Friday, July 29, 2011

Klinsmann replaces Bob Bradley - the new importance of PR

In a coup d'état so swift it could represent the final guillotine strike in a pepole's revolution, Bob Bradley has been replaced as manager of the United States Mens' Soccer team by Jürgen Klinsmann. It shares many of the same characteristics as a popular uprising - a ruthless governer ousted for a friendlier man of the people. However, it is not: it's a reactionary move by elements within U.S. Soccer which replaces an effective coach with a crowd-pleaser.

Over the past twelve months, Bob Bradley has certainly cast cold eyes around the management world. Before the start of last season he was thought to be in the frame to replace both Roy Hodgson at Fulham and Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa; during the year he was named as a "person of interest" by Blackburn Rovers and (again) Villa Park administrators. Rumours persisted he lusted for a European job after four years of National Service and ten before that of MLS management.

It was not for any wandering eye that he was dismissed, but for the sake of perception alone.

On the back of defeats to Panama and Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup, the U.S. National Team has fallen to 30th position in the latest FIFA rankings. This is hardly a body blow to the sport, but inconvenient coming so soon after a successful Women's World Cup. That "the coach" was replaced by "the PR guy who does some coaching" is an admission that soccer matters more than ever in the United States. After the Women's World Cup final rated extremely well on television (more highly than the MLB All-Star game) and the crowd were taken with the performances of Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, U.S. administrators have made this decision in aims of capitalising on that raised profile.

In the U.S.A, more than ever since the '94 World Cup, perception now matters in soccer. This is one of the steps the association execs needed to take to help boost it to the level of hockey, basketball, baseball and American football.

Like in many of the new frontiers -North America, East Asia, Australia and the Middle East - World Cups successfully pique Joe Public's interest only for the passion to fall away between successes or big tournaments. The first step was the marketing succes of the 1994 World Cup. This single event was the foundation on which MLS was built - the second big step. Soccer was raised from occasional peripheral flickers in the national consciousness to a nominal public awareness between Cups. While the league is hardly a paragon of stability, it has brought football to the masses much more effectively than the old NASL.

With the startling public interest in the Women's World Cup in Germany, this has changed again. The push to eliminate the staid Bradley and replace him with Jürgen "The very definition of urbane" Klinsmann stinks of a company trying to improve its stock after a brand breakthrough. The interest in the U.S. Women's Team was so great that the outspoken Solo, little-recognised before the Cup, boosted her Twitter followers from 10,000 to over 200,000. Famously, 7196 Tweets per second (TPS) were recorded during the final, mostly emanating from the two countries involved. Women's soccer in the U.S.A. will benefit from this exposure, if perhaps only temporarily. With numbers like those witnessed two Sundays ago, there's little doubt a World Cup Final involving the Men's Team would be the most watched sports event in American TV history.

Considering they've approached the California resident twice before, U.S. Soccer must smitten. If Klinsmann - charming, approachable and with a player's credibility - duplicate some of that interest himself, providing even a 10% boost in national interest in the team, the bean-counters at HQ will be proud and he will have fulfilled his function.  When you appoint a manager with Klinsmann's moderate record, it speaks volumes of the administration's priorities: boost the profile of U.S. Soccer.

To do that, however, means he must be more than a smiling salesman. He must coach because nothing drives recognition like results. A poignant example can be taken from MLS ranks - the Seattle Sounders, while not having the greatest wells of talent, boast an average attendance over 50% greater than the next highest, Los Angeles after making the conscious decision to pursue the U.S. Open Cup and Concacaf Champions' League football. Other factors enter into this: the Seahawks aren't great, the Mariners stink (again!) and the Supersonics now play in Oklahoma City meaning the landscape was open for a new side. Seattle also is part of the great Pacific Northwest Soccer Mom tradition. But make no mistake, Seattle has embraced the Sounders not just because they're there, but because they've made a name for themselves. As is true in business, success breeds success.

Whether Klinsmann can bring the US National Team success is a far more puzzling - and more important - question. His reign as Germany manager sparkled, but since subsequent failure at Bayern Munich and the success his heir (and assistant) Jogi Löw has had managing die Mannschaft, questions have been raised over Klinsmann's tactical acumen and overall devotion to duty. Fair or not, Germany's 2006 World Cup Semi-Final appearance is now attributed almost evenly between the two. Himself a flying striker, Klinsmann's preference for attacking flair left Bayern defensively suspect and his position as manager under the microscope.

However if Klinsmann plans on playing attacking football with the players who represented the US at the Gold Cup, he may be sorely disappointed. In many ways, he's the diametrical opposite of his predecessor. Where perhaps the dour Bradley's greatest strength was knowledge of his players' abilities, Klinsmann is allegedly a shrewd man-manager who will take time to really familiarize himself with his charges.  Even if he's the second coming of Sir Matt Busby, his first hire should be the best football tacticians he can find - simply because his reputation for that aspect of the game is his greatest weakness.  In the current age of sports science, it's nearly impossible to inspire a player without a solid tactical and athletic foundation. 

By reinforcing perceived weak spots - rightly or wrongly - he will have done exactly what his employers at U.S. Soccer have done. With the speed by which Klinsmann superseded Bradley, they must have felt Bradley's supposed weaknesses had suddenly become too great to bear in what they hope to be a time of growth. Results then gave them a chance to trade up for the nearly Messianic figure they've coveted for years now. But should Klinsmann not be able to bring on-field success to the national setup, his potential failings will perhaps haunt U.S. Soccer for longer.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Wasim Akram by Blaise Murphet

In our series "My Favourite Cricketer", Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to contribute articles explaining what makes, for the, one player rise above the rest.  Today features Wasim Akram by World Cricket Watch's contributing editor, Blaise Murphet.

I think when you’re asked to consider your ‘favourite cricketer’ you don’t really think about statistics, you think of a players swagger, his style, and of amazing performances that you have witnessed either on television or first hand.

Bowling in England.  From:
So, when thinking of the ultimate fast bowler, a natural checklist emerges in one’s mind. Does he have searing pace? Can he make the ball ‘talk’? Does he have long hair that flows in the wind? What about the maniacal smile that is the trademark of all the greats? Well, in my mind there is only one man who fits the bill and that is the greatest Pakistani player of all time, Wasim Akram.

