2013 in review

Happy New Year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


The Rivalry That Unites Us

The UTS Ashes Cordon

The Gabba, day three

The first Test of any new series is always supposed to be an examination in alien conditions. That the first test of this Ashes series took place only three months after UK series finished meant that the narrative of a ‘home and away’ series accentuated the sense that different rules applied this time around. As such, the narrative in the lead up to the match in Brisbane – especially from the Australian team, media and public – was of how things would be markedly different to the 3 nil losing series just past. Not just the end result, but also the means to that result: bouncier pitches[1], batting-friendly conditions[2], a more settled Australian team[3] and an England team over reliant upon older players near to the end of their careers[4].

It even suited the English to portray the upcoming series as one between…

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Pulp Fictions

The UTS Ashes Cordon

There has been a relative deluge of cricketing autobiographies in the gap between the two Ashes series. Mike Hussey, Ricky Ponting, Andrew Strauss and even Michael Clarke have all put their experiences out to print.  

To a greater or lesser extent they have served to line the pockets of the individual authors, publishers and the news media as they add to the off-field skirmishes that rage inbetween the ‘real’ battles that will now take place in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

But who has the time to read them all? One man has done, so you don’t have to. Step forward Gideon Haigh, author of 18 cricket books and a regular columnist in The Australian newspaper.

Here are his thoughts on each of the tomes:

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The Ashes phoney war: notes on leadership

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

One of the dominant narratives in the run-up to the return Ashes series has been – thanks to Shane Warne and a press pack grateful for headlines – the contrasts in leadership espoused by Alastair Cook and Warnie’s mate, Michael Clarke. The former is pigeon-holed as ‘negative’ and ‘reactive’ while the latter is praised as being ‘positive’ and ‘proactive’ – on the field of play, at least.

It’s rare in professional sport nowadays for so much leadership responsibility to be vested in playing, rather than coaching,  personnel. It’s one of the many things that sets cricket apart.

Anyway, Gideon Haigh always seems to sum up the majority perspective better than anyone else around. Here are his thoughts on the matter:

The Art of Captaincy 2

Cuts and Glances Blog | 11 November 2013| 4 Comments

On a good thing, Shane Warne is sticking to it, taking his critique of the respective Ashes captains into print in the Daily Telegraph.  But the inference to be drawn is simply that Warne is on a roll.  His candidates to captain England?  Kevin Pietersen, because he has ‘the best cricket brain in the team’, and Graeme Swann, because he is ‘a good reader of the game’.  But, at the risk of repeating an obvious point, this is a reductive view of leadership, as analogous to a chess grandmaster plotting move and countermove.  Captaincy is every bit as much about the blending of personalities, the motivation of individuals, the setting of a personal example – especially in these days when the game is analysed so closely by coaching staffs, one might even say that ‘tactics’ trade at a discount.  That is before we even get to Warne’s alternative skippers.  In Pietersen’s case, his ‘cricket brain’ is harnessed to a nervous system of unpredictable impulses; in Swann’s case, he turns 35 in March, and may here be on his last lap.  Both players have long-term injury concerns.  They are fine, experienced cricketers.  Are they really superior candidates to a twenty-eight-year-old with twenty-five Test centuries?

Perhaps more interesting are the parts of the column where Warne invokes the example of his own career. ‘I played for 15 years in one of the best teams of all time, winning in all conditions against all opposition,’ he says.  ‘We had some great players, sure, but we also needed a good captain with imagination.’ I love that ‘sure’.  ‘Oh yeah, we had me, McGrath, the Waughs, Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Martyn but really it was all about leadership.’ For one thing, this rather flies in the face of everything he’s ever said about the leadership qualities of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, who led him in two-thirds of the Tests in his career.  For another, it overlooks that Warne, perhaps the most powerful ‘cricket brain’ of all, was capable of making a contribution without being captain.

