Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cricketing relationships

by Ben Roberts

I may be going to sound like Oprah or Doctor Phil, but there is clearly a deep emotional need for success in all cricketers. They cannot subsist on footwork and line and length alone, and the absence of beneficial outside relationships is quite possibly catastrophic.

Take for example the beginning of the Australian summer and the very public spat between always-fiery teammates Simon Katich and Michael Clarke. Their descent into the relationship abyss came at the lowest point of the entire Australian cricket family for years, and no one would have then believed Clarke would be the captain to lead Australia to such a rapid turn in fortunes.

But things did turn around and success has come to Clarke's Australia; along the way, Clarke has related well to all comers, in particular Clarke and Ricky Ponting have in January 2012 picked up their very productive affair, missing since they last truly connected two years prior.

Ed Cowan, (c) Balanced Sports
Not only that, but this summer the new Australian selection panel (a long-established matchmaking institution) have been rather bolshie in taking plenty o’ gambles. In Melbourne they sent absolute opposites Ed Cowan and Dave Warner on a blind date (after Warner's early summer fling with Phillip Hughes clearly was a very one sided relationship) and the two openers have not looked back. Cowan in fact has spent most of the summer gazing at Warner lest he be struck by a missile from his blade!

All this is not to mention the bond that has occurred within the Skippy fast bowlers. Although Peter, Ben, Ryan, James and Mitchell know that they all cannot be included in the same team all of the time, they clearly feel and care for each other the way they have shared the Indian scalps around.

This relational need in cricket has seemingly gotten the attention of more than just the cricketing authorities.  This article link was passed over to me recently.  The tongue-in-cheek piece may require both a working knowledge of cricket and the Book of Genesis to fully appreciate the humour, however we can add it as evidence that maybe even a divine relationship is key for cricketing success.

The author Michael Jensen lists many of faith who have graced cricketing fields. Two stuck out on my mind for the era in which they played: England's Reverend David Sheppard was an ordained minister during his international playing days and later Bishop of Liverpool.  Australia's Brian Booth was an Anglican lay-preacher. Although previously aware of their non-cricketing backgrounds, when presented with them again reading this article, my first reaction was to exclaim to myself (and Zoe the dog) about the wilder types whom they shared dressing rooms.

Respectively, Sheppard and Booth teamed with Fred Trueman and Keith Miller, whom would hardly be described as shrinking violets. I wondered just how it went? Was there precedent for the Clarke/Katich troubles? Of course my first reference point is the modern day font of wisdom Wikipedia. Looking up both Booth and Sheppard, lo and behold both have their relationships with Trueman and Miller described, including that they were full of humour.

Now I am not proposing if looking for a life partner you give up the blind dates, internet chat rooms and bar crawling and head down to your local cricket club. Such a move may not go as well in practice as in theory, but on those days when it is 42 degrees, you're in the field defending 47, and the opposition is 0/278, look across to your mate at first slip/mid wicket/cover and realise that you may be sharing more than just the old thigh pad in the team kit!

Monday, January 30, 2012

A statistical breakdown of Premier League goalkeeping

Last year, we asked what would  happen if we applied hockey stats to goalkeepers in the English Premiership.  The results were interesting, if expected - decreased save percentages and often reduced GAA across the board.

What was more interesting was the amount of variation between goalkeepers on the same team: where David Stockdale rode an early wave of form (and a Mark Schwarzer injury) into the England squad yet wasn't able to repel the big Australian when he came back to full fitness.

This year, save percentages have decreased ever so slightly (from a league average 0.694 to 0.691) while GAA has seen a commensurate tiny increase (1.396 to 1.416).  The following tables show all the Premiership's goalkeepers arranged by GAA.  The red line marks the approximate league averages.

(c) Balanced Sports
This second table orders each goalkeeper according to their relative save percentage.   "Backup" Lindegaard again tops the league, with a save percentage slightly greater than Chelsea second-teamer Hilario and England's Joe Hart.

(c) Balanced Sports.  Please not the error in Michael Vorm's GAA in this table.  It is correct in the table above.
These numbers mean little without full context - Wojciech Szczesny's percentages still suffer greatly from Arsenal's 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford, while Ali Al Habsi of Wigan and Tim Howard of Everton have perhaps been their club's best performers this season.  Therefore, it bears reminding that these numbers don't reflect the quality of the goalkeeper, but the quality of the defence in front of them.

For all the raw goalkeeper stats you can lay your hands on, visit our Goalkeeper Stats page.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Craig Bellamy - the signing of the season?

Everyone loves something for nothing.  In the high-priced world of professional football, the same is even more true.  When in August last year Kenny Dalglish asked Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini nicely for Craig Bellamy, the Liverpool icon became the proud “owner” of one very cheap, slightly-used Welsh forward.

