Monday, February 28, 2011

What League Cup win means for Birmingham City

After their 2-1 League Cup defeat of heavily favoured Arsenal, it is fit and proper for Birmingham City to celebrate. Behind the opportunism of Obafemi Martins, the calamity of Wojcieh Szczesny & Laurent Koscielny and the Scots' management nous of Alex McLeish, the Blues have won their first silverware since the old Division Two (now League 1) title in 1995. In all probability this is the biggest win in club history and the first time the side have won the League Cup since 1963.

McLeish must take the much of the credit, just as Wenger cannot be totally absolved of blame. City last year finished ninth in the Premiership on re-entering the division after a year in the Championship. This was their highest league position for over forty years as veterans such as Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer combined with a breakout season from Joe Hart to vault the Brummies into the top half. When Hart returned to parent club Manchester City, McLeish replaced him with the able Ben Foster to maintain a defence now reputed for stinginess. By combining several senior Premiership players with the cream of the Championship - chiefly centre-back England aspirants Roger Johnson and Scott Dann - and classy loan signees Aliaksandr Hleb, David Bentley and Obafemi Martins, the rednut Scot has built a squad with both the strength to operate in Birmingham's long-held defensive posture, but also the outrageous talent needed to generate those moments of magic requried to upset the big boys. In theory, anyway. The Blues haven't done so this season and are only two points above the relegation zone and far from safety. Foster, though good enough to be England's second choice isn't of the same blue chip quality as Hart and has played well, but not in the same "I'm in the zone all year" fashion that earned Hart his current, deserved rep.

And if McLeish takes - quite correctly - the credit for masterminding this triumph, then he should also take a portion of the blame for the Brummie plight. The team has spent considerable, but not award-winning, sums in introducing reputed class to surround an uncompromising spine; an exercise which could not be judged as a complete success. Even so, this title ensures McLeish receives a passing grade for this season and also for no other reason than he seems like he's trying to make positive changes. During both summer and winter transfer windows, McLeish confirmed a plethora of new bodies were asked to relocate to St Andrews but were unwilling to journey to England's infamously grim second city. Though this triumph - like Tottenham's in 2007 - may provide a springboard for a more positive last third of the season, the victory could also distract them and further complicate avoiding the drop. The workmanlike approach favoured by several City players makes this an unlikely option but still possible.

Though it was injury, youth and inexperience which cost Arsenal this title - Szczesny is 20 and it's Koscielny's first year with the Gunners - Arsene Wenger now may be willing to consider the possibility that his constant refusal to reinforce a notably shaky backline could be a flawed policy. Walcott's pace and Fabregas' needle-threading aside, Szczesny is a debatable second-stringer - albeit one with enormous potential - who has played well in recent outings and although Koscielny cost a reported 8.45 million and came off his best performance of the year against Barcelona, several Emirates cognoscenti don't view him as either an adequate or long-term centre-back candidate. The problem between the two was a simple, (probable) one-time communication dysfunction which allowed Martins his "easiest goal". Though Wenger wasn't on the pitch and selected a team capable of defeating City, he was selecting from the best players he had available: no Mark Schwarzer or Gary Cahill - two players linked heavily with a move to North London during summer - among them.

For City, the results are curious. Entry into next year's Europa League and a trophy to end the drought that's plagued the club for long stretches of it's existence are wonderful results for the season but are not necessarily first priorities. Individually it's a great achievement, but one which would be tarnished should the club finish the year in the drop zone. Craig Gardner's season has been one of quality and lucky underpants and the man whose name must always be prefixed with "Giant Serbian striker", Giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic, has since New Year found the net more regularly than in his disastrous first half-year in the midlands.

With the midseason arrival of Martins, the club has reasons for optimism beyond European jaunts next year but the path home isn't horrible: their next seven matches should be considered "winnable", coming against WBA, Everton, Bolton, Wigan, Blackburn and Sunderland before two big four clubs. Then follow Wolves, Newcastle and Fulham before finishing the year at Tottenham. There are several clubs with much harder runs home and the bounce hopefully provided by their Cup win should see them through. Although local rivals Wolves have picked up recently, as have West Ham, Wigan's terminal slide into the Championship coupled with West Brom's seeming inability to stay in the Premiership for more than one season at a time should mean that one relegation spot is available and an unwary Brum may yet fill it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Clive Lloyd: Mr World Cup

by Balanced Sports Columnist Ben Roberts

Into its tenth edition and with 36 years of existence, the thought of the Cricket World Cup still provides no great historic or nostalgic pull on the heart of a cricket fan. Despite the tournament still struggling to forge an identity in our hearts, it has acted as a canvas for some tremendous individual performances.

Tournaments in all sports often have players rise up and define their careers by them. Think of Rugby player Jonny Wilkinson reaching heights of fame in the 2003 Rugby World Cup and Diego Maradona making the 1986 Football World Cup his own. But cricket, with such a focus on individual analysis, calls for even greater influence then a starring tournament in its search for the World Cup's best.

To combine influence, leadership, as well as personal success is a feat that some have done in individual tournaments, but likely only West Indian Sir Clive Lloyd produced this consistently.

The bespectacled West Indian was an early limited over cricket champion finishing his middle order batting career with an average of 40 and a strike rate of over 80. He led West Indian cricket into the era of dominance but In 1975 they were far from this, still to be drubbed 5-1 by the Australians in the 1975-76 test series. Lloyd would later identify that the brutality of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson drove them to greater heights.

The first two Cricket World Cups staged were won by Lloyd’s West Indian teams. The 1975 tournament at the time was regarded as somewhat of a novelty, and the West Indian win has only been fully recognised for its significance in hindsight. So trivial at the time that Ian Chappell stated his belief publicly that these one-day 'tests' were just a warm up to the Ashes in 1975, and so misunderstood that Sunil Gavaskar seemingly batted for a draw in one match.

Tony Cozier later wrote that the West Indians were considered the inaugural tournament's favourites given their all-round strength, fielding ability and experience from many players coming out of the county scene where limited over matches were already a fixture. The West Indians had an unbeaten run through the tournament, and outside of geographical hosts England probably had the most home support with a large expatriate community calling Britain home. Lloyd himself dominated the winning final against Australia with 102 off 85 balls (his only ever ODI century) and a miserly bowling performance.

Again in 1979 Lloyd led his side to an unbeaten tournament (though this time one match was abandoned due to weather). Reliant upon the growing status of later champion batsmen Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Vivian Richards, Lloyd’s personal contribution was less pronounced with the bat (a top score of 73 not out against NZ) but he still led his side admirably.

Leadership of West Indian teams is regularly undervalued when compared against leadership of other nations. The West Indies we must remember are a conglomerate of different nations and different cultures. They are a group of players thrown together who don't necessarily speak a consistent language (at the very least they have different dialects) and all have differing cultural backgrounds. A successful leader will walk a fine line in their interaction with the team as they try to be fair and justified in their treatment of all.

The West Indian dominance of the tournament finally ended at the 1983 tournament. A seed was perhaps sewn in their opening match when they lost to India. This would be the only blemish for Lloyd's team as they from then on proceeded undefeated to make the final of the tournament for the third successive occasion, even defeating India in the return group match.

They again faced the Indian team led by the charismatic all-rounder Kapil Dev. With what was now considered the most damaging bowling attack in the world the West Indies managed to dismiss India for a lowly 184, but could not overhaul this small target themselves being bowled out for 140. Coming toward the end of his international career, Lloyd did not pass 50 in his final World Cup.

In raising Lloyd as the most influential has required an ignorance of greater individual performances by great players such as Sachin Tendulker, Glenn McGrath and Wasim Akram. However, none ever led their side to a World Cup victory; and the victories that Akram and McGrath both played in, while contributing in a large way, still relied upon great team efforts. In Tendulker's case, now in his last tournament, despite a phenomenal World Cup record he is yet to win and at most can only finish with one victory.

Also ignored are the captaincy feats of Kapil Dev in 1983, Allan Border in 1987, Imran Khan in 1992 and Arjuna Ranatunga in 1996 who led teams that were certainly not tournament favourites to victory. But none have led teams sustaining this success in subsequent tournaments.

Probably the only player who does go near the feats of Lloyd is Ricky Ponting. Ponting is in his 5th World Cup currently and has three tournament wins and a runner-up from his other four. He has led Australia to two of the victories, losing no matches in either tournament and produced some of his great limited over performances on its highest stage.

