Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Redknapp's England

This week came the startling revelation that Pearce's England looks a lot like Capello's England. Capello's England looked remarkably like his predecessor's, and his two forebears. As England produces elite national teams about once per generation, it is hardly surprising that althought the managers differ, squads appear habitually mundane.

 England have tried many of the tried-and-true coaching approaches, with each, like Doctors Who, swinging wildly between each appointment. It's likely that with the almost inexorable Redknapp appointment, the FA will adopt a moderate approach which satisfies fans, players and media alike.

 So even though his ascension is by no means a fait d'accompli, it is worth asking what Redknapp's England would look like. With his last two managerial positions, Redknapp has favoured a regulation 4-4-2 formation based around the strengths of his current squad. As has been commented upon regularly, his sides don't generally focus on tactical mystery but pre-internet age football.

 When he took Portsmouth to the FA Cup in 2008 his sides strengths included a powerful central midfield with one designated creator (in this case Niko Kranjcar) and uncompromising centre-backs. His Spurs have a similar look: immutable central defenders, full-backs preferring advance to retreat and the same midfield headliner but adds the extra confunding factor of barrels of wing pace. At both post codes, the ginger cockney one has relied upon contributions from target men with smaller, pacy offsiders.

 To take this formula and apply it to the 25 players each England manager feels honour-bound to select is revealing. Several players fit the Redknapp formula – most notably Spurs Parker, Lennon and King – and therefore thrust themselves almost automatically into selection. When those players are combined with England's best players like Joe Hart, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney, suddenly there are only a few positions left.

Goalkeeper: Hart
Defenders: Walker, King, Jagielka, Cole.
Midfielders: Lennon, Parker, Gerrard, A. Johnson
Forwards: Welbeck, Rooney
Subs: Richards, Dawson, Sturridge, Baines, Green, Carrick, Young.

 At right-back, I've opted for Kyle Walker over Glen Johnson although Redknapp has brought out the best in both. This is mostly because Walker's form over the past year has been superior to that of the Liverpool man. Rooney and Man U teammate Welbeck are simply the best fit as a strike partnership as there really isn't an English target man of quality (unless you count the corpse of Peter Crouch). QPR new-boy Bobby Zamora could fill this spot, but would need more form at Rangers to justify selection, while should Andy Carroll regain a modicum of form he could have 'Arry slavering.

 The key playmaker should be the man with the lego-hair, Steven Gerrard. The only other player qualified for such a key role would be Rooney, and doing such would mean the new boss wouldn't play his best player where he operates best. Despite being on the downside of his distinguished career, Gerrard places passes better than any English midfielder not ginger and playing for another team in red; he also should conceivably dovetail nicely with Parker before sharing the centre of the park with Jack Wilshere upon the Arsenal teen's return to full health.

 The biggest question marks lie at centre-back and on the left of midfield. Ledley King has been a staunch performer, but his knees make my grandma's look stable and healthy. John Terry's selection should be unconscionable for reasons of team harmony, but if anyone is able to solidify dressing-room relationships, then it's Redknapp. It's possible (probable?) Terry is ignored completely and the management decision comes down to the relative stolidity of Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Michael Dawson.

 On the midfield's left, Redknapp could go any of half a dozen directions with each presenting interesting and frightfully scary alternatives. The first would be to employ Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against the protests of Arsene Wenger and Stewart Downing. “The Ox” would provide the type of endeavour, spirit and speed that Redknapp appreciates, but still occasionally likes to watch Postman Pat in the afternoon before heading down for a nap.

 His other four options include incumbent James Milner, who's as pacy as a pensioner pushing a recliner uphill, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Adam Johnson. Johnson has perhaps the most speed of the quartet, and while doesn't meet Downing's sabermetric proficiency with his crosses, he is an impact player of whom Redknapp should think he can obtain more production. Given Redknapp's real world (and occasionally imagined) miracle-working abilities, it's reasonable to include him in this theoretical team.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The future isn't so rosy: Australia's next batsmen

Although the first nation into the CB finals series and coming straight from a whitewash of India in the recent Test series, Australia has far from a settled lineup. Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey are the two oldest First Class cricketers in the nation, while the third was only recently sacked from the Australian team.  The youthful promise of Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja has tried the country's patience twice too often, while Shaun Marsh and Brad Haddin both endured form slumps which made Mark Taylor's 1996-97 look positively inspired.

