Monday, February 25, 2013

Alternative XI: New South Wales escapees

30% of all Australian First-Class contracted players have their origins in New South Wales.  However, the frequency with which players have departed Sydney for Sheffield Shield opportunities is quite alarming.

This isn’t a new phenomenon: for decades New South Wales have produced players who have achieved more for adopted states – either money or opportunity has lured players the likes of Sir Donald Bradman, Jason Arnberger, Allan Border and Jeff Thomson from the powder blue.

Now, with New South Wales sitting at the bottom of the Sheffield Shield table, it pays to examine the best players the state can’t call upon any more.  Any Australian call-ups since their departure and total First Class averages are also listed.

FC average
PJ Hughes
Test, ODI
EJM Cowan
TLW Cooper

PJ Forrest
UT Khawaja
Test, ODI
JW Hastings
24.75 bat, 25.00 ball
Test, ODI, T20
AW O’Brien
27.75 bat

JJ Krejza
25.19 bat, 49.59 ball
Test, ODI
JM Mennie
23.17 ball

BT Cockley
29.98 ball
ODI squad
JM Bird
16.18 ball
MG Hogan
28.66 ball

Friday, February 22, 2013

And they say (League Cup) romance is dead...

Not only do Cups competitions make for interesting subplots to seasons that run as long as eight months, but they also pit different league levels against each other.  This gives Millwall fans a pleasant (and utterly nonviolent) away day at Manchester City, or the Glovers of Yeovil Town a lucrative home fixture against Chelsea. 

Smaller clubs are offered a puncher’s chance against larger, rather more talented teams.  When a titch takes on a bigger rival, the results are usually quite predictable.  However, sometimes they’re not – this is called “sport” – and the nebulous concept of romance is subsequently thrown about by punditry at large to describe acts of giant-killing.

The romance or glory associated with a lengthy domestic Cup run is perhaps somewhat overstated; or at least much more so for larger clubs.  Of 76 inter-divisional matches in this year’s League Cup competition, thirty were won by the club in the lower division, through luck, tactical genius or most often probably they had more to gain.

The allure of an enduring – and profitable Cup run – is still very appealing for small fries.  Cross-league pollination is the lifeblood of many smaller clubs and often keep competing in the face of mounting costs: apparently the prize money received by third-tier Oldham Athletic for defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup will allow them to keep their youth academy from closing.

But no matter that pundits cling to the hope of a Rocky-style underdog victory, that floaty feeling isn’t usually associated with ultimate victory.

The history books say that lower-tier teams rarely take home the chocolates when it comes to finals.  Since the institution of the League Cup in 1960-61, only twenty-four teams outside the top flight have competed in a League or FA Cup final.  Two of these teams were victorious, the 1975 iteration of Aston Villa (against fellow second-division club Norwich City) and, most recently, Sheffield Wednesday.

That Wednesday won in Ryan Giggs’ debut season (1991) hints at how rarely the outsiders win.

Feel free to use the word “romance” as often as you choose.  But be aware it’s more likely the temporary infatuation inspired by celluloid rather than something more substantial.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Graphic: Four-year EPL efficiency

This efficiency study tracks how effective each English Premier League team has been since 2009-10.  It does so by mapping a team's offensive efficiency (measured in shots per goal scored) against their defensive resilience (measured in shots faced per goal conceded).  Data is updated to 22nd February 2012 and so includes Liverpool's recent 5-0 win over Swansea City.

The axes cross at "league average" positions, meaning the graph is divided into relatively even quadrants.

As one would expect, twinn'd Manchester clubs appear to have the greatest cumulative combination of offense and defence, Chelsea's numbers lessened by a misfiring striker and ill-fated flirtations with seductive foreign managers (their 2010 season was probably the most efficient EPL club season in recent history).

Click on the graphic to enlarge.

(c) Balanced Sports

As always, thanks to Ben Mayhew at Experimental 3-6-1 for the idea, sourced over a year ago.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Podcasting: Short Jabs

Just a heads-up to check out this week's edition of Subash Jayaraman's Short Jabs podcast, where he and I discuss the failure of Steve O'Keefe to make the Australia squad for the Border/Gavaskar trophy.  You can find the podcast address here, or just search "Cricket Couch Short Jabs" in iTunes to download the podcast (or even better, subscribe!).

A feature on the Steve O'Keefe selection will be posted at a (slightly) later date.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Robbie Rogers comes out, then "retires" on his own terms

On his website on Friday, former USMNT forward Robbie Rogers both came out and “stepped away” from football.  The 25 year-old, scorer of the first goal in Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as US coach, last played on New Year’s Day for English League One side Stevenage.

He was immediately greeted with a swarm of support emanating from all corners of the football world.  Former teammates, casual observers and even loudmouths in Southern France – anyone who appreciates a triad of courage, honesty and diversity – issued messages of support. 

