Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Football's crisis-magnets

How well do we think of our footballers? Inspired by the wonderful webcomic XKCD, I decided to find out which players are represented most negatively on the internet.

The table below shows how frequently a polarising football figure's name arises in an internet article which also features one of these "negative" words: crisis, saga, scandal, row, gaffe, controversy.  For example, nearly 41% of all articles about Wayne Rooney mentioned the word crisis (an astonishing 11,100,000 - approximately).

Player Total hits Crisis Saga Scandal Row Gaffe Controversy
Wayne Rooney 27200000 40.81% 24.67% 5.48% 53.31% 2.69% 25.40%
Carlos Tevez 14700000 64.69% 38.85% 24.76% 40.41% 3.48% 21.50%
Sepp Blatter 7690000 41.48% 13.52% 35.37% 67.23% 2.51% 27.44%
John Terry 14600000 44.52% 23.29% 4.51% 41.85% 3.47% 24.45%
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 15000000 26.33% 14.33% 17.93% 22.00% 2.55% 12.67%
Jose Mourinho 25800000 39.53% 19.07% 20.23% 32.40% 2.09% 17.02%
David Beckham 60100000 43.93% 40.93% 5.96% 64.73% 2.11% 27.12%
Ronaldo 214000000 31.64% 27.94% 15.05% 17.66% 0.93% 5.00%

The individual words were then googled (along with the player names) to evaluate which words were most associated with which public figure.

Obviously this is hardly definitive, considering the negative word doesn't have to specifically refer to the player, just be featured in the same article. Further complicating matters was that the word "row" has two meanings. Ronaldo was intended to mean "El Fenomeno", the Brazilian legend, but invariably captures much content referring to Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Time-Lapse photostudy: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks, runs for touchdown

In the second of our photoseries specials, we present the Seattle Seahawks' best offensive weapon, running back Marshawn Lynch runs for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.

Lynch's run in the playoffs last season created such noise in Seattle's (then) Qwest Field that a minor earthquake was registered on local seismographs due to crowd noise. These photos were taken from the Hawk's Nest at CenturyLink Field.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Gavin Larsen by Ken Miller, The Man in Beige

In our series My Favourite Cricketer, we invite respected cricket writers and bloggers to describe the impact one particular player had on their life.  This week Ken Miller, the Man in Beige, presents us with the archetypal New Zealand seamer, Gavin Larsen.

When people are asked to name their most iconic image about New Zealand cricket, some might picture Sir Richard Hadlee, appealing (probably successfully) arms and legs akimbo. For others the image might be of Martin Crowe cutting off the back foot for another glorious boundary. Or maybe it would be Daniel Vettori being left to do absolutely everything by himself like he has for the last decade.

For me however, the enduring image of New Zealand cricket is Gavin Larsen hopping and skipping his way to the crease and the batsman helplessly deadbatting the ball back to him. Not the most glorious image, granted, but for me it typifies all that is great about New Zealand cricket. Palyers doing the most with their, often, limited resources.

Larsen - with my haircut
Being a Wellington boy myself, Gavin Larsen was my hero growing up. So much so that I copied his style from an early age. Not as a bowler or a batsman - my exceptionally limited cricketing skills are beneath the radar even in New Zealand. Instead, I modelled my haircut on him. That’s right, the overly short spiky thing he had going on for most of his career. That was me.

 Larsen was a massive part of the New Zealand one-day side for a decade and did the job that was asked of him very, very well. His reliability with the ball earned him the nickname ‘The Postman’, in the sense that he always delivered. Some less charitable types took his nickname to mean that he actually only delivered on weekdays and sometimes on Saturdays, and this was unfortunate for a cricketer who primarily plays at the weekend.

His main weapon as a bowler was his accuracy. He knew where he wanted to bowl, and the ball went there. Over after over. He got a lot of wickets from batsmen getting frustrated and trying to force the ball. This tactic worked. He ended with over 100 ODI wickets with an economy rate of around 3.5 rpo which was great for the time, and unheard of now. I won’t forget his hundredth wicket, and I suspect he won’t either. At the Basin Reserve – his home ground. The batsman? None other than Sachin Tendulkar. A big wicket for a big achievement.

For some reason, he was never seriously considered as a Test player, competing in just 8 tests during his career. Maybe it was seen that a containment bowler had no place in a New Zealand bowling attack where leaking runs was apparently a requirement. The one-day game changed around him as well. Batsmen started becoming more aggressive (thanks Adam Gilchrist) and towards the end of Larsen’s career his figures did suffer slightly as a result. Whether he would make it in the New Zealand side for a decade in the current climate of Twenty20s and big scoring one-dayers, I’m not sure. What I do know is that he was a very popular player with the Basin faithful and that he was one of the most effective one day bowlers of his generation. Gavin Larsen was a big part of New Zealand’s ODI success through the 90s and his accuracy with the ball made Glenn McGrath look like Heath Davis.

 In preparation for writing this article, I went looking for images of Gavin Larsen to include. I found this:
Err. I’ve now got a different defining image of Gavin Larsen than I had.

 You can follow Ken Miller at his blog, The Man in Beige, or on Twitter @ManInBeige

Back to My Favourite Cricketer homepage.

Portrait courtesy

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

MLS welcomes the Impact; Montreal unlikely to host Ching

Obviously it's hard to predict how a club will perform throughout their first season of Major League Soccer - there are simply too many variables to make prophecy a worthy exercise. Today though, we begin to take stock of exactly what Montreal can expect to achieve given the players they selected in the MLS Expansion draft.

The Impact selected some quality players for their own use, some for leverage purposes and others simply to on-trade. It was puzzling that they left good (and cheap) prospects like Mike Fucito alone. They, like the Whitecaps last year and Philadelphia before that, chose to ignore some high profile (read: expensive) guys like Freddy Adu and Jonathon de Guzman, preferring to focus on supplementing their NASL quality with legitimate CONCACAF talent.

Public and pundit response has been mostly positive - especially given the calibre of player left unprotected by the established eighteen MLS franchises. Reaction has been fair, with the selection of former US men's national team forward Ching by far the most debated business item. As the draft was structured, the Impact simply had to select the Houston forward regardless of his threats to retire. Doing so put the Impact - and coach Jesse Marsch - in a bargaining position where they hold all the cards.

The purpose of Expansion Drafts is not to provide the bulk of a team's roster for the future. Were a club coach to take that approach, the club becomes mired in youthful mistakes and that coach is fired. The best strategy to take is to focus on acquiring serviceable starters without stretching for salary or the future.

