Monday, July 22, 2013

Book review: The Vincibles, by Gideon Haigh

On a lazy summer afternoon with the cricket coverage in the background I completely galloped through this incredibly entertaining work by Haigh. Within pages the fortunes of the Australian test team paled into insignificance as I desperately read onto the next chapter in the life of the ‘Yarras’ 2001-02 season.

As the title suggests Haigh at no stage sought out to write a serious cricket book about a motivated sporting club. Instead a true reflection of what the ‘pitch-in’ life really is like in a local cricket club. Can you imagine David Warner sitting down weekly typing up the club newsletter, or Nathan Lyon acting as chairman of selectors (actually he may put his hand up for that)? In humorous prose Haigh describes what it is like for the true lovers of cricket to just get a game. I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments that he gets more joy from a cover drive than Mark Waugh ever did, owing to genuine surprise and elation at its execution, so do I.

I found myself giggling at most of the ups and downs in the life of the ‘Yarras’, and in a number of places being reduced to tears. Others will find differing points of greater hilarity to them but I lost it reading the description of Wombles’ stewardship and transfer protocol of the clubroom keys. The description of the elongated selection negotiation, finally requiring that whoever chose player Y (the champion) also was required to take player Y (the duffer) as well gave me much hope for the world. Middle aged men reduced to rationale more at home in a primary school yard.

Contrast this to the tedium experienced in picking up the second piece of cricketing literature ‘100 not out’, edited by Rod Nicholson. The genesis of this book review existed when these two works lay side by side, one the story of the triers the other of the champions, what a great ability to contrast those two people groups and hopefully find that common thread of passion for the greatest game[1].

I do believe the passion of Haigh’s comrades extends through to what is ultimately the third tier of competitive cricket below country & state, albeit with a few ‘A’ teams & development squads hanging around, but you wouldn’t feel it from what is ostensibly a reference book written by Williams and Nicholson for an incredibly niche audience.

What appears to ‘100 Not Out’s’ writers (and maybe many at the up echelons of cricket) is that ultimately it is a game that transcends any individual, facts and statistics only bearing importance inasmuch as they help the game’s story reach greater heights. The mountain of centuries Bill Lawry scored for Northcote pales into insignificance compared to that one century ‘Moof’ scored helping the 3rd XI to victory in the grand final.

As you can obviously guess my clear preference is for ‘The Vincibles’ over ‘100 Not Out’  - and a lot of the cricket books I've read.

[1] There is one instance of crossover between the books where Haigh describes a former Prahran first grade cricketer deciding to join the ‘Yarras’ ranks being confronted immediately at his first training session by the eccentric ‘Space Cadet’ who informs the new arrival that his vocation is teaching Tibetan throat singing.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Crazy Grandpa still runs world football

Recent noises from Geneva have suggested that world football’s out-of-touch grandpappy, Sepp Blatter, has focused his attention on staging a Winter World Cup in 2022.

In some weird logic puzzle, this makes sense: the tournament will be held in Qatar, which during the summer boasts an average temperature of 38°.  But given most major leagues operate during the northern winter, this change suggests that he hopes to disrupt league football for a period of at least six weeks in order to hold a tournament at the best time for the host nation.  Whether it is the best time for the players and supporters is still debatable.

Let’s forget – which we obviously shouldn’t – the ridiculousness of FIFA awarding the World Cup to a country that boasts an average summer temperature that would boil Satan’s blood.  Let’s instead briefly list the ramifications of interrupting league schedules for six – but, considering preparation, buildup and friendlies, more likely eight – weeks.

-          European seasons starting in early July 2021 and concluding in late June 2022.
-          No rest before season 2022-23, meaning two Eurasia-seasons are damaged by fatigue rather than just one.
-          Lower performance and more injuries as a result of year-round football.
-          League clubs from Australia to Iceland shorn of their stars and left in limbo.
-          Smaller television revenue for leagues the world over (except in the Americas and Russia).
-          Overkill leads to decreased interest in either the World Cup, the interrupted leagues, or both.

