Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pitching it up: The SCG

Perhaps the rot set in for Ricky Ponting's captaincy 12 months ago when against Pakistan at the SCG he elected to bat first in overcast conditions and on a damp seaming pitch. Despite Australia's astonishing victory in the match, Ponting's decision still condemned Australia to be all out for 127 on the first day. Now seemingly more infamous than otherwise, Mohammad Asif was the main wicket taker for Pakistan in that innings with 6. With the Ashes emphatically retained by England in Melbourne, and eastern Australian meteorologists going on stress leave due to the eccentricities of the weather, should Ponting make it to and win the toss in Sydney, the pressure on his decision will be immense.

The SCG is famed for being favourable to spinners but this has not always been its only attraction. The SCG was home to one of Australia's post war great fast bowlers, Alan Davidson, in the 1950s and 1960s. Davidson took 27 wickets in 6 tests at Sydney at an average of 20.70. The pitch developed its reputation as a slow turner throughout the 1980s as Australia sought to combat the barrage of express pace coming primarily from the West Indian team. Annually Sydney managed to be a refuge for weary Australian teams, and a chance for lesser known cricketers to perform.

From 1980 until their breakthrough in the 1989 Ashes series, Australia did not lose a test match at the SCG, despite the weaker nature of many of the teams. Post the retirement of Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee in early 1984, Australia lost series to England, New Zealand and the West Indies (twice). However on all occasions they won the Sydney test thanks to little known slow bowlers. The well aged Bob Holland (10 wickets against both the West Indies in 1984 and New Zealand in 1985), the very part time Allan Border (11 wickets against the West Indies in 1989), and the randomly selected Peter Taylor coupled with the usually innocuous Peter Sleep (7 and 5 wickets respectively against England in 1987) are not legendary names in spin bowling .

Surprisingly, Shane Warne's SCG record is weaker when compared to his phenomenal overall record. 4.57 wickets per test at 28.12 with a strike rate of 63.4 is laudable; but despite the SCG's reputation these statistics are poorer than his career record (4.88 at 25.41, strike rate of 57.4). The eternally second string spinner of the Warne era, Stuart MacGill, can probably only be adequately compared against Warne based upon their respective SCG records. In MacGill's 8 tests at the ground (5 with Warne in the XI also) he collected a remarkable 6.63 wickets per test at an average of 24.47 with a strike rate of 47.3. MacGill will be recorded by history as a very talented, yet more so a desperately unlucky cricketer.

There is symmetry between the current struggles of the Australian team and that of the teams that were humiliated regularly during the 1980s. Unfortunately there is no symmetry between the SCG pitch of that era and of today. While it won't be unplayable, expect to see the ball moving off the seam, complementing the expected overcast conditions that will allow for swing. The pitch will still ultimately break up and take spin on days four and five of the test.

England has no real need to make changes, but the 'team first' attitude of both Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss may still mean changes occur. Should no changes be made, Ajmal Shazad and Monty Panesar will be victims of the strong team performances by the English and will continue to sit out alongside Steve Finn, the leading wicket taker in the first three tests. The English, if faced with conditions and a pitch showing the slightest inference of assisting the pacemen, will most probably elect to bowl first at the struggling Australian batsmen.

Australia will no doubt replace the injured Ryan Harris with a spinner. Based upon the recent spin bowling policy of the Australian selectors, speculation on who will fill this position is futile. The Australians, trying desperately to regain some morsel of respect and level the series, are caught between a rock and a hard place should they win the toss. Should they bat first they risk being humbled in similar fashion to the test against Pakistan 12 months ago and the recent MCG test. Electing to bowl first may give the pacemen a chance in conducive conditions however will require that they face up to Graeme Swann in the fourth innings on days four and five.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lessons from the Past

When installed as captain of England in 1975, Tony Greig had a plan to revitalise his adopted country's Test form. After their innings defeat in the first Test at Edgbaston had cost his side the Ashes, he felt the batting was a misery - as collapsible as an accordion and just as flamboyant. As the new leader of the England cause, he decided to approach the problem in his own manner.

It was simple enough: Greig went straight to the best bowlers on the county scene and asked them who were the toughest players to dismiss. The answer came back unsurprisingly that inimitable Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott was one of the hardest. The second name that came back was a veritable shock - it was "The bank clerk who went to war", Northamptonshire's David Steele. A prematurely grey middle-order bat, thirty-four year old Steele sported a first-class average of only 31 and at AJ Greig's insistence was promptly selected to play against the two greatest attacks of the era, Australia and the West Indies. Boycott remained in exile, refusing to play for England in protest at being looked over for the captaincy.

Steele only played eight Test matches, yet averaged just over 42 for his Test career and the Anglocentric cricketing tome Wisden named him Cricketer of the Year in 1976. He scored 45 and 50 on debut and followed it up with his only hundred against the Windies the following year. It was a transitional time for the England squad with newcomers Mike Brearley, Graham Gooch and Bob Woolmer sandwiched between veterans Snow, Lever and Amiss. But Steele gave the England batting some spine sorely lacking and showed, more than anything, the youthful Gooch and Woolmer how to be a professional.

Gone are the days where shotgun selections pay the most benefit as every country's team has access to footage going back ten years. By reaching for Michael Beer in the hopes of uncovering another Peter Taylor, the Australian selectors showed their hand devoid of trumps. The first step in developing a team's fortunes is to make them hard to beat and though Australia's bowling stocks aren't anywhere near their nadir, the batsmanship on show has been laughably inept. As Mike Hussey ages there have been many questions as to his longevity in the national squad and now it may be in Australia's best interests to retain him as long as possible to help show the next generation how to prize one's scalp.

With Ponting probable to miss the Sydney Test and Phil Hughes's immediate status in jeopardy, the selectors could do worse than partnering Shane Watson and Hussey with other batsman who treasure their wicket. The current intent on playing to a certain style - getting on the front foot early, dominating the bowlers, scoring runs quickly - rather than just doing what best suits the situation is hurting Australia's prospects of a quick recovery from their current Test doldrums.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Asian Fever!

With the 2011 Asian Cup just around the corner, most of the Asian Football Confederation's best players are preparing to wing across the world to join their national teams. The tournament will run from January 7 through until the end of the month, with most of the players leaving their European clubs as early as this week to ensure that they're fully prepared for the Qatar-based campaign. There will be a mix of traditional Asian powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea mixed among random entrants such as India, the UAE, North Korea and Australia.

Players from Asia rank among some of the most consistent in the European leagues. In the Premiership Tim Cahill of Everton and Australia robs the Toffees of their best goalscoring threat, while South Korea's Ji-Sung Park has been Manchester United's saviour on more than one occasion this term. Countryman Lee Chung-Yong has been an attacking force on the right for Bolton Wanderers, while Australia custodian Mark Schwarzer is one of the premier shot-stoppers in the league. His backup, Brad Jones, is still a work in progress at Liverpool while David Carney plies his trade down the left of Ian Holloway's Blackpool. Australians are more prevalent in the EPL than any other Asian players because many of them have English or European ancestry allowing Premiership clubs to sign them as Europeans, avoiding hassles with work permits. The last of the Aussies in the English top flight is Blackburn's workhorse Brett Emerton.

The Spanish League restricts the number of non-EU players each team is allowed to field per game, meaning that of the named squads, only Osasuna is sending players to the tournament in Iranian pair Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei. Whereas Italy's quota system for non-EU residents is more complex and as such there are fewer professional Asian players in Serie A.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining these work permits in these most famous leagues for non-EU residents, many of the elite Asian players play elsewhere in Europe. Germany in particular has an affinity for players from the Asian Confederation: North Korea's Jong Tae- Se and Japan's Shinji Kagawa are the two prime examples. Tae-Se's (Bochum) abilities were evident during the World Cup this year and the strong, bustling centre-forward could well be the most important player in his Group - a group that, given their occasional brilliance during the World Cup they should be favourites to win. Dortmund's Kagawa is joined in the Bundesliga by his brethren Hasebe (Wolfsburg), Makino (Koln) and Uchida (Schalke).

