In 2013, I read a total of 3,144 cricket articles.
These were a combination of match reports, commentaries and opinions. If it was about cricket, I read it.
The best cricket writing not only informs, but relates the sport to the reader in a way that feels personal.
And that’s the key: the reader must feel. We can get the gist of a match, the main events, the details of a punch-up in a Walkabout from 30-second highlights on Sky News.
Anybody can tell you what happened.
But the best cricket writers don’t just tell us about cricket. They write personal anecdotes, they use vocabulary that is multi-toned yet accessible. They write stories, they draw on a deep knowledge of the wider world and pop culture to inform us about our sport.
The very best will include humour, because what is the point in spending so much time reading, if it is not entertaining? I still maintain that there are a few better feelings than laughing whilst reading. (There are a few, but they involve dreams of Hashim Amla and a beard made entirely of chocolate).
I’m a firm believer that when you read a piece, you should be able to return to it ten times and still be discovering new tricks from the writer.
The best cricket writers have a deep understanding of structure. They tell stories that make the reader ooh and ah, they change the flow, they might use a prolepsis, and they build to a fiery climax so emotive that it makes the reader scan desperately for the next word.
In no particular order, I have compiled my 15 favourite cricket articles of 2013. Several authors could have been nominated more than once, but as this is intended to be a wider appreciation, I’ve tried to pick each author’s best piece of the year.
If you enjoy any of these pieces, please do make sure to share on Facebook, Twitter, email etc, or send the writer a message to say “well played.” If your favourite articles aren’t on this list, then post them in the comments below!
Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement left many cricket fans raw, in tears, and yearning for cricket writers (OK, ummm, maybe not) to fill the sudden void in their lives.
Many writers churned out pre-prepared, generic drivel. Some, like Mihir aka Non Striker, upped their game.
“Because we knew him from the start, we felt entitled to Sachin. That’s the way it is when someone grows in front of our eyes. We felt a sense of interest which quickly moved to entitlement, ownership and … investment. At some stage, fuelled by the emotion that it generated, that matrix moved to the edge of religion. That’s just the way we are.”
Learning Atheism from Sachin Tendulkar was a magnificent effort, a carefully crafted, seminal take on how the Indian public perceived – and misperceived – Tendulkar’s career.
One of the most rewarding aspect about reading so many authors is when you discover new talent. Christian Drury is a young writer based in England, and he is already outstanding.
His tribute to Sachin Tendulkar stood out for the delicate shifts in colourful language, whilst still being a captivating read:
“And so he left, amid showers of rose petals and hyperbole. A small man, he should have been inconspicuous in the kaleidoscopic stadium. But they had come for him, to show their devotion, to genuflect before his genius. The crowd had anointed him decades before, and now they came to weep at his passing, to pay homage to his achievement.”
Just to make it clear: I liked this kid before he was cool.
He has more passion for cricket than Shahid Afridi with a ball in his mouth, as evidenced when he flew from Pennsylvania to Mumbai for Tendulkar’s final Test. Here, he recants his deeply personal reasons for making the journey:
“It wasn’t just that this would be a trip to see Sachin one last time. The Sachin I grew up with, celebrated and idolized has long since left the building. At 40, this Sachin is very much a shadow of the man-child superstar that single handedly captivated an entire nation and provided reasons for hope when there were none. No, this trip is not just for Sachin—this trip is for closure.”
Full disclosure: this next writer is my cricketing soulmate, so I might be a bit biased…
James Marsh keeps it heartfelt, with doses of pop culture, and a stunning understanding of the art of writing. You won’t find him writing any match reports, but you will find plenty of sardonic, intricate takes on the cricket world. Marsh’s knowledge of English cricket is second-to-none, yet always manages to come across as modest and understated.
If Kevin Pietersen ever needs a post-career biographer, Marsh is the man. His Bitter Love Letter to Genius is typical of their love-hate relationship:
“It’s always, though, actually been quite telling who’s piped up for and against Pietersen in the superfluous disputes over his greatness, and not least than when Nasser Hussain gave a hard-nosed, withering besting of Nick Knight’s criticisms on Sky Sports during the winter tour when Pietersen launched his Wankhede destruction of turning pitch logic and India’s spinners. I know who I’m siding with, but you’re welcome to stand shoulder to shoulder with dear old Nick.”
One of the best cricket writers going, Marsh’s best work arguably comes on his Radio Cricket podcast, a weekly piss-take with his fellow English expat stranded in the Czech Republic. (Full disclosure: umm, listen to it).
