Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Man United's depth: you get what you pay for

A team that only last season was a twinkling in Sir Alex Ferguson's eye dismantled former rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday. Both sides fielded below-strength sides as the Gunners reeled after losing Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas to continental rivals while United suffered from injuries to world class defenders Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Rafael.

This brings us to ask - where would Manchester United's Second XI finish over a full Premier League season? Obviously putting injuries aside, their second-best eleven players (four of them played on Sunday) make an imposing lineup:

Manchester United: Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Jones, Smalling; Park, Fletcher, Carrick, Valencia; Berbatov, Welbeck. Rough estimate of combined cost: 105 million.

We can safely expect such a lineup - and such remarkable spending, vastly inflated by fees for former first-choice players Berbatov, Carrick and future first-teamer Phil Jones - to finish higher than mid-table, based upon the strength of last season's fourteenth-best team:

Bolton Wanderers: Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Lee, Holden, Muamba, Petrov; Davies, Klasnic. Rough estimate of combined cost: ₤20.7 million.

Similarly, they would probably defeat a team from last year's top-half, Fulham FC, who finished eighth:

Fulham: Schwarzer; Baird, Hangeland, Hughes, Riise; Kasami, Murphy, Sidwell, Duff; Dembele, Dempsey. Rough estimate of combined cost: ₤24 million.

When matched against Tottenham Hotspur, who finished fifth, they won out in a 3-0 triumph at home in the second week of the season - although Spurs didn't field captain Ledley King.

Tottenham Hotspur: Friedel, Corluka, King, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto; Bale, Modric, Kranjcar, Lennon; Defoe, Crouch. Rough estimate of combined cost: 72.5 million.

Of course such a team could certainly struggle against the bigger sides and lacks a certain brutality boasted by Vidic and Wayne Rooney. But given the sums of money spent on compiling such enviable depth, it's only expected that they should finish above all but teams with a similar ability to spend.

Teams taken from last round of EPL fixtures and amended to include "obvious" first-teamers if they were not selected.

Note: While Spurs have certainly spent on their lineup, the total is lowered considerably by the decreased fees paid for Aaron Lennon and Niko Kranjcar, who were obtained for somewhere in the region of a combined 4.5 million from clubs in severe financial strife. Due to performance and circumstance, both players would now retail for far higher.

AFL Finals predictions

by Matthew Wood and Ben Roberts
Collingwood - undoubted number 1 chance for the premiership. Thomas missing the first week will not hurt them that much.

Matt's take:  The most fancied side to repeat since the Lions' against the Pies in 2002.  There's not a single weakness in their squad and, crucially, they have depth in their lower list - a "foot soldier" can be adequately replaced, rather than bringing in real rookies. 

Geelong - Realise I could end up with egg on my face on this one, but their second place on the ladder is a bit of a furphy promoted by a true home ground advantage at Kardinia Park. Have watched them a few times this year and they look old, coupled with being shorn of Abletts they lack the 'zazz' that made them unstoppable at times during 2007-2010. Its no shame - they have had their period in the sun and based on the AFL model may have gone longer at the top than reasonably expected. (EIC Matt currently yelling 'tag me in, tag me in!' WWF-style). That being said as Nick Davis once tried to say 'Form is temporary, class is permanent' (still not sure who he was referring to). Despite age, there is still class at the Cattery and they remain a chance. Number 4 challenger for Collingwood.

Matt's take:  I reckon the Cats have peaked for the year, but still probably have what it takes to be reckoned Collingwood's greatest threat.  They have a multitude of forward options - who never seem to fire at once, unless we're playing Melbourne/Gold Coast - and a defence which, while aging, can shut down the best.  The midfield - formerly a strength - is now the greatest question mark no matter how good Kelly, Bartel and Selwood are.  Strangely, stalwart fringe players David Wojcinski and Shannon Byrnes may be the players most vital to a successful finals campaign.

Hawthorn - I saw the Hawks last weekend and have pegged them as the Number 1 challenger for Collingwood. They are as hard at the ball as any side, their weakness is in their skills. If their skills are good, they have the best chance of beating anyone. They were awful by hand and foot on Saturday, but by force of effort just kept pushing the ball forward. Hodge is brilliant at winning the ball in close and Franklin is amazing, particularly when the game needs him to do something amazing. Then they have 20 other 'foot soldiers' playing as harder football as I have seen.

Matt's take:  If only they weren't injury-prone.  I can't agree with Ben's lack of skill comment as they are perhaps the most precise mid-to-long range kicking squad in the league.  Their trump card, as always, is Buddy Franklin and if he gets quality supply from Lewis, Sewell et al, the Hawks leap the Cats as threats.  Jam the midfield and Buddy doesn't get the chances - it's all so easy in theory, isn't it?

West Coast - Surprise packet of the season. Helped by fortress Subiaco - but only will get one final there at most. Number 2 Challenger for Collingwood. Inexperience will also count against them but they are pretty much assured of a preliminary final spot. Prelims and Granny's are far more a lottery than the other finals - in fact I don't think coaches can do much after semi-finals which is why I reckon the dogs sacking Eade is the wrong call an completely unfair. If the weather is fine, Nick Nat puts on a show for the ages they could do the business.

Matt's take:  Famously, half-way through the 1996 season, Rodney Eade was asked if his Swans could go all the way to the Grand Final.  His reply was "No, I don't think so - history says you need to have a few seasons in the finals before you make [that] leap".  The Swans surprised, but my guess it actually applies here - the Eagles have to travel and don't do that as well as in their 2004-07 heyday. If they surprise Collingwood in Week One, they're a chance to go all the way but, with Collingwood, that's a really big "if".