That very cheap, slightly used Welsh forward – who spent last season on loan at his hometown club, Cardiff City – has since been one of the Reds’ best players and without question has provided the best value for money of all Liverpool’s 2011 acquisitions.  Considering the plentiful concerns about Bellamy’s physical condition –his knees are reportedly bad enough to prevent him from playing three matches in a row – the contract he signed on Merseyside is for a quite reasonable two years.

In fact, despite only a month ago crowning Sergio Aguero the Premiership’s best signing of 2011, it’s time to reconsider that honour in Bellamy’s favour.  With the difference in transfer fees paid and the disparity in the pair’s respective wages, the title is now the fiery Welshman’s to lose.

As an aside, Bellamy’s success at Liverpool, in concert with defender Nedum “You were such a nice man” Onuoha’s £2.5 million sale to QPR, makes one ponder the validity of City asking so much for sensation-magnet Carlos Tevez.  City have insisted on receiving close to market value for their pugnacious former front man (as well as for other superfluous players Adebayor and Santa Cruz) when they have essentially discarded quality EPL players like Bellamy, Onuoha and Shaun Wright-Phillips for a handful of coppers.

As Tevez has reportedly been fined over £9 million for his repeated indiscretions, his probable profit from any deal (with a signing bonus possibly a percentage of any transfer fee paid) is something City should be hoping to avoid.  This, and possible (though this sounds far-fetched) savings on his wages, mean any substantive monies they receive from his sale should be seen as gravy. 

Given past experience, he is likely to haunt them no matter what fee they may accept for his signature – so the Citizens may as well just move him on and save themselves some more Tevez-induced fiscal heartburn.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shaun Marsh - the galling truth

On Monday, we shared a graphic detailing Shaun Marsh's horrendous form against India.  His slump has become epic - the only slump that hangs about as much in the modern memory was Ken Rutherford's near career-devastating debut series where the teen prodigy was worked over by a West Indies attack in their absolute pomp.

With Marsh, not only is his footwork weighed down but also his confidence.  In isolation, his batting average of 31 after ten Test innings could be plenty worse.  However, he finds himself in a situation where all around him have made multiple scores, making his lack of runs an even more glaring tribute to self-doubt.  But how bad is his form slump?  To find out, w need to frame his scores contextually.

Unfortunately for Marsh, a wide-angle lens does him no favours.  Each member of the current Australian top order's batting average had exemplified elements of stabilisation by the tenth innings; by each player's twentieth knock their averages had effectively stabilised.  Mike Hussey is of course the outrider after starting his career being exceptionally hard to dismiss.

 As one would expect, batting averages tend to steady as the number of innings increases - firstly because you obtain more consistent results and secondly because the player has established themselves as a Test quality player (or not).  Trends are easy to spot in such graphs - and Marsh's seems likely to steady at around 30, significantly below the Test batsman's Mendoza line of 40.

Perhaps it's not about youth, it's about situation.  Taking all batsmen as equal, the following graph plots Marsh's average since debut with all those batsmen Australia have used.

As you can see, Marsh's form has slipped below that of the particularly unlamented Phil Hughes and even below the spectacularly out of form Brad Haddin.  So it's not circumstance either.  Marsh simply has plumbed the depths of form not seen since Dean Jones in Pakistan.  It's time to move on.

All averages include the first innings from the current Test in Adelaide, but not the second.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Here's something we prepared earlier: Brad Haddin - The Schizoid Man

Originally published on the Sight Screen, on Sunday 22nd January.

It’s not really surprising, given he’s been Australia’s first choice wicketkeeper in all formats of the game for nearly five years now.  “Victorian” Matthew Wade, (rather than Tasmanian Tim Paine) now looms largest in his rear view mirror, and Haddin has admitted to feelings of stress and overwork.  Media scrutiny can’t have helped these feelings of exhaustion as in Australian batting and fielding teams that have been uniformly inconsistent he is now considered a weak link.

If truth be told, on form alone Brad Haddin doesn’t deserve to stay in the Australian team.  He has been blessed with exquisite timing (a century against England in the first Ashes Test last year, coupled with potentially career-ending finger injuries to Paine) and more batting talent than any of his nearest rivals.

Creative commons
However, he and Shaun Marsh seem to be the only Australians not to benefit from Micky Arthur’s ascension to the role of national coach.  He started promisingly, with a very watchful 20-odd in the first innings at Melbourne, but followed this with scores of 6, 0 and most recently a second-ball duck in the Big Bash.  He seems torn between the new responsible batsmanship apparently favoured by his countrymen and the voices in his head that tell him to just get out there and smack the ball. 

Sometimes we talk of men out of their time; it appears Haddin was born five years too late.  A decade ago, he would have been the perfect late-order hitter for Australia.  Now, he has become the most obvious and awkward symptom of a worldwide cricketing malaise, where patience is something played on the computer.  His keeping has suffered and his batting stinks of a man in two minds.  Arguing with another person can be tiring, but constantly debating with oneself amidst a climate of fear can be utterly soul-destroying.  It’s little wonder he’s exhausted.