In an international career that spanned almost twenty years, Akram tormented batsmen right across the globe. But, before I talk more about the unbelievable greatness of the man, let’s cast a quick eye over his outstanding career statistics.

Currently placed ninth on the all-time test wicket list, Wasim’s 414 test wickets obviously rank him right up there with the greats. These wickets, I might add, came at an average of 23, and I’d confidently suggest that his almost 3000 test runs at 22 would be far better than any others at the top of the bowling lists. If he’s test record isn’t enough, then just consider his ODI record. World Cup winner, 502 wickets at 23 and a powerful lower-order batsman, Wasim had it all. However, as I’ve argued before, averages and statistics only tell a very small part of a cricketer’s story, and in the case of Wasim Akram, this couldn’t be more true.

If you will allow me then to return to the checklist I mentioned earlier, we can further consider the greatness of Wasim.

There is no doubt that Wasim’s partners in crime, Imran Kahn and Waqar Younis, had more pace, however Wasim just appeared quick. Batsmen often talk of a bowler seeming quicker than they are, and Wasim always seemed to rush even the best. Wasim also had amazing long flowing hair, which some might argue has nothing to do with bowling ability. I beg to differ. Fast bowling is as much about style and presence as it is skill and precision. You just knew certain bowlers had batsmen beaten before a ball was bowled. For Curtly Ambrose his height and gold pendants positioned him as a higher being. Dennis Lillee had the flowing hair, bushy moustache and chest hair/revealing shirt combination which made him seem like a wild man. Glenn McGrath on the other hand, always appeared symmetrical, precise and well groomed, which conveyed his meticulous bowling prowess. 

Wasim had whippy jet black hair that suited his bowling action and a maniacal smile which gave him incredible presence. He always seemed very personable, but could switch in an instant, meaning that batsmen never knew when he would blow up. He also had an amazing approach to the crease which seemed slow, but exploded at the crease so Wasim could send down thunderbolts.
His pace and presence aside though, Wasim’s greatest asset was his ability to make the ball ‘talk’. I’ve actually heard it said that Wasim could make the one delivery swing both ways before arriving at the batsman and although I never saw this, I can say with certainty that I’ve never seen a bowler who could swing the ball so dramatically late. There really is something special about left-arm swing bowlers and Wasim was able to not only push the ball across right-handers, but swing it even further away and of course produce inswingers banned by the Geneva convention. This was perhaps most in evidence in Pakistan’s famous 1992 World Cup victory when Wasim was probably at his peak. Granted, his time as captain wasn’t greatly successful, but even later in his career, once he had shortened his run-up, Wasim still had the guile and intellect to dismiss even the best.

So, Wasim was a bowler of great skill, but there’s another important reason why I have chosen him to be my favourite cricketer. As a kid growing up I remember Pakistan as a very talented and successful cricketing nation. Players such as Wasim, Imran, Waqar, Aamir Sohail, Saqlain Mushtaq and Moin Kahn were standout players and - most importantly - played the game in the right spirit. Teams toured and played in fantastic cricketing cathedrals at Lahore and Karachi; whilst touring the sub-continent is always a challenging experience for teams, it was so because of the passion of the crowd and the talent of the home teams.

Things are very different now. No international teams have toured there since the Sri Lankan debacle and it seems highly unlikely we’ll see anything like Mark Taylor’s extraordinary 334* in 1998, or the thrilling series between England and Pakistan in 2000 where England knocked the winning runs in virtual darkness much to the chagrin of Pakistan's captain, Moin Kahn. The state of Pakstani cricket - and, more generally the country - is an absolute shame, as has been evidenced by continual player and administration corruption.

As such, it is with great pleasure that I look back to Wasim as a player who represents a great era for not only Pakistan’s cricket team, but also the country itself. Even if he was from a country that hadn’t had these terrible troubles I’d still judge him as one of the greatest ever; but to me he represents a shining light in a situation filled with darkness, a truly memorable figure. When I think of Pakistani cricket, I don’t want to think of corrupt managers, crooked players, and terrorist attacks. I want to think of searing pace, swinging Yorkers, fiery passion, and most of all the long swinging hair and dangerous smile of my favourite cricketer, Wasim Akram. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Arsenal, Barcelona and Fabregas love triangle

Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona could be the most public love triangle since Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday Mister President". It started with a sixteen year-old Fabregas moving to Arsenal from Barcelona and has dragged on interminably much of the past four years as player and boyhood club dream for his return to Catalonia. His story has dominated every transfer window - particularly summer - and public statements now lack all authenticity.

He will soon play for Barca. Chiefs of Arsenal and Barcelona will put heads together in such a way that his move will be agreed, if not this window then next year. However, the conduct of many Spanish parties has hardly covered Catlonia with glory. Publicly, Barcelona haven't shied from announcing their interest and have made bids which would make Harry Redknapp blush. Their outward decrying of respect for Arsenal is undermined almost totally by their conduct - and a galling sense of entitlement to the player.

Xavi wants him to come home. Barcelona wants him back. In fact, all of Spain wants Cesc Fabregas in La Liga. Even if he wanted to stay in North London, the clamour has been such that he may feel a Second Coming is necessary. On Monday Arsene Wenger asked why nothing has been done about this overt solicitation of his two biggest stars, Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Well he may.

While not strictly "tapping up" - where a player is approached illegally by a suitor club while still under contract - one is almost always swayed by the opinions of friends and others who say they wish the best for you. At the end of his contract this time next year, should Nasri sign with either of the Manchester clubs then an English FA inquiry will almost certainly be summoned. With Fabregas, it's much more tricky however as such any tribunal would have to operate across Football Associations.

Though not strictly "illegal", Barcelona are leveraging every conscious and unconscious tool at their disposal to unsettle the player. It would be hard to prove that Barcelona have broken any laws and indeed they may well not have. Their actions definitely violate another of those "unspoken laws", that of the spirit of the game. Thus, potential offenders are difficult to prosecute.

