Saturday, December 30, 2006

No mercy as Austrlia bash their opponents all around the ring and the referee can't intervene to stop the fight

If it was a prize fight the referee would have stepped in long ago to save England from further punishment – perhaps as early as the end of the second round in Adelaide when they all looked shaky on their legs and eventually dead on their feet on the fifth day. The great Muhammad Ali used to dance around and taunt his opponents before he administered the coup de grâce – perhaps feeling that the audience who had paid their money were entitled to a prolonged exhibition.

Ricky Ponting might have been in Ali’s mood when he failed to enforce the follow on in Brisbane and scored a quite unnecessary extra 202 runs for 1 run out in the second innings – he could probably have forfeited that innings completely if he had wanted to - as the eventual margin of 277 runs demonstrated. But Justin Langer helped himself to a hundred (having missed out by 18 in Australia’s first innings) and there was a century in the match for the Aussie captain as well. Mike Hussey also just missed a ton in the First innings but one suspects that having kicked himself for his error back in the dressing room he reasoned quite understandably that there would be more rich pickings ahead. It was help-yourself time for the bowlers as well and Glenn McGrath eased himself back with a gentle seven wicket limber up in the match. Warney wasn’t really needed in England’s first innings but he tweaked a few past the bat and, despite conceding a few runs, looked good as he took four in the second innings. Stuart Clark did the holding job and helped himself to four scalps without giving away many runs.

At Adelaide the match meandered along for four days with there not being much between the sides on the flattest of pitches. Ponting took another comfortable hundred off the England attack, as did Michael Clarke and again the dressing room door shuddered as the formidable Hussey just missed a hundred again – this time by nine runs in the first innings. Warney slept his way through the EnglandEngland batters into a false sense of security. There was no security at all as it turned out as like a gambler whose reason has left him completely they piled the chips on the wrong numbers throughout the final day to lose a match which it was impossible to lose. It was perhaps the most incompetent batting ever seen in a Test match, but take nothing away from Australia - it was their self-belief and the way they instilled fear in their opponents that deservedly won them the match. first knock – but the concession of 167 runs for just one wicket may have been a smart move lulling the

At Perth Hussey missed out on a hundred that was there for the taking yet again in the Oz first innings when he ran out of partners on 74. Perhaps the modest Australian total of 244 was a deliberate ploy to fire up the bowling attack – if so it worked as England were swept away in their first innings and failed to get the first innings lead that even some Aussie gamblers were punting on. The bowlers shared the wickets – even the improbably selected Andrew Symonds took a couple to celebrate his recall to the side after the withdrawal of Damien Martyn (who had perhaps decided that he had tired of the sight of blood). In the Aussie second innings this time Hussey made no mistake and carved and drove his way to a calm hundred and he was joined by Clarke who improved his average further with another hundred (not out this time). Perhaps the league against cruel sports were off duty later in the day when Adam Gilchrist went completly mad scoring 102 off 59 balls to take the game completely away from England (if that had not happened already). As at Brisbane England batted better in the second innings, but again as at Brisbane the writing was already on the wall. Warne stretched himself a bit with four wickets (five if you include the way that the bemused Geraint Jones committed suicide rather than face more punishment at Warne’s hands).

And so to Melbourne where the chat in the Aussie dressing room must have been about whose turn it was to score a hundred. Few would have argued when Hayden put his hand up but there may have been a few sighs when Andrew Symonds said that it was high time he got a hundred as well and now was as good a chance as he would ever get. The rest of the batsmen took the day off as these two helped themselves to 309 runs between them out of Australia’s total of 419. So the first seven in the batting order at Sydney have already scored at least one hundred each earlier in the series – I suspect that this may be a record but I can’t really be arsed to wade through Wisden and check! Oh and England managed to be out twice for well under 200 for the third and fourth times in the series and lose by an innings. Pedants like me (who fail to acknowledge that the knockabout exhibition match against a “World XI” in October 2005 was a proper Test match) will be pleased to recall that Warney’s 700th wicket came with his last in England’s second innings and not as he thought his first in England’s first. But what the hell the boy done great again as did his back up crew all of who chipped in with wickets when needed.

