Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 24th May 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

One of the basic tenets of natural justice is that lawmakers should be ultimately accountable to the people over whom they exert justice. This accountability can take many forms and it is by no means only the conventional western model of a parliamentary democracy that provides necessary checks and balances on rulers. But any system that is respected by its people will be one within which they feel they have a voice and in which they feel that justice is fairly administered. Don't worry, gentle reader, "Paddy's Sports View" has not suddenly morphed into a column about constitutional law. But I have been musing on the principles of justice because of what I see to be a trend of increasingly authoritarian and unaccountable behaviour by the rulers of world cricket the International Cricket Council (ICC).

If you have an idle moment I recommend that you visit the ICC’s website http://www.icc-cricket.com/icc/, not because it is particularly exciting, but because you will see there in sharp relief the full panoply of the ICC’s hegemony over world cricket. Included on the site are the “Playing Conditions for Test matches” (24 pages) and for One Day Internationals (30 pages); the ICC Code of Conduct for players (30 pages) and umpires (6 pages) as well as a plethora of other documents which are apparently necessary to govern world cricket today. These also include a four page description of the “Principles of Natural Justice” which clearly seeks to legitimise the ICC’s disciplinary controls. However nowhere in these self created “principles” is there an acknowledgment that for the actions of a law maker to be seen to be fair they must be seen to be accountable to those that they govern.

We are only a few months into the cricketing year and already there have been (believe it or not) nineteen instances of the ICC "court" passing sentences on cricketers for breaches of their "Code of Conduct". So far eight Pakistan players, Kaneira, Akhtar, Razzaq and Inzamam (four times); two Indians, Balaji and Ganguly (twice); one Bangladeshi, Haque; two Zimbabweans, Taylor and Taibu; five South Africans, Kallis, Langeveldt, Ntini and Smith (twice) and one Englishman, Vaughan, have been disciplined. In 2004 there were thirty-four instances of ICC discipline compared with twenty the year before. The workload of the ICC judges is on the increase!

It is difficult to discover what the views of cricketers are on the subject of the ICC’s exercising of its power because for them to criticise what the ICC does would in itself be a breach of the ICC’s own code of conduct and would lead to the player being disciplined! But there are signs that the ICC’s own paymasters (the boards of control of the cricketing nations) are getting frustrated. Recently we have seen Indian board supporting its player Harbhajan Singh in his battle with the ICC over his bowling action. It is only if the individual boards continue to do this that there is any possibility of change.

Whilst the ICC’s “Principles of Natural Justice” do state that players have the right to a fair hearing and to expect that there will be no bias in judgements they nowhere say that the players have any rights in the determination of the processes in the first place. The fact that players are neutered in the ICC’s rule that they must not make any comments about the rulings of officials during (or even after) matches has led to a number of disciplinary procedures (including that against England captain Michael Vaughan earlier this year). This is a clear negation of the principle of natural justice called “freedom of speech” – not surprisingly this is not a principle that appears anywhere in the ICC’s volumes of codes.

The power of the ICC is far too great, in inhibits players, officials and even the executives of ICC member countries from participating in proper debate. It treats the players, in particular, as if they are recalcitrant schoolboys who can only be controlled if volumes of rules are applied to them and if they are disciplined for every breach. I believe that if you want good behaviour from your players the best way to get that is to make them active partners in what you do. The ICC’s rules would be respected far more by players if these players (and/or their representatives) had been part of the process of their creation and if they were active participants in their application.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 17th May 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

Amir Khan, the talented young British boxer of Pakistani descent who won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics, has fought his last amateur fight. After he gained revenge over Mario Kindelan (the man who beat him in Athens) in a fight last weekend in Bolton it was announced that Khan would turn professional immediately. Few would blame this young man for seeking to cash in on his skills and few will be surprised that the money hungry world of professional boxing has welcomed his arrival with glee. For every dollar earned by Khan another dollar (or more) will go to the string of managers, promoters and hangers on who will exploit his talent.

The world of professional boxing is poles apart from its amateur equivalent. Fights are far longer and much more gruelling in the professional game. But the most significant difference is that in professional boxing the contestants do not wear head guards which means that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics. And it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Can you imagine what it is like to have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless? Amateur boxing is a tough sport and undeniably physical, but a contest is won not by trying to make your opponent unconscious but by more skilfully scoring hits on his body or on his well protected head (rather like fencing). A good amateur boxer will seek to intimidate and tire his opponent - but that is part of many sports (ask a Rugby front row forward!).

