Friday, October 28, 2011

Book review: Barassi, by Peter Lalor

A re-post from our affiliate book review blog, Books with Balls.

When my grandfather died in 1991, I was eleven and before we left his house in Warrnambool for the last time, my sister and I were invited to take with us anything small we'd like. Being a sports nut, I went straight to the bookshelf and prised away the Courage Book of Brownlow Medallists (the up-to-date 1975 version), Run Digger by Bill Lawry, Crackers by Peter Keenan and two near-ubiquitous football books: Boots and all! and Captain Blood by Lou Richards and Jack Dyer, respectively.

I also found a scrapbook from 1964 made by my then 14-year old mother for her father, exclusively detailing Ron Barassi's move from Melbourne to Carlton. Coming from an age of relatively free player movement (remember the mid-season draft? Trevor Spencer!! Bret Bailey!! Andrew MacNish!!) I was astonished that so much newsprint could be devoted to one man moving clubs.

Mum explained that it was "a pretty big deal" back then, but I couldn't comprehend how important Barassi was - not just to the Melbourne Football Club - but to Australian Rules Football. With the passing of longtime friend Ted Whitten, Ron Barassi is Australian football's elder statesman and greatest advocate.

Peter Lalor's book Barassi follows the footballing fortunes of a man whose influence is so great one needs reminding that he spent the first fifteen years of his public life overshadowed. He began a football career defined by his father - a former player killed at Tobruk - and then became coach "Norm Smith's boy" due to a close relationship with the club coach.

He had to break free of public opinion and did so by agreeing to coach Carlton. He reiterates that the move was the best thing he ever did because it gave him his own identity. It is an identity with which every Victorian (Australian?) can associate.

The book doesn't provide much information about Barassi's personal life simply because outside football, he had had little personal time. It briefly details the breakup of his first marriage and elements of his current relationship, but his life is one lived almost entirely in footy. This makes the book, in essence, a year-by-year catalogue of Barassi's life which while at times informative also leaves the reader slightly flat. There are periods of detail mixed with passages of summary - which while sounding like the ideal mix, leaves the reader with questions.

courtesy: qbd.com.au
Like his mentor Smith, he was demanding of himself and his players but was tactically more astute than the Red Fox. He had strong ideals about how the game should be played and how players should carry themselves. Ron Barassi - according to former player "Crackers" Keenan - is the most honest man he's met. He learned about the importance of integrity from family (and extended family), tactics at the knee of the Smith brothers and of marketability from club presidents like George Harris and Allen Aylett. Those traits defined him - and his clubs.

It was to Barassi that the AFL turned when the Sydney Swans were so shambolic in the early nineties - only a coach, a personality even, of his magnitude could turn around what had become a major embarrassment to the league.

Lalor reveals that, on taking over a floundering Sydney franchise, Barassi lined the club's back-room staff up against one wall of the bowls club used as the club's HQ, then asking each member of the playing group to name the support staff. None of the Swans could - a sign of lingering disrespect for those around them . As the Swans matured, they made a run to the 1996 Grand Final.

Ron Barassi has a strong claim to being the most recognizable Victorian of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Since then, only Shane Warne and Nicole Kidman could challenge him. It's a shame though, that Barassi only tells most of his tale.  

Four stars.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sixty-Six Sigma: Tasmania

Ben Roberts with Matthew Wood

The Tasmanians were rightfully Champions of the 2010-11's Sheffield Shield. They are a mix of some great home-grown talent along with long being the home away from home for cricketers from other states.

Openers: Ed Cowan and Nick Kruger

Ed Cowan is one of those recruits, the former New South Welshman bringing determination as an opening batsman along with a passion and enthusiasm for the game to Tasmania. His personal results in 2010/11 were slightly below his career numbers, but having a determined player at the top of the order serves any team well. When first seeing Cowan bat at NSW training, noted judge Greg Matthews suggested his technique had 5000 Test runs in it; Test representation is unlikely, but doesn't take away from the fact he's got a very compact game.

Nick Kruger has been around the first class scene in Australia for a while. Like Cowan he was born in NSW but played his cricket first for Queensland before moving south to Tasmania. His five matches for Tasmania saw him average 52 in 2010/11 and finally start to make a play for more consistent first class selection.

Number Three: Ricky Ponting

You would think that Ponting is owed an extended run in his home state's team at the position in the order he most covets -simply because he's one of Australia's greatest ever batsman. But there is a great risk that Ponting, having already fallen on his sword as Australian captain, may withdraw further from the national team and therefore be required to justify his place for Tasmania.

When "Punter" thrusts on the Baggy Green, he'll be replaced by Alex Doolan, a twenty-five year old local pro who bats quite well. Unfortunately that's about as much as we can say for him, for almost anyone who replaces Ricky Thomas Ponting can only be said to bat "quite well".

Middle Order: George Bailey & Mark Cosgrove

George Bailey could be the most popular cricketer in Australia not to represent his country. Perhaps it's his ruddy good charm, maybe it's a name that sounds like it's better suited for rugger at Eton and maybe because he's accepted his fate as the new Siddons, doomed to make runs, captain his state and not trouble Chappell, Hilditch et al. He also captains well.

Yes we can make many a humorous quip about Mark Cosgrove's waistline and his alleged desire to live in a rookery while at the Australian Cricket Academy. But like his rotund brethren, the man can bat. Jamie Cox may have pleaded with the Taswegians to ignore the overtures of Cosgrove when he was dumped from South Australia, but Cosgrove now has a Shield title and the honour of having made a key contribution with the bat averaging 53.