Carlton - For the first time in ages, a team outside the Top Four may be a decent chance (say, greater than 5%) to win it all.  And there are two (StK is the other)! Can challenge Collingwood in the midfield, but are let down by a strictly-average defence and the fact Brett Thornton still gets a game. Inconsistent as any team in the finals. On their day, devastating, but when they're not on they are abysmal and too reliant upon Chris Judd. Number 3 Challenger for Collingwood is a a choice of youth over experience (Geelong), but I'll go with it. Believe Brett Ratten (like Dean Laidley was) is a coach who can only develop a team so far, and he has hit his ceiling. Trade tip - Bryce Gibbs back to Adelaide (hometown and club needing class), for Kurt Tippett (Carlton needing a stronger key forward than Waite).

Matt's take: They'll make a Preliminary Final, at least - because one of the teams above them will slip up.  They have the beating of Essendon in Week One (cop that, Bomber!) and, should their Top Four opponent not be on the ball - I'm looking at you, Corio Bay - then they will surprise.  Partly also because Judd/Murphy is becoming the New New Judd/Cousins, replacing Ablett/Bartel.  I love Ben's trade idea, as well. 

St Kilda - When I saw the Cats play the Saints at the 'G in June, it was perhaps the most painful night of my life. They were horrible and I vowed they would never win the flag with as morose an individual as Ross Lyon as coach. They had no second gear, plan B or creative vision that night apart from setting records for the number of taggers they employed. They have improved, winning six straight, and are even showing some attacking flair. This though only rates them Number 5 Challenger for Collingwood.

Matt's take: It will take superhuman efforts from Nick Riewoldt and co. to vault them into Preliminary Final week.  In opposition to Collingwood, their recruitment policy has been shown up for its horrible flaws - they have great blue chip talent (Riewoldt, Goddard etc) but players 30-40 on their list may as well play for Balwyn in the EFL.  

Sydney - Only the spirit that they can show when not the favourites gives them a whiff, but Adam Goodes is petulant when things aren't going his way. Number 6 challenger for Collingwood.

Matt's take: Can we play every game in Sydney?  No, not at the Olympic Stadium, at the SCG.  No?  OK, FOOTY TRIP TIME!!  Everyone remember to make sure both your girlfriends don't turn up at the same time to pick you up from the airport.

Essendon - Riddled with injury and too inconsisent. No hope. Number 7 Challenger for Collingwood.
Matt's take: As long as Hird has the team playing the way they  should, even making the finals in a strong season is reason to be satisfied.  Jimmy won't omit all his ruckmen, as Knights did two seasons ago, and nor should he as with mobile big men like Paddy Ryder and Tom Belchambers, the Dons look better set up in the middle than at any time since the late '80s when Simon Madden was in his pomp.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Was Luka Modric right to ask not to play?

The Guardian reported after Sunday's match against Manchester City that Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric asked manager Harry Redknapp not to play. Allegedly, the Croatian said his "head was not right", echoing Redknapp's own words on the player from only a week before.

 That Spurs were defeated 5-1 at home (by a rampant City) is relevant, no matter how much players like Benoit Assou-Ekotto insist that Modric's desire for a move to crosstown neighbours Chelsea has not distracted them. Captain Ledley King has stated that such speculation doesn't help steady a ship destabilised by a summer's pursuit by Russian money and Champions' League football.

 Looking at his request in the most generous light, he asked his manager to omit him knowing his head was turned and he wouldn't be able to give his full efforts. Looking through the selfish window, he left his teammates out to dry - as arguably Spurs' best player and chief midfield creator.

 Which position was correct is still up for debate. Whether this influences any potential move also remains to be seen. Knowing the wiles of agents, there is likely a connection between the request and any impending transfer.

 Sochaux forward Modibo Maiga has also recently refused to play for his team as he angled for a move to Newcastle United. While a very different situation, he too must ask if he will enjoy his teammates confidence should he play for Les Lionceaux again.  Once such a drastic move is made, questions of repetition are often asked much, much later should similar circumstances present again.  Form is a powerful indicator.


 Certainly a player should have the right to withdraw his services from a game should he feel not psychologically prepared to play. In such a situation though, he should prepare to forfeit a percentage of his wages - as this unpreparedness is partly as a result of a professional desire to move employers. Many of us don't wish to continue working for our current employers, yet have to front up to work every day, lest we are punished or replaced.

 However, it is his responsibility to be prepared to play - mentally as well as physically. Potential replacement Scott Parker chose to play last year only days after the death of his father. Teammate Jack Collison did so a year prior under the same circumstances. If ever a player is to be unable to give his best, it is surely in circumstances such as these. Whatever happens between now and deadline day, Luka Modric will be at a successful club, a multi-millionaire and key player for his country. While his move will disadvantage him somewhat, it won't in any way kill his career - especially as there are future transfer windows.

 It's also a situation that could well have been avoided. This is a multifactorial situation in which Redknapp, whose comments can't really have helped his player; Daniel Levy, who has refused to sell the jewel in his transfer crown; and a Chelsea administration who have made a series of bids for the player. Levy has once before held on to a wantaway star, when he sold Dimitar Berbatov to United for a little over 30 million pounds - however, the constant speculation cost the team a positive start to the season and Juande Ramos his job.

 Due to the complex nature of this problem, it is impossible to judge whether Modric was correct in his assertion that his head wasn't in the right place. Should it prove a posture in a transfer negotiation, his words will reflect poorly on him. If he really cannot get his mental framework in sufficient order to avoid aggravation in this situation, it's probably correct to evaluate his mental toughness in a new light.