And so to Sydney – a round too far in this Ashes “no contest”. Surprises do happen in cricket (how could this Aussie team have nearly lost a Test match to Bangladesh only nine months ago?) but England aren’t on the ropes, they are down and out, gasping for breath and wanting to get the hell out of the ring. Well it’s Warney’s turn for a hundred and that would make it eight in the team who have at least one in this series. I wouldn’t put it past the old thespian to make his last tread on the boards an Oscar winning and nail-biting ton. For England there is talk of playing for pride, but pride usually goes before the fall not after. Getting up off the canvas in order to be hit down again will be an achievement in itself. It can’t be much fun – as Orson Welles once said “When you are down and out something always turns up - and it is usually the noses of your friends.”

© Paddy Briggs December 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 28th August 2006

From the "Bahrain Tribune"

There was an awe-inspiring inevitability about Tiger Woods’s recent victory in the PGA, as there had been at his similar triumph in the previous Major at Royal Hoylake. In both wins we saw a “new, improved Tiger” – one who has now added the component of exceptional course management to his already peerless game. It seems that Tiger, working so effectively with his caddy Steve Williams, has worked out that if he plays to his strengths and manages his weaknesses then he will be almost unbeatable. Weaknesses? Well to start with Woods is one of the least accurate drivers on the PGA tour. His current record of hitting fairways with just under 60% of his drives puts him a lowly 152nd on the tour. Then there is his putting. The conventional wisdom is that to win golf tournaments you have to be a master on the greens. Well this year Tiger’s putting record is pretty average – his number of putts per hole record places him only 61st in the rankings. What about bunker play then, surely Woods is a master at getting down from the sand? No again, Tiger is only 44th in the list when it comes to “sand saves” – getting down in two or less from a trap.

So how can this inaccurate driver, who is only an average putter and struggles in the bunkers be having such a successful season? Well the sand play record gives us a clue. True, Woods is a long way from being the best bunker player – but he doesn’t get into them that often! His record this year is that he has only been in a bunker 54 times – slightly over once per round, a record that is close to being the best on the tour. The traps are placed to penalise wayward iron shots – on approach on a Par four or five and from the tee on the Par 3 holes. And it is with the approach irons that Tiger is unrivalled – the statistics indicate that Tiger is the most accurate player around on approaches to the green. And this is where his new found confident course management comes into play. At Hoylake Tiger rarely took a driver off the tee because he didn’t need to. He knew that to be well-positioned for the crucial shot to the green was all-important so he concentrated on position rather than length - and he did the same in the PGA. It is this astute and focused tactical play that has given Woods the best birdie record of all – he has more birdies on Par 4 and Par 5 holes this year than any other player.

Whilst the statistics of Tiger Woods 47 rounds of golf this year give some clear pointers as to the reasons for his success (six wins out of 13 events played) they only tell half the story. The real key to Tiger’s success comes from the fact that he is very hard to beat when he has victory in his sights – especially during the final round. His final round partners Sergio Garcia (at The Open Championship) and Luke Donald (at the PGA) found that their games wilted in the face of Tiger’s will to win. Garcia had a final round 73 to Woods’s 67 at Hoylake and Donald a 74 to Woods’s 68 at Medinah – they were both blown away!

The combination of technical excellence, unrivalled iron play, shrewd course management and still hungry ambition makes Tiger Woods the complete golfer and the consummate professional – especially in the tournaments that really matter. So what can we expect in the Ryder Cup next month – the only form of golf where Tiger has under-performed (he has won just 7 of his 20 Ryder Cup matches)? How can a man who destroys his rivals so completely in final day head to heads have such a modest record in Ryder Cup match play? My guess is that Tiger’s Ryder Cup record (whatever the reasons for it) is something that he will want to put right this year. Tiger, like all the greatest sportsman, hates to lose and he has been on a losing Ryder Cup team three times out of four. Whilst nothing in golf is certain I have a feeling that US Ryder Cup Captain Tom Lehman can bank on the maximum points from his leading player this year!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 21st August 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

The repercussions of Sunday’s extraordinary events at The Oval will be felt in cricket for a long time. Tribune sports columnist Paddy Briggs was at the ground – here is his special report.

