Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Remembering the "A-Team", part 3

The Conclusion of our Special Feature on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the "A-Team's" Rebel Tour to apartheid-strewn South Africa.

For the record, I had rather a little too much fun working all this out.

To start with it was necessary to select the seventeen Rebel Tourists. What we did was to try and select the current players most resembling the 1985-87 tourists, based on his statistics up to that point, relative ages, reputations and playing styles. The ages don't tally up well because during that era players retired much earlier and as such a player at age 30 was much nearer the end of his career than a thirty-year old is today. Also matched, if possible, is their state of origin. As you'd expect, some comparisons proved easy, such as captain Hughes himself and the fast men while others weren't quite that simple.

In broad strokes, the touring party had to include:

- 7 players who played in Australia's most recent Test series (Australia in India),

- Australia's first-choice wicketkeeper, opening batsman and the two most damaging fast bowlers in the country, one out-and-out pace merchant and one who relies on the ball swinging,


- A few players who have played Test cricket but aren't currently around the team.

With these factors in minds, a direct comparison of the two teams could look a little like this:


Current Equivalent

Reason for Selection / Comparison

Kim Hughes (c)

Mike Hussey (c) (WA)

Down-on-luck-and-form former best batsman in country, with spirit of the game first in thoughts

Terry Alderman

Ben Hilfenhaus (TAS)

Possibly Australia's premier fast-bowler, definitely the most rhythmic and best swing bowler

John Dyson

Phil Jacques (NSW)

NSW Opening batsman discarded by national selectors after being unable to convince despite opportunities

Peter Faulkner

John Hastings (VIC)

All-rounder capable with both bat and ball but without a dominant skill-set

Mike Haysman

Adam Voges (WA)

Exciting talent but largely ignored by national selectors. Also bowls useful off-spin.

Tom Hogan

Jason Krezja (TAS)

Tweaker examined and then ignored by national team leaders, perhaps unfairly. Also a reasonable bat and good team man.

Rodney Hogg

Mitchell Johnson (WA)

Inconsistent national teamer, match-winner on his day. Probably closer to the end of careers than care to admit

Trevor Hohns

Xavier Doherty (TAS)

Effective spinner with only middling first-class stats.

John Maguire

Nathan Bracken (NSW)

Fast-medium bowler with limited future Australian opportunities after being effecctively discarded

Rod McCurdy

Clint McKay (VIC)

Victorian fast-medium bowler with One-Day International experience but earmarked "Not of Test quality"

Carl Rackemann

Shaun Tait (SA)

Fastest bowler in Australia, more of a one-day specialist

Steve Rixon

Brad Haddin (NSW)

Incumbent wicketkeeper, perhaps reaching the end of his tether

Greg Shipperd

George Bailey (TAS)

Tasweigian top-ender never receiving adequate respect for abilities

Steve Smith

David Warner (NSW)

Swashbuckling opening bat, clearly labelled "Never again for Test matches"

Mick Taylor

Michael Klinger (SA)

Batsman toiling in obscurity yet with a fantastic average and many runs

Graham Yallop

Brad Hodge (VIC)

Experienced batsman inexplicably unselectable for Australia despite double-century within last five Test innings

Kepler Wessels

Shane Watson (NSW)

Best opener in country with most productive years ahead of him.

Now, if you were to put this squad down on paper against an Australian team suddenly deprived of their services the comparison becomes more interesting. The starting line-ups would probably look like:


Rebel Tourists

Simon Katich

Shane Watson

Phil Hughes

Phil Jacques

Ricky Ponting

Brad Hodge

Michael Clarke

Adam Voges

Usman Khawaja

Mike Hussey (c)

Marcus North

Michael Klinger

Tim Paine

Brad Haddin

Peter Siddle

Mitchell Johnson

Peter George

Clint McKay

Nathan Hauritz

Xavier Doherty

Doug Bollinger

Ben Hilfenhaus

12th Ryan Harris

12th George Bailey

Now if the challenge was to select one of these two squads to win a five match series, it isn't an easy choice. As the first Ashes Test so aptly reminded us, it's much easier to compensate for a lack of class in a team's batsmen than to replace premier strike bowlers. Because of this, any lack of batsmanship potentially suffered by the Rebels could be overcome by their stronger attack. True to form, the "A-Team" suffered more from batting inconsistencies than bowling impotency so comparison is encouraging at this stage.

Over the short term, a rebel tour today would gut Australian cricket stocks and first-choice depth would be reduced to such levels that the rebuilding would need to match that overseen by Simpson & Border. Like in 1985 with McDermott, Gilbert and Chris Matthews, the first choice bowlers would be inexperienced and as such returns would be unlikely until their successors had wrested control of the bowling positions. It wasn't Matthews and Gilbert who took Australia into their Golden Age but Merv Hughes, Bruce Reid and McDermott, who were around the national team within a year of the Rebel Tour but had yet to make their mark. This suggests that rather than the Peters George and Siddle, their eventual replacements - potentially Starc, McDermott Jr. and Pattinson - may prove the next strong Australian attack.

Again mirroring the situation in 1985, the batsmanship remains notably unaffected. Obviously without the services of Hussey and Haddin Australia would have lost the First Test with nary a whimper, but recently evidence indicates they're both on borrowed time at Test level. As with the bowlers, it wasn't the batsmen drafted in immediately to replace their A-Team counterparts who succeeded and subsequently helped form Australia into a world power. The team beaten for the Ashes in 1985 included three re-treads and one Tasmanian keg-on-legs newbie. Those retreads didn't survive for even a year as they were pushed aside by the exuberance of Jones, Marsh, Moody and Steve Waugh.

Subtracting seventeen high-quality players from any country's First-Class competition sets almost an entire generation to one side and brings through their successors irregardless of readiness. In 1985 that meant farewell to almost everyone born between 1955 to 1962 and a welcome to those born after that date. For Australia today, we could kiss good-bye to almost all our cricketers born from 1985 to 1990; meaning three to four years of pain before those born after 1990 mature to the point of being able to represent their country adequately. The younger generation then learns "the hard way" creating further teething problems followed by the results of that hard maturation process. It isn't just Australia who followed this process: the England teams that toured South Africa also went through growing pains before their eventual maturation. The West Indies had enough talent in the early 1980s to compensate for the Rebel teams that visited the Cape, testament to the ultimate strength and depth of West Indian cricket during that era. Those teams also included several older players rather than ones mid-career.

Though it's extremely unlikely that we will see another Rebel Tour, it's not too far-fetched an idea that a rebel cricket league such as World Series Cricket, the ICL or the Stanford Series could rob a country of many of it's top guns creating a similar talent-drain. Should the IPL become a larger concept then it could also conceivably do so. New Zealand has suffered since several national players signed ICL contracts including their premier bowler Shane Bond. Those once invincible West Indies now effectively suffers from Free Agency as players choose dollars over country. Should Australia - or indeed any country - lose seventeen of their top-level players then suddenly a team is thrust from gradual replenishment into full-throttle rebuilding.

Immaturity the reason for Spostra's strife?

Shoulder-gate! Spoelstra-watch! Player-only meetings! Other hyphenated phrases with exclamation marks! As the Miami Heat sunk to 9-8 for the season there has been an explosion of rumours concerning the team's happiness with Head Coach Eric Spoelstra. ESPN's Chris Broussard yesterday suggested the players were unhappy with the coach, feeling he was both underperforming and focused solely on keeping his job rather than on combining effectively the talent on hand.

This is after seventeen games of an eighty-two game regular season, and less than a quarter of a season into the New Miami Triumvirate's five-year reign on South Beach.

That a coach is facing a player revolt seventeen games into a five-year journey speaks volumes as to the mindset of his key men James, Wade & Bosh. Spoelstra is on a hiding to nothing - has been since The Decision, really - and now it's become public knowledge. By signing probably the best two free agents on last offseason's market and combining them with their own prize Wade, Miami were suddenly expected to win big now. That they then brought in a glue guy and a potential starting centre only increased expectations.