It's unlikely anything much can be done. The Spanish FA are unlikely to sanction the guilty parties, partly because they are so because they couldn't be seen to punish popular World Cup Champion Xavi and they too have a vested interest in having Cesc Fabregas play in La Liga. Much of the recent activity based around Cesc has been driven by Xavi and Estanislau Fors i Garcia*, the mayor of Fabregas' Catalonian hometown, Arenys de Mar. So with the English FA having no jurisdiction on continental soil, FIFA navel-gazing and UEFA unwilling or unable to involve itself in football's on-beat policing, to who else can Arsenal complain?

With such incidents increasing in scope and frequency (think Federico Macheda, Paul Pogba and Gael Kakuta) then FIFA needs to step in. It's best if clubs police themselves through a formal framework. The only way to stamp this out is for yet another independent tribunal. Given the global reach of this issue, it must be orchestrated by FIFA. (Shudders violently) After it's second conscutive annus horribilis, this could be the first step in re-establishing FIFA's control of the game rather than just over its marketing rights.

*(Comparisons to kidnapping and slavery are of course ridiculous. Footballers sign contracts as independent businessmen, mostly advised by agents or parents, motivated by love and/or money.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mario Balotelli back-heel: Where's the fun?

I'm sure your mum said, like mine, that a joke's only funny when everyone's laughing. In forgetting Mum's golden rule, Mario Balotelli has drawn heat from his manager Roberto Mancini and teammate Nigel de Jong. His attempted back-heel goal from close range against MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy earned him an 31st minute substitution and worldwide internet headlines which arrive less than a week after Emirati international Theyab Awana successfully backheeled a penalty in a friendly match against Lebanon.

Perhaps it was disrespectful. Impetuous - yes, stupid - OK, yeah, but direspectful - only if opponent are really intense (and this is football, so let's not discount this option). Maybe both attempts were just young men having fun.

It shouldn't be glossed over that both incidents occurred during friendly matches and when one side sported a major advantage. While the UAE held a 6-2 scoreboard lead over their Arabic neighbours, Manchester City are the kind of talent-laden outfit the Los Angeles Galaxy can only imagine being. Both Awana and Balotelli, consciously or not, effectively taunted the opposition by saying "We are so far ahead of you that I can afford to do this". No malice, just a flat statement of fact delivered in a whimsical way. Is that such a bad thing?

Of course, it's not the "done thing". But the "done thing" isn't a hard and fast set of rules, just a vague unwritten law that one should not embarrass himself or his opposition with lackadaisical approach. Strictly speaking, these acts of flourish constitute taunting and unlike most American sports, there are no direct statutes against such mockery in football. The greatest difference between the two incidents was the context: the age of nationalistic and patriotic fervour in which we live means footballing whimsy is liable to misinterpretation much more in International competition.

Management has every right to accuse him of seeking amusement before results, but likely Balotelli's greatest crime was to miss the shot. When West Ham's Paolo Di Canio goaled with his famous scissored volley against Wimbledon, his reasoning behind the method wasn't the best - and he has admitted so himself - but his execution was beyond the superlative. Levant's idiom declaims the line between genius and insanity a very fine one. Once he had (correctly) surmised the Citizens were the stronger team, "Super" Mario's thought processes were solely to entertain - though whether he sought to amuse the crowd or himself is questionable.

What is the purpose of football if not to entertain? Without this element, the sport negates itself and becomes the greatest waste of time and money this side of Formula One. While "Friendly" matches prepare and play sides into (or out of) form, they also serve to attract new fans, earn cash and broaden the appeal of the (sigh) brand. It's for these last reasons that Manchester City, Barcelona and Manchester United are touring the United States - for each could certainly could attract better or more varied opposition on home shores.

And Mario Balotelli's act - fun, irresponsible and immature as it was - is more likely to endear him (and therefore his club) to a new fan than to further undermine pre-existing opinions. Any awareness of the Balotelli back-story creates an opinion in the fan unlikely to be altered significantly by this latest act, but children will remember the crazy guy who tried to do a spin-a-roonie at the goalmouth. If City want to pick up youthful fans, they should ask Mario Balotelli to front the charge.

Strangely, in his own antagonistic and youthful way, Mario Balotelli has turned himself in the eyes of many from spoiled child to misunderstood. Apparently, Nigel de Jong and Roberto Mancini don't understand him. If that's the case we probably won't either.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Claytons Premier League Team

In Australia, the term "Claytons" has evolved into the popular lingo for a poor substitute: something does the job, but feels somewhat empty or wanting. It derives from the non-alcoholic beverage "Claytons", usually served mixed with soda, coke or ginger ale and marketed heavily in the 1980s as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink". The slogan has stuck: now, the term Claytons denotes the unofficial and insubstantial.

This season Leicester City will field the Claytons Premier League team. They are the Premiership team that isn't. The midlands side, flush with South East Asian cash, have so far this summer brought in a number of solid Premiership players to reinforce a club which finished tenth last term. Though they started the season poorly, then-chairman Milan Mandaric fired Paulo Sousa and installed infamous Swede Sven-Goran Ericksson who led the Foxes on a mad dash up the Championship ladder.

Since the season's conclusion, Leicester have brought in no fewer than eight players at the expense of only one first-teamer, centre-back Jack Hobbs. Rumours persist that the Foxes are also likely to move for Everton striker Yakubu. Four of those players - John Pantsil, David Nugent, Kasper Schmeichel and Paul Konchesky - have significant top-flight experience while new central defensive coupling Sean St Ledger and Matt Mills were both sought by Premier League clubs and join ex-Palace man Neil Danns as certifiable stars of the Championship.

The worst "kill marry shag" of all time?  courtesy:
Thai businessman Vichai Raksriaksorn is one of the heavyweights behind their newfound spending, while Eriksson is a coach whose recent results with younger teams suggest his flair for teaching is far from extinguished. Interestingly, the former England gaffer has experience with South East Asian bankrolling as his time with Manchester City coincided with the ill-fated Chairmanship of ex-Thailand Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

With the new blood purchased combined with a midfield already boasting Richie Wellens, captain Andy King and the recently re-signed Franck Moussa, the Foxes appear primed for a tilt at the Championship title. In fact, their squad appears stronger on paper - especially defensively - than some Premier League sides: would you bet against them in a home-and-away tie with Wigan, any of the promoted sides or even Blackburn?