All-Rounder: Luke Butterworth

Being the leading wicket taker for Tasmania with 45 (at 17.5 runs apiece) in 2010/11 coupled with 381 runs at 34 was reason enough for Luke Butterworth to be selected on the Australia A tour of Zimbabwe during the winter. Butterworth was a key member of the Shield winning team and is on the cusp of higher duties, at the least in the limited overs format.

Wicket-keeper: Tim Paine

Tim Paine has been ready and waiting for the departure of Brad Haddin for some time so he can take over the Australian Test team. Unlike Haddin, Paine has a level head and a trustworthy demeanour when batting and wicketkeeping. His 2010/11 was derailed by injury, but it would not surprise anyone (and would raise many spirits) if he was to take over full time as Australia's wicketkeeper by summers end. Tim Triffitt is his backup.

Spinner: Xavier Doherty

Xavier Doherty was unfairly maligned due to the ridiculous decision to call him up for Test duty last season. He was criticised for being what he is - a left-arm slow bowler who doesn't spin it but who can restrict runs in the one-day format.

Krezja bowls to Phil Hughes: flickr.com/photos/pj_in_oz/3319424964/
Of course nobody would ever turn down that chance - not even Darren Pattinson. The cricketing world turned on him somewhat despite it being plain he was not ready for it - (or likely ever would be). This uproar overshadowed his solid form for Tasmania in multiple formats of the game, including first-class matches. After his unceremonious exclusion from the Australian team, he returned 22 wickets at 28 in 8 2010-11 fixtures.

In times where two spinners are needed - like when they tour the subcontinent, for example - Jason Krezja will play. Expect to see quite a bit of both players, one as the defence and the other as the aggressor. Matt in particular would love to see Krezja brought back into the Australian squad.

Pacemen: Ben Hilfenhaus, James Faulkner, and Adam Mahar

We all know that Ben Hilfenhaus can bowl, and do it well. He has produced spells of swing bowling that have had some of the best batsmen in the world struggling to lay bat on a swinging ball. But his difficulty is that rarely does he look as though he wants to bowl. Served well at home by the regularly overcast conditions in Hobart, cometh the day where he's required to perform in other conditions he has often been found wanting.

He's the greatest corollary in Australian cricket at the present time: we understand that Mitchell Johnson can be great, but with his action/headspace, one understands he will occasionally be great and sometimes be just awful. Hilfenhaus seems to have everything in his favour (good head on shoulders, great action, moves the ball, height, bounce, pace - you name it) yet "boasts" a Test average of 35. He should be the pacemen on whom "Pup" Clarke can rely upon most, yet will struggle to play much Test cricket this year unless his form drastically improves.

Both James Faulkner and Adam Mahar played in the Shield final for Tasmania and took 36 and 37 wickets respectively in 2010/11. Mahar will be 30 early this season and is a late bloomer, but providing value to the Tasmanians and Australian cricket in general. Faulkner is only 21 with many top level cricket years ahead. Look for him in Australian ODI colours soon, probably replacing Moises Henriques.

Who's locked in?

Everyone except Doherty. Doherty is perhaps the number one spinning option but has the more attacking option of Jason Krejza on his tail; places may come down to form or the unlikely event of Australian selection.

What's disappointing?

Tasmania are the oldest squad in the competition - by a good two years or so. Only Faulkner and Paine can be said to be young-ish (Paine's twenty-six!) and while that experience has served the Tigers well, they could well go back to the well and sign backup younger players through a loan system.

Who's next up - or alternatively, who's loan bait?

Doolan (RHB), of course, but he'll play the majority of games as Ponting represents his country. All-rounder Evan Gulbis (RHB, RM) took 4/8 in a Limited Overs match last week while fast man Jeremy Smith has played for Australia at junior level, though his early top-flight experiences haven't been necessarily pleasant.


Lead photo courtesy: flickr.com/photos/pj_in_oz/3300619776 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book review: Sacred Hoops, by Phil Jackson

Balanced Sports runs an affiliate book review blog, called Books With Balls, where we review the literature that we're reading.  Typically, it's guy stuff: sports, action, military, biography - that sort of thing.  Occasionally we'll re-post here, if it's relevant - like this.

Phil Jackson is one of the greatest and the most respected coaches in the modern era. Jackson is famous for being the man who moulded the Chicago Bulls from being almost solely reliant upon Michael Jordan, into a NBA championship force as a team (with a lot of help from Jordan as well). Following from this he was able to control the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as he coached the Los Angeles Lakers to championships as well.

Cover Image Courtesy of bookdepository.co.uk
Jackson is also described as being not your a-typical personality of professional sports and someone a little 'left of centre'. Although this may be true one must recognise the following: 1) That in the egotistical world of professional sport it is hardly difficult to be considered different; and 2) having read this book I wonder how much of the perception of Jackson is objective and not down to his own self prophecy.

Sacred Hoops purports to be a description of the spiritual journey that Phil Jackson has gone on during his life and career in basketball and also the spiritual journey he sought to lead the unstoppable Chicago Bulls on as they won six championships in the 1990's. At best it is a philosophical reflection as rarely could it be said that Jackson describes his research or reflection as looking beyond his self for the divine.