Unfortunately, the glue guy got hurt and the centre has sucked. The roster is mismatched: two elite players who both need the ball in their hands, a highly-paid big man who doesn't defend the rim, centre-by-platoon and point guards more at home in the Minor Leagues doesn't spell championship. The Heat have struggled against good teams as Chris Bosh has produced only the shadows of his Toronto Raptors form and Wade has struggled with injuries. Rumours of player discontent at their coach's man-management skills have gone beyond whispers creating the impression that the star players are looking for someone to blame. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the current Miami team is that no-one envies Spoelstra his job, not even Coaching Supremo Pat Riley who came out of retirement once before to relieve a head coach he thought was overwhelmed.

The easiest target is the coach: the man with the most thankless job in pro basketball today. Why thankless? Because should the Heat win public opinion will say it was due to their talent level and the coach got a free ride. Should they lose, the coach takes the fall because of that same talent, no matter how duplicitous. Spoelstra has the most to lose out of everyone around Heat because it's his job to combine the mismatched talent on hand and shape it into a winner. The old adage that it's easier to replace one coach than an entire team is particularly apposite here because once-in-a-generation players like LeBron come along less frequently than good coaches. The New Triumvirate have five-year, $90M+ contracts and an investment of that sort buys significant job security. Spoelstra was promoted from within and the investment in him is not nearly to the same level.

Player-coach meetings happen all the time. But reported "clear-the-air" talks between coach and star do not, which is why yesterday's pre-game chat between Spoelstra and LeBron was headline news. Afterwards, the coach said "There's an amount of healthy conflict within the team" and LeBron's take included the words "This is who we have". This came after last week's loss to Dallas where LeBron appeared to bump his coach. Neither statement even came close to saying "We've sorted whatever it was out" and the guess is that Spoelstra is now on borrowed time.

LeBron and Co. want to win now and for there to be no apology/explanation after a shoulder bump, player-only meetings and crisis talks means this smoke leads to a fire somewhere. If seventeen games into a season the players want their coach fired under these circumstances, it shows a remarkable degree of immaturity. Immaturity can be exemplified by any or all of impatience, shortsightedness, arrogance or an unwillingness to accept responsibility.

Red Flag One: Those seventeen games comprise 4% of their five-year term. Impatient? Check.

Red Flag Two: If they don't see the holes in their roster that are causing their failure to thrive then they may be guilty of shortsightedness. If they see those holes and think their extraordinary abilities can cover them then that's a degree of self-confidence bordering on Arrogant. Shortsighted? Arrogant? It's either one or the other.

Red Flag Three: Bosh isn't performing to his potential while LeBron and Wade seem at odds with being able to play together, settling into what looks very much to be a "My Turn, Your Turn" approach with which neither is comfortable. That they are ostensibly blaming the coach for their failure to gel together perfectly so early shows a degree of unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility. Avoiding responsibility? Probable check.

Or perhaps the coach does stink. But if so, surely that same self-confidence and talent could be used to prosper despite his inadequacy; or they would have chosen to sign for a better coach? It turns out the easiest target is also the guy with the hardest job: balancing the egos of superstars.

Pitching it up: Adelaide Oval

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts.

The theory goes that South Australia's unorthodox yet supremely effective left-handed batsman Darren Lehmann would have played more for Australia, except that he played his first-class cricket on the Adelaide Oval. Lehmann throughout the 1990's was a batting colossus of the Australian domestic scene, yet waited until 1998 to make his Test match debut. Adelaide Oval is known (Lehmann may say 'tainted') as a batsman's paradise.

Adelaide's hot and dry weather provides challenge to the ground team to produce a pitch that is anything but rock hard in the summer months. Recent history has scheduled the Test match in early to mid December, away from the searing heat of late January. But early December in Adelaide is hot and dry enough.

The English may have had fond memories of the Adelaide Oval in 2006, if it wasn't for one Shane Warne. Seemingly to date, no Australian pitch can escape being defined at least in part by him. It takes a special bowler to not just succeed but dominate on the Adelaide pitch.

Wisden describes a match that went 4 days and 43 minutes toward a draw dominated by batsmen. Collingwood and Pieterson (206 & 158) for England, then Ponting and Clarke (142 & 124) for Australia, enjoyed the conditions to the full. England looked like batting out the final day to the draw until Warne stepped up and turned the match. He only took 4 wickets but created so much doubt in his 32 overs for 49 runs, the English batsman crumbled either to him or others eventually. Australia winning by 6 wickets with 19 balls to spare.

In a match that both batting line ups will be looking toward with anticipation, Graeme Swann looks the wildcard. From both sides Swann is the only slow bowler who has form for dominating batsmen. Spinners in general will be key; the expectation on them will be to bowl extensive and tight overs giving the pacemen a decent rest in the heat while carrying the attack to the batsmen.

Attacking batsmen Pieterson and Ponting may be worth watching. Pieterson will have fond memories of Adelaide in 2006, and Ponting has the greatest number of test centuries and highest total runs at Adelaide in test match history. English or Australian batsman under pressure should heed the warning that in such a friendly environment they will be expected to succeed. Should they fail, selection in the remainder of the series will not be guaranteed.

Australian batting failure may have Chairman of Selectors Andrew Hilditch dreaming of a left-handed South Australian who regularly put bowlers to the sword on the Adelaide Oval.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Selectors must demand accountability

With the two additions to Australia's squad for the second Test being fast bowlers, questions now hang over the future of Mitchell Johnson and to a lesser extent, Ben Hilfenhaus. Both pacemen were unable to perform at the 'Gabba and by selecting Ryan Harris and Doug Bollinger the selectors have stated flatly that only by achievement does one maintain their position in the Test team.

This is a long overdue standard for Australia to discover: for too long players have kept their spots because "They have class" or "They need experience" or "They have potential" amongst any other number of reasons. No matter what the sport, the best teams in the world place selection pressure on the incumbents from outside the "first team" - players on the fringe trying to force their way into the team. The simple result of this is those who stay in the team do so by way of their performance. Perhaps the best example is of Collingwood Football Club in Australia where coach Mick Malthouse has inspired incredible performances consistently over recent years from youthful ranks simply by rewarding good form. A player stays in the team only if he is able to do the job assigned to him and the Magpies youngsters have responded in spades. Say what you like about Collingwood's outward attitudes but their youth development has been amongst the best in the AFL for a decade now.

Whether Australia deigns to make changes still remains to be seen as the selectors have played this gambit before only for no changes to be made. With a change in selection panel and with an increased role for Greg Chappell maybe this week is the time it changes and Doug Bollinger replaces fellow left-armer Johnson as Australia's strike bowler. Unquestionably unfortunate to not play in Brisbane, Bollinger adds more grit to the lineup at the expense of pace and unpredictability. Harris, Clint McKay (VIC), Peter George (SA), Luke Butterworth (TAS) and New South Welsh pair Mark Cameron & Trent Copeland have all got legitimate claims both to good form and the potential to succeed for Australia so the fast-bowling stocks aren't thin at all.

The strongest message of accountability would be to simply drop "Zoolander" as he hasn't performed for Australia since the 2009 tour to South Africa. Like any other successful sports team, their motto has to be "Play well or we'll find someone who will". With the Australian team so long regarded "Harder to get out of than into" - except for Brad Hodge in both cases - it's long past time Australia stopped suffering sub-par performances in the name of style, elegance or explosiveness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Great Memories: Australia at Home in 1974-75

Ben Roberts

Arguably Australian crickets favourite home Ashes series is the 4-1 victory over England in 1974-75. Regularly punctuated by savage assaults from Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, the series has become as renowned for the uncomfort experienced by batsmen as for the result of the cricket played. Was there something more however to Australia’s victory (and England’s loss) than simply the hairy chested colonial brutality of Messrs Lillee and Thomson?

England arrived in Australia as holders of the Ashes. They had won them on their previous visit in 1970-71 thanks to their own hostile paceman Jon Snow. In between times the English had retained the urn in the home series against Ian Chappell's emerging team, despite being pushed all the way.

Brave decision making at the toss by Ian Chappell, electing to bat on an uncertain Brisbane pitch, displayed the intent of the Australian side who ultimately won by 166 runs. Hostile but wayward bowling by Australia in the English first innings allowed Tony Grieg to get the only century for the match. Despite the hostility of Thomson and Lillee, the leading wicket taker was the more medium than fast Max Walker, with 4 wickets. After Chappell declared the second innings leaving England 333 to win, the Australians bowled more directly. Thomson fired out six Englishmen including the first innings centurion Grieg.