 Whether his teammates are willing to endow him with their full trust is very much down to the individual. It's likely all have some sympathy for his stance and his headspace. They are all aware now - if they weren't before - that it is unlikely they share the same goals.

As a player, Luka Modric deserves Champions' League football, but like an NBA title, World Cup winners' medal or just a domestic title, such honours don't complete players. It's time for us, as a football public, to stop using trophies or awards won as the best method of evaluating players. Trophies are great. But so are teammates and good club, and only (at best) the players from twelve clubs will actually really compete for a title this season across the four major European leagues.

 Perhaps only his performances - for Chelsea or Spurs - in the next few weeks will finally reveal how distracted he has been. Either way, by keeping him past the deadline, Spurs are gambling - on a return-to-form, sell-on price not falling and his continued happiness.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cricket Australia: Sitting on the Fence

"The time is coming where you have to choose between what is easy, and what is right"
Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It didn't take a rocket scientist - or a banking executive - to figure out that Australian cricket has both structural and talent issues. A 4-1 thumping in our last Ashes series, mediocre World Cup campaign and a captain with a positively Reiffel-esque batting average over the past three series (21.5) is proof enough for anyone with even half an eye and a tenth of a brain that Australian cricket has reached its lowest point since 1985.

While Ricky Ponting's tetchy leadership, Mitchell Johnson's latent outswinger, Greg Chappell's insistence on youth and Andrew Hilditch's residence in a fantasy world have contributed to this state of affairs, the root cause lies with James Sutherland and Cricket Australia. For too long they have tried to have their cake and eat it too by chasing the financial gains of Twenty20 and also lauding a the benefits of a competitive Australian Test squad.

By chasing both, they will achieve neither.

On one hand, commissioning Don Argus to report on their cricket management structures sounds good, even curative. But doing so while the other hand throws so many resources into the nascent Bigh Bash League (BBL), Cricket Australia is endorsing two policy decisions which negate the other. It is another curious leadership decision from CA whose actions indicate they are chasing the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs while paying only lip service to Test standards.

For much of the past twenty years as pitches become more standardised worldwide, cricket has degenerated into two groups: the "haves" and "have-nots". The "haves", fuelled by television revenue, good attendances and growth economies include the regular suspects: South Africa, England, India , Australia and perhaps even Sri Lanka. The second tier includes fallen powers West Indies and Pakistan, as well as New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

More accurately, these two groups could now be defined by the cricketers they produce. The West Indies' best now favour the shortest form, while the best of New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe often eschew their nations to tour the world as T20 guns-for-hire. The fundamentals of creating world-class players in both formats require player pathway systems so different that only the mega-wealthy institutions in world cricket can afford the time it takes to do so.

World cricket hasn't so much been divided along lines of Test quality, but on the type of cricket on whcih each nation has focused. If kids are developed where T20 is prioritised, it results in a bunch of individual talents and a poor Test team. Where a Test technique can occasioanlly benefit T20, the reverse is rarely, if ever, true. To acknowledge any speculation David Warner has what it takes to play Test cricket exists is to question the value of life itself - the man bears as much resemblance to a Test opener as my 94-year old grandmother.

By dividing it's attention between a Big Bash league with privately owned franchises (eeeugh - I hate that word in relation to cricket) and an Argus report recommending that the best 66 players play Sheffield Shield cricket at any one time, Cricket Australia is, dividing it's resources in an attempt to promote the game. By doing so, they've ignored the great rule: punters love success, and in Australia that means a strong Test team.

If Divide and Conquer still applies on the battlefield, so too is it effective in the marketplace. CA has already done the dividing, leaving it now open for conquest by a crowded Australian sports market which asks supporters to invest more than ever.

Let's not forget that private ownership as a model has only worked in Rugby League and never in the long term for any other sport. In fact, News Limited, after pioneering SuperLeague, now still owns the entirety of the Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys, as well as 69% of the powerhouse Brisbane Broncos. Rupert Murdoch, like Packer before him, got what he wanted out of setting up a rival competition. The hideous failures far outweigh that partial success as the names Christopher Skase, Dr. Geoffrey Edelsten, Eddie Palmer and his beloved Brisbane Bullets and the Victoria Titans weigh heavily on Aussie fans' consciousness.

The heavily-publicised BBL, intent on chasing dollars, imports the likes of Kieron Pollard and new fans will involve suspending first-class cricket during December, Australia's busiest Test month. How can Australia rebuild with the best First Class talent they have when that talent is not receiving games?

Cricket Australia has been forced into a position that all cricketing countries now must face: chase dollars, or what you feel is important. It's a nice coincidence when those options are one and the same. In Australia's case, that is unfortunately not the case. While paying lip service to the importance of Tests, CA has done everything but say "we're here for the dollars" by instituting a flawed BBL model at the expense of First Class cricket.

Only four years ago Austrlaian domestic cricket was the strongest on the planet - now no more, as players chase the dollars (and no-one's blaming them). Australia simply can't follow the Indian model (IPL) because there isn't enough support - or money - to go around. That Australian domestic cricket - or more crucially, given how many eggs are in it's basket, the new BBL - can't get a look-in on free-to-air television is a damning indictment of what Australians think about the grass-roots. Cricket captures the imagination in the backyard, when Australia plays and never through the likes of Gary Putland and the Melbourne Stars.

CA, to use the most cliche of cliches, is trying to have it's cake and eat it, too. Rather than committing - by dint of playing talent (like England has with Tests) or financial need (as the West Indians have done with T20), Australia continues not to choose its battles and try to succeed at everything.

