to be expected in any technological project. But by the later 20th Century, when digital media was being rolled out to the masses, the process of dead-tree printing was, I’m sure, pretty well perfected.

Yet digital publishing today is about as advanced as movable-type printing at the time of Gutenberg, who was no doubt the tech poster-boy of his era. Digital publishing is in its early phase of development, which means: a) the extent of its impact is still not fully comprehended; and, b) there are glitches. Specifically, there are glitches in the way paywalls operate, especially in the way they try to prevent illicit reading of their material.

Developers involved in this area may be aware of most problems, but here are a couple of examples they might have missed. First, the Spectator. This excellent publication used to make all of its website material free to anyone who happened to visit the site (‘Thank you!’). But now its premium content is behind a paywall (‘Damn you!’). It tends to offer mostly the good stuff: interesting and, above all, well written. Their articles aren’t too long, either, which is  useful for those with the attention span of a mouse, like me. There is, however, a way round their paywall, as follows:

Go to the url of an article and you will likely see something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 16.20.57

Annoying, huh? And not just because this so-called Bitcoin thing intrigues you, not to mention the chance to make money on it, or just to stick it to the man. The goddamn internet is meant to be free! It’s all about the free, and people trying to make you pay for stuff on it is just plain wrong. Well, no actually. Getting stuff for free can be great, when you don’t have money, but free stuff can also seem, on occasions, a little devalued. And we should not forget that journalists need to make a living like anyone else.

But the glitch: If you’re not that bothered about journalists starving in the gutter, you can read the article another way. And I don’t mean by taking out a subscription or wrestling the only copy held in your local library from the elderly tramp-gentleman currently using it as a pillow. What you do is this: send the article to, where you can read it at your leisure. Not all articles can be read this way, but a lot of them can. It’s something to do with the difference in rendering pages directly on a website and through a third-party application. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Spectator developers to rectify.

Exactly the same thing happens on the Telegraph. Send an article to Pocket, after you have gone over your free monthly limit, and you can read the full piece without being asked to subscribe. There is also another glitch with the Telegraph, this time with IFTTT stands for ‘if this then that,’ and is a service that enables you to make ‘recipes’ comprising trigger and action. For example, IFTTT will automatically save your email attachments to Dropbox if that is what you want. Mashable thought these recipes were quite funny – hilarious was their word. But you can also use IFTTT to send Telegraph articles from behind their paywall to Pocket using an RSS feed.

I do not mention these glitches to encourage people to read for free the things for which they are meant to pay. I happen to think, as I do for tax, that we should not circumvent the system (Although there is probably a difference between avoidance and evasion, which would need a separate discussion to explain, and neither am I entirely sure into which category reading paywall content through third-party applications falls). Quality journalism costs money, and people have a right to earn a living.

No, the reason is simply to highlight the glitch, because, well, you know, I noticed it – and, of course, to let developers know what they might have overlooked. Yet probably they haven’t. They probably figure, quite rightly I’d say, that messing about with RSS feeds, third-party applications and idle time is not what most people can be bothered to do; and if they do, then it’s probably not going to break their business model, and they’ll get it sorted out at their next Scrum meeting anyway.

But the frontiers of the digital world are moving rapidly at the moment. Innovators and entrepreneurs are pushing ever westwards, trying new things every day. Many will fail, but the innovative process stops for no one. And the publishing industry is trying to keep up with all this change, not least because it fears for its very survival if it does not. Whoever can protect revenues will thrive; the rest will wither and go out of business, eventually. I don’t suppose these two glitches will cause too many sleepless nights, but someone might like to take a look at them.

It’s a government minister’s job to speak to the media

Last night Chloe Smith, MP and Treasury Minister, appeared on Newsnight to answer Paxo-questions on George Osborne’s decision to delay the 3p fuel duty rise.  And she didn’t do too well.

‘When were you told of the change of plan?’ asked Paxman.

The answer should have been something like: ‘today’, or: ‘I knew of the Chancellor’s decision earlier today.  It’s something we’ve been considering for several weeks now and the final decision, I think, is right because it will ease the financial burden on motorists just at a time when they need it.’

But she went for the other option and came across all defensive.  She tried to tell Paxman that she was definitely inside the wigwam of important decision making and hadn’t only that second found out about the change of plan as if she was just some insignificant functionary.  But it didn’t really work.

Evasion is like a red rag to Paxman when he’s imagining himself a bull, and he went for her, deploying that well-tried tactic of asking the same question over and over.  And things didn’t improve much after that, and by the end she was coming across as one of two things depending on the viewers’ mood or prejudice: evasive or incompetent, neither of which looks good on a government minister.

But these things happen, and it is something else I find more interesting.  All too often, it is the fallout from a political decision and the subsequent bickering that becomes the real story.  The substance, it seems, is not important.  And so it was today.

Among others, Nadine Dorries MP contributed to the debate in a not entirely helpful way (she really doesn’t seem to rate Osborne or Cameron).  ‘If Osborne sent Chloe on re scrapping 3p,’ she tweeted, ‘he is a coward as well as arrogant.’

Now, this may or may not be the case, but it doesn’t seem like something an MP should say about her own side, even if they think it.  It just comes across as petulant, and I’m sure she is worth more than that.  Daniel Knowles has a suggestion why she might not be too keen on the current Conservative leadership.  I wouldn’t know.

But it’s also worth noting that, according to the plan, the 3p tax is not being scrapped, only delayed.  And Chloe Smith is a minister, in the Treasury, and it quite clearly says on the Cabinet Office website that she: ‘Leads on: Environmental issues including taxation of transport.’  But perhaps what this really means is that the 3p fuel duty has nothing to do with ‘taxation of transport’ after all.

It may well have been preferable for Osborne to face Paxman on this occasion, but it’s stretching it a little to conclude he is a ‘coward’ and was being unfair to one of his ministers.  Chloe Smith is a grown up, a member of parliament no less.  Are MPs to be so molly-coddled?  It’s her job to talk to the media.

Yet I can’t say the government has handled this (and some of those other issues) particularly well.  It’s getting a bit of a reputation for incompetence, and it doesn’t help when other ministers, notably the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, defend the tax rise while under the impression it’s government policy, only to have it reversed without their knowledge.

This is one of the reasons we are supposed to have Cabinet government.  You know.  Discuss the issue, make a decision and brief accordingly.  Perhaps the PM should look at his procedures again and include the whole of government a little more in decision-making.  That way the government might come across as being a little more joined up and his ministers might be better placed to face interviews with convincing arguments for policy decisions.