The response has been so overwhelmingly positive from administrators, coaches and players that it can be thought of as a high-point for sport in the fight against homophobia.  During the past few years, fans have witnessed a number of athletes and executives publicly stand up to bigotry directed at them because of their sexual orientation*.

The second part of Rogers’ blog post regarded his decision to walk away from the sport to which he has devoted so much of his life.  Much conversation on the topic followed Rogers’ statement, including Clark Carlisle, the chief of England’s Professional Footballer’s Association, congratulating Rogers and hoping the player’s de facto retirement wasn’t linked to his decision to come out.
Let’s get one thing straight: the two are inextricably linked, but perhaps not for the reasons to which one might immediately leap.  

I doubt highly Rogers has retired because he fears victimization.  From speaking with gay friends, coming out takes an awareness that you could provoke a reaction – either positive or negative – and the courage to make the choice anyway.  For a public figure, the reaction is amplified and therefore the strength of character must also be.  If it was ever in doubt at all, Friday proved that Robbie Rogers has guts. 

This suggests the (secondary) retirement decision wasn’t driven by fear at all.  He can’t not be aware of the bigotry that exists in some corners of sport and he showed he was a man strong enough to deal with those challenges.  If Robbie Rogers has the stones to come out to his “loved ones” after 25 years, then he has the stones to face the prejudiced judgment of complete strangers.

It seems more plausible that Rogers’ retirement might give him space enough to adjust to an unfamiliar new role.  Deliberate or unintentional, Robbie Rogers is now one of the most prominent “out” athletes in the United States and ultimately more newsworthy than he was a week ago.  Coming to grips with this will probably take time: it behoves fans and media outlets to allow him this basic civility.

*For a magnificent insight into a gay professional footballer’s fight, try this read on former Montreal Impact star David Testo by Leander Schaerlackens on SBNation.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Gareth Bale/Cristiano Ronaldo talk stops here

Let’s stop all this Gareth-Bale-is-on-a-level-with-Cristiano-Ronaldo talk.  

Just … no.  

Don’t do that.

Bale is a wonderful, wonderful footballer who improves with each season.  When he was signed by Spurs from Southampton in the Spring of 2007, he was a precocious schoolboy left-back with a thunderous free kick.  Over the years, he progressed from defence to the midfield and two years ago announced his arrival as a truly world-class player as he dismantled Brazil right-back Maicon in front of a packed house at the San Siro.  After a down (ish) season in 2011-12, he’s re-emerged this year as one of the best handful in England – and perhaps the world.

And yet the comparisons do him a disservice. 

Yes, both started their careers by running at players from out wide, boast exquisite deadball delivery and score goals, but Bale’s career has followed a more linear trajectory than his Portuguese predecessor – at 23, Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or following 43 goals and 8 assists in 47 matches.  Rather than just spouting stats, the defining difference between Bale (perhaps the most damaging left-winger in the game at present) and Ronaldo, is that the Welshman’s game doesn’t have quite the same replete nature as his putative bedfellow.

The Varnished One was offered the centre stage at United in 2006 and took it with alacrity.  He elevated his game to the point where he is for all intents and purposes a one-man offense: lithe, quick, powerful and, as he displayed on Wednesday against Manchester United, nigh-on impossible to stop in the box

It is this versatility which makes Cristiano Ronaldo incomparable.  He may lack the pinball-style scamper of a Leo Messi, but he is the single-most athletically imposing forward of recent memory.  That doesn’t necessarily make him the best (my vote’s still for Messi), but it does make him subject to somewhat of a Catch-22: by dint of skill and demeanour, Ronaldo dominates both his opposition and the teams in which he plays.  His clubs ultimately become Cristiano-focused – and why wouldn’t they? – a cross that neither Messi, nor Bale, could bear.

This is where any comparisons break down.  There are similarities – and differences.  However, Bale hasn’t yet developed into the domineering force of will that makes Ronaldo such the game-altering force he is – for better or for worse.  In fact, as great a player as he is, Bale’s skill-set and personality probably aren’t suited to such an egocentric role.  He is/can be dominant, but few players, if any (perhaps Yaya Toure at his best) have the ability and personality to so utterly dominate both competing teams.

Don’t subject Gareth Bale to comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo.  Allow him to develop into the best player in the British Isles, if he’s not already.  It’s enough just for him to be himself, because Gareth Bale’s really good at football.

Graphic: Selected Australian spin bowling statistics

The following chart maps selected statistics from Australian spinners.

It continues to amaze that Steve Smith is selected for Australia as a quote-unquote spin bowler, while Steve O'Keefe remains in the Test wilderness.  For more discussion, tune in to this week's Short Jabs podcast on the Cricket Couch.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Champions League is back!

This blog’s an unusual place to admit to an unhealthy fascination, but here it goes: I’m a sucker for competitive cookery.  Iron Chef, Worst Cooks in America, Chopped … all of ‘em.  I’m not even a bad cook myself, and have taken a few pointers from my white-hatted idols.  But perhaps the largest lesson I’ve learned from my obsession with culinary jousting is this: presentation matters. 