The smaller countries of the world faced this challenge first, as New Zealand and Bangladesh have all but admitted for years that their best chance of attaining any success has been in the One-Day arena. Why else would players like Scott Styris choose to retire from Test cricket but not from the short format? Pakistan and the West Indies are already producing more guns for hire than good quality Test players. It's saddening to realise that the same is true of Australia.

As India wrestles with the impending doom brought about by Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman's respective entries into Valhalla, even that powerful nation will, in time, face the same challenge. While England will not remain immune forever, the structures in place around the game in it's birthplace may allow a defence against the irrepressible schism that threatens to divide cricket.

It's true of any business struggling in a crowded economy that you should choose either to expand your services, or focus on doing what you do best. For 125 years, Australia has produced the best Test cricketers in the world. Over the past decade, that trend has been reversed as players are seduced by the quick runs and quicker bucks available.

In a recent revealing podcast on Test Match Sofa, Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh revealed that the first priority of the Australian cricket team wasn't to win matches but to publicise the sport in Australia. When it comes to branding - the honeypot into which Cricket Australia has fallen - it is a simple fact that Starbucks produces coffee, Asics produces quality running shoes, Sri Lanka will deliver turning pitches - and Test cricket has been elevated to its highest form by teams from the Great South Land.

For Cricket Australia to forget that would be shameful.

Pitching it up: Galle International Stadium

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts

The three Test series begins in the south west of the island nation on a strip of land heading south into the Indian Ocean. Such location is described as being immensely picturesque however it was also immensely vulnerable on Boxing Day 2004 when the Tsunami devastated the area. The ground undertook a large reconstruction thanks to the large international cricket community, fearful it would be lost forever.

The ground was first built in 1876, however it was not until 1998 when it received its first Test match. In all 17 matches have been played on the ground, with nine wins for the Sri Lankans, coupled with three Losses and five draws. The pitch is typical sub-continent accepting spin and asking for patient batting against it. As you would expect Muttiah Muralidaran is the most successful bowler with 111 wickets on the ground in 15 matches, daylight is second.

Australia and Sri Lanka have clashed twice at Galle. A rain affected draw was the 1999 matches result, but there was time enough for Shane Warne and Murali to take three and five wickets respectively. For Australia both Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming bowled well, indicating that because of the breeze coming off the ocean on three sides of the ground as well as being closer to sea level patience and skill could be valuable for the quicker bowlers also.

In 2004 Australia won by 197 runs, but not before Murali had tied them in knots, taking 11 wickets. Australia fought back from a 161-run first innings deficit with patient centuries from Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, and Darren Lehmann (his first in Test cricket). So conservative were the usually swashbuckling Australians that these three recorded strike rates in these innings of 61, 34, and 60 runs per 100 balls, well down on what was usual. Warne took 5 wickets in each innings and Stuart MacGill 4 in the second as Sri Lanka was bowled out.

Given the nature of the current Australian side they are unlikely to go into the match with more than one spinner – a decision to be made between Nathan Lyon and Michael Beer. My favourite, Peter Siddle, will likely miss this one out as it is not a pitch that will respond to being attacked well short of a length as is his want. Bolter Trent Copeland of NSW appears likely to get a game after his five wickets in the lead up match and his more patient approach being more of a plus in teaming up with Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris.

Whatever the eventual line up will be for both sides (remember Sri Lanka are yet to find a suitable replacement for Murali) whoever wins the toss stands the greatest chance of success. Bat first, be patient, run up a total before being disciplined in the field against an opposition weary from their own fielding endeavours.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Angus Fraser by James Marsh

In our continuing series "My Favourite Cricketer", Pavilion Opinions' James Marsh selects the bedrock of English bowling in the 1990s, hearkens back to a man cut from the very Bedser cloth - Angus Fraser.

Number one Test side, World T20 champions and recent winners of, well, an ODI series, these are salad days indeed for the England cricket team. Yet for a fan who lived through the 1990s the pleasure of success is slightly tainted by its rather nouveau unfamiliarity. England's lettuce shouldn't be so crisp. It certainly shouldn't be capable of being tossed to any of our bowlers safe in the knowledge they can make the celestial Indian line-up at times look like rabbits.

Apologies for the metaphor milking, but back then milking was exactly what you grew accustomed to watching an England attack whose laboured efforts were further hampered by a management and selection policy that was occasionally merely vindictive rather than incompetent. Mullally, Illot, Jarvis. McCague, Salisbury, Munton. The names roll off the tongue like an ulcer. Until that is you get to the one man that put this listless canon of international fodder to shame: My favourite cricketer, Angus Fraser.
He wasn't the quickest, bounciest, most swing-laden or aesthetic player you could hope to see, but 'Gus was the bowler that I loved to watch pounding in more than any other. More lumbering throttle than whispering death, you could nevertheless keep your Holdings or your Waqars, and besides - if you really must have aestheticism - just look at the beauty of his stats: In 46 injury and selection lottery interrupted Tests he took 177 wickets at 27.32, an average that betters many including that of three of his rather more celebrated successors, Anderson, Hoggard and Flintoff. It might be a struggle to argue he could match the respective guile, shape, and aggression of that trio, but throughout the troubled 1990s Fraser bowled 1668.2 overs for his country, second only behind Phil Tufnell and the most by an England quick by nearly 300. That's 10,010 balls of unflinching, intelligent, mainly on a nagging length unerring, sometimes just "Hold an end up for a sweltering session, Gus", body-aching skill and commitment. Often his reward was to be summarily dropped.

