Wind On The Willow – Why Don Bradman Cricket 14 Matters

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Be it due to time or distance, I find myself a lapsed sports fan, far from the invigorating pulse of the weekend telecasts. Vestigial fondness for Rugby League remains, mainly because high-performance troglodytes performing in a bloodless arena speaks to some form of classical vicariousness. And the outlandish off-field behaviour of contact sports heroes – these young, mentally ill-equipped behemoths – makes for stunning sociological and anthropological analyses. But this is cricket. And cricket, for most member-states of the Commonwealth, is a national institution. The second-most popular sporting code in the world and a religion in places such as England, the Sub-Continent and Australia. A code somehow bypassed by the pomp and commercial ceremony of American sports presentation, cricket remains a bastion of Old World nobility, imperial legacy and the Antipodean scallywag.

Australia’s best moments, when not in the pool, are at the crease. We’re a nation that treats our cricketers like irreverent, gum-and-zinc demigods. Holding sporting legends as some sort of corporate-mandated "Ubermensch is not at all exclusive to any one country, but dropping names like Jeff Thomson, the Chappell brothers (discounting the situation which had New Zealand PM Robert Muldoon deeming said event as “…the most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of the game!”), Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and the eponymous Babe Ruth of cricket, Sir Donald Bradman, will earn one a free beer and a seat at the bar. The 1920s and the rise of the Australian team helped temper and reforge a postwar national character torn to pieces on the cliffs of Gallipoli, despite a well-documented tenacity in the muddy hell of the Western Front. The Great Depression, as it did in many countries, helped to focus and amplify the power of sport as a social salve. And from a small town in South Australia, the ‘Boy From Bowral’ emerged just prior to the economic woes, catapulting to skill-driven stardom and cementing the legend of the Don.

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Like any marketing, there’s an artful two-fold risk to attaching a name to something; appropriate pulling power by the star and conducive fare. Taking the Don’s name and applying it your product is a big deal. It shows a lot of faith in the creation. As every cricket fan knows, Bradman was undeniably the greatest and it’d be insulting to be posthumously placed upon a dud product.

And if there’s ever been a long string of dud products, it’d belong to the cricket videogame stable.

Which is surprising, because there have been some great ones – ones that have, at one point, matched the quality of American sporting franchises in the digital sphere. The 90s saw some terrific cricket games that, in their rudimentary glory, captured the spirit of the game, in lieu of the complexity. Licensed under different names for specific regions (Audiogenic’s 1993 Graham Gooch World Class Cricket was rebranded Allan Border Cricket for Australia, Jonty Rhodes in South Africa, and Brian Lara Cricket for the Caribbean and for sale in the UK chain Game), every fellow was often playing the same game and every fellow was more or less satisfied. These were simpler times, both reflecting the hardware and software, but also a sport then unfettered by the gloss and technology of modern sports telecasting.

The watershed moment came in 1996 via the sequel to the SNES title Super International Cricket. Developed by Melbourne House/Beam Software (known for RTS underdog KKND), Cricket ’96 featured real-time commentary. Despite having no official license, a sad and curious staple that still haunts cricket videogame adaptations, the game fell at a time when the sport itself was enjoying a massively exciting international presence. The West Indies were a force to be reckoned with, England weren’t too bad, Australia was a firestorm of talent not seen since the 1970s and the South Asian teams were in excellent form. The following year, doyen commentator Richie Benaud lent his visage and voice to Beam’s follow up, Cricket ’97 – later re-released as an expanded Ashes Edition to include for the first time ever, the names of the players from the competition.

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Both Cricket ’96 and ’97 were published by EA Sports, who then chose Creative Assembly to continue their cricket franchise development. Codemasters stepped in with their cricket titles and the two publishers began a battle down through the years that celebrated unadulterated mediocrity. Gameplay mechanics stagnated; iteration seemingly stuck in neutral as the same old meters and target interfaces we saw as kids continued to dominate and retard a sport that could transfer and accommodate its vast complexity in the modern digital sphere.

Poor graphics became par for the course. Stodgy, predictable AI turned every test, every tour and every one day international into a wash. Strange glitches ran riot, often remaining unpatched or studios citing deficits in funds or staff to do much more than a single complimentary fire-and-forget patch. The two publishers had golden geese elsewhere, namely the realm of American sports and car racing. Cricket games felt like an afterthought and an annual obligation.

