For a while, I've been savouring a good, proper cricket experience that's portable. It's been an even more necessary respite this summer, given our national obsession with painfully dubious selections (see: Maxwell, Finch's selection as an opener, the ongoing patience for the Marsh brothers).
But towards the end of last year, I spotted a line in a press release that has led me, I think, to what is probably the closest experience you can get today to the oldschool EA Cricket games.
The note was more of an admission. It occurred when Big Bash Boom, the officially licensed game of the Big Bash developed in Melbourne, was announced.
The arcade game was being released on consoles, but Big Ant (makers of the Don Bradman games and AO Tennis) wouldn't be making a complimentary mobile game this time around. That contract went to Indian developer Next Wave Multimedia, makers of the World Cricket Championship games.
I'd played the original World Cricket Championship years ago. It was fun for a little while, but a bit too rudimentary, too exploitable, and lacking the modes, nuance and animations to make it stick. So I moved onto other cricket games, finding arcade experiences like Smashtastic Cricket and others.
Every now and again, something cricket-related will come across my feed. And just as sure as night follows day, I'll pick up my phone and think, "Maybe someone has finally ported Cricket 97 to phones."
But just belting sixes gets boring after a while. You want to set fields. You want to build an innings over the course of two days, grind the AI down with spinners, build a squad for yourself.
Or, in my case, remove the entirety of the Australian top six and promote Pat Cummins to fourth drop. It's not like anyone else is doing any better.
So having not looked at cricket sims on mobile for a while, I dove into the Google Play Store to see what I'd been missing.
Modern cricket games are all free-to-play, which is understandable given that the primary target market isn't Australians. It's India, and it's why all of the popular games tend to ship in English and Hindi.
Because Next Wave Multimedia secured the Big Bash contract, I checked out their latest game first, World Cricket Championship 2. Initial impressions upon loading aren't that great: the menu's littered with microtransactions, fielders don't seem to react to balls unless they hit them, the default camera modes (of which there are two) are pretty undesirable, and every tournament, stadium and team are gated behind a paywall. There's a couple of free options off the bat, but you'll have to pay at least $8.50 to remove ads, and $32 if you want an entire package that removes entry fees from all tournaments, player customisation, stadiums, test matches and more.
It's a bit bullshit, to be honest. I might have put up with all of this, if it wasn't for one thing: the app's performance was shockingly bad, even on an LG G7 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro (two flagship phones released in 2018, the latter of which was the first 7nm Android flagship).
Regretting that download, I went looking elsewhere. Enter stage left, Real Cricket 18.
Developed by Nautilus Mobile, Real Cricket 18 is pretty straightforward initially. You're greeted with Quick Play and Test Match modes, as well as a series of tournaments that include domestic and international competitions.
As you'd expect from a free-to-play mobile game, there's ads. You can pay a few bucks to bugger them off, and there's a bunch of equippable items that will improve various stats (like a ball that swings and spins more than the regular one).
Some of this stuff unlocks through regular gameplay after your player levels up enough. But the option is there - or, if we're being honest, the temptation is there.
And when you get carted for 20 runs an over at the end of a T20 match, that temptation is pretty strong.
But the cost of buggering ads off is pretty minimal. And the range of competitions is good: T20 competitions around the world, a Mortal Kombat-style ladder where you carve up the minnows of the cricket world before taking on the likes of South Africa/India/Australia/New Zealand, an under-19's tournament, a tournament just for Associate nations, various 50-over events, and the Indian Premier League (IPL), the most lucrative T20 league in the world.
And we really need to talk about the IPL, because its implementation is so good that it's almost worth putting up with ads for microtransactions every five overs.
The IPL is a franchise league, modelled in a similar fashion to basketball's NBA. Each season is preceded by a auction, where teams are given a budget to bid on players. That budget has a minimum spend as well as a cap, and teams can only draft a maximum of 8 foreign players out of a squad of 18 to 25. (Most importantly, you can only play four foreign players per match out of a
To mix things up further, each team has what's called "right to match" cards. Teams can get up to three, depending on how many players they retain from the previous IPL season. It gives teams the option of releasing a player into the auction, but still being able to retain them by matching another team's bid.
Because each IPL season is essentially the chance to rebuild a squad from scratch - or mostly from scratch, depending on how you want to set it up - it's basically a mini-strategy game.
A suite of players are auctioned off every round, starting with the marquee superstars and then rotating through the best all-rounders, wicketkeepers, fast bowlers and spin bowlers. You then go through multiple rounds of lower tier international players and first-class Indian players, the latter of whom are crucial since they'll make up the majority of your squad. Finally, you'll have the chance to pick up uncapped players - players who haven't represented their country before - for cheap, as well as any players that went unsold during the draft.
You go through this entire process in Real Cricket 18. A full auction will take around an hour, and it's a ton of fun. It's the kind of thing fans of the franchise or league modes in the NBA 2K series would love, although being a mobile game the simulation isn't as deep. You can't play multiple seasons either, which is a real shame.
But it's still fun putting together a solid squad, especially once you've patiently waited for half an hour to pick up Nathan Lyon because the AI in your phone is just as shit at recognising his T20 ability as the Australian selectors.
I mentioned Cricket 97 at the top of the story because, in practice, the control mechanism for Real Cricket 18 is pretty similar. You pick a direction to hit the ball and, if you're using the "pro" controls, one of three options: push, stroke or loft. Push is basically your option for nudging singles around the inner circle, while stroke opens up more forceful drives, cuts and hook shots.
From there, you can choose to play on the front foot, back foot, advance down the wicket, or leave the ball entirely. The latter is most helpful for test matches, while dancing down the pitch is a necessity for getting boundaries late in an innings when half the field is sitting on the boundary rope. The timing changes substantially depending on the speed of the delivery, so there's a bit of depth to that as well.
Most of the animations are decent enough, and the AI puts up a last hurrah at the end that ensures that even on lower difficulty levels you'll get a modicum of difficulty. Grinding out a century in a Test Match is also a handy way to burn through a less than enticing movie at home, a long train commute or lengthy roadtrip. The game also services stat nerds well throughout, with a fully fledged DRS system (which you're encouraged to use through some truly woeful umpiring decisions), and various graphs and statistics to track the course of an innings.
It's also worth noting that if you do pay to remove ads, you don't get the "strategic timeout" ad mid-innings in modes other than the IPL. The "strategic timeout" is something that only exists in that league, but I'm not sure why it keeps prompting me to pay for something I've already paid for.
And while I'm glad it doesn't crop up in tests, that part is a crappy user experience. The excessive monetisation of things like gloves, equippable bats, and shoes isn't great either. This is a singleplayer only experience, and you can ignore them entirely or just stick to equipping what you unlock as your player level rises. But the idea of buying a ball or bat that performs better undermines part of the experience of crafting a well-rounded team.
But if EA were to make a cricket game in 2018, let's face it: it'd probably be on mobile, and it'd probably be monetised like this.
There's functional stuff I'd like changed, mind you. You can only set fielders to a limited range of preset positions, and the UI for changing field is woeful. If you want to move third man, for instance, the screen transitions to the camera on the other side of the field, like you're changing to the opposite TV camera. It's slow and a right pain in the arse. Not being able to carry seasons over or have some kind of pure simulation is a missed opportunity too - the game lets you autoplay entire innings and matches, so why not build a whole mode around that?
But all of that aside, it's a shame Cricket Australia didn't give the contract to Nautilus. Real Cricket's an infinitely better product, doesn't run like arse, and has plenty of echoes from the classic cricket games of eras past. It's not perfect, but it's plenty playable, and it's a hell of a lot more fun than watching India spank Australia around the park.