Eriksson, always a keen competitior, and his Chairman could hardly have picked a better time to reinforce. Though they paid handsomely for Mills (5 million!), they were able to spend substantial - but bargain, nonetheless - sums on custodian Peltier, Schmeichel, Anfield misfit Konchesky and St Ledger. Danns, Pantsil and Nugent arrived on Bosman moves, leaving the Foxes reinforced all over the pitch. What's impressive is they've strengthened at the expense of direct promotion rivals Reading and Leeds United. Leicester also hulk up while other adversaries scramble for players, most notably Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest and Millwall.

They also have invested before a season in which none of the three relegated teams from last year's Premiership are obvious candidates to regain their top-flight status. Birmingham suffer from a multitude of expensive contracts who wish to leave for pastures Premiership; Blackpool must see if their free-wheeling style suits Kevin Phillips and Barry Ferguson rather than David Vaughan, Charlie Adam and (probably) DJ Campbell while West Ham could win the division or finish twelfth.

Considering experts aren't sure what to expect from much of the league, the Championship promises to be a season of intrigue. At least in Leicester there should be clarity of expectation: spending like this belies an aim for their first Premier League football since 2004.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Rahul Dravid by Sujith Krishnan

In today's installment of "My Favourite Cricketer", Sujith Krishnan takes a look at that most overshadowed of Indian batsmen.

Coming from India, I'm sure it surprises many that my favourite cricketer is not the little master, Sachin Tendulkar. However his understudy is often overlooked, a champion who has serenely gone about his business in the most religious manner, happy to remain in the shadows of his more illustrious team-mates Ganguly, Tendulkar and Sehwag. He's the most celebrated wall after the Great Wall of China but could be better known as Mr. Dependable. For nearly twenty years, Rahul Dravid has acted as India's spine and remains the player to whom the country turns when it finds itself in a critical situation.

He burst onto the scene with a brilliant performance in a Test at Lords against England in 1996. He managed ninety-six while batting at six in what would now be regarded as a typical Dravidesque performance. He's rarely been dislodged since: he's the only Indian to have scored a Test century in every Test playing nation andis also one of those rare cricketers whose ‘away’ batting average is higher than at home. Though he plays every shot in the book, he may not possess the skill and talent of Tendulkar or the destructiveness of Sehwag but is elegant, proficient and commanding in his own right.

Rahul Dravid isn't someone who often takes the attack to the opposition. His style is determined and occasionally veers towards the mind-numbing. But that style effectively takes the heart out of opponents in a politically correct, workmanlike and utterly conventional way. Often where others fail, he has supported Indian expectations, always holding up his end, often while other batsmen play their shots around him. It's not his size, skill or panache which is imposing, but his presence.

While known popularly as "The Wall", perhaps he would be more accurately called "The Floor", for it is him on whom Indian innings are built. He has glorified this unspectacular role for over 15 years against all comers and, more importantly, raised his game away from home. On faster pitches, he often became the foundation on which nothing was built as his teammates were destroyed by steeple and speed. Rahul Dravid can play this role because he knows his own game: to bat to one's strengths and never be perturbed by aggression and flamboyance shown by partners or bowlers at the other end. He values his wicket as he would his firstborn, making opposition bowlers dismiss him strategically rather than due to a rash shot. 

At the scale at which Dravid amasses runs, choosing his best knock is a futile exercise - there are so many, under so many varied conditions and circumstances. However, one must mention his 180 againstAustralia at Eden Gardens in 2001 during one of the most dramatic Test matches in history. He and VVS Laxman came together with the team facing a 250-run deficit and by the end of the following day, the unbeaten duo had built a lead of 384, paving the way for India’s most historic Test win. Having been heavily criticized by former players and commentators prior to the match, Dravid’s gesticulated celebration towards the commentary box on reaching his century was probably the only occasion I can remember where his emotions got the better of him thoughout his entire career. 

Another match-saving effort was his 233 in Adelaide in 2003. Arriving at the crease after India had lost four quick wickets, Dravid batted like a warrior to give India an outside chance of winning their first Test match in Australia for 22 years. Outside chance begat a victory and, fittingly, it was he who hit the winning runs. He followed this in the historic series against arch-rivals Pakistan by scoring a majestic 270 in the decisive Rawalpindi match to win India the series. In cricket, or almost any sport, the ability to thrive under pressure is the most respected and desired character trait. Not only did Rahul Dravid survive under those pressures, but he relished the chance.

Despite being one of the best, The Wall hasn't been an automatic inclusion in the ODI team for some time. With a nickname like that, who's surprised?! Though he didn't make the squad for the World Cup this year, find me someone happier at India's success - you won't. He had contributed to India's ascent to the top, one of the elite group to score over 10,000 runs in both forms of the game, and it was time for him to relax and enjoy.

You'd not hear him quote statistics like that, though. It would be brash, unseemly and uncouth to brag about one's achievements, not something a gentleman and team-player would do. For India, no-one else has batted in every position from one to eight as well as wicket-keeping as he did at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. In typical Dravidesque fashion, he used the opportunity to evolve into a world-class closer.

My favourite memory of Rahul Dravid is not of an shot, innings or result. It came as captain when he declared in a 2004 Test against Pakistan at Multan. It seems a perfectly normal thing to do - declare when your team is in a winning position. Not when the darling of India, Sachin Tendulkar, is not out on 194. But when The Wall thought it gave India the tactical advantage to close their innings, he did so amidst the expected outcry of a billion horrified fans. It takes a wall to deflect so much criticism, which left him, Sachin and the team unruffled.

Rahul Dravid is happy to watch India succeed from within and from the outside. He can be proud as the foundation for much of India's recent success. Without doubt, Rahul Dravid is one of the best to have ever graced Indian cricket fields and a perfect role model to aspiring cricketers. Moreover, he is an embodiment of discipline and integrity, someone who has never rested on past glories and constantly strives for excellence.

Every monument to achievement starts with a Wall. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The ICC's Best Test XI?

So on the occasion of the two-thousandth Test match, the ICC has taken it upon themselves to right royally arse it up once again.