Russia has been the first step in the journey towards more lucrative leagues for some time for both African and Asian players. CSKA Moscow boasts probably the Confederation's best player, flame-haired Japan dynamo Keisuke Honda. The best Blue Samurai player - potentially ever - is still young and CSKA will struggle with his loss while cross-city rivals Dinamo will have to cope with with the departure of that most dependable Socceroo, Luke Wilkshire. The "other" back-route into Europe, Turkey, provides four Aussies including star man Harry Kewell and captain Lucas Neill from Galatasary and Besiktas' Ersan Gulum, a 23-year old defender who opted for the green and gold jersey rather than that of his adopted homeland, much to the dismay of former Socceroo coach Guus Hiddink

The favourites at this point must be perennial powerhouses South Korea and Japan, but Iran's squad boasts fewer players than usual playing in Europe and as such are a complete unknown. Unknowns, perhaps, could benefit as in 2007 Iraq surprised the continent with their enterprising play to take the chocolates. With Qatar on a high after winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, it would be a surprise not to see them in the second round as well. With many of the top players in the Confederation playing in the top leagues in the world, this year's Asian Cup promises to be an exciting series of matches.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The football year, 2010

Best Moment: The final moments of the World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay & Ghana. The entire sequence, including Suarez's deliberate handball, Gyan's penalty miss and then his successful taking of the first penalty in the shootout was drama of the highest quality.

Best Team: It comes either from Spain or Barcelona, no matter what Inter Milan and their Champions' League medals say. My pick is Barcelona simply because the style of football they've produced consistently over the past twelve months has been a cut above almost anything we've seen before. Their dismantling of Real Madrid earlier this month was both beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Worst Team: Not so much "worst" as "worst performance from what should have been a good team". This award goes to Italy for their poor World Cup. Even England's desolate form looked good when compared against the reigning world champs and new manager Cesare Prandelli inherited not winners, but a team in need of rebuilding.

Best Manager: Usually the best managers are those which manage the best teams. There are few exceptions here as Pep Guardiola, Vicente Del Bosque and Jose Mourinho all have adequate claims. I'm going to opt however for Ian "Olly" Holloway from Blackpool who's overseen their transformation from Championship relegation candidates to mid-table Premiership sporting a squad made up of also-rans and journeymen.

Best Game: Without question the match in which Barcelona destroyed Real only a few weeks ago. There's a good chance that the best team in Europe waltzed over the second best with nary a second thought. Honourable mention: The Ghana/Uruguay World Cup Quarter-Final.

Player of 2010: Again, surely must come from Spain. Wayne Rooney or Diego Milito could have been in this race given they both started the year on fire but struggled with injury and form since the 2010 Champions' League. As for the best player of 2010, you could pick any of Andres Iniesta, Xavi or Lionel Messi. It's your pick, and I won't complain about any of 'em. Honourable mentions: Diego Forlan and Thomas Muller both had outstanding World Cups.

Signing of 2010: Rafael Van der Vaart has been a revelation since signing on for Tottenham in the Premiership. Another Dutch master who didn't fit at the Bernabeu who then has flourished after being sold.

Worst Signing: It could well be Antonio Cassano, who's recently moved from Sampdoria to AC Milan. Honourable mention: Javier Mascherano's transfer to Barcelona seemed to be Los Catalans aiming for names, rather than skill-sets. With both these signings however, time will tell.

Person who most lived up to his imaginary middle name: Sepp Blatter. I can't write what I really think of his autocratic style of government at FIFA. Honourable mention: John Terry

Most stubborn resistance to commonsense: That Arsene Wenger is yet to replace his strictly-average goalkeeping platoon of Lukas Fabianski and Manuel Almunia is what keeps his rival managers happy and giggling.

Second-most stubborn resistance to commonsense: FIFA's refusal to abide any signs of progress, especially regarding Goal-line technology.

Goal of the Year: Glentoran's Matt Burrows, amidst a veritable snowstorm of contenders.

Un-goal of the Year: Khalfan Fahad's side-foot for Qatar against Uzbekistan in the 2010 Asian Games earned him instant notoriety and (probably) the worst miss of 2010.

Craziest statement: Blatter's gaffe concerning homosexuals "refraining" last week was an extremely poorly-judged piece of social commentary masquerading as a joke. Honourable mentions: Most other statements issued by Sepp Blatter; Mario Balotelli saying that only Lionel Messi was a better player than him, Steven Gerrard calling Joe Cole "better than Messi".

Poorest Managerial Fit: Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. He's a remarkably talented manager but already the seeds of his dismissal have been sown. Honourable mention: Rafael Benitez's horrible stint in charge of Inter Milan.

Harshest EPL sacking: Although Sam Allardyce may have other ideas, there's no question Chris Hughton has been the hardest-done-by manager in the Premiership this year.

Most obvious money-grabbing tactic of 2010: Wayne Rooney's five-day turnaround in October where he went from demanding a transfer to signing the richest Man U contract ever. With those actions, he went from fan favourite to pariah, and rightly so. Honourable mention: Blatter's acceptance and backing of the Qatari bid for the 2022 World Cup.

Explosion of 2010: Gareth Bale's emergence as a world-class left winger, where he's taken apart several outstanding defences throughout the course of the year. Honourable mention: Antonio Cassano's tirade at Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone.

Implosion of 2010: France's World Cup squad became more and more farcical as the tournament progressed. It was incredibly amusing, especially given that Nicolas Anelka was at the hub, a man who it's very difficult to like. Honourable mention: football owners, left and right, whose teams were simply not set up to cope with the global economic downturn, eg. Sacha Gaydamak's reign at Portsmouth.

Hero of 2010: Owen Coyle has transformed Bolton from relegation candidates to real possibilities for Europe with much the same squad as predecessor Gary Megson, all with an affable and approachable attitude and a pleasing style of game - the kind of man you'd want to have a beer with. Honourable mention: Jose Mourinho (!) for masterminding Inter's Champions' League triumph over Barca.

Villain of 2010: (tie) John Terry and Luis Suarez. John Terry for his off-field exploits (allegedly) with Wayne Bridge's ex; Suarez could be considered either hero or villain for his actions during the World Cup quarter final, but after recently biting an opponent and earning a seven-match ban sees him firmly planted in the villain category. Honourable mention: Roy Hodgson, who's worshiped by Fulham fans and ridiculed by Liverpudlians.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

AC to the AC

League-leading AC Milan have reportedly struck a deal to sign flamboyant Italy forward Antonio Cassano from Sampdoria. It's a curious move by the Rossoneri for a few reasons - most notably the presence of such a wobbly howitzer could destabilise Serie A's form team on and off the field.

Cassano's recent suspension has finished, a ban imposed for a foul-mouthed tirade directed at the club President after being asked to attend an awards function. The Italian media reported his explosion as being heard by several visitors including children, that it was in response to a reasonably-phrased request and seemed to come from nowhere.

To come from nowhere probably isn't accurate - Cassano's been the enfant terrible since his emergence at Bari and has displayed more of these tendencies as his profile has risen. Whether it's been weight clauses, threatening to "walk all the way back to Roma", his glittering form when starting over (again) at the blucerchiati of Sampdoria or fans chanting his name to the Italy coach, his career has hardly been a boring one.

Even he probably admits he crossed the line with his supernovaic anger. He only barely avoided his contract being voided despite his offering to take a 50% wage cut. The explosion was probably already coming after being benched last term for conduct detrimental to the team. With that, another relationship between Cassano and his club had soured.

Given their big rival Inter Milan's poor form, it's puzzling why AC would risk dividing the impressive forward triumvirate of Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng? Cassano's talent and goal sense would be handy, but could come at a significant cost to team harmony. Another me-first player in the San Siro dressing room could destabilise the club rather than reinforce it.

Injuries to Filippo Inzaghi and Alexandre Pato combined with Ronaldinho's probable impending departure could represent something of a talent drain, but Boateng has so far proved a very shrewd acquisition and plays in the same position as Cassano - in the hole behind the front-man. In the unlikely event the Rossoneri are planning to let the Ghanaian's loan deal expire then this could create more problems for the coach.

Perhaps Milan are banking on the leadership of their numerous veterans sedating the bad boy of Italian football: rather than being a big fish in a smaller pond, Cassano is now suddenly surrounded by players like Gattuso, Inzaghi, Seedorf, Nesta, Pirlo and Ambrosini. Unfortunately that didn't stop his alleged antics at Roma or Real. It could be he's on an incentive-laden contract with a system of fines and penalties built in. Players are much less likely to sign such deals but surely Milan is in the position of power: given his exhaustion of other opportunities, they need Cassano less than he needs them. Perhaps that's AC's tactic: to simply tie him to the bench should he become too much of a distraction and eat his ample wages the way he devours pastries.

