Thinking about pink balls

[Note to readers. This post may appear to do with cricket. Perhaps it does. But it’s about more than that].

I had to smile when I first came across what Douglas Adams had to say about our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I tried to interpret the word “technologies” as broadly as possible, looking for areas where his description matched my reaction to something. And the first one I came up with was cricket. I realised that my attitude to cricket could be summed up in his words. Test cricket? Fine. County and regional? Of course. One-day? As long as it’s the 50 or 60 over variety. Day/night? Pshaw. Pfui. Balls coloured other than red? Over my dead body. Clothes coloured other than white? When hell freezes over.

Until I thought about my attitude to cricket through the lens described by Adams, I considered myself a fairly progressive person. Since reading what he’d had to say, I’ve been working on that attitude, not just to do with cricket but to do with life in general. [That’s a general principle for me. I may write about music or food or sport or work or books or whatever, but what I’m usually trying to do is to understand something else about life].

So it took me a while to get used to people wearing pyjamas on the cricket field. It took me as long to get used to a night game and a white ball. I’m still getting used to T20.

And now.

Now comes a real test. A Test test. There’s a day-night Test in Edgbaston this coming summer. The ball used will probably be pink. Will I try and go? Will I even be willing to watch it?

Hmmm. There’s a part of me that says I should harrumph through my moustache, if I had one — that I should return some prize or honour, resign from somewhere, refuse something. Protest somehow.

But I won’t listen to that part. I don’t. Not any more.

[A digression. I don’t like DRS. Not DRS per se, which I’m fine about: but the way it has been implemented leaves much to be desired. The way the technology providers were chosen and imposed. The madness of the way “umpire’s call” has been protected. Stuff like that. I don’t feel any less progressive for disliking the way DRS has been implemented].

When I heard that day-night Test cricket was on its way, I decided I wanted to understand more about how changes like the 60 over game, the 50 over game, the 20 over game, day-night cricket, the wearing of pink pyjamas, the DRS, and so on, had actually affected the game.

The first pink-ball Test was actually Test number 2190. Does it mean the end of Test cricket as I know it? What could I learn from all that had gone earlier? Here are some of my observations:

We’re playing a lot of Test cricket. In the last seven years, we would have played about the same number of Tests that we played in the first seventy years of Test cricket. Test attendances may appear to be in decline, at least anecdotally, but just try getting a ticket for an Ashes Test in London and you may get a different view. I have debentures at Lords and at the Oval just to make sure I get to see all the touring teams.
I regularly hear assertions that the short game is somehow corrupting the long game, “twittering” cricket if I may be allowed to mangle the term that way. So I looked at the data.
Test number 2243 is being played right now. Since the Second World War, the number of games drawn as a percentage of games played looks like this:

1950-59: 31.1%
1960-69: 47.8%
1970-79: 42.4%
1980-89: 45.9%
1990-99: 35.7%
2000-09: 24.6%
2010-16: 22.7%

Surely fewer games drawn is a good thing. While I cannot draw a causal relationship between the short-form game and the improvement in the percentage of games not ending in a draw, it is a reasonable indicator of the health of the long game.
The first ever individual 300+ scores were compiled in the 1930s. So I took a look at the Tests-per-300 ratio, again by decade, concentrating on Tests since the Second World War:

1950-59: 2 triple centuries, 82 Tests per triple
1960-69: 3 triple centuries, 62 Tests per triple
1970-79: 1 triple century, 198 Tests per triple
1980-89: No triples recorded
1990-99: 4 triple centuries, 87 Tests per triple
2000-09: 8 triple centuries, 58 Tests per triple
2010-16: 7 triple centuries, 42.7 Tests per triple

So the number of Tests taken to score a triple century is the lowest it’s been since 1950. In fact there’s only one decade ever (1930-39) where the ratio was lower, and it’s an outlier for a number of reasons. If the short game is spoiling the concentration of the batsmen then it’s hard to understand how this trend is being evinced.
If I look at the RPO or runs-per-over data this is what it looks like:

