Friday, April 27, 2012

The death of Barcelona?

Consecutive defeats to Real Madrid and Chelsea decry this season's Barcelona bandwagon is coming to a faltering and much-needed rest. That hiatus could be temporary or permanent, depending on new coach Tito Villanova's methods; manager in excelsis Josep “Pep” Guardiola confirmed today that he would not return to helm Barca in 2012-13.

There are reasons aplenty behind Barca's slip from the peak of Iberian – and world – football. Some are obvious, such as a squad which struggled to replace injured defenders, the disease of more, Guardiola's almost inevitable burnout and brutal opposition playing solely to absorb the pressure created by Barcelona's passing and then rebound. Key elements Xavi, Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal succumbed to chronic injury and pure bad fortune.

Perhaps the most important latent reason for their “drop” in form this season was that their game barely changed throughout the four years of Guardiola's reign. Why would you change such beautiful football? Guardiola's Barca evokes memories of the Game of Thrones scenes involving the swordmaster Syrio Forel, who in a world of broadsword hackery sees the sword as a weapon capable of beauty as well as efficacy. Forel saw swordplay at a more advanced and exquisite level than his peers.

The past four years of Barcelona football, 2008-09 and 2009-10 especially, has borne witness to such an advanced philosophy. They are the Forel of world football, with a mode and method far in advance of their rivals. However, as anyone who has read/seen the first installment of Game of Thrones will attest, this hardly makes such learning untouchable.

The problem with employing such an advanced method in the age of video is simple: others observe. In any pro sport, what works one year rarely works the following because others catch on, catch up and overtake. When the peloton can take advantage of tools like Synergy Sports and Opta Joe, a sporting thought-leader needs to constantly evolve its game plan on a conscious and subliminal level. Not only do clubs need to do better the basic elements of what they do, but they also need to expand upon those components.

Although a “Naomi Campbell” – a thing of terrifying beauty – Barcelona's modus operandi remained at a stillpoint which enabled dissection and planning.

The counter-argument of “If it ain't broke” has merit. If Barcelona played to their best, they would still defeat every other team in the world without a qualm. It places the squad in a vacuum, reducing competition to a pub discussion “with all things equal”. We watch sport because things aren't equal. The Bell Jar doesn't require a team who has had success at every level to reach their potential each new day amidst injury, form slumps and personal crisis. The continued growth of Barca's game may have provided alternatives on which to fall back during these times.

If a club or player attempts to expand – not re-shape completely – their game, those efforts are never detrimental. Rare is the club who truly succeeds by paring their repertoire back to the basic elements and focusing their play through only one locus. There must be alternate “looks” or second and third avenues down which to play. Over the past year Barcelona haven't provided many different looks; it's compelling testament to their greatness that they were so successful.

It interesting to note that their original Plan B – the Zlatan Zeppelin – arrived and departed within a year. Purchases over the past two years have been like-for-like: Villa, Mascherano, Sanchez and Fabregas. They sold different players like Oriol Romeu and Bojan – committing firmly to the pass-and-move. The instant players wore down or Messi (heaven forbid) was to be injured, the Barcelona underbelly would become instantly exposed. Taking advantage of this glimpse of vulnerability would still need a combination of hard work, skills and brains; but for certain clubs, a victory would now be possible.

Should he want to regain the Spanish crown, Villanova should maintain the same techniques that achieved such Barcelona grace. However, he also needs to make changes significant enough to both tactically outpoint Los Blancos and revitalise his charges. In 21st century football, homogeneity is the ultimate enemy. Change, for its own sake, is needed at the Camp Nou.

An old adage posits that without losing, winning is meaningless. This iteration of Barcelona, as excellent as they are, will now instinctively place more value on their wins.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Hansie Cronje by Purna Hassan

In our series "My Favourite Cricketer" we've invited the best cricket writers and bloggers to divulge why certain cricketers emerge as their favourites.  This week, Purna Hassan of Cricket Minded and @cricketminded takes the stand

I fell in love with cricket because of Hansie Cronje and the team he captained. My Dad introduced me to cricket and as he was an avid fan of India, I followed his passion. It was only at age eleven when began to grasp the concepts of the game and realized cricket's meaning differs between countries.

In India, it was religion bordering on fanatic levels. In West Indies, cricket was an aura that had stunned the world. In Australia, it evoked a chase between a wild animal and its prey. In South Africa, it was an avenue for a country to step up and etch their place on the map. In the 1997-1998 Test match between South Africa and India, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock captured my attention, Jonty Rhodes made me clap rowdily and Hansie Cronje – he simply demanded my respect.

