Thursday, March 29, 2012

The EPL run home "analyzed"

As the Premier League season rampages towards the Manchester derby which will (probably) decide the ultimate route and destination of this season's victory parade, we've got enough data from the season in progress to suggest how results for the rest of the season plays out.  The season is now thirty games old for each club, with the last eight enough to determine who raises the cup this season, which of the upstart clubs finishes with a well-earned chance at European football and which clubs will be facing derbies next season with the likes of MK Dons, Watford or Burnley.

So far, the information that may be the most telling as we enter the season's waning weeks is how each of the teams in the battle to play Champions League football next season got to be where they now are.
The table below includes the five teams currently slated to play continental football next season. It indicates what percentage of available points they have secured against opposition in different parts of the table. For example, Manchester City have played four times against teams currently in the relegation zone and won each encounter. Therefore, they have attained 100% of the points available from those four matches. Chelsea, however, have managed only two wins and a draw from their four encounters with current drop-zone residents – a more sickly 58%.

Available points achieved by club (%):
Versus teams:
Man United
Man City
In relegation zone
Are relegation threatened
In table's bottom half
In table's top half
League Top 5
For the purposes of this illustration, “Mid-table” includes all teams not currently occupying European slots or in danger of relegation. This means all teams from position 6 – 15 are included, no matter how turgid their play or how daunting their final fixtures appear).  Data correct to Thursday, March 29th.

We can automatically surmise that this season's Premier League has more of a Spanish – or Scottish – appearance to it. The lack competition at the top is galling - and even worse in graphical form (click to enlarge the graph).  While it's expected that clubs lose more points against higher opposition, for a league which champions itself as the most even in Europe, the strength of the Manchester clubs is starkly apparent.
Click to enlarge.

This term displays a major duopoly as the twinn'd Manchester clubs have been markedly more adept at taking points from other so-called “elite” opponents.

 This bodes well for City, in particular, as their April 30th derby approaches – soon after a trip to Arsenal. Given their record, prior games against mid-table Norwich City and West Brom could provide more hurdlese than their matches against the Red Devils and Gunners. 

Once we depart Manchester, the numbers are just as revealing. Third and fourth positions are the subject of another local rivalry, as despite an ugly start to the season, Arsenal have earned their current tabular position, while Spurs appear a team of bullies. Redknapp's men have extracted only a win and two draws from eight encounters with Top 5 opponents (five points from twenty-four). For Chelsea, these numbers show definitively the poor fit between players and former manager Andre Villas-Boas: last year, Carlo Ancelotti was canned after accumulating more points (by percentage) against every category of opposition.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Graham Dilley, by James Morgan of The Full Toss

Last year, the cricket world mourned the loss of Graham Dilley, who passed away after a short battle with cancer. James Morgan, co-editor of The Full Toss, penned the following piece which he has been kind enough to submit for our series "My Favourite Cricketer".

As a lifelong Worcestershire fan, Graham Dilley is a cricketer who has always been close to my heart. He joined Worcs in 1987, at the same time as Ian Botham, in what was my first season as a junior member at New Road. It was a special time for the county – and a special time in my childhood.

Some of my fondest memories involve spending summer days under the chestnut trees at the county ground, watching that great Worcs side which won back to back championship titles in 1987 and 1988. Dilley often used to field in front of us at long leg. I know I was just ten years old at the time, but he seemed taller than a giraffe.

Dilley wasn’t quite a great fast bowler – like so many of England’s best seamers, injury put paid to that – but he was an extremely useful one. He was pretty quick, moved the ball away from the right-handers, and played a part in two of England’s greatest Ashes triumphs. I’m referring, of course, to his defiant half century alongside Botham at Headingley in 1981, and his starring role in Mike Gatting’s series success down under in 1986-87.

From a personal point of view, however, it was Dilley’s success at Worcs that I will remember the most. He was the spearhead of what was possibly the best county bowling attack of the modern era: Dilley was joined by Neil Radford, Ian Botham, Phil Newport and Richard Illingworth. All of them represented England at one point or another, albeit not at the same time. Perhaps only the Lancashire side of the early nineties could match them.

Dilley, of course, was the best of the lot (Botham had lost a bit of pace by 1987). He took an almighty run up that made Allan Donald’s approach look like an off-spinner’s, reared his left leg horizontal in his delivery stride, pounded his leading boot into the turf, and followed through like a wind powered turbine. It was a great sight to behold. When the ball was taken behind the stumps by Steve Rhodes, usually standing nearer to the sight-screen than the stumps, the ball made an almighty thud.

Unlike some of county cricket’s other big names, Dilley always seemed happy to sign autographs at the end of the day. He was a gentle giant – and he possessed one of the best 80s blonde mullets outside of A-Ha. When I heard about Dilley’s sudden death in October 2011, it was a bolt from the blue.

Sports fans in Worcester were particularly upset at Dilley’s premature passing because his son, Chris Pennell, is captain of Worcester Warriors, the city’s premiership rugby team. Somehow, somewhere – probably at that great fast bowlers’ union in the sky – you sense that Graham is still following the Warriors’ progress, and cheering his boy on.

