Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 29th March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

In a year when the forces of nature have caused such terrible devastation (including the near destruction of the Galle cricket ground) it may seem churlish to bemoan the way the weather has disrupted some recent sports events. Australia were denied a certain victory in the Wellington Test, the qualifying session became a farce at the Australian Grand Prix and last weekend in Florida the “Players Championship” descended into chaos as severe weather constantly interrupted play on the golf course. Other than doing their best to schedule events when the likely weather conditions will be favourable (something that cricket administrators have not always done in recent times!) there is not a great deal that can be done. Even in Dubai’s glorious winter climate the Dubai World Cup was once delayed a week because of torrential rain and I can recall a similarly rainy Dubai Rugby Sevens a few years ago.

Changing weather conditions mean that there can never be a guarantee of a “level playing field” in sport, but it is reasonable to expect that officials will be consistent. When Michael Vaughan, the England cricket Captain, mildly suggested that the umpires had been inconsistent over their decisions on bad light at the Johannesburg Test in January (something that anyone at the game or watching on television could see to have been the case) the full force of the ICC descended on him and he was fined 100% of his match fee. Quite how standards of decisions making are going to improve if International captains cannot make any comments I do not understand. Certainly cricket is a sport particularly troubled by weather problems and whilst we must expect this to continue we can also hope that umpires and other match officials will apply some consistent rules. Technology ought to be able to help them do this. Similarly in MotorSport it is nonsense to be inflexible during qualifying sessions as was the case in Australia recently. As far as it is possible the officials should try and ensure that all competitors have reasonably similar conditions for their qualifying runs – otherwise the whole thing becomes a lottery.

As my golfing friends will know I am very much a fair weather golfer. Much as I enjoy the game I have no intention of venturing onto a course when the rain is horizontal or when it is so cold that I have to wear four layers of clothing to keep me warm. A few years ago some English friends visited us in Dubai for a golfing week and I arranged for rounds at Creek, Nad Al Sheba, Jebel Ali and Emirates. They thought that they were in a golfing paradise as the sun shone and the temperature hovered around the thirty degree mark. However we were halfway round the Majlis course when quite unexpectedly a huge black cloud appeared from the Gulf and it began to rain quite heavily. I was so astonished that I dithered around not having a clue what to do. My friends meanwhile had put up their golfing umbrellas (I didn’t even carry one) adjusted their golf bags so that their clubs were protected, climbed into their waterproofs and strode unconcerned to the next tee. A golfer used to the changeable English climate comes prepared – a golfer, like me, more used to smearing on the sun block than to wearing “all weather” gear was completely at a loss.

To return to the “Players Championship” which should have been finished by the time you read this (weather permitting!); it is certainly usually a very good competition and is rightly seen as one of the best on the PGA Tour. This has led to some to call for it to be classified as a “Major” but I think that this is unlikely to happen – I certainly hope so. The current designation of three events in the USA and one in Britain (“The Open”) as “Majors” is a historic fact that I have long thought anomalous. Golf is now a world game and it is high time that the five tours (European Tour, Japan Golf Tour, PGA TOUR, PGA Tour of Australasia and Southern Africa Tour) each had at least one “Major” and that the top players were persuaded to show their skills on courses away from The USA and Europe. Why not an expand the “World Championship of Golf” to (say) ten events a year each of equal status - the four current Majors plus new “Majors” in Europe, the Far East, Australasia, South America, Africa and the Middle East?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 22nd March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