To celebrate the two-thousandth match in the most honoured form of the sport, the celebrated accountants who today control cricket decided to celebrate by announcing an XI comprised of the best players ever to play Test cricket. A great idea, good publicity and rightfully commemorating the best to grace the arenas. The team was announced the weekend before the match to great fanfare and instantly the enormous errors of judgement inherent in the selection process became obvious.

Awesome, but best ever?  Only maybe.
Those named should almost be ashamed of their selection and those who missed out should let rip with a relieved sigh. Why? Because an honour which should be immense has been turned into swill. The ICC, with their infinitely clear vision, opened selection to an internet-based popular vote. While generating remarkable website traffic and the trending hash-tag #ICCTestXI - publicity you can't buy - it also produced results biased beyond all common sense and by anointing the team selected by the fans, the ICC has spat in the face of cricketers like Sir Garfield Sobers, Malcolm Marshall, Keith Miller, Jack Hobbs, Harold Larwood, Bill O'Reilly, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards.

The team features aggressive and enduring batting, a skilled all-rounder and devastating bowling. What it lacks, however, is credibility due to the populist selection policy encouraged by the ICC. Although the XI selected would be highly competitive against any other "Best of" team, the results are swayed to the Internet generation and to the subcontinent. This is to be expected given India's population and the popularity of cricket within. But for the ICC to come out and then anoint these players as the best ever to play reeks of pandering to the whims of their clientele.

When ESPN Cricinfo selected their best ever team last year it was done so according to a selection panel of respected, educated voices. The fans got their say, able to select their teams and compare. When the NBA marked it's fiftieth anniversary with the "Fifty Greatest players in NBA history", the list was compiled by experts - so too, was the AFL's Team of the Century. The greatest blunder here isn't that the public were consulted, it is that ONLY the public were consulted and now the ICC will consecrate these eleven players as the greatest. This devalues the contribution of every single player to grace a field before 1980 because the people who voted are swayed by recent memory, youth, YouTube and covered pitches.

Leaving aside the fact that comparing players across eras is a futile exercise because of the changing face of cricket over time, it's errors of judgement like these which make it seem the ICC has sought public debate and promotion at the expense of Test cricket's rich, textured history. It's eminently possible that voters didn't even know of Bill O'Reilly or Herbert Sutcliffe. Being selected to a commemorative XI should be amongst - if not the - greatest individual honour a player can receive. When a deserving player - Sobers, for example, a unanimous selection to the Cricinfo team - is ejected in what amounts to a popularity contest, the flaws in the system laid down by the ICC scream like Bruce Reid after he snaps in half.

Every player who made the list, with the exception of the statistical anomaly Bradman, played within the last thirty years. This most damning evidence is proof enough in itself how swayed to the modern the voting has been - no matter how talented this era's the players have been. In a "Fan's All-Time XI", sure, I'll buy that - but then to be named the best ever by the game's governing body? The ICC, never a stranger to populism, has taken another step towards joining FIFA in the abyss.

Kapil Dev's finest moment.  True to form, it's not in a Test match.
Finally, the ICC must concede than any popular vote put up by it has to be tempered with the knowledge that India will dominate. While Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar rate as amongst, if not the, best candidates for their positions - though you'd have a hard time convincing me - Kapil Dev, very good player that he was, does not. The players in front of him (Sobers, Miller, Botham, Imran Khan and even Hadlee) were all vastly superior. This reflects strongly the 1.2 billion Indian obsessions with cricket - it has seven times the voting power of the next most populous cricketing nation, Pakistan, 25 times that of South Africa and 255 times the voting power of New Zealand. Of course the voting is going to be swayed.

Having backed themselves into a corner, the ICC will crown these players as the best the Test format has ever seen. Under the outward guise of inclusivity, the never-ending hunt for publicity has created a team which almost - but not quite - completely fails to resemble the best ever. Without using adequate foresight, they've smote another blow to cricket tradition.

But this is the ICC. What more could we expect?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kill, Marry or Shag: The Liverpool Midfield

Have you every played the game "Kill, marry or shag"? In it, one player gives his or her opponent three names - it works best with celebrities. Made famous in the TV show "30 Rock", the "player" then has to - hypothetically - kill one, shag one and marry one. It sounds worse than it is and is played most often after several bottles of intoxicant.

It seems that manager Kenny Dalglish is going to have to play a real-life game of "Kill, marry, shag" with the Liverpool midfield. Metaphorically, of course, though I'm sorry about the mental imagery you're now experiencing. The game suggests it requires a person to commit to one person, dispose of another, and have a fleeting dalliance as a third option. With his midfield packed to the extent Scouse fans both celebrate and gnash teeth, thinning out the crowded Mersey midfield is his first priority.

So who should King Kenny kill (ie. sell), marry (commit to) or shag (try out) before season 2011-12 begins?

Please note I'm using these terms as metaphors rather than inciting violence or any kind of personal act!

Steven Gerrard - Marry, though perhaps this isn't as cut and dried as in past years. Gerrard is the best player of the last twenty years on Merseyside. Though he's getting on in years and can't be relied upon to play a full season, selling him would be perhaps the only thing that could dent King Kenny's popularity in Liverpool outside of signing Gary Neville. With more support and backup, perhaps he'll compile a less injured season.

Joe Cole - Better than Messi? Pah. It's in Liverpool's best interests that Cole and his reported ₤90,000 per-week wages make way for better, younger, less injury-prone and more consistent players. The cash is better spent on younger options like Henderson, Shelvey and Spearing. Kill.

Maxi Rodriguez - Tough one. With Kuyt, Maxi seemed to be revitalised more than any of his Scouse teammates, yet his position is now no longer certain due to the presence of new arrival Downing. He managed two hat-tricks last season, so he's more than useful but seems amenable to a change in scenery and even a return to South America. Kill, probably in a difficult decision.

Jay Spearing - The Liverpool youth was given an opportunity at the end of last season and made full use of it. However, his ability - especially to take over from the greats who preceeded him - is highly questionable. At 22, he needs a consistent, quality season to prove he's good enough to stay at a club with Champions' League aspirations. This dichotomy makes him the epitome of a "shag".