The conundrum does come with the happy bonus of getting to watch Michel Platini simultaneously fume but publicly defend the decision because he wants Blatter’s job.

Sepp Blatter and his FIFA Executive brethren selected Qatar for … reasons?  Whatever the rationale for the executive’s collective decision, it becomes more apparent “reasons” were tied to their gratification rather than that of the sport.  Considering the inherent climate (both environmental and cultural) of the host country, Blatter must now change almost the entirety of football to kind of redress his mistake.

No man should have that much power, and especially not a man like Sepp Blatter.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Short Pitch: Squeezing responsibility from stones

Brad Haddin's second wind seems less gusty than his first.  During his near-game winning innings on Saturday and Sunday, the Australian vice captain batted with a responsibility often lacking during his first tenure in the Australian side and during his initial stint as the national team's vice-captain.

The tweet above is absolutely correct: Haddin batted with a responsibility and dedication notably lacking in antipodean cricket over the past two years.

It was a product of a man of pride, vintage and one who aspires to cricket like Ashes series above all else.  It was also the result of responsibility earned and logically bestowed, rather than endowed with hope.  Placing his faith in the wrong people led to Mickey Arthur's downfall, not vague implications of racial discrimination (though in all honesty his nationality probably didn't help).

As Australian cricket attempts to wander from the wilderness, hope - and therefore responsbility - has been placed in promise rather than runs or personality.  Arthur installed the likes of David Warner as cornerstones for the future and was repaid with bar fights and homework-gates, the symptoms of players who have taken opportunity for granted.

After being (deservedly) dropped, be assured that Haddin - who should (deservedly) suspect that Matthew Wade is now Australia's superior batting 'keeper - now takes nothing for granted.  Similarly, post-censure James Pattinson.  One can suspect that the likes of Watson, Warner, Phil Hughes and even Usman Khawaja could have been seen as expectant rather than determined in years past.

The secret to inspiring responsibility is not to bestow it arbitrarily, but to encourage players to seek it out.  If Darren Lehmann has indeed figured this out, Australia will automatically become a far more fearsome proposition.

Friday, July 12, 2013

How far we've come (part one of many)

Before the blogosphere, there were spreadsheets.

For me, at least.

The picture below comes from an exploratory dig into the darkened reaches of my computer's hard disk - a saved spreadsheet that documents my leanings at the time towards the All-Time teams for each major Test-playing nation.  And my, how long ago it was!

Now, many of these players would barely trouble the subs' bench while history has chosen to remember the likes of others (coughMatthewHaydencough) more fondly.  But still it stands, a stark reminder of the era in which I - and hopefully we all - used to live.

click to enlarge
PS.  Gut changes without further examination include: cutting Frank Tyson, Peter Pollock and Romesh Kaluwitharana, adding Kumar Sangakkara, MS Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Zaheer Khan and Ross Taylor.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

2013 Ashes draft, part 5: Reflections

In concluding our Ashes draft with Dave Siddall of World Cricket Watch, we both take a moment to reflect on our teams.

Dave's XI Pick no. Matt's XI Pick no.
Watson 5 Cook 1
Cowan 11 Root 6
Bell 7 Rogers 9
Bairstow 7 Trott 2
Clarke 4 Pietersen 3
Khawaja 9 Faulkner 10
Prior 2 Haddin 13
Broad 6 Swann 5
Pattinson 3 Siddle 4
Bresnan 10 Starc 7
Anderson 1 Finn 8
Lyon 12 Smith 12
Hughes 13 Bird 11

Dave - My initial reflection on this draft is that Matt’s grasp of game theory and level of strategy seems better than mine. My tactic of going for the best quick bowlers means that I’ve left myself with much of Australia’s shaky top and middle order. Ian Bell, Johnny Bairstow and Matt Prior might have their work cut out to fight back versus Matt’s side.