He wasn’t as flamboyant as a batsman could be. In fact, his batting numbers are far below what he should have achieved. But I have no complaints. Hansie was too busy being a leader, instilling faith in players that had been overlooked for years because of the unfortunate state of their country. Hansie was too busy being there.

I am trying here to express what he represented, for his team and his country. I'm not South African, but do come from a country that has always struggled to rectify the overblown, deeply concentrated negative images displayed for so long in the media. Hansie was put in charge of such a team at the tender age of 24; despite relative youth, he never showed any greenness. Hansie feared no one, or if he did, I never saw it. His confidence, ego and intensity were, in my opinion, exactly what the new era Proteas needed. After all, this team had defend every single outburst (racial or otherwise) which would have been termed ‘part of the game’ for others. The world was watching and Hansie and co. had to prove that South Africans were capable of much more than just apartheid.

His greatest power lay in the knowledge that he was there to play cricket. His love for the game resonated in his eyes and his smiles. He could have a good time on the pitch even when times were hard. He was a prankster and I fondly remember his banter with Jonty and the then young Jacques Kallis (ed: I could have sworn Jacques Kallis was born at age 32 with bat in hand).

Allan Donald was his go-to man, Pollock the newcomer of distinguished lineage. Herschelle Gibbs marked the role of restless youngster to perfection and Dave Richardson his reliable old sage. Even as a young man, Cronje instinctively knew how to handle, utilise and shuffle his pack. I can’t remember a single instance where his decisions on the field were questioned by his team-mates; when those choices were dubious or cost them the game, Hansie was the first to admit his mistakes and the quickest to learn from them (alas, apart from the choking). He was in every sense a leader.

It was little wonder that South Africa quickly rose to the top of the international game. Talents like Gibbs, Boucher and Ntini flourished from the nutrition provided by Hansie and coach Bob Woolmer. The results began to evolve as they won the Asia Cup – their only ICC trophy – in Dhaka. I remember as he held the trophy; I was watching with tears in my eyes. All he said was ‘It’s heavy, but I don’t want to put it down’.

In the 1999 World Cup, South Africa were the hot favourites. It was there that I saw the first signs of my captain's weakness. Hansie took the field with an ear-piece to communicate with Woolmer, a move he later paid for. South Africa’s previously impressive top order began to rely more on Lance Klusener's WMD finishes. In the excitement and amid a remarkable run of “Zulu” form, the otherwise perceptive Hansie Cronje let his team play; he should have united the team and reminded them of their duties.

Personally, I loved it. Klusener is and will always be my 1999 World Cup hero, but in there is no way Allan Donald should have been the man at the other end with Zulu when the likes of Kirsten, Gibbs, Cullinan, Kallis, Cronje and even Pollock came before. I thought the 1999 World Cup semi-final was the first and last time the Proteas would break my heart.

And then came Cronje-gate.

Image courtesy:
I distinctly remember the day Hansie confessed his crimes. I was leaving for a vacation and woke up early to start my travels. I picked up the newspaper – it's first page featured a huge picture of Hansie crying and the headline “Match-fixing scandal rocks the Cricket world”. To say I was devastated is an understatement. Till then, I had vehemently defended Cronje, strongly believing the allegations to be a set-up. Anyone and everyone who loves cricket was shattered by the revelation but for me it was more personal: it was the ultimate and immutable demise of my hero.

I was disgusted that he had persuaded team-mates to join him and shocked by the tremendous flaw that the match-fixing scandals revealed in a man I respected. It pained me to see what he had reduced his cricket to, to what he had reduced himself. Those are the only emotions I recall from those days – betrayal and an overwhelming sadness. Even still I couldn’t bring myself to hate him, rather I was grateful when he stepped aside and accepted his bans with grace. I couldn't bear to see him stoop lower.

Cronje broke my heart a third time with his untimely death. It's indicative of the man that sometimes I feel he's still alive, on an island and living it up. In these times, he's grinning from ear to ear as only Hansie can.

It's probably pretty plain that I forgave him quickly. His incredible betrayal could not taint the memories he had given me over the years and neither could it stain his leadership and passion for the game. Hansie Cronje may have changed cricket forever with his misguided activities, but for me it doesn't detract at all from the confidence he provoked in the Proteas and, by extension, his gift to the cricket world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Alternative XI: Footballing Autofills

The fantastically funny Dave Gorman podcast features a segment called “Autofill your boots”. In it, a listener is invited to answer quiz questions which have been autofilled by Google's search engine algorithms.