My seat at The Oval on Sunday was close to the off-field action as the extraordinary events unfolded - events which were to lead to the unprecedented forfeiture of the match by Pakistan. Whilst acres of newsprint will no doubt be covered around the cricket world in discussion of the controversy, and there will be differences of opinion as to who the heroes and villains were, to me the issue boils down to one cardinal principle. The Laws of Cricket state that “The umpires shall be the sole judges of fair and unfair play.” This is one of the shortest of all the laws and it is quite unequivocal. The preamble to the Laws adds that “The umpires are authorised to intervene in case of…tampering with the ball” and further that “It is against the Spirit of the Game…to dispute an umpire’s decision by word, action or gesture.” It is beyond argument, therefore, that the umpires at The Oval were within their rights in their actions in respect of what they saw as unfair play (ball tampering) and also that Pakistan was in serious contravention of the Laws (and their spirit) in the “protest” that they made.

At 4:40pm the umpires took the field after the rain break and the England batsmen were ready to resume, but the Pakistan side did not appear. Their dressing room door was closed, only to be opened from time to time to admit first their manager Zaheer Abbas and then their coach Bob Woolmer (neither of whom stayed in the room for very long). The umpires left the field and at that point there was a prima facie case that (as the Laws of cricket put it) there was “…action by any player or players [which] might constitute a refusal…to play”. The duty of the umpires in such circumstances is to “…ascertain the cause of the action [and] then decide together [if] this action does constitute a refusal to play” they then have to inform the captain and “if [he] persist in the action the umpires shall award the match [to the other team]”. So when at just before 5:00pm the umpires walked to the wicket again, this time accompanied by the two England batsmen, and for a second time (and despite the warning) the Pakistan team did not appear then the umpires were quite right to remove the bails, end the match and award it to England. And that should have been the end of the sorry matter.

The match was over at 5:00pm, the Laws and the spirit of the game had been upheld by the umpires and, sad though it all was, we should then all have gone home. But never underestimate the ability of cricket’s besuited officialdom to make bad situations immeasurably worse. Although the umpires had made their decision, and although it is undisputed that they have sole charge of the match, the Chairmen of the two cricket boards (David Morgan of the ECB and Shaharyar Khan of the PCB) took it upon themselves to get involved. I watched the two of them earnestly talking to one another outside the Pakistan dressing room and then each of them went in to talk to the Pakistan team. A little while later Shoaib Akhtar emerged and I asked him was what going on “They’re coming out” he said, and shortly afterwards out trooped Inzaman and his players (to a chorus of boos from the crowd).

The blatant and very public attempt by the two cricket Board chairman to undermine the decision that the umpires had made and try and get play restarted is perhaps the most shocking part of this whole sorry event. Remember these two men are not just the most senior cricket administrators in their respective countries, they are also both personally members of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) executive board. To their great credit the umpires, Billy Doctrove and Darrell Hair, (both ICC employees, of course) refused to be intimidated and refused to be party to the squalid little deal that Morgan and Khan had brokered with the Pakistan team. It was the umpires’ entirely honourable decision not to stand in any restarted match which finally scuppered the match for good.

Passions are running very high at the moment and a period of calm would be welcome whilst the ICC looks closely at the whole affair (as they must). But it is important to state from the outset that, as in any sport, play can only happen if there is a framework of rules which delineate the limits of behaviour and which clearly decide who is in charge. The Laws of cricket certainly do this and these Laws are backed up by the ICC’s 8,700 word document “Standard Test Match Playing Conditions”. Reference to these Laws and conditions shows that the Pakistan team seriously contravened them in what they did (whether they had actually tampered with the ball or not) and that the umpires were wholly correct in their actions throughout. In this respect it is most regrettable that Shaharyar Khan should have made a disingenuous statement which defended the Pakistan team’s actions “We feel there is no evidence,” he said, “of deliberate scuffing of the ball. Once you accuse a team of deliberately tampering with the ball, it becomes a very big deal. We felt we should make a protest but we simply said that we would stay inside for a few minutes, and go out when the protest had been registered.” So a member of the Executive Board of the ICC is publicly endorsing an action by his players which has been in contravention of the Laws of the game and which has undoubtedly brought the game into disrepute! I wonder what his friends at the ICC will have to say about that. No very much, probably.