1950-59: 2.3
1960-69: 2.49
1970-79: 2.69
1980-89: 2.86
1990-99: 2.86
2000-09: 3.2
2010-16: 3.22

So the batsmen are scoring more runs per over than they did before, they’re taking fewer Tests to churn out triple centuries, and more of the Tests are getting to a non-draw result than ever before. What’s not to like?
Not everyone is a fan of such quantitative ways of looking at the game. Some people prefer to complain that the game’s not the same, that something classic, something essential to the game, has “gone” with all the changes. It’s hard to deal with such statements, but here’s my personal take:
There was a time when the job of a Test opening batsman was to see the shine of the ball off, to batten the hatches while the pace bowlers tired themselves out. There was a time when batsmen were expected to “play themselves in”, to get used to the pitch and to the ball and to the conditions; this playing-in time was measured in overs, sometimes hours.
Along came people like Jayasuriya and Sehwag, and suddenly playing-in time became a myth. They started scoring freely from the moment they walked in. I don’t have good scientific evidence that there’s a causal relationship between the advent of the short game and the emergence of this phenomenon, but it seems unarguable. Limited-overs games aren’t particularly accommodating of playing-in time. It’s also nice to notice that both Jayasuriya and Sehwag have triple centuries to their names.
There was a time when there were no cross-bat strokes expected on the playing field, when Test cricketers played copybook cricket. Now we have strokes like the reverse sweep and the overhead thump over the wicketkeeper’s head. Good batsmen still play largely copybook cricket, but their repertoire has increased.
There was a time when bowlers were expected to be poor fielders and even poorer batsmen. Nowadays you see relay fielding and relay catching being considered normal, where one fielder stops a ball and another throws it back, or one rescues the ball back into the field of play and another catches it. Fielders have become a lot fitter and use techniques learnt largely from the short game. And bowlers can bat. Teams now bat all the way down the card.
All in all, when you look at modern Test cricket from a qualitative viewpoint, the batting’s better, the fielding’s better, the bowling’s better, all showing signs of having learnt from the short game.
I cannot spend this much time talking about how progressive thinking is changing the world of cricket for the better without mentioning Cage Cricket.



Yup. Cage cricket.

A six-player one-winner enclosed-space form of the game, designed to be gender-neutral.
Okay, I hear you. Harrumph in your moustache. Resign from your clubs. Return your OBE. Have your Victor Meldrew moment. Go on.
Once you’ve done that, please go take a look at the game.

And then look at these photographs I’ve just googled (my thanks to the originators of the photographs, I claim no authorship, just the use of search strings for street cricket).



Still think that Cage Cricket is all wrong? People have called it all sorts of things, in India I’ve heard terms like para cricket or galli cricket. What matters is that we lower the barriers to entry, get children involved early. Not in watching but in participating. Making it possible for them to play without having to have a cricket pitch or 22 players. Making it possible for them to learn, to develop, and even to compete at world level. Designed to suit the world they inhabit. With peer respect and feedback built in, gender-agnostic.

If you want to learn more about Cage Cricket, just go to the web site and click on Learn More. Simple as that.

It’s not just about cricket. These are things we have to get better at for everything: lowering barriers to entry, adapting to the world our children live in, building things that are relevant to their context, designing to enfranchise all.

I started with a quote from Douglas Adams, ostensibly to do with technology. I think I’ll end with a quote from Roy Amara, as quoted by Robert X Cringely:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

As I suggested at the start of this post, be generous in your interpretation of “technology”.

It’s a systematic treatment for something. It comprises tools and practices. It is based on some real knowledge, based on scientific methods of collection and testing.

I like what Kevin Kelly said about it many years ago, that “technology” is a means of speeding up evolution.

