Crystal Balls-up

I didn't see it coming either, Bob

I didn’t see it coming either, Bob

Nine months ago, your correspondent boldly/stupidly made his predictions for the upcoming Premier League season.

Among the pearls of wisdom was that City would comfortably win the league (finished eleven points behind United), Big Sam would be the first manager to lose his job (just been given a new contract) and Swansea would fall apart (top ten finish and League Cup winners).

Good job!

Only one prediction came to pass; but it hardly took the skills of Nostradamus to foresee Wigan would struggle this year – although they did, of course, win the FA Cup.

Thank goodness I didn’t put in print that I believed QPR would be pushing for a European place.

All this leads me to confidently state that Australia will definitely win the Ashes.

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Young people, spoiling our fun

RIP

RIP

Could Sevens be to rugby what T20 is to cricket? The parallels are clear: a faster-paced, quick-scoring version of the longer format designed to appeal to the short attention spans of Gen’ Y-ers.

But while T20 has helped to reinvigorate the interest of cricket amongst established playing nations, rugby sevens (which has been around for yonks) has recently expanded into new territories. One simple explanation for this is that it will debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics (after its inclusion in the last four Commonwealth Games).

A glance at the current Sevens World Series Standings, updated after Fiji’s recent win in the Hong Kong tournament, shows that Kenya are fifth and Portugal are on an upward curve in 13th. The top ten isn’t that different to what you might expect from the full rugby union world rankings – the All Blacks are streets ahead at the top, and the traditional rugby powers are in the top 10 (except Australia in eleventh) – but, the USA and Canada are ploughing more resources into the game, and even El Salvador and Guatemala lobbying for inclusion in the World Series.

To some, the opening question will carry the malign implication that sevens could be detrimental to the 15-a-side game, in the same way as T20 is often accused of subjugating Test cricket. They will remember the promises of T20 bringing a new and vibrant audience to all forms of cricket and grumble that, in actuality, the new fans have taken over the joint, with administrators and advertisers have pandered to them at the expense of ‘traditional’ fans.

It’s hard to see an IPL-style league developing in, say, Australia or the USA; poaching the best 15(or 13)-a-side rugby talent for months of the year. Consider though that the cross-code (league and union – and boxing!) superstar Sonny Bill Williams has expressed an interest in competing at the Rio Olympics. If money were to pour into the game then players already wary of the physical tolls league and union have on their bodies could switch sides, at least for portions of the season.

In recent years cricket traditionalists have bemoaned the advent of T20 specialists – pejoratively titled ‘guns for hire’, as if the likes of Lasith Malinga are mercenaries out to destroy Test cricket. In rugby, the sevens players are almost exclusively just that: players of sevens rugby only. The skills between sevens and fifteens [sic] are clearly largely transferable, so long as you are a fleet-of-foot back. The rugby versions of cricketing plodders like Ed Cowan and Jonathan Trott would be the lumbering forwards. Would they too become a dying breed as their unique skillsets are deemed obsolete in a modern rugby culture?

 

Quadruple detention

So, he CAN write...

So, he can write…

Seen through the lens of a partially interested observer, the suspensions meted out to four Australian cricketers for not completing their “homework” initially felt like a huge overreaction. An arbitrary deadline for delivering a written or verbal assessment on how to recover from the first half of what is shaping out to be the most humiliating tour in Australian sporting history was missed by the vice-captain, leading fast bowler, maverick match-winner and great future batting hope (and multicultural icon); now they’re sat on the sidelines, unable to contribute to what looms as the biggest test for the team for a generation.

But that’s the point.

What were the players thinking if they felt like they could take a ride on this? What does that say about a team that is already hugely reliant upon the exploits of its star batsman and captain? They are professionals in the spotlight performing for their country and the sport which has provided them with a very healthy living.

The proliferation of coaches and other support staff in cricket has been a marked feature of the past 20 years. It’s of no coincidence that the opprobrium over the stance taken by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke is most vocal from ex-players from the early 1990s. To them, it’s another example of coaches overcomplicating issues which would, in the past, have been settled (one way or another) in the bar. Players of today are labelled as robots as they’re expected to follow the strict plans devised by staff eager to justify their pay packets. Autonomy, individuality, resilience and innovation are supposedly sacrificed.

Actually, in this instance at least, the coaching staff were giving the players their head. They were given responsibility to pitch in ideas on how to improve; an opportunity to take responsibility has been scorned and it speaks to a deeper sense of drift in this Australian team. For sure this isn’t an isolated incident.

The focus for both Australia and England in the past few months has been too heavily slanted towards the impending 10 Ashes Tests. Perhaps performances on both sides have suffered. Of more importance, I think, is the much longer back story of Australian cricket.

The era of world domination is far behind them. Australian cricket is struggling to adjust to a period – who knows for how long – of middle-ranking stagnation. The Argus report pointed to the thinning of the grassroots and hollowing out of structures to support the game. To recover will take time and no longer can they hope for epoch-defining cricketers like Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist to emerge at once. At the moment they’re lucky to have Clarke and he’s fighting a very lonely battle.