England, brow-beaten after the first test and in need of reinforcements, turned to a pair of 42 year olds Colin Cowdrey and Fred Titmus on a lightning fast Perth pitch. Cricketing gentlemen Cowdrey staunchly responded to the fast bowling onslaught with the typically British stiff upper lip and cunning experience. Despite this, the English batting crumbled throughout the match and Doug Walters and Ross Edwards drove home the advantage by scoring centuries (Walters famously within one session). Australia's first innings of 481 was almost enough as they went on to win the test by 9 wickets.

The Melbourne test was the closest of the series. The match finished in a draw with Australia 7 runs behind and England only requiring 2 more wickets. All four innings, England 242 & 244 Australia 241 & 238 for 8, were a challenge for the batsmen. For Australia Ashley Mallett took 6 wickets for the match. The English's own aggressive fast bowler Bob Willis had 5 wickets in the first innings and Grieg claimed 4 wickets in the second.

What might have been considered 'normal service' resumed in Sydney. The Australian batsmen set up the 171 run victory with 405 and 4 declared for 289. Greg Chappell top scored in both innings with 84 and 144; Ian Redpath supporting him in the second with 105. Except for Alan Knott with 82 in the first, the English could only produce a series of starts in both innings. Consistent performances from all Australian bowlers continued including Mallett again, with 4 wickets for 21 from 16.5 overs in the second innings.

Lillee finally broke through in this test. After eight innings where he consistently returned 2 wickets he dismissed four batsmen in each innings at Adelaide. The major news from the match was the loss of Thomson after the first innings. As an example of the different times, Thomson was playing a social tennis match on the rest day when he injured his shoulder. Australia's regular English nemesis throughout the 1970's, Derek Underwood, took 7 wickets in Australia's first innings and 11 for the match. But with the English batsmen continuing to struggle (again Knott standing out with 106 in the second innings) Australia won easily by 163 runs.

With Thomson out injured before the match and Lillee injured after just 6 overs Walker shouldered the load after Australia had collapsed to be all out for 152 at Melbourne. Peter Lever took 6 wickets for England. Walker bowled 42 (eight ball) overs in the English innings, finishing with his career best figures 8 for 143. Fletcher and Denness took advantage of Lillee and Thomson's injuries and made big hundreds in England's only innings of 529. The Australians fought hard in the second innings, Greg Chappell making his second century for the series, but it was not enough and the Australians went down by an innings and 4 runs as the series concluded.

Most cricket historians enjoy documenting the terror in which Thomson and Lillee, with 33 and 25 wickets respectively, reaped on the English. I believe such a focus too much overshadows the performance of two Australian bowlers in Max Walker and Ashley Mallett. The returns of both of these bowlers, Walker 23 wickets in six tests and Mallett 17 in five, indicates that Australia's second line of attack provided little respite for beleaguered English batsmen.

Both Walker and Mallett were constants in the Australian side throughout the 1970's and have records that speak highly of their ability. More recent recollections of Walker's irreverent media career hide his cricketing return of 138 wickets in 34 tests. Mallett, a student of the game trading in Australia's least popular or conditionally assisted form of bowling, off-spin, took 132 in 38.

Australia had five players to England's four making greater than 300 runs for the series. But removing Denness and Fletcher, who made over half their combined runs during the favourable conditions of the sixth test, the English had only two. Greg Chappell led the way for Australia and for all batsmen with 608 runs for the series.

Except for the final test England did not pass 300 in an innings. The English side was by no means a weak line up. Names such as Amiss, Edrich, Luckhurst, Fletcher and of course Cowdrey were of some note however had little effect during the series. The ageing Cowdrey showed great courage in the second innings of the Perth test with 41, however that proved to be the best that he could do.

I have spent a lifetime of cricket-watching suffering with Tony Grieg at the microphone. Despite him being difficult to stomach in commentary he once was a genuinely good test all-rounder. For this series Grieg led the English batsmen with 446 runs and was equal leading wicket taker, with Willis and Underwood, taking 17 wickets.

Australia dominated with the ball but were ably backed up with the bat. The English, shell shocked, clearly underperformed. Forgotten was the relentless nature of Ian Chappell's captaincy. Chappell led solidly from the front with the bat and asked much of his team, including batting first on an uncertain Brisbane pitch. Despite their great performances Lillee and Thomson admit that even they were not exempted from criticism from Chappell at times.

At some point during every Australian home Ashes series the ghosts of 1974-75 will be revived and regardless of the present state of play Australian fans will bask in the glory of that victory each and every time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering the "A-Team", part 2

Part Two of a Three-Part special feature commemorating the silver anniversary of the Australians Rebel Tour of South Africa from 1985-87.

The first inklings that Australians could go to South Africa became apparent in late 1984. Australian cricket was going through a tumultuous rebirth after the retirements of Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh and in their last Test series had been defeated 3-0 in the West Indies. in their next matches they were again to face the fearsome Windies pace attack, at home during the summer of 1984-85. Not much is known about the early machinations as they were administered with the utmost secrecy: any discovery of being tempted by the devil that was South African sport would mean farewelling a normal life a year early among other penalties that conscientious objectors or even the general public dish out to any potential tourists.

As the summer ended, it was announced that an Australian team would tour South Africa in the summer of 1985-86 and again in 1986-87. Preparations for the 1985 Ashes tour were thrown into disarray as seven of the Ashes squad were also in the South African tour party, including two of Australia's premiere pacemen, Carl Rackemann and Terry Alderman. All the members of the South African touring party were banned from competing in both Sheffield Shield and Test cricket for three years.

Of those seven, four remained "loyal" to the Australian cricket board, one of whom - tweaker Murray Bennett - had a serious conscience attack. The other three, opener Graeme Wood, batsman Dirk Wellham and 'keeper Wayne Phillips offered the same reason but had apparently been fiscally persuaded to resist the lure of the South African rand. Former Australian captain Kim Hughes had not been selected for the Ashes tour while rejecting overtures to skipper the side to South Africa. On discovering that the ACB had effectively paid off three players to remain with the establishment, he became disillusioned with the board and accepted the leadership of the tour party, citing "the spirit of cricket" had been broken by the ACB in two-faced attitude to the rebels.

Dubbing themselves "The A-Team" after the hit TV show, the tourists comprised ten players who'd played Test cricket within the last two years and one, Trevor Hohns, who would later do so once his ban had expired. Plenty more of the tourists were likely to feature in the Australian team over the coming years had they "remained loyal". The Rebels probably sported a more impressive attack than the "loyalists", featuring the best two fast bowlers in the country (Hogg and Alderman) as well as incumbent wicketkeeper Rixon. Two former Test captains in Yallop and Hughes led the batsmen Kepler Wessels was the best opener in the land and a future South African skipper. Wessels joined the party's second leg when shunned by the ACB during contract negotiations for a perceived role in the organisation of the tour - a role he denies to this day and was tenuous at best at the time. He returned to play cricket in his homeland and reprensented the A-Team in "international" matches to strengthen a batting lineup not performing to its potential.

The results that the A-Team managed in South Africa were mixed. Only three of the tourists (four, including Wessels) played Test cricket again, Alderman, Rackemann and Hohns. Several stayed on past the duration of their contracts to play in the local First-Class competition and some even settled across the Indian Ocean, especially Hughes, South Australian Mike Haysman and Victorian Rod McCurdy.

There was only one rebel tour after the Australians departed the Cape, an England side led by Mike Gatting, announced during the 1989 Ashes series. That team were the last Rebel Tourists as with the end of apartheid, the Proteas were accepted back into international competition in 1991. The matches played currently don't have first-class status but is under ICC review as to whether they deserve that mantle.

It could be that the rebel tour, as disastrous as it was to the Australian cricket establishment in 1985 and as painful as it was to those suffering under the brutality of South African apartheid did some good for Australian cricket. With seventeen players banned from state and national selection, plenty of positions opened in the Australia setup for younger players when the ACB may have been tempted by re-treads such as Hughes, Hogan or Yallop. In the three years after the second great split in Australian cricket, the national team capped fifteen new players including Steve Waugh and Merv Hughes. For the Ashes the initial thoughts of the selectors went to experience provided by mediocre talents like Hilditch, Ritchie, Wood and Wellham but this was quickly replaced by the optimism of youth.