You can read more at The Full Toss, or follow James on Twitter @thefulltoss

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Don't judge a league by its elite

As football has become more and more corporate, the existence of elite cliques of teams in almost all the major four Europeans leagues have become an accepted part of the European football culture. While from time to time over the last fifteen years these subsections have been occasionally disrupted, it's not worth arguing against the balance of European football power being held by a maximum of four clubs in four leagues.

The same clubs almost always take part in the Champions League. While class is routinely (and tediously) said to be permanent, it would be more true to suggest that the established plutocracy is everlasting.

Considering well-earned prize money, league TV rights deals (especially pertinent in Spain), Champions' League income and large stadia, the wealthy club shave such a fiscal leg-up, that those clubs once (still?) associated with a European football superleague are essentially playing in a different league to their club opponents. This leads, especially in England, to clubs flush with imported players: in each of their last Champions' League matches, EPL clubs boasted a total of 12 players who had played with their club's juniors. Only four of those players – Ryan Giggs, Kieran Gibbs, Wojcieh Szczesny and Joe Hart – were starters.

Based on the past few seasons, the best clubs in the world have been Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and, if you tilt your head to the left and squint reeeal hard, Manchester United. However, these clubs seem to have birthrights allowing them access to European football and the money to buy players that most/all other teams in their respective countries envision only in their stickiest dreams. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and United now don't accurately represent their respective leagues but sit somewhere in the third standard deviation, part of a superelite that may as well play in a bloody superleague. (An idea that's never totally put to bed, by the way.)

Even though individual rights deals, league finances and priority on junior development makes this an exercise in apples and oranges, the strength of each league's mid-table sides must be evaluated to provide an accurate comparison. Perhaps now it's time to evaluate a league primarily by those squads in the middle of the pack, with both their achievement at home and abroad. Given the regular passage of players from mid-table teams to the elite, this also seems to best describe the league as a whole, rather than just paint a portrait of those paragon clubs.

Talk to a evangelising school principal and he will try to convince you that the best student in the class represents the quality of his teachers, amenities, tributary schools and leadership. However, this is often proved incorrect by assessing those students in the meaty part of the bell-curve. Money unlocks many doors, both in the education system and the football world. How students, teachers, clubs and players perform without that cash most accurately reveals the truth.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Graphic: England's most efficient goalscorers

The chart below displays the efficiency of forwards and midfielders playing in the English Premier League.  It plots each player's shooting accuracy, in goals per shot, against their scoring rate in goals per game.  The further to the top right corner of the graph the player is, the more efficient they are.  All players in the EPL who have scored five or more goals are considered.

It is obviously swayed towards recent players or those who don't play that often.  This makes Eastern bloc duo Dimitar Berbatov and Pavel Pogrebnyak the most efficient goalscorers in the league to this point.

Click to enlarge the graph.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Be very proud, Spurs fans

Football fans get a bad rap. It’s often deserved.

I first understood the full scary nature of a football mob mentality when at my first La Liga match.  At the Barcelona derby in December 2003, I was amused to find Parakeet ultras lighting fires, fighting police in running battles and frisbee-ing seats dangerously close to players on the pitch – until they came into my section of Montjuïc Stadium.  As they closed on our section, amusement gave way quickly to apprehension.  It speaks volumes to Marc Overmars’ elusive ability not that he created several goals on the night, but that he also avoided the barrage of broken polymer.

There are also myriad more incidents of both pre-meditated and unconscious bigotry that make observers uncomfortable in their own skin – regardless of colour, gender or sexual preference.

But there are times which  make you rejoice at the spirit of your brothers – or even in that of your opponents.  I’m not talking about last minute goals, Champions League victories or even campaigns like Save Darlo, but of the horrible events of Saturday’s FA Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers.

Watching the match from the sofa was horrifying; to imagine being at the match itself doesn’t bear thinking about.  After seeing the young midfielder convulse once, Fox Soccer Channel wisely opted not to telecast further the resuscitation efforts, but the tears of those at the ground were evidence enough that Muamba was in grave trouble.

To then hear Spurs fans chant “Fabrice Muamba” again and again while the player was treated was one of the most touching things I’ve seen in football.  Many argue that football has lost part of its humanity as a result of its occupation by the twin armies of tribalism and capitalism.  No matter how unflinching the game has become, decency won out on this occasion in a resounding chorus.

We can only hope and pray Fabrice Muamba wins his battle also.

The chants, though strictly unnecessary, were an honest human response to a man in serious danger.  It was an entirely honourable action, performed by nearly all those at White Hart Lane who could still speak.  I don’t think I’ll remember another moment from this footballing year with more clarity, both for the sickening situation and for the cumulative response of Tottenham fans.

Since the advent of cutthroat professionalism and the arrival of the football-as-a-business era, the term “honourable” hasn’t been used that often.  It is these moments, though, and not just glamour goals, saves or results that we fans remember.  Players’ actions leave a mark on us, often moreso than the result of their endeavours.  To take a high-profile example, I can’t remember who won the race – at the peak of their rivalry – in which John Landy helped up Ron Clarke after he had fallen; the image is seminal to what it means to be Australian.  I’m sure everyone can recollect similar instances without pausing for thought.