The root cause of Sunday’s Oval fiasco was a lack of proper leadership when it mattered most. Inzaman-Al-Haq should have said to his players “Look guys we are not happy about the ball-tampering allegations but the right time to progress this is after the match. Let’s get on and win it”. When he failed to do this Bob Woolmer or Zaheer Abbas or the ineffable Shaharyar Khan should have stepped in and said something similar. Instead there was vacillation and they all bowed to player power. Inzy has built a strong team with his distinctive brand of captaincy and it is quite clear that his players would do anything that he asked them. But it seems that in initiating the “protest” he put the rather arrogant conviction that he and his players had the moral high ground above common sense. And a match which could, and should, have ended with Pakistan (who played well throughout the game) gaining something from a series they had lost ends with them looking very foolish indeed.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 8th August 2006

From the "Bahrain Tribune"

Among my collection of “Wisden’s Cricketers Almanack” (that famous yellow bound book that is eagerly awaited every year by all cricket fans) are some thin editions which record the English seasons between 1940 and 1945. Although there were other priorities than cricket at that time the game was not entirely suspended and matches took place from time to time all around war-torn Britain. Sport had a role to play during these years in helping people keep some link with normality, even when most of the rest of life is abnormal. So when we look at the tragedy which is the country of Lebanon at the moment and our hearts go out to the bereaved and the dispossessed we could think that perhaps, in time, sport can play a role in helping the nations’ rebuilding. But for now sporting events have, of course, had to be cancelled and numerous sports facilities are being transformed into centres to shelter the displaced.

I have always written that as much as so many of us enjoy sports we have to have a sense of perspective – in the end sport is ephemeral, even trivial when compared with the “big issues” of life. But sport can influence things in surprisingly positive ways sometimes – look at how India/Pakistan relations have been improved following the restoration of international cricket between the two nations. Think also of the crucial role that sport had to play in helping break down and eventually eliminate apartheid in South Africa. In this context it is truly unforgivable that the International Cricket Council (ICC) continues to give their blessing to the playing of cricket with (and even in) Zimbabwe at the moment. The odious Zimbabwe regime of Robert Mugabe and his cronies is openly discriminatory throughout its society, not least in cricket. Who will ever forget the brave protest during the 2003 Cricket World Cup by Andy Flower, and his equally brave team-mate Henry Olonga, about what they called the "death of democracy" in Zimbabwe? Notwithstanding this protest the ICC continued to turn a blind eye to the horrors of life in that benighted country and claimed that their only concern was “cricketing issues”. ICC Chief Executive Malcolm Speed and President Percy Sonn are just back from a visit to Harare after which Speed said “It's apparent Zimbabwe is going through a difficult time” - well I suppose that is one way of putting it!

The ICC has many paymasters and despite the pomposity of many of its statements about the “Spirit of Cricket” it has never taken a moral stand on anything. The international sporting community’s response to Israel may well be similar. Many of us with strong ties to the Middle East would find the idea of playing sport in and with Israel at the moment repugnant - this is about principles, not security. Liverpool Football Club’s (and Uefa’s) decision to play a Champions League football match against Maccabi Haifa at a neutral venue is not surprising, but disappointing. Did they ever think about putting the moral case and cancelling the fixture completely? I doubt it.

The idea that you can “keep politics out of sport” is as absurd as the idea that you can “keep sport out of politics”! Politicians of all colours will happily bask in the reflected glory of national sports team successes – the doors to presidential and prime ministerial offices are always open when a photo opportunity with a trophy winner presents itself.

So if sport is part of life (as it is) surely it should operate within the same moral imperatives as other parts of life? Why give succour to vile regimes which have abandoned any pretence to human rights and universal values by playing sport with them? And it is not just the canny politicians in the West who will happily use sport to their advantage when they can. History teaches us that most dictators love to parade their power in front of large crowds when they can create the opportunity - so when Hitler took the salute at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 it was a barefaced promotion of his power and of the “glories” of the Third Reich. In a couple of year’s time the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party will be doing much the same in
Beijing. Much as I love sport that is one event you can certainly count me out of!