Those fifteen newbies played on average twenty-six Tests apiece, a number which decreases to 16 if you remove Waugh's gargantuan tally of 168. This newfound decrease in top-end depth meant a great opportunity for Australian youth to step up First Class cricket. Even if the Test results of the period didn't reflect it, the First-Class system by 1987 was the amongst the strongest in the world. Secondly, that Australia debuted and discarded several players only meant that the process of sorting the wheat from the chaff was infinitely more easy which, fit well with the Simpson/Border manifesto of: Definitely, Probably, Maybe.

1985-87 A-Team Rebel tourists: Kim Hughes (captain), Terry Alderman, John Dyson, Peter Faulkner, Mike Haysman, Tom Hogan, Rodney Hogg, Trevor Hohns, John Maguire, Rod McCurdy, Carl Rackemann, Steve Rixon, Greg Shipperd, Steve Smith, Mick Taylor, Kepler Wessels, (1986-87 only), Graham Yallop.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rafa's style too different?

Even though Inter Milan won their Champions League encounter yesterday with FC Twente - thanks to a goal from Esteban Cambiasso - rumblings picked up by seismographs within the Inter Milan camp suggest that all is not well at the San Siro. The Nerazzuri sit well behind where they were this time last year under Jose Mourinho as their recent loss in the Milan derby combined with the weekend's defeat to Chievo thrust yet more pressure upon His Réal Obduracy, Rafael Benitez. To a manager lacking Benitez's status, reputation and contract, commanding the equation of their league position plus going down to the arch-rivals from the red side of town may have equalled unemployment benefits.

With the Inter Milan squad remarkably unchanged much from last year's UCL winners this early lack of success prompts questions as to whether their managerial choice has been paradisiacal. It is early doors, but the Nerazzuri sit nine points in arrears of league leaders AC Milan and four points adrift of the Champions League qualification places. In and of itself, those four points can be easily made up with the talent on hand but more concerning are allegations that Rafa yet again has had difficulty communicating with his charges, culminating with refuted accusations that goalscorer Cambiasso asked for the manager to be replaced.

These aren't the first rumours that Benitez doesn't communicate well, even though it may simply be a case of outsiders forever looking for reasons why a team underperforms. In the realm of rumour though, this one tends to the believable due to Rafa preference for a more removed role as boss twinn'd with his recent trend of speaking to the media in quite obtuse metaphor and simile: recently his press conferences have included references to Spanish phrases involving priests standing upon mountains of sugar. Needless to say, much was lost in translation and many - pundits and players alike - were left scratching their heads. Fair or not, Benitez must be aware that public opinion of him is shaped by what he says to pressmen and as such references which don't translate well (or at all) are unlikely to reflect well on him.

When his slightly awkward public manner - at least in English - is compared to his silvertail predecessor, Rafa can sometimes give the impression of being prone to faux pas and occasionally a teensy little bit whiny. He has proved his capabilities as a manager and is a fine one but his accomplishments are unfortunately overshadowed by the public perception of his character. The final arbiters are always results and with five wins and five losses so far on the season, Benitez's removed style could be too much a diametric opposite to the fast-talking, always-supportive and charismatic Mourinho. Even though Benitez was the most high-profile manager available and came with the best credentials to replace the departing Jose, perhaps his contrasting personal style should have been weighed up against the style of a manager who'd achieved such outstanding success with the same group of players.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Remembering the "A-Team", part 1

A three-part special feature on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Australian Rebel cricket tours to South Africa.

This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of an Australian squad's Rebel Tour of South Africa, an event which fostered a re-growth in Australian cricket and was also one of the last Rebel Tours to the apartheid-strewn land.

As a result of their racist apartheid policies, South Africa was essentially cut off from sporting ties with the rest of the globe. Each cricketing nation retracted any outstandig invitations for state-sanctioned teams to tour, while leaving any mail marked "South African Cricket Board" unopened and forgotten. The same applied for rugby, hockey and football: anyone who followed sport in South Africa was forced to rely on the domestic competitions for entertainment.

Although apartheid had been a featured South African government policy since 1948 and teams had visited the Cape Country, the major turning point proved to be the Basil D'Oliveira affair in 1968. A Cape-Coloured cricketer born in 1931, D'Oliveira emigrated to England as a twenty-nine year old due to the South African mandate of whites only representing their country in sport. By the age of 34 he had made his Test debut for England and was one of Wisden's Five cricketers of the year in 1967. As an MCC tour of South Africa loomed, sporting and political tensions rose between D'Olly's home and his adopted country and it became a common assumption that he would not be selected for the series after the South African Prime Minister made it known that he, and by extension any touring party containing him, would not be welcome.

D'Oliveira was not selected, but when paceman Tom Cartwright pulled up lame, he was selected as the injury-replacement for the hamstrung fast man. As with any bully, the South African government saw this decision as slight rather than a cricketing decision and Prime Minister Vorster retracted the tour invitation to tour and officially made sport "fair game" in the politics of apartheid. It was a decision which would haunt them as fortunately, the rest of the world played this "fair game" better than South Africa did.

When the Springboks toured England in 1970-71, a campaign of passive resistance led by Peter Hain proved such a hindrance to both the authorities and the South Africans and such a tour de force for raising awareness of those victimised by apartheid that further sporting tours were thought extremely insensitive, thoughtless and political suicide.

In 1981, the former South Africa cricket captain Dr. Ali Bacher became the head of the South African Cricket Union. Given there was no chance of the proto-Proteas participating in international matches until the demise of apartheid, the Union decided that cricket could only survive if a South African national side were to compete in unsanctioned internationals against international teams playing against the wishes of the United Nations, the International Cricket Council and their respective control boards. In order to induce players to tour, the individuals would have to be paid handsomely: reportedly the amount paid to each would would have fed 50,000 black South Africans for a year. The figures had to be that high as there were invariably recriminations against returning players. Bacher has since admitted that these were callous and insensitive steps.

The first Rebel Tour in 1982 was an English team led by Graham Gooch who faced several familiar, if ageing, South African cricket greats. Graeme Pollock, Mike Proctor, Clive Rice, Garth Le Roux, Peter Kirsten, Daryll Cullinan, Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald all played for the South Africans against Rebel teams. The English tour was followed by tours from Sri Lanka and two West Indian sides led by Lawrence Rowe.

It was inevitable that an Australian XI would be approached.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Too late a call-up, too short a season

The story of behemoth Aussie Central Defender Sasa Ognenovski is a curious one. The thirty-one year old epitome of the word "Colossus" was recently selected on the five-man shortlist for the Asian Footballer of the Year award due to his performances for Seongnam in the K-League and made his Full International debut.

After a career in the Australian NSL and it's associated minor leagues - and a cup of coffee with Panachaiki in Greece - Ognenovski was among the earliest players selected for the fledgling A-League's first season in 2006-07 and proved a rock in defence for the Queensland Roar. After eighteen months he moved to Adelaide to compete in the Asian Champions League where his star shone brightly. Given his gargantuan frame and above-average athleticism when compared to his opponents, the Big Fella excelled in Asia and suddenly became the hottest property in AFC football and was the subject of bids from two K-League squads.

He chose Seongnam over FC Seoul and has recently led that squad to the Asian Football Confederation Champions' League title. For some reason though he remained unable to crack the Australian international squad even when that team had to be comprised of only Asian-based players. Recent national managers - yes, Pim Verbeek, I mean you - ignored him despite dominant form and a paucity of other options while searching for a foil for Lucas Neill at the heart of the Australian defence. Given his excelling in Asia, it was puzzling to watch clubless and speedless Craig Moore partner captain Neill at this year's World Cup but by not calling the leviathan up sooner Verbeek had left himself no option. It's no coincidence that Australia was exposed for position in South Africa: without pace Moore couldn't get to the right spots and without the requisite size Neill struggled to deal with opponents in the air.

There's no question that Big Sasa's an Aussie but snub after snub despite his good form brought the 6'5 defender to despair and nearly to accepting a call-up from the Macedonian national team, the country in which his parents were born. Indeed, Macedonia wanted him and he was voted in 2008 that country's second best player behind Inter Milan's Goran Pandev. It took a nomination for AFC Player of the Year to secure his international bow and thankfully new coach Holger Osieck last week stopped the rot to give the 31-year old his first Cap in the Socceroo's 3-0 loss to Egypt.