Ponting of course was blessed with a great, if not the greatest, team in the history of the limited over game. Should Ponting, in 2011, lead a weaker team than at least three other competitors to victory and provide value with the bat, he may have cause to take the mantle from Lloyd.

Lloyd also later went on to have influence off the field at World Cups as well as in his role as a match referee. He was a pioneer of the format and a ruthless competitor. But he was and remains highly respected as the leader of these great West Indian teams that set the benchmark of performance in the formative years of cricket's World Cup.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The frolics of St Pauli

Perhaps the weirdest story to hit football news wires this week occurred when nonconformist Bundesliga club St Pauli called up their 30-year old press officer for a match against Hannover. The club, long regarded as German football's coloured ewe, were forced to select Hauke Bruckner to cover their lack of fit defenders. Bruckner has a footballing pedigree, having played ten second division games eight years ago and has turned out for their Under-23's squad, will probably debut on the substitutes' bench for this weekend's Hannover fixture.

The "alternative" Hamburg club, who have this season made headlines for what can only be described as comedy gold. Although going through a losing stretch which saw them win only twice in three months, they sit fourteenth in the Bundesliga table, six points away from relegation amidst a season with a script that reads like a Carry On film. Last month midfielder Matthias Lehmann - no relation to Goalkeeper Crazy Jens - admitted to feigning being headbutted by a Gladbach opponent, which caused Brazilian midfielder Camargo to be shown a red card. He further endeared himself to Gladbach supporters by saying "Why would I ignore a golden opportunity like that when we're down 1 - 0?".

After a recent win against Koln, their goalkeeper and former Koln player Thomas Kessler said he'd be celebrating: "I'm off to pick up a few cold Astra beers from a petrol station"; this comes after a recent Bundesliga edict that lap & pole dancers should no longer be entertained in corporate boxes. Entertained? Sorry, that should read "entertainment": the club has had at least one corporate box in which dancers would strip after a St Pauli score. German authorities are also attempting to convince St Pauli to change their logo from their traditional "Jolly Rouge" emblem: a skull and crossbones on a red background.

The fans of the club have been suitably outraged by the mooted changes. St Pauli have long been regarded a working-class club and their rivalry with Hamburg is among the most passionate (read: violent) in world football. Some fans object to the league trying to run their club. Others can't fathom the lack of respect shown to St Pauli traditions. A certain percentage just like strippers.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

NBA trade deadline shenanigans

Good grief, what have we here? The single most apocalyptic trade deadline perhaps in NBA history as over the past two days thirteen trades were consummated - yes, thirteen - including seven All-stars, three members of Team USA, the third pick in last year's college draft, last year's Most Improved Player, probably the best Point Guard on the planet and the second pick in the 2009 draft. In total, so far confirmed hirty-eight players and fifteen-plus draft picks have changed teams, a figure The Sporting News' Sean Deveney tweeted that about 10% of NBA players have or are calling realtors. More surprising than anything though was the minutes-to-midnight deal which sent Boston Celtics starting Center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for swing Forward Jeff Green.

You can find a list of the deals here.

It's not too long a bow to draw to suggest that the NBA's balance of power has not just shifted eastwards but earthquaked that way by this week's shenanigans. By securing a young tweener in Green, the Celtics gave away possibly their greatest playoff asset - size - in releasing Perkins. Perkins, whose NBA Finals knee injury last year torched Celtics' chances of taking out the NBA championship, has in playoff series past whupped Orlando's Dwight Howard, his now replacement Shaquille O'Neal and Laker Andrew Bynum. Popular punditry has him as Dwight Howard's biggest fear due to his combination of defense-first mentality, strong widebody and fearlessness.

Perkins - with a scowl like no other - finds himself in Oklahoma, where he'll start (when healthy) alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a squad formerly labelled a "donut" team. They've lacked an enforcer and rim defender, the two things that Perk does best. The Thunder, had to give up an asset - and were disclined to pay Free Agent-to-be Green - have acquired perhaps the piece which turns them from Playoff team to Potential contender.

The Eastern Conference - though giving up talent in depth in Harris, Wallace, Favors, Perkins, Gallinari & Felton - actually acquired the high-end abilities, with three of the four best players shifting addresses into their conference. Anthony will combine with Amar'e Stoudemire to form a very potent offensive New York Knicks team; their cross-town rival Nets used most of the package they had offered for Anthony to sign the best point guard in the league, Deron Williams, who'd apparently malcontented his way out of Utah.

The clubs not considered contending for the title were also active as sleeper deals - trades which could bring immense benefit without garnering the same uproar - improved all of the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets. The Blazers' acquisition of former All-star Gerald Wallace to combine with LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and the shell of Brandon Roy's knees forms a potent small-ball rotation, further reinforcing notions that no matter how chaotic their back office, their impressive list of assets allow them to remain difference-makers. The Rockets, in signing 7'3 uberbust Hasheem Thabeet and last Spring's playoff hero, Phoenix's Goran Dragic, rebooted by ridding themselves of a potential headache in Aaron Brookes. As bait, despite being last year's Most Improved Player, Brooks played terribly this season backing up the more defensive-minded Kyle Lowry but could be, with Polish Hammer Marcin Gortat, the first step in the Suns' post-Steve Nash era. Nash remains with the team but voices suggest he's likely to be moved before the Suns being their next campaign.

In seasons past, deadline day has been an irrelevancy, notable for who didn't move rather than who did. This year, with the NBA lockout looming, the league has put together perhaps the best season since 1997 and has topped it off with the Best. Trade. Deadline. Ever. As they face an offseason of doubt, the league has certainly done its part to put itself to the forefront of the imagination. All that remains is for him to facilitate an Owners/Players deal which equally dissatisfies all parties.

The English Game: Lancashire & Northamptonshire

by Ben Roberts


The Australian test team have been defeated in three of the four past Ashes series due in no small part to two modern day Lancashire heroes. Andrew Flintoff proved his strength in England’s 2005 and 2009 victories. His charismatic presence with bat and ball, and indeed in the field in 2009, lifted the English regularly in both northern summers. James Anderson, somewhat dismissed by opponents in his earlier career, provided Australian cricketers, and cricket watchers alike with a lesson in swing bowling during the recent series in Australia.

Lancashire has had two periods of sustained success in the championship, at the turn of 20th century and the golden era of the 1920′s and 1930′s. The most recent success came with sharing the 1950 championship with Surrey although they did win division 2 in 2005 to regain promotion. Lancashire have been the most successful limited overs team of all counties, despite not being able to win the T20 championship as yet.

Lancashire have always been another strong provider of personnel to English cricket. Batsmen of the quality of Cyril Washbrook and Eddie Paynter were champions for both club and country during the Lancashire glory years of the 1920s and 1930s, Paynter finishing his career with a test batting average of over 59. In an earlier part of this era, the Tyldesley brothers, Ernest and Johnny, forged cricket careers that led them both to represent their country and remain to this day the highest and second highest run scorers for Lancashire.

Brian Statham holds the record for the most wickets in the county’s history, 1,816, and too represented England, forming a lethal bowling combination with Yorkshireman Fred Trueman during the 1950s. There is a great deal of irony in this bowling partnership as Lancashire versus Yorkshire, the ‘Red Rose’ versus the ‘White Rose’, potentially has been the greatest rivalry in cricket history. That you should elect to refer to a match in terms of a 15th century war speaks of the desperation to perform.

During the golden era, Australian test cricketer EA “Ted” McDonald was part of the Lancashire team. McDonald’s 198 wickets in a single season is still the record haul for a Lancashire bowler. Forgotten Australian cricketer Stuart Law played for the county from 2002 until 2008, and captained the county also. Andrew Symonds is another modern Australian cricketer to have worn the ‘Red Rose’, but Australians, and indeed numerous other international players, have a greater affinity with Lancashire cricket outside of the county.

The Lancashire League is famed for its competitiveness and highly remunerated professional positions. A combination of both qualities, along with quotas on international players in county teams, led to a consistently strong flow of high quality cricketers making their way to Lancashire from early times. The league was very often the first port of call for emigrating internationals before being recruited by a county. Australian and West Indian cricketers have always been a favourite recruiting target of the Lancashire clubs.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s Northamptonshire was a home to a group of Australian cricketers playing under the banner of being good enough for any test team in the world, except of course Australia. We may lament, ‘Oh for Australia to have that ‘problem’ now’. Matthew Hayden, who captained Northants prior to becoming a regular test team member, Phillip Jacques and Martin Love all played for a period at the club. The most successful Australian at this time however was clearly Michael Hussey.