Sometimes talent isn’t enough.  Now more than ever, teams are conscious of how well a player fits into their side – talented players now often make way for lesser mortals in the name of “team balance”.   Comparing the batsmanship of Australia’s keeping options (Haddin with a First Class average of 39, Wade with 40), results pretty much in a wash – except Haddin is a match winner/loser, while Wade contributes reliably but in a less game-changing vein. 

When contrasting their work behind the stumps, no matter how good each usually is, one must plump for the Victorian simply because of his incumbent rival’s absolute lack of form (and footwork).  It is said of footballers that when their “legs go”, their career becomes instantly unrecoverable.  With the exception of leaden-footed dervish Chris Gayle, the same is true of batsmen and keepers: Haddin’s footwork is nearly a decade past it’s use-by date.

However, the middle of a tour is an inopportune time to replace such a significant figure.  Haddin’s status as vice-captain also presumes to his position’s safety.  But the next Australian series – in the West Indies – should be the time in which John Inverarity and his brethren throw name both in the touring party.  By then, Shane Watson may have returned to the lineup and Haddin’s leadership credentials won’t have quite the same pull; his form alone will testify in his defence.

Both Wade and Haddin are supremely talented individuals, and for the moment, selection simply comes down to a matter of taste.  Does one favour matchless eye or preferable technique?  Proven matchwinner or runs in the (First Class) bank?  Haddin could save his career with a century at one of his favoured roads pitches in Adelaide; but admissions of fatigue are usually signs of severe trouble

Monday, January 23, 2012

Shaun Marsh's Test Average

Any reason to doubt the return of Shane Watson to the Australian side?  After his excellent 141 on debut at Kandy and a subsequent 81 straight after, Shaun Marsh's form has hit the toilets.  Apart from 44 in his first innings in South Africa (after/during which he suffered a debilitating back injury), his scores have continued to plummet.  With another failure today, it looks increasingly like Shane Watson will return to the Test side and bat 3 while the burgeoning partnership of Ed Cowan and David Warner faces up to the new ball.

My Favourite Cricketer: Chris Pringle by Mykuhl of Cricketgeek

We've scoured the web for the best cricket writers and bloggers to contribute to our series "My Favourite Cricketer".  Today, Mykuhl from the splendid Cricketgeek tells us why he thinks of Kiwi spearhead Chris Pringle most fondly.

As a child I enjoyed playing cricket, and to a lesser degree watching cricket.  I think what I enjoyed most about watching cricket was that normally it was something I did with my dad.  There were a few incidents as I was growing up that made me fall in love with the game.  Firstly when Hadlee dominated Dean Jones in Australia – I remember standing outside, watching through the window as all my older cousins, my father, my uncles and my grandfather crowded around the TV at my grandfathers house. The electricity in the air was contagious.

The next incident was the 1992-93 world cup. When Martin Crowe chose to open the bowling with Dipak Patel against Australia, and it actually worked, and when I was allowed to go to one of the games at Eden Park and saw Mark Greatbatch hit a six onto the roof.  Both of these really captured my attention.

But the ultimate incident that did it for me was in the next season. 1993-1994 the World Series Cup – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.  My family were on holiday at Mt Maunganui, and in the little sun room at the front where I was sleeping there was a television.  This was still in the days where sports was broadcast free-to-air, and almost every night there was cricket on.  The performance of one player was a big part of why I still love cricket today.

Chris Pringle took at least one wicket in every match in that tournament.  He actually managed this in 26 matches in a row from March 1993 until October 1994, in the process playing against every Test-playing nation of the time. I believe that the whole story of Pringle is one of the greatest in cricket.

Image courtesy: cricwaves.com
The start

 He started off his international career after only playing 3 first class games.  New Zealand were touring England, and he was over there playing some minor league cricket.  He decided to turn up to the game to see if he could get some free tickets off some of the Auckland players that he knew. He got more than he was expecting. At first they asked him if he could help them out by bowling in the nets.  Then Martin Snedden got injured, and Pringle got told that he was playing. 

After 27 overs New Zealand were in trouble. Gooch and Smith had put together a big partnership, for the 2nd wicket, and England were 118/1. Pringle was watching Gooch bat and thought he saw a weakness. He asked the captain for the ball, and got him with a slower ball straight away. He ended with figures of 2/45 (Hadlee got 2/45).

It is a Boys Own tale – just out of school, turns up to the ground, gets to play for his country and outperforms (probably) the greatest bowler his country has ever produced.

The skills

Despite being only just over medium pace, and not really doing much with the ball, he managed to have career ODI stats very similar to Waqar Younis (Avg, rpo, sr; Pringle 23.87, 4.45, 32.1; Waqar 23.84, 4.68, 30.5) . He did it by finding weakness in batsmen’s techniques and then exploiting them.