A mistake, surely, and one that's now been rectified, at least in part. But given 33 year-old striker Kevin Davies made his debut for England last month and The Leviathan's relatively late start in the big-time, there remains hope that Ognenovski will prove as effective in International Competition as he has in Asia. His hope - and probably the Green and Gold Army's - should not be to just play in the 2011 Asian Cup but to to emulate Moore and partner Matthew Spiranovic or Rhys Williams at 35 years of age to the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

Why they weren't picked

With the Australian side whittled down to thirteen as the first Test approaches, suddenly Callum Ferguson and (probably) Usman Khawaja have been left on the sidelines. The selectors have opted to stay with the same six batsmen who have led Australia to their current World ranking of fourth. The reason is simple: although the middle order has struggled mightily and watching Mike Hussey now reminds us all of David Boon's last, tedious, eyeball-stripping innings, neither the South Australian nor his younger New South Welsh counterpart have really made that final spot their own.

To look at Australia's last Test XI is to see mediocrity at several positions, namely in the middle order and the spin-bowling department. The team defeated in India will change, with Tasmanian Xavier Doherty replacing Nathan Hauritz on the strength of one good Sheffield Shield match and one outstanding ODI: his First Class figures aren't particularly impressive but he's performed well at the right time and thus has received the call.

The batsmen, however, are a different matter. Both Ferguson and Khawaja have had several chances recently to write their names in ink across the Aussie middle order yet have failed to do so; last week's paltry Australia A showings were the final nail in their collective coffins. Gone are the days of 1994-95 where Australia A were perhaps the second-best side in the World and this was proved emphatically at Bellerive as both "Next Best Things" surrendered their wickets to the English attack.

Khawaja or Ferguson would do well to heed the exploits of a young Damien Martyn. During the 1990s, an Australian had to force the selectors collective hands both with mountains of runs and with scores at the right time. The most striking example of this was in the early days of the West Indies 1992-93 tour. West Australian tyro Martyn was making runs for fun in the-then Mercantile Mutual Cup, in Shield matches and against a full-strength Windies pace battery in three separate matches. His front-foot slashes of Ambrose and Bishop to the extra cover boundary on a pacy WACA pitch were indelibly marked on my thirteen year-old brain as the most exciting cricket shots I'd ever seen. When the squad lists were submitted for the first Test at the 'Gabba, Martyn was there alongside an in-form Australian top six each of whom has claim to being an all-time great of the game. Martyn kept making runs and both popular and selector opinion was swayed immutably in his favour with a quickfire 36 against the tourists at Bellerive for the Australian XI. He made the team at the expense of Dean Jones.

It wasn't so much the weight of Martyn's runs that ensured his spot, nor the manner in which he scored them although his four-day Strike Rate nearing 100 was undoubtedly impressive. Damien Martyn was selected because he'd showed his readiness for the big time by making crucial runs in the right spots. When needing runs to cement his position, that one innings for Australian XI made not picking him a popular impossibility. The same stories apply with Matthew Elliott in 1997, Adam Gilchrist in 1999 and even Phil Hughes' 2008-09 domestic season: they made so many runs at the right time that Michael Slater, Ian Healy and Matthew Hayden were dumped so that Australia could progress. With mediocre recent form, neither Khawaja nor Ferguson have shown their mettle, posing the question: are they really ready? Are they ready to make the step up to Test match level?

As it happens, Usman Khawaja has been called up as an emergency replacement for a struggling Michael Clarke so we may well find out if he is ready anyway. Should Mike Hussey fail in Brisbane, we may find out how good a training-ground the Sheffield Shield really is. With many puzzling selections (and non-selections) over the past two years, it appears that Australia's selection panel has decided to award caps to guys they hope can do the job rather than to players they know can do the job. That's not their fault as there are more question marks over the strength of the Australian domestic competition than at any time since Packer - there isn't the same quality that inspires complete confidence in their delivering, so the next best thing is to plump for hope and call it development. What they can be pilloried for is the inconsistency with which they've applied this policy.

Neither Khawaja, Ferguson, Cameron White, Peter George, Mitch Starc or even Golden Child Steve Smith has forced the selection panel's to pick them even though Australia cries out for young talent to replace their ageing and tired top guns, now less howitzers and more derringers. Perhaps now we see more clearly why throughout the noughties so many Australian debutants have been aged in their late-20s and early-30s - the younger players just haven't had the responsibility that creates personal growth from an early age and so haven't taken it upon themselves to ensure their selection.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crowdsourcing the 2010-2011 Ashes

This article can be found at World Cricket Watch and features opinions from the Balanced Sports team as well as reputed pundits from Test Match Sofa and the Reverse Sweep amongst others.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Portland's EpiCentre

The news yesterday that Portland Trail Blazers centre Greg Oden will miss the entire NBA season requiring another knee operation was hardly surprising. The Elephant in the Room (as he will now unfortunately forever be known) needs microfracture surgery on his knee, a procedure that requires nearly one year of rehabilitation time. This comes after last year's fractured patella, a broken foot the year before and microfracture surgery he underwent immediately before his first NBA season.

It's tragic news for the young man and for a Portland franchise who have been so patient with their No. 1 draft pick: the results of their 2007 draft now appear even worse when put up against the team who picked second, near neighbours Seattle (who have now moved to Oklahoma City).

The Sonics picked Kevin Durant, who has become one of the top five players in the NBA and looks increasingly likely to take the mantle of Best In Show after his dominating performance for Team USA at the World Championships this offseason. Out of a possible 257 games, Durant has played 247 and has career averages of 25.4 points and about six rebounds per game. Oden, after being restricted to just 82 of those same 257 encounters, scores 9.4ppg and pulls down just over 7 boards per game. His career has been not just hampered by injury but fully deformed by it.

To look back at the history of the Portland Trail Blazers is to see a litany of errors at the Centre position. In fact, the team has "won" the first pick in the draft four times in it's forty year existence and each time selected a centre: in 1972 and 1974 they picked LaRue Martin and Bill Walton; 1978 brought Mychal Thompson. Walton went on to be one of the greats - one of the great "When he plays, he's great" - and Martin holds the distinguished title of Greatest NBA Draft Bust of All Time, and believe me there are some exceedingly strong contenders for that title. Kwame Brown, anyone?

The term "bust" is probably thrown around a little too often anyway. It's ungenerous to say that a player whose career is/was hampered by injury suddenly becomes a bust. Poor attitude and lack of talent can be foreseen where injuries are generally unavoidable and unexpected. However, when a player has been troubled by their body before joining the NBA, future injuries can be seen as more likely and the "bust" label comes into play. A perfect example is DeJuan Blair of the San Antonio Spurs - a guy who has no ACL in either of his knees. He was probably one of the top ten best players coming into the NBA last year but teams feared for his ability to make a contribution long-term and he was selected thirty-fourth in the meat-market. Teams fear the Bust Label and the new poster-boy for the Bust, fairly or unfairly, is Greg Oden: not just for his body's sake, but for Durant's stellar production.

The Unspoken coda to the Portland Trail Blazers Centre Hall of Shame is Sam Bowie, a 7-footer they selected with the second overall pick in 1984 from Kenucky University; a guy who had a three year history of foot troubles by the age of 21. You should know his story - the player selected directly after him was a 6'6 guard from North Carolina who ended up spending a lot of time in Oregon anyway because of it's proximity to Nike head office.

After a youthful Blazers nucleus limped (as always) to a 32 win season, Oden was Rip City's fourth no. 1 overall pick of Rip City and probably the hardest dagger to absorb. One of the most highly-touted High School recruits of recent memory, his one-and-done year at Ohio State climaxed with a loss in the NCAA National Championship game as he played well, but not overwhelmingly on a balanced OSU team. When it came draft time, experts and GMs alike argued between Oden or Durant - who had the greatest potential, who played a more dominating game, who filled a need, who played a "rarer" position (ie. Oden - upper echelon Centres are very difficult to find at the best of times).