The earliest sporting events involved gladiatorial contests and fights to the death. And very thrilling it must have been for the spectator as well (as anyone who saw the movie "Gladiator" can confirm). But societies in the modern world are supposed to be rather more civilised and whilst sporting contests can be tough, physical and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. The vocabulary of boxing surrounds this objective. We talk about a "Knock out" or a "KO" and about finishing "inside the distance" and the crowds at the events all contribute to this by literally baying for blood if they see one fighter getting on top. And blood they will most likely see as the gloves of the boxers open up wounds around the eyes of their opponents. In the corner at the end of a round the boxer's seconds will work on the damaged eyes trying to stem the flow of blood so that he can return to the ring for more punishment. Even if he is badly injured and behind on points there is always the chance that one of his punches will land a telling blow and the contest will be resolved in his favour. So "back you go and try and put him down - you can still win this one Champ".

The world that Amir Khan is now entering is a sport with more corruption and criminality in it than any other. The amounts of money that a good fighter can generate for himself and others are so high that it is inevitable that the sport has large dark shadowy areas in it away from the glitz and the glamour. The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates. Whilst there is undoubtedly a nobility about a great athlete like Mohamed Ali for every Ali there is a Mike Tyson ( a vicious thug in and out of the ring whose bad boy image was hyped up even further by promoters keen to sell tickets).

Beat somebody continuously around the head for years and you will do him permanent damage. Is there any sight sadder than the old scarfaced boxer stumbling unsteadily to his feet to acknowledge the cheers of a crowd who knew him in his prime. Well yes, actually, there is. That is the sight of the coffin of a young man whose brain was damaged beyond repair in a fight and who paid the ultimate price for others greed. It has happened all too often, and it will happen again, until this barbaric "sport" finally goes the way of the gladiators.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 10th May 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

The English Premier league is arguably, along with "Serie A" in Italy and "La Liga" in Spain, the strongest in the world. The Premiership is divided into three very distinct tiers. The super clubs who play in Europe and have the best players and finances (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool); the middle tier some of whom aspire to join the elite (Newcastle, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur…) and the lower tier whose sole real ambition is to avoid the fatal drop away from the top tier (the rest).

The top clubs enjoy enthusiastic support across the globe. Over the past few years the best Italian and Spanish teams of AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona have had the edge in European competitions and the English clubs (Manchester United sole success in 1999 aside) have generally under-performed. Liverpool's recent achievement in getting to the Champions League final (and Chelsea's near miss) can be attributed to the fact that both clubs have managers used to European success. Raphael Benitez at Liverpool and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea understand that to win against continental opposition requires a different style and tactics from what is needed in domestic competitions.

The English league is very internationally visible and Premiership matches are important parts of the sports TV schedules almost everywhere. This is a source of actual or potential revenues to the clubs and the red shirts of Manchester United and Arsenal, and increasingly the blue of Chelsea, are seen on the street from Tokyo to Timbuktu. The Manchester club's revenues from the exploitation of their brand are a major contribution to their resources helping them to afford to buy and pay good players. In a league where increasingly money talks all the revenue streams have to be pursued, unless (like Chelsea) the club is owned by a billionaire with bottomless pockets.

In England the neutrals were delighted with Liverpool's Champions league semi-final success against Chelsea, not least because the win showed that whilst money helps it cannot guarantee success. To be fair to Chelsea, Morinho and the other official at the club know this as well. Although the investment in players has run into the hundreds of million dollars the real reason for their Premier League success this year and their emergence as a real force on the European stage, has been the successful gelling of super stars into an effective team. This has never really been the case at Real Madrid a club which has spent much more than all the top English clubs together over the years, but which has had only the occasional success. Money helps - but consistent success needs more than the handy use of the chequebook.