With their league position, squad and the considerable fiscal cost of this deal, it appears Milan have more to lose than to gain. Signing Antonio Cassano could sound like a good idea, but could also be a move that excites other clubs as much as the Milan fans.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pitching it up: A commentary

Matthew Wood investigates how much the pitch actually makes a difference.

As play during the Third Test match at the WACA ground showed, the character and life of a pitch is essential to the type of cricket that it produces. Long renowned as one of the fastest and bounciest pitches in the world, over the past decade or so the strip in Perth lost a lot of the speed that made it famous. Changes in the type of grass and the drainage system employed meant that suddenly the vicious fast-bowling paradise of yesteryear became an easier proposition for batsmen to take on and score runs.

In similar circumstances, Sydney's strip still holds it's name as a "turner" yet in recent Tests has become more bland as batsmen have increasingly controlled proceedings. The ground still "takes spin", but not to the same extent as during the 1980s where fair-to-middling spinners Bob Holland, Peter Taylor, Peter Sleep and, famously, Allan Border were able to bowl Australia to victory.

First under Dennis Lillee's control and now under fellow Test player Graeme Wood, the WACA has recently sought to rediscover its own pacy nature, sometimes at the expense of a full five days of cricket. The Third Ashes Test ended inside four days, meaning that the WACA itself was deprived of at least one day's attendance money, a sacrifice they seem prepared to make to ensure that the Perth strip maintains its reputation as a pitch that bowlers would like to carry around with them.

But the Perth Test's pacy strip didn't preclude performances; it's just that both batsmen and bowlers had to play well to get results. Hussey's technique was exemplary during his two innings and there's no coincidence that the guy with (probably) England's best technique, Ian Bell, was the pick of their batsmen. The bowlers who got rewards bowled to wont of the pitch and not to how they thought they should bowl.

As cricket increasingly becomes a business and revenue is all-important, making a Test match carry on for the full five days has become paramount to filling the pockets of state cricket associations. That, combined both with drop-in pitches and a subcontinentally-led trend towards One-Day strips favouring batsmen means since the mid-1990s each pitch in Australia has become more bland and, to a certain extent, lost their individuality.

The ideal pitch was always said to produce a result on the afternoon of the fifth day of a Test. That way, it ensured there was something in it early for the quick bowlers and something in it late for the spinners. Perhaps it's time to dismiss the notion that crowds and administrators get their money's worth by how long a match endures. Surely the quality of match ensures value for money, not the quantity?

In proof, The best One-Day match I have attended was in 1992 when the Australians defended 199 against a West Indies side at the tail end of their greatness. The pitch, the players and the situation made for great cricket, not the fact that the match went the distance. The match, in Melbourne, went to fifty overs per side but ended only just after 9.30pm.

Once Cricket Australia acknowledge that we watch cricket for astounding feats and just to kill three, eight or forty hours, then pitches the country over will hopefully begin to regain their own unique natures and we'll again have the greatest variety in the world of pitches. Also, Australia as a team would be so much the stronger because players in domestic competitions will have matured playing on different types of wickets and not the same uniform tracks which encourage a good eye rather than a good technique.

The WACA, an association faced with bankruptcy only a matter of years ago, has made the conscious decision to ensure the pitches they prepare are different and true to the form that's been the case in Perth over forty years of Test cricket. By being prepared to make the choice of identity over profit, they will in time benefit firstly as the Warriors develop a home-ground advantage that no other state can match, and also as fans flock to matches because a pitch that demands perfect technique will produce performances of the highest quality. I'd take three days of magnificent all-around cricket instead of five days of batting on a flat deck any day: we watch sport for the challenge as well as the result and the WACA, by remaining true to what it believes, has invigorated this Ashes series.

Pitching it up: The MCG

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts

With the series now square it is fait accompli that the Australian and English cricketers will be met by an 80,000 strong MCG crowd. The enormity of the occasion will hopefully be matched by a stirring contest. The MCG pitch however is unlikely to become too excited about the occasion.

Players from both sides may be in shock shifting from the fast, green and bouncy WACA pitch to the MCG that two weeks ago appeared lifeless and dull. Between the England XI and Victoria, no amount of generous declarations, or charitable bowling from Andrew Strauss could manufacture a result. The MCG wicket gives very little easily to either batsmen or bowler, calling upon them to play cricket with great concentration.

The slower and more benign nature of the MCG pitch is a relatively new phenomenon due in no small part to the use of drop in pitches. With greater usage of the ground by Australian football it became difficult for the ground team to prepare reasonable pitches for the cricket season and thus they turned to drop in pitches, maintained off site during the winter months.

After the Second World War the MCG pitch was known for being full of life. In fact an MCG 'sticky wicket' was thought of as being a fate worse than a Gabba 'sticky' for a batsman. Centuries on this pitch in the decades post the war were highly regarded.

In 1990 Bruce Reid took 13 wickets against Graham Gooch's English tourists. Reasons for this match being won and lost provide insight into playing on the MCG pitch. Reid bowled consistent line and length and waited for loose shots. The English batsmen, despite having led on the first innings, showed no concentration in the second innings and collapsed. Geoff Marsh and David Boon then mustered their powers of concentration, batting for 5 hours on the last day to score just 169 required for victory.

England more than likely will select Tim Bresnan over Steve Finn for the MCG test. James Anderson has performed well in all tests so far and Chris Tremlett was by far England's best at Perth. Both have natural assets that, used consistently, should succeed at the MCG. Bresnan will provide extra brawn to the attack and energy when nothing is happening. As well, he provides lower order batting that was missing in Perth.

Both Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris will be assured of selection. In addition, it is assumed that on the MCG pitch a spinner will provide balance to the attack. No doubt Ben Hilfenhaus bowled very well in Perth without great reward; but since a selection must be made my opinion is that Peter Siddle is the better option for the MCG wicket.

Harris showed in his performance at Perth that he is a wise craftsman. He had great control of both swing and seam in dismissing the English batsmen. Should Hilfenhaus, also a craftsman, be selected Harris may be forced to bowl with more aggression than craft, limiting his effect. On a lifeless MCG pitch Australia will need aggression as well as swing and seam. With Harris and Johnson the in form bowlers, Siddle becomes a better option for a truly balanced attack.

Excluding Michael Hussey and Shane Watson, batsmen from both teams failed to display much concentration during all four innings at Perth. Ricky Ponting has succeeded on Boxing Day before, and he and other struggling batsmen, Michael Clarke, Paul Collingwood, and Phil Hughes should take note of the innings' that Marsh and Boon played 20 years ago.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Handbags at ten paces

Sledging has been a part of the game of cricket since the early days of the sport. The earliest superstar, Dr. W.G. Grace was apparently a proponent of what latterly Steve Waugh's termed "mental disintegration". The term "sledging" was coined in the late 1960s in honor of Aussie fast bowler Graham Corling, who during a team barbecue made several lewd remarks and was deemed by teammates "as subtle as a sledgehammer", when then evolved into "Percy Sledge". Later "sledging" has been applied to any term of abuse in reference to a sports match and the more creative sledgers have won plaudits for their creativity and humour. Sometimes, however, talking crap backfires: just ask Glenn McGrath.

In his book "Loose Balls", former NBA star Jayson Williams says that trash-talk in basketball circles never involves family, partners or girlfriends because it's just too dangerous. There's a line in the sand that players respect and generally any discussion is limited to "Y'all can't stop me", "Who's guarding me?" and the like. Their reasons are simple - it's just not worth it because trouble always follows personal remarks.

In cricket it's different. Sledging as we now know it started off as casual comments about a player's technique or the state of the scoreboard but over the past twenty years as players think the stakes have risen, it's morphed into "say what you can to make the batsman lose concentration". All nations take part in it, probably equally. Supposed men of faith like Matthew Hayden have been serial offenders which doesn't sit well with those of us who ostensibly hold the same faith and belief systems.