On the whole, responses since Muamba's collapse have been overwhelmingly positive from players, administrators and fans alike.  But, for their initial, vocal, offer of support, Spurs’ fans chants stood out as entirely honourable, a gleaming – albeit small – positive from an awful event.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Short Pitch - The Revenge of "Peter Who?"

Revenge of the “Peter Who?”

It must've been a great week for Peter Nevill. Only a few days ago, he was selected as the wicket-keeper for this season's Australian Cricketers' Association All-Star team. Today, he was called up to cover the dauphin, Matthew Wade, in the West Indies, after Brad Haddin returned to Australia to attend some personal matters.

Nevill, a Victorian who had a fantastic season for New South Wales, was far and away the best candidate for the position. This is partly due to his excellent batsmanship and relative youth. Although fully deserving his airfare, the ease of his selection indicates an antipodean lack of wicket-keeping choice.

Examine quickly those 'keepers used this year in state cricket. Only Queensland's Chris Hartley played all ten Shield games; he did so boasting the sprightly batting average of 26. Although excellent behind the poles, Hartley's a throwback to the years before 1995: strictly a domestic backstop who occasionally contributes handy runs.

Looking Southwards only adds to the gall. Tim Paine is why we can't have nice things. Adam Crosthwaite managed only five games for a state that won only two points all season. Michael Johnston averaged 10.1 with the bat for Western Australia and his replacement, Luke “Not Dead Yet” Ronchi fared little better and now wants to play for New Zealand. Wade's understudy, Ryan Carters, lost his spot in the Victorian team for the last, most crucial, Shield match of the season to Peter Handscomb – who hasn't even kept in District cricket.

This must also be considered the final bell for Haddin's Test career. With the nature of the matters he has returned to closely guarded, no-one can know how much of the tour he will miss. Although receiving selector Rod Marsh's blessing, Haddin is unquestionably feeling the pinch.

One feels his position is now very much Wade's for the taking.

What do Chelsea and Dwight Howard have in common?

Wednesday provided the sporting consciousness with an almost – but not quite – final irresolution. Both the world's most public roundball sports suffered from the implacable inevitablity of more uncertainty.

In the NBA, the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard opted into the final eighteen months of his contract, depriving the free-agent market of it's best big man since Shaquille O'Neal in 1996.

And Chelsea won in the Champions' League.

Initially, there may seem little to connect the two, but similarities soon emerge from the internet's murk. By committing to the Magic for one more season, Howard automatically keeps every hoops rumour-monger in cyberspace flush with “content” – and I use that word in the loosest possible terms – until he signs a long-term contract extension or departs in July 2013.

Who has enough space under the salary cap to keep him? Will a team trade for him without him committing to extend his contract past 2013? Does anyone still care?

Similarly, for their improbable 4-1 win against Napoli at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening, Chelsea should be congratulated. The unwelcome – by club and fan alike – result, however, is the fuel the club has unwittingly provided to football equivalent of Star magazine, the abominably-sourced Bleacher Report and other like sites, until the Blues' core players definitively leave the club.

Experts and know-alls-from-afar have penned myriad eulogies for Chelsea since the 2008 Champions' League final; sometimes this has been reasoned, other times speculation. Most recently, these have been the sum of the team's transfer policy moving towards youth amidst yet more nebulous and smoky “player power” reports. Already the Chelsea core has been shorn of two fringe elements, Anelka and Alex, while other veterans are publicised not necessarily for accomplishment but a lack thereof.

Common knowledge suggests disassembling a imperfect squad is prudent and inevitable if not overdue. In this case, the prevailing view may be as flawed as a Fernando Torres finish.

The fine Neapolitan win intimates they can still compete for what should now be known as Abramovich's Folly; the result of which appears to be that short-term savage transition from age to youth will be postponed until the next high-profile stumble. As long as Chelsea retain the so-called cabal, supposition will follow. A humbling defeat at the hands feet of Napoli would only accelerate that disintegration; now, fans are damned to read stories that should all begin with “I reckon”.

Apart from the Blues, who will now face Benfica in the quarter-finals, it seemsthe Perez Hiltons of the football blogosphere are this week's big winners.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Michael Vaughan, by Max Benson of Test Match Sofa

Max Benson, of Test Match Sofa, explains why Michael Vaughan is his favourite cricketer.  Max tweetst at @sofa_maxb.

Northern batsmen aren’t stylish. Northern batsmen are Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Atherton and Paul Collingwood. They are grafters and men of toil, hell-bent on building an innings by any grim means necessary.

All stereotypes are rooted in truth, but my favourite cricketer goes against that particular grain. He possessed a heavenly mix of balance, exquisite timing and sheer class at the crease - creating at will a thing of true beauty each time he unfurled a cover drive or square pull. Indeed, this smitten writer may well go to the grave believing there to be nothing finer in this life than a Michael Vaughan cover drive.

Born the wrong side of the Pennines it was fortunate that Yorkshire accepted him in 1993, just after relaxing their part-admirable, part-ludicrous rule that allowed only players born within the county to be considered for selection. It was Doug Padgett, a veteran of over 500 First Class games for the county who persisted in bringing Vaughan to the club. The thought of him enjoying the career he did with a red instead of a white rose on his chest sends a chill down many a Tyke’s spine. Never mind those that did get away before common sense prevailed.

