I quite like cricket, especially the sport's longer format contests. Limited overs matches always strike me as trivial and disposable, lacking much of the unpredictability and sheer mental strain of a five-day test match. Perhaps because of this I've never been hooked by a cricket game - they seem like slogfests where hitting 6 sixes off one over is par for the course rather than an almighty achievement.
With this in mind I sat down to play through the first hour of the Xbox 360 version of Ashes Cricket 2009. Here's what happened...
00:00 - I hit "Play Game" on the 360's dashboard. The familiar Wide World of Sports music starts. First choice you make is for your "theme", which alters the menu screens to suit your chosen nation's colours. I picked Australia, since there was no Scotland option. 00:02 - In the menu there's a training mode where you receive instructions from cricketing legends on the various aspects of play. There's also the Pavilion secton where you can check out your match records, rewards and unlockables. 00:06 - Jumping into a match now, I ignore the One-Day, Test Match and 20/20 modes and opt for the full Ashes 2009 series. Again, I pick Australia and spend a few moments tweaking my lineup for the first Test. Annoyingly, Phil Jaques isn't in the squad, but at least Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are fit. In they go and out go Hauritz and Hilfenhaus. 00:08 - Commentator Jonathan Agnew introduces proceedings with a natural ease. His co-commentator, Tony Grieg, sounds like he's reading his autocue for the very first time. 00:09 - England win the toss at Cardiff and elect to bat. I choose Lee as my opening bowler and the game starts. At this point I'm regretting not taking any of those lessons with the legends, but slightly relieved to see the HUD displays what every button does. The left stick switches through dozens of field settings. The right stick adjusts where you start your run up. The face buttons determine the type of delivery: straight, slow, inswinger, outswinger. The bumpers switch between even more types of delivery, including leg and off cutters.
00:11 - I pick an attacking field with three slips and two gullies and instruct Lee to send it down straight. As he nears the crease a meter pops up - presumably indicating some sort of accuracy or pace - so I instinctively hit the A button as it nears the top. I must have hit it too late, however, as the umpire calls a no ball. 00:12 - Second time round I get the hang of it. As the bowler runs in you can use the left stick to move a marker around the wicket, indicating where you want him to pitch the ball. The meter affects your accuracy. I keep it simple in the first over, pitching it up around off stump. Strauss defends, before playing and missing one that just misses off stump then prodding the straighter final ball of the over down to long-on. 00:15 - I get an instant replay of that final ball, as the fielder's throw from the deep hit the stumps at the bowler's end. Tony Grieg gets quite excited about this, even though Strauss was safe behind the crease the entire time. 00:18 - Clark bowls the second over. I try experimenting with some swing this time. As well as the pitch market, you can tap the triggers to tweak the angle and amount of swing you're after, similar I guess to adjusting where a bowler would grip the seam of the ball. The default position of the marker seems far too wide on the pitch for my liking, so I keep bringing it back to around middle stump, hoping the outswing will produce an edge. Strauss strokes a single down to long-off, then Cook cracks me through cover for four before nicking another single to long-off.
00:21 - Aggers is already asking Tony Grieg for a second time what is favourite all-time XI would be. Fortunately these extended "colour" commentary interludes only seem to kick in when I'm not actively doing anything, ie. when I've turned to my laptop to type up this post. 00:24 - Mixing it up with the bowlers, I bring on Johnson to see if a lefty feels any different. This time I try a couple of off-cutters, the second of which Cook guided along the ground through gully for four. Aggers seemed to think it had a chance of clearing the rope, but on replay he rightly declared it wasn't a six. 00:26 - Messing around with the marker and swing controls during Johnson's over I lost concentration several times and, in trying for more pace, bowled three no-balls. Sounds about right for Johnson, then. But actually it's really easy to do if you're not paying absolute attention. 00:29 - Wanting to give a spinner a go, and without a dedicated spin bowler in my side, I threw the ball to Katich. Did you know his seemingly innocuous leggies have brought him 13 test wickets at an average just over 36? Worth a shot, surely. The delivery options here are reduced to standard leg breaks plus a top spin and a slider. Again, the triggers tweak the amount of spin applied. I tie Strauss down with some tight leg breaks pitching on middle and off before drifting one too far outside off and it's dispatched to the cover boundary. 00:30 - Realising I'm halfway through my allotted hour, I decide to simulate the rest of the innings so I can spend some time with the bat. (England end up all out for 398, Collingwood top scoring with 93 and Clarke - yes, Michael - pinching four wickets.)