In reality as I read through the book it felt more like a cobbled together series of quotes from Christianity, Buddhism, and Native American tribal culture that speak to the events in Jacksons career with the benefit of hindsight. This probably is not a 100% true statement, Jackson no doubt is widely read and has been for a great proportion of his life, but it appears too cute in places during this read that these single quotations from religious texts can speak wholly to the scenarios described by Jackson without reference to the greater contexts of the religious texts themselves. One could even go as far to say that it is disrespectful to practitioners of each of these religions that Jackson seemingly cherry picks bits and pieces that suit him and his story.

For those of us who grew up through the 1990's and loved Basketball and the Chicago Bulls for a period will get some satisfaction from reading back through the history of these great seasons where basketball glory rained heavily on the Windy City. Jackson does provide an honest insiders view of what he believed made the Chicago Bulls tick during this period and what helped them to be one of the most successful teams in history.

But it is not a great read. Particularly so if you reflect back (with greater hindsight) that if Jackson truly led this team (and its individuals) on a spiritual journey to betterment should they have obtained some more permanent value? Why is it then that most have seemed to continues living as ego-maniacs post their playing days?  One star.

By Ben Roberts

Friday, October 21, 2011

England's youth: a tale of two players

Football League representatives yesterday passed a controversial bill to overhaul English youth team systems. They did so convincingly (46 to 22 - six were EPL clubs) in order to ensure Premier League funding of the Football League Youth Development stays at the current rate of about 5 million pounds per season.

What the new changes will do, however, is drastically reduce the price EPL clubs will pay their local and grassroots brethren for the young stars of tomorrow.

From The Guardian, via Twitter
Rather than the current tribunal system, which assesses the worth of the player via evidence submitted by both purchasing and vending clubs, the new system places a strict framework of prices increasing fractionally for every year the player has trained at the club. So - for example - if the next Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were to be purchased next summer, the selling club would receive somewhere between 59,000 and 169,000 - not the seven or eight figure sum Southampton ka-chinged from Arsenal for the double-barrelled tyro.

Change was suggested by the English Football Association after a root-and-branch review of the country's academy and player-pathway system in light of a disappointing 2010 World Cup. The Elite Player Peformance Plan (EPPP) was instituted, aiming to restore Blighty to glories last seen in the late '60s. Though the idea for an academy revamp came from the FA, the change was overseen by the country's superpowers, the clubs in the Premiership.

Shortly after the decision was announced, The Guardian's Football League writer John Ashdown tweeted two examples of how this will disadvantage individual clubs. The first was of Oluwaseyi Ojo, the fourteen year-old MK Don who last week agreed a move to Chelsea 1.5 million (rising to 2 million). Under the new rules, MK Dons would receive only 46,500 plus bonuses for first-team matches played.

Part of John Ashdown's (the Guardian journalist) Twitter feed yesterday
More information came quickly to light. Ashdown was informed of the deal's full structure by colleague Simon Burnton, who tweeted that that the amount would then go up depending on EPL games played (see below). The totals seem reasonable for a player who plays a number of first-team matches for his new club. Ostensibly, after 100 Premier League appearances the vendor club may possibly receive millions.

And what if the player doesn't make the first team? John Bostock, who undertook a much-celebrated and highly scrutinised move from Crystal Palace to Spurs doesn't appear likely to make 'Arry's first team any time soon spends his time at White Hart Lane on loan. Were Bostock's deal to have been done after the enaction of this new EPPP legislation, Spurs could have secured him for a maximum of 160K. They may still sell him for a million pounds to a second division team - could Palace expect to see any of that?

As Ashdown's Twitter correspondent @DSThunder adroitly pointed out, this gives EPL clubs - by definition the richest entities in the business - first dibs on the choicest youth of the nation at little or no financial risk. The legislation was drafted by the EPL and yet affects the Football League.

That, in itself, is wrong.

The problem is this: smaller clubs are now robbed of one of the most fundamental sales principles - demand drives sales. With a framework in place which restricts the amount for which a club can sell a youth player, it's apparent that the first law of economics has not been followed: the marketplace drives price. Now, the market sits behind the wheel seat.

Smaller clubs who may have benefited from the sale of a player who has had the chance to develop big raps will now be robbed of that chance. A sell-on percentage should have been included in every deal in order to give lower-tier clubs a chance of recouping what that player could have been to them.

The classic mistake of sports administrators - professional and amateur - is to prioritise elite "player pathways" at the expense of grassroots development. In effect, assembling a squad of elite players is given precedence over strengthening the game where it is most needed. An elite team can't be built without a solid support base - one formed in part of Stevenage, Yeovil Town and Brentford. It is likely that several lower-league clubs such as these are now likely to withdraw their involvement in youth development.

Rather than decrying the inequality of these changes, the country's governing body has been blinded by it's own majestic vision. The EPPP is less legislation and more a ransom note.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Kumar Sangakkara by Nishant Joshi

In our continuing series "My Favourite Cricketer" we invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to explain the role one player has had on their love of the game.  This week, Nishant Joshi, the editor of the Alternative Almanack writes on Kumar Sangakkara

Sangakkara's achievements on the field are pretty spectacular. At the time of writing, he has scored 36 international centuries, played in one hundred Test matches, and has captained his side to a World Cup final.

But frankly, it's a testament to his sheer awesomeness that I would still worship at the temple of Kumar, even if he was a merely mediocre, Steve Smith-ish player.
 