With Marsh almost indubitably losing his spot for the tour to the West Indies, the quest begins for a true number 3 batsman.  That role is likely to at first go to Shane Watson, with perhaps Peter Forrest hijacking a spot on the tour bus with some good One Day International form.  Behind those two and the dubious credentials of Dan Christian, Australia simply doesn't have batsmen with the requisite body of First Class work pushing the national incumbents for selection.

How bad is Australia's batting talent drain?  The following chart displays how well Australia's batsmen have performed in First Class matches this season.  They are divided into four quadrants according to the mean age and First Class batting average.  Any First Class player with pretenses to batsmanship (ie. allrounders) are included.  Click on the chart to zoom in.

As you can see, very few young - or even average-aged - batsmen earned their keep, let alone a shot at the Australian team by virtue of their form.  That two of the best-performed young batsmen were wicket-keepers (Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill), stands as testament not only to their talent but to a relative dearth of "comers".

The graph becomes even more stark when narrowing it by appearances.  In the following chart, only players who played at least three Sheffield Shield/Test games were considered.  Based on form alone, we can suggest those players rising most above the average for their age are best placed to take over from the current older generation.  These include Forrest, Liam Davis, Tom Cooper - he of Netherlands' fame - and Christian.

 While Taylor (and Steve Waugh) so helpfully proved that form is hardly permanent, those players in the bottom right quadrant should be those most concerned.  It is a tried and tested premise of sport that fans and administrators alike - want one of two things: success, or hope for the future.  Based on this year's form, those in the bottom right quadrant are hardly likely to offer either.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cricket lookalikes: Matthew Wade

Matthew Wade is a lot of things.  Aside from being Australian keeper-elect, he boasts several different looks.  Here, we can see him batting well for Australia, while in this pic he is batting well above his average.  In yet more photos he's the d*** at the pub trying to impress chicks. 

However, when viewing the red carpet photos from last night's Allan Border medal he became the topic for our second cricket lookalike.  Not only does he look like Jamiroquai's Jay Kay but ...

Photo of Andres Villas-Boas courtesy:
Photo of Matthew Wade courtesy:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hiddink's Anzhi choice says it all

They say you should never meet your heroes.

Or see them sign for Anzhi Makhachkala.

When Guus Hiddink last week signed on to manage the pseudo-Dagestan-based club, it opened the eyes of several admirers to the single greatest driving factor behind his choice of clubs.

Hiddink is held in lofty esteem across most of Australia, the greater part of Holland, significant chunks of Russia, the entirety of South Korea and certain isolated boroughs in West London.  His reputation stretches far further.  He tolerates lesser esteem in Madrid and Turkey.

Since a late-career-defining spell in charge of home nation South Korea at the 2002 World Cup, there have been certain threads which have emerged from his plethora of management appointments.  At his success stories, his charges have been unified and played fluid football true to his football education where his professors were Johans Cruyff and Neeskens.

His managerial stock-in-trade is simple, yet effective: empowerment without toadying.  This took a spirited Australia within minutes of the quarter-finals at Germany 2006 and empowered a fractious Russia unit at Euro 2008.  At club level, his mid-decade PSV Eindhoven units were an Eredivisie power while he’s the only manager this side of Mourinho to coax consistency from the Chelsea cabal.

But with his last half-dozen assignments, the most striking aspect has not been the customary “Hiddink effect” – though that has been there.  What’s most conspicuous is how devoted Guus Hiddink has been to obeying Deep Throat.

Hiddink, like no other manager of the past decade, has been utterly beguiled by cash.  His continued “close” association with Abramovich – and now Suleyman Kerimov – has once and for all exemplified Guus’ priorities beyond the doubts of even his most ardent supporters.  His choice of clubs isn’t predicated upon the “project”, challenge, lifestyle or ambition but purely money.  A reported 12 million pounds can assuage a lot of doubts.