So nowadays, when I learn about a new technology, I check for myself. Am I falling into the trap of looking through the Adams lens? Am I discarding everything recent for everything I am used to, staying in my comfort zone? Am I falling into the trap of not seeing Amara’s Law in action? Am I overestimating short-run impacts while underestimating the long-run ones?

Am I basing all this on data? Reliable data? Data that stands up to corroboration, to source verification, data where I understand the basis of collection and analysis?

Otherwise it’s not cricket.

Comfort-break songs

Those who come here regularly know that I’m stuck in a time-warp when it comes to music. Early sixties to mid seventies. 99% of the music I listen to was made then. It’s not that I dislike the music made before or after; it’s more to do with the fact that so much great music was made during that time that I feel no need to travel beyond those bounds.

Just look at this list. Maybe 1500 albums produced by them. There isn’t enough time left in my life to do them justice.

Allman Brothers. America. The Animals. The Band. Joan Baez. Beatles. Bee Gees. Chuck Berry. Blind Faith. Blood Sweat and Tears. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Booker T and the MGs. David Bowie. Dave Brubeck. Buffalo Springfield. Byrds. Carpenters. Ray Charles. Chicago. Joe Cocker. Leonard Cohen. Elvis Costello. Cream. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jim Croce. Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Miles Davis. Deep Purple. John Denver. Neil Diamond. Donovan. Doobie Brothers. Doors. Bob Dylan. The Eagles. Elvis. Emerson Lake and Palmer. Fairport Convention. Jose Feliciano. Fotheringay. Fleetwood Mac. Aretha Franklin. Grand Funk Railroad. Grateful Dead. Guess Who. Jimi Hendrix. Herman’s Hermits. John Lee Hooker. Iron Butterfly. Michael Jackson. Jefferson Airplane. Jethro Tull. Janis Joplin. BB King. Carole King. King Crimson. The Kinks. Led Zeppelin. Lindisfarne. Gordon Lightfoot. Loggins and Messina. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Magna Carta. Mamas and Papas. John Martyn. Matthews Southern Comfort. John Mayall. Don Mclean. Melanie. Joni Mitchell. Wes Montgomery. Moody Blues. Van Morrison. Nana Mouskouri. New Riders of the Purple Sage.  Pentangle. Peter Paul and Mary. Pink Floyd. Queen. Otis Redding. Rolling Stones. Roxy Music. Carlos Santana. Seals and Croft. Simon and Garfunkel. Sly and the Family Stone. Steely Dan. Steppenwolf. Cat Stevens. Supertramp. James Taylor. Temptations. Ten Years After. Traffic. Velvet Underground. Ventures. Tom Waits.  The Who. Stevie Wonder. Yes.

The hundred acts above, in their multiple incarnations. With their associated acts that I haven’t bothered to list, of the Derek/Dominos class. There’s a male/white bias I guess, but not a conscious one. It’s what came down the funnel I had my ear to in those days.

One of the odd things this list did was to play long songs. I used to wonder why they were so popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Quite by chance, re-reading a Graham Nash interview, I came across a then-DJ’s comment on this and it all made sense. Long songs were the saviour the DJs were looking for, so that they could take a cigarette break.

“Cigarette breaks” are probably not in vogue any more, they’ve been replaced by other things that are antisocial, keep your hands busy, are rumoured to cause cancer and form pinpricks of light dotting the audience in modern concerts. Mobile phones.

At work we used to have cigarette breaks. Then , in the early nineties, we started calling them loo breaks in order not to point fingers at smokers. More recently, we’re calling them comfort breaks, even though many people don’t use them to go to the loo. That way the mobile phone addict doesn’t feel victimised.

I don’t listen to modern music and have no idea what modern DJs do. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the return of vinyl is accompanied by the return of Long Songs, so that the DJs squeeze in some “social media interaction” time.

Comfort-break songs.

Here are a few more from my favourite time, to add to the ones I posted about years ago.





The stories behind the numbers

I went to a Jesuit school and college in Calcutta; I was with them from 1966 to 1979. Wonderful times, times I look back upon with joy.