I first saw Vaughan play for Yorkshire in a one day game at North Marine Road, Scarborough, in 1999. He top-scored with an understated 41, taking the Tykes to a seven-wicket win against Leicestershire, but it was the following summer where he began to shine on a bigger stage.

The first Test match I saw live was at Headingley in 2000. The famous two-day Test against the West Indies, in fact, as luck would have it.  ‘’Don’t expect them all to be like that,’’ my dad felt obliged to caution the ten-year-old me, beaming after Caddick and Gough had dismantled the tourists for 61 in their second innings and a deliriously boozed-up army of nuns and Elvises stormed the field from the old Western Terrace.

Amidst the chaos and tumbling wickets that day, one man personified calm. Vaughan’s expertly crafted 76 took England to what proved to be a match-winning score of 272. Graeme Hick had stayed with him for a neat half century of his own, but it was Vaughan who steadied the ship so ably from 93/4 in front of his expectant home crowd against the aging yet undiminished brilliance of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

His coolness under pressure was paramount in the decision to award him the England captaincy in 2003, the year in which he all-too-briefly topped the world batting rankings after racking up 633 runs and three centuries in yet another Ashes defeat Down Under. Allied to his superb man management skills and, somewhat paradoxically, his one-of-the-lads mentality; the decision to hand him the reigns was undoubtedly the right one.

The England side had improved steadily under Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain, four years on from when the latter was booed onto the Oval balcony after defeat to New Zealand left England bottom of the Test rankings in 1999. Central contracts helped transform a ragged and insecure bunch of county players into a cohesive unit, and Vaughan was the perfect man to take them to the next level.  He dealt instinctively well on a personal level with the self-destructive Andrew Flintoff and the fragile Steve Harmison, while his on-field demeanour and tactical nous made him by far the best all-round leader in world cricket at the time.

The defining moment for Vaughan’s captaincy came as he led his country in probably the greatest Test series of all time against the Aussies in 2005. Prising the urn from the enemy for the first time since 1987, a rollercoaster series captured the imagination of a football-orientated English press and public like never before.

But Vaughan was fallible, too. His batting suffered, perhaps inevitably, with the strains of captaincy and his final dozen innings or so for Yorkshire in 2009 were painful to watch as the magic – or at least the eyes and joints - appeared to have gone for good. We’re all human. We all get old.

He had always suffered more than most with injuries. The summer of 2006 was a complete write-off, as was the following winter’s whitewash in Australia, all due to a chronic knee problem. A serious hamstring injury followed, and Vaughan was cruelly destined never to regain the magic that had graced county and country for nigh on a decade.

That only adds to the reasons for him being a ‘favourite’. He played on for as long as possible because of a love and deep respect for the game, yet knew to bow out without losing too much dignity on the field. And besides, who would be so heartless as to deny such a player a bit of extra grace to play out a few more innings on the county circuit as the curtain came down on a sterling career? Well, Yorkshire, probably.

In a media-saturated world now awash with anodyne quotes straight off a script from most of our sportsmen and women, Vaughan’s departure from the England captaincy couldn’t have been further from the catatonic norm.

His tearful farewell in full glare of the world’s media was fantastic proof of his boyish love of the game. To see an Ashes-winning gladiator reduced to tears spoke volumes for his sincerity as a player and pride in his country. It was a single moment encapsulating what sport really is: blood, sweat, tears and hyperbole.

Vaughan embodied much of what I believe is great about the game we love. He could ooze style and class when at his work and read the game beautifully with a sound tactical mind. Most striking is that he remained ‘one of the boys’ – a hideous phrase - and someone whose raw passion and enthusiasm we simple fans could relate to. I, and I suspect many others, wanted to share a pint with him – the ultimate compliment for a Yorkshireman. No one in their right mind wanted to drink with Boycott.

Back to My Favourite Cricketer homepage.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Redknapp's logical successor

Let's just assume, despite apparent misgivings, that Harry Redknapp will manage England at this year's European Championships. The common-sense logic is that England will likely qualify for the second round and then be eliminated. Such things were written in stone, long ago.

Were he to go, however, who would replace him at Spurs? Noises have been made about summoning Jose Mourinho from Real Madrid to helm next season's increasingly-improbable Champions' League push, while other names thrown forth into the vacuum include Fabio Capello, Rafael Benitez and David Moyes.

Interestingly, the Spurs personnel actually quite suit a manager like Andre Villas-Boas, but it's unlikely AVB would get such a high-profile position immediately after his Chelsea flame-out. This should elicit nervous Liverpudlian glances towards Fleet Street's rumour-mongers.

If Jose's not coming – and he's not, there should be little doubt that David Moyes is the best fit for the Spurs job.

Harking back a moment to Villas-Boas, there are myriad reasons for his dismissal but the greatest was an initial refusal to adapt his tactics to his players. This doesn't apply for Moyes, who for the vast majority of his decade-long tenure at Goodison Park has employed with success either a flat 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1. He would have to make little or no adaptation, but simply deploy a superior playing group. To prove his efficacy, he need look no further than a player that Spurs now own – South African Steven Pienaar.