His triumphs against the then still formidable West Indies side on their home soil are well documented, but can never be highlighted enough. Along with Alec Stewart's two tons, he restored pride to a side skittled for 46 in the previous Test by taking a first innings 8 for 75 in 1993/94 and and in doing so bowled England to their and anyone else's first victory in Bridgetown for nearly 60 years. Four years later, after 18 months of snubbing by the selectors, he returned triumphant to the Caribbean and took 11 for 110 in Port of Spain, picking up Lara's wicket in both innings, although this scalp was not uncustomary. Fraser sent the Windies genius on his way
seven times in the 14 Tests they played against each other.
To my mind, though, his most significant triumph was in 1998 during England's home series against South Africa, which, along with Dominic Cork's 1995 tour de force against the Windies, was the one that made me believe I might once again see my national side regarded as more than just a laughing stock. Not only did he and Robert Croft create the template for Onions-infused rearguards with their dogged tenth wicket stand to stop England going 2-0 down at Old Trafford, he also took the second ten wicket match haul of his career at Trent Bridge to set up England's victory. His efforts were as crucial, but nowhere near as oft-recalled, as Atherton's famous facing down of Allan Donald in the subsequent run chase.

Gary Naylor of the superlative
99.94 blog recently wrote here about his love for Glenn McGrath, who he admiringly termed the 'bastard's bastard'. Much attracted by that criteria I was very close to choosing Nasser Hussain over Fraser, but even on that basis I think 'Gus doesn't underperform, such was his curmudgeonly capacity for opinionated and often wry complaint that served him so well in his subsequent career as a journalist. His forthright approach clearly brought respect rather than rancour, however, and in his autobiography Hussain states his deep regret at never having captained Fraser internationally, describing him as "the sort of bloke I desperately wanted in my team, one who would give it his absolute best, would play with passion and commitment and make no excuse or hide behind anyone or anything." Not perhaps a terribly flashy quote, but then 'Gus wasn't a terribly flashy cricketer. He was simply, as was patently obvious to anyone who ever had the pleasure of watching his resolute magnificence, just an absolutely terrific one.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Samuel Eto'o moves to Russia's Anzhi Makhachkala

Cameroon forward Samuel Eto'o has moved from Serie A's Inter Milan to Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala, bringing to an end a two-year Italian sojourn which saw him win the Chammpions' League for the third time.

He joins a team which since an ownership change early this year has made a number of audacious bid for stars, most notably for Brazilian starlet Neymar.

With his transfer now confirmed, Eto'o will play alongside fellow high-paid players such as Russia's Yuri Zhirkov, formerly of Chelsea; Hungary forward Balasz Dzsudzsak and immortal Brazilian left back Roberto Carlos. Anzhi, in their second year back in the Russian Premier League, have spent a reported €25 million of new owner Suleyman Kerimov's hard-earned billions on the four-time African Player of the Year. The deal will make him amongst - if not the - highest paid player in the world.

At age 30 and having achieved (nearly) everything possible for an African player, he has agreed a deal to move to a region of Russia which has developed a reputation for violence. Russia, with a rapidly improving top division should provide enough challenges for Eto'o and a fiscal package far in excess of what he'd be able to earn at the Nerazzurri.

Though he has signed, any security concerns the Cameroon national may harbor have not been totally assuaged. Roberto Carlos recently came out saying the region's security situation was far improved and overstated - however this must be superimposed upon his own experience after receiving death threats while playing for Corinthians. This article from the Independent explains the situation particularly well.

Russian football has also suffered from outbreaks of racial intolerance. Having faced such bigotry before, Eto'o may have to do so again. In essence, he has sacrificed competition and perhaps an element of security by signing on in Dagestan. If he feels comfortable with rumours of armed insurgency, then the only sacrifice is of competition.

Samuel Eto'o has won everything there is to win: an Olympic Gold Medal, two European trebles and three UCL wins amongst numerous domestic titles and cups. When Inter Milan shaping up as a good but not particularly great side this year, what does he have to fuel his competitive instincts? Better to take the money - and the prospect of building a winner - in Russia.

For him, one final, massive, payday is worth any potential risks.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The next step for Financial Fair Play

It is fact that the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" in European football grows evermore larger. Last season in the English Premier League proved this adroitly when Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure reportedly earned more per week than the entire Blackpool squad.

The same situation manifests itself in every league. Success breeds success: as results improve, sponsor and prize dollars (generally) increase. This allows clubs to spend more on improving their squad. Or it does so in theory. In practice, beneficiaries who see clubs as expensive playthings dump large amounts of money into teams according to their means: for some, a la Everton chairman Bill Kenwright. Others, like Man City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, have deposited sums of money usually seen in the demands of Bond villains.

In order to make sure that all leagues don't go the way of Scotland - or Spain - UEFA instituted their Financial Fair Play policy, which over the next two seasons will be enforced. This is ostensibly to cut down on the amount of oligarchs seeing their clubs as desirable holes in their pocket and cap clubs spending at a percentage of their incomings.

But by having his airline Etihad Air sponsor City's ground, the City of Manchester Stadium, Sheikh Mansour seems to have successfully circumvented these guidelines. That the deal was struck isn't an issue but the figures involved - reportedly ₤400 million pounds - dwarf those spent on a similar sponsorship deal for Arsenal's home stadium seven years ago. That sum covers the transfer fees spent on Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong, Adam Johnson, Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Mario Balotelli, Kolo Toure, James Milner and Alexander Kolarov - and have ₤125 million in change.

A salary cap has again been mooted but is obviously unworkable given the implications of a continent-wide application. Apparently Financial Fair Play is a step in the right direction, but a step in the right direction at best. If equalisation is a process the football world is serious about then further steps must be taken.

