Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book review: The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons

The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons of ESPN, has been reviewed on our affiliate website Books with Balls, where we review the books that guys with chest hair read.

Or anyone, really, but you're definitely not going to find Jackie Collins there.

The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons at Books with Balls.

A new coach, a new beginning

Australia under Holger Osieck are proving a very different proposition than their time under the overly-watchful eye of Pim Verbeek. Where the Dutchman was cautious to a (large) fault, the German has endowed Australia with sensible selection policy, good play from his A-League complement and even the occasional 4-4-2 formation. He is the Anti-Pim and the players seem to be responding.

Of course the Socceroos have since the days of Terry Venables been able to compete - and sometimes win - against good opposition. Under Verbeek they managed several creditable results but it was obvious to fans that Verbeek's skill lay not in winning matches, but saving them. It seemed he thought success came not through craftsmanship but took the opposite, utilitarian direction. Perhaps, like Roy Hodgson's alleged Liverpool crimes, he is better at producing draws than either wins or losses.

As a manager, there isn't a better opportunity infuse your breed of football into a team than to prove it's efficacy against a bogey-side. Yesterday's win in Moenchengladbach was just that - further validation of Osieck's appointment and Australian management's insistence on a manger who could nurture growth in the Socceroo squad.

When Australia lined up against Germany in Durban for their first World Cup match, they fielded a 4-6-0 formation with the main intent being damage control. In that formation both Richard Garcia - in his first competitive international - and Tim Cahill played out of position and turned in almost career-worst nights. The Socceroos were soundly defeated 4-0 and any hopes of making the second round from the Group of Terminal Illness were quashed. The Green and Gold army scoffed at an obvious lack of trust - and received a performance, hamstrung by a complete absence of forwards, could be read one of two ways. The cautious would suggest the inoffensive formation actually prevented even more of a mauling; those favouring a more balanced lineup would just suggest players don't perform when they're not trusted.

Yesterday - in enemy, rather than neutral, territory - the Socceroos stayed with a 4-4-2 the entire match, having both the resilience and chutzpah to absorb German forays and then return the attack. The result was 2-1 and only the most miserly would deny Australia's achievement against a strong Teutonic team. Osieck's stock is rising after an impressive Asian Cup campaign and should he continue to drink from Guus Hiddink's "You can do anything" juice, the Socceroos will continue to remain challenging for a Top-20 berth in the FIFA World Rankings.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Next Great Challenge

Ricky Ponting has resigned as Australian captain. And it could be the best decision he's ever made.

Though his abilities with the wand are waning, Ponting still remains Australia's best batsman against the spinning ball and could provide a useful resource for his probable successor Michael Clarke. The decision to resign but not retire ranks with his most mature choices as a leader and is also in keeping with his "lead by example" philosophy.

In Australia it is unusual to abdicate the captaincy. Kim Hughes did so under extremely stressful circumstances, the target of a West Indies pace quartet in their pomp. He also promptly lost his place in the side. Since the war, only Ian Chappell maintained his position in the side after relinquishing the reins. Chappell, like Ponting, had the forceful personality that Hughes lacked and was perhaps still the nation's second-best bat. Ponting still has a role to play, but his time at the top had come to an end and it's refreshing to see such a hard nut accept the circumstances and bow out relatively gracefully.

There is much to like about an Australian side with Ponting not at the helm but still involved. Australia has chosen consciously focused on blooding new talent over the past four years. The bowling ranks have shown the most potential for regrowth with players like Trent Copeland, James Pattinson and Michael Beer leading the way. Cycling Australia's attack may blood youngsters with a minimum of pressure at the expense of some penetration and arguably, the nation has the fast men to back up this rotation.

It is not so with their batting. The 1960s and 1970s in Australia produced the best concentrated burst of batsmanship in history. The 1980s and 1990s seem far less promising - Callum Ferguson remains an inconsistent proposition, Phil Hughes has the eye of a magician but the technique of a lumberjack and Usman Khawaja, potential and all, is likely to score a lot of very pretty thirties. And as proved throughout the recent subcontinental World Cup, Australia struggles against quality spin bowling - or any deviating ball.

The two greatest criticisms of Ponting as Captain included his only-adequate tactical acumen and his temperament. These downfalls mean he may not necessarily make the best head coach, but because of his unquestioned abilities to inspire and teach, he may become Justin Langer's successor as Australia's batting coach. Never the erudite diplomat like Steve Waugh or Mark Taylor - or even as insightful like Allan Border - Ponting's continued future in cricket should be as a specialist coach. It behoves Cricket Australia to begin this transition now - tell him outright the last days of Ricky Ponting are to mentor Khawaja, Hughes, Ferguson and Mitch Marsh without the crippling pressure of running a team.

The Ponting full of the love of the game has been hard to spot for years now as he's been weighed down with expectations, trying to drag a fading team back into relevance. His greatest leadership contribution may not be the 5-0 whitewash of England or his masterful 2003 World Cup Final century. It could - should? - be marked improvement in the fortunes of the next generation.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book review: Crashed and Byrned, by Tommy Byrne and Mark Hughes

This is a re-post from our affiliate book review website Books with Balls: where we tell you what we think about the books that guys read.

By Ben Roberts.

Golf, Tennis and Formula One motor racing tend to be eyed as being the richest of individual sports. The glamour that follows being at the top of these games is immense. What is always neglected is the picture of the rear of the fields – the group teeing off first, the match on outside court 42, and of course for motor racing the back of the grid. This is a story of that rear grid position.

Supposedly Tommy Byrne of Ireland was the greatest driver that the world never saw. A man blessed with natural talent yet not with the opportunities. Byrne isn't shy of telling his story, but true to his story other motor racing figures of note have indicated their appreciation of his talent. Ayrton Senna is accused of actively avoiding racing against him, and the F1 establishment of taking steps to prevent the Irish Catholic boy from the wrong side of the tracks achieving anything.

Having never heard of Tommy Byrne, nor knowing much of the racing categories below the premier class in F1 it was interesting to read cold what racing for him and at this level looked like. Even in this time when it can be argued F1 was in its heyday racing from the back of the grid was not all that attractive. Byrne got five F1 starts with a little known team, 'Theodore', but that was the extent of his career at the top.

Fans of Senna or of the McLaren team will probably not be all that thrilled at the criticism that Byrne levels at them. He was (and admits to still being) an abrupt personality who lost more friends in the sport than he made. Post his brief F1 career his life became simply a hedonistic pursuit and ultimately led him to the world of drug lords and crime – not that his early life was all that far from such matters.

The book is told in the first person, keeping the story flowing. It's like a man narrating an autobiographical film, or sitting in a drinking establishment regaling all who would listen to the story of his ‘could have been’ life. There is even no editing of punctuation and extensive use of colloquialism to further increase the feeling of his raw Irish roots.

Though admittedly Byrne can see some error in his ways, enhanced by the colloquial speech is a feeling that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. To refer to a sexual liaison with a prostitute as ‘giving her a seeing to’ indicates some element of masculine pride at the incident and a lack of repentance for infidelity (he was married at the time). Life is supposed to teach you things and change you – it isn’t particularly evident here. Maybe Byrne is proud of how his life finally may make him a fortune he desperately wanted, albeit from book sales rather than a motor racing career.

This is Angela’s Ashes meeting Days of Thunder meeting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its nothing special, and needs reading with a grain of salt given some of the claims, but it will keep you entertained for the couple of hours reading it. Three stars (out of five).

Friday, March 25, 2011

You've seen Team GB, now try Team Celt.

In the midst of an international break in which England plays Wales and following the revelation that Team Great Britain will compete at the London 2012 Olympics it got me thinking: who would win a contest between England and the rest of the British Isles? This led me to begin playing with the idea of an all-Celtic Eleven.