Where others, like Sven-Goran Eriksson, may be opportunistic, dating back to his lucrative Australia deal, Hiddink has specifically chosen positions which offer the highest remuneration.  Especially given his stoush with the Dutch tax agency, he is well within his rights to do so, but such a decision shears away some of the charm that’s made him loved in so many countries. 

A player, coach or administrator is robbed of much of their appeal by a mercenary nature; and despite the patently vast/unresistable/ridiculous sums of money involved in this deal the same is true with Hiddink – a man whose easygoing manner has seen him generally avoid any muck slung his direction.

Accepting the position in charge of Anzhi doesn’t discredit his redoubtable coaching skills, tactical ingenuity or personal integrity.  It just throws his decision-making process into the public eye and lays bare latent reasons that romantic sports fans would prefer remained obscure.  He will be lauded in Australia – also in South Korea, Russia, Chelsea and Holland – but his walk-on-water act has been proven not as the works of the apostle Paul but of Paul Daniels.

In fact, while many or most will wish him well in Dagestan – or Moscow, as the case may be – there is only likely to be one person actively excited for him in his new job.  That’s the man whose own job security was inherently tied to Hiddink’s availability, Chelsea boss and former Abramovich paramour, Andre Villas-Boas.  Villas-Boas, who now displays the same clear thinking that marked Phil Brown’s period as part-time Samaritan.

Since his adroit patch-up job in 2008, Hiddink has been the nominal successor to any floundering Chelsea boss.  Only purest naievete would suggest his acceptance of Dagestani employment was an act of altruism aimed at shoring up Villas-Boas' faltering reign - Guus Hiddink may be many things, but tends to pragmatism, not philanthropy.

To the outsider, there is something unsavoury about the close relationships he enjoys with Russian billionaires.  If clubs such as Chelsea and Anzhi are often seen as playthings, Guus Hiddink becomes by association nothing more than a well-paid Ken doll brought in to complete Kerimov’s brand-new Barbie set.  One can only hope he is content in such a role.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Comparing EPL efficiency across years

Last week I posted a graph which showed the Offensive and Defensive efficiency of teams across Europe's four major leagues.  The chart was measured teams' conversion rates against the number of shots they faced before conceding a goal.  As with all statistics, this is informative in isolation, but doesn't provide a full understanding of the situation without further context - as in,without further information we can't say if Liverpool's offensive profligacy is a one-season trend due solely to Luis Suarez's left boot, Andy Carroll's relative lack of presence or even if Steven Gerrard's long-term absence contributes to such a statistical  malaise.

In order to answer these questions, we need to compare this year to others.

The following charts show first the change in Offensive/Defensive efficiency for each team in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Premier League, and secondly the change over the last three years (when shots/shots faced statistics became more readily available).  In the first graph, lines chart the year-on-year change for each club.  Such lines aren't present in the second chart as they would make the chart practically unintelligible.  Enjoy!

I  highly recommend clicking each image to enlarge it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Internet Comments

This is why I love – and hate – the internet.

It emerged last Monday that every time Aaron Ramsey scores for Arsenal, a really famous person dies. Inspired by some comments to a similar story run in The Sun, it's interesting to ponder what would happen if he scores a hat-trick.

This is perhaps the first story in ages that I've bothered reading the comments to, simply because it draws such a long bow. For the longest time, Internet comments have appealed to some for their sense of the insane, but from time to time, they're worth a read. In the Sun, contributions from readers verge from enjoying the tenuous, amusing spirit of the article to being quite malicious.

This wasn't journalism, and (hopefully) nor was it intended that way. Paradoxically, however, on the sidebar of The Sun's website is some alleged journalism. It was titled “Did Whitney Houston 'binge on drugs and alcohol to numb pain of being a secret lesbian?' Don't bother asking me what's behind that link, I didn't read either the story or it's comments. This stuff has always existed, it's just that the internet has given it a louder voice.