Associate and affiliate cricket is an inaccessible wasteland of misinformation and apathy. Therefore, top-class journalism in this field deserves praise, as it is especially cumbersome and unrewarding. Fewer people read articles about the ‘developing’ cricket nations, and so journalists who go the extra mile do so out of sheer passion and dedication.
“It is worth saying here that the development arm of the ICC is restricted from doing as much as they’d like thanks to the anachronistic structure of the ICC. The full members call the shots, and they don’t see global development as being a priority.”
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan has been one of the foremost cricket writers in recent years, one who conveys a deep attachment to the game without ever becoming over-emotional. His structure, cadence and outstanding knowledge of the game always make for brilliant reading.
Here, Vaidyanathan makes even an India vs Sri Lanka ODI sound like it’s the only thing that matters in the world:
“There is a reason India adores Dhoni. For those who followed Indian cricket in the ’80s and ’90s, he may even come across as a messiah. Those were the days India choked and crumbled. They withered at the first hint of pressure. Their batsmen seemed to know exactly when and how to combust. All would be hunky dory until a slew of wickets wrecked their progress.”
“If you’ve never seen a batsman use a review based purely on his own ego, you’ve not watched modern cricket. But to do it so often and recklessly with so little chance of redemption in a team with more managers and staff than a Tina Turner gig is nowhere near good enough. Australia should be better, Shane Watson should be better.”
Jarrod Kimber continued his inevitable rise to Chief Cricket Correspondent of Earth last year, with his light-hearted journalism complementing his excellent understanding of the game. Despite his close relationships with players – Kimber is rumoured to have a bedroom oil painting of Ian Bell batting naked in a cage – he was consistently fair and balanced, never shying away from harsh words when they were deserved. Kimber’s pop culture references and natural humour have helped him to become one of the most revered writers around.
“Most female reporters – especially on television – are dented and painted with the same brush as the glamorous ones – as most people, including some of our male colleagues, think we know as much or as little about the game as the women who are signing up to be eye candy.”
It was a punch to the gut, and a journalistic evisceration of insidious, sexist values that have infected the IPL.
“This attitude is omnipresent, even among so-called liberated men who think they are quite open-minded. The sexism is so insidious and the biases run so deep that most men reveal themselves in the most subtle yet telling ways.”
With an output probably more substantial than any other cricket writer, George Dobell manages to offer new insights on a daily basis. He ferociously hunts down players, and discerningly goads out nuggets of gold. He sets the bar extremely high, and manages to consistently maintain them.
During 2013’s mutant conjoined-twin of an Ashes series, Dobell took us through a journey from unmitigated joy to, well, um, slightly less joy.
“Had a wedge-tailed eagle settled on top of the England dressing room ready to pick at the carcass of the team, the signs could not have been more obvious: for much of this match England have looked spent, broken and shattered. For the Ashes, at least, the party is over, the song is sung, the jig is up.”
Relatively speaking, the art of longform cricket writing is exceptionally weak.
Perhaps as a symptom of the T20 generation, our collective attention spans have diminished, and our brains want easy, fast-food online content? America leads the world in longform sports writing, with Grantland, Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and others granting budgets to their writers that incentivize long, detailed stories.
Despite cricket’s huge market, editors seem reluctant to dip their toes into longform, content to tread water with shorter pieces. Therefore, it was encouraging to see the launch of The Nightwatchman in 2013, a quarterly magazine for cricket longform.
Here, Nightwatchman editor Osman Samiuddin writes a piece on ‘The Haal of Pakistan‘, describing the ethereal, mercurial nature of Pakistan’s cricketing genius. It shows off how good cricket longform can be: a specialist subject, made accessible to the outsider, with insight that could not be accommodated within a shorter piece.
“Alongside Wasim, Waqar remains the most vivid ringmaster of the tamasha and as he’d also just had a productive stint as the side’s coach, I asked him to make sense of it. “I tell you what, you know why this happens?” Waqar begins. “Because we’ve always had match-winners, individual match-winners. Not the team. Our team used to be titther-bitther [literally meaning scattered, but in this sense disunited and disparate] in the early days but there were guys like Wasim, myself, Inzi, Saeed Anwar, you know, one-man-show kind of players. We used to have so many that we would never lose hope. “
Jon Hotten heads up The Old Batsman website, a contender for the most consistently outstanding single-writer cricket website. An author and screenwriter by trade, Hotten gets it. Everything is ultra-concise, nothing feels superfluous, and not a word feels out of place.