The Celts were the original inhabitants of Great Britain and much of Western Europe. Now, Celtic languages, for example Gaelic or Welsh, are spoken predominantly in Brittany, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Ireland. The Celts (or Britons, as they became known in England) were relocated into the farther reaches of the islands upon invasions from first Rome and subsequently Danes and Vikings. The areas these invasions remained unable to conquer, very broadly speaking, are those which remain fiercely proud of their Celt heritage and from whom we can choose our team.

This means our combined squad comes from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland and would need to have today's players prepared to such a state to contest a one-off match against the best the English - and their fancy new non-inflected Indo-European language - could muster.

We can break down the players available either by position or by nation. Perhaps the easiest way would be to select the walk-up starts and fill in the gaps that may create in the squad. Like Barney Ronay when selecting his Team GB squad for the 2012 Olympics, in the interest of fairness we're going to include players from all four nations. We'll go with a 4-4-2 formation for familiarity.

First selected must indubitably be Gareth Bale, the Welsh left-winger who's recently won plaudits as the best player in the world. He may be the one World Class player that Team Celt could boast. To his right would probably sit Scotland's Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher in central midfield. All three are proven Premiership performers and the centre-mids blend nicely Fletcher's harrying defensive style with Charlie Adam's sublime left peg. The other wing goes to Man United stalwart Ryan Giggs - no questions asked. The world's favourite Welshman would also captain the side.

One of the strikers must go to Kenny Miller, formerly of Rangers and who's just signed for Bursaspor. Statistically speaking, he was one of the best forwards in Europe last year - though few who saw him play in person would agree - and he is almost unquestionably the best forward the Celts could put forward. He has played very well both as the lone striker and in tandem for Craig Levein's Scotland. Here endeth the walk-ups - the remaining six positions, plus seven bench spots are all up for grabs.

The Centre-backs are more tricky. James Collins is one frontrunner, but has steady competition for the role from Aston Villa teammate, Irishman Richard Dunne. Sean St-Ledger has performed admirably in the green of Ireland and must be considered, as could Swansea City's Welshman Ashley Williams and Northern Irish duo Jonny Evans (of United) and Aaron Hughes (of Fulham). The only Scot with the quality in this position could be Wolves' Christophe Berra. In order to help with evenness, the positions go to Collins and Hughes.

Full-backs are again, a coaching minefield depending on what you set out to accomplish. Defensive? Maybe we could go for United's John O'Shea, who could also provide cover for offensive monster Bale. More offensively minded? Then we could lean towards the overlapping play of Everton's revelatory Irishman Seamus Coleman or Tottenham's Scottish right-back Alan Hutton. Also with strong cases are Ireland's Kevin Foley and Stephen Kelly while Chris Gunter of Nottm Forest (Wales) can play on both sides. The edge here goes to the experience of the marauding Hutton and the dour O'Shea, with Coleman unlucky to miss out.

Even farther back, the choice of goalkeeper is a three-cornered one: Wales' Wayne Hennessey, Ireland's Shay Given or Scotland's Craig Gordon. Even though he's been displaced in the Manchester City lineup by Joe Hart, Shay Given is still perhaps one of the top ten Premiership custodians - not something you can say about the solid Sunderland man Gordon or Wolves' exciting youngster Hennessey.

A forward partner for Miller is now the priority. His partner could be Irish and out of form - Robbie Keane, Irish and consistent - Kevin Doyle or Welsh and flamboyant - Craig Bellamy. Bellamy's resume is superior to Doyle's and so wins that battle. Unfortunately for the likeable Keane, he has bounced from club to club without convincing anywhere for two years now which lessens his case. I like also the unpredictability and madness brought by Bellamy.

This gives us our starting XI, so now it's time to choose our seven substitutes. With the midfield populated by stars, it's right to select Wales Captain Aaron Ramsey, a Rolls-Royce of a player. Spartak Moscow's Irish winger Aiden McGeady was bumped only by the presence of Giggs and Bale and so gets a guernsey. To reinforce the defense, I've opted for Coleman and Jonny Evans, while West Bromwich Albion's left-sided dynamo Chris Brunt takes his place as Bale's back-up. Youth loses out to experience in goal - Gordon over Hennessey, leaving only the reserve striking role to fill. To change the game a little with his ability as a target man and finisher, the only choice is Kevin Doyle. Unlucky to miss is Leicester's Welsh centre-mid, Andy King.

And that leaves us with a team looking like:

Shay Given (Ire)

Alan Hutton (Scot)
Aaron Hughes (NIR)
James Collins (Wal)
John O'Shea (Ire)
Ryan Giggs (Wal) (c)
Darren Fletcher (Scot)
Charlie Adam (Scot)
Gareth Bale (Wal)

Kenny Miller (Scot)
Craig Bellamy (Wal)

Sub: Gordon (GK - Scot), Ramsey (Wal), McGeady (Ire), Coleman (Ire), Evans (NIR), Brunt (NIR), Doyle (Ire).

I'd back that team to do well against most international squads. Now if only we could convince FIFA that it's a good idea ...

Balanced Sports published on Soccerlens

Matthew Wood of Balanced Sports has been published again on Soccerlens - one of the world's pre-eminent football blogs -taking a look at Jermaine Pennant's ill-advised words on playing for England or for Ireland.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's all your fault, Carmelo Anthony.

Since the trade in which the New York Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have won only seven of seventeen contests. Their loss last night at home to Orlando took them below .500 on the season (35-36) and for the first time since they were 8-9 on November 27th. The blogosphere is now asking if the trade was in error, especially given the price the Knicks paid - Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, two second round picks and a first rounder.

Early in ESPN's telecast, broadcaster Mike Breen mentioned Nueva York's recent 1-7 record and was interrupted by his colour commentator, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, who blurted out "You can't put everything on one guy. Is it's Carmelo Anthony's fault that Chauncey Billups had eight turnovers? Is it Carmelo's fault that Toney Douglas shoots one for twelve"?

In short, Jeff, we can. It may not be entirely accurate, but it's possible.

'Melo decided that there was only one place he wanted to play, New York, to play with Amar'e Stoudemire and for his hometown team. Though popular opinion had the Nuggets preferring the New Jersey Nets trade offer, Anthony steadfastly refused to commit to extending his contract in Jersey and publicly nixed any other potential relocations by doing the same. A further complicating factor included Anthony wanting (needing?) to sign a new contract in-season (rather than after the season) because delaying until northern Summer would cost him somewhere in the region of $20 million. In that scenario it's eminently possible he would have signed for whoever threw him the most money and unlikely to be in Manhattan.

In almost the truest sense of the word, Carmelo Anthony wanted his cake and to eat it, too. The Knicks wanted him and were prepared to pay handsomely; Anthony wanted the Knicks and he wanted a maximum-dollar contract extension. The entire Melodrama (sorry) was engineered by Carmelo Anthony and his agent and it worked out well for the small forward - until the Knicks' form took a sudden turn for the worse. Mid-season trades usually mean one of two things for a team: a club could struggle to incorporate the player into their tactical schemes and form suffers; or the club is revitalised by the talent injection and start to win more games.

To go back to our initial question, can you blame all the Knicks' recent woes on Carmelo? Because Anthony orchestrated the entire scheme to play where and for the salary he wanted, he is indirectly responsible for the current New York Knicks playing roster. He forced Denver to deal him, and compelled New York to come and get him. The Nuggets then had the responsibility to get the best package possible, meaning rather than Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler taking shots, it is Toney Douglas - an inferior outside shooter. Instead of Raymond Felton with the benefit of a training camp, it's Chauncey Billups charged with bringing the ball up the floor, a player trying to learn coach Mike D'Antoni's system on the fly.