This is because Sangakkara's suaveness is from a bygone era, where Shastri would sip cognac from sepia-toned balconies, and women would swoon at the mere sight of a sturdy forward defensive. A few decades earlier, and he would have been the Asian poster boy for Brylcreem. Every time I am privileged enough to catch a glimpse of Sangakkara's not-curly-but-just-wavy-enough-to-look-sexy hair, I am inclined to grope at the TV, in the vain hope that I might be able to run my fingers through his perfectly conditioned locks. If I ever meet him in person, so help me Sachin, I might just fake a hearty embrace, when I really just want to close my eyes and inhale a deep, lingering sniff of his hair. It probably smells of coconut and ambrosia. Maybe with a hint of lemongrass. I'll have to report back on this.


courtesy: thereversesweep.typepad.net
As a batsman, he exudes class. The male G-spot has been found, and it's on the middle of Sangakkara's bat. His cover drives are unmatched, and the way that he manages to get down on one knee and caress the ball through the covers, against even the fastest of bowlers, is the sexiest thing since Pam Grier in the 1970s. Watching him bat in tandem with Mahela Jayawardene, we are momentarily taken to cricket's zenith, a crossroads where art transcends sport.

Sangakkara's eloquence trumps England's legion of Eton fairies, which will come in handy in his inevitable post-cricket career as a lawyer - Sangakkara started an undergraduate law degree in 1998, which he has yet to complete. Perhaps we should give him a break though, it's not as if he's spent the last decade scratching his balls in his parents' basement, watching reruns of The Apprentice and living off microwaveable macaroni cheese.

 
It is this eloquence with which Sangakkara showed off to the world in July, when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's. (ed: watch the linked video.  It's worth it).

"My responsibility as a Sri Lankan cricketer is to further enrich this beautiful sport, to add to it and enhance it and to leave a richer legacy for other cricketers to follow. I will do that keeping paramount in my mind my Sri Lankan identity: play the game hard and fair and be a voice with which Sri Lanka can speak proudly and positively to the world. My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game."


Sangakkara passionately related his experience as a cricketer to the development of Sri Lanka as a country. Most poignant were the chastening, cathartic moments of the 2005 tsunami, and the 2009 terror attack in Lahore, and the way he intertwined the two in the context of Sri Lanka's civil war. The man is evidently one of the most intelligent in cricket, and we can only hope that he carries his forthrightness into retirement - the game needs people who are prepared to ruffle a few feathers.


He is not without controversy, however, but for the purposes of this circlejerk, we'll gloss over that and pretend that the twice-taken toss at the 2011 World Cup Final never happened. Also, we'll try to avoid all mention of his outrageous, Gilchristian hypocrisy when it comes to the Spirit of Cricket.


Which conveniently brings me onto the next point to admire: Sangakkara's sledging is legendary. Although most of it is barely audible, unrepeatable stuff, his mental disintegration and sheer humiliation of Shaun Pollock during a 2003 World Cup knock-out game has since become a YouTube staple.  As captain of a side renowned for [search thesaurus for alternative to 'choking'], Pollock strode out to the crease with the walls closing in. 120 off 125 balls required, with five wickets down. Pollock was up shit creek, yet Sangakkara still needled him like there was no tomorrow.


Starting off in a slurred, faux-South African accent, he sledged: "Lots of pressure on the skipper here eh? The weight of all these expectations here, chaps...42 million people, all depending on Shaun."

Pollock kept quiet and ignored the taunting from behind the stumps, but one could tell there was a palpable sense of fear coursing through his veins, amplified by Sangakkara's badgering. He relished that confrontation like a lion knowing that he had his hapless prey cornered.


After his career as a batsman, I live in hope that he will become a commentator or a prominent, no-holds-barred politician. More likely, he will form a crime-fighting duo with Jayawardene, who you could totally imagine wearing a Zorro mask.


Either way, Sangakkara is sure to go down as a legend of the game.



  Nishant edits AlternativeCricket.com and  the Alternative Cricket AlmanackYou can purchase a copy of the 2011 Alternative Cricket Almanack from Amazon.


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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mario Balotelli to organise Man City's Christmas party

It has come to light that Mario Balotelli is in charge of organizing Manchester City's Christmas party. This could be awesome.

Balotelli's sense of fun, combined with the fact that footballers can party like Charlie Sheen on a bender, To reiterate - this could be awesome. Actually, awesome doesn't cut it - neither do words like epic, disastrous or fantastic.

For noted autocrat Roberto Mancini to entrust his most wayward player with the bureaucracy of such shin-diggery was, alongside human barcoding and a Wigan Athletic clean sheet, a harbinger of the end times.

Apocalyptic could well be the best adjective to describe the event in question.

Christmas parties have been both the undoing of several careers in recent years as managers attempt to curb the fermentation of their richly-assembled squads. Robbie Keane took Spurs teammates to Ireland last season to avoid the gaze of 'Arry Redknapp. He now plays in Los Angeles.

James Beattie was allegedly "nutted" by a naked Tony Pulis when complaining that the Stoke gaffer had cancelled their Christmas party two years ago. Though a quality player, he's now without a club after being moved on shortly after.

Apparently, this is serious business.