Here, Hotten recalls watching Barry Richards, and ponders whether Apartheid-era players should be looked at in a different light.
“He made about 60 before retiring to the pavilion. I still recall one that he hit over the trees, out of the ground and on to the first hole of the pitch-and-putt course. And I still recall the only words he ever spoke to me: ‘Not now I’m having my sandwich,’ uttered gently as we hassled him for an autograph during tea.
Forget Richard Dawkins, God walked among us that day. Everyone has a moment like this; one that binds us to the game and brings it alive in a magical way. Mine was Barry Richards.”
Gideon Haigh has 19 cricket books to his name, and is a treasure trove of cricket knowledge. He writes with an underlying diligence that shines through in his writing, and 2013 saw him target the incompetence and suspect management surrounding the BCCI. With his ultra-logical takes, Haigh scythes through dishonesty and buffoonery, and is content to take on the bullies.
“The other salient fact is that the BCCI has its annual general meeting coming up on September 29, the overpowering presence at which will be its il capo dei capi, N Srinivasan, temporarily restricted by the betting misadventures of his son-in-law in the IPL but still the master string-puller. Since the May allegations about Gurunath Meiyappan, and about spot-fixing in the IPL, the BCCI has lurched about like many a debauched and embattled political regime.
Quick private inquiry to exonerate all concerned – thank you, former judges Chouta and Balasubramanian!Rehabilitation of former enemies it is now expedient to embrace – sorry that we once expelled you “for life” for corruption, Mr Dalmiya! Morale-boosting tributes from selected kiss-ass courtiers – congratulations, Mr Shastri, on a Sardesai Lecture that had it been delivered in North Korea would have brought a blush to the cheek of the Dear Leader!”
Arguably the cricketing masterpiece of the year, SB Tang’s breakdown of Shaun Marsh’s career is one of the best profiles of recent years. A staunch devotee to the art of longform writing, Tang has a painstaking passion for fact-checking, and he ruthlessly edits and re-edits his work to make sure that it is perfect.
Tang’s writing is all about diligence, as he digs up troves of years-old quotations and obscure stats. His attention to detail is arguably matched only by Haigh, and these attributes make Tang one of the most promising young sportswriters in the world. His myth-busting, reality-adjusting piece on Marsh changed the cricket world’s perceptions:
“When the Australian selectors look at Shaun Marsh they see, as his nickname suggests, his father’s son. They see a batsman who, in addition to his modern strokeplay and free-scoring, offers a direct genealogical link to a different, better era, when men were men, above the lip facial hair was de rigueur, and a battle-hardened, free-swearing, beer-swilling Australian cricket team was unmistakably on its way back to the top of world cricket. That link in blood to history is particularly potent when one recalls that Shaun Marsh made his debut for Australia at the very onset of Australian cricket’s first major trough since the one in which his father debuted more than two decades before.”
Gary Naylor is one of the most critically underrated cricket writers around. With an ascetic, clean style of writing, Naylor is regularly outstanding. This year, Naylor’s best contributions were his end-of-week county summaries, ‘The Final Over of The Week’, but anything on his 99.94 website is worthy of your time.
Mahesh Sethuraman is a banker, and a part-time cricket writer. It’s a shame that one doesn’t pay more than the other!
Here, Mahesh relives India vs Australia in 2001.
“Sachin Tendulkar produced one of the most glorious seventies the game has seen – with five pristine straight drives – against Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne at their peak. After failing to put up a big score in the first innings, India got Australia in trouble at 99 for 5, before Adam Gilchrist came out and rewrote the job description of a wicketkeeper in the game forever. Has any other cricketer ever had such a huge impact on their respective discipline?”
Mahesh often makes passing references to Radiohead in his work, which can only ever be a good thing.
For sheer consistency, I’d like to single out Russell Degnan, a staunch advocate of associate & affiliate cricket, and whose research has yielded some wonderful stats. He celebrates ten years of his Idle Summers website in 2014, an incredible feat of indefatigability.
Chris Smith has provided some of the most well-researched, esoteric cricket pieces of the past year. It would seem a matter of time before a website approaches him for his services, and his Declaration Game blog is certainly worth adding to your RSS feed.
While we’re at it…
Watch our very own TV pilot, Spot The Googly:
Shameless braggery: the piece I enjoyed writing the most was “Why Do Sportsmen Choke?”
Also, listen to our cricket podcast, Radio Cricket!