Hussey during his time at Northants remained an enigma of first-class cricket, with huge run scoring feats for both the county and Western Australia not being enough for many years for him to gain national selection. Hussey holds the record for the highest individual score for the county (and indeed the second highest score); as well he holds the record for the most runs for Northants in a championship season.

Northants have also seen great Australian bowlers turn out for them. In the 1950s George Tribe followed the well worn path of Lancashire League cricket to become a champion for Northants, holding a number of records to this day. In the late 1980s and prior to Australia’s revival as a cricket team, Dennis Lillee was sounded out to make a comeback. After playing for Tasmania during the 1987-88 Australian summer, Lillee signed on for Northants for the 1988 English summer. Injury truncated Lillee’s stint at Northants to 8 matches, and his comeback attempt went no further.

But what of Northamptonshire as a county club. They have never won the County Championship, having come second four times. They share this ignominy with Gloucestershire and Somerset. Up until the Second World War they were one of the county championships perennial strugglers. From May 1935 until May 1939 the county recorded no victory in the County Championship. In a somewhat mirrored history to Somerset, Northants embarked on a post war recruiting drive.

Frank Tyson probably the most noted from those recruited. The express paceman served both Northants and England well, and for both it was a great loss when he emigrated to Australia in the prime of his career. The county has been criticised for the high number of international imports (primarily South African) that they have recruited over the years. Many South African cricketers took advantage during the apartheid ban of the Northant welcome. Alan Lamb, also later of the England test team, was the most successful with over 20,000 runs for the county.

Fevola's issues will haunt his future

Even though he's been cleared of wrongdoing in his most recent infraction, Brendan Fevola had tried to walk too fine a line for too long without falling off. And unsurprisingly, for someone so regularly affected by intoxicants, he didn't fall but reel from the straight and narrow to find himself now without a club for 2011 and perhaps approaching the AFL scrapheap for good.

As we said in January, he's far too talented to be thrown for good to the wolves of fortune, but at present he's so fractured that there remains too few recognisable pieces to allow his management to being the process of rebuilding. So often one cannot make lasting change until they hit rock bottom. For a man with as apparently little to his life as Fevola, he probably can't get any lower. There's little coincidence that his longest trouble-free period was during the time he abstained from alcohol during his then-wife's pregnancy and a similar decision would seem to be the first step in rehabilitating both his career and his life. Former NBA star and Original Dream Team member Chris Mullin forswore drinking after his second year in the leage after running into problems once too often and turned an potential also-ran career into a one possibly destined for the Hall of Fame. The troubled forward should take heed.

Where next, though? The VFL would melt down should one of the second-tier clubs manage to land Fev; the chances of his succeeding in the WAFL or SANFL is unlikely - a bagful of goals perhaps not worth the headache. The NFL, perhaps? Australia's greatest-ever NFL player, Darren Bennett recently said that the North American league would have no interest in such a wild chile as Fevola - it only bears imagining what Fevola would do in a party city like New York or San Francisco if his celebratory style was too much for Brisbane to handle. As is always the case with him, it's not his talent questioned but his application. Unable to cope with the solitary lifestyle in Queensland, fears exist that he would self-destruct, supernova-style, if allowed free reign and a salary in excess of seven figures. With a lockout looming in the NFL as well, any chances of him securing a career as a punter are unlikely.

A few years ago there was the much-publicised case of Carlton's Lawrence Angwin and Karl Norman turning up to training still affected by disco biscuits from the night before. Popular opinion had one, the other or both suffering from either ADD or ADHD. All the signs point to Fevola suffering the same condition - be it very difficult to diagnose from such a great distance and without personal interaction. His lifestyle will no doubt change - it will have to - as match payments turn from five-figure to low four-figure sums at best. With his alleged gambling debts, Fev his not backed himself into a corner but walked either willingly or been unable to control his direction of travel.

We can only hope for Brendan Fevola's sake that his AFL career is not over - there's every chance that Kevin Sheedy will be his saviour at Greater Western Sydney - but his tale is ending as Carlton expected. His days of clowning now won't be met with resignation but with sadness.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Make Ponting's punishment fit the crime

Ricky Ponting is Australia's least effective captain since Kim Hughes. He's in charge of a team finding it hard to match the achievements of his fallen comrades. He also is facing one of the worst form slumps of his career. As a leader of men he's mastered the art of using the right words with the wrong body language; his history is littered with animated - and public - disagreements with umpires and opposition. He is, quite simply, a bad loser.

But for the ICC to threaten to suspend him for damaging a television set after being dismissed against Zimbabwe is not a bridge, but a channel tunnel too far. Reports have the ICC charging the Australia captain with "abuse of ... ground equipment, fixtures or fittings during an international match". Allegedly, he threw his box when arriving back in the Australia dressing room after being dismissed by an outstanding direct hit from Chris Mpofu. It hit a television set, and damaged the picture control. There was no incident involving him smashing a television set with his bat despite earlier reports and his actions immediately after included volunteering to pay for any damage as well as notifying the Gujarat board of the incident.

Helen Keller knows that Ponting has a temper and struggles to control it, but we're hardly talking criminal offences here. Unlike past cases, where Ian Healy threw his bat into the change rooms, Hansie Cronje attacking an umpire's door with a stump or - apocryphally, anyway - Alan Border destroyed a change room after getting out, this was a private expression of frustration. And Ponting has tacitly admitted responsibility by offering payment for damages. That's also an expression of remorse.

You can't go around damaging fixtures, so some punishment should be doled out, but it's time for the ICC to act more like a responsible parent than a petty dictator: as the governing body proved when judging the accused Pakistani Spot-Fixers, each case should be judged on its own merits and in this case a suspension would be almost unbelievably harsh. In a climate of fear, perhaps Ponting would be punished harshly. In a climate of teaching the result should be simple reparations to the damaged property subtracted from his match fees. Because he has past offences also shouldn't register: although his lack of on-field restraint and this incident both stem from an apparent lack of maturity or self-control, they are completely different issues. And even though he's perhaps cricket's first modern-day recidivist captain, a suspension would be like jailing a person for their first speeding offence simply because they already have a rap for armed robbery.

If the ICC is the caring, sharing father figure it purports to be, justice will prevail and Ponting will be compelled to repay the costs of any damage done. If, as many suspect, the ICC bends to the whim of sensationalism, then Ponting will miss Australia's matches against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. It will be an interesting test case for the ICC.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

FA Cup revamp rebuttal

After Crawley Town's gallant display against Manchester United and Leyton Orient's surprising draw with Arsenal, any plans to change the format of England's FA Cup must surely now be thrown in the garbage. The world's pre-eminent domestic cup competition is sacred and should remain so, as notions of the death of "the romance of the cup" became greatly overstated.

For some time, occasional "experts" have suggested that from Round 3 of the Cup the draw should be seeded, ostensibly pitting smaller clubs against larger from that time on. The rationale behind that would be with more big-versus-small clashes, there comes a greater chance of a giant-killing effort from a "minnow". This is complete bunk simply because both the odds and the talent available suggests that it wouldn't lead to more of this melodrama, but only an increase in Goliath moments where impudent would-be Davids are squished by the giant feet of Champions' League clubs. If anything, seeding a draw would rob the Cup of mystery as any potential Crawley Towns or Havant & Waterloovilles unthinkingly know their fate in the third, fourth or fifth-round: likely a Premiership club and odds-on elimination.

It actually happens that small clubs like to come up against their larger counterparts as a match against Chelsea or Liverpool is liable to bring in larger crowds at home and a share of the (suitably large) gate takings when away. This could be preferable to clubs in or nearing administration like Plymouth. But what it does to the plethora of - and names like these are always debatable - well-run clubs like Peterborough, Ipswich or Millwall is rob them of a puncher's chance to advance further in the competition. Better to stay with the current system, where clubs discover their coming opponents mere weeks ahead of schedule.

Plans to change when Cup ties are played to maximise attendances are also clearly an idea by the same crowd who bought us the Collins-class submarine. The FA's former Chief Executive, Ian Watmore, recently suggested that games be played mid-week because he had seen several games played at night of good standard. When considering revamping an institution such as the FA Cup, one must tread very carefully and suggestions like this are dangerous if increasing attendance is the ultimate aim: if crowds are poor for a Bournemouth versus Dag & Red fixture on a weekend in sleet and howling winds, how much improved are they likely to be on a Tuesday night in rain/snow mix and very fresh winds? The answer is fewer attendees, if anything, simply because mid-week equals school for the kids and an automatic decrease in the available market.