His maintenance of Everton as one of the league's more efficient defensive teams speaks volumes, as does his ability to bring together a cohesive dressing room and his noted ability to work well on a budget. Spurs could certainly benefit from all four of these selling points – in fact, combining Moyes' defensive schemes with the offensive talent on hand at White Hart Lane is an exciting prospect.

This remains pure speculation, and it's no sure thing that Moyes would agree to a contract at Spurs. However, it remains the most tantalising option should Redknapp be seconded into national service.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book review: More than a Game - John Major

by columnist Ben Roberts

I really do need to admit that although being a born and bred Australian I am spending more and more time putting my head above the neighbouring fence and enjoying the delights of sport as enjoyed by the English. This is quite the admission, and flies in the face of everything I learned from the likes of Dean Jones, Allan Border, and Steve Waugh. English cricket to them was defined by failure and therefore very much the lesser when compared to Australia's ruthless winning culture (even when losing), but I am no longer of the same opinion and not just because Australia has lost the past two Ashes series.

The real sticking point that for my mind that Australian cricket falls short of is its cultural impact. While we cannot deny that cricket remains a strong part of Australian culture, for the English over the past 250 years it is clear that cricket has has gone beyond merely being a part of and driven culture. Australian cricket has not shifted society as English cricket did. While Australians often pointed to the archaic distinction between amateurs and professionals (upper and lower classes) as being disgraceful, the reality is that such distinctions were well established in English society at large. While cricket did indeed choose to accept and incorporate them into it's play, it became a microcosm for the observation of social distinctions highlighting their hypocritical nature and ultimately doing away with them.

Without becoming a screaming Anglophile let us not forget that there are plenty of parts of Australian cricketing history that one may choose to let lie when all is said and done. Cricket historians may eventually afford the words 'mental disintegration' the same level of disgust and horror as has already been attributed 'bodyline'.

Cricket became for England a pastime upon which a nations leisure revolved, as John Major title's his book it is 'More Than a Game' with many famous cricketing names being non-players. How many sports or leisure activities honour journalists and administrators to the same degree as cricket does? Not to mention those who were patrons of the game. How many sports have entire wings of literature (fiction and non-fiction) devoted to them, not to mention certain religious understandings being exemplified as was 'Muscular Christianity' – although a nod must go to Rugby for its theological input as well.

Major brings all of this together in a tremendous work of historical review. His purpose is to describe what he believes are the lost centuries of cricket. Crickets actual beginnings likely will never be known but positive evidence for it existing in 17th century England exists. Major takes the reader on a journey to understand these earliest moments of the game he loves, and how the gradual shift in English society was mirrored by the growth that became an empires favourite pastime.

This is not a book for the casual cricket lover so be wary. It is as full of detail as any book I have ever read. Major profiles at length the characters and teams that made up the game in each moment through history. It would be hard pressed to accept this as a good read based on that description but honestly I could not put this book down and wished it would never end.

Cricket tradition is not what it is often made out to be in 21st century Australia. Modified versions of the game did not originate with 50 over cricket or receive an injection of charisma upon the 'revolution' that is T20. Afford yourself a peruse at the very least of Wikipedia and you will find men of the like of Billy Beldham entering into one on one contests of gladiatorial nature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or the entrepreneurial William Clarke leading his 'All-England XI' around for invitational games often against the odds. You see cricket has always evolved, tradition did not originate with Chappell brothers or even Sir Donald Bradman, cricket history runs much, much deeper.

The flow of the work is exceptional by Major. For chapter upon chapter he builds a chronologically based picture of the games history. But just at the right moment when the reader needs a rest he pauses to reflect on specific persons or positions in the game of cricket. Although counter to the rhetoric of most latter day Australian players, cricket is not limited to those privileged enough to be blessed with the skill to play. Major honours with specific chapters the patrons and administrators, scorers and journalists who do not play but their involvement requires no less admiration. They like Major, loved it unconditionally even though they may not have been able to bowl with the fire of Fred Spofforth.

Of course Major is a former British Prime Minister, and a small litter of political gibing can be found in this books pages. But we will forgive him this as politics has been his life. (Major may still wake every night trying to explain to the long-gone British public that 'New Labour' is not what you think it was, before cuddling up to his soft Mrs Thatcher doll and going back to sleep).

English cricket is a cultural phenomenon, not just a sport. Cricketers all over the world today are treading well worn paths and carrying a beacon for a culture that has a long history. They are by far not the first, nor will be the last to enjoy this great game.

This is a re-post from our affiliate book review blog, Books with Balls.  Shoot across to read more about reading!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The A-League: spread too thin

The furore surrounding Clive Palmer and Gold Coast United has cast more unwanted focus on soccer's position in the Australian sporting hierarchy. The club failing is bad enough, but for component on-field parts to auction themselves to prospective employers is like your soon-to-be ex auditioning potential replacements in front of your eyes.

Most galling of all is for this failure to occur in particularly high-growth area in the fastest-growing state in the nation. If football couldn't survive – demented patriarch or not – on the Gold Coast, there are few options left for A-League expansion. The league looks destined to stay in the same locations. And this may be for the best.