In short, we can blame Carmelo Anthony for the Knicks' recent woes. It may not necessarily be entirely accurate, but the argument is there.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Finally the AFL season can start

This offseason has probably been the most dramatic in recent AFL history. And, not a moment too soon, the break ends tonight as Carlton take on Richmond at the MCG. Thank goodness - because as car-crashingly enthralling as reading about the "St Kilda Schoolgirl" and her ... err ... exploits has been, it will be blessed and welcome relief to jam match coverage in amongst the tabloid-style back pages to which we've become so accustomed.

The offseason of 2010-11 for the AFL really started over twelve months ago when it became apparent that "Little Gary" would not sign a contract extension with Geelong, meaning he would effectively become a restricted free agent at the end of season 2010. Since then, AFL off-field shenanigans have included (in no particular order) Mark Thompson's lie-induced burnout; Ablett's inevitable re-enactment of the LeBron James masterpiece "Leaving Cleveland"; Brendan Fevola's self-destruction; Nick Riewoldt's wang; Zac Dawson's disco biscuits; the creation of a new franchise; a Collingwood premiership and subsequent uprising of the Magpie army; the gutting of the National Rugby League as Israel Folau and Greg Inglis changed (or threatened to change) codes; James Hird's Second Coming as Essendon coach; further rumours about stars leaving their clubs for what amounts to GWS slush-funds; Ricky Nixon's precipitous fall from grace and finally, thankfully, nothing at all about Port Adelaide or Fremantle.

Andrew Demetriou must surely be relieved that Melbourne, a town notorious for it's blanket coverage of AFL-related issues, will finally have actual deliverable content to space out the negative headlines. Aside from the form of Ricky Ponting - and how many words can you print daily on that? - the scarcity of sport worth speaking about has left Melbourne newspapers with little else on which to speculate throughout the Summer. Had the ignoble misadventures of Ricky Nixon, Sam Gilbert, Fevola and the horribly overpromoted Melbourne schoolgirl occurred in the Summer of 2007 amidst a 5 - 0 Ashes victory, the Melbourne Victory's phenomenal second season and the retirements of Warne, Langer, Martyn and McGrath, the AFL's offseason of new frontiers may well have garnered only a fraction of the attention it did this year.

The spotlight thrown on this off-field malarkey was only intensified by Australia's performance in The Ashes and waning public interest in cricket. As most sport becomes fully and painfully professional, they lose much of the larrikinism and fun which attracted the mug punter to them in the first place. Faced with the choice between a team full of bullies, pouters and bores or following the World Game (with very little television coverage), Joe Public decided it was best simply to re-invest in the coming Aussie Rules season. The league revelled in the exposure, initially falling victim to the old adage that any publicity is good publicity. This theory was recently discounted somewhat in The Economist; the AFL was only to learn how wrong that statement can be in February as first Brendan Fevola, then Ricky Nixon committed professional seppuku.

The AFL plays the politics of sports much better than any other code in Australia. No other competition in the nation felt obliged to have its say on the bidding process save the AFL, yet Demetriou managed to sound both condescending and patronising to football's governing body all at once. The failed FFA bid for the 2022 football World Cup meant only more airtime and column inches. The League invited - and loved - the attention, yet as the summer wore on it became obvious that those at League headquarters couldn't wait for the season to begin. The stream of life malapropisms committed by AFL brethren had made life in the public eye nigh-on unbearable. What were once a player's endearing foibles now appear glaring character weaknesses. Football's never been played by saints - but now media coverage and the blogosphere mean for better coverage. What was once left uncovered rarely remains so now.

Finally, the season is upon us. Now perhaps we can get around to covering what really matters: the game itself.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

England's - and Capello's - Captaincy Dilemma

As much as John Terry is unlikeable, he is a good on-field leader. This is why Fabio Capello performed a back-flip this week by announcing his reinstatement as England captain. It seems Terry, who was stripped of his title last year amidst a swarm of accusations about his private life, is the least of eleven evils. In a news conference on Tuesday, Terry admitted to "not being everyone's cup of tea". In a poll today on The Guardian's website, apparently he's only 15.9%'s beverage of choice.

There's almost no question the Chelsea skipper has all the best capabilities for the job - experience leading a team to trophies, is the biggest alpha-dog available to England, is amongst the best central defenders in the country and he'd look great with a bandaged head, Terry Butcher-style. Could you picture Rio Ferdinand or Matthew Upson standing in front of Joe Hart, screaming "You Shall Not Pass!" like Gandalf ? No, I couldn't either. In fact, on racking my brains for at least a minute, the only other Englishman I can think of who fits both the Butcher and Gandalf criteria is West Ham's Scott Parker.

There's a good argument that no defender or midfielder regularly available to England inspires like Terry. The only forward who does so is Wayne Rooney, who - though improving - is enduring probably his worst season ever and boasts off-field decisions which make those of the newly reinstated captain seem positively Yoda-like. England, it seems, are bereft of leaders worthy of the armband and this has forced a Capello flip-flop, which also sounds like a rather nice brand of ice-cream. All the positive steps the Italian was supposed to bring have now sunk finally, inexorably under a pile of Nutella, French Underwear Models and Boredom. The famous Capello discipline has, sadly, failed.

Capello was brought in to administer England for a number of reasons. Firstly, he has won everywhere he's been. This leads straight onto the second reason - his success and manner made him the best qualified choice to manage a nation suffering through a trophy drought now forty-five years long. That's thirty-nine years longer than Arsenal's current drought, ten years longer than City's dry spell and was three years shorter than Birmingham City's before the League Cup. Finally, it was thought that Capello's rigid sense of discipline would allow for better performances after the pally reign of Schteve McClaren turned into schemozzle.

The Three Lions responded magnificently early in the Italian's reign but this petered out with an awful World Cup during which there were rumours of a rebellion led by Terry. It's beginning to seem though nothing totally defeated him before, Capello has finally met his match with this group. It's fitting commentary that a man renowned for strong principles has perhaps been challenged most strongly - and terminally - by this group of players whose ideals often remain ... fluid.

Terry was stripped of the captaincy for personal rather than professional reasons. At the time, it was thought unlikely he would regain the position - the colossus centre-back gave way to his ball-playing counterpart Rio Ferdinand, who has rarely been healthy since. Rumours persist that he may never be fully healthy again. The gaffer manager (doesn't seem like the type to enjoy the title "gaffer", does he?) was then forced to reconsider his options and, probable personality issues and all, John Terry is the outstanding candidate.

Every other Three Lions regular - Ferdinand, A. Cole, Lampard, Gerrard, Hart, Rooney, Barry, Milner - either doesn't have the force of personality to be the dressing room alpha dog or the talent to justify the appointment. Those who do have the personality and skills either boast injury reports the length of Terry Butcher's bandage or a personal life making Terry's seem meek in comparison. As much as it's probable Capello would have liked to move forward, the only younger prospects worthy of regular England consideration are Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll. The manager's hands were tied on this one - it's not a back-flip solely because he changed his mind, simply that there are no more options left to him.

Ponting Punted?

Perhaps it all came about as a result of his run-in with Steve Smith. Maybe three Ashes defeats from four have finally taken their toll. It could be that his recent form - stunningly unresembling his best - may have marked his cards. But the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Ricky Ponting's captaincy career could be in for its most stern boardroom test when the team returns from their World Cup campaign. The current tour could be his last as Australian captain.

It's fair that Ponting's reign is thrown into question both for his recent results and on-field attitude. His ascension to the captaincy seemed a case of "right place, right time": he was the standout candidate of a middling field when selectors last deemed generational change necessary. For the first time since Ian Johnson's departure, Australia lacks a clear successor. Of course the plan was for Michael Clarke to follow in his footsteps as the best choice available, but his performances in late 2010 and charisma (that of a moose) haven't endeared him to either public or selectors. In the SMH article which brought this issue to light it is suggested his stock has recovered somewhat.