He was not built like a fast bowler, he looked like the guy that comes to fix your telephone. In fact, the first time he ever set foot inside a gym was after he had already been picked for Auckland. He had to get some of the other players to show him how to use the equipment. And perhaps this was why he was such a good bowler. He couldn’t rely on physical ability so he had to learn to think.

One of the most memorable moments was in 1991 where Australia needed 2 runs to win off the final over. Bruce Reid was batting, and all he needed was a single to tie the score. Pringle had the ball. He bowled the over of his life to the bewildered Reid, who eventually tried to sneak a single off the last ball, and was run out for his trouble, giving Pringle a final over maiden and New Zealand a win by 1 run. Pringle’s figures of 1/34 off 10 hardly told the story of his excellent performance.

On the way to a ground in Australia he noticed that there were billboards for the movie Predator outside the ground. They featured Arnold Schwarzenegger with camouflage paint on his face, looking like a warrior. Pringle got some zinc and painted similar marks on his face before coming out to bowl. Anything for an advantage.

His approach worked, and he became the most reliable wicket taker in One Day internationals in history. Here is the table of the top 10 most reliable wicket takers:
Innings bowled
Innings with at least 1 wkt
Hit rate
C. Pringle
B. Lee
P. Patterson
S. Bond
K. Mills
M. Muralitharan
A. Donald
T. Alderman
M. Ntini
M. Sami

The controversies

Over the 5 years of his tragically short career he was involved in more incidents than most players are in 15 years. Before long he was just too much of a public relations disaster, and NZ Cricket couldn’t cope any more.

There were sex scandals, concern about his weight and fitness, fall outs with coaches and captains, ball tampering and even a drugs scandal. He made Flintoff, Ryder and Cronje look like beginners.

Even his cricket brain got him in trouble. He figured out that something was going wrong while he was on tour to Pakistan in 1990. The balls seemed to have some strange marks on them. Martin Crowe and him decided to fight fire with fire.  They got a bucket full of balls and experimented with ways of tampering with them.  They devised a method of scratching the balls using a bottle top, to make them swing like crazy. They tried it out in the third match, and much to their surprise, the umpires didn’t care. One of them even commented to him that at least both teams are cheating equally now. Pringle took 7 wickets, but his place in the record books will forever have an asterisk, due to being the “bottletop bandit” test.

He was also involved in the marijuana scandal in South Africa in 1994. He says that he was only in the room telling the others not to smoke it. I heard from a number of sources that he was blamed by the management for it, and his reputation never recovered.  A good friend of mine was a net partner to one of the players involved, and he has privately confirmed Pringles story, saying that there were no players from outside Northern Districts except Stephen Fleming involved. In a way it was nicer to believe that he was involved, and that his success was in spite of such excesses.

There were also rumours of a number of sex scandals, none of which are worth repeating, but Pringle comments on a couple of them in his book.

Overall his story is one of a great talent that was only realised briefly. One of the best thinking bowlers of all time, was also one of the greatest wasted talents. He thrilled us, but like some other potentially great players like Rodney Redmond or Vinod Kambli, he did so too briefly. It would be interesting to see if he would have kept succeeding if he had managed more than 62 matches. Would the batsmen figure him out, or would he keep finding ways to break batsmen down. This intrigue is part of the reason that Pringle is my favourite cricketer.

(Ed: There is now an English cricket team named for the portly Kiwi, who won the England Champions' League in Last Man Stands Cricket).

Friday, January 20, 2012

3 Reasons "Second" teams in the "Second" Division won't work

Andre Villas-Boas has been roundly criticised by Football League supporters this week for suggesting he’d like Chelsea’s B team to compete in the nation’s second tier.  Unfortunately for him and his club, Villas-Boas’ recent press statements have seen him become something of a mini-sensation magnet and he seems to spend more time now rebutting sly criticism than providing novel insights into the league.

Basing a second team in a competition further down the League tree would be of immense benefit to the parent club, as they could shuffle players in and out of their lineups to get game time as required.  Barcelona, amongst other clubs, uses such a model in the Liga Adelante; while the practice has become so treasured in Australia’s AFL that most clubs are now in a hurry to set up  their own subsidiary club.  However in England, it is almost unworkable – if not for the logistics, but the fans. 

Red tape hurdles include the strict nature of the English League “tree” – Everton boss David Moyes said this morning he tried five years ago to get a youthful Everton B team experience playing against grown men in the Conference (England’s fourth division).  However, he was told any new club would have to start in the lowest division – the ninth tier – and work their way up as have some more famous foundling clubs like AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester 

More problematic are the fans.  English fans, starting with respected and popular Football League blog The Seventy Two, object to their clubs being disadvantaged to suit the mega-rich.  And fair enough too: apart from somewhat minimising the raison d'etre of those clubs whose First XIs compete in the Championship, the League has a rich history and the landscape would change forever (but not necessarily for the worse, mind you). For the Football League to undergo such a radical re-shape simply for the benefit of Chelsea/Man United/Man City/Arsenal youth players would be a devalue English football for the benefit of a few superwealthy clubs.