Then there’s this observation: ‘England won the Ashes in 2005 because Michael Vaughan was imaginative and proactive. He came up with different fields, attacked with the bat and challenged the opposition batsmen all the time.’ The field settings I remember from Vaughan eight years ago are the boundary sweepers he employed from early in the innings to arrest Australia’s boundary flow – smart captaincy, I grant you, but hardly ‘aggressive’.  And where are the England players in this remembrance of events?  Frankly, England briefly repossessed the urn in 2005 because they had Flintoff, Harmison, Pietersen, Trescothick, Jones and others playing he cricket of their lives, not because of a short cover Vaughan set somewhere or other.  Warne’s reading also underestimates Vaughan in ascribing his success to on-field inspirations.  Vaughan’s real triumph, I thought, was as a man manager, inculcating such a sense of self-belief in England’s dressing room, despite eight consecutive Ashes defeat.
Of the Australian dressing room, of course, Warne has said Clarke needs to foster a ‘happier team environment’.  Having last week expressed confidence that his ‘best friend’ Clarke and ‘good mate of mine’ Darren Lehmann are making progress in this respect, he here cites as evidence that during ‘the recent one-day series in India, there were a lot more Australian players smiling and in form’.  Perhaps he’s right.  But it’s not mere pedantry to point out that neither Clarke nor Lehmann were actually in India, that the team was led by George Bailey and coached by Steve Rixon.  Bailey has yet to join the Test team, and rumour abounds that Rixon is about to part ways with it.

Finally, there’s this, which surprisingly has not featured in any of the quotebacks from the Telegraph column: ‘To me Australia have to improve in more areas than England if they are to regain the Ashes.’ Oh, OK.  But it seems to undermine all the foregoing, and also Warne’s Twitter prediction of 3 November: ‘I think Aust will regain the Ashes Urn in Aust 2-1.’ (which by the way was Warne’s prediction for the series in England). There as usual lurks a solid point behind this column – that England in their determination simply to stifle and frustrate Australia have missed opportunities to really put the skids under them.  But you need to work your way through some slightly chaotic thinking to find it.

From: http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/cutsandglances/. Accessed 14 November 2013

His first piece on the subject is accessible through The Australian newspaper’s paywall: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/entertaining-shane-warne-is-not-always-on-the-ball/story-fnb58rpk-1226756183545#mm-premium

Counting the cash cows

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

As I contemplate getting up at 4.45 on a Saturday morning to watch Bayern vs. Chelsea I not only question how I get my kicks, but also the status of the European Super Cup, and where it sits in the pantheon of recurrent non-events on the sporting calendar. After roughly two and a half minutes of concerted thinking time, it makes it into my top five.

What follows is a shortlist of damp squibs. To qualify it has to take the crème de la crème of professional sport in a particular discipline, and then make them perform in an event so devoid of meaning that it renders their efforts – and those of the watching public – almost futile.

European Super Cup

We begin with this annual fixture between the previous season’s Champions League and Europa League winners. Staggeringly, the Uefa equivalent of the FA Community Shield has been running, in one shape or form, since 1972.

Last year, Chelsea – as Champions League winners – treated the game against Atletico Madrid with utter contempt, lazily going 3 nil behind to a Falcao hat-trick in the first half, before saving a modicum of dignity in the second stanza and coming away with a 4-1 loss.

This year, the only reason I’m contemplating the early rise again is because of the José and Pep element. In popular folklore, José is the villain and Pep is the shining white knight. But, I’m an avowed follower of the cult of José; his prickly charm and insolent attitude trump Pep’s holier than thou persona for me.

That doesn’t hide from the fact that the event itself is a virtual dead rubber. Yes, there’s a trophy up for grabs, but the main baubles are handed out in May. At least the World Club Cup has an intercontinental edge to it. This is just an inconvenience to clubs whose attentions are now focussed on their domestic league campaigns.

NFL Pro Bowl

Can’t say I know much about this event but any game that ‘borrows’ elite sportsmen to play for a team they have no real affinity for, in what is essentially an exhibition match, has to be pretty prominent in this list.

Indeed, the annual match-up between the best players from the two NFL Conferences is in danger of being seen as a bit of a farce. Every year the biggest concern of teams is to avoid injuries to the star players. The Associated Press wrote that players in the 2012 game were “hitting each other as though they were having a pillow fight”, which can do little to aid the spectacle.

Other examples of all-star games can be found in the MLB, NHL and NBA. Thus this is what happens when obscure sports are propagated within national borders; there’s no foreign foe to vanquish (the presence of Canadian teams in the MLB and NHL doesn’t seem to provide that source of rivalry) so the deep well of nationalist fervour lies untapped.

All of which brings us nicely to the next event on our shortlist.

International Rules Series

Nice try, Tadhg. I'm still not buying.

Nice try, Tadhg. Still don’t care.

If no-one else in the world plays your sport why not just find the nearest equivalent, create a hybrid of the two, and manufacture a showcase event? That’s what the Australians and Irish did in the sixties when their own unique brands of hand-football were stewing in their own domestic juice.