But let's be honest - mostly it's just boys being boys. Or at least it should be. With England wicketkeeper Matt Prior reportedly suggesting to Peter Siddle "let's go - let's take it outside", the boundary between "gamesmanship" to "handbags at ten paces" was crossed. What Siddle did to entice the invitation was pepper the hapless 'keeper with short lifters and then dismiss him. If the Victorian tearaway stayed true to form would have also have given the Englishman a send off coloured by expletives, which if he did so was probably pretty dumb given Prior was dismissed by Siddle's good luck rather than good management.

Prior's response - essentially encouraging a fight, in which I have no doubt the bigger and stronger Siddle would triumph - has all the elegance and cleverness of a schoolyard "So's your Mum". Never the most startling riposte, but again perhaps Glenn McGrath or AFL player Adam Selwood would disagree. The Australians have attempted to regain their swagger this Test by aiming a series of barbs at the Old Enemy, who as expected have responded in kind. Perhaps, given Australia's performance in this match it has worked, but even so they have appeared not as the gum-chewing, self-confident larrikins of the Chappell, Taylor & Waugh eras but as petulant, self-aggrandising children; children on both sides of the match who Daddy Match Referee will be dealing with sternly because they look ridiculous and by extension, the game is reflected upon poorly.

It takes on even more of ludicrous stance when chief among the talkers has been Michael Clarke, whose form thus far has wobbled between horrible and below par. By involving himself but failing to back it up with runs, Clarke negates his own authority and further erodes his position as heir apparent to the Australian captaincy. As has been pointed out repeatedly, very few positions are as visible in Australia as that of the cricket captain, so for him to make himself look foolish in this manner doesn't bode well for his future leadership prospects. While Border and Waugh led the side they engaged in verbal stoushes with their opponents but almost always from a position of strength, or knowing they were going to be able to add strength to their words with runs. The simple reason Michael Jordan was the biggest trash-talker of all was that he was the best player that basketball had seen and so always backed his words with points or wins.

Clarke, again, seems to try to bully opposition simply because the big kids do it and so resembles a teen, who rather than being full of confidence is full of braggadocio and bluster. It would make his press conferences infinitely more palatable should he carry on this attitude post-match as well!

There's no excuse for getting personal in sledging Neither is there any excuse for name-calling as a) it rarely works and b) it makes the name caller look dumb. If you don't agree - and that's fine - then ask yourself this: hearing swearing is a very different thing to being sworn at, isn't it? With language and emotion like that directed at each other, there's no surprise each responds in the way they've been addressed. Of course it's coarse and disappointing and both sides obviously don't realise that they look very small doing so. It's a pity that the line never crossed in the NBA simply doesn't exist in cricket any more.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

'Tis the Season

... to sack managers.

Blackburn's Sam Allardyce is the latest manager to be given his pink P45 slip, made redundant by the new ownership of the northwest club, the Indian Poultry company Venky's. Early tips suggested he was removed due to a conflict between the club's ambitions - a fifth-placed finish next term - and their transfer ambitions - five million available and two guys they'd strongly suggested he buy.

The club's new chair, Anuradha Desai, spoke to ESPN Soccernet in an attempt to dispel those rumours but rumblings persist they are keen on Middlesbrough's Scottish striker Kris Boyd and San Jose's flamboyant Brazilian Geovanni. All reports of the firing mentioned meetings between board and manager had left both sides malcontent but if we believe that Allardyce's reaction to being instructed who to buy wasn't the reason for his departure, then suddenly reasons for Big Sam's termination aren't apparent. Blackburn have performed well, if not overpoweringly in the league and hadn't spent money on players for over a year. Allardyce's development of highly rated youngsters Steven Nzonzi and Phil Jones could well pay dividends as they may soon be snaffled by big clubs as each approaches their national team squad.

He may well be replaced permanently by his number two, Steve Kean, who has taken temporary charge of Rovers, as Venky's has stated they're looking for a British manager. This places Chris Hughton, recently of Newcastle United, in the frame and habitual candidates Sven Goran Eriksson and Diego Maradona mercifully ruled out. This came as part of a statement in which they floated a possible "X-factor" type audition-come-scouting process that could be turned into a TV show, a project already tried in Australia.

The man "better suited to managing Real Madrid or Inter" may though fall on his feet. A specialist in avoiding relegation who turned a bunch of also-rans into over-achievers at Bolton, he may have a ready-made challenge at West Ham where boss Avram Grant has reportedly been given two games to save both his job and the Hammers' season. West Ham have been almost uniformly awful this term despite captain Scott Parker playing out of his skin and youthful promise from Junior Stanislas. A proto-Allardyce, take-charge type would be perfect should the Israeli that David James calls "Yoda" receive his marching orders. Quiet Man Hughton has also been strongly linked as the preferred candidate for Messrs Gold & Sullivan due to his experience last year, where he took Newcastle back to the Premiership in their first attempt.

The Hammers' steadfastness at the bottom of the table is a slight puzzle given they appear more talented - if paper thin - than several of their competitors for the three relegation spots. Between last season with Portsmouth and West Ham this year, Grant's League record in 2010 has been abysmal. He has, however, taken Portsmouth to the FA Cup Final and West Ham to this year's League Cup final showing his Cups form remains nearly indomitable. Unfortunately for Yoda, it's the Premiership and the money it brings that interests Gold & Sullivan meaning Grant's status remains perilous at best.

Other managers under pressure include Roberto Martinez at Wigan, Aston Villa's new boss Gerard Houllier, Fulham's Mark Hughes and most prominently the Gentleman of English football, Liverpool's Roy Hodgson. Poor performances or an inability to match last season's standing dogs each of them. Although the pressure has eased on Roberto Mancini in the blue half of Manchester, he finds his job mildly in question because of the style of play he's conducted at Eastlands. His consistent use of defensive tactics has frustrated fans and players alike but a recent run of results has probably ensured his position for now.

Each boss finds himself under the magnifying glass as the January transfer window approaches because it's now that clubs start thinking about shelling out on new players. For the Hammers, where would the sense be in giving Grant money to spend on the players his style of play demands when the style encouraged by Allardyce or Hughton requires different skill sets?

As Christmas approaches, it still remains to be seen if one or more of these men has more time to spend with his family during the cold English winter. With so many bosses feeling the pressure it's likely that there will be at least one gaffer dismissed this year and with the Winter Sales - and the point of no return - just around the corner, that looks to be coming sooner rather than later.

We'd love to hear your comments as to who you think will be the first manager sacked. Who would you replace them with?

It's not you, it's me.

Greg Chappell's job title is Australian cricket's "High Performance Manager". Even though the Chairman of Selectors is Andrew Hilditch, Chappell's moniker may as well be "de facto Head of Selection". After a series of bewildering selections and speedy discards, Chappell was brought in recently to head up the team designed to make Australian cricket a world power again. His presence on the selection committee meant no more space for Merv Hughes, the only bowler on the panel. His appointment was met with joy and expectation by Aussie fans dismayed at the performances of their team - very much the hero striding back to our aid in an hour of need.

It's Chappell's second stint on the Australian selection panel after being one of the boffins behind the youth movement of the mid 1980s. In fact, between 1985 and 1989 Australia debuted twenty new players. Since regaining the Ashes loss in 2007 where Australia the search its ranks for heirs to the thrones of Warne, McGrath, Langer and Martyn began in earnest, Australia has doled out twenty-one new Baggy Greens, with Michael Beer expected to receive the twenty-second on Thursday.

It's obvious to the outside eye that change is needed in Australian cricket and is needed as soon as possible. By selecting Beer instead of the tried and true Nathan Hauritz - who still has almost insurmountable claims to being Australia's premier spin bowler - the selection panel has sent a strong message, intended or not. By first discarding him for Doherty and then scouring every possible option rather than recall him despite career-best form recently, Chappell and his cohort have essentially told Hauritz one of two things - his Australian career is over or hangs by the slimmest of threads. The same message has not, however, been delivered to Mitchell Johnson whose recall to the Test team looks assured.