The culture in the team has been identified as lax; too comfortable due to the fame and fortune established players without pressure on their places can command. The world dominating team in the late 90s and early 2000s was almost more notable for the players unable to regularly force their way in – Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Stuart MacGill, Brad Hodge, etc – than for those making the headlines in the baggy green. Today, average players in Shield cricket are failing to push underperforming ones in the Test side.

This issue will sure as hell jolt the players. It may even be a turning point; forcing them to understand that they reap what they sow. It must also act as a time which helps the public recalibrate their expectations for the team. The period of domination is over and it can be hard to adjust. Just ask England football fans before a major tournament whether they believe their team to be an average side. The memories of past glories feed a sense of entitlement. Instead they should feed a fierce hunger to return to the top.

A heavy burden

Australia's Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia’s Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia has just lost to India by 8 wickets. This is despite a first innings century from Michael Clarke and a commendable bowling effort from James Pattinson (6-109). If it were not for two gutsy half-centuries by the Portuguese-born debutant Moises Henriques an innings defeat would certainly have been on the cards.

Much has been made of Australia’s reliance upon the runs of Michael Clarke. Since becoming permanent Test captain he has averaged 73 at a time when the combined team average per wicket has been around half that – less than 37. Without the runs of the retired middle order stalwart Michael Hussey, who has produced 14.3% of the team’s runs over the same period (not including the Chennai Test, of course), not to mention his crucial composure and ability to marshal the tail, the onus on the captain to carry the team becomes ever starker.

Yet the Aussies boast an enviable stock of pacemen. It certainly bears comparison with England’s resources, especially in terms of depth; though there is arguably no-one of the skill of Jimmy Anderson in their ranks. But they need runs to bowl at. Particularly in India. Even more so when the spin bowling department is so threadbare.

And to think Ricky Ponting thought he had it bad…

Ashes Hyperopia

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

What Matt Prior sees when he closes his eyes

As Australia prepare for their four Test series in India, England are in New Zealand gearing up for home and away Tests and ODIs against the Kiwis. However hard you try to block it out though, the challenge which looms largest for both touring sides is the first back-to-back Ashes series since the 1970s. Everything that happens in the next five months must be defined by what the old enemies will encounter at Trent Bridge on 10 July.

Matt Prior is already talking about bullying the Aussies over ten Tests. I’d like to believe this will happen, but I’m not so sure.

Brad Haddin, getting ‘bullied’ at Adelaide in 2010

The 2010-11 series was a dominating one by England, save for the Fremantle Doctor-inspired demolition at Perth, and Australia’s batting line-up has recently been shorn of vital experience with the retirements of Ponting and Hussey. Philip Hughes has recently slotted in nicely at number three (again), but a question mark remains about how his idiosyncratic technique will hold up against top bowlers, having been found out so ruthlessly by Flintoff in 2009, and Bresnan in 2011.

Perhaps unbeknownst to many England fans, the Aussies have steadily been building a formidable pace attack: Peter Siddle has matured greatly, Mitchell Starc is developing into the bowler Mitch Johnson should have been and, in the absence of the aggressive James Pattinson, Jackson Bird has come in to the side and hailed as the latest ‘new Glenn McGrath’. All of the above (excluding Johnson, of course) should thrive with the Duke ball on English pitches.

Ah, the hallowed green tops under leaden skies that await the hard hands of the Aussie batsmen. It’s of no debate that the pitched up, moving ball continues to confound the men from Down Under. Only a month ago the ball nipped around in Brisbane during an ODI against Sri Lanka and the home side slumped to 74 all out (from an even more humiliating position of 40-9), thanks largely to the gentle medium pace of Nuwan ‘KulaShakerer’.

When will they learn? I’m betting they will in time for the first Test. They have to. It’s not rocket science; don’t go hard at the ball, play it under your nose, leave the wide one… India will provide no ideal preparation, but Australia should encounter reverse swing on the subcontinent, before many of their key batsmen play in the ludicrous Champions Trophy at Edgbaston, Sophia Gardens and The Oval throughout June.

In Ed Cowan, Australia potentially has the perfect man to see off the new ball. A studious leaver of the wide delivery, blocker of the good ball and attacker of the bad one; Eddie could be key to giving the Aussies’ innings some much-needed platforms in the first series. His, and their, problem might be that he doesn’t do enough on the rough, low pitches of India to retain his place in England, with Watto coming back into the equation to take advantage of the early attacking fields set by Dhoni.

Meanwhile, England have been a mix of brilliant (home and away to India), hapless (in the UAE) and merely mediocre (at home to South Africa and away in Sri Lanka). Their varying performances since the last Ashes series has underlined how much, despite all the rhetoric about a strong team ethic, England rely upon key performers – just like any top team does, including Australia.

Take out Jimmy Anderson (sufferer of back niggles) and Graeme Swann (dodgy elbow) from the bowling attack and you start to wonder where the twenty wickets will come from. England won the 2009 Ashes without KP for the majority of the series, but, with Bell again looking lacklustre and the number six spot still up for grabs; their middle order impetus looks more dependent upon him than it has been since 2005.