It works like this: if you type the querulous words “Can you” into Google's query box, it suggest the next most likely conclusions to your request. These autofill answers are predicated by one's location and often by search preferences. As you can see below, the most popular completions in the case of “Can you” include “run it”, “feel the love tonight lyrics”, “freeze cheese”, “get mono twice”, “overdose on vitamin c” and “print from an ipad” amongst some other more unsavoury inquiries. Dave then asks the challenger if you can, in fact, contract mononucleosis twice.

 This parlour-game derives from Google's reputation alongside Wikipedia as the font of all knowledge, arbiter of all sexual health questions and the bane of pub trivia masters everywhere. When we enter certain football personalities into Google, the autofills can amuse, tell a sordid tale, sum up or even reveal a public concern for their (potential) religious views or sexuality.

So, without any further introduction, here's the Autofill Eleven – with subs included.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book review: And God created Cricket - Simon Hughes

by columnist Ben Roberts, re-posted from our affiliate site Books with Balls.

Former veteran county cricketer now cricket journalist Simon Hughes posits this work as being something of an antithesis to the efforts provided by most cricketing historians. Hughes even goes as far to mention that those works developed by ex-Prime Ministers are too serious. 'And God Created Cricket' is a light hearted romp through centuries of cricket (not to mention debauchery, skulduggery, and downright bad manners).

Image thanks to
Hughes has researched others works to provide the flow of events from which he latches onto the more obscure notes of players and matches and embellishes the stories to their full extent. One must credit Hughes for sticking to the historical script well, providing those with less desire for details, a work of ease to get a picture of the history of cricket. But there are flaws.

Firstly, as a tabloid journalist one should not be surprised, Hughes seems incapable of allowing a chapter to pass without finding need to mention or compare cricket to Premiership Football. Really if you had never heard of Hughes the cricketer (and likely given his mediocre career you would not have) you would think that he is a Football journalist trying his hand at something new. Some of the references are just a waste of words. Cricket has a history longer and with far greater depth than any football code, to feel it necessary to attract readership this way is missing the point.

Secondly, there are a number of errors throughout the book, the sort of errors that should never get through good proof reading and editing, but they did. These are not errors of judgement in interpreting history but errors of name. The 1930's Australian batsman was Vic Richardson, not Viv; and the bowler Fleetwood-Smith's Christian name was not Laurie, but Leslie and in fact he was better known as 'Chuck'. Simple things that with some care would have been avoided and may have helped the more educated readership enjoy the book more.

Fair is fair. However, as a cricketing purist, this book was never likely to rate highly with such factual errors.  It's barely worth the weariness it inflicts.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Alternative XI: 2012 Bosman Transfers

Even deeply embroiled in a recession, football fans expect their respective clubs to restructure their playing squads during the offseason. This summer is likely to be remarkable because it features a major tournament; this befuddles the break's early weeks as players inflate their purchase prices with tantalising glimpses of form or potential.

A nearly pathological desire for value for money now permeates football at all levels. Players and transactions are judged early, often and viciously. This means the best transfers a club can make are often those which cost nothing: a Bosman move, where players become free agents after their current contract expires. The full list of Premiership players available “on a Bosman” is posted at or, although both need updating.

So here's the big question: could we frugally build a squad capable of surviving using players acquired only via Bosman moves?

Firstly, we should look for strength down back. I'd look no further than Fulham's Mark Schwarzer to start a team with – partly because he's still, at 39, one of the best shot-stoppers in the Premiership; and also because he's my favourite Socceroo of all time. His closest competition comes from Jussi Jaaskelainen, who has fallen behind Adam Bogdan at Bolton for no apparent reason.

The best defenders available include Aston Villa's Carlos Cuellar, Jose Boswinga of Chelsea, perma-crocked Ledley King and his erstwhile partner Jonathon Woodgate, who's now at Stoke City. Unfortunately, this list includes an criminally overpaid full-back and two centre-halves renowned for legs made from glass, so if it's Value for Money we're looking for, it's time to search for alternate options.

The classy-but-brutal Zdynek Grygera is available, but coming off knee surgery. The man he was ostensibly to replace, Stephen Kelly, looks likely to leave Craven Cottage as well; Maynor Figueroa was thought to be a wonderful left-sided defender as recently a Roberto Martinez ago, while Clint Hill and Fitz Hall have featured intermittently for QPR this term.

In terms of durability, skill and cost, however I'd suggest lumping for a foursome of Cuellar, Figueroa, Bolton's Gretar Steinsson and finally, Everton's Atlas Sylvain Distin.