Chappell has a great cricketing brain. He speaks lucidly, giving thought to his words and had perhaps the greatest mental preparedness for batting that the game has seen. He's long been thought to impart his remarkable knowledge well to younger players, even if he does it in a very business-like way. He now also may be our best hope for a quick return to the top. However, his early gambits in this role seem to mirror slightly his stint in charge of Indian cricket, where as coach he fell foul of the whims of then-captain Sourav Ganguly. Behind the dispute was Chappell's desire to replenish the One-Day team in particular with younger players, specifically guys like Suresh Raina and Sreesanth. When told he could be included in the players who would make way, Ganguly led a near full-scale revolt against the coach and the player-coach relationship, probably fraught in that case to start with, was irreparably damaged. Chappell's tenure was undermined to such an extent that his position was untenable. The ill-feeling that persisted from that fallout has been fingered by a number of Indian cricketers as the chief reason for their underperformance in the 2007 World Cup.

With several of their stars ageing, Chappell saw a real need for change in the team and set about making those changes. Not being privy to how he delivered his message to those senior team members it's impossible to know how tactful he was; but one of Chappell's most obvious (and endearing) qualities has always been his honesty and frankness. It's quite possible that he was simply too honest for renowned prima-donna Ganguly; it's also possible that need for change could have been either postponed until after the 2007 World Cup or administered in a graduated manner rather than the "making space in the squad to add youth" method purported by "Guru Greg".

Of course this is all theory, but it does sit well: with Chappell now chief among them, the selectors have acted similarly with Hauritz, a player thought behind the scenes to be overly sensitive. It seems the mindset behind the team is now "Change is needed, so make that change as soon as possible". Sometimes sensitive players appreciate frankness and other times not. In a time where cricket has demanded so many sacrifices of the current players, how could an incumbent player not take brick-wall honesty concerning their future prospects as reproof?

As further testament to Chappell's ability to call a spade a bloody-great-shovel, Dean Jones remarked in his 1994 autobiography "Deano" that at the beginning of the 1984-85 season, newly minted selector Chappell approached him at Victorian training with the news that he had no chance of playing for Australia in the foreseeable future. At the time, the Test debutant was gutted and reflected in print that it was a harsh thing to say so frankly. Always a businessman on the cricket field, Chappell had his poker face on and Jones says he didn't elucidate further.

Australian cricket is a business, and has been for players since Gregory Stephen Chappell was amongst the first players to sign with Packer in 1977. But it's a business that operates unlike any other business in the world, so traditional business methods - poker faces, "step into my office" and water cooler discussion - don't work like they do in the outside world. Suddenly the business depends on the headspace of his men who often haven't worked in that outside world and who have been treated differently ever since they were acne-spotted early teens. If Chappell does deal with players playing his "CEO game" then he risks alienating any Ganguly-types in the dressing room.

There's no question he's a bonus to have in the Australian camp however and forthrightness is something that lacks in pro sports so in some ways it is very refreshing. Chappell's reputed unorthodox cricket coaching methods have a large role to play in the development of the next World Beaters from Down Under and as many other nations have adopted the analysis techniques made famous by John Buchanan an amount of the maverick could serve Australian cricket well as it searches for a new personality after the outgoing Warne, the taciturn Ponting and the redoubtable McGrath. An asset sure, but it appears we're witnessing a synchronisation where his style takes time to mesh fluidly with the players he's going to be managing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pitching it up: The WACA

Ben Roberts of World Cricket Watch and Balanced Sports inspects the pitch at the WACA prior to the 3rd test.

When Mike Gatting won the toss and elected to bat in the second test of the 1986-87 Ashes series it was the first time that any captain had elected to bat first on the WACA pitch in 10 test matches. In fact, prior to this match from the 13 previous tests, only twice had the captain winning the toss elected to bat.

The pitch at the WACA is renowned as being one of the fastest and bounciest in the cricketing world. In conjunction with the pitch characteristics, the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ blows in off the Indian ocean during the afternoon, assisting bowlers looking to move the ball through the air.

Despite these attractions the WACA can breed a false sense of confidence within a fired up fast bowler. The highlights reel of the ‘Master Blaster’ Vivian Richards pasting the Australian attack all over the WACA in 1988 is a definite lesson to all bowlers that you can bowl too short on this pitch. Richards stroked a dominant 146 off only 150 balls, playing across the line with ease to anything short.

Bowlers allowing the conditions to complement their natural talents and attributes will succeed at the WACA. There is no need to force the pace. The Ashes test of 1986 saw success for Bruce Reid and Graham Dilley, both of whom were blessed with tremendous height and natural bowling actions. The metronomic Glenn McGrath is the leading wicket taker at the ground, and Western Australian fast bowler Jo Angel never appeared over-exerted in taking many WACA wickets throughout his first-class career.

More recent history at the WACA has seen the captain that wins the toss electing to bat more often. This perhaps is more a reflection of the Australian dominance and attacking psyche, but also could be influenced by the generally more sedate pitch preparation. The need for Australia to push for victory, combined with England’s fast bowling stocks, may render the toss irrelevant. Both sides are likely to elect that Australia should bat first.

With Stuart Broad now injured, and based on players who have been successful at the WACA, the English should strongly consider selecting Chris Tremlett. His 201cm height and ease through the crease appears a match made in heaven with the WACA pitch. Tremlett complementing Graeme Swann, Stephen Finn and James Anderson would still be a potentially dominant attack. This assumes Tremlett will be selected; Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shazad are still in the touring party also. It’s a palatable problem to have for the tourists.

The options for Australia are less palatable. Bollinger, Siddle, Johnson and Harris are all attacking bowlers who enjoy pitching the ball short of a length; none seeming a great match for the WACA pitch. If the selectors had remained willing to make changes to the bowling lineup, a recent 9 wicket haul against Tasmania and an imposing 203cm height might have meant the South Australian Peter George could have been a worthy selection.

The English enter the Perth test with the better matched bowling attack for the conditions and a top-order in form. The best plan for the Australians will be for the thus far faltering top order to put scoreboard pressure on the English with a large first innings total.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pure Cycling: The Madison

Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts takes a look at the Australian Madison Championship.

Cycling is for the early part of the 21st century what golf was in the latter part of the 20th century, the fashionable sporting pursuit of the upper middle class. Weekend warriors all over the metropolis’ of Australia slip into their Lycra every weekend and pedal off on their dream machines. Dream machines who's purchase has increased their planned retirement age by two years. Financial planners are trained to listen with understanding, they too have their own piece of elite sporting equipment in the garage.

They dream that they too could fly up the side of the Tourmalet, the Telegraph, or even Alpe d'Huez. They know the tactics, conserve energy now, attack the field later; attack now and make them catch you.

In the depths of the southern hemisphere winter bleary eyed white collar workers stare blankly at their computer screens. Asked for the monthly figures by executive management they reply with “Evans 24 seconds down on...I mean still working on them”. The 2.30am refrains of Messrs Liggett and Sherwen rolling around their head - “Bernard Eisel now comes to the front..he’s there for his man Mark Cavendish.”

The tour is more than a cycling race, it is a lifestyle choice whether you are in Marseilles or Melbourne. Every July those watching get a tour of the French countryside, a lesson in French history, even a physiological update that will assist them to take the stairs rather than the lift when trekking between accounts and marketing. They sip 'Australian Sparkling' as though they own a chateau in Champagne, and eat fresh bread and produce with the vigour of a hard-working Breton farmer. The race itself becomes secondary to the lifestyle that goes along with it. Maybe I will break a cycling code by saying so, but as a cycling race, Le Tour, is not the best.

My favourite cycling race is where chaos and organisation come together, the Madison. Conducted within a sterile velodrome it lacks the sociological, viticultural, and perhaps agricultural appeals of the tour; but it more than makes up for it with the excitement of the race.

The Madison to an uninitiated watcher could appear less an organised competition than an overcrowded and under managed training ride. The combination of having teams of two, one racing and one resting but still riding slowly, and the shorter laps of a velodrome can make it completely impossible to ascertain what riders are in fact leading. Originating out of New York's Madison Square, the race sought to replace the original incarnation of six-day racing which became considered hazardous to rider health. Such decisions in cycling history have been a rarity by either organisers or riders themselves!

In shifts of between two and four laps each rider seeks to benefit of their own team before linking up with their partner, literally, and launching them into action. Riders seek to be first across the line after pre-ordained laps, awarded points for doing so – but the real action comes in the pursuit to be 'laps up' on the field.

The race takes all the brute aggression, bike control, and wits that a cyclist could have. It is not for the faint of heart, crashes regular. Switching back and forth between riders keeps the race pace at an exhausting level for spectators, let alone the riders themselves. Spectators engaged at all times, every 10 or 20 laps as the field sprints for points, and as the race wears on the absolute need to take a lap by teams will have them on the edge of their seats.