So while England fans will be hoping that their settled team stays together over the next 12 months, Australians will be willing their new look side to gain form and momentum in time for career-defining series.

*****

Five months out, the likely XII’s at Nottingham:

ENGLAND

AN Cook *

NRD Compton

IJL Trott

KP Pietersen

IR Bell

JE Root

MJ Prior +

GP Swann

SCJ Broad

JM Anderson

ST Finn

12th: CR Woakes

AUSTRALIA

EJM Cowan

DA Warner

PJ Hughes

MJ Clarke *

SR Watson

UT Khawaja

MS Wade +

MA Starc

PM Siddle

JM Bird

NM Lyon

12th: JL Pattinson

Tip of the iceberg

Fake Sheikh

We’re going to need some more fake sheikhs

Professional sport is a ruthlessly competitive, win-at-all-costs endeavour. It’s also played by young people who have a relatively short window in which to extract as much financial security as they can for the rest of their lives. It’s these two undeniables that makes the recent ‘revelations’ of match-fixing and doping in football all the more disturbing.

To believe that cricket alone is subject to the pressures exerted by Asian gamblers in illegal betting markets is grossly naïve. To hope that doping practices are confined to endurance cycling is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Football, the biggest sport of all, has, for the most part, been able to brush off the murmurs around these twin sins for generations. We all laughed at the dodgy Italians for their misdemeanours exposed in Calciopoli (not related to betting practices, admittedly) and positive tests for nandrolone in the noughties. These were merely cases of blasé southern Europeans up to their old tricks.

Perhaps more accurately, these were examples of a culture used to corruption in public life weeding out (some of) the bad apples.

Athletics in the 1980s was hideously drug-fuelled. When these practices were exposed they led to damage to the sport from which it is arguably still recovering. New controls were put in place to catch the dopers; some got caught, some didn’t. The sport continues to be dogged by accusations and clouds hang over every podium place.

But why would these practices have been exclusive to athletics? And, after witnessing the damage wrought by such scandals, is it not inconceivable that other sports administrations would seek to avoid such controversy in their own backyards? (that elephant in the room is the International Cycling Union).

If even a niche sport like Australian Rules Football is now starting to grapple with the consistent practices of doping, then we can truly expect a cavalcade of sports to belatedly come clean as the media and public finally wake up to what’s been going on for so many years.

As for match-fixing (or even petty old spot-fixing), I can think of no urine test to discover the veracity or otherwise of sportsmen and women. If it were not for the News Of The World we wouldn’t have known about Pakistanis bowling no balls to order (one of whom had previously been banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs). The International Cricket Council launched investigations into other suspicious games featuring Pakistan, which were implausibly given the all-clear.

We can surmise that the authorities don’t want to know about the problems in their sports. I’m not sure I want to know either. Can we all please go back to a time when Lance Armstrong inspired a lot of people to cycle to the shops?

A day in the life of Michael Clarke

What follows is a deluge of snaps taken this morning at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I had the immense pleasure of being on a winning team at Australia’s ‘Home of Cricket’ and wandered around with a smartphone camera in some usually reserved parts of the stadium.

SCG Pavilion

The old clock tower on the Members’ Pavilion getting a lick of paint

The Cricketers Arms Metrosexuals baying for runs

The Cricketers Arms Metrosexuals baying for runs

Spread out across the Visitors’ Balcony

Spread out across the Visitors’ Balcony

Your correspondent playing a tennis shot at the SCG

Your correspondent playing a tennis shot at the SCG

The makeshift bowling ‘honours board’ on an old cupboard in the Visitors’ dining area, includes domestic cricket

The makeshift bowling ‘honours board’ on an old cupboard in the Visitors’ dining area, includes domestic cricket

The batting version

The batting version

The SCG recently installed some proper honours boards

The SCG recently installed some proper honours boards

View from the dressing rooms

View from the dressing rooms

Graeme Swann’s handiwork in the Visitors’ dressing rooms

Graeme Swann’s handiwork in the Visitors’ dressing rooms

Bradman and Trumper memorabilia from the 36/37 Ashes

Bradman and Trumper memorabilia from the 36/37 Ashes

Pup (329*) and Punter (154) memorabilia from the demolition job on India in the 100th Test at the SCG

Pup (329*) and Punter (154) memorabilia from the demolition job on India in the 100th Test at the SCG

Our door wasn’t exactly beaten down

Our door wasn’t exactly beaten down

Spot the irony

Spot the irony

Isotonic refreshment in the players’ fridge

Isotonic refreshment in the players’ fridge

The Coca-Cola ‘beach stand’

The Coca-Cola ‘beach stand’

View from gully

View from gully

The homoerotic pleasure epicentre of Australian cricket

The homoerotic pleasure epicentre of Australian cricket

A fuzzy pic of the scorecard noting Bradman’s then world record first-class score of 452* against Queensland

A fuzzy pic of the scorecard noting Bradman’s then world record first-class score of 452* against Queensland

Watching play from the Home dressing room

Watching play from the Home dressing room

Third Ump’s box

Third Ump’s box