It is rare that expansion draftees last for the long-term at a club: three of the Sounders taken in 2008 now remain in Seattle. Two initial Union draftees still reside in Philadelphia only two seasons into that club's MLS existence. Of last year's Expansionistas, three sapling Timbers are still in Portland while the Whitecaps finished with five of their initial ten.

Whoever sticks - perhaps Sanna Nyassi, Justin Mapp or Zarek Valentin - can be joined by Impact players who've competed well in Gold Cups and attempt the step up. The new boys have high hopes for new signings like Nelson Rivas and Evan Bush. Perhaps Marco Materazzi, Luca Toni or SuperPippo Inzaghi could bowl up in Little Italy as well.

It's not the place of Expansion Drafts to provide the basis for future success, only for stability and to give the incoming club some assets that aren't initially super out-of-pocket expenses. In following this principal, the Impact came out winners from today's draft.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In defence of Andre Villas-Boas

After overseeing two successive home losses for the first time in the Abramovich era, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas has faced renewed speculation as to his future at Chelsea. Such talk is inevitable - I said, inevitable - thanks to his boss' propensity for firing managers. Expected, sure, and unfair given his short tenure, but is sack-talk even warranted?

Let's examine AVB's remit: to win - or at least compete - for the Premier League and Champions' League titles, replenish an ageing squad, get Fernando Torres firing, all the time playing attractive football. The season is about 100 days old; to expect all of the above to occur by now is quite obviously laughable.

What has the 34-year old done to warrant such attention? Presiding over three losses in four, OK, but the play behind those losses hasn't been horrible. To fire a manager on results rather than overall quality of play, while common, is a last-ditch move; Abramovich must have second, third and fourth-line plans rather than just nuking it all and starting over.

Villas-Boas has been tactically sound, if prone to an ambitiously high defensive line. The Blues assemble in a compact formation usually featuring Torres up front, ostensibly allowing incision from Juan Mata and width players Malouda and Sturridge. In keeping with the reinvigoration part of his mandate, offensive focus isn't on players nearly his own age (Drogba, Anelka and Lampard) but guys entering their prime.

Neither has the manager redefined roles - his men play where and when they perform best. Spectators haven't seen Lampard lying deep before the defence - he isn't suited to it and won't or can't play that position effectively. While spectacularly unsuited to a high defensive line, John Terry isn't being empowered to act as a Libero. So far, with only a few exceptions - and one notable inclusion - guys deserving it have played.

The Blues still score goals - over two per. Torres, while not the blistering El Nino of old, has regained his blonde locks, and with them a semblance of form. Mata looks to be one of the buys of the offseason, while it shouldn't take long to replace Jon Obi Mikel with Raul Meireles (even though it's harsh to blame the Nigerian for Maxi Rodriguez' goal on Sunday). The team is now much less stiff-legged than last year; an athleticism AVB hoped to take advantage of with a new game style.

In short, Chelsea haven't won more because his men have given away poor goals and, at times, failed to take advantage of fruitful situations. Suggested "fixes" for Villas-Boas and the Blues have focused on improving the defence, big-upping Mata and finally choosing between Torres and Drogba. This is only kind of true: the defence certainly needs addressing, but Mata by virtue of skill alone is becoming a featured player. Villas-Boas already has chosen Torres over Drogba - the cards are on the table - but now needs the dressing room's waning alpha-dogs to embrace change.

No-one's calling Terry and Lampard old dogs - well, nearly no-one - but it takes time for players to adapt to another, especially one which prioritises out-and-out speed over muscularity. Villas-Boas will be fine, as will Chelsea. The same can't be said for Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How good can Australia be?

The cricket world waits on a strong Australia. In dark times for the masses, hope is required and, for the first time since 2009, Australians wait expectantly on youth. At that time, that promise rested on Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson and the slightly rounded shoulders and plate-sized eyes of Phil Hughes. Now, two years hence, w are intrigued by Michael Beer and happy about Usman Khawaja's Test debut. His bright 30 at the Sydney Test wasn't outstanding, but a fillip for youth development in the country.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guus Hiddink leaves Turkey: He's just not that into you

Guus Hiddink's reign as manager of Turkey has ended with nary a whimper. His tenure faded ignominiously into the Black and Aegean Seas: Turkey received 3-0 losses in both legs of the Euro 2012 qualification playoffs from a journeyman Croatia side. He's now a free agent and joins Carlo Ancelotti as the biggest - and most marketable - free agent in his profession.

It would surprise no-one were he to return to Chelsea in a Director's role, creating with Andre Villas-Boas a management "Dream Team". Rumours of him taking over as manager, however, are greatly overstated.

It was always likely Hiddink would depart the Bosphorus nation should Turkey fail to qualify. This is in part due to his meandering nature and wandering eye; also because it became apparent nearly from the start that this partnership wasn't nearly as affectionate as past flings with Russia, Chelsea, PSV, Australia and South Korea. Fittingly, in his last home match, he was booed by Turkish crowds.

For the first time in the decade since he ascended from "coach" to "miracle worker", he's criticised his former employers on departure, saying Turkish youth development pathways weren't of sufficient standard for consistent performance at international level.

It marked the second time that Hiddink leaves Turkey without adding to his reputation: in 1991 he was dismissed from Fenerbahçe with a win rate of only 40%. In seventeen games with the Ay Yıldızlılar, he compiled an patchy seven wins, five draws and five losses (41.18%). Both numbers stand well below his career win percentage of 56.52.

Questions are now being asked if the Dutchman's magic has worn thin. His last two jobs have finished unsatisfactorily with Russia and Turkey enduring qualification playoff defeats. Even understanding the "Fool me once, fool me twice" mindset, this analysis is premature and, at worst, a little mean-spirited. As in most break-ups, both parties eventually realised they were just wrong for each other in the first place.

Looking at his greatest achievements (with the exception of his first stint at PSV), Hiddink and his teams have performed best when unfancied and under little pressure. It should be the first rule of football - never bet against a Guus Hiddink team.

Over the last decade, he coaxed a Euro 2008 semi-final berth out of Russia when outsiders didn't know what to expect. When expectations rose after players like Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko got moves to high-profile clubs, the squad underperformed and went down to Slovenia in a winner-takes-all bout over two legs for a place at the 2010 World Cup.