Means-testing billionaire team owners - there's a phrase you don't hear every day - would certainly equal out the proverbial playing field (say, cap owners' private means at ₤1 billion), but would be as, if not more, unworkable as any proposed salary cap. While it would mean clubs would rely on business and football sense rather than just their position in the established order and well-disposed billionaires, it would prove very difficult to enforce. More problematically, it would also raise questions of what to do clubs already in the hands of the megawealthy.

Thus, the only way to strengthen these laws would be to investigate every sponsorship deal over a certain limit - say €1 million, policed by the individual leagues and required for registration of a team. Such deals - where a benefactor or his/her family simply reach into their pocket again as in this instance - would be judged invalid and clubs would risk point deductions. This way clubs could leverage their business sense and connections without actually receiving what amounts to donations.

This process, though it would take advanced forensic accountancy, wouldn't undermine any established order and would force clubs to be more accountable for their money. As football has already gone the way of business, it makes sense to nudge it further along that road.

Mourinho's greatest failing a lack of discipline - but not from him

Jose Mourinho has many gifts. For organisation, for having team buy into a philosophy, for quick quips and irritation. It's perhaps fitting that a master of hyperbole has been pilloried by the more rampant sensationalists in the British media concerning his antics during and after the Spanish Supercup.

As the four Clasicos in seventeen days last season proved, these teams have no love for each other - on or off the pitch. After their loss in the Champions' League Semi-Final in (April/May), Mourinho made statements which, if he had his time again, would probably re-consider. Barcelona thought about legal action, but opted against it.

After a horrendous tackle by Marcelo on Barcelona new boy Cesc Fabregas, benches cleared. Mourinho is now under scrutiny for an incident involving Barcelona assistant Tito Villanova (bear in mind this analysis does come from the Daily Mail, well known for sensationalism). The Sun - also known for siutational amplification - also suggested Mourinho is approaching Real's tolerance threshold. Even the more moderate Daily Telegraph and The Independent questioned The Special One's tenure at the Bernabeu.

Comments branding Barcelona "a small team" didn't help and, alongside his paranoiac mania following their Champions' League exit, contribute to an image of a man either on the edge or who plays mind games at a black belt level. His comments more and more mimic those of dictators - strong, usually charismatic leaders with a firm grasp on a tiny part of the world - but from the outside viewed as small-time.

More accurately, his words resemble Davros' - "Once more my Daleks will rule the universe.  Once more they will become the Su-preeeeeme Beeeeinnnngggs!".  If only it wasn't for that pesky Doctor Messi/Xavi/Iniesta.

In today's Guardian, a spokesman for Los Merengues' manager says his role in the stoush was "defending Real Madrid's interests". The Independent - and Paul Hayward - have asked if Jose is still worth his antics. When each match between the two best teams in football descends into a melee, it is a fair question.

Even Real Madrid, a club not known for patience and lenience with their managers, would be rash to fire the man who has transformed them from also-rans into an outfit who will challenge Barcelona. The side has apparently improved markedly over the offseason, fuelled by more spending (Fabio Coentrao and Nuri Sahin) and another year's acclimation to Mourinho's tactics. In the match in question, most observers had them slightly edging the match until defeated by a typically classy Messi goal.

Jose may feel pressure to succeed and consequently just be acting out more. This is unlikely given his past posts and the high expectations he must have shouldered there. He may feel the mindset of his squad is so fragile it can't bear a defeat to Barcelona without attendant, media-diverting controversy. Maybe his ego has become so large that he's lost some perspective. Any increase in his antics is due to a combination of all three factors.

It would be folly to ignore the lack of discipline and leadership Jose Mourinho has received from the Real Madrid front office. Perhaps more than anything else, this has empowered Mourinho to say and do what he likes. Given his results so far, it would be wrong if he were made to fear for his job. But he should be made to respect discipline - UEFA's, La Liga's or from Perez himself.

Since his Chelsea days at least, Mourinho's modus operandi has been to instill a siege mentality about his players, defending them from media scrutiny and removing any pressure from his boys by deflecting or absorbing it himself. By doing so, he's produced remarkably successful units at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real. At the Bernabeu, however, once former General Manager and blatant Jose-antagonist Jorge Valdano was removed, he's received only minimal leadership from the front office. He has not been censured for his actions, some of which should have desperately deserved it.

Indeed by removing Valdano, Mourinho's only internal source of dissent, Real President Florentino Perez has actually served as an enabler. Corporate, family or political leadership - real leadership - comes not from money, but from making tough decisions. In this, Florentino Perez has failed as Real Madrid President. While Jose Mourinho is mandated to bring success to Real Madrid on the pitch, it is Perez's responsibility to make sure he does so in a manner worthy of his institution.

To draw parallels from politics, were Perez the head of a government and failed to adequately discipline a general he would risk his own career. In a non-entertainment business role - well, just look at what happened at the News of the World. When people whose job it is to get results don't get guidance from above their practices can slip into the unorthodox, unpleasant and sometimes the illegal.

Jose Mourinho hasn't done anything illegal during his status at Real. What he has done, though, is get (some) results and inflame an already-heated rivalry by being boorish. If Florentino Perez is happy to make that tradeoff, theirs shall be a match made in heaven. The only alternative is for Perez to man up and act like the leader his position says he should be.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reaction to the Argus Report: Keep Calm and Carry On

by Ben Roberts

Hold your horses, keep a lid on it, do not get ahead of yourself, there is still a long way to go.

Yes Andrew Hilditch is now relieved of his duties as the chairman of selectors, Tim Nielson stood down and at the very least Greg Chappell has been chastised for inappropriately seeking to meddle in team matters. All three have a lot to answer for regarding poor performance, but do not start looking at them as scapegoats, there is more needing improvement in Australian cricket before it is out of the woods.