Monday, July 31, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 31st July 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

England bowler Steve Harmison checked out of his hotel room last Sunday morning which, with ten Pakistan second innings still be taken and three days of the match nominally still to go, was an act of supreme self-confidence. Harmy's confidence was well justified and together with the excellent Monty Panesar, he bowled England to a comprehensive three-day win. I hope that Harmison enjoyed Sunday evening back home with his feet up and surrounded by his family - he certainly deserved to.

Other things being equal the sportsman with self-belief will usually defeat the sportsman with self-doubt. The truly great performers in any sport always have oodles of self-belief, which is why they are sometimes called arrogant. No doubt sometimes a touch of arrogance can creep in and it is also true that some of those at the very top believe that they can do what they like - that their special talents give them a right to behave in a way that ordinary mortals would not. Why else would (for example) Michael Schumacher, or John McEnroe, or most recently Zinadene Zidane, have behaved so disgracefully on occasion?

Tiger Woods win in the "Open Championship" was, as I commented last week, founded on a superb game plan and excellent course management. But it was also driven by self-confidence bolstered by the fact that the game plan was clearly working. The more you do something, and do it well, the more likely you are to be able to continue doing it well. The more that you are outfought or outwitted by your opponent the more that self-doubt creeps in and you begin to wonder if you will ever win again. There has been a touch of that in the England cricket team since last year's "Ashes" triumph. Missing key players (which has reinforced the self-doubt) and with some of their better players searching for form England has under-performed. When these doubts were conquered (as at the Mumbai Test match when England took advantage of the good fortune of being invited to bat first on a good pitch) they have played to their potential. But when the doubts have crept in (as during most of the home Sri Lanka series) the performances have been sub-standard. At Old Trafford last week the "old" England turned up to play and with Harmison firing well, Monty fizzing the ball off the hard wicket and a couple of young batsman (Cook and Bell) playing really well an innings victory was assured. The challenge is now to build on the self-belief that this win will have engendered and go on to clinch the series at Headingley - don't bet against it!

Self-belief was also to the fore at Hockenheim on Sunday when Ferrari sailed to a brilliant one, two in the German Grand Prix. There were paddock rumours before the race of discontent in the Renault camp - something that I predicted might happen in my pre F1 season preview. Flavio Briatore, the Renault chief, is a flamboyant character and a brilliant tactician as well. Flavio bows to nobody in his knowledge of the sport and in knowing how to convert that knowledge into race victories. But Flavio's self-confidence turns to arrogance rather more than his rivals at McLaren and Ferrari - that is how he lost the services of Fernando Alonso at the end of last season and that is the reason that his grip on the 2006 championship may be weakening. Whereas Ferrari is clearly on a roll - the smiles on the faces of Schumacher and Massa on the podium were smiles of genuine pride rather than relief - Renault is visibly slipping. Alonso is getting edgy and Flavio angry, and that is not good news for the Renault fans. Ferrari, on the other hand, is marshalling all their considerable resources to push for a final championship for Schumi - and to launch a new era for the Scuderia without him - on a high note.

It is sometimes forgotten that in a sport that is so much about the familiar faces of the great champions (Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Prost, Senna and Schumacher) that behind each champion there has to be a formidable team. When doubts creep in to the team (last year's under-performing Bridgestone tyres at Ferrari, for example) then winning is difficult. But when self-belief is all around, as it was with Renault last year and seems to be with Ferrari now, then success becomes almost easy!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 24th July 2006

For the Bahrain Tribune

Over the past few weeks we have seen remarkable wins by three master sportsmen, coincidentally all against young Spanish pretenders. Roger Federer continued his domination of Wimbledon with an impressive win in the final against the brilliant twenty year old Rafael Nadal. Michael Schumacher confounded his critics not only by winning the United States Grand Prix (which many predicted might happen) but also by following this with another win in France (which few expected) - leaving Fernando Alonso to have to settle for second place on both occasions. And last weekend the final round of "The Open Championship" paired Tiger Woods with the charismatic and ebullient Sergio Garcia who wilted under the Tiger's ruthless and tactically astute assault.