At Chelsea, he was recruited to salvage the season after Luis Felipe Scolari's dismissal. With minimal pressure - it was a temporary appointment and everyone was aware the title had long gone - he once again attained maximal results.

His quotes on masterminding a gritty, but not overly talented Australia to the second round of the 2006 Cup could define his coaching career: "Our goal is the second round. Why not?" Fourth place in 2002 with then-tiny South Korea was nigh-on miraculous. By fostering belief in his players, Guus Hiddink has spent the past decade getting the best out of underdogs with reasonable expectations.

After a stupendous Euro 2008, both Turkey and Russia had reason to be ambitious in expectation. However, this was followed by failure to qualify for South Africa despite quality players and enviable home-field advantages. It should have worked - but didn't. No-one manages expectation like Hiddink - so when it becomes rampant, his work becomes more difficult and less masterly in its execution.

We'll see Guus Hiddink again soon. Rumours persist of a 22 million pound offer to manage Anzhi Makhachkala. If he cares to protect his Lama-like coaching reputation, he won't take that job. It's too glitzy, too dangerous and just not his type.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remembering Unthanked Socceroo heroes

November 15, 2005.

Six years ago Australian football changed forever. It was on that night that Guus Hiddink's Socceroos upset Uruguay to claim their first World Cup berth since 1974.

The team featured the best collection of footballing talent Australia had produced to that point, led by Mark Viduka and the genius Dutchman who inspired almost single-handedly an antipodean worship of the principles of Total Football. Many still speak in hushed tones of Hiddink's regard for Australia and his "constant contact" with the Socceroos he befriended during their star-cross'd '06 campaign.

SBS commentator Craig Foster tweeted about the that incredible evening yesterday, reminding us that the national anthem was booed, of Mark Bresciano's levelling goal, how much we feared Alvaro Recoba and finally, Mark Schwarzer's saves and John Aloisi's incredible penalty. It ranks as one of my top three sporting memories of all time - I can remember the friends I watched it with, how many beers I drank and ever half-cut scream of delight at Schwarzer's heroics.

 That wonderful night - friends and I ran down the main street of our town in our underwear, so happy were we - was one of the highest points in Australian football, rivalled by the 1997 Confederations Cup and matches against Japan, Brazil, Croatia and Italy at the 2006 Big Dance.
Though that evening at the Sydney Olympic Stadium was wonderful, the administration that went into November 15, 2005 was perhaps more surprising that a Socceroo upset victory. For so long split by infighting, the FFA had reached a turning point in the years prior. If Cahill, Kewell, Viduka and Moore was our "Golden Generation", then Australian football's dream management team backed that talent.

They may even rival Aloisi and Schwarzer as the real heroes of that night.

Chairman Frank Lowy and CEO John O'Neill were installed in the years before and it was Lowy's hefty billfold that funded the temporary acquisition of Hiddink, who was then managing PSV Eindhoven. Though he brought a World Cup to Australian Rugby Union, O'Neill has never administrated more masterfully than over that World Cup campaign. As any business entity goes, let alone the a race-torn and struggling sports administration, it worked superbly: Lowy provided the gift of vision, O'Neill got things done. This all allowed Hiddink to do what he was paid for: get the most out of his men.

After Lowy and O'Neill took office, they began by disbanding the ailing, nationalistic NSL and replaced it with the A-League. A complete re-boot was needed and the domestic game - while hardly thriving - is in much calmer (and less violent, except when Kevin Muscat and John Kosmina are involved) waters than ever before. The model ascended to such prominence in the next two years that the National Basketball League has recently followed suit in attempting to re-brand.

The pair also spearheaded Australia's move into the Asian Football Confederation. This was aimed at giving Australian domestic competition the chance to thrive in a stronger, more well-funded sphere of influence. Qualification wouldn't ride on a head-to-head versus New Zealand and then playing the fifth-placed Asian or South American team. As in business and politics, Australia now looks towards their nearest - rather than most phenotypically similar - relations.

This move brought about Adelaide FC's march to the 2008 Asian Champions' League final and empowered several fringe Socceroos to move to Qatar, China, Japan or South Korea for better remuneration than the nascent A-League could afford. Qualification for the World Cup is desirable; actually having a strong football fraternity is actually more crucial.

While we remember that wonderful night, it's also time to pay tribute to the visionaries behind it. If Hiddink is thought alongside Rale Rasic as as Australia's greatest coach, then O'Neill and Lowy deserve to be thought of with similar fondness.

My Favourite Cricketer: Chris Tavare by Gideon Haigh

In our continuing series My Favourite Cricketer, we invite cricket writers and bloggers to pay tribute to the players they remember most fondly.  This week respected journalist Gideon Haigh encouraged us to post the following excerpt by way of his entry.

Some years ago, I adjourned with a friend to a nearby schoolyard net for a recreational hit. On the way, we exchanged philosophies of cricket, and a few personal partialities. What, my friend asked, did I consider my favourite shot? ‘Easy,’ I replied ingenuously. ‘Back foot defensive stroke.’

My friend did a double take and demanded a serious response. When I informed him he’d had one, he scoffed: ‘You’ll be telling me that Chris Tavare’s your favourite player next.’ My guilty hesitation gave me away. ‘You poms!’ he protested. ‘You all stick together!’

Twenty years since his only tour here, mention of Tavare still occasions winces and groans. Despite its continental lilt, his name translates into Australian as a very British brand of obduracy, that Trevor Baileyesque quality of making every ditch a last one. He’s an unconventional adoption as a favourite cricketer, I’ll admit – yet all the more reason to make him a personal choice.

Tavare played thirty Tests for England between 1980 and 1984, adding a final cap five years later. He filled for much of that period the role of opening batsman, even though the bulk of his first-class career was spent at number three and four. He was, in that sense, a typical selection in a period of chronic English indecision and improvisation, filling a hole rather than commanding a place. But he tried – how he tried. Ranji once spoke of players who ‘went grey in the service of the game’; Tavare, slim, round-shouldered, with a feint moustache, looked careworn and world-weary from the moment he graduated to international cricket.

In his second Test, he existed almost five hours for 42; in his third, his 69 and 78 spanned twelve hours. At the other end for not quite an hour and a half of the last was Ian Botham, who ransacked 118 while Tavare pickpocketed 28. As an ersatz opening batsman, he did not so much score runs as smuggle them out by stealth. In the Chennai Test at the start of 1982, he eked out 35 in nearly a day; in the Perth Test at the end of 1982, he endured almost eight hours for 89.  At one stage of the latter innings, he did not score for more than an hour. Watching on my television in the east of Australia, I was simultaneously aching for his next run and spellbound by Tavare’s trance-like absorption in his task. First came his pad, gingerly, hesitantly; then came the bat, laid alongside it, almost as furtively; with the completion of each prod would commence a circular perambulation to leg to marshal his thoughts and his strength for the next challenge.