As both Swansea and Norwich Cities have proved this season, a competitive midfield is crucial in not only saving games, but winning them. The best centre-mids available include Mohamed Diame and Jordi Gomez of Wigan, Mahamadou Diarra of Fulham (who's likely to see his deal extended, and therefore ineligible), Newcastle's Danny Guthrie and Fulham OAP Danny Murphy. Murphy can still thoroughly influence a game, so despite his 35 year-old legs I'm selecting him alongside Diame for a combative and effective pairing.

The decisions out wide are made simpler by the presence of Blackburn prodigy Junior Hoilett, who walks into the wide-left position (even though he naturally belongs on the opposite side). After kicking the tires twice before deciding Florent Malouda isn't worth the sticker price and that Martin Petrov's form has slipped too far since his debut Bolton season, the man I want for the right is Cameroon megalith Somen Tchoyi. It's a relief to have these two available because other options aren't exciting at all: Akos Buzsaky, Peter Lovenkrands, Hogan Ephraim and Jerome Thomas.

Up front, we'll surprise by signing the cheap (but perhaps litigious) Ryan Noble, who has impressed every judge but his managers at Sunderland. He'll pair Hugo Rodallega, who this time last year led Wigan from a fate worse than relegation into another year (or more) of Premier League football. We'll have to rely on pace for incision, rather than height or tricks, but this duo comes significantly cheaper than “name” forwards Andrei Arshavin, Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba. Other options include Stoke City's Ricardo Fuller, the desir'd Andy Johnson (again of Fulham).

Squad (4-4-2): Schwarzer, Steinsson, Cuellar, Distin, Figueroa; Tchoyi, Murphy, Diame, Hoilett; Noble, Rodallega.

Total weekly wage budget estimate: 300, 000.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where to now for Wolves?

Like bookies who pay out early, and despite the fact mathematical possibility that Wolverhampton’s three-year stint in the Premier League can still be extended, it’s time look at the men in orange and work out what steps they should take as they prepare for a non-Premiership existence.

  1. Distance yourselves quickly from panic-hiring Terry Connor
“TC” has been the subject of almost equal amounts of mirth and pity in his stint as Wolves’ manager – he has been the archetypal “deer in headlights” and patently not the inspirational gaffer the club needed to avoid a humiliating slip.  It’s now too late, and despite several years’ worth of good management, Wolverhampton Wanderers are now known as a club less lupine and more headless chicken.

The problem is this doesn’t reflect so poorly on Connor, as he is so obviously a poor fit.  It exhibits a reckless lack of foresight from owner and administrators, while offering Alan Curbishley the position for six months – multiple times – displays criminal naievete.  As leaders, CEO Jez Moxey and owner Steve Morgan’s role is to create and implement the club’s broader vision – unfortunately for Wolves, their actions were the epitome of myopia.

A full and frank admission of culpability and a blatant search for the best available manager (Steve Bruce?  Lee Clark?) would go a long way to restoring administrative credibility in the eyes of Wolves’ supporters.

  1. Employ a manager who’s not Terry Connor
When Mick McCarthy was fired in mid-February, club Moxey and Morgan pleaded the case for an exhaustive search which would reap an experienced manager able to exhort the playing staff into missing the drop.  They flirted with several names, took what seemed like aeons to select a boss (but was in reality eleven days) and ended up promoting Connor, McCarthy’s 2IC, who cut an increasingly inept, befuddled and morose figure on the sideline. 

Tony Adams has a new challenger for the title of Premiership’s Worst Ever manager.

Bruce has form at obtaining both promotion and getting sides to stick in the Premiership.  Curbishley’s star has somewhat faded since his glory days nearly a decade ago at Charlton Athletic, while Lee Clark oversaw a dubious forty-something game undefeated streak at Huddersfield Town.  Without paying significant reparations, these are the three most likely candidates for the Wolves’ position.

It bears considering Michael Appleton as a left-field candidate, who has had a reasonable term as Portsmouth manager in very difficult circumstances.  This is of course pure speculation and he is still an inexperienced (but well-regarded) gaffer, but as Pompey’s situation is still critical his services could well be available at year’s end.

  1. Work out who stays and who goes
This may end up being one of the easier parts of the job at hand – Wolves have players who are able to perform at Premier League level who will be desirable to ascendant or rebuilding clubs. 

The first step which often accompanies relegation from the top division is trimming a corpulent wage bill.  This occupation is helped by the fact that most of Wolves’ best players won’t tolerate a season (or more) in the Championship and will want to leave. 