Federer, Schumacher and Woods all have technically superb sporting skills - but over and above this they have a combination of bloody-mindedness and matchless ambition which really does make them, on their day, unbeatable. Nadal played well for the first time on Wimbledon's grass courts and his time will surely come, but Federer's genius, his intelligent game plan and his nerve at the vital moments, were too much for Nadal this year. Schumacher knew that the performance gap between Ferrari and Renault (and especially between Bridgestone and Michelin) was at last beginning to narrow and that if he is to stay in with a chance in the Drivers' championship he had to start winning. Alonso may be the favourite to retain his crown but this clearly won't be without a fight from the old master Schumi. And Woods was simply matchless.

If there has been a more tactically brilliant approach to a Golf Major than Tiger's at Hoylake I have never seen one. Before the tournament it was Woods' bitter rival Phil Mickelson who seemed to have prepared more thoroughly. To his great credit Mickelson spent two weeks in Britain prior to the Open and, in particular, he played and studied the Royal Liverpool course from every angle. Tiger Woods' approach was also to prepare thoroughly - but this preparation was more in his head than with his clubs. Woods decided to eliminate error from his game by the simple expediency of keeping his driver and his other wooden clubs in his golf bag. In recent years the Tiger's only weakness has been inconsistency off the tee - especially on the ever-longer American courses. Woods realised that Hoylake does not require a driving contest - it is a superb links course, which tests all the facets of the game, but by modern-day standards it is not long. Woods knew that his long and medium iron play could be trusted and that it was just as valid a method to hit a two-iron off the tee followed by (say) a five iron to the green as to hit a booming drive and a wedge. These tactics worked to perfection - not least in that final round when he was playing with Garcia. The young Spaniard out-drove Woods on most of the holes - but their respective final rounds of 73 and 67 tell the story of whose approach was the more successful. There is an old adage in golf that you "drive for show, but putt for dough" and Tiger Woods' approach in the Open showed how true this is. But whilst he did hole quite a few longish putts this was not the principal reason for Woods' success on the greens - this came from the unerring accuracy of his approaches into the greens, which meant that he would rarely have to sink a long putt to stay in charge.

Modern pro golf has been criticised as being mainly a power game and even the great and historic courses like Augusta (home to "The Masters") have been lengthened in an attempt to make them more of a challenge for today's long-hitting professional. It is possible that after the 2006 Open Championship this may begin to change. Woods demonstrated that accuracy is far more important than length - and it was notable that over the course of the championship some others started to do the same thing. There is a lesson here for the ordinary club player as well. We all have the big-headed drivers in our bags these days and relish the opportunity to try and hit a booming drive 300 yards (or more) down the fairway. I wonder how many recreational golfers will see (like Tiger at Hoylake) that a well-hit iron to the centre of the fairway might be preferable in future!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 10th July 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

The tale of Zinedine Zidane’s Football World Cup 2006 (prior to the Final) was told in my London newspaper last Saturday (a day before the final) under the headline “How Zidane rose from the depths to a glorious finale”. Twenty-Four hours is a long time in sport, indeed half a minute is a lifetime if it is a 30 seconds filled with madness which, as we now know, was to be Zidane’s final act on a football pitch. The tension of sport at the highest level gets to even the most sanguine of players and even the calmest succumb when the stakes are just too unbearably high. Sometimes the end of a player’s dreams comes with a whimper, like Wayne Rooney’s petulant little stamp on Ricardo Carvalho which let to his red card in England’s quarter final. But sometimes they come with a mighty bang – and such was the case with Zidane whose attack on Italian defender Marco Materazzi was as premeditated as it was violent. Quite how Zidane will live with himself I have no idea – he certainly can’t deny the facts which a billion television viewers around the world have seen in grisly close up.

I have never managed a sporting team – undoubtedly a relief for any group of players who have escaped the benefits of my tactical nous and my motivating calls to arms. But if I had been in charge of a team at this world cup I would have had one absolutely clear message. It would have been along the lines of “You will be provoked at some time in the ninety minutes. It will happen. And when it does then just walk away. Don’t plead with the Ref to book the miscreant. Don’t return abuse when abused. Remember if someone wrongs you then you then it is up to the officials to deal with it. If they don’t you won’t be able to persuade them to change their minds. And if you retaliate that puts you in the wrong as much as whoever committed the original offence. Two wrongs never make a right!” A simple and rather pompous little homily perhaps but if Rooney had received it and remembered it then he and England might have beaten Portugal. And if Zidane had similarly lodged these truths in his brain then not only would his career not have ended ingloriously but France might have won the World Cup.