I have seen International rugby at all of the grounds in the British Isles over the years but without question the one where the emotions run highest is in Cardiff. It was in 1973 that I went to the old Cardiff Arms Park to see England taken apart by a Welsh team that must rank as one of the finest to have ever played Test rugby. The print on my match programme is fading somewhat but the names are clear and each is a legend (overused word, I know, but accurate in this case). J.P.R.Williams; Gerald Davies; John Bevan; Phil Bennett; Gareth Edwards; Delme Thomas; Derek Quinnell; Mervyn Davies; John Taylor…all members of the Rugby hall of fame. In that match thirty-two years ago England were beaten 25-9 and (I am ashamed to admit) I left before the end because I could not stand listening to yet another rendition of "Land of my Fathers" from the hordes in red surrounding me. The team that won on that day held together for the next five years and won their final "Grand Slam" in 1978. The hegemony of Welsh rugby seemed secure and one wondered what the other home nations (especially England) had to do ever to challenge their power. Well, as we now know, that 1978 "Grand Slam" was actually to be Wales's last for nearly three decades as age caught up the heroes and their replacements never quite hit the same heights. In recent times Wales have sometimes been the worst not the best team in the British Isles and there have been humiliating "Wooden Spoons" for their fanatical fans to cope with. But now the long, long wait is over and a new Wales team has emerged to capture the "Triple Crown", the "Six Nations Championship" and (above all) a long awaited "Grand Slam".

Margins in sport at the top are often so very fine and Wales's triumph has not been all plain sailing. But when it came to the crunch they always had sufficient reserves to prevail. There was an absolute will to win in the squad and formidable teamwork as well, which enabled them to cope with setbacks when they needed to. And then there was also that extra factor - the edge given to them by their extraordinary supporters. Rather as England did in the Rugby World Cup in Australia the Welsh supporters managed to be visible (and make enough noise) almost to turn away matches into home fixtures. At Murrayfield, for the Scotland game, there were apparently 40,000 Welsh fans in the ground. Where they all managed to beg, borrow or steal tickets I have no idea but they certainly out-shouted the Scots on the day. And then at the Millennium Stadium, for the final match against Ireland, there was a sea of red all around the ground and had the roof been closed they would certainly have made enough noise to have raised it. As it was, fine weather and perfect conditions make for a great spectacle of rugby in the open air and there was never much doubt that the Welsh would triumph.

Rugby fans now look forward to the British Isles tour of New Zealand in June. The "All Blacks" have every claim to being the best international team in the world and the fanaticism of their supporters rivals that of the Welsh. But curiously New Zealand seem very vulnerable in the very big tournaments - they won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 but lost in the final to South Africa in 1995 and have failed at the semi-final stage in the other tournaments. Last weekend a highly fancied New Zealand team lost to Fiji in the final of the Rugby Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong - again a failure by the standards that the All Blacks set themselves. The visit of the British Isles "Lions" to New Zealand will be the first for twelve years. It comes at a time when not only have the All Blacks got some outstanding young talent emerging but when Rugby in Britain and Ireland is very strong. Although the Lions team will be managed by England's World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward it is unlikely that many England players will be in the squad which should be dominated by the Welsh (and Irish) players who made the 2005 "Six Nations" such an exhilarating tournament. And the Lions play in Red as well - the non Welsh supporters better learn the words of "Cwm Rhonda"!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 15th March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

The sign of true champions in any sport, be it a team or an individual, is the ability to win even when not at the peak of your form. When things are not going quite right it is the latent reserves of technical ability or pride or ambition that take over and drive the great sportsmen on - often to an improbable success. We have seen this a few times in the last couple of sporting weeks. By his own exceptional standard Ernie Els was not at his imperious best at the Dubai Desert Classic. He explored parts of the Majlis course which, whilst familiar to many of us, were unknown territory to the "Big Easy". Drives that would usually split the fairway were sheering off and landing amongst the bushes. Putts, which would normally move unerringly to the hole, were stopping short or passing too swiftly by. Of course there was also the effortless birdie, the approach which stopped within a whisker of the hole, and the phenomenal length off the tee which turned the Par fives into fours - but Ernie was not consistently destroying the course as he had in previous tournaments. Nevertheless Els was in the last pair for the final round and you sensed that however well the estimable Miguel Angel Jimenez was playing Ernie had something in reserve. He didn't play particularly well - and Jimenez played superbly - but when it came to the finish it was Els who produced the Champion's flourish to win. As an encore Ernie flirted with a missed cut after a very poor opening round the following week in Qatar but once again clawed his way back and produced the round of the week to win in the end. Back to back wins on any tour are very rare indeed but with Els achieving this feat when not at his best what more can which expect from him in the 2005 season? Quite a lot I think!