Finally, there is one great difference between a Barcelona B team and a potential Chelsea B squad – the current Barcelona B team features a squad with two two – international players (Jonathon dos Santos, of Mexico and Luis Gustavo Ledes of Portugal).  The team Chelsea of 2012 would send to the Championship includes overseas talents like Patrick van Aanholt, Nicolas Anelka and Alex.  The EPL reliance on overseas talent would make such a prospect unworkable and stunt the growth of true English player development. 

I can’t see why Andre Villas-Boas wouldn’t want Chelsea B team to play in the Championship.  As a manager focused mainly on results in the short and mid-term, it would be perfect.  But unfortunately it’s a concept which will have to remain strictly Iberian.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Ray Bright, by Dan Lonergan of the ABC

In sport I’ve always admired the underdog. That’s probably why I follow the Western Bulldogs in the AFL, who will always be the underdogs. I will admit I do support Manchester United in the English Premier League, but I started following them in the mid-1980s when they weren’t the club they are today.

In cricket, Greg Chappell was a hero of mine. Growing up, my first real memory of the game was as a six and seven year old watching the 1975/76 West Indies series where he plundered 829 runs including 3 centuries. I loved the way he played.

I also liked left handed opener Alan Turner, who obviously wasn’t in the same league as Chappell but played some good innings in that series. However, a Test average of 29 isn’t going to put him in the "All-Time Great" category. I suppose I admired the fact he was limited, but playing a role in a strong team that contained some of the best cricketers Australia has produced.

But a left-arm spinner from the same era was my favourite cricketer growing up - Victoria and Australia tweaker Ray Bright. I will admit my interest in him almost got to fanatical levels. The reasons for it are not very clear, but again I admired the fact that he got the most out of himself; in fact in my opinion his bowling stats are an example of statistics and numbers lying. He was from Victoria, which helped, and played District Cricket with the Aussie Rules team I barracked for, Footscray. I was happy with that.

He took over 400 First Class wickets at more than 32 and played 25 Tests, picking up 53 wickets at over 40. The Test figures are not impressive, but if you break it down and look at the number of overs he bowled and how economical he was - generally conceding about 2 runs an over, while holding up an end "containing" greats like Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Sunil Gavaskar - he just about ranks as one of Australia's more effective spinners, an Ashley Giles prototype.

Courtesy: ESPN Cricinfo
I took a real shine to Bright in the 1976-77 season after the twin retirements of South Australian and Australian spinners Ashley Mallett and Terry Jenner. Bright took 5 wickets in an innings against a powerful WA team in Perth to put himself in contention to play in the Test series against Pakistan and I got really excited.

He wasn’t selected as Kerry O’Keeffe chosen after his fine start to that summer. Bright though was 12th man for the Third test in Sydney and later went to New Zealand.  As an 8 year old, I was so impressed with him that I demanded his selection in the team for that two-Test series by writing a letter to selector Sam Loxton.

Incredibly, he replied and I still have it somewhere. He was actually candid and told me that Ray was close, but the New Zealand pitches didn’t really suit playing two spinners and O’Keeffe had cemented his spot with good performances. He was right, but I was still disappointed.

Before writing this article, I looked up the scorecards of the Tour matches of that New Zealand Tour and on performance, Bright should have been selected. He took wickets regularly and was handy as usual down the order with the bat.

Ironically, Alan Turner was out of form and should have been left out as Ian Davis and Rick McCosker could have opened and all-rounder Gary Gilmour was capable enough to bat at six. Anyway, it didn’t happen, but I saw my hero field as a sub in the Centenary Test after McCosker had his jaw broken, but sadly he didn’t touch the ball.

Bright finally made his Test debut in that disappointing Ashes series in 1977 and played three Tests before enhancing his growing reputation in World Series Cricket. Unfortunately these records are discounted, but he was a permanent member of the Australian team during those two seasons and took the second most Supertest wickets after Lilliee.

The great players he came up against during WSC learnt to sit on him, so when he returned to the establishment in 1979, he had become a containment bowler moreso than a wicket taker. Greg Chappell always rated him highly, saying his change of pace, flight and dip were impressive weapons.

There were some moments in the sun, when he was unexpectedly chosen on numerous tours after hardly playing a Test in that Australian summer. He took seven wickets in an innings in Pakistan in 1980 and five during that famous Ian Botham Ashes domination a year later.

He was sometimes described by fellow cricketers as an accidental tourist after his first tour as a teenager to New Zealand in 1974. On that tour was another of my underdog heroes, South Australian opening bat Ashley Woodcock, who played one Test.

However, anyone who makes his first class debut at 18 and keeps his spot for the next 16 years can play. I obviously thought he should have played more Test cricket and, despite thinking his international career was over in the early 1980s, he was chosen out of nowhere as Australia's Vice Captain against New Zealand and India.  He subsequently starred in the 1986 tied Test in India, taking
five wickets in India’s second Innings.