Incidents like bowling up at a local school to talk to bullies, driving into a women's prison "too see what it was like", throwing darts at youth-teamers and telling a cop he had 5000 pounds on his car seat "because I can" indicate Balotelli's freedom of expression. Certainly, alcohol hasn't played a role in any of his past misdemeanours.

What could possibly go wrong? Twenty-five millionaire footballers who like a drink, organized by a man who could be an event planner for Cirque du Soleil? The blogosphere has nearly imploded with speculation: dwarf tossing, cheese-chasing, and the extinction of all known forms of life could well occur.

Christmas is a time for giving. All I ask this year is for is video footage.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sixty-Six Sigma: Western Australia

Ben Roberts with Matthew Wood

Openers: Shaun Marsh and Wes Robinson

His selection and immediate success in the Australian test team speak for themselves, but Shaun Marsh enjoyed a strong Sheffield Shield season despite being available for only four matches. He averaged 59 with one ton in his 414 runs. Chances are he won't be available for much Shield cricket this summer with higher duties calling but he is of course WA's number one opening batsman.

Wes Robinson was a late starter, having been selected at almost 28 years of age to debut back in 2008. Now nearly 31, it is unlikely that he will push to be selected by the national teams and faces competition from Liam Davis to open with Marsh and/or 19-year old phenom Marcus Harris. Robinson protects the middle order, but does so at an almost glacial pace.

Number Three: Marcus North

Converted opener North is likely to feature at three for the Warriors this term in the absence of a true lynchpin. Both North and Adam Voges have skirted (North more successfully) the fringes of the Australian teams, offer dibbly-dobbly off-breaks to relieve the fast men into the Doctor, and will have to compensate for the loss of Luke Pomersbach, who's taken the year off for mental health reasons. Travis Birt could also enter the equation here.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/clivemoore/6250052095/
Middle Order: Michael Hussey and Adam Voges

One keeps on keeping on in the Australian XI. The other was given his marching orders and can focus on leading WA back to the top of the first-class game. When we doubt him, Hussey almost always speaks for himself - he clean swept the MOTM awards in Sri Lanka and picked up the series title as well. He won't play much though, so Birt or Mitch Marsh are likely to bat here.

Voges' reputation behoves better performances than those he's delivered. Once the power-hitting no. 4 of the future, he's now lucky to retain his place amidst youngsters like Marsh the Younger, Birt, Tom Beaton and Cameron Bancroft. He and North are nearly interchangeable - they average around 42 in First Class cricket, are 32 years of age. Where North's strength is as a leader (surprise, surprise, Australia fans!).

Voges is a respectable bowling average of 34. He's still in WA's top eleven, but only just. Leadership can buy a cricketer more time - think of Mark Taylor's horror run - so expect Voges to struggle for his spot before his captain does.

All-Rounder: Mitchell Marsh

By the age of nineteen, Geoff's younger son has become a bit of a great white hope in Australian cricket. Now, he represents his country, albeit in T20 colours. The hope is premised more on what he does in those coloured clothes as despite a maiden first-class century in 2010/11, he didn't do a whole lot either with bat or ball. Look closely at him this year, Australia, he could still be playing in 2028 or so.

Wicket-keeper: Luke Ronchi, but only just.

Like a number of players in the WA squad, he's been tried and discarded by the Australian team. Ronchi is hard-hitting bat whose form and technique has rather deserted him in recent seasons. Understudy Michael Johnson didn't do a whole lot in his two chances last season, but started the recent first class game against Tasmania.

Spinner: Michael Beer

Until last season, no-one had ever heard of Beer. That was until Shane Warne happened to mention his name and Andrew Hilditch took notice*. A full season (10 matches) for WA had the St. Kilda graduate (see where Shane got the name from?) take 21 wickets at a high average of 46. What stood out about Beer, despite no better than average figures, was his willingness to attack, give the ball flight and create doubt in the batsmen's mind.

Pacemen: Mitchell Johnson, Nathan Coulter-Nile, and Ryan Duffield

I question the ongoing permanence of Mitchell Johnson in the Australian test team, but he remains the leader of his adopted state's fast bowling attack. Despite myriad frustrations with him, we still know that he can turn on an amazing show when he's got his mind right. The Doctor only helps him, as his remarkable 9/82 in last year's Ashes proves.

Coulter-Nile and Duffield are youngsters who delivered exceptional numbers in 2010/11. Coulter-Nile's 21 wickets at 22 in four matches and Duffield's 33 wickets at 23 in seven matches pushed the 31 year old Michael Hogan out of the side. Coulter-Nile has been in particular singled out for high praise from coach Mickey Arthur, who suggests he's the only player in his team "locked in" for future Australian caps.

Who's locked in?

The pace attack is strong, and given its youth is unlikely to shift except for higher honours or injury. The same can be said for Shaun Marsh and Michael Hussey. Mitch Marsh must play, as must Beer - should he not displace Nathan Lyon for an Aussie spot.

What's disappointing?

The failure of Luke Pomersbach to come through as a truly top-end talent is sad for multiple reasons - not least his continuing battle with mental health issues. Mitchell Johnson's Australia tenure isn't over yet, but neither is it on as solid a footing as pre-Ashes.

Who's up next - or alternatively, who's loan bait?

Nathan Rimmington backs up the pace attack with Michael Hogan. Young batsmen Tom Beaton and Cameron Bancroft will be the next picked, while both Ronchi and Michael Johnson could cement the keeper's position with a good season.