Examples of prime sale targets include the dischordant Roger Johnson, the professionally-reckless Karl Henry, the efficient Steven Fletcher and the somehow-still-sought-after Kevin Doyle.  Keeper Wayne Hennessey (although injured) could still bring in some coin – and backup Dorus de Vries is more than capable at Championship level.

Those to look at keeping would be the underrated Stephen Ward, central defender Christophe Berra, midfielders Michael Kightly, David Edwards and one of Stephen Hunt or Jamie O’Hara.  Obviously with transfer market flux these are simply guesses based on nothing more than research and common sense.

  1. Refurbish a jaded and one-dimensional squad with class from the lower divisions
Norwich, Blackpool, Brighton and Swansea have all proved over the past two years that there are quality players available at cost price in the second and third tiers of English football.  Norwich’s best side features almost no players who were purchased from Premier League; Swansea’s entire squad was compiled for less than 12 million pounds.

Although he’s owned by rivals WBA, striker Chris Wood might be available for the right price, as could Derby defender John Brayford, Watford youngster Sean Murray, Peterborough’s Lee Tomlin, Blackpool revelation Thomas Ince or even Bristol City’s wannabe-Socceroo Neil Kilkenny.  The investment, likely to be significant by Championship standards, could well pay long-term dividends as they did for Reading.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mythbusting the Australian First Class season

Bowlers win matches
It's been often said that batsmen put you into a position to win matches, but bowlers do the actual winning. After combing through the stats from this year's Australian First Class season, we can confirm (for 2011-12 at least) that this is, in fact, true. It's also easily proven.

A quick glance at the following three charts best displays how crucial both the major aspects of bowling are (ie. Taking wickets and restricting runs). Each of Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania finished the Sheffield Shield season with 36 points; Western Australia finished fourth with 34. When comparing bowling attacks, the four teams were difficult to separate, particularly the leading three states. Only bowlers who delivered more than 30 overs for the season were considered.
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

When batsmanship is added, you can see that Victoria and New South Wales trended above average, while eventual champions Queensland finished significantly below average. New South Wales – with their core of batting including Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes, Phil Jacques, Peter Nevill and Simon Katich et al – suggest that batting doesn't have the same impact on acquiring points. Of course, this is a tenuous assumption based upon one point on one chart, but worthy of further consideration.

Logically, in a four-day competition where wickets are at a premium, it makes sense that bowlers command the amount of points available – if you can't dismiss a team twice, you can't acquire a full six points.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Short pitch: Sheffield Shield Efficiency

(c) Balanced Sports, click to enlarge
The chart above maps the combined batting/bowling prowess of each of last year's Sheffield Shield teams.  It forms a very rough guide to each state's efficiency by mapping the cumulative batting and bowling averages of each state's specialists against each other.  Please note the curious wording (batsmen/bowlers) - only recognised  batsmen and allrounders were used to calculate each state's cumulative batting average, while the same is true of bowling averages.  This means that the universal averages (used as axes to divide the graph into quadrants) are somewhat different.

With bowling average forming the X axis and a low number desired and a high Y value indicating a more efficient batting lineup, we can surmise that the top left-hand quadrant denotes the most efficient teams.  The opposite is therefore true of the inferior right quadrant.

Finally, the chart indicates that no matter how good a batting attack may be, it's much more beneficial to have butt-kicking bowlers - the most efficient bowlers came from Queensland, who won the Shield.  Tasmania had the next most efficient bowling outfit, who ended the season as runners-up.  Victoria managed third place.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Dempsey Dilemma

Clint Dempsey is having another fantastic – and well-documented – season for Fulham. In fact, his conspicuous excellence for three successive managers in concert with a slowly expiring contact (June 2013) mean England's most scurrilous have started to chirrup about a potential move to a “bigger” club.

Is he good enough? Can he deliver in the Champions League?

In all honesty, it's unlikely to matter.

The simple fact is that Clint Dempsey may move on from Fulham, but it is hardly likely to be for a significant fee. He is caught in a quandary where his age (29) and skill-set (floating attacker) make him cute to suitors – the quote-unquote “bigger” clubs – but not that attractive.

That said, not 12-15 million attractive, which is a sum nearing that for which Fulham are likely to ask.

The Whites will have to ask for that significant price for many reasons. Because he's been their most potent attacking threat in nearly half a century and debatably their best player (not wash-up) since Johnny Haynes. Dempsey, rapping an' all, is one of – if not the – most marketable Fulham players and continues a great recent Fulham tradition of attracting a rather large market across the Atlantic.