The beauty, and sometimes horror, of the interweb is that it gives everyone a publicly accessible voice. Some are worth hearing, if only to make you think. In the immortal words of the cinematic masterpiece Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, “Everyone … uses that voice to bitch about movies”.

Or in this case, Justin Bieber.

The paradox of the internet is that it gives beautiful creativity – say, XKCD, The Football Ramble and Pun Street – the same voice used by people who can sometimes only be described as hateful. All governed by this mystical branch of magic “Search Engine Optimisation”. The ability to dial up the volume of one's free speech is one of the reasons bills like SOPA and PIPA were fought so strongly. The internet has become a jungle – one which seems remarkably cutthroat and uncaring.

Welcome to the Jungle. Watch it b-b-b-b-bring you to your knees.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The most efficient teams in Europe

The following chart was inspired by a similar chart on the blog Experimental 3-6-1.  It displays the ratio between the average number of shots a team needs to score a goal, versus the average number shots they face before they concede.  Click the image to zoom in.

From the graph, we can surmise that Borussia Moenchengladbach has by far the sturdiest defence, while Freiburg offer about  as much resistance as wet paper.  The most inefficient teams in front of goal, however are Cesena and Kaiserslauten.  It's probably no surprise that both are in severe danger of relegation.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Shoaib Akhtar, by Assad Hasanain

Assad Hasanain, of the superb AssadHas, writes on that most amusing playboy fast bowler: Shoaib Akhtar.  Assad tweets @assad_hasanain.

There were drugs. There were women. There were rumors of sexually transmitted diseases. There were tantrums. There were smashed skulls.  There was always adrenaline.  

Shoaib Akhtar's is one of the most fascinating soap operas to have come out of Pakistan cricket. It is of a free-spirited, proud and sometimes arrogant boy from Rawalpindi, who found his dreams in the world of cricket, but found with them the rules, the politics and pain that hounded him till the day he left.

There are many sub-plots to the Akhtar story, each as fascinating as the next. There is Shoaib the typical Pakistani boy; raised by an adoring family that struggled to make ends meet. Also, his angry, ill-tempered youth; where he picked fights on the streets, proudly wore scars on his chest and even carried a gun to scare off his enemies.  He was a cocky young talent who was kicked off a youth tour for indiscipline. 

Finally there is Shoaib the success story; the youngster who supplanted Waqar Younis in the Pakistan side, who conquered Tendulkar, who became the fastest bowler in the world and terrorized the best batsmen in the game.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On the Australian Captaincy

Steve Waugh has recently questioned the Australian selection panel in regards to their handling of the captaincy and of ousted wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.  He is well within his right to, considering his personal achievements and stature in the game.

Up until Ricky Ponting - the man whose temporary institution he contests - the opinions of most Australian captains are considered continuing testament to the spirit of cricket.  It speaks volumes of the man that Waugh's thoughts are said to represent the spirit of the game moreso than any of his contemporaries.

While Brad Haddin has reasons to be aggrieved regarding his "resting", Waugh's comments regarding the Warner/Ponting captaincy dichotomy are far from accurate.

Cricket Australia, especially post-Argus, has several structures in place to ensure strong leadership.  Although these structures are in place for a reason - in this case, ostensibly Warner's education - the fact is that he doesn't command the tactical respect of his comrades.  While Ponting's tenure could hardly be described as strong (c.f. Fabio Capello) he still inspires ultimate respect both as a cricketer and as a cricket brain.

The fact is there is no clear leader emerging to succeed Clarke.  There needs not be at this point, as the Australian captain is 30 and with several years of high-class cricket in front of him.  A second statement could be equally true: there is no need for a clear leader to emerge with Clarke at least five years from retirement.  This is especially true considering his reign as le dauphin could quite accurately be said to have destabilised the Australian team rather than the intended opposite.

Indeed there is somewhat of a leadership vacuum in those players of Clarke's vintage.  George Bailey, Andrew McDonald and Cameron White fail to command a place on form, while a possible logical successor, Steve O'Keeffe, is yet to make his mark on the national team.  Warner, who captains the Big Bash's Sydney Thunder, is the best of those in the current framework: a guy who regularly looks to hook wide bumpers the first ball after drinks breaks.