* For the purposes of politeness, we have refrained from including our usual explosive swearing when he who shall not be named was, in fact, named.

Back to Sixty-Six Sigma homepage.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spain's Second XI worthy of top 10 ranking

While watching David Silva and Spain dismantle a dogged and compact Scotland on Wednesday, it struck me: this was hardly Spain's best outfit and they were dominating.

Silva cemented his bona fides as one of the top half-dozen players in world football and Spain, with a team featuring second-choice players like Thiago Alcantara, Jordi Alba and Santi Cazorla, passed Scotland into an uneasy submission. The Scots, bless 'em, tried hard but the Spaniards seemed at times to be playing not just another game, but on another plane.

The players who didn't feature on Tuesday - Torres, Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Iniesta, Mata - mean it's now apparent that Spain's second XI could be one of the world's ten best international outfits. They are helped by a healthy youth league and a relative dearth of great opposition: realistically, only the Netherlands and Germany are able to hold a candle to the Spaniards. Brazil and Argentina today only resemble their most terrifying best.
courtesy: sparklingchelsea.wordpress.com

The FIFA world rankings (hardly the greatest indicator, but the only one we've got) suggest the world's top ten sides are Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Uruguay, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, England, Croatia and Argentina.

In living up to their position description as confusing and nonsensical, the FIFA rankings have Croatia ranked ninth and Greece sitting in eleventh position. This is in spite of both squads finding themselves in the same qualifying group for Euro 2012; a group from which Greece qualified and Croatia now face a tricky playoff tie with Turkey.

We can, however, suggest this is a fairly accurate representation of the best teams in world football.

Were Spain's Second XI to feature in the FIFA rankings, they'd come up against three great teams (Germany, the Netherlands and Uruguay), two inconsistent ones (the other South Americans) and four eminently beatable squads, each with major weaknesses. Apart from perhaps a perceived weakness in central defence, Spain II play a similar brand of football to their first-choice brethren, have pace in abundance and, as they showed on Tuesday, discipline.

Using Spain's favoured 4-2-3-1, the second furia roja would probably include: Valdes; Alba, Jose Enrique, Alvaro Arbeloa and Raul Albiol; Thiago, Javi Martinez, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and Pedro; and Fernando Llorente.

Wow.

The argument could be made that this team also features some of the best players dozen players in Spain. In this lineup Pedro plays for the "magoos", yet started in their World Cup triumph last year - superseded by Mata and Silva. Valdes' recent success in head-to-head battles with Casillas now invites, rather than discourages, comparison between the two. Fabregas is shuttled out of the Spain midfield (as with club) by players comfortably in the World's top five. Spain has played better recently when Llorente - rather than Torres - has led the line.

This club may even trouble the the vaunted Spain first team. The Spain Second XI are, on paper, a better team than Croatia, Portugal and even Italy. Place Spain v2.0 in any one of the Euro 2012 qualifying groups (and back them with suitable squad depth) and they at least make the playoffs from each. It's probably also the case that they'd slice England to pieces also.

The simile used most with Spain (and Barcelona) is "death by one thousand cuts". Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor may be that Spanish football is at present drowning the rest of the football world - inexorably, constrictingly and (given their outstanding Euro U-21 campaign) shows no signs of receding. All that is certain is the next wave of Spanish attacks could well overwhelm a struggling Scot, Lithuanian or even Oranje. After decades of torment, La Furia Roja is certainly making up for lost time.

While going back-to-back-to-back at major tournaments is so difficult that it's spoke of in grail-like reverence, the smart money for next year's Euros is on a three-peat - perhaps simply because the difficulty of staying focused for such a period is balanced by the failure of chief rivals Germany and the Netherlands to bridge the gaping talent gap.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sixty-Six Sigma: Queensland

Ben Roberts with Matthew Wood

Openers: Wade Townsend and Ryan Broad

It seems a long time ago that the all-powerful Queensland had the insatiable Matthew Hayden and hardened Trevor Barsby walking out to begin the innings. The pair was feared by all other Australian domestic teams. Now ... not so much.

In a squad boasting a combination of the young, the average and journeymen. The openers Townsend and Broad averaged only 25 and 21 for season 2010/11 yet are among the easier selections because no-one else stand outs. With New South Wales' propensity for generating openers of quality, this could be a position reinforced by someone the likes of Phil Jaques or David Warner.

Number Three: Joseph Burns

The most promising young batsmen in Queensland. Burns made his first class debut last season at age 21 and scored a red-ink 140. In three total matches he added a half century and showed much promise for the future. Due to the rebuilding state of Queensland cricket, he will be on a steep learning curve and need to bat at 3 or 4. Support will have to come form a young middle order and expat New South Welshman Peter Forrest .

Middle Order: Chris Lynn and Peter Forrest

Chris Lynn has made a name for himself across the oceans as well due to his ability in the shortest format in the game. Let's hope that a focus on T20 will not harm a genuine Test prospect. Still 20 last season, Lynn's average of 53 was underpinned by two centuries in 9 matches in 2010/11. His hard-hitting style means that he is more suited for slots 4 through 6.
Forrest against Krezja; courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pj_in_oz

Peter Forrest is a silky New South Welshman who has represented Australia A in the past. He hopes for more opportunities, "Boof" Lehmann's Queensland hopes for stability and a player with moderate experience to shepherd a young batting squad. He'll have to assume a lot of responsibility and will probably bat at five.