There's nothing wrong with change for its own sake. Indeed given the recent re-emergence of his always-prominent petulant streak, it could be his teammates support him because of what he was, rather than what he now is. This is an admirable position and his achievements as batsman and leader demand that acknowledgement, but the stance is quite possibly flawed. It's eminently possible that Ricky Ponting is no longer the best man to lead Australia; it may even be that he's only kept the position recently due to a dearth of suitable successors.

What Ponting must remember is that stepping aside now would not be a sign of weakness, nor a commentary on his his success as captain. Context in sport, in life, is all-important. He was charged with the difficult task of maintaining supremacy with a deteriorating team; his record reflects the challenges he has faced. He started his reign as one of a half-dozen World Class players in the Australian team and ended it the only one. In twenty years, we will not look back and say "Ricky Ponting lost the Ashes three times", though it will be true. We will say he did a good - but not outstanding - job in trying circumstances and wanted to better his record right up until the end.

He's always been honest and open, yet it could be that his tenure should end for no other reason than it's just time to go. After leading his country for nine years in the most high-stress job in the country outside Prime Minister, perhaps it is time Ponting surrendered the position. He first led the Australian Test team on 8th March 2004, meaning he could well be facing cricket's equivalent of the seven-year itch - and feels it's time to move on to new challenges but is yet to recognise and submit to those desires. His outward stance is that he's not finished. The inward position could be very different.

In the excellent ABC cricket documentary "Cricket in the 70s", Greg Chappell recounts being told by his brother Ian that he was resigning the captaincy. Ian Chappell, one of perhaps a handful of the most influential figures in Australian cricket ever, was only captain of his country for eight series over just five years; on telling his brother - and heir apparent - he was retiring he just said "Mate, when you know, you'll know". Chappelli had burned out, just as Greg would do in the early 1980s. Kim Hughes would suffer the same affliction in 1985. All three - and Border and Ponting, too - had been subjected to stresses never experienced by Steve Waugh or Mark Taylor.

Ponting's reign is beginning to resemble that of Greg Chappell: great batsmen weighed down by expectation as captain. Chappell rose above it to finish on a high, but captained Australia only in forty-eight Tests. Ponting nearly doubles that total with eighty. He's also slightly older, with a slightly more ropey technique and has nearly 360 ODIs to his name. It is fair and understandable that he is tired, tetchy and irritable.

The physical signs of stress are obvious to outsiders. Barack Obama has vast quantities more silver hair than he did only two years ago and, back home, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have both aged markedly while leading Australian politics. The US system of government allows a President to serve only two consecutive terms for two reasons - to share power and for the health of the President. Ponting looks old and tired.

These may be the last days of Ricky Ponting. If he goes, he won't be the first or last player to be "nudged" by the powers-that-be. It's a sad way for a star to go out, but the results of him hanging on may colour his captaincy even further in gloomy shades of blue.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pure Cycling: Cadel Evans - winner, champion, legend?

Ben Roberts

In the past ten years Australia has largely ignored what a champion cyclist Cadel Evans is. Focussed solely on the dream of thumping our collective chest at the first Australian to win the Tour de France, the blinkers have filtered all other prizes that Evans has collected, and truly the way he has conducted himself.

Cycling remains an incredibly misunderstood sport in a nation that refuses to let go of its expectations that its own competitors should fare no worse than victory. What most fail to grasp is that twice finishing second, four top ten finishes overall, six days in yellow overall, and stage victory is far more than most have won from the Tour. To dismiss Evans' record at this race is the same as saying Gary Ablett senior was not a champion footballer because he never won an AFL premiership; it's plainly not true.

Also in Evans' record is his wearing of the leaders jersey in both other Grand Tours, the overall points classification in the 2010 Giro d'Italia, his 2009 World Championship, his collection of overall stage race wins (including 2011's Tirreno-Adriatico), and a few one-day classics. I haven't even gone back to his efforts in mountain biking before he joined the professional cycling tour; truly a champion in the history of Australian cycling and probably beyond.

Cycling fans in this country have no problem accepting two other champions of the modern era in Robbie McEwen and Stuart O'Grady. Owing to different skill sets, their success has been without the burden of a country with eyes only for yellow. Yet Evans has done as much, and one (not I) may argue more, across more disciplines. Further people argue that O'Grady and McEwen are more likeable figures than Evans. In my eyes such a view is just snobbery. Evans is an individual, and isn't afraid of that, and like all should be accepted. He has had a few moments where he hasn't endeared himself, but he isn't alone. McEwen and Graeme Brown have the ability to carry on like children toward each other in even the most minor race.

Evans has broken free of the shackles that haunted him in 2009 up until the end of the Tour that year. So focussed was he that he saw utter dedication to winning the Tour as being the same as removing all flair and enjoyment from riding in favour of conservatism. His fight in the 2009 Vuelta and his World Championship attack was evidence of his talent and a returning love for the sport. Throughout 2010 and now in 2011 he has continued to compete and win with flair, his demeanour is calmer and his exertion on the bike more natural than ever. Most of all he isn't afraid to risk losing if it gives him a chance of winning.

Retired tomorrow Evans should be remembered a champion of the sport and a legend of Australian cycling; he continues however in pursuit of more victories. May he win that elusive Tour that more might take notice of his great career, though without it he is still great.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chelsea to scare United fans again

To go all nerd-alert on you, the Jedi code states that fear breeds hate. In football circles that's not quite right: it's one or more of success, arrogance or tactics which breed disdain. To expand a little, Manchester United is a love-or-hate proposition due to their combination of success and arrogance; Sam Allardyce's propensity for ugly football means he'sproductive but unpopular almost anywhere he goes and Kevin Muscat earned the title of "football's most hated" for mixing healthy doses of all three.

As a United fan, I've never really feared Liverpool. Fernando Torres definitely scared me - I'm sure Nemanja Vidic still can't sleep for the Anfield horrors the Spaniard regularly inflicted on him - and am glad he's gone. I don't despise Liverpool's past successes because during my football-following lifetime, any title or cup wins haven't come at United's expense. Any ill-feeling I bear towards the Scouse nation is due to my perception of their fans arrogance; but as a Red Devil supporter I'm also hardly above blame in this department. Although I admit to the rivalry between Arsenal and United and envy the North Londoners' ability to attract top youth prospects, I don't fear them either - how could you be frightened of a team whose enforcer is probably the mad Teutonic goalkeeper they just re-employed?

However, I fear Chelsea. Since I started the topsy-turvy life of a serious football follower early this century, almost everything about them has irritated me beyond all reason. This ire isn't the result of one factor but of many: billions of readily available roubles; nouveau riche fan attitudes; the existence of Dennis Wise and John Terry; other players whose attitude/talent combination elicits just the right amount of bile like Drogba, Anelka and Torres; and tactically astute managers (probably except Avram Grant). Finally - and most importantly - Chelsea are a team accustomed to beating Man U. Only their three League titles and four FA Cups since the millennium can compare with United's haul. For relatively recent fans of the league, the big rivalry isn't Red vs. Red Devil - it's now Blue vs. Red Devil.

And this is what makes the Champions' League Quarter-Finals so enticing and nerve-wracking. These two teams will play in a replay of the 2008 UCL final, an event made more delicious for victorious Red Devil fans when the deciding penalty was missed by John Terry. To make one of the best days ever even better, he then cried on the pitch. Though '99 was special, this was every United fan's decade-long dream. Since that day, Chelsea have proved stronger in most encounters as if jointly motivated and repelled by the failure in Moscow. Both teams don't sport vintage line-ups this year, but battle will commence again.

And it will be a frighteningly watchable spectacle.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Einstein's opinion on Ferguson & Wenger?