That tour, I learned later, had been a peculiarly tough one for Tavare. An uxorious man, he had brought to Australia his wife Vanessa, despite her phobia about flying. Captain Bob Willis, his captain, wrote in his diary: ‘He clearly lives every moment with her on a plane and comes off the flight exhausted. Add to that the fact that he finds Test cricket a great mental strain and his state of mind can be readily imagined.’ You didn’t have to imagine it; you could watch him bat it out of his system.

Tavare could probably have done with a psychiatrist that summer; so could I. Our parallels were obvious in a cricket sense: I was a dour opening batsman, willing enough, but who also thought longingly of the freedoms available down the list. But I – born in England, growing up in Australia, and destined to not feel quite at home in either place – also felt a curious personal kinship. I saw us both as aliens – maligned, misunderstood – doing our best in a harsh and sometimes hostile environment. The disdain my peers expressed for ‘the boring Pommie’ only toughened my alleigiance; it hardened to unbreakability after his 89 in Melbourne.

Batting, for once, in his accustomed slot at number three, Tavare took his usual session to get settled, but then after lunch opened out boldly. He manhandled Bruce Yardley, who’d hitherto bowled his off -breaks with impunity. He coolly asserted himself against the pace bowlers who’d elsewhere given him such hurry. I’ve often hoped for cricketers, though never with such intensity as that day, and never afterwards have felt so validated. Even his failure to reach a hundred was somehow right: life, I was learning, never quite delivered all the goods. But occasionally – just occasionally – it offered something to keep you interested.

You can find Gideon Haigh's books on Amazon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Time-lapse Photostudy: Joe Flacco to Ed Dickson

From time to time when we attend a sporting event, we will post these time-lapse photoseries, detailing looks at the technique and plays called in sport at the highest level.  Our first commemorates Matt's first ever live NFL game, between the Seattle Seahawks and the Baltimore Ravens.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Peter Roebuck

Peter Roebuck is dead. Obituaries have flowed, ranging from describing his awkward manner to his favourite straw hat and everything in between - relevant or not.

His death has come with the greatest outpouring of words cricket has seen for some time about one man. When Hansie Cronje died, the internet was still a pre-teen; when beloved commentators died more recently - Fred Trueman, for example - they were remembered with a smirk, a grin and tales of "Aye, and 'twas wasted on thee". Was Alan McGilvray or Brian Johnson remembered so vividly?
Why contribute further to this internet verbosity? How best to pay respect to one of your writing inspirations? Peter Roebuck is best remembered by his writing, because the complexity of Peter Roebuck tha man was exemplified best in that commentary.

His last column, "No dumpings for the sake of it", was published in the Australian Fairfax media group on the day of his death. It detailed possible responses to the Australian collapse on day two of the First Test at Newlands. As always, his work succinctly summed up what no-one else had thought to: Australia's batting had failed not once but twice; Shaun Marsh's back condition isn't likely to improve and that any potential Australian replacements (David Warner?!) aren't unlikely to be ready or perform better.

He preached measured action. Perhaps his most famous column, coming in the wake of the fractious Sydney Test of 2008, called for Ricky Ponting's head on a platter. Though shouted down by many, this was again a call for measured action. He reasoned the results of Ponting's tetchy captaincy would impinge the spirit of the game. When you read Roebuck, you read foremost about the spirit of the game.

That spirit, however, took him all over the world, surveying and annotating the most nuanced game of all. That he has since been called the "Bard of Summer" sits perfectly.

There's a saying in sportswriting: don't use adjectives. They lead the reader unnecessarily when your words should be able to paint a picture without resorting to blunt instruments. The best sportswriting is often quite spartan, aesthetically simple stuff with elegant results: the reader knows exactly where the essayist is going through clever use of words.

Ever the contradiction, Roebuck eschewed this principle. He used such a variety of nuanced descriptive terms that those adjectives became surgical tools. It was this which set him apart from other writers. His description - simple, measured yet far-reaching - left his audience completely aware of the importance of each event without needing to reach for a thesaurus. His vocabulary, easy and extensive, meant he captured the essence of what it meant to be at the cricket on any particular day.

His successor as the Thinking Man's cricket journalist is likely to be Fairfax Media's Crown Prince of Commentary, Greg Baum. In the hours after Roebuck's passing, Baum wrote an obituary - unsteady but fluent, respectful - hauting, even - which only underlined what a wordsmith the game has lost.

A friend once said of literature that there's not enough time in life for bad prose. If a story was stilted or awkward, it was best to tell only the facts. Those able to afford it could stretch their narrative wings - Douglas Adams did it perhaps better than any.

Cricket writing mourns it's premier artisan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The South African conspiracy

by Ben Roberts

I may have been reading too many Tom Clancy military/espionage thrillers but it struck me as I was walking Zoe the dog on an overcast yet humid Melbourne Sunday morning. I was grappling with an over active mind desperately trying to come to terms with the collapse of the Australian team in Cape Town. My focus has been limited in its direction of anger. Tired of simply shaking my head at the immature Phillip Hughes' selection, my anger more justifiably has been directed at the elder Brad Haddin, who is having more and more 'seniors moments', breaking only momentarily to lament the 'man crush' Australian cricket seems to have with the hopelessly inconsistent Mitchell Johnson.

But then as I waited patiently for Zoe to investigate for the 75th time in five minutes that potentially another dog exists in this universe I realised how hopelessly misdirected the Australian cricket team has been in its focus for too long. Sun Tzu in 'The Art of War' teaches that as part of a successful campaign you must 'know your enemy', I submit that for at least 40 years (maybe more) Australian cricket has not, and thus stands little chance of ever winning its war with the cricketing world.

Two fallacies seem to intertwine here. Firstly we continue to focus our attention on the cyclical Ashes campaigns that pit our warriors against the 'Old Enemy' in England. Nothing is more important we tell ourselves than beating our old colonial masters at their own game. Secondly we live in the 'knowledge' that South Africans are 'chokers' and will never land the final punch. But in reality I believe England are not the enemy, and more often than not a nation labelled as 'chokers' has landed the punches that have weakened Australian cricket most, albeit surreptitiously.