I’m also pretty gutted that I didn’t go for Chris Rogers. It’s only in the last day or so that I’d heard noises from the Australian camp that he would open. Prior, it looked like he wasn’t going to get first go.

Matt - Honestly, things really couldn’t have worked out much better for me.  My focus was on selecting guys that had the greatest advantage over their opposite number (with the obvious exception of Haddin) - like Cook, Pietersen and Swann. This meant I missed out on 
Pattinson and Anderson, perhaps the two bowlers most likely to dominate the series. However, Ashes series often produce trumps from the ether like Shane Warne, Terry Alderman and the immortal Martin McCague, so I'm happy enough with the likes of Starc, Finn and Jackson Bird.

There's no doubt the batsmanship on display in my XI seems to far outweigh that of Dave’s mob, which should prove crucial. If you look around world cricket at the moment, the best teams are those who put runs on the board with the most ease.  In a head-to-head battle, this means my boys should come up trumps.

Monday, July 8, 2013

2013 Ashes draft, part 4: The dregs

In part four of our Ashes draft, Dave Siddall of World Cricket Watch and I continue to choose players to form a side to play for what's really important: bragging rights.

Selection 11
Matt - Now it’s onto the two reserves, as Haddin is reserved for the ceremonial last pick.  Who to go for?  Agar has as much chance of playing as Ian Chappell’s first wife Kay, while I’d rather pick Phil Hughes’ nose rather than him to bat to win a competition for me.  That leaves Jackson Bird, a fast man who should be suited to English conditions but will be lucky to play in the first couple of Tests.  But, that said - what an injury reserve!

Dave - Recent noises from the Australia camp suggest that media darling Ed Cowan will start but it might more likely be at number three. Whilst Cowan wouldn’t come close to a composite XI, he is the most solid of the remaining batsmen who will start at Trent Bridge.

Selection 12
Matt - Now we’re really into the dregs.  Steve Smith, because he’s got the most runs of any of the “heir apparent” batsmen going into the series.  It’s unfortunate though that he’s also got the most holes in his game.

Dave - Despite the fast-tracking of Fawad Ahmed’s Australian citizenship, Nathan Lyon remains their number one spinner. While Swann is head and shoulders a better spinner, Lyon’s average of 33 and wicket haul of 76 in 22 matches is not to be sniffed at.

Selection 13
Matt - Brad Haddin.  It was always going to happen, and Haddin could even contribute - after all, he had a good Shield season and Darren Lehmann is very much a “player’s coach”.  I’m not too broken-hearted about the pick but weight of his many, many head-scratching past performances leave him pick 25 of 26.

Dave - If you are gonna flash, flash hard! I’m not sure Phil Hughes knows how to play any other way but if he gets a few sneaky boundaries in early then maybe he’ll get a score. I’m kind of torn between him and Steve Smith, but it’s possible a ceremonial last pick anyway.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

2013 Ashes draft, part 3: Nature's Lower Middle Order

Selection 8
Matt - Again, I’d like to strengthen the bowling and with that - and to my disappointment, considering the nagging suspicion I harbour that he benefits more from others’ leadup work than his own - Steven Finn joins my XI.  It was a toss-up between him and Bresnan, and rumours seem to suggest that Finn is more likely to play than the Yorkshireman.  I’m not in love with the selection, but with seven players left (including four Aussie batsmen), this is the best I’m going to get.

Dave - With a press release rather unceremoniously uprooting Nick Compton as a member of England’s chosen opening partnership, it seems Jonny Bairstow is a shoe-in to start and bat at number 6. While KP was away, the Yorkshireman did an amicable job and the promise - though it hasn’t got the nation as giddy as county teammate Root – is definitely there.