Cricket is by far and away the hardest game to govern effectively. To begin with are Australian cricketers employees, therefore beholden to the wishes of the CA board or are they private contractors able to ply their trade on terms that they set? If it was the former then no-one would play the game as CA is hardly an employer of choice, if it was the latter than we would have 10 to 20 Kieron Pollards coming and going with abandon depending on the direction of the fiscal winds.

What we do have is something that swings in the middle where the wishes of the national authority, state authorities, private enterprises (IPL and the like), and the ICC; not to mention the 'assets' in the middle the players who all have their own desires as well. You try and draw a line between the competing objectives of these parties and make it straight. If you can succeed I feel there is a role negotiating peace in the middle east awaiting you!

Throw into the mix now the latest initiative (yet to begin) is the Big Bash League where T20 becomes the central focus of the domestic fixtures. The BBL has required time, effort, and resources requiring the engagement of external parties (throwing another interested party into the governance mix) only for the Argus review to come out and criticise the focus on the quick buck in T20 over the longer forms of the game. Whoops!

We still have a CEO and Board of CA who appear dysfunctional and calls for a spill of positions will not die down for a while. The self interest extends further to the state associations who rightly, left to fend for themselves, will always make development and selection decisions based on the betterment of the state teams until there is some incentive to service the national side.

Finally despite the problems in the administration of the game how much of this can be blamed for the poor performance of the A grade cricketers in the Australian team. Did it really influence Messrs Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, Haddin etc. to the point in which their performance appeared suited to levels well below first-class that Hilditch was delirious, Chappell arrogant and Nielson confused? Of course not. While not optimal, these guys have been hitting cricket balls since they were knee high to a grasshopper and have natural talent in bucket loads, they are responsible for their own performance ultimately. Plenty of cricketers from less fortunate environments then them have succeeded despite poor administrations (take for example their current opposition who had civil war to contend with also).

Despite the release of the Argus report, it will be a while before Australia can truly challenge to be top of the cricket world again. It starts with the current series followed by the coming summer. The winds of change have begun, but do not expect a hurricane.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Giving it a red hot go

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts recently ran a story about Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youklis, who they described as the definition of the 'blue collar athlete'. Youklis is a hitter not taken to niceties, he has a job to do every game and will give his all every time he steps up to the plate.1 Working hard to make the pitcher work even harder and get himself on base, Youklis may not put up the performances that win awards, but he can be relied upon to get himself on base a high proportion of the time. Getting players on base is something my own San Francisco Giants appear destined to continue to fail at while they remain dedicated to sticking with the highly paid and under-motivated.

Despite being an Australian and therefore morally (and spiritually) bound to never allow Americanisms to enter my vernacular, I have to defer to Uncle Sam in this instance as I reckon their word for the type of player Youklis is just about perfect. Youklis is a 'Gamer'. A gamer relishes competition and the heat of the moment when they need to be relied upon. They 'have a crack' or give it a 'red hot go' always and this is their strength.

On one of the few televised games of Major League Baseball that enter the Australian airwaves I was able to watch Youklis and his Red Sox play against the New York Yankees that included another player who works hard at bat and maybe (at least to my untrained eye) meets the definition of a gamer, Nick Swisher.2 Swisher like Youklis makes the pitchers work to his strengths and does not tire of doing the un-dramatic such as drawing walks.

I remember watching the NBA during the Michael Jordan era and being surprised that among the flashy skills of players like Jordan, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, or Tim Hardaway here was this white guy3 making all-star teams and holding his own. This white guy was Chris Mullin, and he was a gamer too. Mullin's gamer effort was as much about his work on the practice court as it was in game play. In honouring his elevation to the Hall of Fame called Mullin a dying breed, a rarity not blessed with natural athleticism who made the grade. Mullins drive to succeed and develop his skills took him to the top of his sport.

Jumping across to the most notable of the world games leagues the EPL and we find gamers there too. Unlucky not to secure all the major individual awards for last years Premier League, Scott Parker proved to be a larger than life character for West Ham as they fought to retain their place in the top flight. Parker routinely was the only reason why the Hammers managed to secure points throughout the season because he was always up for the fight and was willing to grab his team mates by the scruff of the neck to do likewise. Unfortunately it was all in vain4.
Newcastle's5 Joey Barton is another player always up for the fight, though he is an example of erring on the side of going over the top, and probably the aging Phil Neville. Both players were potential targets of both North London clubs who need hardening up this year if they stand any chance of finishing above 5th and 6th in the league.

You may begin to get the feeling that the definition of a gamer is restricted short on natural talent or natural athleticism but gets the most out of what they do have. This is not true. Moving to our third continent we find a phenomenal gamer who has both the huge amount of natural talent, and athletic capability.

Chris Judd in 2011 continues to prove that he is the best player Australian football has currently, and will finish up at the very least in the top ten of all time. All followers know how amazing his skills are and his athleticism and strength are amazing, but his insatiable desire for the contest is what drags him to be a cut above the rest. West Coast won a premiership because of him, and Carlton stand a chance of winning one in the near future for the same reason. Take him out of either team and they may still be a chance, but I reckon he almost doubles the chance of any team he plays in.

Looking back into history you find Michael Jordan, the greatest on the hardwood of all time and a serious gamer. Take the opportunity and watch his 'flu game' in the 1997 championship series against Utah. The only reason the Chicago Bulls won that game was Michael Jordan. Illness stripped him of his usually immense physical capacity, yet his drive to win dragged his team over the line. Even the greatest of skills and athleticism can get taken to the next level.