In North London the respective fortunes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur over the past ten years show that consistency of management, team building and a clear footballing philosophy are the factors which make the difference. The Spurs have a club with a tradition almost as famous as their North London neighbours. They were the first team to do the Cup and League double in the twentieth century, in 1960/61, but they have not won the league championship since. Meanwhile Arsenal has enjoyed great success in both domestic competitions and with their great rivals at Manchester United, has dominated the English scene for a decade or more. The Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur said at the last AGM of the club that the Spurs had probably outspent Arsenal over this same period, but with little or nothing to show for it. It's not just how much you spend - it's how you spend it that counts.

Whilst on the face of it the English Premier league may seem to be a successful enterprise there are some gathering clouds around. Bad behaviour by players and occasionally by managers (on and off the field) damages the standing of the clubs and of the league. And the escalation in pay has been such that some club's finances are very rocky indeed. This is the real problem with the Abramovitch effect (he is Chelsea's Russian paymaster). In assembling a team of all the talents he has done so (in part) by offering more money to players than any other club can afford. Whilst Chelsea's finances are secure that of some of their competitors are not and even Arsenal, with a new stadium to pay for, may struggle to get or keep the best players if Chelsea is in the running. `

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 3rd May 2005

From “The Emirates Evening Post” 3rd May 2005

Pakistan’s first ever Twenty20 cricket tournament was concluded in Lahore at the weekend with great success. 30,000 spectators clearly had an enjoyable day and Pakistan cricket has received a timely boost to its funds. No wonder the PCB has declared that this form of the game will have a regular place in the domestic season. At international level the first ever Twenty20 match took place in February at Auckland and it was both a cricketing and a popular success - nearly 400 runs were scored by the two sides at close to 10 runs per over.

There are those who feel that Twenty20 is not a genuine form of the game. For example the respected commentator, and ex Test star, Michael Holding has said "What is the point of telling youngsters to watch the game but not to copy the players' techniques? It is not cricket and is a total waste of time.” Holding’s criticism seems to be mainly that the batting technique required to score at ten an over is detrimental to the more pure and elegant style required of the longer form of the game. I think that this underestimates the talents of the really good batsmen who, if they are to succeed, have to be able to adapt their game to any circumstances. A few years ago there was a Test match between England and Sri Lanka at Old Trafford which was badly hit by the weather. After a few days of restricted play England managed to dismiss Sri Lanka late on day 5 and give themselves a chance of a surprise win. To achieve this, however, they needed to score 50 runs in six overs! Trescothick and Vaughan assaulted the Sri Lankan bowling attack to such an extent that they got the runs in five overs – a “Twenty20” scoring rate in a Test match. The point of this story is to illustrate that most cricket is not a continuum of activity but that it always has peaks and troughs. There will be moments even in Test cricket when very rapid scoring indeed is required, and there are certainly periods in One Day (50 over) games when consolidation is necessary. So at the very least Twenty20 can be seen as providing good practice for batsmen to prepare them when they need to score quickly in Tests or ODIs (and for bowlers in trying to prevent them doing this). Once the ball leaves the bat, of course, the fielding task is the same in any form of cricket so Twenty20 should help sharpen fielding skills as well.

The great benefit of Twenty20 is that it brings in new spectators and that income from the competitions goes into the development of the game. Some of the new spectators will come to One Day and Test cricket, although they will have to be a little more patient in their wait for fireworks! What is essential is that a balance is struck between the various forms of the game and that there is no presumption that any one form is superior to the other. Rather than this being inimical to the history of the game it is in fact quite consistent as cricket has always had many forms. In the nineteenth century cricket was played over one day, two days, three days or four days. There were handicap matches when Twenty-two players from a weaker club would play eleven from a stronger club. There were single wicket competitions (one to one match ups) and many other variants. Even Test cricket over the years has been played over three, four, five or more days (including “timeless” Tests, the longest of which was spread over eleven days!).

Whether we are talking about timeless Tests or forty over thrashes cricket is cricket and we need to keep flexible and open-minded about new forms of the game and also about changes to established forms. In this respect I think that one of the good lessons from twenty20 is that it ought to make us look again at One Day International rules. ODI innings sometimes become rather bogged down in that period between the end of the fifteenth over (when the fielding restrictions are lifted) and the thirty-fifth (when the chase to build a total or get a score to win) begins in earnest. Perhaps One Day cricket should learn from Twenty20 and find a way of tweaking the rules so that interest is maintained throughout?