The proposition that replays used in case of a draw in the first leg be abolished is also ludicrous. In a recent example, the Chairman of Leyton Orient Barry Hearn has been quoted as saying he would take all his players to Las Vegas as reward for their endeavour in earning a replay against the Gunners at the Emirates stadium. That replay would earn Orient a significant percentage of the gate money which the club say will abolish their seasonal operating loss. By robbing the Cup of replays, not only do you enforce penalty shoot-outs in almost every match, but slam the door in the faces of the small clubs needing those funds to get out of jail. The big clubs are happy with replays as well, with both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger coming out in support of them for the same reasons: they can allow a big club to get out of jail, albeit not from a financial prison but a footballing one.

The final suggestion mooted for "improving" the FA Cup involves a Champions' League place being awarded to the winner. This suggestion has much more merit than the previous three but is flawed in some ways: if this were in effect now, last year's runners-up would be entitled to a UCL position as the winners, Chelsea, attained automatic qualification. Meaning Portsmouth would be eligible to play in Europe's top club competition amidst a swarm of debts and, early on this season having only sixteen senior players under contract. With UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules about to bite home on many of Europe's largest clubs, it woudn't be a stretch to suggest similar rules could be put in place for FA Cup winners' European entrances: if your books aren't balanced (to a point) or two teams who finished in the EPL's top four play off for the Cup, the position is goes automatically to the fourth-placed Premiership club. This plan seems more satisfying than the previous three because it would add another air of mystery to the end of the season: would the Cup winner make Europe? Or would the team who came in fourth? This is unlikely to occur however, as should a runner-up make Europe, then their performances on the continent would affect England's UEFA coefficient and bad displays especially could see the country robbed of it's fourth UCL slot.

The first three suggestions: abolishing replays, playing midweek and seeding the draw from the third round on, mean one of two things. The first option is the FA have no concept of what they actually want to do with The Cup - reinforce the larger teams or smaller? Attendance or romance? Finance or football? If this is true, the answer is simple: there's not enough data to suggest what clubs or fans want from The Cup so it's best to do nothing until a clear picture appears. It's in no immediate danger of falling into irrelevancy, so best not to fix something which isn't broken.

The second alternative is that the story is media-driven, with no FA substance whatsoever, peddled by networks and newspapers who want only to write about the Gerrards, Rooneys and Terrys of this world and not, it seems, the football of lower tiers which props up the planet's most famous league. The narrative of many lower league clubs make fascinating reading: Bournemouth's lack of money hasn't stopped them charging to the top of League One and their 32 year-old manager Eddie Howe being poached by Premiership-aspirant Burnley. Or Gus Poyet's men at Brighton, destined for a spot in the Championship for the first year in who knows how long? Have you heard about Norwich's rise from League One also-rans to Championship Playoff team? Even in the top division there are stories to tell: Newcastle's rise from the ashes and the everlasting inquiry into Ian Holloway's sanity spring instantly to the fingertips.

Perhaps you've heard of some of these tales. Perhaps not.

Surely football for its own sake should be enough.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Rock returns to WWE

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back to Anaheim". And with those words, Dwayne Johnson announced his return to WWE ranks leaving seven years and ten poor-to-fair movies behind. His reception was nothing less than stupendous. After the show's main event, the ring announcer informed the baying audience that the host for Wrestlemania was in the building and promptly left the ring. This allowed the punters the luxury and pleasure of anticipation in true-to-form WWE silence. A pregnant silence, in fact, as the crowd remained remarkably quiet for a WWE flagship show. After a minute, the famous catchcry hit the speakers at full blast: "Can ya SMEEEEEEEEELLLLLL what The Rock ... is cooking".

And he was back, strutting at the top of the entranceway, savouring the euphoria those eight words had created in a packed Anaheim Arena. The same electric personality, though with a little less hair. The same charisma, the same attraction remained: Dwayne Johnson the performer walked out and was almost instantly reduced to Dwayne Johnson the man as the crowd refused to quiet. After a while, he strode down the gangway and into the ring to give his traditional one-armed turnbuckle salute; the crowd remained at eleven. It took a full four minutes before he spoke - so visibly moved was he by the reaction that just his presence at the arena had elicited.

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back to Monday Night Raw". By saying this, he announced this wasn't a one-show gimmick, or a preview to his stint hosting Wrestlemania 26. The Rock had returned and would be doing what he did best, mediocre action movies aside, returning to the ring and, as he said "Promis(ing) to Layeth the Smack Down" on the next generation of Sports Entertainment. After the five minute standing ovation was quelled - partly, it seemed by Johnson's embarrassment at such a warm reaction - and the "Finally ... " formalities out of the way, The Rock did what separated him from the crowd a generation ago: cut a ten-minute promo that signalled his focus for the foreseeable future: WWE. Still the industry's most identifiable star, The Rock returns to a company which he may struggle to recognise.

His opponents of yore are gone. Chris Jericho is touring the world with his band Fozzy. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's body succumbed to the effects of alcohol, pratfalls and being a redneck. Chris Benoit and Chris Kanyon took their own lives, Eddie Guerrero passed away of the Wrestler's scourge, heart problems. Big Sexy Kevin Nash and Shawn Michaels realised the time was leave, and did so with pride intact. Goldberg and Brock Lesnar were never really that "into" WWE. Their places have been filled with the youngsters who broke into the business at about the time of Johnson's departure: John Cena and Randy Orton chief among them. Only a few of the old nemeses remain - Kane, Triple H, Edge, the Big Show and Undertaker.

It's a different game now and The Rock's return may help shore up a company whose lack of major cross-market stars and identity to the average-joe mean it remains a popular curio, a throwback to years past. Professional Wrestling's biggest advantage is also it's greatest drawback: the "Wow" factor, where a viewer will see an amazing stunt and automatically expect it to be topped in successive matches. The storylines have moved from (admittedly very bad) plot and character-driven characters to rely almost exclusively on Wow factor for entertainment. The business misses the drawcards of of the 80s and 90s, able to cut killer promos at the drop of a hat: all of Hogan, Jericho, Michaels, Austin and Johnson had the ability to charm, menace and disarm with their mic-work. The new breed do not, relying on tough-guy bluster and gimmicks which don't have the all-age appeal of those used by the long-term pros.

The Rock's return, all eighteen minutes of it, was enough to promote expectation that he'll be the same magnetic on-camera personality as ever, telling heel announcer Michael Cole the taste would be slapped so far out of him he'd never get it back - (relatively) witty but threatening at the same time. The younger generation of WWE stars have someone to look up to now, someone whose Top 10 all-time status as a wrestler is unquestioned.

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back ... home". And with this came the admission that he remains what he's always been - a rassler, one of the best. With the exception of perhaps Hulk Hogan, there's never been a more naturally likeable face than Dwayne Johnson. His heel turns always seemed jarringly out of synch with his innate character, meaning he's destined to be a face for most of the rest of his career. As he strode to and from the squared circle, he stopped to tousle the hair of children held up by their parents - kids who probably had never seen him in the ring - instantly winning over older and younger fans in ways newer faces couldn't imagine. Seven years is an eternity in wrestling, and an entire generation of fans now knows of him only by name. In his first match, likely at Wrestlemania, it's his chance to show youngsters how to really play face. Only Hogan could have pulled off what Johnson did on Monday night, especially as he was able to marry the imposing with the schmaltzy in the time-honoured wrestling manner. A little older and a little more Dwayne Johnson than Rock, his eighteen-minutes left more of an impression on the wrestling world than much of the past two years of "thrills" and stunts.

Easily forgettable is that he's only 38 and sports a body seemingly uncorrupted by steroid use and alcohol abuse. Even in movies, his best roles were those which either required all-action and no talk, or he played himself (Welcome to the Jungle); The Rock was never an actor but - as he now identifies himself - an entertainer and that's perhaps for the best - entertainers don't necessarily make the best character actors. A man who made his career on reading audiences all over America found it difficult to read lines and is much better at off-the-cuff bravado. Hopefully he's not lost to movies forever - his work wasn't nearly as bad as popularly thought - but also it's a fond anticipation that he remembers that "the business" is home.

It may be that word which singly defines wrestling better than any other: entertainment. The Rock is Back, and ready to entertain.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Canada's World Cup hopes: stability

The tenth ICC Cricket World Cup hits off on February 19th on the subcontinent. Canada's rocky road to their third successive Big Dance looks finally free of incident as they prepare for their first match against co-hosts Sri Lanka on February 20. The final hurdle, obtaining Indian visas for four key players, appears to have been settled as the four-month wait for approval came through last week.