To the uninitiated (99.9% of mankind), this bastard of a game takes representative players from the disparate worlds of AFL and Gaelic football and creates a mash-up which at least has the benefit of being as violent as it is meaningless.

It’s played twice every three years and, despite dwindling interest in the game, has been stubbornly propped up by the AFL in direct response to the success of the representative competition of their local football code arch-rivals, the NRL; whose State of Origin series is vastly more popular (and lucrative), sustained as it is by the mutual hatred between Queenslanders and New South Welshmen.

2005 ICC Super Series

This event at least has the virtue of having been recognised as a failure and has been scrapped. The ‘Super’ Series pitted the undisputed world champions Australia against a Rest of the World XI in three ODIs and one Test match.

The principle behind the event was that the Australian side had become completely dominant in world cricket, and had a reputation of being unbeatable. This basis was undercut somewhat as it was staged one month after the Aussies were beaten in the 2005 Ashes.

Suffering from a noticeable lack of intensity, the drab matches were played out in the half empty MCG and SCG and were all won comfortably by the home side. The Rest of the World XI, featuring stars such as Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Muttiah Muralitharan and, er, Steve Harmison, were a model of disunity.

Geoffrey Boycott described the series as a “bunfight” and said that there was “nothing that resembled cricket” in it. Wisden summed up the Test match as: “a terrible game of cricket. It had a small crowd, little meaning and was forgotten quickly.” Its first-class status has since been revoked.

The World XI players seemed to be there more for fun than anything else. Freddie Flintoff came up with some refreshingly honest opinions amidst all the bullish official statements: “I’ve got the Super Series in two weeks’ time. I can’t think of anything worse,” he said, adding on arrival; “I’m only here for the food.”

Presidents Cup

Suffering in direct comparison with the passion of the Ryder Cup, this event too struggles with the lack of pride that comes in representing a ‘Rest of the World’ (minus Europe) team. Worse, as any get-in-the-hole enthusiast will tell you, it’s not as if the Americans themselves are often galvanised by representing their country. This truly is a dead duck tournament, though you wouldn’t know that if you spoke to a South African or Australian golf nut.

Inaugurated in 1994, the Yanks have won seven of the nine tournaments, losing once and tying on the other occasion. But, really, who cares?

The Science of Selection

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

It’s a job I’ve long coveted. What could be a cushier gig than being a national cricket selector?

If you’re lucky enough to be employed by the ECB, you spend the early part of the domestic season touring around county grounds gorging on cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, all the while your centrally-contracted mainstays are wrapped in cotton wool for the international rigours to come.

Once the touring teams arrive and the proper cricket starts, you find a nice seat amongst the members, sit behind dark glasses, and occasionally discuss who’s next in line for the coveted 13th man position behind Steve Finn/Tim Bresnan. Then there’s the exotic jet-setting during the winter months, with all the five star luxury sports administrators have come to expect.

For the four-man[i] panel that have the responsibility of finding eleven good men and true to don the baggy green, however, the job is not so enviable. In the space of two overseas trips to India and England (and Scotland, officially), they have taken a total of 22 different players on tour, all of whom will have played a Test by the end of this current trip (Matt Wade has not played in England, but got three games in India; James Faulkner will debut today at The Oval). That statistic alone is enough to highlight how onerous a job the Aussie selectors are faced with.

Here’s another: Mitchell Starc has played four of the eight Tests against India and England this year, none consecutively. How does that help either his rhythm or confidence?

So, while the selectors are not faced with an embarrassment of playing riches, they’ve hardly helped the team bed in and build a rapport while facing two of the three best Test playing nations.

But to really nut out farce that the selection panel’s work has become, consider the chopping and changing in the batting order in the past 16 Test innings:

Position Players selected against India and England in 2013 Tests, as at 20 August Number of players selected in each position
Openers EJM Cowan; DA Warner; SR Watson; GJ Maxwell (yes, really); CJL Rogers 5
No. 3 EJM Cowan; DA Warner; PJ Hughes; MJ Clarke; UT Khawaja 5
No. 4 PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith 4
No. 5 SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith; NM Lyon (nightwatchman) 4
No. 6 DA Warner; PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; MS Wade; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 7
No. 7 MS Wade; MC Henriques; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 4
No. 8 MA Starc; PM Siddle; GJ Maxwell; AC Agar; MG Johnson 5
No. 9 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; RJ Harris 4
No. 10 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; NM Lyon; RJ Harris 5
No. 11 JL Pattinson; XJ Doherty; AC Agar; NM Lyon; RJ Harris; JM Bird 6
The confused face of Australian cricket

The confused face of Australian cricket

New cap James Faulkner will play at seven today and Starc – the poor lad – will come back in again and play at either eight or nine. Shane Watson will move up to three, a position he has not played in since the Aussie summer, while Khawaja finds himself again cast into the wilderness alongside Phil Hughes and Eddie Cowan; a player who, in the mould of Chris Rogers, they could have persisted with after his horror show in the Trent Bridge Test, in which he was suffering from a virus.