By the time I was in my early teens, I’d heard the story of Pheidippides many times. The literary/historical rites of passage embedded in Jesuit education in India. Pheidippides was firmly tucked in somewhere between Ghent to Aix and O Captain My Captain.

The first modern Olympics I experienced, vicariously and from afar, was the one held in Mexico City in 1968. We had no television at home, or for that matter anywhere in India. [It would be at least a decade before small black-and-white sets invaded, carrying, of all things, I Love Lucy. Hmmm. I passed].

Bob Beamon, Dick Fosbury, Jim Hines, Tommie Smith (and his Black Power salute), these were the names I remember from the Olympics in 1968. [I had fledgling ambitions to become a sprinter in those days. The less said of that the better. We all choose our heroes to suit ourselves].

By 1972 I was a glutton for things Olympic, aided and abetted by our class teacher, Mr Redden (otherwise known to us as Lalmurgi). He got us to make scrapbooks about the event. I remember marvelling at the standardised icons that began to appear that year for each event.

The tragic events of the massacre at the Olympic village overshadowed everything else about those Olympics, and the scrapbook projects were soon forgotten.

Before that, while working on the scrapbook, I was intrigued by how the Marathon was going to be run there. Apparently they’d designed the course to resemble that year’s Olympic mascot, Waldi.


That caught my eye. Odd and interesting. But not as odd and interesting as the distance the athletes were meant to run. 26 miles 385 yards. 385 yards. Really? That kind of false precision bugged me, even as a teenager. So we were asked to believe that someone had measured the precise distance run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens some 2500 years ago and set it down to 26 miles and 385 yards. Pull the other one.

It continued to bug me. Therein lies a tale. Turns out that he wasn’t called Pheidippides, but might have been called Thersippus or Eukles, according to Wikipedia. [If you enjoy using Wikipedia please donate to them here]. Turns out that the non-Pheidippides person never ran from Marathon to Athens around the battle of Marathon, but may have been confused with a Phillipides who may have done that run — but not during the battle.

Trivia contests used to ask about the origins of the 385 yards, and the accepted answer was that the modern marathon used to be 26 miles, until the 1908 Olympics. That year, the marathon started at Windsor Castle (a stone’s throw from where I write this now) and ended at White City Stadium. [That marathon route remains popular with people living near Windsor Castle: they get into their cars and prepare to join athletic “battle” as they shop at Westfield, standing on the ruins of White City Stadium.]

Legend had it that the route designers made a classic mistake, and that the additional 385 yards were added very late on, to ensure that the race ended in front of the Royal Box. A case of droit du roi?

Turns out that isn’t quite true either. Apparently modern marathons used to be around 40km, give or take variations imposed by the route chosen, to try and model the distance between Marathon and Athens. The IAAF only standardised the distance in May 1921, and happened to use the exact distance of the 1908 London Olympics, 42.195km … or 26 miles 385 yards.

26 miles and 385 yards. Just a number. But with so many stories.

This week, I had the opportunity to delve into another number-story. During the India v England Fifth Test in Chennai, I noticed that the first five wickets to fall during the England 1st innings were all “caught”. So I went down one of my usual rabbit holes and meandered about, reading about concentrations and dispersions in ways to get out in a single innings. I’d grown up believing that there were only ten ways for a batsman to be given out while playing cricket.    The first five are easy and common: bowled, caught, leg before wicket, stumped, run out. The next five are harder and rarer: hit wicket, handled the ball, hit the ball twice, obstructing the field and timed out.

Turns out I was wrong. There is an eleventh. Retired out. Law 2.9(b). When we played cricket in school, “retired” used to mean “retired hurt” and was treated as a “not out”. The runs scored formed part of the batsman’s average, but the innings was considered complete but not out. That changed in 2001; I remember the match but missed the significance. Two Sri Lankan batsman, Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, both “retired out” in a Test match against Bangladesh. That is, they walked off the pitch without being injured, without formal leave to depart from the field of play. Which meant that Law 2.9 (b) came into effect for the first time, rather than the usual 2.9(a).