The Blazers picked Oden and his body has let him down. Comparisons are now being made to Bowie - first came the whiffed pick, then came breakdown after breakdown But it isn't a good comparison. For starters, when drafted their ceilings were completely different: in 1984 the Blazers knew what they could legitimately expect; in 2007 the sky was the limit. In terms of potential, Oden had (has?) a truckload more than Bowie: the kind of franchise-changing potential at centre that a winning club almost always needs. The similarities also fall down when considering their injuries. Where Bowie missed an entire year at Lexington due to the foot injuries that would later plague his career, Oden hadn't really endured injury before being drafted except a broken wrist at OSU, the kind of freak-job that really doesn't wash as a reason to call his body frail. Since then though, the injuries that have dogged him haven't been freak occurences, more wear and tear ailments almost certain to curtail his career prematurely.

No, for me the better comparison is with Walton. Both game- and franchise-changers. Both saddling up with with bodies biomechanically unsuited to 82 games plus playoffs each season. David Halberstam's excellent The Breaks of the Game detailed the 1979 season with the Blazers and described meetings between Walton, the Blazers medical staff and outside specialists. Halberstam writes that the final diagnosis was that Walton's feet were so inflexible and therefore degenerative that the bones were forced to flex rather than the joints leading to stress fractures. The Greatest College Player of All Time then had the problem joints fused to change the strain patterns with little benefit. Further impact on the compacted and less-mobile feet then transmitted the strain towards the closest two joints there - the ankles and knees. Which then, ipso facto, broke down. Bill Walton's body was ill-equipped to play pro basketball and it's arguable that by the time he was drafted, Big Red's body was unable even to play the 30+ games required by the college circuit. The parallels between Oden and Walton's bodies - if not their eventual body of work - are just too stark to ignore.

First, Greg Oden has had to deal with comparisons to Kevin Durant and that player's incredible individual ability. Next, he's had to deal wtih injuries the likes of which no great player has ever overcome - even Walton didn't overcome his trials and eventually succumbed to them. It's probably now safe to assume that Greg Oden will never be the player any of us expected when he was drafted, probably because no-one knew simply how similar his body is to that of another Blazers centre.

The rule in the NBA has always gone "If you're going to make a mistake, make it a big mistake" - meaning if you have a choice between a big player and a smaller alternative during draft time, always choose the big player as they tend to be greater "difference makers". The Portland Trail Blazers have certainly seen Greg Oden make a difference.

Pitching it up: The Gabba

by Ben Roberts, Balanced Sports columnist.

The Gabba's traditional role as host to the first test of the Australian summer reflects the desire to avoid scheduling matches in the south-eastern states while they struggle to exit winter conditions, even in late November. The Brisbane climate however is by no means smooth sailing for cricketers. The humid sub-tropical conditions provide risk of serious thunderstorm at its extreme and a pitch that has been known for its treachery in the past.

The potential for chaotic cricket at the Gabba can be defined by the Ashes test of 1950, a match that Wisden was led to describe as one that was 'won and lost at the toss'. The villainous pitch, according to Wisden, was the reason for the galling defeat of England who they believe were the better performed side.

Australia's captain Lindsay Hassett won the toss a elected to bat in what were the best conditions of the match. Australia however did not excel and was bowled out for a disappointing 228. The tropics then entered and sent a thunderstorm creating a minefield of the uncovered pitch. The Englishman were instructed by their captain Freddie Brown to attack lest they remain batting too long before getting a chance at the Australians on this now treacherous pitch.

The English declared their innings closed at 68 for 7, and proceeded to rout the Australian batsmen, Hassett ultimately calling time with Australia 32 for 7 in their second innings. England required 193 in their second innings for victory, and the pitch while improving, remained difficult. England's second innings closed at 122 giving Australia victory by 60 runs. Leonard Hutton was the only batsman to succeed from both sides in passing 50, his 62 not out in the second innings nearly brought victory for the English.

The modern techniques and objectives of pitch preparation, including heavily covered pitches, mean that test matches similar to the 1950 Ashes test stand little chance of being repeated. The humid climate of Brisbane still causes the pitch to sweat while covered which can create some difficulties.

Shane Warne described the Gabba as one of his favourite grounds, and he had tremendous success on the pitch. Warne however was an attacking spinner and took risks with his bowling. Graeme Swann for England will likely play and his attacking style could net him wickets. Australia does not have a counter for Swann with omitted Australian spinner Nathan Hauritz relying more on subtle variation then on outright attack in taking wickets. The inexperience of Xavier Doherty and Steve Smith may also mean that they will bowl with more caution.

The pitch is renowned for being friendly to bowlers looking to hit the seam. It presents probably the best opportunity for Australia's pacemen to out-perform the English who are more akin to using swinging conditions. Shane Watson could be a factor in the test for Australia, keeping the seam straight, as complement to the strike bowlers. Likewise if the Gabba decides to play up Paul Collingwood for England could prove a useful part time option.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Worst ... Forward ... Ever.

Khalfan Fahad's open-goalmouth miss during Tuesday night's Uzbekistan/Qatar Asian Games encounter is perhaps the worst miss in football history. In any effect, it's without question the most galling I've ever seen. In a sport where highlights rather than full games tend to garner players popular notoriety (ie. Joe in the street), Khalfan Fahad has made a name for himself. If you've watched SportsCenter over the last few days you may have seen it, but click here to see the footage of perhaps the most embarrassing fluff of all.

A little perspective, perhaps. It was during the 90th minute of the 2010 Asian Games, held in China and the Qataris were defending Champions. The players involved were teenage Qatari striker Fahad and Uzbek's puzzling custodian, Timur Juraev. The "incident" also happened on the same day that FIFA announced their shortlist for 2010 Goal of the Year Awards (click here to see those goals). Needless to say, this is hardly likely to feature. Whether the forward got the wobbles, the yips or a sudden attack of the brainfarts we may never know; whatever happened, it was a miss for the ages. To make matters worse, Uzbekistan then won the game in extra time and Qatar were eliminated from the tournament. Suffice to say that it was a costly slip by the 18 year-old.

It's also commonly assumed - probably correctly - that a flub of this calibre can haunt a player forever no matter how experienced they may be. We tend to remember the extraordinary mistakes: for example my most fervent memories of both John Terry and William Gallas involve them in tears. Players play the sport aware that with success comes notoriety and unfortunately, Khalfan Fahad must certainly admit with this gaffe he's achieved that, albeit in a manner he would never choose.

You find yourself hoping though that he's able to use such a shaming snafu to improve his game and succeed as a football player: it's one thing to be known for your success and another thing altogether to be infamous for what you didn't achieve.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Fatal Four-way?

By picking two spinners in a squad of seventeen, Australia has shown its hand: they're going to play a tweaker in the first Ashes Test next week. Hardly startling news, but it leaves the question: why not play four fast bowlers? The 'Gabba traditionally takes pace very well and there is a convincing argument that the best four bowlers in the country (perhaps even the best seven) are speedsters.

Of course there are plenty of very good arguments against fronting up with a four-pronged pace attack: a team needs variety, a team needs a stock bowler unlikely to break down, the 'Gabba was Shane Warne's most preferred ground to bowl at outside the MCG ... wasn't it also one of the harbingers of the apocalypse? In fact, the arguments for it are probably 90% convincing: There's no question that a variety of arrows in the quiver of Ricky Ponting makes for a more balanced team and that Australia's best four quicks are remarkably injury prone. What's curious is that no-one's talking about it even as an option. There are reasons as to why it isn't a good idea so why not start looking for reasons as to why it has merit?

It comes down to only one reason. The first involves the now-obligatory mention of the West Indian sides of the 1970s and 1980s. The dominant Windies of that era played a pace quartet because it was their best way of taking twenty wickets whether they were at home, in Australia or in spin-friendly India. Their best seven or eight bowlers were fast men, so they played the top four. It was only when that top four included Cameron Cuffy and Kenny Benjamin that their reign ended - in order to work, this lineup needs four pacemen of absolute quality.

As Australia's pace stocks appear healthy with at least six fast men of International quality, why not try it? The best four would comprise Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger and Peter Siddle, giving you one swing bowler, two honest triers and Johnson's loose cannon. It may or may not work, but it is at least worth evaluating.

Most cricket boffins would probably opt for the variety that a spinner brings to an XI and that's probably for the best. For the four-pronged pace attack to work, the bowlers involved have to be a class above the spinners they keep out of the side and with Australia that probably isn't the case. Succinctly, the increase in class has to be more than the decrease in variation. That said, the idea shouldn't be forever consigned to the scrapheap as the Baggy Green continues its search for A-list bowlers. Perhaps it's time for Australia, suddenly spoil'd for choice with speed-merchants, to at least consider the idea that they aren't forced by law to play a spinner.