All-Rounder: James Hopes

Will likely captain the team. In 2010/11, Hopes was given significant opportunity to perform with the bat as the top order showed all the solidity of yesterday's bubble bath. The old Maroon war horse duly delivered in his usual unexceptional style in averaging 59; although he could not convert six half centuries into a big score. His bowling was even stronger with 27 wickets at 20 in 7 matches.

Wicket-keeper: Chris Hartley

It feels as though Hartley's been around forever without so much as nudging a place into the national selectors hearts. An average of 29 over 10 matches was a consistent season for the left-hander, especially based on previous seasons. With no competition for his place - and amongst the best behind-the-stumps skills in the nation - he is unlikely to be challenged for his position.

Spinner: Cameron Boyce

While the 'Gabba takes turn - it was the ground at which Shane Warne had some of his greatest successes - Queensland has struggled to develop a quality spinner since the departure of Nathan Hauritz. Cameron Boyce is probably the one spinner selected in this exercise that you can hold your excitement for. A leg break bowler who has taken 14 wickets in 10 matches, but really is just making up the numbers here. Queensland may select Jason Floros as an off-spinning all-rounder and opt for a four-pronged pace attack.

Pacemen: Ryan Harris, Ben Cutting and Luke Feldman

A glut of raw fast bowling talent does exist in Queensland. Outside of the two selected alongside Harris, there are 4 or 5 other prospects that may perhaps render older players such as Chris Swan and Steve Magoffin superfluous to a regenerating Bulls team.

Harris selects himself, but, given the state of his knees and likely international duties, chances of him featuring are remote. Twenty-four year old Ben Cutting and the slightly older Feldman are selected based on promising 2010/11 results. A pair of Australia u19 fast men with famous fathers, Alistair McDermott and Nick Buchanan, are nipping at their heels.  All told, Queensland have a good balance of fast bowling: young and old, fast and slow, accurate and Swan.

Who's locked in?

As captain, Hopes is nearly secure in his position both as a quality leader and in both disciplines. If Forrest finds form, he's likely to cement a position in the middle order to act as the team's middle order enforcer. Cutting could be a good one.

What's disappointing?

On results, the weakest side in the entire Sheffield Shield. However, the Maroons are also the team with perhaps the most potential in the country backed behind youth the calibre of McDermott, Cutting, Burns and Lynn. Outside the fast bowlers, the new regime of loan transactions should, over the next couple of seasons, advocate a move north if you can't get a game for your home state.

Who's next up - or, alternatively, who's loan bait?

Jason Floros is a potential spin bowling all-rounder who relocated from the ACT. He played solidly in three first-class matches in his debut season and should be given more opportunity with Queensland this year. Journeymen Steve Magoffin (RFM), returning to his home state, and Chris Swan (RFM) are next senior cabs off the rank.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Darren Lehmann, by Daniel Gray

In our series "My Favourite Cricketer", we ask cricket writers and bloggers from around the globe to select the player that most fueled their love of the game.  In this week's post, Daniel Gray of World Cricket Watch selects Australia's rotund run machine, Darren Lehmann.

Choosing a favourite cricketer is a bit like trying to choose a favourite fingernail – they all serve a purpose, and a lot of the time they appear quite similar.

In this age of sports science, we are now slowly becoming accustomed to weasel words like "monitored workload", "consultant" and "high performance management". With professional sports now a corporate culture that embraces Six-Sigma with all the energy of drunk brothers, we risk driving out the characters and wily competitors that became cult heroes in the past.

You can make a strong argument that in the cat-and-mouse game of Test cricket, a good eye and an ability to flat-out slaughter any particular delivery surely trumps the results of a skin fold test. With this in mind, my favourite cricketer is still Darren Scott Lehmann of Gawler, South Australia.
cricinfo.com
The latest in a series of rotund Aussies, "Boof" followed on from predecessors Boon, Hughes, Marsh and Burge as the dependable anchor of a flourishing Australian team. Like his brethren, you knew what Boof was going to bring to the table: the bristled and roly-poly formed the core of Australian (and New Zealand) teams for nearly half a century.

The recent antipodean slide into a fifth-placed Test ranking is no coincidence. It will be interesting to see if Mark Cosgrove, Boof’s successor as a South Australian rotund batting machine, ever plays for Australia again. Weight of runs may again trump weight of body. It worked for Darren Lehmann; lightning may (very slowly) strike twice.

There's something appealing about a professional sportsman who carries a few kegs. Maybe it's the lingering perception that fat people are supposed to be jolly. It could be that we feel more appreciation for their exploits knowing they have a Dunlop steel-belted radial around their midriff. In true vicarious style, we could tacitly think "if that fat bastard plays for Australia, so can I".

bbc.co.uk
Although he only managed a few years of Test cricket, Boof carved a unique legacy with his rotund figure and multitude of unorthodox strokes. Lehmann’s approach to the fitness and the modern rigours of the game is perhaps best described in this brief quote from his Wikipedia page – ‘[Lehmann was] known for his disregard for physical fitness and modern dietary regimes’. While perhaps weakening his abilities in the field, Boof’s stand-and-deliver style at the crease saw him plunder over 25,000 first class runs at an average of 57.59. More astonishingly, when you consider how injury-prone his rake-like teammates were, his 21-year career included 283 matches.