The quartet of players - including vice-captain Rizwan Cheema and key bowler Khurrum Chohan - were all born in Pakistan and given the state of relations between the neighbouring countries, visa processing was delayed. Cheema particularly is an important figure for the Canadians, being one of the more experienced squad members in the tournament's most inexperienced squad, which boasts seven graduates of Canada's Under-19s squad. At sixteen, Nitish Kumar of Ontario looks set to be the youngest player ever to take part in a World Cup.

The fifteen-man squad boasts an average age of twenty-six, with almost all the experience coming from World Cup veterans Ashish Bagai, the captain, opening bowler Henry Osinde and perpetual ace-in-the-hole Jon Davison. The Canadians' combined 225 games of experience is cumulatively less than that of eleven individual players competing in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in February and March.

Canada's past participation at the one-day cricket World Cup includes a standalone appearance in 1979 in England and qualification through the ICC Tournament for the past two Cups in South Africa and the Caribbean. Last year's tournament was in South Africa and involved all of cricket's "associate" nations - countries not playing full-time on the international circuit. Led by 39 year-old converted Aussie Davison, Canada performed well during that tournament finishing runners up among the twelve nations behind second-division powerhouse Ireland. Two other important performers were Ian Billcliff and Geoff Barnett who both play competitively in New Zealand.

Safely qualified again, the selection team chose a 30-man shortlist for the tournament, minus several players instrumental in securing their Cup berth, namely Billcliff, Barnett and Sunil Dhaniram. Davison, who keeps a home base in Australia, withdrew from the squad in support of his omitted teammates but was re-instated when after talks with Cricket Canada clarified the reasons for the trio's non-selection. Still Canada's most potent weapon, Davison - who boasts the fastest innings of one-hundred and third-fastest innings of fifty in World Cup history - remains the trump on whom Canadian hopes rest for a victory or two in South Asia.

Recent preparations started with participation in the Caribbean 20-over tournament in mid-January. A two week stay in Dubai follows before the squad flies to Bangladesh for the official World Cup warm-up games. The Caribbean venture was a successful one, with narrow losses to several West Indian nations but also a victory against a fully-professional Hampshire outfit while helping coach Pubudu Dassanayake focus on several areas to be improved upon. More importantly, it provided valuable experience for the team's array of youngsters, Jamaican-born Tyson Gordon and young batsman Ruvindu Gunasekera particularly impressive.

Success for a Canadian team comprised mainly of semi-professionals will not be measured in wins, but in competitiveness. Drawn in a group with heavyweights Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, they also face easier opposition like Zimbabwe and Kenya. Should the team emerge with even one victory, it would be a great boost to the sport in Canada and given their recent 20-over displays in Barbados, upsetting a fellow associate nation is eminently possible.

Friday, February 18, 2011

World Cricket Watch podcast up

Listen to Matthew Wood of Balanced Sports alongside Subash Jayaraman as they discuss their expectations of this year's ICC World Cup. You can listen here or download it via iTunes.

World Cup Predictions: Winners

In the finale of our seven-part World Cup prediction series, Matt goes head-to-head with Subash Jayaraman and Dave Siddall in selecting their World Cup winners.

Part 1: Leading Wicket-taker
Part 2: Leading Runscorer
Part 3: Surprise Packet
Part 4: MVP
Part 5: Dream Team
Part 6: Ace in the hole

Matt Wood

As much as the West Indies have (hopefully) crawled out from a decade and a half of shame and the tournament has Bangladesh playing a lot at home, as much as I’d like to pick a smaller nation making the second round, I just don’t see it. The minnows will leave early, leaving us with the obvious choices again. India and Sri Lanka are justifiable favourites due to their home-ground advantages, while South Africa’s finishing school for cricket talent has no equal. The bet here is the Proteas don’t have the attack to really exploit the conditions – Steyn is quality but supporting cast Tsotsobe, Morkel and Parnell aren’t favoured by the slower decks. Australia can’t be discounted – they’ve been impressive in swatting away England’s One-Day side, a team who seem to lack something that they can’t identify. I’m going to bet on Sri Lanka - India is incredibly reliant on the bowling penetration of Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh. Should one of those two break down or play like a honker, India could really struggle to restrict opposition scoring. Sri Lanka have the spin of Murali and Mendis, the pace of Malinga and the all-round talents of Angelo Mathews.


Subash Jayaraman

This is the third time the world cup is being held in the Indian subcontinent. The last two times it was held (1987 and 1996), two subcontinent teams made it to the semis (India and Pakistan in 1987) and (India and Sri Lanka in 1996) with Sri Lanka winning it all in 1996. I am inclined to continue with this theme and expect India and Sri Lanka to get to the semi-finals this time as well. The two other semi-finalists, in my opinion, are going to be Australia and South Africa. (But I am very tempted to include either Pakistan or Bangladesh). I do think however, India and Sri Lanka will get to the finals. Sri Lanka does seem to be the most balanced side in the entire tournament and they are playing in home conditions. However, India beat them fair and square in Sri Lanka the last time they played ODIs. But the finals are going to be played in front of Tendulkar’s home crowd in Mumbai. So, I am going to go with my gut, heart and all other internal organs, and hedge my bet on India.


David Siddall

In my honest opinion there are 5 countries that have both the ability and consistency (sorry Pakistan!) to win the 2011 Cricket World Cup. They are Australia, England, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Of the 5, it is the perennially underachievers chokers of South Africa and India that have the finest XIs on paper and also the form to be considered the main contenders. In Sehwag and Ghambir, and Smith and Amla, they have the finest opening batting partnerships in the game with one claiming the title for most explosive and the other for most solid. In Kallis and Tendulkar they have two of the greatest ODI batsmen of all time. A further glance down their respective orders and you have batsmen that combine capabilities to play long innings with intimidating levels and varieties of strokeplay.

So what is there to separate these two sides? The answer lies in the bowling department. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have formed a devastating partnership capable of tearing through a side. As much as Zaheer Khan stars for India, fans would have to concede that South Africa hold in the edge in terms of the quicks on show. India meanwhile will feel they have the edge in terms of spinners on show. Johan Botha is an accomplished spinner but cannot be considered an attacking option. Unlike Botha, Harbhajan Singh is just that. India are also blessed with numerous spinners in their squad with Ashwin, Pathan, Raina, Yuvraj and Sehwag all providing options in favourable conditions.

The case for both teams is remarkably strong but I favour the side with bigger wicket-taking threat to come out on top. With that in mind, it has to be the biggest chokers of all South Africa to turn the tables on history and win the 2011 Cricket World Cup.


Pure Cycling: The Lance Armstrong Effect

By Balanced Sports columnist, Ben Roberts.

I must admit to mixed feelings upon the second retirement Lance Armstrong. Maybe it is the nature of a second retirement that I am neither happy nor sad, nor feel any great pull of nostalgia. However it has just struck home for me, having returned from a quick spin on my bicycle after finishing work for the day, that the main reason why I developed an affinity with the sport is the effect that was Armstrong.

I, with a large number of other westerners, rode the wave of attention poured onto Armstrong as he began his run of seven wins in the Tour de France, astonished with his success and his return from testicular cancer. We also loved that he was a rebel, a straight talking man's man in a sport dominated by continental Europe. Yes, there had previously been Greg LeMond, but he was more an ad hoc curiosity than an icon. Lance was LANCE.

Armstrong’s autobiography, It's not about the bike, still continues to sell strongly 11 years since its release. Most of us who have a copy will have lost count of the times we have read his story, following a struggling childhood, through the rigour of cancer and onto the podium of the Champs-Élysées. Maybe this is where the trouble is in loving Armstrong now – you can only become the champion once. While you are becoming the champion, you can be rebellious, but you wear the risk that it will all fall through. Once you are the champion its harder to rebel as it's only against yourself.

The Tour de France became secondary to the phenomenon that was not just Armstrong's immense cycling talent, but the one-way PR machine that followed. Not only would Lance speak with a confident and brash manner, so would team mates, sponsors, fans, and Johan Bruyneel, the Team Director. Everything became stage managed and controlled so much that the media and other riders built up strong resentment towards him and Bruyneel. Throughout it all Lance remained Lance, no mellowing with time.

Every month more circumstantial evidence is released that points the finger at Armstrong for use of performance enhancing drugs. Former team mates, masseurs, and doctors have bleated loudly that he used drugs. The more the circumstantial evidence builds the more we doubt him. But despite this as he has always pointed to his negative test results. He remains innocent until proven guilty as it should be.