By extension, Ponting is the best candidate for the job - especially now Clarke has cemented his authority.  There should be no quibbling about the next generation or confusing structures, but the captaincy is such an award we should be careful to whom it is awarded.  It needs to reward for effort and talent, not a prize given for potential.  Do we want to be like England of the 1980s, where the likes of Chris Cowdrey fronted up to toss the coin?

Although Warner has achieved much in the past six months, he does not deserve - yet - the honour of leading his country in what was once the world's leading form of cricket.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Harry Redknapp - checking (most of) the boxes

The odds are that Harry Redknapp will replace Fabio Capello. The Spurs manager has been heavily backed for the position by everyone from Wayne Rooney to former FA Chairman Lord Triesman. That Stuart Pearce has received the FA's blessing to take charge for England's February 29th match with Holland indicates that any potential decisions won't be made swiftly. Spurs fans can cling to the knowledge that 'Arry will pace the White Hart Lane sidelines for at least three more weeks.

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Redknapp is of course favoured for the job for many reasons, not least of which is because he's English. It's disturbing to see a football populace focused so firmly on nationality rather than talent; but with two of the country's past three gaffers being expensive “ringers”, much of the masses hope for a local boss to make good.

And well he might: Redknapp as a manager checks many of the boxes you'd want from a leader. He keeps thing simple (a must), doesn't delve too far into tactics or coaching, isn't a disciplinarian and isn't in John Terry's camp. He is a simple “player's coach” – but rather than being an enabler like Schteve McClaren, he is an empowerer.

He's even won things, too. He brought an FA Cup to Portsmouth, notwithstanding the trophy was part of a spending spree which nearly caused the death of the club. When nationalism, coaching and player relationships are considered, Harry Redknapp probably checks more boxes than any other potential candidate.

But checking boxes isn't enough.

Remember back to the schoolyard riddle that asks who you would prefer to run your country. The chain-smoking, possibly-alcoholic, philandering astrology buff; the manic depressive toff with a drink problem; or the vegetarian, teetotal war veteran? I'm sure you've heard this riddle – for the seemingly straight-laced decorated veteran is, in fact, Adolf Hitler. The former two are President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

If you apply the same logic to a real-world situation, then suddenly the picture becomes even clearer. Now, companies do much of their pre-research and vetting for employee applications online in a multiple-choice questionnaire. This is in order to minimise the time spent by Human Resources on screening applicants.

If you've ever filled in one of these surveys, you'll know what I'm getting at: they are able to completely misrepresent an applicant as an individual by breaking down a person's entire existence into yes-or-no type answers. And yes-or-no answers are rarely – if ever – able to describe a situation fully and truthfully. Although no-one expects the FA only to look at Harry Redknapp's resume, his achievements are of the type which lend themselves to yes-or-no answers. The CV of, for example, David Moyes does not – and there are those who suspect he would make an excellent England manager.

Sport is rife with examples of people who checked all the right boxes, yet failed miserably as a coach. In 1993, the Dallas Mavericks employed rookie coach Quinn Buckner. He had all the right attributes to become a wonderfully successful coach: driven, very smart, hard-working, knowledgeable, measured, came from a background of team and individual success, disciplined … and the Mavs won 13 games (of 82).

His mentor, the firebrand Bobby Knight, is considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. As a player at Ohio State he was a scrub on a middling team. As a coach, his record was even more surprising: he was arrested while leading a team to Puerto Rico; left Charles Barkley off the 1984 Olympic team (for Jeff Turner); was quoted as saying “if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it”; was nearly fired for allegedly assaulting a student and eventually dismissed for “a pattern of hostile behaviour”.

There's almost no question Quinn Buckner was as qualified to succeed as Bobby Knight.  But but didn't.

Of course, coming from a different sport, this is a flawed example. But the premise remains the same – that the candidate that checks the most boxes isn't necessarily the best man for the job. Just ask Liverpool fans what they think of Roy Hodgson, Inter their opinion of Gian Piero Gasperini or West Ham of their time spent with Avram Grant.