Selection 9
Matt - While Dave’s just taken the reddest player in the series, I’m stoked that my next pick - and maybe the series’ best ginger kid - is still available this late: Chris Rogers.  I’m not sure he’ll play - he should, especially now Boof Lehmann is the boss - but he can bat anywhere from 1-4 and if I were boss (which is all blogging is, really) he’d stride out at first drop when Shane Watson gets out to a moving ball. (This piece was written one day before Lehmann announced Rogers will open for the Aussies)

Dave - It’s only in recent days since we first did the draft that it looks as if Usman Khawaja might be struggling for a starting berth. I thought his close links to Lehmann through Queensland might make an outside chance. He has the technique to excel in England but does he have it mentally just yet? Time will tell.

Selection 10
Matt - We’re starting to get into a real pickle here.  The only players still left on my board are Haddin, who I’m bound to pick and therefore will go at 13 and not before; Ed Cowan, who I love, but would take an opening spot from Root or Cook; James Faulkner; Phil “involuntary shudder” Hughes or Nathan Lyon, who’s extraneous now I have Swann, Siddle, Starc and Finn.  I’ll take Faulkner - he’s young, unsullied and can contribute with both leather and willow.

Dave - I’m kind of edging my bets here with this pick. It’s between Bresnan and Finn for Engand’s final fast bowling spot and I already have who I currently view as the best three quicks in the series. Nevertheless Tim Bresnan is Mr Dependable for England in the longer format of the game. Averaging 31 with the bat and 32 with the ball makes him someone that will work nicely in this draft.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

2013 Ashes draft, part 2: The foot soldiers

In part two of our inaugural Ashes draft, Dave Siddall of World Cricket Watch and I select those players that we'll win and lose with - the foot soldiers. Click here for the rules, and here for part one (the elite).

Selection 5
Matt - With Clarke gone, the rest of the batting talent available (bar one) doesn’t appeal.  So I’ll take the other closest thing to a certainty in both bowling lineups: Graeme Swann.  While I still believe in Nathan Lyon - and have fully invested in futures stocks in Ashton Agar - Swann is undoubtedly the best spin bowler in the matchup and you can bet he’ll bamboozle Hughes at least three times this series.

Dave - And there’s the first real facepalm moment of this draft. Graeme Swann should have been a pick of mine after Matt Prior as a major difference between the two sides. Onwards.  My friend and colleague Jonathan Howcroft recently described Shane Watson as the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Australian cricket. Based on Watto’s soap opera of recent years and fairly mediocre record that’s a harsh but fair assessment. Nevertheless a return to the opening spot should prove a fresh start. Watson, the reluctant bowler, is also a wicket taker (averages 30 with the ball) and if he decides to think more of the team’s needs rather than his own needs, he could provide some balance that Australia lacks. So much talent, let’s see it prove matchwinning for a change.

Selection 6
Matt - I’m so glad this player is here now; I’d held my breath for the last two picks hoping Dave would think I didn’t totally rate him: Joe Root.  The kid can play, and with the wayward tendencies of Mitch Starc and James Pattinson, a 500-run series is eminently on the cards.  This is also a double-edged sword (I hope) - meaning I think I’ve tagged the two most reliable openers available and now Dave’s stuck with Watson and … Cowan?

Dave - Facepalm moment two. With Matt picking Joe Root, I realise I’m going to be struggling and forced to pick any number of Australia’s wobbly top and middle order. Nevertheless I’ll pursue with a clear tactic of picking the best quick bowlers on display. Stuart Broad looked back to his best against New Zealand and if he can bowl the same slightly fuller length he could be the leading wicket taker in the series.

Selection 7
Matt - While my batting is pretty much exactly as I’d hoped (minus Clarke, of course), you can make a convincing argument that the two best “strike” bowlers play for Dave’s XI.  To that end, my seventh selection is Mitch Starc.  I’d prefer to compare Starc to a rich man’s Mike Whitney rather than Mitchell Johnson - comparing Mitch to anyone where I’m from is tantamount to pissing off Aaron Hernandez.  Despite an average of just over 34, he take wickets and should be suited to English conditions.  I’m not in love with his economy rate, however.