Australia exited Sri Lanka in hope. A new captain, a new support regime coming, and a number of players with smiles on their faces just happy to be playing cricket. This continued at least for a day into the test at Cape Town, but as we know came crashing down in even more embarrassing fashion.

Of course the rubber finally hit the road for Australian cricket when they lost in such embarrassing circumstances to the English at home last summer. This was it, the lowest we could fall, but in reality was it the English or South Africans in disguise? It was no secret that Messrs Strauss, Trott, Prior, and Pieterson with a host of non-first team selections were born (and in some instances reach adulthood) in the nation of the rainbow flag. Australia's media tried in vain to create a flap about it, but in these days of the dollar being mightier than loyalty, and that it has been going on for years, there was little justification. But regardless of the legitimacy of playing rights, these men all emanated from South Africa, and drank the water over there.

Take yourself back then to early 1994 when the Australian team visited the post-apartheid nation for the first time in 35 years. We knew that our latest superstar was a bit of a lout and taken to streaks of arrogance, but we only for the first time realised that he was capable of such abuse towards a harmless opponent. Daryll Cullinan had (and still has) a mouth on him, but Andrew Hudson was as quiet as a church mouse as a player, yet somehow Warne decided that both players needed the rough side of his tongue. Our lionhearted gentle giant in Mervyn Hughes was taken to acts of abuse on the field toward opponents, yet at the Wanderers ground his anger spilled over into the player's race. A visit to South Africa brought out the worst of these two cricketers.

Only a few months previously at the Sydney Cricket Ground had South Africa so easily taken the career of Damien Martyn away. Despite the failings of the entire batting lineup it was he who took the blame and had his career stamped with being impetuous, almost leading to its death.

In 1992 Australia hosted the World Cup as incumbent champions. In 1987 they had been the upstarts who had toppled the best in the world and created momentum that saw them rise to competitiveness again in world cricket. This World Cup would be where Australia continued that progression, in front of its own adoring fans, but it was not to be. South Africa was one of the obstacles that Australia failed to clear in its demise, losing by nine wickets and having their own former import in Kepler Wessels take man of the match over the nation for which began his international career.

The last time Australian cricket was close to being as bad as it is now was of course the mid 1980s. Allan Border was grumpy, Dean Jones and Steve Waugh inconsistent, and Kim Hughes was bawling his eyes out. While not laden with anywhere near the talent to defeat the mighty West Indian teams they should not have been that bad. Why were they? Well Dr Ali Bachar and his open cheque book for rebellious play in the sporting pariah state probably has more than its fair share of blame. Heart and spine ripped out of the nations playing stocks the Australians lost in a test series to New Zealand; need description go further?

Prior to the period of outcasting from all international sport that South Africa went through they were able to take the bragging rights from Australia with one of the most dominant performances in test cricket history. Completely exhausted from proceedings in India the Australians flew into South Africa to receive one hell of a battering at the hands of Graeme Pollock, Peter Pollock, Barry Richards, and Michael Proctor, all cricketers whom, in one of the games greatest tragedies, had only limited international exposure. To lose all four tests comprehensively pushed Australia to the brink of sacking its captain Bill Lawry; the next series against Illingworth's England only needed to nudge for them to be over.

Sibling rivalry exists between Australia and South Africa. Both former colonial conquest trying to shake off the stamp of their former masters with one officially having shaken it with much bloodshed, the other remaining loyal and protected. Both nations with a history darker than one would desire but only one having felt the collective and polarised wrath of the wider world. South Africa as a proud nation has much to gain through success over Australia on the sporting field. While we fiddle with our clashes with England, the true 'Rome' will continue to burn.

Patrick Cummins is the future - Or not.

Patrick Cummins is the future.

No, hang on, maybe he's not. It's Josh Hazelwood. Tall, quick, can get it to wobble about a bit. Yes, definitely Josh Hazelwood.

Or perhaps it's James Pattinson. You know, English Darren's brother. Surely he's going to lead the Australian attack into the next decade, he's already played in the coloured clothing for us. I've changed my mind, we should embrace him as our spearhead.

But then where does that leave Peter George? And Mitch Starc? Or Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jayde Herrick, Trent Copeland and Burt Cockley?

Australia has a surfeit of youthful fast bowling talent at present. Not just young fast bowlers, but - on current evidence - good ones. This is a source of much-needed encouragement given recent events in the Baggy Green as defeats to pretty much everyone again conjure memories of all the West Indies lost in their regression from behemoth to basket-case.

Cricket in Australia is far from being completely turned around - in fact, it still may not even be going in the right direction. But CA's done everything it can - commissioning a report to put down in ink what any observer already knew. And the country has raw fast bowling talent to choose from - and it is that which is most crucial to a successful cricket side. The oldest of the fast bowlers named above are 25-year olds Copeland and Herrick.

Why so excited? Every successful postwar cricket team has had pace firepower in abundance. The Invincibles steamed through England behind Lindwall, Miller and Johnston; England of the fifties unleashed Statham, Trueman, Bedser and "Typhoon" Tyson; the West Indies speed vanguard often left their batsmen with little to do and Australia's dominant decades came as a result of the toil of Lillee, Thomson, McGrath and Gillespie.

Fast bowling talent wins games, not bowlers who send it down fast. And there's a difference between the two: Patrick Patterson was outrageously quick, had one of the great intimidatory attitudes, won a few of games for Jamaica and the West Indies, but never amounted to much. The same could be said for Brett Lee - you always felt he should have been better than he was.

There hasn't been this many exciting young Skippy flingers since the mid-eighties where from 1985-1988, Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, Tony Dodemaide, Chris Matthews (!), Bruce Reid and Dave Gilbert were all young and clamoured for Test selection.

Both the West Indies and Australia have eloquently proved that when fast bowling talent makes way for people who bowl fast (*cough* Mitchell Johnson *cough*), teams quickly begin to lose matches. Most importantly, Pace talent means time not batting is spent attacking a position, rather than defending one. A quality pace platoon also excites onlookers and relieves pressure on their run-scorers. On a broader scale, it also infinitely strengthens batting on a national scale and means Moises Henriques will never play for Australia again.

England's transformation from also-ran to world champion came on the back of talented fast bowlers the ilk of Flintoff, Simon Jones, Bresnan, Finn, Tremlett and Anderson: each is/was able to combine discipline and an ability to make the ball "talk" with swing, seam or bounce. With a combination of some of the talent above, Aussie fans hope the same will happen in the Antipodes.