Ernie Els is one a small number of outstanding talents at the pinnacle of professional golf. With Tiger Woods return to the best of his form, and with Vijay Singh's ambition undiminished we can anticipate a few stirring battles between these three this year. It will be interesting to see whether this triumvirate maintain a gap with the rest or whether Mickelson (also a back to back tour winner this year) or maybe a new face will join them at the top. Perhaps that new face will be Padraig Harrington whose win at the weekend in the Honda Classic was his first on the PGA tour. The Irishman's final round of 63, which had only five pars in it (along with eleven birdies and two bogies) was nothing short of astonishing.

If the ability to turn a weak sporting situation round and to drag success from the jaws of failure is the mark of a true champion then no individual nor team has this quite to the same extent as the Australian cricket team. It is easy to forget that the Aussies do, occasionally, get themselves into difficulties that would destroy weaker teams. In the First Test match at Christchurch last week New Zealand had Australia on the ropes. The Kiwis scored 433 in their first innings and then reduced Australia to 201-6 a position from which the New Zealanders must have expected to force a win. The reason that the Aussies are a great team is that when they are in trouble someone always "steps up to the plate". Centuries from Katich and Gilchrist and fine bowling from Warne and Gillespie gave Australia a comfortable win in the end.

Finally in a week of sporting comebacks it was also good to see a Pakistan team show real character to deny India a win in Mohali. Pakistan have too often in recent times fallen well short of the results that their individual talents should deliver. Their recovery to draw the First Test match was a fine achievement and maybe they will have now established the confidence that will ensure that the series in India will be competitive. Confidence comes from self-belief as the achievements of Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and the Australian and Pakistani cricket teams have shown us. The great sports stars can always inhale the rarefied oxygen of self-belief when they need it the most.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 8th March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

The strike of players in the National Hockey League in the United Sates and Canada is one of the more extreme examples of player power in sport in recent times. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for the players whose average earnings approach $2m per year and whose on-rink behaviour rarely sets an example that young spectators could admire. That player earnings have reached these levels is a characteristic of American sports where the normal economics that govern businesses do not really apply. The drive for success of the owners of Baseball, American Football, and Basketball and Hockey franchises in North America is such that they are quite willing to give almost unlimited sums of money to the teams to try and get it. Much of this money goes to the players. In a recent book, "Leveling the Playing Field", Paul Weiler calculates that in 1947 the average baseball player earned $11,000 a year, a little more than four times the pay of the average American worker. By 1999 the average baseball player was earning $1.57 million, while the average worker earned just $28,000 - a ratio of 56 to one.

Whilst North America is the extreme example of sporting salary escalation it is clear that the phenomenon has spread to many other sports and other parts of the world. David Beckham’s salary at Real Madrid, for example, is $8 million dollars and the rest of the “galacticos” in the team will not earn much less. Whilst Real Madrid is a big business generating substantial income from ticket sales, media rights and sponsorship you can be sure that it is still not big enough to cover these huge player costs. As is the case in England with Chelsea, and their Russian benefactor Roman Abramovich, the only way that these salaries are payable is because a billionaire owner writes the cheque.

Far removed from the rarified world of American sports and European football is the current shambles in West Indies cricket. The West Indies is the poorest of the major Test playing countries with far lower income from sponsorship, ticket sales and other sources than (in particular) Australia, England, India or Pakistan. West Indies cricket has run at a substantial loss for around five years and although a new sponsorship deal giving West Indies cricket around $5m a year has been negotiated with the phone company Digicel this is only a fraction of the sponsorship income of other major countries. The West Indies Board proposal would mean that a top player (Lara or Sarwan) who played in all of the Windies Test and One Day internationals would earn around $210,000 per annum (retainer and appearance fees). This compares badly with the earnings of the top players in other Test nations – Ricky Ponting’s salary is around $500,000 and Michael Vaughan’s is even more. And both these two international captain’s will more than double these earnings with personal sponsorships and other related income.

