For the last couple of weeks it has been very noticeable that not many British men have been in the cafe bar at morning coffee time. Some of them have been there at lunch time though, around 1.15. Of course some people are on leave as you would expect in late July. Others are working from home. But I have also discovered that some of my colleagues, although in the university, are having what they call "research meetings" in the Students' Union, where they have Sky TV on all day - more specifically tuned into the channel devoted to Ashes cricket. Gus said I should come and join them one day as the series has been really exciting so far, and having played in the Staff-Students cricket match I might find it interesting. So last Friday I did.
I found that as well as Gus, Jack, Richard, Tony and Bob Bunn, quite a few people that I recognised from other parts of the university were there - Dr Weasel for example. There were also a few women there who like cricket. I spotted Emily Willis from Computing and Barbara Briggs from Quality Assurance.
Gus explained to me the special significance of Ashes tests against the Australian cricket team - the "Aussies" - for England cricketers and supporters. It seems that back in 1882 a touring team from Australia had beaten an English cricket team here and the defeat had been taken so badly that the cricket stumps from the match had been burned and their ashes paced in an urn and presented to the Australians. When an English team next visited Australia the following year it was in the hope of winning and "regaining The Ashes". The teams now play each other for the trophy every few years. At present England hold the Ashes, and now seem well on course to retain them. For a number of years recently Australia had been the dominant team but nearly all their top players had retired and they are now in the process of rebuilding their team. England, meanwhile, have several world class batsmen and bowlers. Despite this the first test had been evenly balanced with each team having periods of dominance with the game tilting backwards and forwards between the two teams. In the end England had won with the Aussies only 14 runs short of the target they had been set for their second innings. In the second test England have been much more dominant, piling on the runs to provide Australia with a huge target to go after. And last night they managed to get Australia all out well short of their target to win the match and go 2-0 up in the series. Gus told me that only once in the history of test cricket has a team that was two-nil down in a five match series managed to come back to win, so England are well on their way to retaining the Ashes.
Gus told me that there had been quite a lot of debate during the first test match as to whether or not a batsman should "walk" if he knew that he had hit the ball which had then been caught by a fielder. Apparently one of the England batsmen, Stuart Broad, had clearly hit the ball which had then been caught. However he had stood his ground, and to everybody's amazement astonishingly the umpire had given the batsman "not out". He must have been the only person in the ground who had failed to see the clear deflection off Broad's bat. Broad went on to score quite a few runs and it could be argued that, given the eventual closeness of the scores, this was the crucial decision in the match.
The whole thing was complicated, I was told, by the effectiveness or otherwise use of the DRS (Digital Review System) by the Australians. Both sides have two opportunities per innings to contest an umpire's decision. The matter then gets referred to a third umpire in the stands who can make use of the digital technology - the Hawkeye pictures, the snickometer and microphones - to assess whether or not the ball hit the bat and carried to the catcher. They can also use the technology to look at leg before wicket decisions to see where the ball pitched, whether it hit the bat before the pad and whether or not it would hit the stumps. The problem for the Australians with the Broad catch was that they had already made use of their two DRS opportunities and so were unable to ask for this decision to be referred.
There was some disagreement amongst my colleagues as to whether or not Broad should have walked. Richard, Gus and Bob were "old school" and thought he should have gone. Richard said that the game of cricket had always been associated with fairness and high moral standards - there was even a saying "that's not cricket" which implied that someone was being dishonest or trying to cheat in some way.
Mike said that was rubbish. Cricketers had always tried to stretch the rules, with bowlers trying to rough up the ball to try to get it to swing for the fast bowlers or grip the pitch better for spinners. Or they might ask the umpire to change the ball in the hope that it might do something when they were getting no joy with the present one. Batsmen would intentionally waste time to try to stop the bowling side squeezing another over just before the lunch or tea break. And besides, if you employ a regulator (the umpire) it is right that you leave these decisions to him.
Gus said this was cheating, making analogies to exam sitting and coursework submission in our line of work. Would Mike argue that it is all right for students to try to cheat in exams and that it was up to invigilators to catch them? Or was it OK for students to plagiarise coursework with the onus placed on staff marking the work to spot the offenders? Don't we try to encourage our students to behave ethically in the hope that they will also take forward this attitude into their future career?
Mike said that you would be surprised how many students did try to cheat, weighing the risks of being caught against the potential gains from cheating - this was just economics - risk and return. Just as in business some students were good enough at what they did for there to be no incentive for them to cheat - the additional returns they might expect to get from cheating did not justify the risk and the losses they would face if caught.
Moving on to other things I got from the cricket were the really weird names they have for fielding positions and the funny little phrases that cricket commentators use.
For example I figured out that in the Staff-Student match I had been fielding at Square Leg. But I loved some of the other names of fielding positions - short leg, silly short leg, third man, long on. And there was much talk amongst the commentators about the "corridor of uncertainty" and the use of a "nightwatchman". Fascinating. I also love all the statistics that get quoted during the game - economy rates, runs per over, the speed the ball was bowled at, even the number of revolutions per minute of the spinners' deliveries.
We also talked a bit about the role of the captain - deciding who should bowl, where the fielders should be placed etc. Mike said that being a cricket captain was a bit like being Head of Department. Deciding with the selectors and Team Manager who should be in the squad was akin to the selection process for staff where you shared decision making with the Dean and VC. Then deciding who should teach certain courses, or who should be given more time for research, was like identifying roles for members of the team. The key thing was to get decisions made in the best interests of the team or department despite the individual preferences of the individuals in the group. At this point there were rueful smiles on the faces of my colleagues and me. I had better end it there!