Australian punters (no, not that one) are excited about nascent fast bowling talent because since that fateful Sydney Test of 2007, the country's bowlers have lacked a leader. The plan was for Stuart Clark to hand over to "Notch" Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus, which worked about as effectively as a a K-Tel nostril hair trimmer. The hierarchy hopes for a leader to whom they can turn when in trouble: a guy who gets the ball in the right spots to either restrict runs or take wickets.

Any of the current tyros may, in time, be that guy. But to expect Cummins - or anyone else, for that matter - to be a sort of proto-Mohammed Amir is unreasonable, unrealistic and more likely to produce a Lee than a McGrath.

The central board must keep two simple, everyday truths in mind: You almost never find what you're looking for until you stop searching and anointing young, unproven leaders rarely works. This is why Cummins, Copeland, Hazelwood or Pattinson shouldn't be anointed as the next leader of Australia's bowling attack until they have earned that position.

All of our past leaders have had to learn from experience: McDermott, while in his ostensible prime surrendered his Test berth to Dodemaide and Chris Matthews. McGrath emerged only after McDermott's injury - when absolutely noone saw it coming, least of all the West Indies lower order. The term "King-maker" is the epitome of a self-aggrandization, used only by the extraordinary vain and is based upon the flawed principal of anointing unproven "chosen ones" at an early age. Leaders emerge as circumstances allow.

More appropriately, leaders emerge when they conquer those circumstances. McDermott had to conquer immaturity and the stigma of being a ginger kid. Lillee overcame a crippling back injury - twice. Shane Warne fought an unlikely combination of playboy lifestyle and massive girth. McGrath had to rid himself of that horrible haircut.

It's possible, perhaps even likely, that Cummins, Hazelwood, Pattinson and Copeland will all be top-draw seamers. Especially, calling wunderkind Cummins a saviour and future leader is placing remarkable expectations on young, still-developing shoulders. Let him learn. Let him grow into his frame, his profession and international cricket.

This post was originally published on The Sight Screen.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Newcastle United: to survive or thrive?

Newcastle United has turned from second-tier basket case to Premier League overachiever in the space of two years. It is no doubt thanks to owner Mike Ashley, managers past and present (Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew) and perhaps most encouragingly, the skills and snout of chief scout Graham Carr.

Carr, the father of comic Alan Carr, has scoured France and allowed the club to bring in excellent players at cost-effective prices. The two key names secured upon return to the Premier League were Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben-Arfa; they have since been joined by Sylvan Marveaux of Rennes and, perhaps most beneficially, France International midfielder Yohan Cabaye, late of Lille.

While there are many Francophones now residing Tyneside, there's more than just that to the Newcastle French Connection. Newcastle's transfer dealings so imitated those of Ligue 1 club Lyon that Newcastle blogger Kris Heneage immortalized the link in this post two days ago. In it, he describes Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas' planning behind a successful football club, business and pitch-wise.

The principles laid out are sound in theory, but would be difficult to implement in practice. But this isn't Ashley's - or Aulas' - problem, but that of their manager. The rules are business-smart and also give supporters consistency in expectation.  However, the points could doom a club into setting their own level, as if achievement is desirable, but merely a by-product.

Indeed, in many ways  - especially satisfying alleged "problem players" - Newcastle seem to have implemented these statutes more effectively than Olympique Lyonnais. The Toon Army sits in third place in the Premier League, but is still yet to play the Manchester twins, City and United, as well as Chelsea. It's probable that Tiote and Cabaye will have more illustrious suitors - Manchester United could maybe use them both - and the monies received for Andy Carroll make that deal look like a magnificent decision from the boardroom.

Does this platform work? As a league superpower - as Lyon are, but Newcastle aren't - unquestionably. It also helps if your city is a beautiful, luxuriant metropolis in the south of France. Can the same be said of the a chilly outpost in England's northeast?

It would stand to reason that every club obeys a subset of these rules. Every player, outside perhaps Lionel Messi, has his price. Cristiano Ronaldo's was 80 million pounds, Fernando Torres' about two-thirds of that. Sir Alex Ferguson could perhaps even get a bunch of rocks and $20 for Michael Carrick. Even when the money offered is silly; it would be idiotic to refuse it.

But basing a club's economy significantly on the sale of their best players - even when already possessing replacements - can make a club more fiscally secure in the short term, at least as long as the overall talent level is maintained.  Should the scouting fail or injuries hit - c.f. Wigan Athletic - the club could face an uphill battle to meet even modest expectation. From a mid-table side, the model also, however, fails to capture the imagination.  This inspiration is so important in sport, but now may become a thing of the past.  In many cases unbridled, fantastical hopes for one's team are now a thing for Football Manager games rather than reality.

Reducing a club's "achievement ceiling" means setting a level where they can expect to be consistent EPL performers barring unforeseen circumstances. This is what adept businesspeople do: control those circumstances under their control.  But if a club constantly loses their best talent, the best result they can expect is for a strong Cup run and top-ten finish.

Would supporters trade a good Cup run and, best-case, a Europa League campaign for the hopes that accompany retaining their best players?  Good question.  Certainly the pointy-heads in accounting would prefer this model; but fans' hopes are given an upper boundary - for better or worse.  Now re-born after a period in the Championship, NUFC supporters might be the best ones to answer this question: would they trade this new team of Cabaye, Marveaux, Tiote and Ben-Arfa for a golden age of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith?  The full truth probably won't be evident until that time when (if?) these new Toon stars are enticed to pastures new.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Andy Bichel, by Nicko Hancock

In Balanced Sports' & World Cricket Watch's continuing series, we invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to explain what made certain cricketers their favourite.  For The Sledge's Nicko Hancock, that man is Andy Bichel - the best twelfth man in history.

I consider myself lucky to be born in 1989. It means that I grew up under the wing of some truly wonderful childhood influences: Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, and the Greg Blewett/Justin Langer opening combination.
As a kid, your choices are made for you by people who’ve lived more, who know better. When you’re a kid, still in an unfinished, malleable form, your elders impart wisdom and cliché and knowledge to you, like they’re branding a bull with the obvious. Quoth the schtick:

“Each day, the sun rises and sets.”
“The Earth isn’t flat.”
“Don’t drink orange juice after brushing your teeth.”
Nice guys always finish last.”