Albert Einstein once said insanity could be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So it is true with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Sir Alex Ferguson was this week suspended for five games by the English FA for comments he made about referee Martin Atkinson in the wake of Manchester United's loss to Chelsea. The United gaffer said on seeing Atkinson had been selected for the game that he "feared the worst". As is often the case with the Scot, no-one's quite sure of the absolute meaning of his words but their tone is certainly overwhelmingly negative. The three game ban administered by the FA was supplemented by a two-game penalty suspended from a similar offence last season; this means United will be in Mike Phelan's care for matches against West Ham, Everton, Fulham and, crucially, trophy rivals City and Arsenal.

In a similar-but-different story, any expectation of Wenger remains that he's unwilling or unable to purchase defensive solidity. After yet again being exposed by physically stronger opposition on Saturday at Old Trafford, Wenger's policy of buying football-savvy youth may once more fail to pay dividends. Wenger's stock, never higher than in the Invincibles season of 2004, has - if anything - slipped to the point that he's gone from "bankable" to "futures". Almost immediately after that memorable season, Wenger's focus seemed to shift unwaveringly onto youth. Unfortunately for Gunner fans, the lack of development shown by some of his proteges (among them Senderos, Vela, Denilson and Abou Diaby) is balanced - at best - by that of Wilshere, Ramsey and Djourou. The common and probably unflawed logic is that until the Gunners develop a midfield "destroyer" in the mould of Vieira: the player Diaby and Denilson were each supposed to become.

Like cheap toilet paper, Ferguson will continue to remain a right royal pain in the FA's butt just as Arsene Wenger will persevere with playing his brand of football. Ferguson probably feels his quarter of a century at the Red Devils entitles him to say whatever he pleases; in itself an amusingly misguided attitude which likely will not change and makes him the FA's number one recalcitrant. With both his goal of nineteen titles and his seventieth summer in sight it's hardly likely that a five match suspension will change the famously hard-headed Ferguson's modus operandi: let's remember Ferguson has won any clash he's fought over his tenure with hard men and club icons alike. In this case he can't beat the FA, but surely this late in the game can play for a draw.

The same rings true with Wenger. While his club success means he's deservedly rolled in plaudits since he arrived from Nagoya Grampus in 1996, that damned youth policy has been an identifiable part of North London philosophy for over half a decade now. To expect him to change it would be misguided. After putting in so much work creating this team it's possible, probable even, Wenger feels to bring in an established, premiership-hardened - and therefore costly - centre-half/goalkeeper would betray his principles. There remains hope for the Gunner faithful that he will spend this offseason but it is hope which fades day by day.

Einstein was perhaps the world's most famous physicist. He could have doubled his fame and money had he turned to football punditry.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Patriotism and Moral Conundrums

Ben Roberts

For the resident of a lucky country such as Australia the world of sport is vast and plentiful. The sporting fan need not look far to partake in or enjoy the spectacle of many games. As I suppose it is with life, there is an inability for one sport to completely fulfil a sports lover such as myself; none provides perfection.

My first love has always been and will continue to be cricket. Like a former Prime Minister there is a sense of tragedy when examining the obscene amount of cricketing knowledge lodged in the reaches of my brain. Being born and bred in Melbourne it is only natural that I have the strongest of affinity with Australian Rules as my footballing code of choice. Should I witness the Richmond Football Club winning a premiership in my lifetime, the years of heartache will be worthwhile and my sporting life complete.

Cycling is a bug that once caught is hard to shake. What attracts me to it is the freedom that you have to enjoy its simple pleasures with or without deference to others. Enjoying or partaking in the spectacle is equally a great lifestyle. It cannot be ignored that the most popular sport in this world is that of Football and it demands attention. Years a marginalised and fringe sport in Australia, the explosion of up-to-the-minute media communications has made it a breeze to follow this game at its highest levels.

Surely four major sporting codes would be enough for one to feel complete in their experience of things, but unfortunately (in a prime exhibit of western consumerism) I am still wanting more. Despite years of ignorance I must add two further sports to my list.

I am not greatly taken by it at club or provincial level, though will happily watch a package of highlights, but a Rugby Union international is for mine as passionate expression of sporting patriotism as any. Having been blessed twice to visit the Pacific nation of Tonga, I can tell you first hand the fervour for the sport from this small country (with a big heart), even without watching a match. True to their love of the sport, humorously in Tonga the sport played in the off-season is Rugby League!

There are zero dead international matches. Unlike football where there is such a thing as a 'friendly', giving rise to lesser expectations of spectator, participant and non-participants, Rugby internationals are test matches and demand attention of its stakeholders. Cricket shades Rugby as source of the phrase, but unlike Rugby, it waters down international competition with a proliferation of meaningless limited over matches. Rugby's coat-tail fixtures, the 'Sevens' game, are held as part of a tournament and despite not being considered test matches, they do contain meaning also.

Annually Rugby provides great festivals of the sport. In the Northern Hemisphere the Six Nations tournament draws out passion that built empires, and harnesses it in a more edifying context. In the Southern Hemisphere the Tri-nations tournament draws out the passion of the former British colonies as they seek to raise themselves to worldwide attention. Hopefully the future holds for the addition of Argentina to more fully represent the southern half of the globe.

It isn't just the teams that compete in the competitions, it's that they have homes that are evocative to hear mentioned. They do play elsewhere at times but save their best for the biggest of stages. England at Twickenham; Scotland, Murrayfield; Wales, The Millennium Stadium; Italy, Stadio Flamino; Ireland, Lansdowne Road; and France, Stade de France. In the south it is similar – Argentina at Vélez Sársfield; South Africa, Ellis Park; New Zealand, Eden Park or Lancaster Stadium. Australia used to grace more traditional homes, the Sydney Cricket Ground and Ballymore, however has been more severe in its rationalisation of stadiums across all sports, maybe to the detriment of its on-field performance.

Of course every four years the Rugby world competes for the World Cup. While Rugby's reach is by no means as extensive as the round-ball game, certainly this tournament is more representative of a competitive world than cricket. Despite this being a watershed moment for me in admission I do recall rising at 2am in 1999 to witness John Eales lead the Australians to victory over France in Cardiff. This was a moment of true international sporting triumph, unlikely to be repeated in Football (and certainly not Australian Football), and far in advance of cricket.

What the reason is behind Rugby's ability to retain such passion at the international level is unclear. Perhaps it is because for the first 100 years it staved off professionalism. There can be no doubt that along the way there were those players who indirectly and mischievously benefited financially, but for the most part it required the players on the field to compete only for the pride of a nation. Rugby has many challenges, not the least of which is having a wealthier younger cousin, but I must give in to the lure of appreciating this grand game at the highest level.

Moving to my next new love and everything about this sport says that logically I should not support it. But to think logically about this sport is to misunderstand completely; there is no logic involved, just passion. The sport is Formula One motor racing.

The level of danger posed to driver and others cannot be fully justified, and I am sure I would steer a child away from it as a career; yet you cannot help but be transfixed watching on video the great drivers like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost or even Michael Schumacher control these ridiculously powerful lumps of metal at high speed. The cost per capita of participant would easily be the most of any sport, and the drain on my home state's economy of hosting a race is ridiculous and has better purpose; but what is created in these phenomenal pieces of engineering is immense.

Finally, and maybe most telling, is that in accepting of humanity's effects on the natural environment of this world you immediately see the motor car as being a prime culprit. Yet this exciting sport is driven (pun intended) by unsustainable inputs.

Maybe it is the enormous respect for the drivers who push their bodies to the limit, and their courage to extremes in getting into the cockpit. It could be the great respect for the feats of engineering that I know I am not wired to ever understand fully. I have no idea how this season the Kinetic Energy Recovery System works, or could theorise about the potential effect, but I know basically what it aims to achieve and this season look forward to the result.

It is a sport more enamoured with glamour and does not assimilate with this age of health & safety and sustainable living . A glass half full may call it a sport of a simpler time, and a simpler world. Half empty, one of ignorance. Bernie Ecclestone will not care of my own conscious struggles so long as he makes a dollar from me somewhere along the line, but I feel torn. As much as the world of cycling produces immense speed and technological innovation there is something ironically primal about being amazed by a Formula One car.

