Every time the topic comes up, I always get the same response. "I can't believe you like cricket," Mark says. I've sat next to him for a year, and it's almost the same reaction, the same stunned. Cricket. You. Cricket.
It morphed from a smile into a laugh when he looked at my Steam library, and the number above Don Bradman Cricket 14: 383 hours.
That's more time than Mark has spent on Dark Souls. It's more time than some put into video games in a single year. And it's certainly more time than most would consider sane for a sport that has been likened to watching paint dry. But there's a good reason why I've toiled away for hours watching leather on willow. Several, in fact.
With the Indian test marking the return of cricket back for another summer, this article has been republished as a reminder of the good times when we could still field our best batters. Fingers crossed we don't need them in the coming days.
It's The Perfect Second Screen Game
Remember when the idea of driving virtual trucks seemed absurd? The broader gaming populace understands the appeal of Euro Truck Simulator now though, and games like it. People enjoy games where they can tune out a little. People like to multi-task.
The same goes for virtual cricket.
Most of the action in cricket is compressed into a single moment. The bowler releases the ball. Your eyes watch for the point of release. They drop down in anticipation of where the ball will land. And then you make a quick judgement. You execute the shot.
It might get smashed to the boundary. You might miss it completely. Or maybe you just let it go. Either way, there's generally 20 or so seconds before the next ball is bowled. A brief moment of downtime, where your mind can freely wander to other things.
Like other streams. TV shows. Podcasts. The weather. Literally anything.
Until the next ball is bowled.
Virtual Cricket Makes Real Cricket Better
Unsurprisingly, people who like playing virtual cricket enjoy watching real cricket. After all, can you think of any other sport that goes for five days and can still fail to have a result at the end?
But it's more than just passing the time. Sometimes, it helps drown out crappy commentary. Anyone who has been forced to tolerate the circle jerk that is Channel 9 commentary will understand. It's the most patronising of patriotism, a passion for the national team that cheapens the sport.
So I just play virtual cricket, watch a stream on the second monitor or listen to ABC Grandstand instead while knocking up a century or two of my own.
Another advantage: you get to correct all the knucklehead mistakes that bowlers and batsmen make in crucial moments.
Perfect example: the 4th test of the Ashes last year in England. Australia kicks off the first innings on the morning of August 6. 11 overs later, the first drinks break is taken.
Because Australia managed to piss away 7 wickets for the paltry total of 38.
I was watching a stream of SKY at the time, already furious that Australia had found themselves 2-1 down in the series. The third Test at Birmingham already featured plenty of Australians playing brainless, wasteful shots. So what do you do when the series is on the line?
Throw your wicket away. Obviously.
Fortunately, playing virtual cricket allowed me to correct the car crash that was the Australian middle order. Instead of having a crack at a ball flying off the pitch, I could ignore it for the crap that it was.
You know, what you're actually supposed to do in Test cricket. Don't get baited by rubbish. Leave the good balls if you can. Punish the bad ones within reason. Sensible, smart cricket — while enjoying the rest of the Test match unfold.
That's something you can't do in FIFA.
The Career Mode Is Pretty Great
This is more of a Sports thing than a cricket thing. But I always had a dream as a kid about making a sports game where you could customise a character as a kid and bring them up through the various state and national leagues before testing your mettle on the international stage.
That's more or less where most of my hours went into — building a virtual cricketer that mirrored the player I wanted to be. Someone who liked snotting the ball to the fence while bowling trashy spin that deserved to be flogged into the next postcode.
And, no, I'm not going to translate that into non-cricket speak.
Video Games Can't Shun Technology
What you're seeing above, apart from bullshit, is the video game version of Hawkeye from Tennis, or goal line technology from soccer. In cricket it's called DRS, and it stands for the Umpire Decision Review System (DRS). It's a little more advanced in cricket though, incorporating infra-red imaging cameras, microphones to detect whether the ball was hit by a bat or pad, and ball-tracking technology.
Decisions can be real easy to get wrong in cricket. Bowlers have hit speeds of up to 160km/hr. Sometimes you're lucky if you have a fraction of a second to distinguish whether a bat hit a thigh pad or the ball itself. And you're expected to have powers of projection too, thanks to the wonderfully arcane laws governing LBW (leg before wicket) dismissals.
I should know. I was a qualified umpire; it was my first paying job while I was still in high school. And it was a bloody nightmare. I'd have killed for the ability to be able to refer back to technology, and so would the 40 and 50-year-old men that were being given out by a 15-year-old.
So when the Aussie developers behind Don Bradman Cricket 14 announced their version of DRS, it was a godsend. Because it was something that would be available in every single game.
Which isn't the case for real-life cricket.
The powers that be in Indian cricket, you see, aren't convinced. Their cricketing authority, the BCCI, has regularly complained that the DRS technology is not 100% accurate, as if a regular umpiring error was somehow easier to stomach. And given that the BCCI is by far and away the most powerful member of world cricket, they get to enforce a wonderfully absurd situation where matches involving them don't use DRS — but matches with everyone else does.
There's a bit more to the story than that. But everytime Australia play India, the numbingly stupid topic of DRS is raised. It's painful to watch as a fan, and at least when I play virtual cricket I don't have to have my modern game violated by politically motivated, technophobic stupidity.
Cricket Reminds Me Of Counter-Strike
OK, OK. This needs heavy qualification, so let me explain.
I like Counter-Strike. Most of you probably know that by now. But I've never really been open about what precisely it is I like about the toxic first-person shooter so much.
The reason is adrenaline. Every version of Counter-Strike, from the first betas to CS:GO today, is built on an ebb and flow. The round starts slow. You're frozen in your respective spawns. You can't move. It's the buy period. So you focus on other things. Your phone. Bantering the enemy. Buying your weapons. Pouring a drink. Anything but the match at hand.
And then the next 10 or 20 seconds unfolds. Maybe something happens. Maybe the other team rushes you with a flurry of grenades, rifles and sound. Maybe they rush the other side of the map. Maybe nothing happens at all.
Often, nothing happens. So you wait. Your muscles begin to tense up. Your concentration narrows to certain points of the screen. You're only focusing on the crosshair, occasionally checking the radar. Your ears prick up for the sound of a footstep, or a grenade.
And then everything happens at once. An enemy appears on your screen. A firefight ensues. If you survive, your focus switches to the next fight. Where are your teammates? Where are they in relation to you? Do you have time to reload? Where's the bomb? Where do you need to be? Can you get there in time? Should you push forward instead?
And when it's all said and done, the round ends. Your body relaxes. Your concentration eases. Your focus shifts to other things. And then the process starts all over again.
It's not too dissimilar from the mental cycle of cricket. The bowler runs up to the wicket. They release the ball. The batter watches the point of release. Their eyes drop to the pitch. The bat approaches the ball, and whatever happens, happens.
In truth, I don't blame Mark for slagging cricket off as much as he does. The rules are vague. The spectacle is slow. The sport's administration is appallingly incompetent. And the action doesn't happen very often.
But that's also why it makes for such a good video game. The elements that ruin cricket in the real world can be ignored, or glossed over. And as a video game, cricket fits into a busy lifestyle more than most games do. The sound is basically irrelevant. Your full attention is purely optional, and it only demands as much time as you're willing to give.
There's always multiplayer, of course. But in my experience, it's far too buggy. And besides, who really wants to spend a night mucking about with other humans when you can sledge the umpire all by yourself?