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”.