Lapping the field is the primary objective of the teams, even with zero points a team will win the Madison if they can lap the other riders more often. The winners of a Madison will have been able to collect sprinting points along the way but also have conserved enough energy to have attacked the field at the right time to move one or two laps ahead. Not only this but they must remain aware of their rivals lest they too attack the field.

Friday evenings Australian Madison Championship was won by the pairing of Australia's anointed young cyclists, Cameron Meyer and Jack Bobridge. For the second year running I watched live the championship, enjoying every moment.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Alan Pardew Project

Alan Pardew is the new boss at Newcastle United. After Mike Ashley decided to fire Chris Hughton it was always likely that the former West Ham manager would be appointed to fill the leadership void on Tyneside. Rumour has it (and it must be said again that this is strictly rumour) that he was seen dining with Ashley in a chichi London eatery the night before Hughton was turfed from his role at St. James' Park. The paucity of current top-class managerial options - even Alan Curbishley turned his nose up at the job - also suggested that Pardew could well be the man for the job.

The most curious part about this appointment is not that Hughton was fired, or even that his replacement comes straight from League One. The most interesting part is the length of contract endowed upon Pardew. The Newcastle hierarchy has seen fit to dish out a five-and-a-half year contract to the 49 year-old silvertail after refusing to commit to The Understated One (Hughton) for even one extra year following a string of good results. The writing on the wall was plain: Hughton was never going to get that contract renewal whether he earned it or not; if only for reasons unbeknownst to us all, he was not the man that Ashley wanted in charge.

The reason five-plus years is curious is that it comes directly after management stated there will be "no rewards for failure" on Tyneside. Alongside that came the standard owner's fare that every penny will be watched under the new gaffer. This implies that Ashley thought Hughton's tenure should be stamped "Fail". If winning the Championship in a canter and maintaining a healthy Premier league position is insufficient then Hughton is guilty. But it also says that whoever took on the job would be judged by the same standards and would have only the same cattle on hand. Perhaps it was shrewd negotiating by Pardew in demanding a five year deal, knowing Ashley could be counted on to lean in whichever way the wind blows. Or perhaps even more believably, Alan Pardew is simply that convincing a salesman that he pitched the Big Man on his features/advantages/benefits so well that Ashley bought the lot. If so, that's a trait not to be underestimated as all the best managers are first-class pitchmen, but Ashley didn't make his millions by being gullible so it is a long bow to draw.

Pardew has said his first thoughts were on maintaining the Magpies' Premiership status - a good start - but if he is to be judged by the same criteria that Hughton has been then he has a pitched battle on his hands. By committing to judge Pardew by the same standards by which he's axed The Understated One then surely Ashley has just offered over five years wages' to a man with a questionable history of achievement and will reward Pardew for whatever he bring to Tyneside: success, mediocrity or failure.

Whichever way you approach, it seems like Alan Pardew, through Mike Ashley's good humour, good eye-for-talent or poor judgement, has been rewarded before the results are in.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The English Game: Introduction & the Marylebone Cricket Club

"As a precursor to a series in the new year looking at the history of each County Championship team, Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts introduces us to the romanticism of the English Game and looks at the most famous cricket club of all."

During w
inter months gone by, after having read every newspaper article on the football season, occasionally I would chance upon a snippet of cricket just prior to the classifieds. In these snippets often I'd find tales of record-breaking performances by players in the English County Championship. I still recall reading of Brian Lara's (still) world record first-class score of 501 not out made in under a day and a half of cricket, while playing for Warwickshire, and being amazed that such a feat was possible.

Domestic cricket in England is a feast for those endeared to statistical analysis. The extensive amount of cricket played and the longevity of players produces first-class records that are incomparable to those plying their trade solely in Australia's Sheffield Shield. Batsmen scoring not thousands of runs, but tens of thousands; bowlers taking thousands of wickets – astonishing figures.

In the years prior to exorbitant contracts with hastily formed franchise cricket teams, Australian cricketers travelled during the southern hemisphere winter to mine wickets, runs and riches for county teams. Such sojourns were thought of as a must for the first-class cricketer aiming for higher honours. For others, resigned to being unable to hold down full time employment as supplement to their meagre cricketing income, it allowed them to be truly professional cricketers.

Adding to the charm of the county game is that each of the counties is in fact a cricket club as opposed to the representative team of a cricketing association. These clubs are steeped in history and tradition, and while history and tradition are still evident for cricketing associations, there is something maybe more lasting and tangible for cricket clubs. You represent associations whereas you are a member of a club.

The club tradition also has extended to international cricket. Of great curiosity to me as a young cricket fan was why the English test teams would wear navy blue caps, yet the trim on their sweaters was red and yellow. I learned that this indeed was not 'red and yellow', but the 'egg and bacon' combination of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

From 1903 until 1996 the England cricket team was administered by the most famous cricket club of all. In test matches the team was always to be referred to as England; but up to and including the 1976-77 tour of Australia the players represented the MCC in all other first-class matches.

Its home at Lord's, the MCC remains an active cricket club, playing over 500 matches a year at various levels. This includes the traditional opening first-class fixture of the English summer against the county champions of the previous season. The MCC is responsible for the upkeep and development of Lord's and are the copywright owners of the Laws of Cricket.

Of interest to me always when reading county news or scores was the performances of Australian cricketers. With creative licence, the MCC is not immune from antipodean participitation. Five cricketers in history - Albert Trott, Sammy Woods, John Ferris, Billy Murdoch and Billy Midwinter - played test cricket for both Australia and England, all of whom represented Australia first and then England. All had test careers prior to the turn of the 20th century (therefore prior to MCC administration). At this point in history it appears easy to have changed teams: Midwinter later returned to play again for Australia; and Murdoch had indeed captained the Australian team on 16 occasions prior to switching allegiances. In a somewhat sadistic twist of fate Trott, Murdoch, Midwinter, and Ferris all lost their lives prematurely in tragic circumstances not long after their cricketing careers had finished.

The English game is subjected to praise and criticism depending on national fortunes. When the national team struggles, the County Championship will be labelled as weak, rewarding of mediocrity and too cumbersome. Contrasted to this, at times of national sucess the competitiveness will be lauded. Indeed, cricketing nomads from many nations have always flocked to English shores to compete regardless of the strength of competition.

To me there is a romanticism attached to the English game, and its clubs, that has largely been forgotten in the past 15 years. Such romanticism and tradition, often opined as being problematic and antithetical to the development of the game, remains one well where a cricketing purest can continue to dip their cup.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Bomber" Thompson's strange rhetoric

Mark Thompson is unrepentant as to the manner in which he left Geelong in October. No surprises there. In fact, in today's Age he actually came off sounding as if he was the one who was wronged in the messy marriage-breakup that was his exit from the Cattery.

His quotes in that newspaper are telling as words like "I can look myself in the mirror and just say I'm happy with everything that I've done" and "I gave anything I could possibly give. I walked away from a very lucrative contract" give an insight into his mindset: mildly hurt and surprised by the furore his decision has generated. But what he fails to realise is that by defending himself in this manner, he can only further infuriate the Cats supporters who saw his last season derailed by the constant circus surrounding Gary Ablett's possible move to the Gold Coast. Ablett eventually walked and so did Thompson. It's probable the Geelong faithful will wish the Brownlow Medallist more good favour than their former coach. It's also likely that Li'l Gary's departure will be seen as a much lesser act of disloyalty.

Because make no bones about it, Thompson tried to curry favour with both board and public in order to rid himself of his obligation to Geelong and re-join his former club Essendon. By claiming burn out, he didn't lie but withheld portions of the truth so as to reflect more sympathetically. He's re-stated his lack of desire to continue as a senior coach and thus feels justified, but by claiming ill-health - which is what burn-out equates to - only to re-surface a mere month later at another club makes him look economical with the truth.

There's little doubt that "Bomber" was burnt out. Indeed, in his interview yesterday he looked very well, rested and much healthier than he did during almost all of his stint at Kardinia Park. This can only back up his side of the story but from the outside it looks very much as if Thompson's head was turned toward Bomberland by all that he sought: less stress, re-uniting with a former club and a new challenge. When he realised the grass was greener back in Melbourne, it was down to him to engineer an excuse for leaving.

