A blog may be many things – a platform to bring the writer’s talents to a wider audience, a repository for memories, or a vantage point from which to rant at the world – but a passport to riches it generally is not. Blogs do, though, have other advantages. They enable their writers to express their opinions without the need to conform to an agenda set by cricket administrators, by broadcasters or by editors. Nothing they write will be spiked and they have no-one looking over their shoulder. This artistic freedom has given rise to some of the finest recent writing about a game which has always held the value of the written word close to its heart.
Away from the field of play one topic dominated the agenda of the English cricket media in 2014. England’s brutal and irrevocable decision to dispense with Kevin Pietersen, and its deeply unsatisfactory aftermath, also prompted serious attention from some of the blogosphere’s finest writers, and, in terms of quantity and passion, Dmitri Old, at cricketbydmitri.wordpress.com, stood out. Old wrote thousands upon thousands of words, mostly excoriating the ECB hierarchy for their perceived incompetence and mendacity. While at times the cumulative effect of this resembled being repeatedly hit over the head with one of Pietersen’s bats, Old’s blog acted as a valuable conduit for a deep seam of resentment at the ECB’s administration of English cricket, as exemplified by the reference to people ‘outside cricket’ with which they responded to one of Piers Morgan’s incursions into the saga. However, it was not just those in authority that Old took aim at; he also trained his sights on the traditional press, many of whom he appeared to view as little more than establishment stooges. However, although the way in which those in authority in English cricket handled l’affaire Pietersen was astonishingly clumsy, much of the press coverage simply reflected the vulnerabilities of their own position. The traditional press have a symbiotic relationship with administrators and players – the administrators grant access to the players, who provide interviews and quotes in exchange for sympathetic coverage – but most bloggers have no such privileges. This freedom from professional dependence means that bloggers can shoot from the hip in ways that would swiftly end the careers of journalists. Where Old’s tour de force sometimes fell short was in failing to recognize the difficult position that journalists find themselves in – unlike bloggers they can’t just write what they want – and while some may have been prisoners of their own prejudices, the press as a whole perhaps weren’t quite the establishment mouthpieces that Old felt them to be. With his urgent, punchy delivery and a nice line in song lyrics as titles, Old’s obsessive refusal to let sleeping dogs lie was the most distinctive aspect of the blogosphere in 2014, even if it ultimately prompted the feeling that sometime he would just need to let go.
Other bloggers approached the fall of KP differently. Christian Drury (adomesticghost.wordpress.com) painted a persuasive picture of him as an ‘accidental radical’ who was destined to fail because his iconoclasm ran counter to the ‘invented traditions’ of English cricket: a respect for a rigidly defined social order and a suspicion both of excessive professionalism and instinctive genius. Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman (theoldbatsman.blogspot.co.uk), wrote a typically outstanding Elegy for KP, in which he wrote of the ephemeral nature of Pietersen’s talent and the transcendent power of his brilliance, while also making the point that ‘…the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist’. Such sentiments rang very true indeed, and, as with so much of Hotten’s writing, combined perceptiveness, an innate grasp of the zeitgeist and beautiful use of language.
Hotten, Drury, Gary Naylor of 99.94 (nestaquin.wordpress.com), the Australian SB Tang (astraightbat.wordpress.com) and the American Matt Becker (limitedovers.wordpress.com) all specialize in extended pieces which are the Test innings of the genre; the products of patience, consideration and refinement.
Perhaps Naylor’s best piece of the year was Kevin Pietersen, the ICC and love, in which he set his responses to the ICC governance and Pietersen controversies in the context of his own relationship with cricket: ‘I love cricket because it’s all the things real life isn’t – and yet it continuously improves on real life, throws light on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and unfolds as a great unscripted beautiful drama’.
Much of Tang’s best writing concerned the late Phillip Hughes. He consistently advocated his qualities, holding out the hope that he would eventually be granted an extended opportunity to show what he could do at the highest level of the game. That was never to come, but Tang’s assessments of his homespun virtues, and his runs, stand as a worthy testament to one of cricket’s most tragic losses. Becker’s most impressive piece of the year may have been Five Days in July, in which he contrasted the essential ephemerality of the Lord’s Test between England and India with contemporaneous events in Gaza and the skies over the Ukraine. It was a tricky conceit to bring off, but Becker, who has a deep and sincere regard for cricket made all the stronger by his late discovery of the game, did so very well.
Blogs are also places where the under-appreciated virtues of the English county game are celebrated. Nick Slough (aka Backwatersman) at The Crimson Rambler (backwatersman.wordpress.com) is a veteran of many years’ service at the Grace Road coalface, and the experience of supporting the weakest county team for decades only enhances the ruminative tone of his writing, in which dark humour is never far below the surface. Scott Oliver, as usual, combined a sharp turn of phrase and a grounding in the tough school of Staffordshire club cricket to write at reversesweeper.blogspot.co.uk about the vagaries of recruiting overseas league pros, the viability of fielding statistics and, most memorably, the 2011 Adrian Shankar saga, which took the conventional world of county cricket headlong towards the realms of the surreal.
For cricket, the years since the turn of the millennium have been turbulent ones. They have seen the rise of Twenty20, the long shadows cast by match-fixing, and the loss of many of the game’s true greats. At times it has been easy to be drawn towards the uncomfortable sensation of incipient decline, and, although blogs are a relatively recent addition to the game’s literary landscape, it is also possible, in the era of Twitter, to be seduced by the feeling that they have had their day.
This would be illusory and false. The inherent strength of the blogosphere lies in its freedom of opportunity. The freedom it allows anyone to write anything, no matter how long, short, simplistic or brilliant, without the need to concern themselves with what an editor will think. The way in which it allows someone such as Dmitri Old to act as a focus for the concerns of a sizeable strand of popular opinion which feels that the game – not just Pietersen, but ticket prices, terrestrial television coverage, the England one-day side – has been taken away from it by misguided administrators. The way in which it allows bloggers like Hotten, Naylor and Oliver to examine the very nature of their love for the game.
In the age of the Web, conventional journalism faces many threats. Bloggers are far from the most significant. Likewise, blogging, at its best when it gives extended rein to the creative abilities of its finest exponents, has no necessity to feel threatened by those fortunate enough to be paid to write about the sport. As cricket’s citizen journalists, the work of bloggers can enhance and complement that of the mainstream.
Where journalists have contacts, access and salaries, bloggers have freedom. It is something to be defended, cherished and celebrated.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 2015