Dave - Face palm moment number 2. With Matt picking Joe Root I realise I’m going to be struggling and forced to pick any number of Australia’s wobbly top and middle order. So to break that trend, Ian Bell – once Australia’s and in particular Warne’s bunny – gets the nod. Considering his aesthetics and volume of runs, he’s the next best batsmen available.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Moyes' new era at Manchester United starts in the back room

And so ends David Moyes' first week at Manchester United. The seven days has seen him prove his ruthlessness far more quickly than anyone had calculated.  Multiple bids have been made for former charge Leighton Baines to the disquiet of his erstwhile employers, and gone are stalwart and respected coaches Eric Steele, Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan.

The replacements for this back-room trio are Moyes' associates from Everton: Steve Round, Chris Woods, Jimmy Lumsden and Phil Neville, plus the understated figure that attempts to link to Ferguson's pomp, Ryan Giggs.  That the exiting trio  - especially Steele, given his work with PFA Goalkeeper of the Year David De Gea - were dispensed with so quickly is a matter for unease by many Manchester United fans.

It is common practice - because it's usually common sense - for a manager to bring in his own back-room brethren; for example, coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki might be nicknamed "American Express", because Mark Hughes never leaves home without them.  He is not alone. That Moyes has brought his men with him will have astonished precisely no-one.

However, to bring in (gifted) buddies carte blanche and despite the obvious qualities of the incumbent staff could be construed as being a little counterproductive.  While the "new" coaches are undoubtedly intimately aware of Moyes' tendencies and techniques, sages like Phelan and Steele are far more in-tune with how to communicate with - and thereby get the most from - established egos figures within the Manchester United framework.  It is Moyes' imperative - his job - to select the coaches he thinks will most benefit his team; what is most confusing is that none of his cadre of high-profile coaches have worked under Ferguson.

This is hardly a criticism of the incoming staff.  Moyes' team has squeezed blood from stones like Yakubu, Leon Osman, Tim Cahill and former United 'keeper Tim Howard.  But the near-summary dismissal of experienced and talented didactic foundations of a successful side seems a sign of the new manager utterly determined to kick-start a new age at Old Trafford.

One one hand, this seems wise: no figure could possibly replace Sir Alex Ferguson, so why try?  Better to make a clean break and move into a new future using new methods.  However, with Ferguson - and now Phelan, Meulensteen and Steele - departs much of the culture and continuity built up over the past twenty years of success at Manchester United.  And this might be behind the appointment of Neville and Giggs, where two of the Fledglings are left to bequeath the legacy of the most dominant manager of all time.

In releasing these links to the recent past, Moyes has committed to creating a new identity for the Red Devils.  In fairness, that's probably what needed to happen.  However, by not giving any of these learned men the chance to be a part of this new era, entry into the new future may be a little rocky.

2013 Ashes draft, part 1: The elite

In yesterday's post, Dave Siddall (of World Cricket Watch) and introduced our first ever Ashes draft. Today, we break down picks 1 - 4.

Selection 1
Matt - there’s only one person I want with the no. 1 pick in the draft: England captain Alastair Cook.  The young skipper has an excellent record against the Old Enemy, averaging 50.36 in fifteen Tests and 69.00 as captain.  Subtract his forlorn 2006-07 campaign in Australia (against a re-ascendent McGrath, Warne and Stuart Clark) and the average races up to 98.8.  Despite the presence of Joe Root and perhaps now Chris Rogers, he is set to be the standout opener of the series.  

Dave - After Matt won the coin toss (I’m trusting him on this one), I’m pretty happy that I still have the best bowler in the series to pick. Old clich├ęs of needing to take 20 wickets to win a test aside, James Anderson is England’s most consistent performer and his jedi-like control of swing should expose just how loose Australia’s top order can be outside off stump.

Selection 2
Matt - To see Anderson selected is a bit of a blow - I had him ranked as my second overall pick, especially given that one or more of David Warner, Phil Hughes or Usman Khawaja seems likely to play in at least the first few Tests.  With him gone, I moved onto the second-best natural run-scorer in the series, Jonathan Trott (average 86.42 against Australian attacks far superior to this one).