And he provided the goal or assist for 49% of all Fulham's Premiership scores this year. That level of contribution is amongst Europe's elite.

Yet despite the plaudits and numbers, Dempsey's signature will hardly going to inspire fan confidence for a side that spends big on him. “Big” club fans to want reputations as well as proven history – witness the negative reaction to the solid Mikel Arteta signing for Arsenal. Spending the kind of cash Fulham would demand for a guy who would in effect become a bit-part player, doesn't look like good business. This is even more true considering the transfer-induced boost in Dempsey's salary, would be accompanied by occasional games rather than the week-in, week-out football which allowed him to blossom at Craven Cottage.

Should he hope for a move, “Deuce” can however rely on one redeeming factor. Despite football's Moneyball manifesto dying an inglorious Red death, there is one statistic which regularly translates to success: proven goalscoring ability. Papiss Demba Cisse, Demba Ba and Yakubu have elegantly proven this season that the ability to score goals at a top European league (especially in the Premiership) is worth the investment.

Despite this, it's hard to see Clint Dempsey leaving West London this summer. While he could perhaps thicken his wallet, it's hard to see any club willing to pay him and a likely upscale transfer fee.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: VVS Laxman by Minal of Granger Gab

We've invited some of the very best cricket writers and bloggers to tell us why certain players stand out for them above all others.  This week, Minal of Granger Gab and The Sight Screen writes of the most stylish Indian of them all, a man whose nickname was the ultimate compliment: VVS Laxman.  Minal tweets @granger_gab, and we really suggest you follow her.
 As much as we love to deny it, we all have a secret crush - the one we adore but won’t admit because it would mean sharing loyalties with our one true love. My favourite cricketer has always been and will always be Rahul Dravid. When the Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch team asked me to pen a piece for this series, I saw that Rahul was already spoken for, and thought it best to write about my secret cricketing crush – the Very Very Very Special Laxman.
In fact VVS Laxman is the secret crush of every Indian fan. He is the guy that unites the Tendulkar, Dravid and Dada fans alike. VVS the last of the Fab Four to hit the scene - his batting - exquisite, beautiful , elegant - a delight to watch; one that could tempt many a staunch supporters of any other cricketer to commit infidelity when it came to this man.

After witnessing the birth of two future batting stalwarts at Lords 1996, India wasn’t quite prepared for the sublime batting that would put her in a trance for the next 16 years.
On a devilish pitch, probably one of the worst test wickets, a young man of 22 held fort in the second innings to get 51 after India has conceded a small lead of 21 runs. No Indian batsmen had got a 50 in that match barring this young lad. When I was watching him bat, the teenage me turned to my dad and asked “Papa since when did the rules allow a batsman to bat twice in the same innings, why is Azhar playing again?” Laxman reminded me of Azhar then– still does; the silken grace, the wristy shots on the on-side, the gift of impeccable timing. These batsmen from Hyderabad seemed to be blessed with a batting style as delectable as the Biryani from that land.

But sadly as has been the case with Indian cricket, a permanent place in the packed middle order was always going to be tough. Ganguly came back from his injury and VVS found himself out of the side in the 3rd test of that series. VVS was later asked to open and he never really succeeded in that position; but his affair with Australia started at that very position. In the 99-00 tour VVS wove his first spell of magic on the Aussies at Sydney. He decimated the Aussie attack single-handedly.
His 167 in a team total of 261 was intoxication at its best – even today while revisiting the innings you will drown in the beauty and wide array of strokes on display - the ease in his batting, the delicacy of his wrist play. As a friend once said, “Sachin is God, but there are strokes that Laxman plays at times, which Sachin would only dream of.” I have never dared to debate with him on this point.
Post this series and the one at home against South Africa, Laxman put his foot down and refused to open. He went back to the domestic grind, scored big hundreds and forced the selectors to consider him as a middle-order bat. After a year, Laxman came back to the Indian side and the rest as they say is history. VVS’s 281 Vs Australia in 2001 still gives me goosebumps when I watch the VCD of the match. He was the only one who put his hand up in the first innings – getting 59 in a team total of 171 and the last man to be out. Trailing by 274 with the test and series loss looming large, VVS walked in at number 3 and scripted a miracle along with Rahul Dravid. What he achieved with that knock did not merely amount to an Indian victory to be stored in cricket’s record books, with it he restored the shaken belief of a billion Indian fans. In that one knock, he truly reflected the attitude that John Wright and Ganguly were trying to build into this team – to make them world beaters; he showed that his team was not the one to give up, had the courage to conquer all demons and withstand all attacks. That knock laid the first brick to India’s success in test cricket – of achieving the Numero Uno position. In that one knock – Laxman weaved his magic forever on us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Balotelli Curve

Click to enlarge
 When he thrust his spikes into Alex Song's knee, popular opinion finally and perhaps definitively swung against Mario Balotelli. The Italy forward leapt into numerous dangerous challenges during Manchester City's weekend loss to Arsenal and finished the match copping a pointless red card in the tie's waning minutes. He arrived in the sheds to a power of criticism flung from all corners of the football world.