That year, he also captained his country in a One Day match in Sharjah. Not many players can say they achieved that honour.

After his retirement, I got to know Ray Bright and am pleased to say he's a lovely bloke; a guy who got the most out of his career. I still believe he was one of the greats. Not many agree, but as legendary Rugby League figure Arthur Beetson used to say, opinions are like backsides - we all have one!

He still remains my favourite player, but David Boon pushed him close. Like my beloved Western Bulldogs, I used to get when they would play poorly, but bask in the glory of their good moments.

Well Played Spotty!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Everton failing to paper over the cracks

It’s time to talk about money.  To be precise, about Everton FC owner Bill Kenright’s lack thereof. 

One of England’s great clubs has begun the slow decline that accompanies a squad’s ageing and find themselves in eleventh position.  They are in no threat of relegation, but the club faces a greater existential crisis than any other club with a similarly storied history.

The Toffees have been on the market – if not officially, certainly on the sly – for much of the past decade.  Kenwright has attempted to fund assaults on the Champions League, but lately manager David Moyes’ spending money has become increasingly scarce.  Over the past two years, impact players have rarely made the sojourn to Goodison Park and Moyes has repeatedly squeezed blood from young, cheap stones like Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley.

Much has been made of Everton’s fiscal situation, as well it might.  Moyes has been able to propel small, limited – and often injured – squads to outstanding achievement in the past.  He and a small band of loyal overachievers have been able to mask a fraught balance sheet.  He has been the Premiership’s MacGyver manager – able to create ingenious macguffin lineups out of little more than what he finds in his pocket.

As things now stand, more apparently than at any time in the past decade, the Toffees lack bite on the field.  Mikel Arteta has left the building; the ghosting runs of Tim Cahill now fail to deliver goals and Marouane Fellaini is no longer thought of as a potential World-Class prospect.  Their players have all been solid, but the Blues need more – the element of magic exists now more in the computers of their accountants than on the field.  Their top scorer in all competitions this season is left back Leighton Baines.

Great Premiership players have become simply good ones.  Over the past two seasons, the players who’ve tried to fill the practically-vacant striker position include the ageing, hamstrung Louis Saha and the underwhelming trio of Jermaine Beckford, Denis Stracqualursi and Victor Anichebe.  Papering over the offensive cracks in the Everton lineup has become a full-time occupation.

This hardly speaks for Moyes’ management skills and he is still held in incredibly high regard by football people all over the British Isles.  However, the regeneration required for clubs to keep themselves at the top level has eluded the Toffees.  Disconcertingly, there is every chance their best attacking player is the on-loan Landon Donovan and their best player overall his USA teammate Tim Howard. 

Unless this dearth of upper echelon talent is rectified, their run as Premier League overachievers will almost certainly end soon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Balanced Sports on the Back Page Lead

An adaptation of the piece published here on Friday on Denver quarterback Tim Tebow has been published on Australian sports website The Back Page Lead.  You can view the article here - all comments and ratings are much appreciated.

Friday, January 13, 2012

On Tebow, Divine Intervention and Subtlety

Yesterday, USA Today released a poll that said 43% of Americans believed Divine Inspiration was the primary reason behind the Denver Broncos victory over the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Steelers in their first-round playoff encounter last weekend.

Why would God favour the Broncs?  Because their quarterback is Tim Tebow.

Tebow was described last week by TIME Magazine as “perhaps the most significant evangelical Christian in the USA”.  He the most divisive athlete in the USA: Christians and romantics love his underdog status, while he’s disdained by those who think he, or his religion, or his God is a phony.

As a practicing Christian myself, I find Tebow a fascinating study.  His back story is incredible, starting with a long-shot birth that led him to appear in anti-abortion ads.  When he prays visibly before and after matches, presumably asking the Lord for help and guidance, he does so ostentatiously on one knee.  When at the University of Florida, he began writing bible verses on his eyeblack, the NCAA instituted a ruling prohibiting messages to be written on eyeblack.  He won a Heisman Trophy as College Football’s best player, and was drafted to the NFL late in the first round.

The thing is, Tim Tebow isn’t that good – at least, not fundamentally.  Although he throws a good long ball, his short passing is inaccurate: he completed only 46.5% of his passes this year, the lowest of all the NFL’s starting QBs.  This impacts his versatility, as his team’s offence must be built around his strengths.  No-one questions his leadership; but his game skills are far below most other QBs remaining in the playoffs.

Yet when the Broncos stood at 1-5 and named him their starter, he led them to seven wins in eight.  He played ugly quarterback football; but his team won, often overturning significant fourth-quarter deficits in the process.  A run of three straight losses to end the regular season dented fans’ hopes of a similar postseason run, but their upset overtime win has brought Tebow-mania to the forefront of this week’s sporting conscience.