Or so I thought.

Not true. It looks like Law 2.9(b) had been invoked, albeit very briefly, during the 5th Test between West Indies and India in April-May 1983. Gordon Greenidge, batting on 154, left the field at close of play on 30th April, and did not return on Sunday 1st May. He had not been injured, which meant that, technically, he could be considered “retired out”.

He hadn’t returned for a tragic reason. His young daughter Ria had been taken very ill with a kidney infection, and he’d gone to be with her. She died a few days later.

It is not clear what the scorers originally put down against his name; the scarce evidence suggests he may have been recorded as “retired hurt”. What is clear is that as a mark of respect, given the tragic circumstances, what finally went down on the scorecard was “retired not out”. According to ESPNCricinfo that’s the only known occurrence of that term on a Test scorecard.

The stories behind the numbers.

We live in times when terms like “post-truth” and “truthiness” are bandied about without a thought. That’s when the stories behind the numbers matter. Context matters. The provenance of the context matters.

So I’m going to be spending time over the Christmas break reading people like John Allen Paulos again, particularly his books Innumeracy and Beyond Numeracy. Similarly, I’m going to be retracing my steps around the works of Howard Rheingold on Crap Detection.

More to follow.

Some Like It Hot: A Paean To Chillies

This is not meant to be a post about the Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis film by Billy Wilder. I didn’t actually watch it till late 1999, some forty years after it was made. It wasn’t on my bucket list. I was 42 by then, and so I was pretty careful about any new entrants to that list.

And then I saw a film called Tango. Which led me to learning about La Cumparsita. Digging into that led me to Some Like It Hot. So I had to watch it. And when I did, I really enjoyed it.

Connections. Things that lead from one to another, the accidents and the sagacity of serendipity.

Which is what my love affair with chillies has been all about.

I don’t remember the first time I came across the chili pepper. For sure that’s not what I would have heard it being called; I probably learnt it as ??????? and pronounced it as “mologa”. [I’m told that I should pronounce it “milakai” but that’s not what I remember from childhood].

As a South Indian Brahmin growing up in Calcutta, I was likely to have been fed the staple idli with the reddish powdered form “mologapudi” while still in nursery; slivers of the green common Indian version of the fruit would have made it into many of the dishes I was served by the time I was seven. I think I must have been a little older before I was allowed to have More Mologa, blackened, desiccated, oh-so-delectable. More in name and in nature.

Life was simple then. Chillies when fresh were red or green. When we dried them and pulverised them the results were red. If we dried them longer they turned black. They tasted “hot”, they always made me salivate, sometimes they made me sweat a bit, and occasionally they brought tears to my eyes. But it was all worth it because they made me feel good.

For 23 years of my life that was the way it was. A readily available feel-good factory that was encapsulated in just one word: chillies.

Then I moved to the UK. For the first year or so I was scared of entering a supermarket. I could not understand a shop that had a whole aisle of toothpaste. So I spent time buying what I needed at local groceries, often run by Indians, usually with very Indian-looking chillies. Life was good.

As I spent more time away from India, I learnt about the sheer variety of chillies available. When fresh green chillies were hard to find, I tried?—?and rejected?—?the cayenne pepper. Then I started coming across jalapeños, and found them lacking as well. Local supermarkets weren’t that good in stocking the hot stuff, except in powdered form.

I wasn’t a fan of the red powder. I was, and continue to be, wary of hot curries where I can taste the grain of the powder in the sauce. They do nothing for me except to go through me. [Which, by the way, is how the wild plant goes about conquering the world. Birds eat chillies, ostensibly drawn by the colour of the chillies. They don’t get affected by the capsaicin and allow the seeds to pass through them unmolested. Something to remember the next time you come across a fresh dollop of bird dropping. Just in case you’re the type of person who is waiting to discover the next kopi luwak. I have always wondered about that; I’d love to know how the person who discovered it actually discovered it. If you know, please tell me].

