It is an intellectual pastime, yet one that stirs passions. It is a minority interest that supports a global community. It is drily statistical, yet it has its own poetry. In some places it is hard to access - but, thankfully, it is reasonably low-bandwidth. Cricket, it seems, was made for the Net. Which explains why CricInfo, an Internet-based cricket information service, is such a storming success.
For a billion people in the Indian subcontinent, cricket is the national game. In Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, South Africa and England it is the summer sport. It has its constituencies elsewhere; New Jerseyis thick with wickets.
But that still leaves a lot of places where cricket is not played - and where, as a result, fans have a hard time finding out anything about the games happening elsewhere. Committed fans who travel widely or live abroad have to rely on imported newspapers and occasional short-wave radio broadcasts - even those as rich as John Paul Getty.
When Simon King embarked upon two years of post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota in 1992, he found himself in just such a cricketing wilderness - and he was not prepared to put up with it. So he used the Net to get his fix. Three years on, King is a research fellow at University College, London: he can tune in to Radio 4's Test Match Special and read British newspapers. Yet he still runs the CricInfo service he started in Minnesota - a service that now provides a regular lifeline for 100,000 fans in at least 69 countries. This extraordinary growth is not simply a response to the traditional media's resolute refusalto meet cricket fans' demands. It is a testament to the peculiarly good fit between cricket fans' mania, the sport's peculiarities and the Net's versatility.
Cricket is unlike other sports. The best matches last five days - and still often end in a draw. The game itself is bound by tradition: play stops for lunch at one o'clock and for tea at three-forty. It is slow in pace but free in form. Its best players are physically gifted, mentally agile and intuitively cunning. England's best-ever captain is now a brilliant psychologist; another former England captain is now Bishop of Liverpool. The game has changed so little over the last 40 years that a team from the 1950s would fancy their chances against modern opposition, were they to be transported into the present. So the game's past has a curious immediacy.
Cricket can seem to be as much about numbers as anything else. Boys at my junior school - truer devotees than ever there were - used to sit alone in corners rolling "cricket dice". These numerical simulations would run for hours on end; the boys would record the results in specially printed cricket score books. Many adult fans still go to games with a score book under one arm: each ball can count. Cricket is a statistician's delight; books of cricket statistics remain solid sellers.
As a true fan, King wanted nothing less than ball-by-ball coverage in Minnesota. He got it - though in a manner that, looking back, seems unnecessarily difficult. David McBean, a friend in Oxford, connected a radio to a Sun workstation. Using a sophisticated audio-conferencing facility, McBean then transmitted live radio commentary of England's 1992 winter tests against India to King and his colleague Neeran Karnik at the University of Minnesota, and to three other cricket fans at Ohio State, Rice University in Oregon, and Stanford University.
Listening to the commentary, King and his col-leagues decided to relay ball-by-ball play to users who didn't have the sophisticated set up required to receive the audio signal, but could access Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the Net's text-based equivalent to CB radio. They typed in a summary of each delivery as they heard it over the Net.
Word spread quickly among expatriate students. IRCers in computer laboratories across America joined the cricket channel and watched the typed commentary appear line by line, ticker-tape-like, on their screens. IRC "commentators" began to imitate their radio and television counterparts. Organising themselves into teams, they worked simultaneously to record each delivery, comment on the match, keep a running score card updated and provide statistical insights. Their IRC "listeners" could join in with insights and questions.
The channel was a dream come true for Net-capable cricket enthusiasts. Not just a scores service where none had existed before, it provided a meeting point where fans could share their passion. And it gave many their first-ever opportunity to com-municate with fans from other countries. The commentaries started to attract listeners even from those countries where fans could easily obtain cricket broadcasts and match reports in other ways.
King's original system was dismantled at the end of the winter of 1992. But by then commentaries provided by fans within reach of ordinary cricket broadcasts had become an established feature on IRC. In early 1993 King decided to extend and formalise things a little, coordinating the commentaries and recording the complete scorecards for every international and major (or "first class") game ever played in a computer searchable database. He founded CI, or CricInfo.