I took this at face value, like a bank statement. But in the early 2000s, as I sprouted and spotted and haired, I learnt that sometimes nice guys don’t finish last.  They finish twelfth. Most of the time. And when they don’t, they typically bowl first change.

Such were the life and times of my teenage cricketing hero! And not ‘hero’ in the violent, sword-wielding way, although he could bruise a batsman; Steve Waugh wrote that my hero might have suffered in his career because of his generous and giving nature. He was a big, burly, blonde pace bowler from Queensland who played first class cricket for fifteen years.

To me, he was the Smiling Assassin, and to Adam Gilchrist, he was known simply as Midas. His name was Andy Bichel, and for reasons I’m sure you’ll soon understand, he is my favourite cricketer.

A Certain Level of Legitimacy
Writing about Mr. Bichel requires description buffered by wordplay: to see him play cricket, any of his nineteen tests or sixty-seven one day internationals, was to see a man whose body language and facial expressions betrayed everything about him, especially how badly he wanted to be there.

Andy Bichel bowled briskly. He batted stoically. He fielded with the intensity of a Labrador chasing a tennis ball, and he was always grinning, ear to ear, like a cat who has gotten away with it.

Finally! An international cricketer who was happy to be there. For whom "12th man" wasn't an insult. And he was the 12th man a lot, because, unluckily for him, he was the perfect twelfth man: valuable on multiple levels.
I don't know how many people took his presence on the team sheet as a comfort. I did.

Andy Bichel and Michael Bevan
Throughout the early naughties he could be seen carrying drinks, towels, and replacement gloves to the people who had been selected ahead of him. But he did it with a bounce in his step, his white teeth shown through a MacGyver grin. To me, it meant that he was somehow 'like me'; enthused and powered purely by the prospect of playing for Australia. It made me think of him as working-class, practically street-level, because you could see his enthusiasm for cricket written on his face, and as a teenager, I think I needed to see that from somebody who'd “made it”, who was out there, playing in the team that every Aussie kid wants to play in.

An outstanding state player for Queensland for fifteen years, he peaked as an international cricketer in the 2003 World Cup, outshining his more accomplished team mates in Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. When Australia played England in the group stage, Bichel took 7/20 off his ten overs to limit England to 204, and when Australia's batsmen capitulated to 8/135 during their chase, Bichel was there to salvage the match with Michael Bevan, showing batting prowess that took most people by surprise.

And then, in the Super Six stage of the Cup, Australia slumped to 7/84 against New Zealand, before Bichel and Bevan again salvaged the innings. Bevan hit 56; Bichel top-scored with 64, then took 1/15 off five as 
Australia won a match they were losing for three quarters by 96 runs.

The team was behind him; Adam Gilchrist wrote that, "it didn't hurt that such a well-liked guy, who'd missed so many opportunities, was the one doing the damage."

Me? I was just happy he'd been picked. My hero. The bloke whom, during a wet test match against Zimbabwe, would slide into the crease using his pads as slides. The same guy who stood at third man at the MCG, his back turned to the crowd, leading them through his warm up.  He tapped his thigh; “we’re doing the gluts,” he called out.

I think people have forgotten how good he was. He made his ODI and test debuts in 1997, both in Australia, both against the West Indies. In the test match, he opened the bowling with Glenn McGrath in a game I didn’t see in which Michael Bevan took ten wickets. He was there at the centenary test, when Steve Waugh dressed up the Australian test team in replica caps and we thrashed England and I watched every day. And in 2003, he lead an Australian bowling attack minus McGrath, Lee, Gillespie, and instead containing Nathan Bracken, Brad Williams and Ian Harvey to the TVS Cup, against India, in India. In the final, he ripped out a vicious off cutter to remove Sachin Tendulkar, and I collected the newspaper clippings.

A year after his heroic sixteen wickets and 117 runs in the 2003 World Cup, he’d lost his Cricket Australia contact. Instead, he set his sights locally, and in the 2004-2005 Australian domestic season, he took a Queensland record sixty first class wickets in a year, and a twelve months later he was named Pura Cup Player of the Year, for his 452 runs at nearly 35 and his 50 wickets at 26 and, one assumes, for taking the last wicket in a final that Queensland won.

I always felt that Bichel had a certain level of legitimacy because to me he was a working-class hero who always looked like he was putting in as much as he had to offer; perhaps he'd just finished a day labouring on a construction site, and knocked off just in time to join the Australian team. I always got that impression of Bichel; it always seemed to me that he would have to make up time to his foreman.

And the stories of Bic are atypical of the man: being told he was 12th man for a test match and then helping Brett Lee work through some crucial kinks in his technique; standing up for Adam Gilchrist when South African crowds abused him with rumours his wife had been sleeping with Michael Slater; turning Darren Lehmann's $100 into two grand at a casino in the Northern Territory (?); tearing in at training with a smile on his face at every damn session; to quote Steve Waugh, "the guy was a dream team man with quality and character in abundance."

Breaking Both Ways

Athletes give us two things: firstly, the ability to believe in someone, to foster that unconditional confidence in their ability. The faith a Collingwood supporter has in Dane Swan: "He'll kick us clear. Swannie'll do it." Or an Essendon fan's faith that with James Hird as skipper everything would be fine. That mid-1990s belief in Steve Waugh: "She'll be right. Tugga's coming in at number five."

Secondly, sportsmen allow us to leave our nine-to-five lives behind for a spot of escapism. You get to live their highs and their lows. That's the most important part of the bargain.

Andy, to me, fit both of those qualities. When the Aussies lost quick wickets or were a shambles in the field I would never dare write them off until Bic had had his say. That was my faith in him. Andy Bichel, with his good-naturedness and his ceaseless work ethic, was to me a sign that those "good bloke" qualities, that I so wanted to embody myself, could lead to success. That was my outlet for escapism. I could never feel the same about Ricky Ponting, or Brian Lara, or Sachin Tendulkar because I did not have the almost effortless talent they had.

Forget Australia's next "star spinner" or "extraordinary number three"; I wonder who'll be the next Andy Bichel?

Watch every episode of The Sledge at The Sledge TV.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why England can beat Spain

As the Iberians land on English shores, they bring with them a remarkable record. Since February 2007, la Furia Roja has played 71 matches for 62 wins, four draws and five losses; they score an average of 2.25 goals per game. That's an 87% win ratio. For some brief perspective, the all-powerful Barcelona side of 2010-11 won just under 74 percent of their matches.

Spain should have no reason to fear. But they find themselves matched against an opponent of whom they should be extremely mindful.