Dave - The greatest wicket-keeper batsman to ever represent England, Matt Prior provides quick runs to set up Test victories and a solid defence to snatch draws from the jaws of defeat (England’s recent tour of New Zealand being the most notable example). His impeccable glove-work is superior to both Haddin and Wade.

Selection 3
Matt - Matt Prior, Dave?  Wow, you really didn’t want to be stuck with Brad Haddin.  That, I can understand, but … this early?  With KP, Pattinson and well, everyone, left on the board?  This means I’m set up for my fourth overall pick, Pietersen.  With the three best fit batsmen in my lineup, this means that my esteemed colleague is likely to see Phil Hughes propping up his order … on English pitches, I’m fine with that.

Dave - My 3rd pick may seem way leftfield but the idealist in me wants Australia to be aggressive and James Pattinson is their deadliest bowler. Few of England’s batsmen have faced Pattinson and the raw aggression could give Australia an early blow that would ignite the Ashes. 40 wickets in 10 matches at an average of 23 is not far off Philanderesque.

Selection 4
Matt - Where do I go now?  This is the first real poser for me so far - I’ve got three of my first four selections with which I’m of course very happy, but now the choice comes down to the Australian captain - who on talent goes at number 2, but for his (very) dodgy back - or a bowler.  I with the only real “sure thing” fast man gone, the safest next bet is Victorian cult figure Peter Siddle, who should feature in all five Tests.  If he plays, he gets poles.

Dave - A metrosexual run machine with a dodgy back, Michael Clarke’s appetite for runs since becoming Australia’s captain has been insatiable. Rumour has it he’s not as inspirational in the dressing room than when batting in the middle. Perhaps Darren Lehman’s appointment can galvanise the squad and Clarke can focus on amassing runs.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Drafting the 2013 Ashes

When American sports franchises begin to lose their on-field mojo, in order to remain relevant in a busy cultural and social environment, the typical executive response is to expand their interest-base.

Bring the family!  There’s gourmet food for Mum, a run-the-bases opportunity for Junior, and competitions the entire family can enjoy - like guessing which coloured craft will cross the finish line first in a simulated speedboat race (Green.  Always pick the green one).  Why do these three items spring readily to mind?  Because I live in a city which boasts one of baseball’s most futile recent enterprises, the Seattle Mariners.

Executives have tried for years to make the actual sport at a sporting event secondary to “the experience”; which to me, has always seemed akin to putting the decor before the flavour at a restaurant.  It’s no coincidence, however, that such events almost always occur when the team’s fortunes are flailing horribly (c.f. the aforementioned Mariners and their 0.300OBP) - the Boston Celtics, forever the NBA’s pater dominantis, only brought in cheerleaders and “animations” when stars like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish moved on.

The simple and elegant philosophy of a bygone age: the sport should be enough, even if your team stinks.

But it isn’t.  Especially when your team stinks.  So, how do you make sport more exciting for the spectator?  There are three simple methods: gambling, alcohol, and fantasy sports.

With the Ashes series approaching fast and the Australian camp careening towards a whitewash defeat, fantasy might create a little more debate around the actual mechanics of this upcoming test of Australian nerve.  To whit, myself and colleague (and Englishman) Dave Siddall attempted to “fantasy draft” our own Ashes squads - at stake: pride in ourselves, if not our homespun countries.

The rules were simple: each team can pick only one “starting” wicketkeeper (Matt Prior and whoever Australia elects to use as a glorified backstop, likely Brad Haddin), and each team must select four bowlers and two batsmen who could be classified as openers.  Players could be selected by only one “manager”, with a coin flip determining who selected first.  Thirteen players would be drafted by Aussie and Pom.

We will revisit each individual player scores after each Test match, and at the end of the Northern Summer.

The first Ashes Fantasy Draft was held on Friday morning, 28th June and the results will be published sequentially over the next six days until we arrive at the first Test.