Very few people, especially athletes, engender the same national polarisation.  Tim Tebow is liked – and disliked – because his story is steeped in Christianity.  It’s easy to divide the admirers and haters along religious lines.  However, to suggest that God cared about Tim Tebow winning or losing a football game, for whatever ends, is perhaps too simplistic.

Does it take Divine Intervention, rather than simply the Steelers’ injuries catching up with them, the Broncos’ home-field advantage or even Tebow – and receiver/favourite target Demaryius Thomas – playing out of their respective skins, for a relatively unskilled QB to lead his team to an upset?  Hardly.

Crucially, for his team and his narrative, Tim Tebow passed for exactly 316 yards on Sunday, the TV ratings peaked at 31.6 (in the most-watched first-round game in ages) further fanning the flames of fundamentalist fervour.  Not coincidentally, John 3:16 was Google’s most-searched term the day after the match.

Commenting on this issue becomes fraught with danger simply because it involves using black and white terms to describe a full-colour issue.  However, given an Evangelical Christian bent for literal interpretation of the bible, the notion of angel-with-a-flaming-sword-style Divine Intervention being behind Tim Tebow’s football victories can be seen most prominently (among many) either as God elevating his man for a role, or rewarding him for faithful service. 

Both arguments are flawed, but neither can be discounted entirely.  The first reason suggests familiarity with the methods and motives of an omniscient deity who’s really, really good at forward planning.  The second minimises the God-given talents of Denver players and coaching staff, making them all secondary to the Tebow story.  Many “haters” will suggest this is apt, a poignant reminder of the Cult of Tim – which benefits one man and his possibly-imagined deity.

That is not to say that God isn’t (potentially) behind the Broncos’ success.  As Tebow himself would attest, he has been blessed with size, talent and situation.  But to suggest the result of a football match, no matter how many Google hits it generates, is a high priority for an omniscient deity is to suggest that God has favourites – in opposition to biblical precedent and context.  This isn’t to say their victory wasn’t due to Divine Intervention; just that such a conclusion seems remarkably unsubtle, rather unlikely, and therefore shouldn’t be the first one leapt to.

No matter what the motive or result, taking individual matches as proof that God is helping a young Christian to win football games simplifies an entire religion so far that it can fit inside a full matchbook.  Religion, except perhaps Verdukianism, is almost never that simple; like an Aaron Rodgers QB sneak, it is almost always more subtle.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A truly fatal four-way

If the Australian selectors are starting to consider playing four pacemen for the third Test against India in Perth, they’re just as muddle-headed as the team they replaced. 

Let’s not go into the ramifications of kicking another promising young spinner in the teeth (cf. Beau Casson, Dan Cullen, Nathan Hauritz and Michael Beer), it belies common sense and, eventually, come back to bite Australia fairly and squarely on the bum.

Since 1990, Australia has played 21 times at Perth.  In those games, their Win/Loss ratio stands at thirteen wins, three draws and four losses.  Australia has played an all-pace attack in three of those games: in the Ashes last year, versus India in 2007-08 and in the 1998-99 Ashes series, where “Funky” Miller got the nod while Shane Warne was injured. 

Although they won the WACA match last year – and against the Old Enemy a dozen years before – they were absolutely pillaged in 2007-08 against the Indians.  This 2-in-3 success rate seems about right for what amounts to a gamble.

There are four iron-clad reasons why an all-pace attack should be vetoed with as much haste as possible.

First, Australia seems to have a great wealth of fast bowling talent at present.  Unfortunately however, the nation seems to be injuring that talent as quickly as it arrives.  With James Pattinson, like Pat Cummins, succumbing to the dread foot stress reaction, Australia are likely to head into Perth dressing the indefatigable Peter Siddle, the injury-prone Ryan Harris and the revitalised Ben Hilfenhaus.  Add a fourth to that lot (Peter George?  Mitch Starc?) and suddenly Australia’s attack, should/when Harris break down again, looks quite thin when compared to a batting lineup boasting near enough to 50000 Test runs. 

Peter George, courtesy: perthnow.com.au
This doesn’t even begin to answer the questions as to whether Starc, who looked game but perhaps overwhelmed against New Zealand, or indeed George, are polished enough for Test level at present.

Secondly, the effects of dropping Lyon would be tantamount to a slap from a wet fish.  Sure, he has cumulative figures of 2/180 so far this series, but he’s played on pitches hardly amenable to spin (Indian compatriot Ravi Ashwin has 4/298).  He’s also on track to be the best off-spinner Australia’s had since arguably since Ian Johnson, who retired in 1956.  He is worth persisting with and needs his captain, coach and even the ball-boys to tell him his place is secure.  Nathan Hauritz, though captained by a man who thinks spin is something that dryers do, was never told this.  And it showed.

This dovetails nicely into the third reason – Australia should play Lyon because he’s better-suited to the Perth pitch than to almost any other strip in the country.  While a bigger turner of the ball than Hauritz (as are many), he still doesn’t rip the ball or have quite the grip and turn of the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Harbhajan Singh or Graeme Swann.  What this means is that he’s a thinking bowler, and could – should? – become the Anil Kumble to Swann’s Warne, a player reliant on subtle variations … and aided enormously by bounce. 