Realistically, there are only two more locations into which the A-League can try and expand naturally into a city with a population large enough to support the game. The league has already failed in both locations, Auckland and the Gold Coast. Despite it's size, Auckland also drags with it the baggage of New Zealand clubs playing in the domestic league of an Asian confederation member when the country competes in the Oceania confederation. Other possible expansion locations are also fraught with problems – the AFL's Cats countenance no rivals in Geelong, while Canberra boasts an enormous fly-in, fly-out population and lots of roundabouts.

Ben Buckley and the FFA, the sport's governing body in Australia and administers of the A-League, let the phenomenally successful second A-League season (2006-07) go to their collective bonces. The league attracted an average of nearly 13,000 fans per game that year, while collecting additional fuel from rivalries which solidified between the league's marquee clubs Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Adelaide United.

However, the Victory's remarkable crowd numbers masked the true situation. The now-defunct New Zealand Knights averaged a pitiful 3000 fans. More telling should have been that Melbourne's attendance comprised nearly 30% of the entire league gate. With renewed interest in roundball left over from the Socceroos' 2006 World Cup run and FFA decided to capitalise on soccer's newfound popularity and expand.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Since that year, four new teams have been created. Half of those have failed and now lie in ruin. A third, the Melbourne Heart is haemorrhaging cash, while the fourth, the Wellington Phoenix was born from the rubble of the Knights. With a population of slightly more than 22 million people The World Game's status as a distant fourth favourite football code, Australia simply can't support a national football competition which has more than ten teams. Thus, any expectation of healthy crowds or shirt sales at every venue is optimism verging on insanity.

While it is understandable the FFA wanted to expand while the game was at it's antipodean zenith, the league was a success in 2006-07 as a result of those nine teams, not despite the shortage of numbers. The game is healthier now than before the A-League's commencement, but to expect public interest to grow from all-time highs – especially when the tail end of the Golden Generation returned to pasture at home after a magical tour of Germany – was fallacy of the highest order. The league should have consolidated, rather than chosen to grow at a remarkably ambitious rate (including next season's likley West Sydney franchise, growing by five clubs in five seasons).

The argument against expansion is easy and tired, yet sport administrators fail to learn. No matter what the sport, clubs in a national competition need one of two things to succeed (and preferably both) – grassroots support for the sport, or a large enough populace to support a “minority” sport. By expanding into Far North Queensland,

When the league embarked on this Mr. Creosote-style inflation, not expecting local talent to be poached by higher-paying leagues, thus thinning the ranks of top players, was naïve. Add to that the established fact that expansion dilutes the talent-pool and suddenly the A-League doesn't provide the product it once did. That the young talent isn't coming through is just as damning – the simple fact is we can't supply the league with enough money, support or home-grown talent.

Because of this, the A-League should remain an nine-team league for the foreseeable future. Even the quick-cloned Western Sydney would be fallacy.

Part of the problem seems to be the FFA's complete misunderstanding of how many people it takes to fuel a football club. A vast majority of Australians couldn't tell you the left-back for their local A-League club, which explains why the sport struggles for recognition as a serious national competition, especially at a local level. It's time for the A-League to accept, for the time being, their place in the Australian sporting landscape. Give the people what they want – quality football. Clive Palmer seems to have forgotten, but this isn't accomplished with teenagers and faded stars, but with well-coached professional athletes.

To quote The Rock, it's time for the A-League to shut their mouth and know their role. It is possible – foreseeable, even, given junior participation – that in the longest of terms, football overtakes Rugby Union and even cricket in the national consciousness. However, that is also unlikely, especially when the FFA damages the A-League brand with repeated failed franchises.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What I learned this Summer

As part of a series on The Sledge, several online columnists were invited to submit what this past cricket season has taught them.  Featured contributors included cricket blogosphere stalwarts Ant Sims of Wicket Maiden, Dave Siddall of World Cricket Watch and Subash Jayaraman of The Sight Screen.  The following was Balanced Sports' contribution.

What I learned this summer:

Andrew Hilditch was really, really bad.

Let's not split hairs, I already knew this – so did everyone except Mitchell Johnson. But John Inverarity's relatively steady start at the helm of the Australian selection panel threw Hilditch's stint as Chairman of Selectors into sharp relief.

The guy wasn't bad, but comically inept.

Australian cricket has for years been regarded as a bastion against petty griping. Like any good marriage, the players and establishment held onto their grievances, only to let them pour out in flare-ups – like, say, World Series Cricket or the A-Team's Rebel Tour of South Africa. However, once there's been some resolution and a few years in which the establishment re-entrenches themselves into “best practice”, then suddenly Australia's competitive again.

With the ascent of journeymen like Ed Cowan and Dan Christian to the forefront of the national setup, Australia appears to be once more rewarding effort rather than physical gifts. This suggests the trough into which Australian cricket sunk wasn't so much the effects Warne, Langer and McGrath retiring, but of Hilditch's inconsistent selection methodology.

In his five years as head honcho, Hilditch debuted twenty-nine players, a neat half of which didn't play more than six Tests. It seems the only people he held to account were the newbies. Hilditch looked at players much like the fifteen year old who lusts at every girl who walks by. His tendencies varied from the youthful (Steven Smith) to the old bags (Bryce McGain).