Through the years, the Lehmann represented South Australia and Victoria, as well as spending nearly a decade with Yorkshire on the county circuit while awaiting an Australia call-up. During this time he added to the misery of English cricket whilst almost single-handedly propping up their processed meat industry (although this cannot be commercially proven).

He was amongst that group of Aussies for whom County Cricket was a second home; learning how to monster fast, slow and seaming deliveries, playing five or six days a week. The demise of Darren Lehmann was the Australian cricket version of the Four Horsemen: with him went batsmanship as a artisan's craft, rather than a science.

courtesy: kingcricket.co.uk
He positioned himself outside leg stump and moved across his wicket at the last minute, which made him a difficult man to bowl to. His stupendous rear, ballasted by his paunch allowed him balance and poise at the crease; no Australian since Border played spin better. None since have even approached his skill; Darren Lehmann could teach Indians how to play spin.

While the great man had his ugly moments (keep your voice down in the sheds, kids), crafty ways and a laconic nature won him many fans. His left-arm spin bowling was the aesthetic opposite of his batting: orthodox a the little ugly. However, it often proved effective and you could rely on him to spell the flingers without giving away needless runs.

And though his Australian career took two attempts to kickstart - like a Gawler lawn-mower - he almost captained Australia throughout Ricky Ponting's early days as skipper. He was Punter's own personal Cricket wikipedia; full of knowledge, tactics and - apocryphally - meat pies and West End. It is fitting that he's grown into a good coach, recently named as a possible successor to former teammate Tim Nielsen.

His first class record alone - let alone leadership and crafty orthodox spin - would see Darren Lehmann amongst the first picked for the Australian XI of today. Actually - there's a thought - can someone get Greg Chappell on the phone?

Back to My Favourite Cricketer series homepage.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Evolving football philosophies

Noted philosopher Marge Simpson once said "we can't afford to shop at a store which has a philosophy". Philosophy is nice, but, like everything, subject to the dreaded Cost/Benefit analysis.

In fact, "footballing philosophy" is used only rarely to describe the methods of managers like Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce and is reserved for so-called purists like Owen Coyle or Arsene Wenger. Almost by definition, pragmatists - including even Jose Mourinho - are lauded only for results.

Certain fans expect their squad to play a certain way - not necessarily as a result of tactical choice, but because "we've always done it". Because success was once achieved playing a certain way, success must always be attained thus. Such an attitude results not in top-four expectations of success (seen by outsiders as "We deserve it because we're United/Liverpool/Arsenal"), but of fans' yearning for glory days - and players - past (the "He's not as good as Warren Barton" attitude).

The Barton reference is deliberate, not just because he's one of the faces of Fox Soccer, but also because his greatest success was as part of Keegan's Newcastle during the mid-nineties. It was this team, with Alan Shearer as it's centre(forward)piece, that totally and indelibly inspired the flawed logic of the "Cult of no. 9", a spearhead supplied by tricksy wide men.

West Ham, the club of Bobby Moore, loved the idea of West Ham football: thrusting wing play and the ball spraying about like Darren Fletcher on a good day. Though times tough and good, the Hammers could be counted on for moments of magic, even when they featured John Hartson.

At both clubs, a transformation has taken place.

Subject to managerial and personnel changes, both these clubs have reinvented themselves. The Hammers did so through choice after being dumped into the second division. After dispensing with the popular but perhaps overmatched Gianfranco Zola, they employed Avram Grant, a man with as much personality as yoghurt. Grant, the only man to not register a score on a Myers-Briggs test, couldn't inspire the Hammers to play good football and when the second division beckoned, pragmatism reigned.

Their club has evolved, albeit by the choice of Messrs Gold & Sullivan, through a perceived necessity. In true Darwinian fashion, the Hammers of 2010-11 needed to evolve in order to survive - perhaps even as an entity, given a perilous financial state. The catalyst was the appointment of Allardyce, known as the ultimate long-ball merchant.

Evolution can be violent, inflammatory change; a force of nature that we only mostly understand. West Ham's evolution promises to be just that. The response of an organism to its environment occurring in the far reaches of the Northeast takes a different form: that of slowly adapting current equipment in order to thrive.

At Newcastle, it wasn't relegation or a change of manager which inspired their move away from a tried footballing philosophy, but the sale of Shearer's successor and Geordie icon-in-waiting, Andy Carroll. When Kenny Dalglish offered 35 million pounds for the next Tyneside messiah, Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew's poker skills bluffed the Reds up to a very suitable price and then cashed in.

They did so knowing that while Carroll could be the best English centre-forward of the next decade, offers of that calibre don't come along often for unproven commodities. This left them with a line led by the likes of Demba Ba (who's knees have failed more medical tests than Crippen), Leon Best and Shola Ameobi - and pre-empted midfielders Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye and - hopefully - Hatem Ben-Arfa into supplying the goals.
Alan Pardew, courtesy: telegraph.co.uk

This lineup is given so much impetus from the centre of the park - rather than, as Toon history dictates, out wide - and has worked well so far. Though they're not expected to stay there, the Magpies sit in fifth position - after adapting their game style to suit their players, rather than the reverse.

Evolution occurs in order for a species to survive and thrive in a new, changing environment. It can be spontaneous, is always reactive (rather than proactive) and always benefits the evolutionary organism in the short term - just think of the dodo. Questions then, are asked in the long term with the benefit of hindsight.

So it's a lot like football.