Pitching it up: Bellerive Oval

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts

Granted the 2010-11 Ashes series will not in part be fought out on the pitch at Bellerive. We will however later this week see the the touring English XI take on Australia 'A', where a considerable number test hopefuls for both teams will seek to hold the selectors attention prior to the first test.

Bellerive is very much a forgotten ground by mainland Australian cricket followers. Whereas the general pitch characteristics of the mainland test venues may roll of the tongue from even spasmodic cricket fans, I must admit that when thinking of Bellerive I had to shrug my shoulders. Test cricket has only graced Bellerive since 1989, and since then only nine test matches have been played in total.

A cousin of mine works as part of the ground team at Bellerive so I had a good source to whom I could inquire for information on this pitch. Three main inputs provide a unique challenge for the ground team at Bellerive. Firstly, the use of rye rather than couch grass means that the pitch has to be carefully monitored as it will dry out quickly, the leaf will be left as long as possible that gives a bit for the bowlers. Secondly, adding to the challenge of keeping the pitch moist is the potential for brutal winds that will zap the moisture out at fast rate. Finally, the clay in the soil doesn't break up with use so there is generally less opportunity for spinners. This is of course unless your name is 'Shane' or 'Murali'.

Given the option, pacemen from both sides will be hoping that in the lead up to the match there is some moisture around and come the match day they are provided with still overcast conditions. A lack of moisture and stronger wind will threaten to flatten the pitch out early and gift batsman easy runs. The tests played of recent history have been characterised by big scores, this of course may also be reflective of Australia's dominance in the past 20 years and the generally weaker touring teams drawn to play against Australia at Bellerive.

Australia's finest moment at Bellerive was the 4 wicket win over Pakistan in 1999. Australia, facing a three pronged pace attack of Akram, Younis and Akhtar, recovered from being 126 for 5 to post the third highest fourth innings total of 369 for 6 and claim victory. Adam Gilchrist announced his entry into test match cricket by posting his maiden century in his second match sharing the match winning partnership with Justin Langer. On that day Pakistan’s lethal fast bowling trio toiled joylessly on a wicket that had dried throughout the match.

With the above in mind, look for England to perhaps rest its test bowling line up, aware that if conditions are not right they may toil as Pakistan did 11 years ago and stunt momentum before the first test. Australia 'A' includes genuine test prospects Khwaja and Ferguson in its batting order who will want to use the favourable conditions to really cement their places as the next in line for a test call up.

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's all your fault, Ray Wilkins.

Last Thursday, it made headlines across the football media that Chelsea FC CEO Ron Gourlay had asked assistant manager Ray Wilkins to "step into my office". Wilkins did, and stepped out with a stamped pink slip relieving him of all duties at Stamford Bridge. Wilkins was fired by the administrators despite a harmonious relationship with manager Carlo Ancelotti and with the players.

Allegedly, it was for a lack of ideas and an insufficient understanding of the tactics required to be Ancelotti's right-hand man. The Italian was - at least in the press - as surprised as any and spent the evening at Wilkins' home comforting his former lieutenant, who it seemed had paid the price for last week's defeat to Liverpool. It wasn't so much his dismissal that surprised but the guillotine-style in which it was executed that had the scribes typing so frantically.

You don't get to the top of the business world without having a heart of Siberian granite. It may be this trait which undoes so many successful businessmen who become involved in sports ownership: why is such a successful businessman able to screw things up so royally in another field? Well, sport is an emotional business: the most talent doesn't necessarily win the most matches, each player's headspace has to be considered. The team best able to combine the ability on hand with the correct mental attitude is best positioned to perform well. The dispassionate nature of the businessman doesn't always sit well with the emotional, artistic characteristics of the sportsman.

Is it so shocking then that after a popular club man's harsh dismissal - he was escorted by security immediately from club property - that the Blues turned out a dismal performance against Sunderland yesterday? This in no way should take away from the Mackems brilliance as they danced around a Chelsea lineup to smash home three goals against the reigning champs, but surely such a brutal termination must leave the players in a state of confusion and thinking "Who's next"?

This was swift, it was unexpected and it was perhaps aimed at the playing staff suggesting "No-one is safe: perform, or leave". How would any sane person react to such a stark message? By focusing more on getting the job done. Apparently, this reaction wasn't to their benefit. It is eminently possible to approach a match with too much, or the wrong kind, of intensity; often the intensity brought about by fear rather than by security results in a player who plays robotically and fearing failure rather than going about their business with the freedom that job security brings.

Perhaps there's something to this: Chelsea's weakest positions on the weekend were in the centre of the park in the form of Jon Obi Mikel and Yuri Zhirkov. These two are probably the most vulnerable players in the squad, the two most likely to be sold and replaced due to their relative lacking performances. They were given a torrid time by the Black Cats and if their form didn't put them under scrutiny before, surely it now will.

The de rigeur of the past may have previously comforted the players, where the final decision of "Will he stay or Will he go" was made by the manager. Not today, not any more. Because what this firing said about the Blues' hierarchy is that although Carlo Ancelotti may be the head coach, calling him the Manager now rings hollow. He was obviously uninvolved in the sacking: he said in his autobiography that Chelsea wouldn't have won the title without Wilkins last term. Further evidence can be found in the fact that had he had a say in the sacking, surely he wouldn't have been either welcome or inclined to visit Wilkins at his home.

All these facts cannot be lost on the players. Roman Abramovich has a habit of ensuring that he is the top dog at his football club and this habit is not always to the Blues' benefit. He was similarly brutal when he felt Jose Mourinho had outstayed his welcome - Jose was only able to contact his players by text message after he left. As with Mourinho, Wilkins will undoubtedly be replaced quite soon by the Chelsea cognoscenti, but this entire process has served as another wake-up call for Ancelotti and his men: Roman rules by fear.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Manchester Derby a Snore Fest

It was quite excitedly that I arrived at my local to watch Wednesday's Manchester Derby. For the first time in memory, I felt that United were perhaps the underdogs in a match that has perpetually been one of the centrepieces of the English Premier League season. Last year's contests - there were four of them - had three decided in added extra time.

So it was with disappointment that soon after kickoff I realised that this was a horrible match, devoid of excitement and totally lacking in energy and enterprise from the blue half of Manchester. Let's be honest and say that the Red Devils weren't much better - they showed more of an adventurous spirit but were lacking the final, decisive pass in the end. Sitting there, beer in hand, I couldn't help but think it was analogous to the early rounds of a boxing match: both teams were simply feeling the other out, not wanting to commit too much in case it left them overexposed.

Perhaps this is the way that Roberto Mancini & SAF looked at this match: early doors, not worth expending too much endeavour on. I'd suggest however that this approach represents what it is that Manchester City do. By employing three defensive midfielders at the expense of using only one player who can unlock a defense, it's obvious Mancini prizes stolidity above all else. Unfortunately it's also United's modus operandi at present, the Reds hampered by a lack of creativity from central midfield, theirs not so much by choice but by injury and terminal shortness of cash, by age and infirmity.

What else did we expect? More chances, sure, but did we expect that Mancini would change a setup that he's employed with good effect against other big teams? You can bet your bottom dollar that what you see is what you get with City. It's apparent that he'd rather draw taking no chances than lose giving it his best shot. With the red-nosed Scot he's had his hands tied by lack of funds, the disabled list and an ever-growing envy of the funds available to whoever the manager of the Citizens is this month. The stakes, for both sides, are now higher than ever. Instead of that producing the outstanding contests that it did last year, it's led us to this: a fear of failure.

Game 12: Blackburn Rovers at Newcastle

Wednesday's Premiership encounter between Blackburn and Newcastle was a match between two solid, physical teams - only to be expected from a Sam Allardyce squad and a side fielding Mike Williamson, Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan. It ended, as it begun, with a Newcastle United lapse in concentration costing them a goal and with Blackburn taking the points at St. James' Park as Newcastle's home form turned from middling into mediocre.