Hilditch is gone, banished to the vagaries of law practice. Which is good, because we can still feel good about despising him.

The World realised they should have been giving Tendulkar runs a long time ago

Australia's bowling lineup isn't a patch on the attacks Sachin Tendulkar has flayed around the world for a generation. Siddle's pretty good, Harris is an injury looking for a body part, James Pattinson seems to have a bit about him, Hilfenhaus is good if your TV isn't Hi-Def while Nathan Hauritz Lyon failed to trouble any recognised batsmen for the entire Border-Gavaskar series. You could call the ugly stepsisters – in Siddle's case you'd be spot on, as the man has a head like a kicked-in biscuit tin.

But no matter how disheveled the Aussie attack, it's a novelty to write that Tendulkar failed with the bat. More poignantly, he couldn't complete that troublesome hundredth International hundred that's becoming an Obelix-sized bugbear for him and increasingly-frantic Indian media outlets.

Which is confusing, because he's broken nearly all the batting records there are. Records shouldn't trouble him, and especially this one, because it just doesn't mean much (it's a compilation of ODI and Test figures). However, it is a very pretty thing to have on one's resume.

Like an average Joe trying to impress a model, Sachin's got performance anxiety – something none of us would have attributed to such an accomplished player. The cricket world has now realised that bowling to Tendulkar is a lot easier when he's got 99 tons under his belt and they wish he'd just gotten there sooner.

Virat Kohli will be welcomed by Australian fans for the next decade

Aussie fans have always had someone from opposing teams to hate. We don't mind arrogance and cockiness from our own lot (unless it's Dean Jones), but when stuff is thrown at our boys, we get all Simon Katich pissy.

The ultimate example of this is Douglas Jardine. The last two decades have been rife with people who rubbed Aussie cricketers, and the populace at large, the wrong way. For the most part, these guys have been good players, which has only reinforced the average Skippy's frustration at them.

It reads almost biblically.

In the beginning, there was Douglas Jardine. Jardine begat Trevor Bailey, who batted with slowness of a one-legged (and dead) mule. Bailey begat Tony Greig, who in turn begat Richard Hadlee. Hadlee had a son, whose name was Pat Symcox, who in turn brought Sourav Ganguly into being. Ganguly bred his own nation of irritants, but none were more irritating than the spinner, Harbhajan Singh.

This was the first Border-Gavaskar series since 1999 in which Harbhajan Singh didn't play – and for the most part (and perhaps because they lost so badly), the team apparently didn't have anyone for us to actively root against: there was Tendulkar's timelessness, Dravid's stoic nature, Yadav's constant four-balls …

Except Virat Kohli. While succeeding leading the Indian batting averages, he p****d off every Australian he saw with an attitude as calming as the new tabasco-flavoured Red Bull.

And this will see him welcomed on these shores for the rest of his career – probably with the typical Aussie mix of grudging admiration and febrile swearing.

And on the eighth day, Harbhajan had a son, whose name was Virat Kohli.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Villas-Boas fired for breaking coaching's golden rule

And so Andre Villas-Boas is gone, cast to the recycling pile like a dapper cardboard cut-out in a suit that's slightly too small.

Roman Abramovich may as well have employed a cardboard cut-out, as he almost certainly would have performed better in the job with the highest expectations in England.

It's not that Villas-Boas is a bad manager – that's not even close to the truth. He's an excellent manager who, in this appointment, simply picked the wrong battles to fight. The result is that his head is now deservedly displayed on a spike outside Abramovich's castle alongside those of the myriad managers who've run afoul of Roman.

Villas-Boas' remit was to scratch his Russian patron's itch for beautiful football.

And to focus more on refreshing the squad with youth.

And, most importantly, to win – preferably the Champions' League.

As is the case with 21st Century management, employing a manager is to employ his style. It's now almost impossible to divorce the man from the method, and therefore Villas-Boas was brought to West London to play the same football with which his Porto sides traipsed through Liga Sagres and the Europa League.

That style of football, however, utilised a high defensive line which didn't suit a backline whose key components could be outrun by the Eastbourne Zimmer-frame Relay team. The Chelsea of 2011-12 wasn't built to thrive in such tactics, and the young boss didn't alter his methods quickly enough to stop the slide (!) into fifth place. In isolation he may have survived such tactical idealism, but when combined with an openly antagonistic relationship with stalwarts Lampard, Anelka and Alex, the thirty-four year old could not be persevered with.

Villas-Boas followed what has now become the management norm: steadfast adherence to one's tactical ideals is favoured over pragmatism. This is slightly disturbing, as it directly opposes the first rule of coaching: play to your team's strengths. This rule can be ignored only when working under an extremely patient overlord – and even then only occasionally. It takes time to adapt a team to a gameplan, especially when those players are as hard-nosed as John Terry; it takes far less time to adapt said gameplan to a set of world-weary multimillionaires.

It would have been almost impossible to resist overtures from noted sweet-talker Abramovich, but it appears now Villas-Boas should have twigged that he wasn't the best fit for the position. In sport, however, common sense often plays second fiddle to self-confidence. All of self-confidence, rationale, common sense and ambition are also easily concealed by the coin on offer.

