Monday, December 26, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 26th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

It was the American genius and iconoclast R. Buckminster Fuller who said “Those who play with the devil's toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword” and whilst it was not Formula one that was in his sights when he said it, it might well have been. The growth of modern F1 has been built on the devils toy of tobacco sponsorship and there were few more vocal defenders of the rights of the tobacco giants to promote their brands than the leaders of the sport. It is no exaggeration to say that the commercial basis of Formula one, and the billionaire wealth of its presiding spirit Bernie Ecclestone, has been mostly built on the willingness of tobacco company sponsors to allocate almost unlimited funds to the sport. But this is changing as legislation gradually takes its grip and this is one of the reasons (but not the only one) that the future of the sport is so uncertain.

When the Formula one circus begins its long 2006 trek in Bahrain in March all the participants will know that the future of the sport is cloudy, to say the least. Federation Internationale Automobile (FIA) President Max Mosley has recently bemoaned the fact that it is extremely difficult to reach any agreement with all the Team owners as to the future of the sport once current arrangements expire at the end of the 2007 season. The difficulties are directly attributable to the disappearance of tobacco company sponsors and the opportunity that this has given to the motor manufacturers to tighten their grip on the sport. When the tobacco giants ruled the roost their business case was predicated on the fact that other brand promotion outlets were being increasingly closed to them. Nobody, not even the motor manufacturers, could compete with that sort of money. Ten years ago, for example, all of the main teams in the world championship (Williams, McLaren, Jordan, Ferrari, and Benetton) were backed by tobacco dollars. The involvement of car companies was only as the supplier of engines, not as prime sponsor. In the 2006 season five of teams are in business overtly to promote a motor manufacturers brand (Mercedes, BMW, Renault, Honda and Toyota) and the independents are in decline. From ten years ago only McLaren and Williams remain, and it is clear that the former is more and more a works Mercedes team. Ferrari, as ever, remains a special case!

In many ways you might think that the increasing involvement of motor manufacturers in F1 has to be good for the sport, after all those with very long memories will go back to the days when most of the teams were car companies, albeit rather special ones (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, Lancia…). The difference is that today the sport is so international and so visible that it is primarily a vehicle (no pun indented) for the big car companies to promote their brands. And the funds that they allocate to this almost defy belief. Some of the constructors have budgets in excess of $400 million for 2006 and this is the sort of money that is not sustainable in the longer term and which is a huge barrier to entry to new teams. Whilst the new “Midland” team may also have plenty of money from its Russian owners they, and the other remaining independents (Williams, Red Bull and 'Super Aguri') have little chance of securing many points in 2006.

The FIA is struggling to sign up teams to their preliminary proposals for a new agreement to take effect from the 2008 season largely because the motor manufacturer teams won’t play ball and continue to threaten to set up their own championship. Recent events have shown that the propensity of these car company teams to throw money after success has not declined. Fernando Alonso did not leave Renault for any other reason than that he was, quite literally, made a financial offer that he could not refuse (and who could blame him?).

The position of Ferrari amongst all these power struggles is interesting. They are signatories to the FIA’s proposals, and this suggests that they are not really willing to continue to provide unlimited funding. In recent years Ferrari has been the best financed F1 team, but their owners (Fiat) get no brand value from Ferrari’s presence and the economics of allocating F1 costs to their luxury Ferrari car brand don’t stack up. Like the independents it is in Ferrari’s interest to have a rather leaner F1 model in the future.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sports review of the year 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

We sometimes forget that every sportsman or woman who earns a living as a professional is quite exceptionally good at their sport. Even the humblest of journeymen pros on the PGA tour, or the man who “just” plays cricket for his county or state, or the footballer in the lower divisions of a league is hugely talented by the standards of ordinary mortals. Watching Arsenal versus Chelsea last weekend it was no surprise that every player on the park could trap the ball with ease and pass the ball thirty or forty metres with precision – that’s the bare minimum of what they have to be able to do to be a paid footballer! But to take them into the super star category (and every player at Highbury was certainly in that league) they have to have much more than the “basic” skills. So as I look back through 2005 and review the five sporting stars who shone most brightly during the year it is always those with that something extra which stand out.

Valentino Rossi
In 2005, at the age of 26, Valentino Rossi became the MotoGP World Champion for the sixth successive year proving beyond doubt that he is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rider of a motorcycle that the world has ever seen. Rossi does things that other riders just don’t do. He uses his brakes in situations where if other riders did the same they would fall off their machines. He shifts his balance on his Yamaha quite differently from other riders to coax that tiny bit of extra grip or speed that makes the difference. Indeed he and his motorcycle are one unit at all times and this relationship owes more to the Arts than it does to Science. You could not do a scientific model of Rossi’s skills because they transcend the mundane input/output mechanics that science requires. Rossi is Mozart, not Newton.