Finally, while Australia has opted for a four-pronged pace attack in the past, it has done so when conditions merit.  Those conditions are best defined by the following questions:
            Does the pitch take spin - at all? 
            Will the strip break up?
            Can variety be provided by bowlers whose name isn’t Mike Hussey?
            Are the four best available bowlers pacemen? 
            If so, how far ahead of the competition/spinner are they?
            Are any of the four liable to collapse in a screaming heap?
Unfortunately for those advocating a fatal four-way, even the most ignorant of cricket fans knows the answer to all the above questions without even needing to think.  Australia would take a retrograde step in taking four speedsters to Perth, a step with both long and short-term implications.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why the Melbourne Victory looked overseas

When Mehmet Durakovic was fired last week as boss of the A-League’s Melbourne Victory, their coaching search immediately led them overseas to names like Roy Keane, Graeme Taylor and Iain Dowie. 

The Victory eventually ended up with Jim Magilton, the Northern Irish manager recently involved in Shamrock Rovers’ run to the Europa League and also a finalist for the Northern Ireland job vacated by Nigel Worthington. 

That the negotiations were swift only bided well for those who hoped Magilton would end up in blue and silver.  By acting swiftly, the Victory ensured a repeat of last offseason’s stuttering interview process wouldn’t occur.  It could be said that Durakovic got the job – as good as his lesser-league management had been – because he already occupied the caretaker’s seat.

Magilton is an appealing candidate, with his teams known for playing good football.  What makes him more appealing is that he’s not Australian, or wasn’t previously based in Australia.

With every A-League vacancy, the same names are put forward by media types as potential successors.  That list includes Jason’s Dad, Branko Cŭlina and former Socceroos and Brisbane Roar boss Frank Farina.  Had John Kosmina not gone back to old club Adelaide the week before, rest assured he too would have been included in the Victory’s coaching search.  This is in part due to a relatively uninformed public, where many passing sports fans recognise only the larger names in the sport.  It’s also due to a natural lack of talented, credentialed local managers.

Of the 31 coaching appointments in the A-League’s seven years, twenty-five coaches have been employed.  Of those coaches, seven have been re-treads – Cŭlina (twice), Kosmina (twice), Gary Van Egmond, Ian Ferguson, Miron Bleiberg.  18 had already been “in the system”, involved in the A-League or FFA.  Paying release fees for coaches in this league is nearly unheard of, so current A-League managers can be ruled out.

There is a dearth of available high-level coaches available to succeed the current middle-aged monopoly.

Damningly, the average number of A-League games for each manager has been in charge is quite low – a little under two seasons, at 59 games.   When the pool of available coaching talent is observably low, the Australian football hierarchy must be concerned that managers now must be brought in from overseas as local boys haven’t been able to make good (or at least, not good enough for their bosses).

For the Victory, a foreign hire had to be made, because the available high-level coaches haven’t cut the mustard at A-League level.  That 59-game figure above is made more understandable by the following table, which shows the records of “local” coaches with A-League coaching experience but not currently coaching upper echelon football.

Win %
Branko Cŭlina
Ron Smith
Lawrie McKinna
David Mitchell
Mehmet Durakovic
John Adshead
Rini Coolen

A cringeworthy bunch, no?  It’s hardly like Adshead would be considered given his retirement from coaching the New Zealand Knights after a spectacularly unsuccessful inaugural A-League season.  Of the bunch, only Mitchell and McKinna boast finals appearances; while McKinna is the only man to lead his team into the Asian Champions League. 

With international management often being the reward for a prosperous club career, could we look at an A-League manager who’s taken up a position for a national setup?  Ernie Merrick recently took up a position to coach Hong Kong’s national side, while Frank Farina is involved at a high level in football in Papua New Guinea.  Although it is undoubtedly too early for Merrick to return to the Victory, both he and Farina boast considerably better records than those above.  Aurelio Vidmar, now of the Olyroos and assistant to Holger Osieck at the Socceroos is another name worth considering.

Win %
Ernie Merrick
Aurelio Vidmar
Frank Farina

This list includes the A-League’s most successful coach and the Australian coach who took his Reds to the Asian Champions’ League Final against much more well-financed competition.  Each win/loss record is impressive, given their competition above, but hardly awe-inspiring.

There simply isn’t enough top-level coaching and managing talent in Australia to warrant promoting an up-and-comer.  By going initially with an almost-impeccably credentialed top-flight rookie in Durakovic, the Victory flamed out.  Their only choice was to look to the British Isles and those names on their shortlist before the season.  Even then, looking abroad has it’s own concerns.

The A-League needs to look abroad for coaches, because we certainly don’t have the amount of quality coaches needed to ensure a growth of the home-front top tier.