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.

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Are we there yet?

The ICC mace: not to be confused with a weapon used to subdue wanted war criminals

No. Not yet. Sure, England’s win in India was remarkable given its historical context: 28 years of hurt, as well as the more recent comic failings on the subcontinent. Above all else, it demonstrated their strength of character to come back from the drubbing in Ahmedabad to clinch the series on the back of patient, skilful batting and probing, accurate spin bowling. Oh, and Jimmy Anderson. How good was he?!

But before we get carried away let’s not forget that recent incarnations of the team have risen higher than this level before, only to drastically fall away soon after.

The summer of 2005 is commonly held to be the high-water mark for England teams that anyone still alive can remember. We all know what happened after that. Hubris and complacency contributed to their undoing as the newly MBE-ed players got a pummelling in the Ashes away leg.

Even more recently, England claimed the ICC mace as The World’s Best Team. Rather than being complacent, the team kept doing the things they did to get them to that level, but even more rigorously. More complicated fitness drills and tactical analysis was used to incrementally raise the small percentages of team performance that saw them to the summit in the first place.

This was, and is, necessary for a team with no great players to rally round. But it wasn’t enough to keep them Number 1. Not with the South Africans around. For the Saffers have even more ‘very good’ players than England, and a great one too: Jacques Kallis. The nearest England have to a great player (Anderson, Ali Cook, IJL Trott, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann are all very good – not great) is KP, but he has merely flirted with greatness in his career; he’s yet to cross the Rubicon. Next summer he’ll be 33 years old.

After retaining the Ashes in Australia, smashing India at home and claiming the top spot, Stuart Broad (only ‘average-to-good’, since you ask) talked openly of this England team creating a dynasty to rival the Steve Waugh-era Australians. Oh how we laughed. Back then, a series win in India was proclaimed as the final frontier which would assure the team of greatness. Having achieved that goal, it no longer feels the case. On the back of the 3-0 loss to Pakistan and the drawn series in Sri Lanka (thanks to KP for the save), beating a flawed India can no longer be seen to guarantee the players OBEs in the New Year Honours list.

Ball Control would suggest that England can only aspire to greatness when there are other great teams to beat. India, Australia, even South Africa, would need to raise their games to levels approaching the standards of their former selves before England can vanquish them – home and away – and draw epochal satisfaction. Unfortunately, you can only beat what’s in front of you. And, without wishing to labour the point, England have so far struggled when faced with any teams featuring even one current great player, i.e. Pakistan (Saeed Ajmal) and those darn Saffers.

But until such a time as the post-Argus Aussies, quota-driven Saffers and the naked Emperors of India get their funk on; England can get themselves battle ready. Here are three issues to sort out:

1. Fast bowling

Can anyone name a great team from the past which didn’t have a terrifying fast bowler leading the line? Nope, me neither. Clearly, I’m not just talking about a canny operator in the Jimmy Anderson (who averages 30 runs per wicket, lest we forget) mould, I’m talking about a Joel Garner-esque 90mph plus-er; someone who can strike the fear of the Almighty in opposition batsmen. Even Brett Lee did a good job for the great Aussie sides in this regard. Maybe Stuart Meaker is the one for England. Perhaps Steve Finn. He’s got quicker in the last 18 months, but he’s also breaking down a lot more.

2. The opener’s slot 

England need a reliable Sous-Chef to operate with Alastair Cook at the top of the order. Perhaps Nick Compton is that man. The evidence thus far points to him being an adhesive cricketer who can help blunt the new ball. I’d like to see a bit more of a dasher up front; a Matty Hayden or Marcus Trescothink-type to complement the orthodox Chef. With Trott at three England would seem to benefit more from someone willing to take risks and advantage of the gaps in the field during the first 15 overs. Joe Root is an opener by trade and may grow into this role for the Test team. He’ll be waiting for Compton to slip up in New Zealand.

3. The middle order

This will remain a problem for as long as England suffers from chronic Bell-itis and the number 6 position remains up for grabs. Strange to say that PD Collingwood has left a big hole in the middle order and the aspirants who’ve auditioned so far – Eoin Morgan, James Taylor, Ravi Bopara, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel – have been in and out of the side. It’s now Root’s to lose but, as stated before, he may well be earmarked for another position. Thank Heavens for Matt Prior.

Over the next few years the team will inevitably also lose some of its bigger names. KP, Swann and Trott will all be 35 (Andrew Strauss’s age) before England next tour India in 2016. Bell, Prior and Anderson will be 34. That’s not meant to sound alarming; other players will come through off the county conveyor belt to continue the good work of their predecessors. Whether or not this England side ever lay claim to greatness, they can already proudly boast of remarkable achievements: winning in Australia and India, and holding that precious mace. Snuffing out the twitching corpse of Australian cricket next year would be nice, too.