Australia, we are told, need to win this dead rubber so they can build momentum for the return series in three months time. Even if they do so, who can say with any confidence what their XI will be in Brisbane? At this stage, the chances of them fielding the same team in that next Test seem as likely as the four-man selection panel remaining unchanged.

[i] John Inverarity (Chairman), Rod Marsh, Andy Bichel and Darren Lehmann (since June 2013)

To tweet or not to tweet

A cyber troll, earlier

A cyber troll, earlier

There’s a question that’s been gnawing away at me for a while now: why would a professional sportsperson – or any celebrity for that matter – maintain a Twitter account? A vibrant social media presence seems to be an expected and accepted method of communicating with the public, but when it so often invites negative comment from ‘trolls’, the whole exercise seems to be fraught with too much aggravation.

Twitter, above all other social media sites, seems to attract a disproportionate number and level of vitriolic comments from its users. What drives this is usually a complex mix of jealousy, tribalism, idiocy and the ubiquitousness of the smart phone.

Take the recent example of Lee Westwood. What was notable for this tale of sporting cyber-bullying was that he chose (on the back of a conviction-aiding shandy or two, no doubt) to strike back. When abuse and ridicule is heaped upon star performers in the normally genteel world of golf, then something is badly wrong with society.

Football is often considered to be in the vanguard of advertising society’s ills and, indeed, it is in the cash rich super-stardom, otherworldly plain of the top-flight football where Twitter really gets out of control. For many, following a game via both TV and Twitter is an ingrained pastime. To do this without going bonkers one must choose who they follow very, very carefully. Any deviation from a stringently vetted set of followers into the broader Twittersphere will quickly reinforce the suspicion that the vast majority of football fans should be locked up for their own health.

Some of these people see getting a rise out of a famous, otherwise aloof, footballer as almost as much of a sport as the game itself. Any moron can self-justify their abuse of footballers with the catch all excuse of ‘banter’; that horrible term which encompasses inane, lowest common denominator analysis between experts on the pundits’ sofa as well as spiteful ridicule by a lonely man sitting at home in his boxer shorts typing away on an iPad.

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

Poor Michael Owen. Who did he hurt? Maybe some Newcastle United fans’ noses were put out of joint by his expensive injury-ravaged time on Tyneside. For sure, Liverpool fans don’t easily forgive a former player turning out for Manchester United. But the mocking tweets he received in response to his retirement genuinely saddened me. This is a man who is behind only Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves in the England goal scoring charts for heaven’s sake.

He must have a thick skin. Certainly thicker than that worn by Darren Gibson, who famously lasted all of four hours on Twitter before the abuse became too much and he sensibly jacked it in.

The Ball Control guide to surviving on Twitter

There appear to be two separate approaches to maintaining a Twitter account in the face of unavoidable hostility. One option is to post anodyne comments along the lines of “great win from the boys today, the fans were brilliant as always, blah, blah, blah” and steadfastly refuse to interact on any other level with followers (other than to block anyone who gets a bit nasty).

The second option is to don the metaphorical Wellingtons and wade into online debate with ill-informed nincompoops. This is the preferred modus operandi of a minority of the blue-tick brigade; the likes of Joey Barton, Piers Morgan (not technically a sportsman, he wishes) and – God love him – David Warner. It obviously takes a particular type of individual to choose this course.

Probably the only sportsperson who successfully navigates a way between these two options is Graeme Swann. He has the wit and brashness to call out ignoramuses while also posting pithily waggish updates.

However, it’s also in @Swannyg66’s Twitter stream that we can most evidently see the reasons why sportsmen and sportswomen put up with all the inevitable hassle. Endorsements of Jaguar cars and high-end golf courses must be a decent little side-earner for a man with over half a million followers. Suddenly I don’t feel so sorry for Michael Owen after all.