Another loss to mid-table opposition at St. James' Park suggests last year's bastion remains just that: a thing of the past. This Rovers team are perhaps the most well-suited side to defeat a Newcastle team that this year has thrived on three things: physicality, a solid midfield and a mature defence based on positioning and efforts of will rather than on athleticism. The form of Andy Carroll so worried Allardyce that he employed three centre-backs rather than his standard pair Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba. It was a winning move even though the man they sought to stop, Carroll, was still Newcastle's most threatening piece in a chess game less about guile than about out-and-out battlefield slaughter. As Hughton's queen (it's the hair, you understand. Oh and also his ability to wreak devastation on opponents) he was less-supported by his wide men as in recent matches even though the whole side was quite Andy-Conscious. He was able to convert a header from a Barton free kick all but ensuring a worthy England call later this week.

The Newcastle midfield receiving plaudits for its form this year were outplayed. With Barton, Nolan and Tiote not a trio ever to be mistaken for Happy Feet they were not so mcuh outhustled as outclassed as Rovers wide men Brett Emerton and Morten Gamst Pedersen proved effective against a midfield so effective three days previously against Arsenal.

The two goals resulted from simple lapses in concentration from Tiote and Mike Williamson. Joey Barton had a lapse in concentration of a different kind: he will be suspended for his gut-punch to Pedersen after presenting a restrained, mature front for a third of the season. Fans and managers alike were hoping that this newfound maturity could last - even though he has shown remorse his actions once again call into question his temperament. Indeed, that maturity may well be the watchword for the Toon this year.

This season has been and will continue to be a year of maturation for the Newcastle United squad and for the faithful. They sport - for the most part - a more wise game plan than when they were relegated. Mike Ashley has justifiably refused to offer The Understated One a long-term contract as a result of one year's effective management. It appears caution is the watchword on Tyneside and it would appear to be working.

Just as in life, maturing doesn't happen as the result of a decision but of experience: ask any parent. Rather than an alchemical process where a mentor adds ingredients and suddenly lead is turn'd to gold, the obtaining of wisdom is gentle steeping which increases in richness and flavour as the subject is exposed to it. The process starts, there are ups and downs and the result is due to the journey rather than any decision made along the way. The journey maketh the man. Perhaps it's similar of Newcastle United this year: the journey needs to maketh the team.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clarke's latest problem: Generation Y

Rumours of a sudden challenge to the Crown Prince's ascendance to the throne are greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps not. What is certain though is that Michael Clarke isn't the popular figure in the Australian dressing room that he was two years ago, fuelled by allegations that senior teammates disliked his criticism of Mike Hussey and Doug Bollinger for playing in the IPL. His recent lack of results as captain are also a problem: results, they say, are the ultimate leveller.

Anointed from an early age as Australia's next captain, Clarke's commitment to bettering himself and in securing results for Australian cricket cannot be questioned. He's sacrificed a lot for his cricket and has been rewarded handsomely with money, status and with fan adulation. But still he does not convince as a leader of men. The reason for this disharmony may not come however from his inability as a tactician, his skill level or even his temperament. It may come from his birthdate. Michael Clarke is the first of a new generation of Australian cricketers - The Generation Y leader.

Clarke was born in 1981, placing him firmly in Generation Y's catchment years. He's completely dedicated to being the Australia captain and has been since he was prepubescent. He made his debut at a young age (23) before experiencing a mix of success and failure at the top level. To counter the failures and achieve his goals he's gradually removed elements of his batting making him now a pale shadow of the youngster who made such a loud - and watchable - debut in 2004. He's ultimately dedicated to his craft. What do we know about Michael Clarke apart from his status as an Australian cricketer? That he owns and loves a Z3 roadster and that he dated and nearly married Bingle. It is eminently possible that he is, and let's be fair, the most boring man on the planet. That's it - there doesn't seem to be a lot more to the bloke.

To compare the Generations in cricket is interesting. Take for example the Australian side from now and from eight years ago. The squad from 2002 sported players who expressed themselves through their performances and loved doing it. Langer was combative while Hayden was dominating. Waugh was tough and Warne loved the spotlight. Now compare those guys and those characteristics with our current Australian team. How would you describe Simon Katich? A hard worker? Shane Watson overcomes obstacles. Michael Clarke is dedicated. Nathan Hauritz defines pedestrian in every sense of the word. Do you see differing personalities in the Aussie dressing room? Obviously I don't - I've just used three synonyms to define three different guys.

It's because it takes so long for cricketers to ascend to leadership roles that we've not seen this before now. In almost any other sport, players in their early 20s can be on- and off-field leaders: take a look at the AFL, the Rugby twins Union and League, Basketball, football - you name it. There are rites-of-passage that a cricket captain must endure that don't exist in other sports. Clarke's the first of his generation to undergo these rites and he won't be the last. He dealt with these demands, passed them even, and probably feels a sense of entitlement to the throne. But as I posited here last week, he's dealt with them in an inward-looking manner rather than by shifting his focus to the outward. You can see him thinking Deal with the controllable elements, Pup and for him, the controllable elements are his own form and results. Single-minded dedication isn't a sin but it is easily mistakable for selfishness.

Since the Packer Revolution thirty-three years ago, the sport has become more and more professional. It is only now though that the side is made up by a majority of cricketers who know the game only as it is now: a fully professional sport which takes an awful lot to get to the top. Pup wants the captaincy so he is prepared to sacrifice and work until he achieves it. He is, like many products of Generation Y,: driven by task, process and achievement rather than by people or relationships. Ultimately, however, the best captains - the best leaders, in general - have solid a footing in both camps.

Though a mediocre Test batsman, Mike Brearley was often said to have had "a degree in people". Allan Border knew exactly what to say to a player in order to provoke the desired response: witness his "Let's get a real Australian out here, let's get a Queenslander" moment to Dean Jones during Deano's 210 at Madras in 1986. That speech followed a pre-game pep talk that left Jones feeling "ten feet tall" at the responsibility with which his captain had just entrusted him. Mark Taylor had an incredible ability to handle players, media and administrators alike. Clarke's most famous moments in the dressing room include being grabbed around the throat, leaving the team to deal with Bingle's inevitable self-implosion and now rumours that he's not suited to the job because he tacitly accused two devoted players of valuing money over country.

Michael Clarke was both bred and trained to play for Australia. As a result of this he will do nothing to jeopardise that position. Example: Why are his press conferences so dull? They're boring because he talks in management-speak and refuses to say anything that's not completely safe. Having a manager since his mid-teens, Clarke knows his commercial value - and that's only fair. The brand must be protected. It smacks of someone who knows all he desires is within his grasp and now fears losing it rather than going out and winning it. In soccer parlance, he's defending a lead. He takes himself exceedingly seriously.

This is not his fault of course - he can't help the times in which he's grown up. It's just another obstacle that he needs to clear. But in a position of maximum public exposure time will only prove that he is what he is: a child of his times focused with "eyes on the prize" to the exclusion of all else, a learned behaviour over his 29 years which is going to take a titanic effort of will and learning to overcome. We've seen in before of our sports stars: refusing to give ammunition, talking only of processes and one-day-at-a-time. He is a product of his generation - the famous friends that every celebrity must have, the endorsements, the celebrity hookups, the Premiere appearances - and those of us who remember past generations don't respond well to it even though we've played a major role in the development of this mindset.

Ultimately, we must point the finger of blame for Michael Clarke's inability to effectively man-manage straight at ourselves. We as a nation have valued results to the point where we now define ourselves by our ability to generate sporting results. Some time ago results became more important than the love of the game and the next generation reflect this. This is Australia's sporting world from now on: we valued first sport for it's own sake and this transitioned into sport for sake of results, and we've done this to the extent that to get to the top a player is forced to adhere to rules from such an early age that it becomes ingrained. We love Aussies who get results too much. For better or worse, we love them so much that we've bred or trained much of the individualism and the joie de vivre out of them.

This is the future of sports: bland players who value their positions (as they should) and value what those positions can bring them. The message of any future captain will remain the same until we make a cultural shift as to what we value. The way in which that message is delivered may change: where Michael Clarke is earnest with the media, his "rivals" North and Cameron White are affable. As we leave behind a Generation X whose very raison d'etre was to succeed through expressing themselves in everything they did, we embrace a generation who want only to succeed. If that's a good thing or not is up to you.

Welcome to the future, Australia. These are your children.