He didn't just win, he would romp it in. Outside of 2003s victory that was by a mere 61 seconds, his wins were by relative miles over his challengers. Every year for seven years the cycling world would watch Armstrong dominate the race from any position. He had a team around him that seemingly frightened the field into falling into line – these were Lance's races; don't even bother. All things being equal you cannot question his right to be called one of the greatest cyclists, but in the world of cycling in many opinions (including my own), he is not the greatest.

Though there are other greats, I will restrict this analysis to those who have won the tour five times as they most likely compare more easily to Armstrong's talent. The Spaniard Miguel Indurain who claimed his five wins consecutively from 1991 through to 1995 was probably the most like Armstrong. He won like a finely tuned machine, surviving in the mountains, and killing them in the time trials. I believe Armstrong the stronger rider than Indurain. To go with the Armstrong machine he had the talent on the climbs and showed a dynamic ability to take the race on when challenged.

Jacques Anqetil had his career somewhat defined not just by his success, but his success at the expense of fellow Frenchman Raymond Poulidor. Anqetuil was chased to his tour wins by a hungry Poulidor. The unfortunate Poulidor continued to challenge well beyond Anqetil's retirement for that victory that always eluded him. Armstrong by contrast was able to dominate an era that had great riders, but not the sort that fear would drive him. Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich both collected a tour win prior to Armstrong's first, but history leaves the late Pantani as an incredibly troubled individual and Ullrich inconsistent and flaky.

Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx are the main road blocks, however, against me lifting Armstrong to the title of the Greatest. Whereas they were riders who rode to win everything, Armstrong rode the tour and any race purely in preparation for the tour. Hinault added to his five tours, three
Giro d'Italias and two Vuelta a Espanas. He won all three jerseys in the tour at least once, and a number of one day classics.

'The Cannibal' Merckx was even more ferocious and hungry. His five tours were added to five Giros and one Vuelta. Displaying his hunger further is that he won every jersey in the tour and in 1969 won all three. Add to this he is one of the few cyclists to have won all five monument classics, and he set the 'Hour record' on the track. Merckx and Hinault raced for everything, every time they were on a bike. Pre-cancer Armstrong did win the World Championship and a number of other races, but post-cancer Armstrong had eyes only for 'Mellow Johnny', the Maillot Jaune. Armstrong was a phenomenon, but compared to these two he is miles behind.

Cycling didn't need Armstrong to return, Armstrong wanted Armstrong to return. His stated motivations appear to have been purely about raising the cancer awareness, but his desperation in the 2009 tour said that there was more. That he finished third was incredible after four yours since his last victory. But very few champions in any sport are irreplaceable, others will always rise to prominence rendering the past a memory. Perhaps outside of Bradman only Nicklaus and Jordan will endure above all others in their sport.

Reading back through what I have written I realise what a 'wet blanket' I must appear. But this is Armstrong's second retirement, his first left behind a phenomenal performance, his second a serviceable encore. In time, mine and others hearts will warm to reminiscing about Armstrong's glorious seven consecutive tour wins, but in the mean time we move on. He definitely was the reason I came to love the sport of cycling, but as an individual he can never be bigger than the game; he isn't the reason I continue to love it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

UEFA Champions' League Review

Say what you like, no-one expected what we got this week in the UEFA Champions' League. Tottenham Hotspur kept up their startling run by taking a 1-0 lead in their two-legged tie with AC Milan, while Arsenal came back from a goal behind to defeat Barcelona at the Emirates stadium in a victory touted as perhaps the finest of Arsene Wenger's career. Meanwhile, Shakhtar Donetsk defeated Roma 3-2, while Valencia and Schalke 04 played out a one-all draw.

The biggest headlines of the week's action took place at the San Siro when Italian firebrand Gennaro Gattuso has been charged with Improper Conduct after headbutting, and threatening to choke and punch Tottenham coach Joe Jordan. The player's agent says Jordan provoked the shirty midfielder with certain remarks, claims both strenuously and predictably denied by Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. The solitary goal came from Peter Crouch who devoured an Aaron Lennon cross in the sevety-eighth minute. The return leg will be at White Hart Lane on Wednesday March 9th.

Not a good week for the Italians then, as Claudio Ranieri's Roma were spliflicated by a surging Shakhtar. The Ukrainians only mustered half the shots and only barely over 41% possession but still were able to scrape together a victory at the Stadio Olimpico and must surely be considered almost a lock to progress to the Quarter-Finals such is their home field advantage. Ranieri - no certainty to be Roma's manager by season's end - must now focus his attentions on marshaling his men into Serie A's European positions.

After his very vociferous month on Twitter, Jack Wilshere led the Gunners to victory against a Barcelona team tagged "Best Ever". Though Barca dominated the first half, the boys from North London were able to peg back the Catalans and it was Andrei Arshavin who slotted home the winner, polishing off good work by Samir Nasri. Matched up against Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta, Wilshere was magnificent and the much-maligned Laurent Koscielny justified some of his sizeable transfer fee with easily the best game of his short Arsenal career. Los Cules still managed 66% possession though and still hold a crucial away goal. The tie is far from over.

The round's scoring got underway at Valencia as Roberto Soldado put the home side ahead against Schalke. The equaliser came from Spanish maestro Raul, who tied the match with his seventy-first goal in European competition even though the Germans were on the back foot for much of the tie. Even allowing the Spaniards to dominate the ball, the Germans may have managed the best chances of the match as Junmin Hao was denied by a wonderful save from Valencia custodian Vicente Guaita Panadero.

All four ties remain very much alive. This season's been a wonderful one so far in all the major leagues: the rise of Borussia Dortmund in Germany, AC Milan's resurgence in Serie A, the most even EPL season in recent memory and the implacable brilliance of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Though 2010's World Cup may not have been one for the ages, the season following it certainly has been.

World Cup Predictions: Ace in the Hole

With our penultimate World Cup Predictions, Matt, Subash and Dave examine who's the player flying under the radar ... the perennial Ace in the Hole.

Part 1: Leading Wicket Taker
Part 2: Leading Runscorer
Part 3: Surprise packet
Part 4: MVP
Part 5: Dream Team

Matt Wood

Kevin Pietersen. Oh, sorry, you said ace-in-the-hole. There isn’t a lot of publicity over a few guys who could shape the tournament. South Africa, while not having a spinner, do boast one of the short form’s great slow bowlers in Johan Botha, who should be nicknamed “Immodium” for his ability to restrict runs. His defensive mindset and shrewd field placements have allowed him to open the bowling in occasional T20s. Of the three, he’s most likely to be the trump which has the greatest effect in the tournament’s latter stages. The other two can be solid but may not be game-changers: New Zealand’s Tim Southee is still very young, but he bowls real swing and could help New Zealand back from the brink of world patsydom. The climate, especially at night, will suit him. Tim Bresnan is another who should be suited by the swing-conducive climes of India and has displayed his ability by taking truckloads of wickets in Australia on pitches unsuited to bowling of his style. He has the game to really break some of the best top-orders in the world.

Posted 17th February: One player who's escaped a lot of attention is William Porterfield, who opens the batting for Ireland. He's scored heaps of runs and of the minnows, he seems most likely to be a "breakout" candidate.

More well-known players from the affiliate nations out to impress include the Netherlands' Ryan ten Doeschate, Rizwan Cheema of Canada, Elton Chigumbura & Tatienda Taibu of Zimbabwe.


Subash Jayaraman

A man whose career is at crossroads and a solid tournament would resurrect his seemingly sliding career – Yuvraj Singh. There has been a mountain of questions regards to fitness, mental focus and attitude towards his cricket. This would be biggest platform for him to respond to his doubters. Play a few match winning innings and bowl his left arm spin that is tailor made for the slower pitches of India, he will regain the confidence that is sorely needed for this gifted cricketer.


David Siddall

The ‘Ace in the Hole’ refers to the break-out player of the tournament, the player that no one is talking about but will star in the event. The issue with the selecting the Ace is that cricket has become so globalized and so ubiquitous that it is hard for a modern day player to just slip under the radar or for a young star to rise so prominently and not get noticed. Because of this, my ace in the hole is coming from way left field.

He’s a forgotten man in world cricket. He probably won’t even start for his country. But not too long ago he became the quickest man ever to reach the 50 ODI wickets mark in 19 matches at a staggering average of around 10. Back then he was a mystery spinner who mesmerized with his mix of offies, googlies, leg-breaks and carom balls. Bowling wicket to wicket, constantly attacking the stumps he claimed a disproportionate amount of lbws compared to your average bowler. But that was 2008 and he appears to have been figured out since with batsmen getting to know his variations and playing him more like a medium pacer. He still takes wickets but they are thinner on the ground.