There was every reason for optimism on Fabio Capello's appointment to boss England; or at least there was until England broke him. There are just as many suspicions that Harry Redknapp would be an outstanding England manager, but it's possible he's not the best man for the job.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cricket lookalikes: Chris Lynn

Doing a bit of research the other day, I happened across the Cricinfo photo of Queensland batsman Chris Lynn.

And the following thought struck me:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Capello's greatest failing

With Fabio Capello’s recent statements to the Italian media concerning John Terry’s fatal reign as England captain, he has once again displayed his most obvious characteristic as England manager.  Although no-one has tipped England to succeed later this year, Euro 2012 betting markets have become less murky in recent days – why would you bet on a team that can’t win? 

As a squad devoid of leadership, England can’t win anything.

The Italian General has said he has little regard for who wears the England armband.  His most public statements to that effect were two years ago after he removed Terry from the captaincy in the aftermath of the Wayne Bridge affair.  Capello has since backtracked on that decision, reinstating Terry only thirteen months later – a period in which the player attempted a poorly-marshalled coup d’etat during the 2010 World Cup.

As soon as this occurred, Capello lost much of his credibility as England’s leader.  What little repute remained has since evaporated.  To openly disagree with the FA’s decision smacks of a double-standard: he removed Terry because he thought him “divisive” – seemingly failing to understand the gravitas of the current allegations thrown Terry’s way.   

Now it appears he sacked Terry from a leadership position two years ago because he had transgressed Fabio’s moral code.  Terry now faces a charge arguably far worse than the allegations of early 2010, meaning Capello has flip-flopped like a revolving door.  An appropriate term, because it also describes his selection policy

Capello has been uniformly inconsistent almost since arriving on English shores.  It has been his greatest failing and has undermined his leadership to the point where now there is an enormous void at the top of the English coaching tree. 

In his great book “The Coach: Managing for Success”, master-manager Ric Charlesworth lists the five traits that a coach simply must display.  He says that a manager must be knowledgeable; diligent; open and flexible; honest and consistent.  While scoring highly for many of these characteristics, Capello fails miserably on the last.  In so doing, his entire role has been negated.  Players look to a manager for dependability - the England mob has failed to receive.

This has never been more apparent than in the curious case of the captaincy.  One moment he cares about who is captain and the next he does not.  At any point John Terry could be integral to the team or irrelevant.  His team selections have vacillated between the uber-experienced and the untested.  There has been little discernible method to Capello’s war-room, but simply reactionary moves that don’t behove his status as a coaching great.

In simplest terms, inconsistency from above indicates an absence of leadership.  Because of this, England will splutter and drown at Euro 2012.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Kris Boyd's arrival signals a change in Timbers' style

With the Portland Timbers signing ex-Scotland striker Kris Boyd, the MLS in the Pacific Northwest takes on an intriguging new look. He replaces former USA international Kenny Cooper, who was traded to wannabe-glamour-club, the New York Red Bulls.

The Timbers started their MLS existence relatively strongly last season, finishing sixth in the Western Conference and two games out of a wildcard playoff position. Should he replicate even half of his Scottish league form, Boyd should prove a more than adequate replacement for Cooper, who mustered only eight goals last season. Boyd, with a game described by the Shin Guardian as “a little bit of nastiness and a whole lot of go-go-go” could replace this total with no more than three games’ hard graft.

Boyd’s move leaves Houston Dynamo in severe need of a new forward. With last season’s offensive centrepiece Brian Ching now leading the line for Montreal and without Boyd, the Dynamo will need to find another forward – stat – or be forced to rely upon a lineup whose top goalscorer managed only six majors last term.

Many are cognizant of Boyd’s reputation as a bit of a dud when playing anywhere other than the SPL. Perhaps they should be more interested in the change of style he will bring to a team that was often last season devoid of precision.

The Scot’s reputation as a poacher who contributes only sporadically to lead-up play is stylistically the complete opposite of the man he replaces. Though Cooper’s play matched neither Stumptown expectation or his wage packet, he had undeniable value as a blunt-instrument forward that occasionally provided a valuable get-out-of-jail free card.