Why such anglocentric sentiments coming from a critic of both Fabio Capello and the English football hierarchy? It is encouraging for the men in white that the gaffer has called up a (relatively) youthful squad including first-timers Jack Rodwell and Daniel Sturridge. However, Three Lion optimism shouldn't come from any potential debutant but how the match suits England's ageing or faded stars.

The conditions both teams find themselves under generally sees England perform better than any other set. There are a minimum of expectation, a (relatively) understated buildup - for English football - and a self-inflicted crisis surrounding John Terry. Thursday's match should be appealing to partisan and neutrals alike because it gives those England players who have for so long disappointed the chance to perform on a high stage without pressure.

Aside from deserving trio Kyle Walker, Rodwell and Sturridge, Capello's most recent squad features staid, expected names: Lescott, Cole, Terry, Lampard, Rooney. It also includes speedy, tricksy wingers Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott and the (relatively) precise Stewart Downing. In comparing the squad there is a gap in quality between the players in the Spanish squad and those who will represent England but it is hardly a chasm. A larger gap, however, lies in the empowerment of those players and their ability to play as a team.

The psychological benefits of playing as vast underdogs on a big, hopeful stage should be enough to stir a performance out of players who have tempted us with occasional performances only to revert to type in later matches; guys like Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson and Walcott. If they are allowed to play with freedom, this game could be a years-delayed coming out party: (relatively) few have doubted English talent - just the application and heart thereof.

Tactically, wingers Sturridge, Walcott and Johnson could prove decisive as the Red Fury exhibit perhaps their greatest weakness against speed merchants on the flanks. Full backs Puyol, Monreal, Ramos and Alba all have obvious quality but, like most, are vulnerable to pace. Sturridge in particular should be a monty to start as his Stamford Bridge form continues to impress.
Spain v England, 2009: courtesy:
It's in matches like this Thursday's that the Three Lions seem to do well: clashes where excitable expectation gives way to a pessimistic realism. Even though understatement and English football rarely go together, there has been a gathering mood of "blah" about recent Three Lions excursions as weary pundits refuse to be tempted into notable proclamations. This play into the hands of Capello and his men.

Don't be surprised if England defeat Spain on Thursday. They should have all the tools to do so - talent, vocal crowds and the perfect scenario to highlight the talents of underachieving stars. Spain are still favourites - 87.3 percent! - but the match is not the foregone conclusion many suggest.

Monday, November 7, 2011

International Rules series dying a slow death

After yet another International Rules series ended with a violence on field and scoreboard, we must now ask if the series has a future. The movement for it's abolition is gaining strength after a week which must have been painful for IR advocates like Ron Barassi.

While the games are undeniably similar, it's popular fallacy that Australian football evolved from Gaelic football. Both sports require remarkable endurance and skill. It seemed logical that games so isolated yet so similar should breed a hybrid competition; both sports feature "All-Ireland" or "All-Australian" teams, rewarding each sport's best players but don't give those elite a team to play against.

The International Rules series was founded to give GAA and AFL players the chance to represent their country in competitions which don't provide that opportunity. With over six years of violence - and multiple hiatuses - the GAA and AFL's so-called best don't deserve that opportunity any more.

As commentators noted during the most recent match on the Gold Coast, the series has become a farce. It no longer represents the best interests of Australia or Ireland. Those countries, both feisty at the best of times, don't need "representation" of this sort.
From an Australian point of view, the International Rules series was aimed to give the best players in Australia the chance to represent their country. For over a decade now this has been a mockery as All-Australians make themselves unavailable for selection, either through press statement or ridiculous suspension.

How was the side that played the most recent matches in any way or shape inclusive of the best in the country? It was a team captained by Melbourne skipper Brad Green, who essentially inherited that position by being that club's most senior player. His year was hardly a model of leadership; his first year at the top will probably be best remembered for the side's 186-point roll-over at Geelong and the subsequent sacking of Dean Bailey. Alongside a frankly mediocre captain, would Matt Suckling, Easton Wood or Zac Smith make anyone's All-Australian ballots?

For the Australians, what was instituted as an opportunity for the elite has changed into a representative match devoid of honour. Playing to win is fine, and therefore sides should be picked accordingly. However, rewarding several of our league's most average talents is hardly high honour. Representing one's country should be the highest accolade a sport can bestow - indeed, it is the very (only?) reason for this series - and thus should go to the country's best. That the honour isn't wanted by the best, only signifies the lack of regard in which the competition is held.

It's also worth pointing out that those representing their country should do so with the nation's best interests at heart. A series aimed at building friendships with the potential to span continents should be played as such - highly competitive but in the spirit of the football "friendly". After last Friday's match, would any of the Irish and Australians settled down for a beer together?

For some reason, the games just seem to breed hate.

The game has become a disgrace to both codes: just watch for the number of cheap shots. With there being no apparent consequence for indiscretions other than yellow cards and IR suspensions, players are relatively free to infringe the law and spirit of the game. Should the series be played again, any suspensions for unsportsmanlike play should carry over to the next year's GAA or AFL competition and be adjudged by that league's disciplinary panel.

This may instill further club opposition towards the series and which may kill the sport. If clubs in either country don't sanction their players for unduly rough play, then the series as it stands doesn't deserve to survive.

The greatest single detractor for the game are ludicrous IR suspensions - like the one given to Matthew Scarlett - which ban players from further International games. The reputation of a nascent sport has been so brutally blackened by such legislative decisions, never mind those like Brendan Fevola's 2006 bar fight.

It's also damning that, as an ardent Aussie Rules supporter and someone who would like to see the International format succeed, there have been so few memorable moments from the series' twelve years. In truth, apart from the fights, only two stand out: Mick Malthouse trying without luck to get Dale Thomas to play defensively in 2008 and Nathan Buckley's "over" in 1999 to win the second match for Australia. And I'm not even a Collingwood fan. That the prevailing memories of a series with great potential is of fisticuffs speaks volumes.

Should the series return in 2012, there should be major changes. The competition once again should be aimed at the best players in the country, otherwise the accolade is meaningless. Secondly, and perhaps crucially, both sides should agree to appoint ambassadorial coaches and captains for their squads whose brief is to ensure the glorification of the game, rather than it's decline. For Australia, it seems Chris Judd and Kevin Sheedy would be perfect men for the task.

The series deserves one last chance. The Galahs of 1967 deserve to see their legacy survive. But to do so, it needs vastly revamped rules and citizenship. It isn't asking for much.