Whether Ajantha Mendis can rekindle the form he showed when he burst onto the scene is completely up in the air. Whether he can even find his way into Sri Lanka’s starting lineup is also less obvious. Whether there is space for two spinners in the side is open to debate. Murali is number 1 and Dilshan does a good job as a part time spin option. Mendis also has competition from the slow left-armer Rangana Herath in that department. If Mendis does get his berth in the side who knows what might happen? This writer enjoyed his passage into the history books in 2008 and wanted to see plenty more of him but is still waiting for his wish. Maybe Ajantha Mendis can be a great addition to the few attacking spinners left in the limited overs game…


The English Game: Yorkshire & Surrey

by Ben Roberts


There would be few souls remaining with us today who, with the benefit of eye-witness, could explain the the great irony that these two counties have been paired together in this series. In the 1920s for English cricket fans it was a pairing of opening bats, one from Surrey and the other from Yorkshire, that brought the national team great success and the fans much joy. Jack Hobbs of Surrey and Herbert Sutcliffe of Yorkshire, remain to this day unarguably the greatest opening batting pair in the game’s history.

The famed television presenter, and Yorkshireman, Michael Parkinson once recounted the final moments he spent with his dying father. Parkinson senior expressed great pride at his sons achievements in life, but tempered this by noting that he had never played cricket for Yorkshire. To him, and to many residents of Yorkshire through history, to wear the white rose was something bordering on being deified.

Any proud Yorkshireman will gladly and strongly boast that their county has produced the greatest cricketers in England always. Truth be told, anyone would have a hard time arguing. The aforementioned Sutcliffe plus Wilfred Rhodes, Norman Yardley, Sir Leonard Hutton, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott and Darren Gough are just a brief list of the county’s fine history of cricketers.

With such a history of players, Yorkshire has won the county championship on 31 occasions; this is by far the greatest number of any county in the history of the championship. Not only is it the greatest number, but it is 12 more than the second most successful county Surrey. 30 of these championships were won by the conclusion of the 1968 season, the first 69 seasons of the championship producing a regular return of success. But from 1969 onwards Yorkshire endured a championship drought of 33 years.

Why did this consistently successful and proud county endure such a drought? While most other counties had been willing to widen their nets in order to attract talent, both within England and internationally, the fiercely staunch Yorkshire always refused not only to accept international talent, but anyone not born within the county itself. Such a strong and ultimately self-defeating stance was not altered until 1992. The, at that stage, exceptionally promising Sachin Tendulker became the first international player in the county’s history.

Given the county’s history, Australian player involvement is limited to more recent times. But in the past 18 years, eight Australians with international experience have played for Yorkshire: Greg Blewett, Michael Bevan, Matthew Elliott, Jason Gillespie, Ian Harvey, Simon Katich, Damien Martyn, and the unstoppable Darren Lehmann.

The South Australian Lehmann scored over 8,000 runs for Yorkshire in his career and his average of 68 is the highest in the county’s history. Lehmann also has the second highest score in Yorkshire history, 339. Lehmann was a key member of the drought-breaking team that won the county’s 31st championship in 2001. Probably the only negative was that Lehmann captained Yorkshire in 2002, the county being relegated to division 2 just 12 months after championship glory.


Surrey are joint tenants of London with Middlesex. Surrey’s home, famously, is in the shade of the imposing gasometer at The Oval. The county with the second highest number of county championships was also home to England’s finest batsman Jack Hobbs. Hobbs scored over 61,000 runs in his first class career and scored 199 centuries. Hobbs was named in Wisden almanac’s five cricketers of 20th century, and holds numerous batting records that are unlikely to be ever bettered.

Hobbs totalled a then record 626 runs in the 1911-12 tour to Australia. Included in his feats was a 323-run partnership with Wilfred Rhodes at Melbourne. Rhodes was another Yorkshireman to partner Hobbs, forming potentially the second greatest opening pair behind Hobbs and Sutcliffe. In a continued theme, reviewing what Surrey and its cricketers have achieved on the field reads rather bleakly for Australians.

Potentially cricket’s greatest bowler, George Lohmann, was from Surrey. In the 19th century Lohmann collected his test wickets at a cost of under 9 runs each. As well, cricket history’s most ruthless captain, Douglas Jardine, was a Surrey cricketer. Sir Alec Bedser, the great fast bowler and a gentleman of the game, played out his career for Surrey. His 236 career test wickets included many against Australians, and helped lead the nation’s cricket team out of the ravages of war into a period of sustained success.

Part also of this successful England team during the 1950s were Surrey finger spinners, Jim Laker and Tony Lock. Laker and Lock worked in tandem for both county and country in bamboozling batsmen. Lock later moved to Western Australia and continued his first-class career there while Laker is most famous for his match haul of 19 wickets against the Australians at Old Trafford in 1956. Only Anil Kumble of India has ever been able to match Laker’s remarkable feat of collecting all 10 wickets in a test match innings. What makes this feat even more astonishing is that it was the second time that season that Laker had completely bowled the Australians out. In May of 1956 Australia faced Laker’s Surrey whereupon they were bowled out in their entirety by the spinner.

The unofficial antipathy toward Australian teams and its cricketers also extends to there being few Australian players who have turned out for Surrey. Matthew Nicholson, who played one test for Australia in 1998, finished his first class career with the county; Andrew Symonds played his favoured form of the game, T20, for the county in 2010; and in 2011 Surrey will hope South Australian Shaun Tait remains fit and can deliver his thunderbolts also in the T20 competition.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Announcement: More Podcasting!

Balanced Sports' Matthew Woodwill feature on today's World Cricket Watch World Cup preview podcast One Hand, One Bounce. More details to follow - it should be available for listening and downloading later this week.

World Cup Predictions: Dream XI

Part six of our seven-part series sees Matt go up against Subash Jayaraman and Dave Siddall in previewing the World Cup. Today sees us select our "Dream" teams.

Part 1: Leading Wicket Taker
Part 2: Leading Runscorer
Part 3:
Surprise Packet
Part 4: Most Valuable Player

Matt Wood

Hashim Amla (SAf)

Gautam Gambhir (Ind)

Kumar Sangakkara (SL) (wk) (c)

Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)

Cameron White (Aus)

Shahid Afridi (Pak)

Yusuf Pathan (Ind)

Daniel Vettori (NZ)

Dale Steyn (SAf)

Zaheer Khan (Ind)

Lasith Malinga (SL)

It was convenient that basically the four best bets to score the most runs in the tournament are easily selectable at opener, first and second drop. I’m not sure why I picked Cameron White – probably because I expect the Australians to have a reasonable tournament and there really isn’t a heap of other elite middle-order options, I think they need to be represented. Afridi is the most destructive batsman in the game today whose leg-spin has developed from inexcusable to, well, excusable. Pathan’s status as Indian cricket’s NBT (Next Big Thing) earns him number seven, when bowlers Vettori, Steyn, Khan and Malinga are each their country’s best bets to top the wicket tallies. The beauty of this Dream XI, Afridi and White excepted, is that it could quite easily translate across and be the best lineup Test cricket has to offer as well. Rather than going too far down the David Warner, baseball slugger mode, it’s refreshing to see good technique rewarded.


Subash Jayaraman

Sachin Tendulkar

Shane Watson

Jacques Kallis


Cameron White

Angelo Mathews

Yusuf Pathan

Dale Steyn

Zaheer Khan

Lasith Malinga


12th man: Shahid Afridi (primarily for his bowling). You may recognize by now there has not been much of a reference to the England team and quite rightly. They have been battered and beaten (even though they lost some close matches in Australia and you may think it’s not exactly a “beating” but it takes toll mentally. They just lost their middle order mainstay and man for the rescue, Eoin Morgan to a finger injury. They have other players out with injuries and some are on the comeback trail. Plus, their kind of bowling is not gonna be suited for the subcontinental conditions and the last time England played in India in 2008, they were shellacked.


David Siddall

Here is my dream XI for the tournament.