Don’t sear salmon perfectly and then just dump it on a bed of undressed watercress: the first bite is with the eye!  Anticipation is part of the experience, not just the flavours assembled before you on the plate. 

Anticipation is something to be desired, in and of itself.  A famous and (eventually) wise Vulcan – apparently bereft of emotion and with his opinions firmly rooted in on logic – once said that the having isn’t half as enjoyable as the wanting.  Anticipation can make or break an event.

And what is football, if not a vehicle for anticipation?  A new signing, a new benefactor, even just the thrill of the win or indeed the fight can engender an almost primal satisfaction.  In sport, we find opportunities to anticipate, and then to be amazed: at athletic ability, coordination, nous and ego.  This week’s Champions League matchups, nearly eight weeks in the making, have arrived – they bring with them storylines galore.

Oh, of course today the big leagues are tinged a dirty green and not the vivid rose of our collective childhoods.  But – as Sky Sports constantly reminds us – that doesn’t necessarily make the occasion less. Today’s Round-of-Sixteen meeting between Manchester United and Real Madrid sees two of the most iconic clubs in any sport – and, despite hardly being “vintage” units, still perhaps two of the best five outfits in the continent – pitted against each other.  The Whites will field the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil and Karim Benzema, while the Red Devils will almost certainly deploy a forward trident based around Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and the resurgent Freckled Demon.

And it may not even end up being the best match of the day.

Spock might caution that the match may not be all we hope for.  But at this stage, who cares?  We’ve had a meal laid out before us for 56 days, and now it’s time to dig in.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Graphic: Winter transfer activity by date

There's a reason that Transfer Deadline day in European football is such an event - it completely dwarfs the number of deals done throughout the rest of the window.  In fact, 284 players bowled up at new clubs across England's four-tier league system during the monthlong transfer window; nearly a quarter of those deals went down on January 31.

The following chart tracks transfer activity by date throughout the Winter Transfer window, from it's December leadup to flurried conclusion last Thursday.  To qualify, a "transfer" must have been full and permanent and the price either listed, or announced by a club as being "undisclosed", a term which could mean the purchasers were ashamed at the fee paid or that the selling club's patriarch wouldn't mind a nice chunk of any incoming cash.

As always, feel free to click the image to make it much bigger and more easily readable.

Although some might snigger at "eight hours of uninterrupted LIVE deadline day coverage", these figures behove news agencies to keep their men in the field: the sixty-eight player moves signed off on last Thursday was a figure more than three times the next busiest day, and included fresh rumors emerging as late as two hours before the cutoff.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Beckham's PSG move about more than money

David Beckham has earned a lot of publicity both for his free-agency and, more recently, for his nascent move to French gazillionaire-club Paris Saint-Germain.  The fact is that even at age 37, he is easily the single-most recognizable footballer in the world and still earns his coin on the pitch with deadeye dead ball delivery and smart, if limited, movement.

Beckham’s move also earned notoriety because he became the first football figure to donate the entirety of his wages to a local children’s charity.  As usual with a public – and polarizing – figure, this has earned him both acclaim and skepticism.

It is true that Beckham has more money than, well, nearly everyone.  He’s an exceedingly wealthy man.  However donating his salary to a change agency is the first such move I can remember and he should be congratulated for his willingness to help those less fortunate than himself.  It’s a wonderful gesture.

The decision perhaps wasn’t a hard one to make.  The Beckhams will have donated a portion of money to not-for-profits and France’s controversial high-earner’s tax means that he likely would have only taken home 25% of his gross wage.  By donating that money straight to that charity, it would seem the beneficiary organization would receive a greater portion of those monies than Beckham would himself.

(c) Balanced Sports (author's own collection)
Whether it says that David Beckham doesn’t play football for the money is still up for debate.  The fact is that his salary earnings are far outstripped by his incredible endorsement potential (in this chart, Beckham is the fifth-highest endorsement earner of any athlete, behind Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Phil Mickelson and Kobe Bryant).  That he is still in the limelight and playing in a chic location suggests an undiminished ability to generate off-field income far more lucrative than the relative pittance he’s able to command for delivering balls to Zlatan.

David Beckham has also always been conscious of legacy.  He helped solidify soccer’s popularity in the US and recently announced he wouldn’t sign for a Premier League club because it would pit him against Manchester United.  He might be the athlete most aware of the way he is or will be perceived historically and offering weekly cheques with four or five zeroes in them is a publicity boon – for him, and his Qatari employers, whose public perception has suffered since controversially winning the rights to stage the 2022 World Cup.

It’s a genius move.  It’s also really worthwhile both financially and philosophically.  It’s likely there are more reasons at play than simply altruism, but when the results are so beneficent it just doesn’t matter – (most) everyone wins.