Where will this end, will it end? Who's to say; come Christmas I may have collected another two or three sports to my portfolio, even more. I worry about what paths this could lead me down, just the other day I began to experiment while sweeping the floor that may be an inkling that a love of Curling is on the horizon. I prefer Rugby Union over Rugby League because I perceive more intricacies in the game (and enjoy complicating my life), but what happens on that tired lonely evening when I want something easy? The scary part is that I believe potentially the only end is a Richmond premiership.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chara's Pacioretty hit means a lot for NHL - and all pro sport

Part 3 of our continuing series: An Australian on Ice Hockey.

Part 1: You make excuses for the Habs

Part 2: NHL All-Star Game shakeup a great idea

Part 4: Canadiens vs. Boston the Austin Powers NHL Playoff matchup

Part 5: The Psychology of Choking

The sickening hit Zdeno Chara delivered to Max Pacioretty last week has escaped further sanction as debate continues over the Bruin defenceman's intent. The Montreal Canadiens, up 4-0 against divisional arch-rival Boston, lost one of their developing stars as 22 year-old Pacioretty was checked face-first into the turnbuckle, an area of the boards present in every hockey arena where the protective glass surrounding the ice takes a right-hand turn to allow for the player benches. The impact caused Pacioretty to suffer a fractured vertebra and severe concussion. Chara's penalty was classified as "major" and resulted in five minutes in the penalty box; it was also revealed late last week that Montreal Police have been asked to investigate if there are grounds for criminal prosecution.

Should Chara have been suspended for his action? Almost every NHL commentator and analyst has suggested the incident was unfortunate rather than malicious and as a result, the 6'9 Slovakian's on-ice conduct shouldn't be subjected to further inquiry. Pacioretty has said he wanted the Bruins' captain suspended but not charged criminally but NHL refereeing experts have trotted out the same platitudes: he's not that kind of player, he was just doing his job, it's hockey - these things happen.

But Chara should be punished. This isn't a Canadiens fan ranting at another perceived injustice at the hands of Boston, but simply an example of hockey becoming a microcosm of life. Chara - admittedly - was doing his job in taking an interference penalty to slow down a Hab break. But he did so clumsily and as a result, a player was seriously injured. Anyone who drives a car must accept the consequences of clumsy driving, be they suspensions, jail time or human costs. Chara, the largest player in the NHL, must accept responsibility for the results of his actions.

Just as when Sidney Crosby received two hits against the Tampa Bay Lightning in a January 5 match which cost him the season , a puck-playing skater has been hurt by the actions of a player who "played the man, not the ball". And as head injuries are forced to the forefront of sports administrators, hits to the head like this must stop or else leagues will find themselves in highly actionable positions.

As concussions become an increasingly large headache - pun intended - for hockey, the game's administrators, coaches and players all need to take actions to decrease the number of head injuries sustained. In all of America's major sports, concussions form a large portion of all injuries suffered and the NFL, NBA and NHL are now approaching the point where a standard concussion protocol is instituted meaning clubs, coaches and players have no say in remaining on the field. In this case, if the right boxes are checked, the concussed player is removed from the game.

This standardised concussion protocol is a big topic for NFL and now NBA franchises. After the spate of highly-rated NHLers being taken out and subsequently missing large chunks of time, it will soon be the same for hockey. It's insufficient to take an incident - or even fighting - and say "That's just hockey". For years, helmet-to-helmet contact has been "just football" and now more and more players, administrators and fans are becoming aware of the serious dangers of repeated blows to the head. The cost, both physical and financial has become too great.

Every single person involved in the NHL has a duty of care to the players. It simply doesn't do to have the game's biggest star MIA for six months (and allegedly considering retirement) because "that's just hockey". No one - fans, players or owners - should be robbed of Sidney Crosby for that long because of an avoidable incident. The same is true of Pacioretty: Canadiens fans shouldn't be wondering if he will ever be the same after his horrible injury.

It behoves the NHL to protect their players - their greatest asset - and as such, hits like those of suffered by Pacioretty and Crosby must stop. Outside the arena, the oft-touted example is that of the road-user: when getting behind the wheel of a car, a motorist takes upon themselves a duty of care for other road users. Should you run a red light with no-one around, chances are you will not be punished. Should the consquences of your running the red light be a car accident and a death, then you find yourself at the mercy of a jury of your peers facing serious driving offences. Sport doesn't happen in a vacuum - it reflects the mores of outside society and as such, on-field violence must be curbed.

When you watch the video again and again, you can tell (1.53) that Zdeno Chara knew exactly where he was on the ice when he shoved Pacioretty. He was aware they were near the turnbuckle and was faced with a decision - do the team thing or pull out and hit later. Either it didn't register or he didn't care that Pacioretty faced serious injury which makes his actions not necessarily malicious but negligent in any duty of care he has to fellow professionals. This lack of care in itself should be a sanctionable offence. Given the anti-concussion ruckus is (understandably) player-driven, it makes no sense at all - and is at worst hypocritical - for an athlete to cry foul about head injuries then go out and forcibly and negligently make contact with an opponent's head.

In Australia, the AFL has put into place a framework for administering justice to players where there is minimal room for personal opinion. Any hit is judged as negligent, reckless or intentional; contact is graded as mild, moderate or severe and the location of contact to the opponent's body is also considered. The severity of the injury isn't taken into consideration per se, but given the impact is acknowledged it falls under that category. Repeat offenders are given a percentage loading for past offences. Although inflexible, it has made every player in the league aware that their actions have consequences and as such, concussions have fallen markedly. It is time that such a framework is instituted in American professional sports before a player is hurt more seriously than even Crosby and Pacioretty.

Proessional sport in the USA needs to raise it's conscious levels about concussions lest they find themselves in a litigious position. The excuse that "hockey/football's always been played that way" is bunk: though the collisions have always been there, the athletes our society now produces are a relatively novel phenomenon and the athlete/collision combination (generally) causes greater damage than in days past. If this is not corrected, then sport will suffer due to the lack of stars available.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mohamed Bin Hammam to challenge Blatter's Presidency?

It was Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe who said "One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them: It is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. Anyone who is capable of getting themselves into a position of power should on no account be allowed to do the job". It could be said that this is very much the case with the FIFA presidency.

Sepp "Bellend" (link) Blatter has governed FIFA with the opposite of aplomb for thirteen years. During this time, he's been able to say that he pushed for - and got - World Cups in Africa, the Middle East and Russia. He has also implemented smaller strides - shuffles? - forward, namely the recent banning of snoods. His tenure, which has so far coincided with the rise of Hawkeye technology and a faster-paced sport, will also be noted for his hesitancy in employing those technological advances in world football.

Perhaps he will be most remembered as the man who helmed an organisation unable or unwilling to deal with probable corrupt elements within its own ranks. His political legacy will be masked by his occasional monstrous gaffes, such as his comments for homosexual men to refrain from sex during the 2022 Cup in Qatar and accepting the Liberian Humane Order of African Redemption from dictator Charles Taylor. Sepp Blatter's no angel - he may even define his nickname and appears to the general populace as a power-mad, publicity-hungry buffoon. His reign isn't most notable for what he has done, but for what he has failed to achieve.

And he has a challenger for the presidency of FIFA, Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed Bin Hammam. The Qatari is a member of FIFA's 24-man Executive Committee and is widely expected to announce his intentions within the next ten days. The elections are held in Zurich over 31st May and 1st June and Bin Hammam - who has made noises about running for over a year - must surely both disappoint and scare Blatter after what can only be described as a frustrating past four years for football's tallest poppy.