1. Virender Sehwag

2. Hashim Amla

3. Kumar Sangakarra (w) (c)

4. Sachin Tendulkar

5. Jacques Kallis

6. Shane Watson

7. Yusuf Pathan

8. Zaheer Khan

9. Dale Steyn

10. Lasith Malinga

11. Muttiah Muralitharan

12. Graeme Swann

As you can see it is build upon solid foundations. Sehwag and Amla are an even greater answer to Jayasuria and Kalawitharana in 1996. It features the two greatest ODI batsmen of arguably all time in Kallis and Tendulkar. It features the two best all-rounders in the world today as Watson joins the SA all-rounder. The X factor is brought to you by Yusuf Pathan. In Steyn, Zaheer, and Malinga you have the 3 finest quicks in one-day cricket. In Murali you have the finest, most economical and most attacking spinner. Graeme Swann comes in as 12th man for when we need to play 2 spinners and attack.

If this group of players was to extend to a 15-man squad it would include Chris Gayle, James Anderson and Mahayla Jayawardene.


Farewell El Fenomeno: Ronaldo retires

Sometimes it's difficult to divorce memories of a player from their off-field exploits. In Australia, the names Wayne Carey, Shane Warne and Gary Ablett Sr loom large: the best of the best in their fields, but with overall legacies tarnished somewhat by their myriad social incompetencies. The football world too is not immune, as names like Paul Gascoigne and Robin Friday are iconic not only for their ability but for their - putting it mildly - foibles.

And as much as we'd like to do so with Ronaldo, he's much the same. "El Fenomeno" has retired, robbing the world of a final valedictorian-style goodbye that such a figure deserves. His last stint in Brazil, hacked short by injury has closed and the thirty-four year old admitted his body had denied him the chance to continue building his legacy. The dual World Cup winner and three-time FIFA Player of the Year has ended his career and now the only questions still to ask concern his place in the spectrum of brilliant Brazilians.

From the time he was spotted by Jairzinho as a teenager and blooded for Cruzeiro as a sixteen year-old, there has been no greater finisher than El Fenomeno. From his early whippet-like form to his recent fatty boombah days, no one could slot a goal like him. That he ended his career with puddin' around the midriff only shows that there was more to Ronaldo than football, and his weight issues that followed horrendous knee injuries will go down as part of the reason he perhaps never fulfilled his nonpareil potential. It was only when he announced his departure from the game that he admitted publicly to suffering from hypothyroidism, a metabolism-slowing disorder for which the medication required would have contravened World Anti-Doping Associating laws.

More to Ronaldo than football is appropriate because never has a man had such a talent for high-profile mishap at times of greater importance. Of course Steven Gerrard can apparently destroy a DJ, or Beckham can tear an achilles tendon at crucial stages of a season, but no-one in modern football underwent what Ronaldo did prior to the World Cup final in 1998. In that episode - at the time attributed to everything from drugs to stress to epilepsy - he underwent the most shocking pre-game routine any player could nightmare about, yet still went out to play (understandably badly). After a steamrolling 42-in-43 spell at PSV Eindhoven, he went to Barcelona and dominated, establishing himself as the best player in the world: strong, fast, clever and lethal. Then came his move to Inter Milan and the twin knee injuries, the second sustained a mere six minutes into his comeback match.

Once sold to Real Madrid, his place in history was assured: not only was he one of the first Galacticos, but his hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford left the most battle-hardened and cynical Red Devil fans with no choice but to offer a standing ovation for his work. In the box, no-one was better. But as his knee, held together with tungsten, steel and blu-tack, deteriorated so did his condition. In former times, after partying he could work the extra kilograms off on the track and while in Spain showed less of a willingness - or, crucially, ability - to do so.

After a transfer to AC Milan and another knee injury, he recuperated in Brazil and was involved, while fighting for his European (and therefore big money) career, in an incident allegedly involving three transvestite prostitutes. Fate seemed to choose the worst times to taunt Ronaldo and though, in future generations he will always be thought of as one of the greats of South American Samba football, it will be impossible to separate Ronaldo the man from his deeds on the pitch. Which is sad, really - because we like sports stars who have more to life than their day jobs; only Ronaldo's off-pitch activities will be forever an addendum, like those of Diego Maradona. Where Maradona's problem was (probably) cocaine, Ronaldo's was just that fate liked laughing at such a natural.

Farewell, Ronaldo. We loved everything about you.

Ronaldo and Robin Friday will both be featured in a new Balanced Sports feature series: Sports Stars you Should Know.

Monday, February 14, 2011

World Cup Predictions; MVP

In part four of our seven part series, Matthew combines with Subash and Dave to select their World Cup MVPs.

Matt Wood

First up, we can eliminate the bowlers. No matter how well the trundlers perform, the awards always go to the batsmen and the criteria for MVP depends on where that guy bats. If you bat in the top four, you have to score a shedload of runs like Ricky Ponting did in 2003. If you bat lower, the biggest criterion is to change the game with the way you hit, a la Lance Klusener’s 1999 tournament. The nearest thing the world has to Klusener is Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi, whose chances of winning the award are slimmed somewhat by Pakistan’s inconsistency and lack of their two best bowlers. So the best guess is here for Amla or Sangakkara, two batsmen who’ll get plenty of crease-time and whose elegant, wristy styles are perfectly suited for low, slow subcontinental pitches.

WC MVP: Amla or Sangakkara


Subash Jayaraman

Who else but Sachin Tendulkar? Or maybe, Shane Watson or Jacque Kallis, the two best all rounders in the game currently? (No, Harbhajan Singh is not an all rounder.)

WC MVP: Sachin Tendulkar


David Siddall

There are candidates for the most valuable player everywhere you look. There are match-winners a plenty. For South Africa you have Steyn, Smith, Kallis, De Villiers and Amla. For India you have Khan, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Pathan. For England you have KP and Trott. For the West Indies it has to be Chris Gayle. For Australia it is likely to be Watson and Lee. For Sri Lanka you have Sangakarra, Jayawardene and Malinga.

It’s normal for the most valuable player to be selected from the World Cup winning side and seeing as I’m going for the perennial chokers – who yet again have one of the strongest sides on paper – of South Africa, I’m going to go for Hashim Amla who will also be their leading run scorer. He’s been in scintillating form this past year notching up 6 of his 7 one-day centuries. His ability to bat through innings after innings and score at a healthy strike rate could put him in line for the prize. If South Africa do go on to win the World Cup, Amla’s role will be that of as sizeable cog in a well-oiled machine. I don’t think one player can win a World Cup on their own in the way that many claim Maradona won Serie A single handedly for Napoli in the late 1980s.

WC MVP: Hashim Amla


World Cup Predictions: Most Valuable Player

In part four of our seven part series, Matthew combines with Subash and Dave to select their World Cup MVPs.

Matt Wood

First up, we can eliminate the bowlers. No matter how well the trundlers perform, the awards always go to the batsmen and the criteria for MVP depends on where that guy bats. If you bat in the top four, you have to score a shedload of runs like Ricky Ponting did in 2003. If you bat lower, the biggest criterion is to change the game with the way you hit, a la Lance Klusener’s 1999 tournament. The nearest thing the world has to Klusener is Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi, whose chances of winning the award are slimmed somewhat by Pakistan’s inconsistency and lack of their two best bowlers. So the best guess is here for Amla or Sangakkara, two batsmen who’ll get plenty of crease-time and whose elegant, wristy styles are perfectly suited for low, slow subcontinental pitches.

WC MVP: Amla or Sangakkara


Subash Jayaraman

Who else but Sachin Tendulkar? Or maybe, Shane Watson or Jacque Kallis, the two best all rounders in the game currently? (No, Harbhajan Singh is not an all rounder.)

WC MVP: Sachin Tendulkar


David Siddall

There are candidates for the most valuable player everywhere you look. There are match-winners a plenty. For South Africa you have Steyn, Smith, Kallis, De Villiers and Amla. For India you have Khan, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Pathan. For England you have KP and Trott. For the West Indies it has to be Chris Gayle. For Australia it is likely to be Watson and Lee. For Sri Lanka you have Sangakarra, Jayawardene and Malinga.

It’s normal for the most valuable player to be selected from the World Cup winning side and seeing as I’m going for the perennial chokers – who yet again have one of the strongest sides on paper – of South Africa, I’m going to go for Hashim Amla who will also be their leading run scorer. He’s been in scintillating form this past year notching up 6 of his 7 one-day centuries. His ability to bat through innings after innings and score at a healthy strike rate could put him in line for the prize. If South Africa do go on to win the World Cup, Amla’s role will be that of as sizeable cog in a well-oiled machine. I don’t think one player can win a World Cup on their own in the way that many claim Maradona won Serie A single handedly for Napoli in the late 1980s.

WC MVP: Hashim Amla