The financial basis of England cricket is secure following the $400m TV rights deal negotiated at the end of last year and a significant proportion of this income will go to the England contracted players. Cricket Australia is currently locked in negotiations with the Australian players but it is unlikely that the outcome will be anything other than a deal giving the players good earnings. So it is understandable that Brian Lara and other West Indies stars have sought to augment their more modest salaries with personal spronsorhip deals. The problem is that these deals include ones with Digicel’s competitor “Cable and Wireless” – and that is a situation which the Windies Board, understandably, finds unacceptable and is one of the principal causes of the current problems.

Whilst the greed of North American hockey players brings that sport into disrepute and will have caused long term damage the plight of West Indies cricketers is one that we can regard with much greater sympathy. It is no exaggeration to say that the very future of cricket in the Caribbean is in the balance at the moment and, with the Cricket World Cup in the region only a couple of years away, this is a worrying situation indeed. This is an issue that should be fairly high on the International Cricket Council’s agenda – but they seem not to be in the loop. Curious priorities!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 1st March 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

The recreational game that most club golfers play is, of course, “Match Play”. You turn up on a Sunday morning and have a friendly single (or more often fourball) against other club members for a modest prize – then you repair to the nineteenth hole for a convivial post round tincture before going home to the long suffering wife. The appeal of “Match Play” is both the competitive element and the fact that if you do have one or two disastrous holes (and most golfers do) it is not the end of the world – you can always try and come back at the next and repair your loss. In professional golf, however, “Match Play” is comparatively rare with only the “World Golf Championships Match Play Championship” (played last weekend in California) and the similarly named “World Match Play Championship” (played at Wentworth in the Autumn) in the calendar. The PGA Championship used to be “Match Play” as well but it switched to four round stroke play (like the other three “Majors”) many years ago. Given that the peak for most professional golfers on both sides of the Atlantic is to play in the biennial “Ryder Cup”, which is of course also “Match Play”, it may seem surprising that this form of competition is not played more often at the top of the game.

As is so often the case in sport these days, the reason that that there are not more “Match Play” tournaments has to do with strictly commercial considerations. The TV stations that covered the “World Golf Championships” took a gamble that the Final, played on the key day of Sunday when the potential audience is at its peak, would make compelling (and, therefore profitable) television. Had the match been Tiger Woods versus VJ Singh, and had it gone to the 36th hole, then the gamble would have paid off. Unfortunately for the TV and the sponsors this year this did not happen and whilst no disrespect to David Toms and Chris DiMarco is intended, the match between these two was unlikely to rivet many to their seats in front of the TV. Indeed not only was a match between the world’s number 16 and the world’s number 18 unlikely to glue people to their screens but Toms was so dominant (winning 6 and 5) that the match was over an hour early – a disaster for the TV schedules!

It is said that today we live in a world dominated by celebrity and this is certainly true for professional golf. The value of a tournament is greatly enhanced if Tiger Woods is in the line up and that is why the appearance money that he receives far exceeds his potential earnings as a winner. The same applies, but to a much lesser extent, to Singh and to Ernie Els and a few of the rest of the golfing elite. In this week’s Dubai Desert Classic Els (twice a winner in the past) is the one really big name. The rest are either fading stars from the past (Montgomerie, Norman, O’Meara, Bjorn…) or journeymen Pros from the European Tour. This does not mean that it won’t be a compelling event - the quality of the course and the excellence of the organisation always make the Classic a truly splendid experience for spectators at the course, but the TV audiences will be small (especially in the USA). The (US) PGA Tour is unrepresented this year with the only Americans playing being defending champion Mark O’Meara (World ranking 100) and sponsors pick Ben Curtis (world ranking 137).

Ben Curtis has had a terrible time on the Tour since his astonishing win in the 2003 “Open Championship” at Royal St George’s. You do not win Majors unless you are a very good player indeed and Curtis is certainly that. But it must be humbling to be brightly in the spotlight, Open Champion and “Rookie of the Year” one minute and really to be nowhere the next. Whether the “Open” in 2003 will prove to be Curtis’s only “fifteen minutes of fame” remains to be seen. The Desert Classic is an ideal opportunity for Curtis to recover his form and prove the doubters wrong. He is away from the glare of the American media and whatever pressure he may have felt last year as always being announced on the First tee as “Open Champion” will have been removed. Good luck to him and to the rest of the competitors in what should be a great golfing week.