Both men were seen as crucial figures in Qatar's successful World Cup bid in November, the potential challenger for his role as bid champion and the incumbent for his hearty endorsement. This was a curious move by the President given his options and was seen by skeptics and neutrals alike as an attempt to mollify Bin Hammam and his Asian brethren. In many ways, Qatar's bid could end up facing more scrutiny as a result of perhaps one more ham-fisted action from one of the world's most influential men - not an election promise per se, but a pre-election payoff to a potential opponent.

But let's not say categorically that Bin Hammam is a more appropriate choice to head football's governing body than Sepp. It's also no fait d'accompli that Blatter loses the election - Bin Hammam apparently seems confident of backing from Asia, America and Africa but, crucially, less so of European support. Just the simple fact that he does not have the unwavering support of the football world appears to unnerve Blatter. It should hardly come as a surprise.

According to Adams, those who seek to rule are the least suited to doing so. This creates a philosophy which questions the morals and motivation of every politician, which is both good and appropriate. Politicians and governments need to be questioned - not because their ideals aren't right (though occasionally this may be the case) but because their practices or actions are ineffective. Questions are good because questions (should) beget answers.

For too many years, FIFA has been hamstrung by allegations of conceit, corruption and vote-buying. Change must take place - under Blatter or Bin Hammam.

Cricket: Jane Austen's World Cup

by Ben Roberts

For Anita, a Jane Austen lover and wife of a cricket tragic.

It is often said that sporting teams will take on individual characteristics that differentiate them from others. Describing these characteristics need not be limited merely to the mundanely clichéd terms of sport; they can come from the literary world.

Lying in bed thinking of how best to describe each of our World Cup challengers I realised how each of them fit seamlessly (in my own mind) into Jane Austen’s Victorian tale of Pride & Prejudice. See below, team’s are in alphabetical order.

AustraliaLydia Bennett: Gets what they desire in the end, however do not please others with the manner in which they do so, including their own ‘family’.

BangladeshMr Bennett: Have some talent within them but are rarely taken seriously.

Canada & KenyaThe Bingley Sisters: Serve no purpose in the tournament except to ruin the future ambitions of Ireland.

EnglandElizabeth Bennett: Like Lizzy, the English supporter lives a life of undue frustration and complication.

Ireland Jane Bennett: With their coloured hair and pure joy in victory they are the simple souls of this competition.

IndiaMr Wickham: Describe their motives as being pure however are believed by many to just be in it for the money.

NetherlandsMr Collins: Existence is based purely on the patronage of one individual.

New ZealandMary Bennett: The poorer sibling of many, they have little talent but try hard.

Pakistan Mrs Bennett: Can hold it together for short periods of time but likely to collapse into tantrum at any moment.

South AfricaMr Darcy: The look and resource of a champion team however regularly cock it up at inappropriate moments.

Sri LankaMr Bingley: Talent and riches and a zest for the game.

West Indies Charlotte Lucas: Well past their glory years now, will settle for anything resembling success.

Zimbabwe Lady Catherine de Burgh: More a reflection on the administrative leader of Zimbabwean cricket, a dictatorial and manipulative individual only concerned about their own end.

Like Austen’s tale we already seen the Netherlands bother England with more attention than one would feel comfortable about, and seemingly Ireland have a greater ability to woo victory than the English.

Do these undoubted parallels mean that England and South Africa or Ireland and Sri Lanka will be tied together at the end of the story...I mean tournament? Or will Australia and India elope in the final act of debauchery? This story is still to be written.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Getting a move on

by columnist Ben Roberts

It will soon be high time for Ricky Ponting to hang up the boots and retire his post as Australian captain. As is history's way it probably will take some time before the public feel any warmth in the memory of his leadership. But Ponting has presided over a team that can lay claim to continuing to propagate a modern scourge on the game of cricket.

At the conclusion to the 1995-96 Australian summer most cricket journalists had decided to wag a finger at least once at the conduct of the Sri Lankan team under their less than popular captain Arjuna Ranatunga. Great consternation was directed toward the time wasting activities of the tourists and their skipper. Of particular note seemed to be what were termed the 'Running men'. These members of the touring squad showed more potential as 400 metre runners than as cricketers as after each over they dutifully sprinted to the wicket holding gloves or drinks. They held up the play as they delivered a pearl of Ranatunga's wisdom (he was unlikely to run it out himself) and then ran off.

As I wrote that last paragraph the wave of hypocrisy that enveloped me was almost unbearable. I have just witnessed a summer of international cricket where the Australian team were able to lower the bar even further in falling behind over rates. The primary crime was exactly the same as the Sri Lankans 15 years previously. Constantly we witnessed 12th men running drinks out onto the field at every available opportunity; and with the modern game now incorporating pauses while umpiring decisions are scrutinised by video, the opportunities have increased.

With the Australian cricketing summer drawing to a close, recently I took the opportunity to witness a final day of first-class cricket before the long winter ahead. Even on a coolish March day, where most players saw fit to wear sleeveless sweaters, somehow it was imperative that drinks were delivered to the batsman constantly. I am someone who does promote that the stereotypical alpha male does more damage than good as a role model, but really chaps it is time to harden up. The most humourous irony in it all is that it is guaranteed that five minutes prior to a scheduled break in play the fielders will be running around desperate to squeeze an extra over in, when in the past two hours most of the spectators could have found an extra five!

Time wasting is not limited to the proliferation of refreshment breaks. Captaincy standards have slipped also. Andrew Strauss may have severely out-thought his opposite numbers during the Ashes series, but in the one day matches his reactive captaincy belied someone having absolutely no idea what to do. During the summer I had the pleasure of watching Australia chase down 294 and Shane Watson score 161 not out. Strauss' field changes were overly regular and generally too late. Having seen Watson club a ball to a particular part of the field you could be sure that prior to the next ball an adjustment would be made in the field and a man placed in that exact spot. Despite displaying no faith at all in his bowlers, Strauss holding all things equal every ball only succeeded in holding up the game further.

It never used to be like this. The stories of play during the first half of the 20th century indicated feats of performance and stamina that would simply be impossible to replicate based upon the terrible habits of our international cricket teams. So much different was it that during the early years of Sir Donald Bradman's career test matches played in England were strictly contested over three days only (four at a pinch). Experienced from a diet of wall to wall cricket during county seasons this was nothing to the English. (The Australian's would have to have adjusted from their own experience of timeless tests at home.)

The mention of Bradman led me to search out the records of one of his most famous innings as proof that cricket could be played at a far brisker rate. On the 1930 tour he of course scored the then world record innings of 334 – 309 of them coming during one days play at Leeds. Apart from the obvious need to return the balls from the boundary during the day that adds to time taken, no doubt with such a feat of scoring many standing ovations were given to the Don. That being said he would have simply doffed his cap raised his bat before continuing unlike the modern player who generally falls just short of a full lap of honour before passionately embracing at least on piece of his cricketing equipment.

Having delved into the record books I found that the first day had Bradman not out on his phenomenal score of 309 and the Australian on a huge total of 458 for 3. In these days matches were played to time so the recording of the number of overs bowled in days play did not occur, therefore we must do some rudimentary calculation to work out a rough estimate. On day two of the match we know Australia threw the bat and were dismissed for 566 in time enough for Hobbs and Sutcliffe to have taken England to 17 without loss by the lunch break. The total amount of overs (6 ball) that Australia faced in their innings was 168, therefore even disregarding the short period of English batting we can reasonably estimate that Australia faced near enough to 43 overs a session and therefore 129 overs on the first day!