The database started life as an automated data collector, or "bot." It lived on the IRC's cricket channel (which the pressure of increasing demand has forced to move from the EFnet, the most commonly used IRC server network, to the quieter Undernet, a younger server network). It quickly began filling up all the available disk space in King's Minnesota Net account. It moved first to a 386 lent by K. S. Rao, a professor in North Dakota, then to a Sun 3/50 server in Oregon which CricInfo obtained in part exchange for a used microwave, then to its current home, a Sun Sparc 1 server at the Oregon Graduate Institute.
The 150Mb of data CricInfo now stores includes user-contributed scorecards, player profiles, articles, general cricket news and a few pictures. It has about 10,000 files in all, a total that grows by about 300 a month. It has a record of every Test match ever played; new results appear within hours of the close of play, and users often receive updates during matches. The database now gets over 25,000 hits a day - pretty good for an almost all-text service.
In CricInfo's early days, King relied on occasional contributions from fans to update the database. As the user base increased, he asked frequent users to help him manage it on a regular basis. CricInfo now has 25 managers from a dozen countries in 11 time zones, all unpaid, most with full-time day jobs.
Thanks to their efforts, the database will soon be fully automated. The system now records all scorecards in a common, computer-readable format. Soon it will automatically check new scorecards for obvious typographical errors and then automatically add them to the database. It will always compile statistics using the most up-to-the-minute data available. So, for example, when a CricInfo manager enters an England scorecard into the database, the system will update the lifetime statistics of every player mentioned on the card. If, on corroboration, a manager finds that the scorecard was incorrect, then he need merely change the card's details, and the system will correct all other related files.
Users volunteer around 20 per cent of CricInfo's material. Its managers gather the rest - they watch and listen to matches and scour newspapers and magazines to complete the scorecards. Not even the world's best selling cricket statistics book, Wisden, can match the resulting compilation. CricInfo contains information that can-not be found in published books, such as full statistics on Asian and Zimbabwean cricket. And it has the capacity to create new stats on the fly that no book could hope to match.
CricInfo's programmers have built up the ability to perform complex database searches. One of its recent programs, for example, allows you to compare Ian Botham's performances under Mike Brearley to his efforts under other England captains. Cricket fans would die for such a toy - it would settle club-room arguments at a stroke, and engender new ones just as easily. At the moment CricInfo is withholding the search programs from general users - it fears that demand will overwhelm the system. But the only real limit on new bells and whistles is server speed. "Most search scripts can be written in a matter of days," says Vishal Misra, CricInfo's chief perl programmer.
Badrinarayanan Seshadri, one of King's managers, takes more responsibility than anyone else except King for keeping Cric-Info running. A graduate student in aeronautics at Cornell University, Seshadri has a pleasant, bright voice - but King doesn't know that. In two-and-a-half years of working together almost every day, the two have never spoken, let alone met. In fact King has never spoken to more than half the current CricInfo management; he manages the organisation almost entirely by e-mail. The reason is simple: "We couldn't afford the phone calls," says King.Bizarre as it might seem, King does not believe that voice-to-voice communication, much less face-to-face, would improve CricInfo's management significantly. E-mail is more concise and accurate than conversation, and never encounters busy signals. Should any manager have a problem that needs attention, he simply e-mails the management mailing list, where other managers offer advice and help. CricInfo's Net interface pools and makes accessible all management information and ideas. When major problems occur, King organises a special mailing-list-based working group to solve them. If the managers want to confer in a hurry, there is always IRC. CricInfo doesn't merely use an "intranet" - it's run by one.
Management decisions are mostly consensual, but the system is not exactly a free-for-all. "I usually get my way if I feel strongly about something," says King. Often he just argues until he has exhausted everyone. A recent article in Wisden Cricket Monthly, questioning the commitment of West-Indian-born England players to the England team, sparked a feisty debate among the CricInfo management (as well as producing handsome libel awards for the players maligned). King did not want to archive it - see if you can find it on the database.
