It’s more time than most people put into any video game in a year. It’s more time than most put into any video game ever. And it’s definitely more than most would consider sane for playing the virtual version of a sport that’s akin to watching paint dry.
Let me explain my obsession.
Playing actual cricket kind of sucks
There’s a lot about actual cricket that’s less than ideal.
A large part of the cricketing experience, both when I was a player, an umpire, and recently again when I had the chance to play in a charity match, involves ignoring the opposition for as long as humanly possible. It’s something you see a lot in competitive gaming: people genuinely think it’s a necessary part of the experience to carry on like absolute flogs.
This, too, happens with cricket. For some, bouncing people repeatedly is the only legal outlet for their aggression, despite the fact that it’s a charity match and you’re raising money for the homeless. For others, making comments about knocking up your Dad is part of the fabric of fielding at second slip.
But there’s also the part where a lot of the physical elements of cricket simply aren’t available if you want to just jump in and have good fun. Bowling on a proper turf pitch — and actually having access to a full width crease — isn’t something that’s just available up and down the country.
For a lot of people, if you jump back into cricket for the first time in ages — especially in more rural areas — you’ll end up playing on garbage astroturf. It’s a pretty trash experience in all sorts of ways. You don’t get any meaningful movement off the pitch. You don’t have any space on the pitch, which sucks if you’re a spinner and you want to at least do something interesting with the angles of your delivery.
It’s crappy even for an umpire. I lost track of the amount of matches where I had to stand a few extra feet behind the stumps — because the narrow width of the popping crease meant the umpire and the bowler couldn’t feasibly stand where you’d usually want to. Which might be fine, unless there’s a pretty tight LBW and you wish you were a little closer so you could have a better look at whether the ball pitched in line and where the point of impact was.
As an 18-year-old who copped endless abuse from 50-year-old men who swore to the seventh circle of hell that they, in fact, did not actually get hit on the ankle, square on middle and leg two inches in front of the stumps, I’d have really appreciated that extra space.
Cricket also shares the same problem with tennis in that your geography and environment has a fundamental impact on your cricketing experience. Australia doesn’t get the same kind of weather that encourages absurd swing or rip-snorting spin like the subcontinent or England might. Those things are pure, baked in environmental factors that aren’t easily, and certainly not frequently, replicated down under.
Virtually, you can recreate those conditions any time you like.
It’s a perfect second screen game
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 still fails to produce an actual result?
But it’s more than just passing the time. Sometimes it’s good to drown out the crappy commentary, as anyone forced to attest the worst years of Australian commentary, a patriotic circle jerk at the best of times, will understand.
Here’s a neat bit of harmony I’ve found: firing up an IPL stream, World Cup group match or even a bit of Sheffield Shield cricket on a second screen, with the game muted. Alternatively, you just fire up ABC Grandstand on the second screen, play the sound for that, and mute the virtual cricket game.
There’s also the bonus of being able to correct massive failures. I’m talking England’s highway robbery of the ODI World Cup final, or that absolute shocker of a last-wicket partnership during the Ashes. Or making sure Australia’s tour of South Africa was spent being good at cricket instead of finding ways to cheat. Or that time Australia pissed away 7 wickets for 38 in the first 11 overs of an Ashes Test.
Virtual, Australian-made cricket, lets me correct all of these car crashes. Instead of having a crack at a ball flying off the pitch and pretending I’m a 5-year-old in my neighbour’s backyard, I could do what armchair fans so often wish our representatives did. Don’t get baited by rubbish. Leave good balls. Wait for the bad ones — and enjoy the real Test, T2os, W2os, one-dayers or whatever state-level cricket is on.
The career mode is a kid’s fantasy
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.
Cricket was still very much a national sport in the ’90s. We grew up with late nights of Michael Bevan — and later Mike Hussey — rescuing Australians from certain defeat. Or just absolutely outclassing the world’s best.
But even Bevan’s career was cut short by a lot of what-ifs. Concerns against the short ball, a lack of willingness to spend more time working on his part-time bowling.
Virtual cricket lets you reset all of that and play out your own fantasy, which is part of the same magic behind FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer, NHL and all sports games. Want to build a player that weighs 150kg that enjoys snotting every ball for six while bowling right-arm rubbish that deserves to be flogged into the next postcode?
Well, you can.
Cricket reminds me of Counter-Strike
OK, OK. This needs heavy qualification, so let me explain.
I like Counter-Strike. 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.
I don’t blame people for not enjoying cricket. It deserves a lot of the flak. The rules are vague. The spectacle is slow. And the sport’s administration is appallingly incompetent, with an exceedingly short-sighted approach towards developing nations and future talent.
But that’s also why cricket makes for such a good video game. The elements that ruin cricket in the real world can be ignored, or glossed over. 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.