From the Guardian

It was only a matter of time before I learnt about and marvelled at the Scoville Scale. By then I was almost a connoisseur, graduating well beyond the simplicity of the classic Indian green. My interests were still single-dimensional and focused on cooking and eating the fruit in all its guises.

Years of experimentation led to my being able to recognise particular varieties quickly and accurately; to know when to keep the flesh and to discard everything else, when to keep the seed and to discard everything else, when to hold on to the whole fruit. Which chillies could be eaten raw, which ones needed softening, which ones needed accessorising. Common accessories included garlic, ginger, onion, scallion, soy sauce, lime juice, salt, olive oil, mustard oil, groundnut oil. [Learning can be so much fun. Does someone know of a MOOC on the chilli plant?]

I’d grown up thinking that chillies must be Indian in origin, but was disabused of that notion soon after visiting the US for the first time. Until then I’d never considered the delicious hypothesis that Christopher Columbus could have been instrumental in helping make the hot Indian curry hot. If Columbus hadn’t turned right when he meant to turn left, if he hadn’t discovered the Americas while looking for India, he may never have found the chilli plant to take home and thereby gain forgiveness for his error. If Vasco da Gama and his merry marauders hadn’t found their way to India, and if they hadn’t decided to come bearing gifts, then the curries of my childhood may have remained unmemorable.

Then, in the early 1990s, I read Amal Naj’s wonderful book Peppers. My interest was properly, pepperly, piquantly piqued. I began to investigate how capsaicin worked, how it scammed the body into delivering drugs for free. Why the hotness of the chilli was considered a sensation rather than a taste. Why the endorphins and dopamine were released. I fell a little bit more in love with the plant.

Until then, I only had a first-principles view of chillies. They grew mainly in hot countries, and so I surmised that they had a simple purpose: to aid in making us feel cool. A little sheen of sweat, the slightest wind, and hey presto to green and sustainable air conditioning. Worth the “pain”.

Since then I’ve been able to expand that view, understand something about the medical properties of capsaicin, its use in self-defence, even warfare. I’ve been able to delve into its history, its travels, the legends, the arguments galore. Five cultivars, seven thousand years, millions of miles travelled, aided and abetted by feathered friends and Iberian navigators. Over two thousand varieties now, many of them as a result of passionate amateurs playing with the fire of capsaicin.

I can make myself a different salsa every day, and often do. I’ve had the privilege of travelling often, and wherever I go I look for new chilli tastes. From kimchi at Muk Eun Ji to street hawked chilli gelato in Certaldo. From habanero dosas at Dosa on Valencia in San Francisco to Lindt Excellence Chilli Chocolate Bars hoarded in my fridge for a rainy day.

Some years ago I learnt about Solanaceae. The nightshades. One family of plants. Inclusive of the potato, the tomato, the chilli pepper, the aubergine. Extending to tobacco and on to mandrake root, belladonna, deadly nightshade, and beyond. Tubers, herbs, shrubs, vines, trees. I began to learn about the brothers and sisters of the chilli plant.

And so to today. I remain passionately in love with this strange plant, one that is abundantly available and accessible to both rich and poor. [In Calcutta, the rickshaw-wallah meal often consisted of chillies, salt and what looked like a lump of chapati flour]. A plant that “tastes” wonderful even though the taste is actually not a taste but a sensation. A plant whose migratory history, while fascinating, remains steeped in ferocious argument. A plant whose medicinal properties we’re still learning about. [I’m particularly interested in some areas of research into capsaicin’s anti-carcinogenic possibilities].

You probably think I’m mad, writing about chillies this way. Before you decide how mad I am, take a look at what some members of the Danish National Orchestra got up to.

Tango Jalousie.

A tale of two tangos. La Cumparsita. Jalousie. And everything serendipitous in between.

[Also posted in Medium]

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