Over rates have been a problem since the days of the four pronged 1980's West Indian pace attacks, but for them so dominant were they that they didn't require the extra time to roll through the opposition. It is an affront to spectators both live and through media alike that they are forced constantly to pay higher prices for the spectacle yet are constantly delivered less. The 1930 test match was of a different era and it would be unlikely to be easily replicated today, but it is by no means unreasonable to expect that teams should be able to easily deliver 90 overs in a day of test cricket and 100 in a limited over fixture.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

World Cup Cricket: The time for Ireland to step up has come

In their recent appearances at the World Cup, Ireland's results have belied their status as one of cricket's "minnows". In 2007 in the Caribbean they infamously defeated Pakistan, tied with Zimbabwe and triumphed over Bangladesh; this tournament they've already upset heavyweights England behind a whirlwind middle-order display and their group stage efforts are only just half completed. There's plenty good argument that they should maintain full ODI status once this Cup concludes. Credit where credit is due - they've earned their stripes and deserve to reap the benefits.

When they defeated arch rivals England last week, Ireland proved themselves once and for all the strongest of the ICC's affiliate nations. Time and again they've defended their status as the strongest paupers around and the ICC should recognise now that their setup, fraught and import-dependent as it is, is strong enough to challenge superior programmes. They may not necessarily win, but that's merely an inconsequential detail: in any fixture between a top-five cricket nation and a bottom-five side the result is a near certainty anyway. Ireland have the same odds of upsetting Australia in Australia as Bangladesh; in neutral fixtures they may have a better chance of a masterminding a boilover.

They are themselves capable of playing some very good cricket and outmatch their affiliate counterparts by some considerable distance. Some would suggest that an Irish side would further water down international competition, but in truth if these nations are allowed to compete at the World Cup then the competition is weakened enough already. By admitting unready nations to these tournaments, the ICC has made a rod for its own back: only Ireland of the affiliates (and Kenya four years before) have announced their presence with any kind of definitive display.

Bangladesh, the last country admitted permanently to the ICC brethren, provides the best precedent for the proescution. Before their happy 2007 World Cup campaign, their cricketing highlight came on a damp day in the south of England when Mushrafe Mortaza (can someone tell me why he wasn't selected for this event?) led them to a win over the 2005 Australian Ashes tourists in a triangular ODI series. With their Kevin O'Brien-inspired big win last week, Ireland have surpassed this achievement already. The Tigers are the archetypal case of "failure to thrive" and mimic the Zimbabwe teams of the mid-90s, inconsistent sides with a few good players.

The largest obstacle Ireland's path is the lack of a top-flight domestic competition. In football, FIFA requires any World Cup hosts to have a top level home league; the ICC similarly looks not just at results but at grass-roots development. Unfortunately for Ireland, their best players - Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce, most prominently - are attracted to the county circuit and thus the country risks that these stars will be lost to the lure of Test cricket. This talent drain, combined with a former reliance on expats like Trent Johnston and Jeremy Bray, suggests Ireland are temporarily punching above their weight and so are likely to be drawn back into the Affiliate pack. A grand total of only thirteen fully professional Irish cricketers also doesn't bode well for promotion.

Should Ireland be serious about entering the ODI circuit as a full member, junior development must be their first priority. Ireland has positives in achieving this: a European home base and administration small enough to be unhampered by bureaucracy. Perhaps the country's greatest cricket advantage derives from its great weakness: proximity to England. Where Bangladesh has enough cricketers to stock a first-class system, Ireland does not, meaning elite Irish players need to find competition on distant shores. The best way of ensuring an evolving junior programme comes through the excitement bred by major competitions. Placing an Ireland side in the County Championship could nurture a breeding ground for young Irish cricketers and provide a pathway for their best talents. It could also serve as a developmental yardstick, allowing them (and the ICC) to see how much the sport had grown.

In the most brutally honest terms, Ireland aren't going to win the World Cup any time soon, but so what? When the ICC allows a country full status, it isn't an admission that the country is ready to actually compete. Bangladesh haven't thrilled anyone with their performances on the world stage; neither has Zimbabwe, despite short periods of improved play; Sri Lanka were effectively patsies until their improbable 1996 World Cup triumph - the major nations' whipping boy for nearly twenty years. This is a neat, but flawed comparison as in those countries cricket isn't the underground sport it is in Ireland. However, the fact remains that the ineffective administration shown by Bangladesh over the past ten years means there's severe doubt as to Bangladesh ability to ever field a threatening side. As painful as it is, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe just make up numbers.

Admittedly this is a harsh assessment of both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and doesn't take into account the sociological, political and geographical unrest suffered by both nations over the past decades. Those factors - and Ireland's insolvency - contribute to a changing cricket world, one where a two-tier system is almost irrevocably in place. Cricket, whether we like it or not, is now a divided across "have" and "have not" lines": and if Ireland wants to join the lower tier, then why stop them?

Monday, March 7, 2011

BYU shows stones in dealing with Brandon Davies dilemma

NCAA Final-Four hopefuls Brigham Young University (BYU) last week caused sensation by suspending their most effective basketball forward Brandon Davies for failing to comply with the school's honour code. The code, which is based on Mormon beliefs and signed by every student attending the private school, states the student will be honest; chaste; law abiding; use clean language; a regular churchgoer; comply to dress standards; abstain from alcohol, nicotine, coffee and tea; and encourage others in maintaining their commitment to the code. By enforcing their rules, BYU may have derailed their team's chances of holding aloft the NCAA Championship this year. Agree with their decision or not, it's a high price to pay for principle.

But a fair one? Since their decision a week ago, the Cougars have slumped to an 18-point defeat to New Mexico but remain adamant their decision was correct. Under star guard Jimmer Fredette, the Cougars are playing out probably the best basketball season in their history - they're 27-3 - and had won seventeen of their last eighteen encounters before their slip at New Mexico. Davies was a key component of that as he provided interior defence, rebounding and inside scoring to complement Fredette's outside mojo.

The university, owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints, is a big college programme both in football and basketball, with alumni such as quarterback Steve Young, basketballers Shawn Bradley and Danny Ainge, politician Mitt Romney, author Stephanie Meyer and actor Aaron Eckhart. By effectively dismissing their second best player, the college's powers-that-be have decided that the infraction committed by Davies - appparently consensual sex with his girlfriend - was too great to be punished only with probation or a reprimand. A suspension - potentially a long one, given BYU's title chances - was considered the most appropriate penalty; a penalty which also affects the entire team.

Outcry has come from many and varied sources. New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire raged on his Twitter feed, later retracting his statements, while Tim Tebow suggested punishment was justifiable under the terms of the code, but probably harsh. Brandon Davies has understandably remained silent. Media sources seem to acknowledge BYU were well within their rights to take the actions they did and also that, in some ways, it speaks positively, rather than negatively, of the college given their insistence on the importance of character.

That's not to say that Brandon Davies has no, or weak, character but the bare truth is he knew the risks inherent in his actions. On signing the code, he accepted that should he not fulfill his side of the contract he would be penalised no matter how large or small his infraction. His "crime", it seems, is regarded as serious by university bigwigs; it should be thought of as unfortunate and understandable. However, that an act is deemed understandable and unfortunate doesn't mean punishment is undeserved.

Little has been said about the effect on the player under scrutiny. He's obviously a very talented basketballer and his error has been punished, probably severely. Hopefully he will rebound (no pun intended) and be allowed to complete his education at the Utah-based school when his case goes to a tribunal at a later date. In all likelihood, he will come back a wiser man: in life - especially in business - there are consequences for a breach of contract. He understands this now more than ever. And more than most.

As ESPN's Chris Broussard has said, it's refreshing to see a big college program value its principles more highly than it does wins. It's something very rare in college sport these days as evidenced by the number of colleges sanctioned for recruiting infractions. As in amateur sport, college athletes aren't paid but there are creative ways of roaming the grey area between legal and illegal which are exploited by schools. BYU have voluntarily sanctioned their own man for his transgression, allowing us to read their priorities as paramount. This was an in-house matter, not leaked to the press. No-one needed know about it: jeopardising their title chances could wait or be conveniently ignored. Because they chose to address it deftly, BYU should be congratulated even as many alumni begin to cry into their beverages - alcoholic, caffeinated or not - at the prospect of a lost title.