Indeed, the collective noun for public comment on the excesses of football should now be known as a Balotelli of criticism. Furthermore, the amount of public and unsolicited comments could then be measured on the “Balotelli scale”, where Luka Modric asking not to play earns one Mario; Tevez leaving the bench merits four. When someone – probably Tevez – eventually tops the scale's theoretical maximum of five Marios, the internet implodes as if heaved past the event horizon.

The latest Balotelli farce probably earns the player a two-Mario rating. Sure, it was only a compound of (at best) dangerously laissez-faire and (at worst) malicious challenges and an unnecessary/overdue red card; however, it has generated scorn apparently from the ether. While this last escapade has been a long time coming, it becomes evermore apparent that Mario Balotelli has the godlike ability to create from nothing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Short Pitch: Occupy Cricinfo

Cricinfo, the arbiter of finality for all oval-based pub discussion, is a necessary evil.  It exists almost entirely to disseminate information about a game played where a cork ball enveloped in leather is flung at at someone wielding a ruddy great lump of willow.

The interweb - and through the magic of Google, its affiliation with ESPN and Search Engine Optimisation - is where an awful lot of us 6.8 evolved primates go in order to find out more.  As a case in point - Encyclopaedia Britannica last week published their final  - ever - hard copy of their 244 year old tome.  And ESPN Cricinfo, is often the first - and only - site you'll see.  Only cricket tragics know of sites like (the magnificent) Idle Summers. Click on Wisden's "Archive" and suddenly, you're linked to Cricinfo.  It is omnipresent, omniscient - and increasingly partisan.

 The internet, by its very nature, is almost all partisan. from the most - eg. Sarah Palin's SuperPAC - through the intentionally "homer" (The Sports Guy), to focus sites like the (again excellent)  It is a simple matter of knowing your audience; only a few sites have managed to keep the hardcore fans satisfied while also expanding to encompass a broader, more global audience.  Even with a good product, expanding your "market" without offending your existing niche customer base is hard to do - ask Linux.

Given the nature of international cricket - where its largest audience is from one country - Cricinfo, especially since former UK editor Andrew Miller moved on to The Cricketer magazine, has become increasingly subcontinental and T20-centric in tone.  Perhaps this is because I view Twenty20 as the tabloid version of a beautiful, nuanced event, but the result is - and this is very much a personal opinion - as the site becomes more small-pages-big-print and divests itself of keen insight, I find there is little of interest on Cricinfo without serious searching.

(OK, you got me - I'm newspaperist).

This is (probably) simply a matter of catering to dominant market demands, but by doing so Cricinfo has become part of the internet's 99%.  With the needs of a diverse populace Because there is no other site with the ability/backing to present the information they do, it behoves Cricinfo to remain as impartial as possible.

Corporate responsibility is a funny thing.  If you ask any company what comes first, most will answer "our clientele" or "providing the best service".  However, that stands true until the company faces decreasing revenues or being left behind in the marketplace - where those statements of intent should read "our clientele, until it becomes inconvenient".

Adapting Cricinfo to suit the needs of remarkably diverse network of populations has to be more than providing tacit acknowledgement of what goes on in the cricket world that's not sparkly - because that already happens.  Personally, I'm not sure how to correct the problem.  However, what I do realise is that as others become equally unenamoured with Cricinfo's "insight", they'll begin to search the blogosphere and find the 1% like World Cricket Watch, 99.94 and Alternative Cricket.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Teams of the Year - by league position

As the Premier League season draws to a close, it becomes typical to start vetting candidates for awards. Why wouldn't you? I mean, it's like writing about All-Star selections in the NBA – it's easy column inches relying on relative opinions rather than absolute logic and saves you from using undeveloped ideas before they're fully mapped out.

So with seven matches per club left in the English Premiership, the blogosphere gets inundated with posts describing Team/Player/Manager of the Season, Biggest Surprise/Disappointment, Best/Worst Transfer and Favourite Fernando Torres hairstyle.