I love watching these players in any sport. They are the reason why we as spectators enjoy the contest. I wrote recently about my favourite cricketer of all time Allan Border, without him I would not have witnessed the great success of the Australian cricket team.

We owe these gamers the most respect in the games they play.

1 First time in my life I have ever used this phrase literally rather than figuratively.
2 Previously only notable to me for appearing in an episode of 'How I Met Your Mother'.
3 With a buzz-cut tribute to Dolph Lundgren.
4 Trouble is that no matter how great Parker was, Avram Grant was more than equally bad.
5 Just.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Adam Gilchrist by Will Atkins

Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch are proud to present the best cricket writers and bloggers today as part of a series remembering "My Favourite Cricketer".  Today's favourite is the greatest 'keeper-batsman of all time, Adam Gilchrist, by Will Atkins of The Short Midwicket.

Not many cricketers are remembered for completely redefining the sport in which they play. Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. Lance Armstrong. And it would be no exaggeration toclaim that Adam Gilchrist redefined the role of the wicket-keeperbatsman. A batsman who could hit the ball an awful long way while retaining the utmost finesse whether in tests or ODIs, Gilchrist elevated the role of the wicket-keeper from one who simply needed to be able to catch the ball to a player who needed to be able to consistently perform match-winning heroics with the bat. Gilly was more than just a wicket-keeper; he was a game-turner, someone who could take a hopeless situation and salvage it, or compound the opposition’s misery as he finished them off with his lusty blows.

My love for Adam Gilchrist isn’t the most conventional story, as whilst he was making his state debuts for New South Wales in 1992, I was in England having only just been born, so unable to appreciate fully his unbeaten 20 to see NSW home in the Sheffield Shield final. However, as I began to understand and appreciate cricket, there was one player who stood out for me. It was the 2003 World Cup, and with England having set off home fairly meekly, I was able to watch as this Australian started smacking the ball everywhere, which appealed to me greatly. Making four fifties as the Aussies serenely marched to the defence of their trophy, Gilchrist was my hero, and the man who made me take up wicket-keeping. After many swings and misses, and even more dropped catches, I promptly gave up the gloves, but the seed was sown. Adam Gilchrist was the man for me.

Some of his innings were just breath-taking. He just naturally scored quickly without it appearing reckless, finding gaps in fields where there were none, always with expert timing and balance. Batting at number seven in tests, Gilchrist’s quick scoring was instrumental in Australia’s dominance over the cricketing world, as he was able to counter-attack to force pressure onto the other team just as well as he could put the foot to the throat and finish off any slim hopes from the opposition. Some of his best performances speak for themselves. An 84-ball hundred to kill off India at Mumbai in 2001. A double hundredat Johannesburg in 2002 from only 214 deliveries. The extraordinary 57-ball hundred (only one ball slower than the all-time test record) against a demoralised England at Perth in 2006. But it wasn’t just about his fast scoring – a nerveless 149 not out in only his second test to chase down 369 against Pakistan in 1999 is testament to the fact that he was an excellent batsman, not a slogger.

Gilchrist redefined the role of the ODI opener as well, with a strike rate of 97 runs per hundred balls almost guaranteeing that Australia would get off to a flyer. With 16 hundreds, but more tellingly his 55 fifties (to go alongside his 472 dismissals), Gilchrist is arguably the most successful ODI opener of all-time. Indeed, his innings on the biggest stage of them all, in the 2007 World Cup final, will go down as one of the great all-time ODI innings, with 149 off 104 balls single-handedly winning Australia their third consecutive World Cup. All of which he’d been instrumental in.

I admired Adam Gilchrist though, not just for his ability with the bat or gloves, but due to his behaviour on and off the pitch. How many other cricketers would walk when givennot out in a World Cup semi-final? Gilchrist walked then (after the umpire failed to see him inside edge a ball which was subsequently caught) just as he walked every time he nicked. Given the attitudes of some of his teammates in the harsh and ruthless Australian team he played in, Gilchrist’s attitude was so refreshing, and he was an outstanding role model for any aspiring cricketer.

They say people should never meet their heroes, but this advice was fully ignored by me last summer when I did work experience with Middlesex CCC. Gilchrist, by now retired from international cricket and freelancing for T20 teams around the world, had been recruited to play for the Panthers during the fateful T20 season of 2010, and part of my role was to help out with Gilchrist’s media day. He genuinely had time for everyone he spoke to, and was absolutely delighted to be playing for Middlesex. Way back in 1989, a very young Adam Gilchrist (here’s an ominously accurate interview with him from 1989) flew over from Australia to play for Richmond in the Middlesex League, and he said just how important that time was in the development of his career. Playing for Middlesex 21 years later as a fully formed legend of the game was his way of giving back. As is the fact that he sponsors a promising cricketer each year to go and play for Richmond for a summer in the hope that they too can have as successful a career as him. While Gilchrist was initially only signed up to play at Lord’s, he decided to play in one of the T20 outground games at Richmond, just to help give back even more to the small club. You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty cool.

The fact an Australian could ever be considered my favourite player just sums up how great a player, and a man, Adam Gilchrist is. A leader in everything he did on and off the pitch, Gilchrist sets the standard for pretty much everything possible – how a batsman should bat, how a wicket-keeper should keep and how a cricketer should behave. Adam Gilchrist simplified excellence, which is summed up in his thoughts on how to bat successfully; “Just hit the ball”. There won’t be another cricketer like Adam Gilchrist for an awfully long time – not many can have the respect of the cricketing world not just for their abilities, but for their sportsmanship and kind heart as well. That’s why my favourite cricketer is Adam Gilchrist, someone who led the way in every regard.

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