While NFL games began modelling sweat and bone-breaking and highly variable running commentary, cricket fans were treated to primordial, polygonal scarification. Lord’s was transcribed as a bleak jumble of sorry textures and a thin, dismal burble passing for an otherwise excited crowd. Stiff, ungainly player models warped and jittered from static poses to end-frames of physical exertion, only to phase back to their original position and trigger an emaciated appeal. In FIFA, things like hair and real-time fabric deformation became bullet points and box quotes. Cricket fans just wanted to use real player names and hope they could finish a test match without their AI partner fritzing out.

The Noughties were a tough time for the digital cricketer. Where was our FIFA moment? Our NBA Live? Our Madden? There’s only two to three billion of us fans out there.

It seemed enough was enough when the infamous Ashes Cricket 2013 was released. Deployed by 505 Games in such a shambolic state, it was quickly removed from Steam amid a collective outcry of disbelief and dismay, joining the ranks of Final Fantasy: All The Bravest and Ride To Hell: Retribution as one of the worst games of all time.

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And along came Big Ant Studios. A tiny developer from Melbourne, Australia – the original heartland of videogame cricket for many – noted for their quiet, rough-but-endearing niche sports titles like AFL Live and NRL Live. Perhaps living under the comforting tyranny of distance; the isolation to create regional sports games gave them time to create, to hone and to spit-shine a true revolution. After all, competition wasn’t there. Nothing out of EA, Codemasters or 505 Games had cast a long and looming shadow, and thus therein, Big Ant conceived not only a good cricket game, but a game that gets cricket.

Cricket, despite its outwardly languid appearance and stereotype of lasting for days, is a markedly complex game. Much like baseball, the throwing of a ball is as much a game of psychology as it is skill. But even more than baseball, the considerations on getting a leather ball down a pitch are vast. Wind, pitch surface, state of the ball, length of the bowl, humidity, the opposing batsman, prior bowler, fielding arrangement and so on. Batting involves assessing the same pitch and fielding placement, power and speed of the delivery, spin, swing and a raft of other facets. Stroke mechanics are paramount. Fore or back-foot shot selection is crucial. And it’s only now, via Don Bradman Cricket 14, that such mechanics have appeared that not only do justice to the complexity, but give a player control over such complexity.

These are not the simpler days of tapping space once to the start a run, then again to release a ball. This shouldn’t be an age where you’ve no more control over your stroke than you did twenty years ago. If you were to swallow what the aforementioned publishing giants were serving, then you’d be excused in thinking cricket games haven’t changed much in the interim. Were it up to the developers straining out games like Ashes Cricket 2013, the art of conveying this beautiful game would be perceived as a worthless, turgid enterprise – which, by demonstration, it has appeared to be for the last long, sad decade.

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But with Don Bradman Cricket 14, things have changed. Strategic analog control setups have taken over from geriatric target-and-marker HUDs, allowing players to enjoy an expanded tactical element to their cricket. Somehow, Big Ant have outdone much larger, much more heavily-funded developers in animation. They overcame not being an officially licensed game by building great player and team creation tools and letting the fans fill in the deficit. I went from having generic teams and players to the rosters of every single county, state and international teams and players being downloaded at the press of a button. It is the truest representation of the game that many live and breathe. The technicality of it all; the slow-burn strategy of a test and the exciting tactical differentiation demanded by the T20 matches. Everything is here, bar the licensing. Which, I hope is something that is negotiable in the next iteration.

This game should have happened at the dawn of the millennium. But it didn’t, and as much as fourteen years hangs like bad tofu in the guts, I’m sure glad a developer with such a love for the game stepped in. It’s been Highway 80 since Brian Lara/Shane Warne Cricket ’99 on PSone, but the battle seems to be over.

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I recall, as a young fellow marauding the boundary fence at Bellerive Oval in 1992, leaning over the wire and hoping West Indian legend Richie Richardson would notice me and my cheap signature bat. It was a high Tasmanian summer, and the competition between the tourists and the Australia XI team was afoot and furious. The Antiguan God stepped a few paces back during the end of an over and took my offering, much to my surprise, triggering a rush of similarly-aged signature-seekers. He returned my miniature bat after scrawling his name across the blade and said, “Hope you enjoy tha’ ghem.”

Once more, many years on and a long way from home, I can do exactly that.