It's often said that some coaches are re-building masters and others don't have the stomach for that aspect of the job. Thompson had been the coach at Geelong for a decade and the reconstruction of that Cats side from afterthought to Premiers took the best part of those ten years by which time he was facing another remodelling. The fact that many of his best players are approaching retirement meant a bevy of personnel decisions and probable rebuilding from scratch. To be blunt, he just wasn't up for it.

Perhaps ten years of intense scrutiny in the fishbowl of Corio Bay took it's toll. Most tellingly of all, Thompson yesterday said "Being a senior coach, you just get criticised very heavily a lot of the times in your life and you almost become immune to it and that’s where I’m at" before continuing to say "I don’t have a problem with Geelong at all. If they have (with me) it's their problem. I gave anything I could possibly give. I walked away from a very lucrative contract ...".

Therein lies the problem: Thompson feels no remorse because he's been pilloried so heavily over the years that his response is one of a learned behaviour: go with his instincts and stick to any decision he makes. The criticism has given him such a thick skin that even he struggles to see through it. Thompson is happy with everything that he's done only because he's been desensitised by the scrutiny he's endured, even to the point of refusing to examine his decision-making process.

Were he to look at his departure objectively then perhaps he would think he owed Geelong hierarchy the complete truth. Of course that's unlikely.

Also irksome is his statement about "giving anything possible". Actually, it's complete rubbish. By resigning, Thompson broke his contract and as such forfeited any monies due to him. This doesn't constitute not giving up anything, only not receiving money for work which he did not complete. Giving implies he bought his way out of his contract, something which patently did not occur.

It was perhaps the most poorly kept secret in AFL football that "Bomber" would eventually take the senior assistant role at Essendon. New coach James Hird wanted him and he wanted to come. However he didn't escape the Cattery with his dignity intact. By telling half-truths to his comrades fearing the whole story would make him look bad, he has just made himself look worse. It's too bad that this ill-judgement means he will not just be remembered for two premierships and the fantastic play the Cats have delivered over the past decade. He will now, like Norm Smith, always be remembered for the way he left.

What's gone right for Australia?

These are dark times for the Rebel Alliance. After the attack on the Death Star... No, hang on, that's The Empire Strikes Back.

The reference may be valid anyway. One team has dominated the other so far this Ashes series and since Australia's crushing defeat at Hoth - sorry, Adelaide - and Simon Katich being frozen in carbonite - err, pulling up lame with achilles trouble - it appears as dark a time as can be remembered for the Australians. (I'm not suggesting England are actually evil, just dominant like the Empire were in the real Star Wars trilogy).

So without hint of jingoism it's time to examine after two Tests - one lamentably poor, the other suffering from one poor innings - what the Australians have done well through the start of this Ashes campaign. Obviously with Australian down 1 - 0 and with strife consuming the Baggy Green camp, the positives may be harder to find than negatives. To use Ricky Ponting's words - There are positives. To say what Ponting does not forces one to is to add - Australia is simply the inferior team this year. Although there are the following seven positives, it's unfortunate they come from a talent-deprived team and are overshadowed by negatives.

Nevertheless, on the plus side for the Australians are:

Mike Hussey's return to form

"Mr. Cricket" has been a millstone around Aussie necks for nigh-upon two years now, sprinkling poor performances with rigid batsmanship and an occasional impressive One-Day innings. He only made it into the First Test team by way of Khawaja and Ferguson failing to impress, yet has responded brilliantly: he's stroke-played, rather than ground out his scores. And best of all: he's the likeable Mike Hussey that Australia rallies around.

The Return of the Peter Siddle we all know and love

Peter Siddle's first innings hat-trick in Brisbane generated more hype than The Oprah Winfrey Show, yet in two subsequent innings he's been unable to reproduce the same bite and venom. That's not particularly surprising given his history of taking only a few wickets interspersed with occasional Michelles at Test level. What he does offer is abrasiveness, consistency - you know what you're going to get - and an optimism currently lacking in Mitchell Johnson's cricket.

Mitchell Johnson's omission from the Second Test

Harsh? No, not really. Because where we are as a cricket-playing nation is dependent on the whims and fragile confidence of Jess Bratich's boyfriend. When firing, Johnson is on a level with Dale Steyn as the best, most hostile fast men around. He was dropped for lack of form, but not discarded as having played out his usefulness like Jason Gillespie five years ago. His not playing in Adelaide hopefully will provide enough spark for him to rediscover his best form, but statements like "I need to get my head right" aren't inspiring - frankness regarding one's headspace just show how low confidence is, and how far one has to come to get back to full mental fitness.

Shane Watson's leadership

Hussey and Shane Watson, more than Ricky Ponting and much more than Michael Clarke have said what his team and the cricketing public of Australia have needed to hear: Australia have been second-best throughout this series. This comes from a man who two years ago I would have bet had played nearly his last Test for the Aussies and had less leadership ability than lettuce. Now an automatic selection, perhaps his nascent leadership ability could be used in the national setup.

Marcus North's failures at no. 6

Although affable, elegant and good captaincy material, Marcus North simply doesn't have what it takes to be a World Class number six batsman. Oh, for the days of Martin Love! Change is now inevitable at this position, and with North's career. That he has failed three times in three innings when Australia has needed him to fire means that he's now had enough chances. Only Simon Katich's injury - meaning Australia would perhaps take two "newbies" into the Third Test - may have saved his spot. An alternative: given Phil Hughes' shaky start to the Sheffield Shield season and North's past-life as an opener, it may be time to move him up the order to start the innings alongside Watson.

Brad Haddin

Personal opinion in cricketing circles vacillates between maintaining Haddin as 'keeper or going back to Tim Paine. Paine's injury obviously now precludes this, but so to does the form of the New South Welshman. Only two months ago he was a fading light but his application with the bat has earned him new respect.

The selectors' willingness to experiment

Xavier Doherty and Ryan Harris, two players who only three years ago were middle-of-the-road Sheffield Shield players are now Australian representatives, conjuring up memories of Simon Cook, Scott Muller and Matt Nicholson. But let's not forget that England have gotten their current attack to this quality by trying and discarding Sajid Mahmood, (Australia's) Darren Pattison, James Tredwell, Amjad Khan, Jon Lewis, Liam Plunkett, Shaun Udal and Ian Blackwell. In five years. Greg Chappell upset the Indian applecart by attempting to usher through new blood and it would seem he's intent on the same course as an Australian selector. All is not lost, Australia.

The battle is not yet half over. Given the disparity in consistent quality between the bowling attacks, Adelaide may well have always been the Test they were most likely to lose: it was where, should the bats fail, the bowlers would have the greatest difficulty getting them out of a mess.

But as a hopeful Return of the Jedi moment approaches for Australia as they move towards Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. It may be that Michael Clarke steps up to play Luke Skywalker (the one who's ostensibly the hero but still everyone thinks is a prat). Shane Watson could slide easily into that role also. The men in the Baggy Green would do well to focus on what they are doing well, rather than looking pessimistically at what they aren't doing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ashley's crazy decision

From all outward appearances, Mike Ashley is an odd one. Ever since assuming the role of chairman at Newcastle United his behaviour could be best described as "eccentric" and his decision to today oust manager Chris Hughton has, however, moved him from the category "makes strange decisions" to "genuinely malicious".

Chris Hughton was fired this morning by Newcastle management as they sought "someone with more experience". His record notwithstanding, The Understated One had just overseen a 3-1 hiding at the hands of fellow promoted side West Bromwich and perhaps this match had less bearing on the firing than we're now led to believe.

Responses from the team have been a mixture of anger, surprise and bemusement. He was popular: recently all of Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll and Jonas Gutierrez had publicly supported of their boss' methods. After the events of this morning, veterans Sol Campbell and Nolan led the calls of "Why?". Hughton was effective: after taking the reins a second time, Hughton guided the Magpies to promotion from the Championship in their first attempt - winning the Title in the process - when all and sundry declared them ripe for a Leeds United-type fall into the lower reaches of League One. He also managed nineteen points from the Magpies' opening sixteen matches. He was also a coach, thrust into the top job rather unwillingly at first when Kevin Keegan resigned, and again when it was decided that Alan Shearer shouldn't continue as Toon boss. The fact he wasn't a frontman a la Joe Kinnear and more of a back-room boy commanded the respect of the players and he demanded his charges develop. During his time in charge, he received marked improvement from Nile Ranger, Wayne Routledge, Danny Guthrie and most importantly of all, Andy Carroll.