Rather than a player who will earn you probation, they hope Boyd will stop the team needing to play such a desperate game. Boyd’s style is based around deft incision and razor-sharp goal sense, and so can’t hope to provide such a leviathan target figure as the 6’3, 210 pound Cooper. Rather than being a creator, he is a finisher. That the Timbers went for a proven scorer indicates the team quite rightly hopes to change their gameplan accordingly.

All that remains is to question whether the rest of the Timbers’ squad are able to provide him with the supply he needs to flourish. Because with the money reportedly involved, this amounts to an gamble by General Manager Gavin Wilkinson. Should the club not adapt to their new front-man, the team will fail even to reproduce last year’s win totals.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Return of "Smithy"

As I flicked past the A-League results page on ESPN Soccernet's page this morning, I chanced upon an odd name: a player named “Smithy” apparently started at centre-forward for the Wellington Phoenix in their match against Adelaide on Friday.
Screen dump from ESPN Soccernet

This struck me as odd, as the last guy to make it big in the world of football with that name was (sit down Alan Smith, it's not you) James Corden, who performed as Smithy the plumber for 2009 Comic Relief. It certainly wasn't him; nor was it one of those South American names that sound unusual to the anglophone (Vagner Love?).  Nor had Joel "Smithy" Corey switched codes.

It turns out on closer inspection that the mysterious “Smithy” is US/English footballer Alex Smith who was on the books at FC Dallas before appearing in Australia for Gold Coast FC, Sydney Olympic and recently the Phoenix. Nowhere can I find mention of him changing his name to “Smithy” so either the lads at Soccernet are having a bit of a joke, or there's something about the big Ginger fella we don't know.

On second thoughts, as a second-tier player in a relatively minor league, there's probably a lot about him we don't know.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Anil Kumble, by Rishabh Bablani, the Cricket Nerd

In our series "My Favourite Cricketer", we invite the best writers and bloggers to tell us why the look upon a certain player more fondly than others.  Today, Rishabh Bablani of The Cricket Nerd describes one member of the "600 Club", Anil Kumble.

The lasting image of Indian cricket in the 1990s is that of a young Sachin rising to prominence, fulfilling the prophecies that had marked him as a demi-god early on.
However, only a few months after the Test debut of India’s greatest batsman, another young man began his Test career; a man who was India’s steadiest, most consistent bowler in the 90s; the man who would eventually become India’s highest wicket-taker.

If you’re thinking of Venkatapathy Raju or Atul Wassan, stop. I’m speaking of Anil Kumble, one-third of the 600-wicket club – alongside fellow leggie Shane Warne and fellow Beethoven-lover (I cannot confirm that) Muttiah Muralitharan.

My own fascination with Anil Kumble can’t really be attributed to any one thing in particular. Entering my teen years was like waking up from the Matrix; I was suddenly aware of cricket and decided I liked it. India had been beaten in the World Cup final a few months earlier, and now they were playing the champions in their backyard. I didn’t know many of the players, so I was free to make my own judgments without being influenced by reputation.

I saw Kumble running in to bowl over after over, seemingly every day, with the bouncy run-up and the skillful release from high above his wiry frame. I got to see plenty of him in my first full Test series, because he bowled in excess of 40 overs in four out of the six Australian innings, for a total of 24 wickets, the mastermind behind India’s closest attempt yet at winning a series in Australia. His 8-141 in Sydney is one of my favorites, and is unfortunately hard to come by.

It was easy for me to relate to him. Like him, I started playing cricket attempting to be a fast bowler (I never got past slow-medium full-tosses), before becoming a legspinner. And like him, I was a colossal nerd. And I don’t mean he looked like a nerd just because he once wore glasses three sizes bigger than Daniel Vettori – he was the real deal, as you can see in this picture below.

His relatable geekiness is the result of being a keen student – he succeeded in becoming a mechanical engineer before he played Test cricket. As didn’t turn the ball a great deal, he presumably puts his finely-tuned mind to the task, seeing every batsman as a Physics quiz, asking question after question until he found the answer. He found the smallest chink in a batsman’s technique and worked on it until he took the wicket. Aiding him was his arsenal of deliveries – the stock leg-break, the wrong ‘un and probably several different kinds of flippers.