Fernando Alonso
When Fernando Alonso won a Grand Prix for the first time in 2003 he was only just 22 years old, an almost Valentino Rossi like precocity. And like Rossi it was soon clear that Alonso was a driver with that extra quality that was likely to place him amongst that small number of Formula one greats. But for Alonso to succeed ahead of Schumacher, or Raikkonen or Montoya in 2005 he had to have a reliable and quick vehicle on which to perform. When Renault delivered such a car there was, literally, no holding the young Spaniard back. Alonso was on the podium for an astonishing fifteen of this year’s nineteen Grands Prix and he won seven of them. We will have an opportunity to see the extent to which Alonso, like Rossi, has the innate ability to succeed whatever the team when he moves to McLaren in the 2007 Formula one season. The news that Alonso is deserting Renault, who gave him his championship opportunity, is surprising and it will also place Alonso under pressure during the 2006 season. If he retains his world championship despite the understandable coldness that might be present in the Renault garage it will be an even greater achievement than his 2005 win.

Andrew Flintoff
When Andrew Flintoff first burst on the cricket scene at international level in 1998 it was obvious that here was an all round cricketer of exceptional natural talent. But it took quite a time for him to break through and many of his early England appearances were characterised by short cameo innings and the occasional wicket taking delivery, but not by any consistency or sign that he had a real cricket brain. He also found it difficult to keep fit and injury free and (as the Australians called it) “tubbed up like a pot of lard”. But over the last couple of years “Freddie”, under Duncan Fletcher’s guidance and Michael Vaughan’s leadership has become the outstanding all-rounder in world cricket. 2005 was his Annus Mirabilis and it is no hyperbole to say that without him England would not have regained the Ashes. For all his fame and sudden fortune Flintoff is a man who is more than just a sporting star and the dominant image of the year has to be his consoling of Brett Lee at Edgbaston when England had just snatched a remarkable victory from the Aussies grasp.

Annika Sorenstam
Sorenstam had an almost Rossi like run of success in 2005 winning an astonishing eleven of the twenty-one tournaments she entered in 2005, including two majors. This was twice the win percentage of Tiger Woods in the same year (and the Tiger had one of his best ever years!). Any golfer will know that tournament victories at any level are rare and even the very best golfers would be happy with (say) two in any one season. To win eleven in the increasingly competitive world of Women’s golf is extraordinary. This success puts into context young Michelle Wie about whom much of the golfing hype has been this year. Wie is good, but has yet to really compete for victory in any tournament and she would perhaps be well advised to look at the remarkable Sorenstam for inspiration.

Daniel Carter

The New Zealand rugby fly half shares with my other players of the year that unique ability to do things that others cannot do, however hard they try. Like Rossi caressing his motorcycle Carter moves with a grace and a power that leaves others standing forlornly in his wake. Whereas other formidable All Blacks like Jonah Lomu or Tana Umaga have relied substantially on their bulk to slice open defences Carter moves his 97 kilos with the elegance of a ballroom dancer. He plays in a fine team, which helps of course, but Carter was the inspiring force which made the All Blacks unstoppable throughout the year and which also made them my sports “Team of the Year”.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 12th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be at a charity golf event where the two main participants were Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. They both signed a golf cap for me which I proudly wear in the forlorn hope that some of their magic will rub off on me (it hasn’t, of course!). On those occasions when you do rub shoulders with the sporting greats (overused word, but not for these two) you get a chance to try and spot what it is that makes them different and with Nicklaus, in particular, what struck me was his powers of concentration. The event itself didn’t matter that much, but when he was at play Jack never for one moment let his concentration wander – he was focused all the time. Match that with a sublime talent to strike the ball cleanly and an absolute determination to win and you have the recipe for success.

When Jack Nicklaus walked down the 18th hole at St Andrews for the last time this year at the Open Championship there was genuine warmth in the farewell he received from everyone there. It was 35 years since his first Open win at this historic course when, at the age of 30, he was perhaps at his peak and, whilst he may walk a little more stiffly these days, and he is not the “Golden Bear” of old, he can still play a bit. If that was the nostalgic moment to savour from the 2005 golf year the main golfing story was the “comeback” of Tiger Woods. For the Tiger all things are relative and I suppose that by his imperious standards 2005 has to be seen as a return to form after a couple of lean years. He dominated the PGA tour (six victories, including major wins at the Masters Tournament and The Open Championship) and seemed back to his very best. Woods has now won 10 majors which puts him third in the all time list behind Nicklaus (18) and Hagan (11). The other Major winners this year (Mickelson at the PGA and Michael Campbell at the US Open) are also world class (unlike one of two of the “One Win wonders” of recent years). Campbell followed his first big win for a while with another at the World Match Play later in the year - a welcome and deserved return to form for this most talented of players. Expect more from the young New Zealander in 2006.