Jonjo Shelvey - From a highly touted youth career at Charlton to Merseyside via the England Under-21s, the next step for Shelvey, unlike Spearing is to impose himself on a first-team somewhere. Anywhere. With new additions plus a potentially revitalised Gerrard, it may be he goes elsewhere temporarily to find gainful employment. Shag, but keep an eye on the future - at this stage, he could be anything: good or bad.

Charlie Adam - It seems curious and harsh given the Reds lengthy courtship and respectable transfer fee paid (8 million), but the question marks surrounding Charlie Adam's ability to play at the absolute highest level place him in the Shag category. While technically gifted, his body shape is against him and he's been signed from a club who gave him carte blanche as featured player. How he fits into a slower tempo game, with other exceptional passers is still a topic of much debate. Should he fail, he's likely an easy-sale type of asset. If he works out, Liverpool have a fantastic player.

Raul Meireles - After one year divided squarely across Pre/Post Kenny's arrival, Meireles may be the easiest sale of all Liverpool's midfielders. He has a good but not overly generous contract, he performed well in replacing the injured Gerrard, he has Champions' League and World Cup experience and can play a variety of roles. Those skills make him invaluable to the Reds as well, however, and his grittiness can provide a good and classy counterpoint to Gerrard's or Adam's silky offence. Marry him, Kenny, before he gets another offer.

Christian Poulsen - He could be the most unpopular player to grace Anfield since Harry Kewell. That's not because he's spiky, outspoken or uncouth - just that (comparatively) he's not very good. He didn't play well for the man who brought him in, Roy Hodgson, and Roy's pink slip may well have been stamped with a picture of Poulsen's face. It would take a near miracle for the Kop to embrace him amidst the new hope brought by Henderson, Carroll, Suarez and Downing - it's time to kill his Liverpool career and move him back to the continent.

Lucas Leiva - Once a near-pariah, he's now established himself both in the Brazil midfield and in Liverpool's. Though he doesn't do anything - except perhaps tackle - outstandingly well, he does everything to a level that's much better than any potential replacements. For this evenness of skill alone, he's worth marrying.

Alberto Aquilani - While owner John W. Henry has recently come out in support of the perma-crocked Italian, he hasn't convinced many (any?) during his time in the northwest. Kill him, quickly, by selling him to whichever Serie A club is willing to take him and his wage packet. If the Scousers are holding out for price parity, they may be very disappointed - it's time to accept a loss on his ₤17 million purchase-price.

Milan Jovanovic - In a year of disappointments, the Serbian was perhaps the greatest. As soon as a suitor can be found, he's gone. In many respects, given Jovanovic's public statements that he's unhappy in Red, it could be a mercy killing.

Jordan Henderson - The youngster has arrived with a hefty price tag from Sunderland, meaning he's switched coasts for the foreseeable future. He's got talent and industry in loads, but needs developing. Given the preference Dalglish has for youth (buying Suarez, Carroll and Henderson), developing this youngster in concert with Under-21 counterpart Carroll should become the gaffer's highest priority. For better or for worse, Dalglish has married the young Englishman.

Stewart Downing - For all the moneyball philosophy spouted about his reported ₤20 million signing from Aston Villa, Downing is a good, if not great wing presence with a desire to prove himself in the Champions' League. He will play and perform well, but may not make any forget former famous wide-men like John Barnes. He has no Champions' League pedigree, making him appealing but needs more proof before he becomes more than worth a shag.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Malthouse, Buckley and Collingwood: The New Leno vs. Conan

Mick Malthouse was one of the AFL's first ever career coaches. With nemesis - and Richmond back-pocket predecessor - Kevin Sheedy, he began leading teams to victory in the early days of AFL professionalism and continues doing so to this day. So then, are his recent strong implications that he's not done coaching any surprise?

After retiring from Richmond in 1983, he quickly took the reins of Footscray and led them to their highest finish in years - a tough Preliminary Final loss to the outstanding Jeans-era Hawks. After six years with the Bulldogs, he moved to Perth and the Eagles to instantly bring the then-new club into respectability. Two years later, the Eagles claimed their first Premiership. A decade of success on the other coast followed before a highly-publicised move to Collingwood.

Where within two years, he had led Collingwood to a Grand Final berth against competition powerhouse Brisbane. Last year, his eleventh in the black and white, brought their first Cup for twenty years. It also brought the promise of his imminent demise as Senior Coach when club President Eddie McGuire negotiated a handover of power at the club to take place at the end of 2011. Malthouse's former captain - and respected coaching prospect - Nathan Buckley will take power as Senior Coach while the boy from North Ballarat moves into a Director of Coaching role.

It never felt like Mick was at ease with such a role, no matter how much he protested. He feels he is a head coach, rather than a coaching coordinator and very few people would argue. The situation became moderately more controversial when on last week's episode of "The Footy Show", he claimed he'd been performing this role for twenty-eight years and didn't think he could just "turn the tap off". The implication being that he would prefer to continue coaching Collingwood, but would probably pursue other AFL coaching opportunities once he handed control of the Pies to Buckley.

While other such transitions of power have taken vogue around the league, this one involves three league icons and a departing coach who doesn't feel like it's his time to leave. Where Paul Roos had reached near burn-out stage and Leigh Matthews realised his time had passed before handing on to valued lieutenants, the competitive fire in Malthouse still smoulders.

The situation is starkly reminiscent of the 2010 "The Tonight Show" affair. NBC's The Tonight Show, formerly hosted by Johnny Carson, was the subject of much debate when the current host, Jay Leno, was replaced by Conan O'Brien. In 1999, to prevent O'Brien being poached by another network, NBC offered the redhead a ten-year contract to stay as host of The Late Show, whereupon at that contract's conclusion he would succeed Leno as host of The Tonight Show. Leno agreed to the deal and was "bumped" earlier to the 10.30 EST slot.

When ratings didn't boom, NBC executives tried to move Leno back to 11.30 - with Conan and the Tonight Show airing just past midnight, disturbing the decades-long 11.35 run the Tonight Show franchise had made its own. The result: O'Brien left NBC for TBS with $33 million dollars, Leno took over the Tonight Show amidst a hurricane of criticism for knifing his former colleague and the Tonight Show and NBC Late Night brands were damaged by constant barbs traded between the comics.