(Personally, I think he looks better blonde, but he's not wearing it with the same panache he did at Liverpool. It's been one – more – tough year for Fernando).

Recently I've wondered what actually constitutes the “mid-table”. It turns out it's a disparate concept with no strict boundaries, utterly reliant on individual point of view. The closest I've been able to find on the internet of finite definition has been in the black-and-white world of a Football Manager forum – so the chances of me using this information as accurate data are precisely zero.

For the time being I'm happy to characterise the mid-table as teams not likely to earn continental football as a result of their league position, but teams that are also not in danger of relegation. This means, for now, the mid-table encompasses everyone between seventh-positioned Everton and West Bromwich Albion in fifteenth spot.

Given the fact that, for the most part, the most rich and talent-heavy clubs may as well play in their own little league, it's an interesting exercise to select separate “Teams of the Year” from clubs in each section of the table – those contending for Europe, “mid-table” teams and those relegation threatened clubs.

European contenders (4-4-2): Hart, M. Richards, Luiz, Kompany, A. Cole, Tiote, Y. Toure, Bale, Mata, Rooney, van Persie.

Mid-table (4-4-2): T. Howard, Naughton, Huth, Skrtl, Baines, Britton, Sigurdsson, Dempsey, Larsson, Sessegnon, Suarez.

Relegation-threatened (4-4-2): Given, L. Young, Hanley, Berra, Warnock, McCarthy, M. Davies, Hoilett, Moses, Bent, Yakubu.

Only players playing 20 games or more were considered – unless winner of a Player of the Month award (Sigurdsson).

The table above displays quite succinctly the deepening Premier League class divide; a gap it's taken an immense effort from a no-name Newcastle squad to breach. While the selection semantics are polemical – recent form dips cost Silva, Ba and Aguero for mine – suggesting there isn't a boundary of player quality between teams competing for European football this season's and those who are not.

More strikingly, could these “best of the rest” outfits be competitive with clubs in the table's upper reaches? An overactive imagination could convince that the Mid-table team could challenge for a spot in the Champions League if everything went right – but surely no more?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Kenny Dalglish was (sort of) right

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was roundly chastised last week for suggesting that Liverpool's season, by every other measure than Premiership points, had been a success. The Reds sit in eighth position on the Premier League table after a forgettable 2012 that has seen them take only eight points from their twelve fixtures since the turn of the year.

Although a peculiar statement, the fact is that he could be right. The Kop legend just failed to articulate his sentiments correctly – everything depends on your definition of “success”.

Broadly speaking, all sports fans want to see one of two things from their club: present success or promise for the future. There's scant, if any, middle ground. If a club isn't on the threshold of achievement (whether than be team harmony, staying in a division, avoiding liquidation or securing a title) then fans must see management putting structures into place that will realise ambition.

Those structures, as Dalglish rather ineloquently posited, could be on-field – such as new players, value-for-money signings or a team adjusting well to a new style or set of tactics. They could also come from the boardroom, like the now-infamous kit deal.

However, clubs can only trade on hope for so long before it becomes fatuous. The confounder therefore is supporter expectation, a notoriously difficult and formless concept.

Despite an improved squad and a collapsing percentage of achieved points (his ratio has decreased from last term's 61% to 45% this season), Scouse fans should feel their icon's major failing has not been mismanagement of players but of fan expectation. With the arrival of Bellamy, Carroll, Adam, Downing, Henderson, Doni, Enrique and, ultimately and definitively, Luis Suarez, Reds could well have expected a Champions League challenge – at least.

For that to occur the team would have had to have gelled instantly and avoided all controversy and injury. All three were highly unlikely. Though he's been lost/lazy/awful at times, Carroll still has the potential to the league's best big forward, and I defy suggestion that Henderson and Adam won't at least be serviceable. However, all three depend upon being deployed correctly. There remains plenty of promise for the future, if thosee talents boasting “Standard Chartered” on their chests are aptly harnessed.  

Sponsorship and stability should be prized as well - if not perhaps more so than finishing above Everton, or winning the League Cup.  Dalglish, in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, could quite rightly say "What I said was true ... from a certain point of view".

Dalglish began trading on instant achievement when, with Carroll and Henderson struggling, Bellamy crocked and Suarez, well, controversial, the club were better placed to plug the promise of seasons to come for one more year.

How this would have gone over with his superiors is anyone's guess, but with squad expenditure since January last year topping out over 85 million, indications are that success had become th expectation. However, and by whoever, the suggestion that the club was placed to succeed now, rather than after a short seasoning period, has placed Dalglish's stiffening neck in a tightening noose.