His strongest attribute, though, is considered to be his never-say-die attitude towards bowling – which helped him and his team when they most needed it. If the first half of his career ended perfectly with his classic 10-74 against Pakistan in 1999, the second half began with injury and the rise of another spinner, Harbhajan Singh. With his position under threat for the first time in his career, Kumble bowled despite the pain of a broken jaw in the West Indies in 2002, and then developed his bowling to much greater effectiveness – the noughties yielded 355 Test wickets, a vast improvement on the 264 wickets in the previous nine years.

The numerous prolific years since 2002 led to him eventually leading India in 2007, two months after his entertaining maiden Test century against England. It was a short transitive phase, with the captaincy expected to pass to MS Dhoni at the end. Nevertheless, Kumble led well, and India won a home series against Pakistan for the first time in 27 years and his diplomacy was vital during the controversy-filled tour to Australia.

Age and injuries set in again in 2008, unfortunately, and by then he was well past his best (though he would come back strongly in the IPL). He retired mid-series in the home Tests against Australia (who I notice have been mentioned quite a few times in this piece).

I knew the retirement was coming and had even secretly hoped for it when he was going wicketless.  I couldn’t bear to see this shadow of who had been such a great bowler. When it came, I wept anyway. Not openly, of course, but with the minds’ eyes of my mind’s eyes.

He ended his career at the right time, when the Indian candle was burning bright, when they were on the road to the World number One ranking, when it was right for young players to be given their trials for the future. With Anil Kumble gone, India cannot be sure of winning even on a turning track because they have no one as good to exploit it. It’s clear that he wants to be a part of the behind-the-scene improvement in Indian cricket, but if the board cannot do whatever it needs to to retain his services, they do not deserve success.

I leave you with one of the best things I’ve ever watched, a profile of him from 1995, when he was with Northamptonshire. 

Exit strategy: He bowled approximately 55,000 deliveries in international cricket, around 6000 more than Sachin has faced. 

Rishabh can be found on Twitter @cricketnerdist 

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: Miller's Luck, by Roland Perry.

by Ben Roberts, a re-post from our affiliate Book Review blog, Books with Balls.

I entered into this book with trepidation. For a long time I have been searching for a Keith Miller biography that was not this effort by Roland Perry, with no luck. One of the great cricket writers David Frith was scathing in his review of Perry's work, citing multiple factual errors that grated on him. Similar critiques have been provided by Gideon Haigh and even by ourselves.  I scoured second hand book stores, and found all that filled their shelves were multiple copies of Miller's Luck by Roland Perry.

Deflated that my searching had come to nothing, I swallowed my pride, took my desire to find out more about Miller to the local library and lifted a copy shelf. As I found out as I read it a previous borrower had too become so frustrated with errors (though their frustrations were World War II facts) that they had taken to the book with a pen themselves!

Without even re-hashing the factual inaccuracies of the work, simply put this biography is deplorably written. Rather than a study of a complex and polarising character, Perry serves up 500 pages of hero worshipping that completely turns you off as you read. Miller was a tremendous all-round cricketing talent and a war veteran who escaped death multiple times (often due his own insubordination). However he also was a heavy drinker, addicted gambler and constant philanderer that makes the overriding rhetoric of hero worship difficult to justify.

As a cricketing talent he could easily be worshipped; a war veteran, definitely respected. Limited to discussion primarily on these two topics such a subjective take on the man could well be accepted. But the reality was that for all the success Miller had on field it clearly came at a very heavy cost to his family which is an indictment on the man, an impression that Perry has not sufficiently captured and in fact missed completely.

Because of the books length and quantity of information provided (despite factual errors) the dedicated and discerning reader has the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about Miller and his life. Absolutely, the descriptions of Miller's love affair with Lords and the tremendous innings he played there during the post war years make me long to travel back in time, but in all the book fails on a number of fronts. Zero stars.