The next manager to take the star cross'd position will have his own ideas how to play the game. For his sake, and for the heart health of the entire Chelsea fan base, he should realise the key to achievement – and therefore longevity – at Stamford Bridge is ultimate pragmatism.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Shocker: Billionaire football club owner is mental

The Australian A-League, a competition set up to minimise infighting and partisanship while maximising club longevity, has again slid inexorably into disarray. And this time, it's one man's madness rather than hyper-optimistic expansion or Kevin Muscat perpetual battle with the red-mist.

The lone figure isn't even Harry Kewell.

Although the league is markedly strengthened from it's nascence, the competition – and the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) – have been rendered impotent and the fall guy of a former owner.

To paraphrase Python, Clive Palmer is an ex-owner.

When the league expanded three seasons ago, the Gold Coast appeared to have the strongest of the two expansion licences. Their locale was growth market, they boasted a solid squad and even a passable coach who pinned the team to “franchise” players Shane Smeltz, Jason Culina and Michael Thwaite. Only three years later, the FFA has revoked the club's licence and the team looks as if it has passed football's Event Horizon.

Who knows why Palmer decided to bid for the initial licence. Why the FFA granted him a team is no secret: his dimensionally-transcendent pocketbook made him irresistible. But Australian mining magnates have an unwavering tendency to the irregular: just ask Lang Hancock, Rose Porteous and Gina Rinehart.

Since obtaining the rights to own Gold Coast United, Palmer has persistently, and even maliciously, undermined his football club with ludicrous management decisions. The last of which, where he personally appointed debutant seventeen year-old Mitch Cooper club captain, cost him his the remaining shreds of his credibility. His rap sheet is stupefying in it's capacity self-destruction and therefore incriminating.  This copy doesn't include slamming football as a sport and an open challenge for FFA Chairman Frank Lowy to pit their respective wealth against each other in court. Football is better off without him.

It's now becoming apparent soccer in Australia can't win. Where in the bunker days of the old NSL it was lack of money that turned fans away, this time it is the expectation of those who do spend. There seems to be no middle ground and it is this which Lowy and offsider Ben Buckley must see as their utmost priority.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Stuart MacGill, by Kristian Gough of The Wrong 'Un

Snoop Doggy Nott my favourite...
As both a legspin fetishist and amateur practitioner, I would more likely pick Snoop Doggy Dogg as my favourite cricketer than a batsman or seamer and to me MacGill represents the leggie's leggie and my personal favorite.  

Warne was too freakishly accurate to be considered a 'real' leg spinner, real ones dish up at least one four-ball every few overs.  And he didn't even have a googly to speak of, relying instead on straight balls to surprise Ian Bell. Anil Kumble …don't get me started on him, he barely even spun it. 

No, MacGill is the leggie for me because he had all the traits of the club leg spinner - huge booze collection, poor fielder, genuine number 11 and ability to bowl one long hop every eight balls. He was a club pie-chucker given super powers after drinking a radioactive vintage bottle of Barossa Valley Shiraz. I swear there is a video of him on YouTube spinning a ball from square leg to point while glowing luminous green. 

He bowled the old fashioned leg spin style I love: tossing the ball up, moving the batsman across the crease toward the on side opening him up - then bang!  A googly, or if he thought it was expected, a big side-spun legbreak which often got slapped to cover point. Effective or not, this attacking style gives captains or selectors palpitations.

I like him as much for his unconformity and outsider status as his brilliant wrong ’un and massive-turning leg break. He never really fit the mold of an Aussie cricketer. A brooding, intense figure, he once fell out with the entire county of Devon while playing English minor counties cricket because they dared play for 'fun'. He was banned several times for discipline, read 24 novels on a tour of Pakistan barely speaking to team mates and famously has 3000 bottles wine in his cellar.  

It is of course impossible to even consider MacGill without the shadow of Warne, toasted cheese sandwich in hand, looming over him.  But try if you can. 

Close your eyes and imagine a world where Shane Keith Warne (MacGill's middle names are Charles Glyndwr) hadn't been born. A cricketing “It's a Wonderful Life” where Mike Gatting was remembered as a decent player of spin and Daryl Cullinan as the tenth best South African batsman to play Tests. In this fantasy world, Stuart MacGill takes 650 wickets and is remembered alongside Benauld, Grimmett and O'Reilly as one of Australia's greatest leggies.  

No really, he would have been. MacGill has a Test strike rate of 54, astonishing for a slow bowler and in fact the best in modern cricket. The myth that he was inaccurate and expensive are of course overstated - a Test economy rate of 3.2 is hardly cannon fodder.

Image courtesy:
Even in his latest incarnation as a fortysomething Twenty20 gun-for-hire, he has reminded us of that skill. Even turning up rusty, in a batsman-friendly format bowling against teams containing slogger extraordinaires he has held his own, bamboozling the young ‘uns with his wrong ‘uns and going at 6 and half an over.

So all raise a glass of something complex to Stuart MacGill, an old fashioned leg spinner who refused to fit in.  While limited opportunities meant he never became what he could have been, he still notched up performances and a record that most of Aussie spinners can’t hope to match.

 Kristian runs the excellent blog "The Wrong 'Un" and tweets at @iamthewrongun. We highly recommend you take a look at both.