The parallels are quite apparent and McGuire must use all his considerable public relations skills to either move Malthouse aside quietly or impress upon him the damage he could inflict to Collingwood by remaining so open to the media. There will be no shortage of suitors - anywhere from Port Adelaide to Melbourne could be looking for a new boss and, should he be prepared to sit out a year from football, could well have his pick of almost any coaching position in the league.

McGuire must also realise all that glitters is not necessarily golden. While James Hird has achieved success at Essendon, Michael Voss has had completely the opposite effect in Brisbane. Earmarked from his early twenties as a coach in waiting, Buckley has a wonderful pedigree - as had the Brisbane champion. All Malthouse has are the wins on the board.

It was the same for NBC, who moved Leno into a less-prominent position only when results turned, to bring him back. With the support structures in place at Olympic Park such a dramatic turnaround in fortunes is unlikely. But it appears by enforcing change primarily to retain the services of Buckley, the Pies may be crossing bridges before they need to.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A-League? No, it's all about Harry.

Harry Kewell.

A show-pony. A drama queen. The best football player to come out of Australia.

Just the mention of his name prompts the football fan to opine. It's impossible not to, given his remarkably high-profile successes and failures. The recent debate over a possible move to the Australian A-League has once more forced even the non-football fans to choose a side of the fence - for or against Harry.

The move didn't materialise amidst reports Kewell's salary demands were met by the A-League's biggest two clubs, Sydney FC and the Melbourne Victory, but his requests to the Football Federation Australia (who administer the league) were not. Those demands allegedly included a percentage of the gate for increased attendances his appearance likely would encourage. His manager Bernie Mandic last week nixed any possible return to Australia, saying 32 year-old Kewell would pursue further European opportunities.

The reaction from Joe Public was almost overwhelmingly negative, prompting the hashtag #KewellALeagueDemands to trend on Twitter as amateur wits made increasingly ludicrous requests. Australians, never the most patient or forgiving of peoples, have very little time for "it's all about me" types. It was taken in fun by Kewell and his wife Sheree Murphy, but still exemplifies the scorn such demand generated.

And more than any other combination of four words - more even than "Injury plagued Aussie footballer" the words "It's all about me", define Harry Kewell. At seventeen he was the darling of the Australian soccer community with two goals in the World Cup qualifying playoff loss to Iran (hardly an upset as the partisan video suggets), he married the soap-star princess and played, sorry, rehabbed for one of the world's great clubs, Liverpool, in a country where the cult of celebrity is worshipped by many above almost all else.

How else would you describe him after his comments concerning a galling red card in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? "The guy has killed my World Cup" doesn't reflect his unavailability despite an obvious important role for the Socceroos, but how it affects Harry. Mandic shouldn't be blamed for his role and neither should Kewell - Mandic is just doing his job, while as a football-hungry public demanded identification, home-grown Harry was our best association with the World Game and thus the unholy combination of Australian expectation/respect and English tabloids created the persona Harry Kewell now proffers.

Who are we to blame a young(ish) man for wanting it all? A family life AND a well-paid football career - sound familiar? It should, because it's nearly exactly the same situation as thelatest Carlos Tevez dilemma, only in reverse. Kewell is content with family life - indeed, Australia would be preferable to Turkey, Russia or even Germany - but isn't able to meet his financial demands. And while Tevez's constant "Look at Carlos" act has worn thin and his methods are dubious, Harry's act is walking a similarly fine line.

By asking for a percentage of any increased gate takings, Harry Kewell and Bernie Mandic are asking for a degree of responsibility that few have shouldered in the fledgling competition. Indeed, while Archie Thompson, Nicky Carle and most notably Robbie Fowler have tried to lift the competition on their shoulders, onlyDwight Yorke has managed to do so successfully. The combination of responsibility doesn't usually rest well on the shoulders of someone whose first priority - and he's hardly alone in this - is himself.

In a business based on exposure, both Kewell and Tevez benefit from their profiles; Tevez also so through his talent. Harry Kewell has become the object of scorn because his profile appeals to a much smaller population: that of Australia, England and possibly Turkey. It is only right he should seek the best deal for himself within that market.

And the FFA is perfectly within it's rights to refuse to accommodate those demands. Partly because even Kewell's salary would further imperil already-struggling A-League teams and therefore further payments based on increased attendance would make even less fiscal sense. It just isn't good business for Ben Buckley and his offsiders and so the likelihood is you'll see Harry next pop up in the hoops of Celtic, Queens Park Rangers or Kayserispor.

It's almost certain that Harry Kewell will perform a valedictory tour in the A-League, displaying as a marquee player some of that dazzle which won him so many admirers so long ago. It would be good business sense to do so - but not for another contract period or so, while bigger dollars, less expectation and better competition await. With those business aspects kept firmly in mind, the chances of Harry Kewell joining the A-League this year were never great, but the publicity certainly was.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Shane Warne by Murray Middleton

My Favourite Cricketer is a series of special features run simultaneously on World Cricket Watch and Balanced Sports where we invite the world's best cricket writers and bloggers to tell us why one player has become their favourite.  Today, it's another inevitability: an Australian writes on Shane Warne.  This week's contribution is from Murray Middleton of World Cricket Watch.

My favourite cricketer is the man whose face Stuart MacGill sees at the bottom of every bottle of Bordeaux wine; a man whose face is becoming increasingly distorted; a man who has committed more infidelities than Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger combined; a man who plays a better balcony scene than a Montague and a Capulet; a man who never says ‘no’ to his mother; a man with a penchant for pizza, chips and toasted cheese sandwiches; a man who can always be counted on to deliver accurate information about pitches and weather conditions; a man who recently admitted, ‘I’d be sitting in a strait jacket in a padded cell if I started regretting everything that happened in my life.’

In the sixth season of Sopranos there is a pivotal scene when Tony’s wife, Carmela, confronts his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. Carmela reveals that she has always been aware of Tony’s means of subsistence. She forlornly admits, ‘I don’t know if I loved him in spite of it or because of it.’ I feel the same way about Shane Warne. I love him. I know this much. Yet I often find myself questioning the motives of my love. Is it because he is the greatest sportsman I have ever seen? Or is it because he is such a majestically-flawed human being?