Response from fans to the news has been almost uniformly negative. The words "disgusted", "dismayed" and "gutted" have been bandied about in chat forums and fans as well as the media have leapt to ask why such an effective manager and stabilising influence was handed his pink slip. Already mildly undermined by contract nearing it's expiry with no signs of it being renewed, it has become staggeringly obvious why that much-talked about new contract didn't appear: the Understated One never had any long term future as boss on Tyneside because Ashley saw him solely as a Temp and thus, when the time came to bid farewell he did so without second thoughts. With fans, the football media and players alike sounding off about Hughton deserving a new deal, Ashley proved once again who's the boss on Tyneside and sent his man packing.

The chief reason Newcastle gave for the firing was their seeking someone more experienced to take the poisoned chalice of Magpies Management. However, the first two names linked with the job were Alan Pardew and Iain Dowie. Surely given his uncanny ability to be linked to every single Premier League job that arises, Alan Curbishley's name will also be thrown about willy-nilly. Pardew has seventeen months of experience in the Top Flight with Charlton Athletic & West Ham, Dowie moreso but also a highly chequered record unenhanced by his recent stints as the brains behind Alan Shearer's managerial career and his role as "management consultant" at Hull FC. That Dutchman Martin Jol resigned today from his position at Ajax should be considered a hope by "gutted" and "dismayed" Toon Army members - as a top class manager he could provide some stability but must ask himself "Why would I come to Newcastle - where stability is rewarded with the sack".

That this decision has come at all makes one wonder how much Mike Ashley actually understands football. In all probability he's that most dangerous of owners: he who thinks he knows the game, but really has no idea what makes a player tick. The 3 - 1 defeat by WBA, although the catalyst for Hughton's dismissal, can't have been the reason: Newcastle were missing both first-choice centre-backs, both first-choice central midfielders and one of their top forwards in Nolan. With no money made available to re-stock, Hughton had to make do with what he had. By sacking a popular manager while the club enjoys its most crisis-free period since his arrival suggests that Ashley demands catastrophe rather than evenness. By saying "Newcastle United have consciously decided to plunge themselves back into crisis", Dale Johnson of ESPN Soccernet reads the situation extremely well. By firing the gaffer in the midst of what should be considered a successful season thus far, Ashley has disregarded the preferences of his players - the guys attempting to keep his club in the Premier League - for his own whims, and therefore risks upsetting the Toon applecart simply to satisfy some personal feeling about the man he installed only a matter of months ago. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the axe has been hovering above Hughton's neck for some weeks: rumours abounded before the 5 - 1 mauling of Sunderland that the Manager was for the chop should Newcastle not perform. That only a matter of a month later he has finally successfully rid himself of this irksome understated manager means that Ashley was simply looking for an excuse to do the dirty.

That Newcastle, although officially off the market, could still be purchased by someone with deep enough pockets and strong enough willpower also bears thinking about. Talk around football water coolers says that Ashley could be convinced without trouble to sell should the money be right, and by first firing an inexpensive manager and subsequently appointing an experience (read: expensive) manager it's likely that any potential sale will be affected by this, given the ease with which inexpensive managers can be replaced. Should The Clown in Charge still harbour ambitions of selling the club, then he's just added another hurdle to that potential sale.

If there was one thing that Chris Hughton bought to Newcastle, it was stability. The players, the media, the fans all knew what they were going to get from him and so must have Mike Ashley. Yet the expectation of the manager at St. James' Park remains unreal to the point of laughter. And if guiding your squad to eleventh position in the Premiership with a threadbare squad earns you the sack, what expectations must Ashley have of a new manager? Whichever new manager Ashley appoints, they can be completely certain that Ashley has ideas above his club's station and for a manager, that is a recipe for disaster.

Friday, December 3, 2010

El Clasico result suggest Real need more than money

You can't buy what Barcelona have. At least, you can't buy most of it. Barcelona's demolition of Real Madrid proved that once and for all the greatest future-factory in the world. Of the Barcelona starting XI, eight have their roots in the Barcelona youth team setup while for Real Madrid, only Iker Casillas began his career in their Youth teams.

That's a remarkable percentage for a side that's so good. It's also arguable that Barcelona boast three of the top five players in the world in Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi. In my opinion, they're the top three. And all three came through the youth system even though Messi arrived at the Nou Camp from Argentina. Ten-plus years of playing together combined with the ultimate in talent and you've got yourself one killer side.

Much has been made in England of "Fergie's Fledglings", the teenagers that Ferguson blooded during the mid-nineties including Beckham, Scholes, the Nevilles, Giggs and Butt. Three of those players went on to play in United's 1999 Champions League triumph while Paul Scholes won his UCL medal in 2008. Those eight promoted youth-team players all have played on teams who have won the Champions League - some twice - and so we're approaching having to refer to them in reverential terms. Comparing teams across eras is a pastime that's pointlessly, but enjoyably futile given the constant changing nature of the game of football but now it's impossible to argue that the current crop of Catalan Genius shouldn't enter the pantheon of great teams.

It wasn't just that Barcelona defeated Los Galacticos, it was that they dismantled potentially the second-best team oon the continent to such an extent that the Catalan term for Los Merengues - Los Pateticos - could apply to opponents right across Europe. There's a long way to go in the season, but on the form displayed earlier this week Real Madrid will have to strengthen again. Whether that reinforcement comes from within or from without is inconsequential, but given their propensity for spending it's not too far a step to suggest that Real may buy in January.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Cup voting needs transparency

After Australia failed in it's bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, emotions are mixed. Most of the better-known feelings are bouncing around: jealousy, anger, relief, disappointment, happiness and resentment. But by far the most prevalent statement I've heard has been that of the jilted lover: "We don't care, we don't want to be associated with that corrupt organisation anyway". Like a break-up, it hurts at the time but now reality has set in again, the subject can be analysed with more clarity and objectivity. Now the prospect of hosting has vanished in a mild explosion of whimsy, Australia is looking for reasons Qatar won the bid and the first reason to which most have come is that FIFA is possibly/probably/how-can-it-not-be a corrupt organisation.

Maybe there are some corrupt members of the FIFA Executive. Maybe there aren't. But the process of awarding the hosting rights to the World Cup is such an opaque, murky mess that it's precisely the environment in which corruption and bribery thrives. As a case in point, two members originally scheduled to vote had their voting rights withdrawn due to to allegations they had taken money for votes.

Once a country or group of countries decide to bid for the hosting rights, the subsequent years are full of wining and dining preening and self-important FIFA execs, who expect only the best treatment. If the "entertainment" is poor, then it reflects poorly on that bid no matter how many other positive factors there may be. When a FIFA World Cup Selection delegation arrives in a country they are perfectly happy to be treated as visiting royalty: to accept the lunches, handshakes and intangibles that potential hosts have to offer. When the time comes to put pen to paper, by maintaining a silent bid process they can choose for a) Whoever has the most impressive bid or b) the guys who treated them best, whether that be inside the regulations or out. These same FIFA executives don't like being made accountable for their actions by you, me, the bidding countries or the media: Britain's bid for the 2018 tournament was said to have been damaged by a documentary detailing alleged corrupt practices in the FIFA system since 1989. Bad-mouth FIFA and their secretive brethren at your peril.

That potential host countries are unable to see who has voted for them - and hence how well their legal (or illegal as the case may be) money has been spent - identifies the voting process as that of a secret society rather than that of an immensely powerful worldwide organisation. The slightest implied slight to an executive member pays horrible dividends to a country's bid yet the executives themselves don't put themselves in the same firing line by saying "I cast this vote". If the voting process was made simpler and more transparent then much of the corruption and allegations of bribery would fade into the background.

Sepp Blatter is an easy target, as is the shemozzle he presides over in FIFA. But sometimes easy targets are that easy because their actions or words put themselves in the firing line again and again. By making each executive member accountable for the vote they cast would be the first step in making FIFA less of a secretive coven of powerful wizards needing to receive tribute and more of the governing body football needs in order to continue flourishing.