00:32 - Tony Grieg has started rambling on about seams and swinging, umming and erring every few words. He's either gone mad or this is placeholder audio. 00:33 - Hughes faces Flintoff for the first ball. Clean-bowled! Ponting faces Flintoff for the second ball. Clean-bowled! Clarke faces Flintoff for the third ball, Flintoff on a hat-trick already. It hits him on the pad as I try to defend, England appeal... but it's turned down. It hardly matters, however, as the fourth ball takes out middle stump. 00:35 - At this point it's clear I have little idea what I'm doing. The on-screen prompts aren't nearly as intuitive for the batsman as they are the bowler. Plus, there's less margin for error - one mistake and it's all over. Unlike bowling, there's no HUD element to indicate the timing of your shot. Instead you have to judge your shot selection based on the animated flight of the ball. It's tricky. 00:39 - Hussey manages to defend Flintoff's final two deliveries, albeit with more than a little luck. It's during the second over, from Anderson, that I manage to work things out. As the bowler's approaching you can see his pitch marker indicating where the ball will pitch. The face buttons let you defend or playing attacking or lofted shots. The default stance is the front foot, but you can hold the left trigger to play from the back foot. The left stick points to where you want the shot played.
00:41 - I start to find my feet, aided by the graphic overlay after each ball informing me of whether I played too early or too late, and by how much. Flintoff bowls much shorter in his second over and I'm able to get on the back foot and pull through square several times. Hussey smashes two boundaries with what I'm told are "Perfect!" shots. On another occasion my timing is a little off and I get a top edge than Panesar fortuitously fumbles at a deep square leg. 00:45 - Learning how to hit the ball is one thing. Managing to run between the wicket is another. Katich drives deep and the mid-on fielder gives chase. I realise neither batsman is running yet, despite it being an easy single. The on-screen prompt tells me to hit Y to run, so I do. Only problem is, by the time I've done so, the fielder is returning the ball. Katich is run out for my 4th duck of the innings. 00:48 - Hussey and North develop a better partnership. I'm timing my shots better now, rarely playing and missing yet still misqueuing some and edging others. Hussey attempts to hook Flintoff and succeeds only in gloving it just wide of the keeper. I hit Y to run, but the first slip is on it quicker than I thought, and I barely manage to hit B in time to cancel the run. For once, Tony Grieg is understandably excited by a genuine close call.
00:52 - Things are improving. We've moved the score onto 4/28! Hussey's on fire, with 4 fours to his name, including one cracking back foot cut shot to a wide and shortish ball from Anderson. With confidence he knocks a Flintoff yorker to mid-on and sets off for a quick single, failing to notice there was actually someone fielding at mid-on. I try to cancel the run, but I fear the worst as the ball's returned swiftly to the bowler's end. The third umpire confirms it: North is run out for 7. 00:53 - Haddin doesn't last long. He's clean-bowled by Anderson for yet another duck as I hesitate over whether to attack or defend. Hussey and Johnson take it to the English attack for a couple of overs, the former swatting Flintoff over the mid wicket fence not once but twice in one over. I'm learning to differentiate between when to strike and when to just block or leave it altogether, resulting in an obvious reduction in the number of mistimed shots. 00:57 - What's notable is just how much more stressful batting is compared to bowling. You have slightly fewer options but much less time to execute them and all without the assistance of any on-screen prompt to guide you. But it's also more satisfying in that my batting errors felt like my own mistakes, while bowling felt like a lot of it was down to luck. Of which I didn't appear to get any. Grrr. 00:59 - With time nearly up I decide to go for broke. I take 12 off Anderson's next over, but lose Johnson to an impetuous lofted drive that doesn't quite carry the long-off boundary and is caught in the deep. Hussey remains unbeaten on 32, far and away the best performed Australian batsman. 00:60 - Time's up!
So, the big question is… Do I want to keep playing beyond the first hour?
Against the computer player? Not really. I played 30 minutes each way on the normal difficulty and was thoroughly outgunned by the AI. I can't see there's much here that would sustain a single-player game. Sure, you can play the full Ashes series and you can participate in generic One-Day and 20/20 tournaments (which throw you straight into the knockout quarter-final stage), but there's no league system or campaign or any kind of substantial single-player progression.
Against friends? Yes. It's an even playing field, for a start, as both players are batting blind, as it were. There's no doubt this would make a fun party game, regardless of whether you just want to hit a button to slog it or seek out the extra complexity on offer.
Much of the long term appeal, of course, will hinge on whether there's enough variety, as nothing kills a multiplayer game quicker than seeing the same thing over and over. In this regard, the presentation isn't quite there; the commentary is useless, if often unintentionally funny, while the player animations, replays and Hawkeye close-ups all repeat far too frequently. However, I felt the actual play offered enough - the little tweaks you can apply to adjust your shot or your delivery make a tangible difference. I was forced to play different shots and with different timing as the bowler mixed it up; likewise, when bowling, it appeared as if the batsman grew to read my designs if I stuck to the same type of ball too often.
So, overall, a qualified recommendation. If you've played the Ashes Cricket 2009 demo, or if you picked up the full game today, let us know your thoughts on it. Did you find batting or bowling more difficult? And what was more fun? How would you compare the single-player experience to the multiplayer one? Join the discussion in the comments below.