I remember when Warne was selected to make his international debut in the third test against India in 1992. I wondered why the selectors had opted for a corpulent 22-year-old who looked as though he was better suited to breeding greyhounds. Yet I was also intrigued. In the preceding six months my father had spoken regularly about an up-and-coming leg-spinner who possessed a weapon which I had never heard of: a flipper. I was desperate to see this phenomenon in action. The only problem was that we didn’t have a television.

During the SCG test I was staying at my uncle’s macadamia-nut farm near Bangalow in northern New South Wales. Our family was sleeping in a caravan. We set up a makeshift cricket pitch in a corrugated iron shed and listened to the entire test on the radio. My cousin batted for hours on end while Ravi Shastri led the assault on the young Australian spinner. My cousin plundered my leg-spinners to all acres of the farm. It was ruthless. I felt as though Warne and I were in it together. He eventually dismissed Shastri for 206 to claim figures of 1/150 off 45 overs.

The first time I saw Warne in the flesh was at the MCG against the West Indies the next summer. He had been brought into the side after Australia failed to dismiss the Windies in the final innings of the first test. I was sitting in the Southern Stand with my father. When Warne was introduced into the attack, his statistics were displayed on the electronic scoreboard. His bowling average was in the 60’s. A derisive murmur spread around the ground. ‘I feel sorry for the poor kid,’ said my father. Warne didn’t need his sympathy for long.

In the second innings he collected 7/52 and bowled Australia to victory. He produced his first legendary flipper to remove Richie Richardson. The ball pitched on a good length, confusing Richardson as to whether to play forward or back. He ended up doing neither. The ball zipped off the turf and cannoned into Richardson’s off stump, halfway up. Richardson was stranded on the crease, unbalanced, and evidently perplexed. It is very rare that a champion sportsman is made to look like a fool. Usually when it occurs, it is at the hands of a champion-in-the-making.

In 1993 I went to a Shield match at the MCG to watch Warne play a rare game for Victoria. Five minutes before the lunch break I ran to the fence which adjoined the player’s race in a bid to secure his autograph. As the Victorian players walked towards the race I leant over the fence with a notepad in hand and asked Warne for an autograph. A great smirk flashed across his face. ‘I’ve already signed that one mate,’ he said, before placing his hand upon Matthew Elliott’s shoulder. Later that year, when he dismissed Mike Gatting with the ball of the century, I decided to forgive him.

Although the Gatting ball was an absolute peach, it isn’t my favourite Warne delivery. In 1996 at the SCG Warne was locked in an absorbing battle with the unorthodox Shivnarine Chanderpaul. He decided to bowl around the wicket to the left hander. Just prior to lunch he sent a wonderfully-flighted leg-break towards the footmarks outside Chanderpaul’s off stump. The West Indian star leant back to cut the ball. It pitched among the footmarks and turned prodigiously. The ball crashed into Chanderpaul’s pad before he had time to jam his bat down. It then ricocheted onto his middle stump.

My favourite Warne spell occurred in the World Cup semi-final in 1999. Australia posted a seemingly paltry 213. When Warne was introduced into the attack South Africa was cruising at 0-48. Within six overs they were 4-62. Warne dismissed Kirsten, Gibbs, Cronje and Kallis to finish with figures of 4-29 from 10 overs. The ball that removed Gibbs was almost a replica of the Gatting delivery. The ball that dismissed Cronje pitched on off stump and fizzed into the hands of Mark Waugh at first slip. Admittedly Cronje didn’t hit the ball (it glanced his shoe), but anyone who can turn a ball with such velocity deserves the devil’s wicket.

My favourite Warne series came in the Ashes in 2005. While the rest of his teammates floundered, Warne, whose personal life was in utter disarray, dug in for the fight of his life. He took an incredible 40 wickets in five tests at an average of 19.92. He also scored 249 runs, which was more than several of Australia’s top order batsmen. Warne’s protracted battle with his good friend Kevin Pietersen was a delight to watch. It cost me a semester at university. Warne played like a man possessed. It was Warne versus England. And he almost got them.

Warne played his final test series against England in the summer of 2006/07. He had a burning desire to regain the Ashes for his country. Like all true champions, he had one last trick up his sleeve. On the final morning of the Adelaide test, with the match seemingly trickling towards a banal draw, he bowled Kevin Pietersen around his legs. The ball changed the complexion of the match and the series. Australia went on to secure an unlikely victory in Adelaide and later won the series 5-0. It was a fitting end for one of the greats of the game.

Warne retired with every trophy in the ACB cabinet. It is rare that a sportsman possesses the foresight to retire at the perfect moment. It is also admirable to do so in a game where the temptation is for players to squeeze every last ounce (and dime) out of their ability, as Simon Katich had every intention of doing. Warne was never going to starve without international cricket, and he knew it. Anyone who has watched Muhammad Ali’s bout against Larry Holmes at Caesar’s Palace will understand the futility of ignoring the light.

Warne’s detractors seem to judge him on a humane level, not as a sportsman. It is difficult to defend Warne as a human. I don’t care whether he is a nice person, or a smart person. He is the smartest cricketer I have ever seen. He was a ferocious competitor. He wanted the moment. He wasn’t afraid of it. He had an innate belief that he was entitled to it. He possessed the perfect blend of raw ability, tactical nous and an insatiable appetite for the mental contest. Daryll Cullinan can attest to this. Warne got inside his blood. He transformed a quality batsman into a bunny rabbit. Since retiring, Cullinan has admitted, ‘Quite simply, Warne was too good for me.’

There have been countless other superb Warne deliveries over the years – Gooch, Kallis, Stewart, Anwar; enough to write a post-graduate thesis on. He is a marvel. Warne captured 708 test wickets at an average of 25.41 and 293 one day wickets at an average of 25.73. In 2000 he was selected as one of only five Wisden Cricketers of the Century. Not a bad effort for a common man with a pot belly. Perhaps he does look a little unsightly these days, but I forgive him. I’m glad he refused to give me his autograph 18 years ago. Who am I kidding? I love Shane Warne because of what he is.

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