The next challenge facing the team is moving. Though the engineers have been remarkably resourceful about squeezing the best out of their server, they have not been able completely to avoid the problem of downtime. "We've had about a month's downtime in the last 18 months of operation," says King. An international server network would protect the system against downtime. It would also provide stations from which full-time correspondents could update scores and statistics in real time, and cricket club representatives could connect to the system from around the globe. CricInfo already has the national representatives in situ. It could have the servers up and running in a matter of weeks.
King is discussing the server network with the International Cricket Council, the sport's ruling body. An expanded service with the ICC's participation might allow fans to make bookings and travel plans, as well as providing cricket with the world's most up-to-date and complete sports information resource. Meanwhile, CricInfo has struck up a working relationship with The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, to ensure that the CricInfo database carries full reports of all significant Indian domestic matches within hours of close of play.
CricInfo could one day have servers at major sports grounds around the world. In principle that would allow it to broadcast video and audio over the Net. New programs such as Progressive Network's Real Audio, for audio broadcasts, and VDOnet Corporation's VDOLive, for video, already make possible rudimentary audio and video broadcasting across the Net. When the available bandwidth increases, Netcasting will grow more widespread. For sports with a smallish but loyal following, that could be a godsend.
The Web is already awash with sports fans' homepages, and also boasts a number of professional services. ESPN Sportszone, a partnership between the cable network ESPN and the multimedia company Starwave, and Sportsline, a private information provider from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, deliver highly polished general sports information to online subscribers. The Press Association in the UK started a cricket service in 1995 and relays on the Web scores that its own correspondents provide from English cricket games.
Like King, Kenneth Dotson, vice president of Sportsline, sees the potential of broadcasting video and audio over the Net. "We don't think the day is that far away," he says. ESPN Sportszone has begun broadcasting NBA scores on an experimental basis using Real Audio. "We hope to be providing multi-game broadcasts by next spring," says Brian Ratzilff, Sportzone's product manager. Both services hope to serve a broader public, at home and (here's a big market for online sport) in the workplace, with more sports in the future.
CricInfo should have a place in that future - but it differs from the other services, especially in its approach to collecting and providing information. As befits a service that grew from a lowly bot on IRC, CricInfo is short on memory-intensive graphics and gimmicks. Unlike most other Net sports services, CricInfo does not depend on the Web - indeed, many of its users outside the United States do not have Web-browsing capability. Michiel Boland, a Dutch student who organises CricInfo's Web interface, doesn't believe that graphics are all that important. "Many people associate the Web with graphics, which isn't quite how I see it. It's the content that matters, and I think CricInfo has plenty of content," he says.
People using CricInfo tend to get their pictures, their video and, often, their live commentaries from other sources. They come to CricInfo for data, pure and simple. In meeting that need, the service has come to cover all the world's cricket - drawing more data from a wider base than any other sports service. CricInfo gathers in-formation from broadly subscribed local information networks in a way that only the Net could make possible. It can draw on an established worldwide user base larger than the circulation of the world's bestselling cricket magazine, Cricketer International - estimated at 40,000 - for contributions.
King believes that as long as the service remains free to Net users, contributions will continue to flood in. And he doesn't foresee any objection to CricInfo moving onto a more commercial footing. "I don't think users will mind if we start to pay staff, as long as what we are doing is seen to benefit cricket," he says. With few rivals, the support of the sport's governing body and a highly efficient network of highly committed managers and users around the globe, CricInfo has plenty of room to grow even further, wherever cricket and the Net flourish.
CricInfo on the Web at cricinfo.cse.ogi.edu, IRC to #cricket on the Undernet, gopher cricinfo.cse.ogi.edu:7070, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Balfour (email@example.com) is a London-based freelance journalist who is building a shrine to Mike Atherton in his front room.