For Ernie Els the year was blighted by a knee injury that he picked up in July and he was out of competitive golf for much of the season. But once Ernie was fit again it didn’t take him too long to get back into winning ways and his win in the Dunhill in South Africa last week shows that he is swinging well again. It was the year for comebacks, and Colin Montgomerie was another who got back to form in style. If Jack Nicklaus is a master of concentration then Monty is the master of intensity. He has a face which always betrays his feelings and his thoughts and can there ever have been a more intense character at the top of professional golf? His successes this year (which led to a win in the European order of merit for the eighth time) have carried him into the world’s top ten at the age of 42, a remarkable achievement. Wearing your heart on your sleeve, as Montgomerie always has, does not always make you popular but there is no doubt that if Monty could somehow win that elusive first Major victory in 2006 it would be a very popular win indeed both amongst his fans and amongst his fellow professionals.

There was a symbolism about St Andrews this year with Jack Nicklaus playing his last tournament and Tiger Woods in unbeatable from. The mantle of champion had perhaps already been passed from Jack’s tight grasp but this year we began to see the title of the “Greatest” being passed as well. Woods elegantly referred to Nicklaus as the “Greatest” after the tournament, but it is now quite clear that the Tiger himself is not far behind. In 2006 we can expect that Woods, Els, Mickelson, Singh and (I think) Campbell will lead they money list and I hope to see these Major winners joined, if not by Montgomerie, then by young turks like Luke Donald or Sergio Garcia. The golfing year ahead looks full of promise.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 5th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

At the end of the third day in the first Test match between Pakistan and England at Multan the home side had clawed their way back into a match that seemed to be slipping away from them. Although at 125-2 in their second innings they still trailed England by 19 runs there was hope that they could bat well on the third day and perhaps get into a position to cause England some trouble in their second innings on a crumbling pitch. When the night watchman was out early the next morning the stage was set for Pakistan’s captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and he did not let his team down. He supported Salman Butt in a stand of 135, scoring 72 priceless runs off 172 balls. It was a Captain’s innings, and it set up an unlikely win for Pakistan. And Inzy continued to lead by example in the next two Tests to help Pakistan deservedly win the series.

When fine batsman become Captain in can sometimes affect the quality of their batting. Michael Vaughan is a case in point. In the 31 Test matches he played for England before he became Captain he averaged 51. In the 33 Test matches he has played as Captain he averages 36. Vaughan is a very good captain indeed, but his batting has suffered. Inzamam is the reverse. In the 88 Test he played before he became Captain he averaged just under 50. In the 16 matches he has played since being made Captain permanently in October 2003 he averages 63. He clearly relishes the challenge and, more surprisingly, has not let the cares of leadership trouble him at the crease.

Shortly before Inzy became Captain I wrote “Can there be a more enigmatic, brilliant, troubled player in any sport than the extraordinary Pakistani batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq? To paraphrase Lowell “three-fifths of him is genius and two-fifths sheer clown” and when you go to watch him play you are never sure whether it will be clown or genius that you will see”. Inzy’s performances in the 2003 Cricket World Cup (scores of 6; 4; 0; 0; 6 and 3) had been so dire that he was left out of Pakistan’s team for the England tour and one wondered whether he would ever play International cricket again. But the Pakistan selectors brought him back and soon made him Captain – it was an inspired move which took a while to blossom, but is now paying dividends.

Inzy has now Captained Pakistan to five wins and one draw in his last six Tests as Captain. Pakistan’s only recent Test defeat was against the West Indies in May when Younis Khan led the side when Inzy was injured. From the reaction of the players throughout the England series it is clear that they all revere their Captain and will do all they can to work hard for him. Even the mercurial Shoaib Akhtar and the “show pony” Shahid Afridi perform well under Inzy’s command. Even more importantly the young players who are new to the side like Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal have really progressed and look fixtures in the side.

That quite late in his career Inzamam has proved to be a skilled leader is a surprise, but that he has established himself as one of Pakistan’s all time great batsmen is not. He is more than just an “anchor man” (although he certainly can hold an innings together and he bats well with the tail). Inzy has the ability to change his style and approach in keeping with the circumstances and now that he is Captain you suspect that he takes this responsibility particular seriously. The ultimate test lies ahead when India visits Pakistan in January. There is always unpredictability about Pakistani cricket which makes fools of forecasters. That used to be the case with Inzamam-ul-Haq as well - which Inzy would come out to play? But the mature Inzamam, as proud Captain of his national side with a series win against Australia’s recent conquerors under his belt, is a different prospect. The Test series versus India will make compelling viewing, and with India in some disarray at the moment Pakistan are favourites. A convincing home series win against India might even put the recent celebrations after beating England in the shade!