As we saw at Monaco when Michael Schumacher tried to cheat his way onto pole position in the Grand Prix even the most respected, admired and talented of sportsmen are vulnerable when glory is within reach. Top cyclists are banned from this year’s Tour de France because of drug suspicions and Track and Field has been besmirched by similar stories for too long. That Marion Jones is now back on the track after all the furore around her alleged drug abuse many will find offensive and that a whole sport (cycling) is riddled with this problem is a disgrace. Perhaps Zidane (naively) thought that the cameras were not on him in Berlin – but more likely like Schumacher, or Jones or all the others who transgress perhaps he thought that he could get away with it. Most likely, though, is the theory that he did not think at all and was operating on a sort of high where there was no reality only illusion. The truth that unbelievable fame and approval was within his grasp was clouding his mind and he suspended the norms of usual behaviour for one fatal moment. To paraphrase C.S.Lewis “…of all the passions, the passion for [success and fame] is most skilful in making a man, who is not yet a very bad man, do very bad things”. Hero to Zero in thirty seconds.

At its most trivial level fame and fortune can make top sportsmen just very silly. All the hype over the celeb footballers and their shopping addicted WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) is harmless, if vulgar. But the blacker side of this coin is when the same fame can lead a man to think that he is above the law and whether that tendency is truly horrific (like O.J.Simpson) or just grotesquely foolish (Zidane) it does not show human nature at its best. But for every Zidane or Rooney there is a Federer or a Nadal (excellent role models both) – so all is perhaps not lost!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 4th July 2006

For the Bahrain Tribune

The challenge for the coach in any team sport is, above all, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Sometimes a great coach will be able to work with a group of players each of whose individual ability might be modest but who he can mould together into a formidable team unit. In football we have seen this in recent times with the remarkable Dutch coach Guus Hiddink who took South Korea to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2002 and was unlucky not to quite achieve the same with Australia in 2006. We also saw it last year when Duncan Fletcher moulded England into a cricket team strong enough to beat an Australian team which was comprised of more experienced and higher rated individuals. Any coach would prefer to work with a squad made up of the very best players – but the truly excellent coach will be able to mould more limited individuals into a very good team. This brings us to Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England team coach for the past six years, leaves the job without a trophy in the cabinet and with the abuse of fans ringing in his ears. He was by far the best paid coach amongst the teams in Germany – his opposite number Marco van Basten of Holland said that Sven earned the same in a week as he (van Basten) did in a year! But for its money the English Football Association has not only failed to win anything but has also employed a man who has turned a silk purse into a sows ear. The silk purse has been, of course, the cadre of truly fine footballers that Eriksson has had at his disposal. The English Premier league is the strongest in the world and with the money in the league being so great the top clubs can afford to buy almost any player they fancy. So for a club like Chelsea or Manchester United or Liverpool to have English players in their team, alongside the overseas stars, then these players must be the very best. Joe Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard are unquestionably world class talents at the core of the squad along with Beckham and Hargreaves who perform at the highest level outside England (at Real Madrid and Bayern Munch respectively). So what went wrong? How did Eriksson manage to turn a group of highly talented and successful individuals into a lousy team – because that, in essence, is what has happened under his stewardship?

There are three key requirements of any good coach. The first is to pick the best players. The second is having the technical understanding of the sport to introduce the right tactics (team formations etc.). And the third, and most crucial, is to motivate the team to perform over and above their individual abilities - to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Over most of his tenure Sven-Goran Eriksson failed on all three counts, but most culpably at the 2006 World Cup a tournament which, given the quality of the players available, England could well have won. Sven’s selections were bizarre – most obviously bringing four strikers of whom two (Rooney and Owen) were far from match fit, one (Walcott) who had never played a top class match of any sort and the fourth (Crouch) who is also comparatively untried at the top level. Eriksson compounded his odd squad selection with tactics which were inconsistent and eccentric. Instead of having a clear idea as to what the coach wanted long before the team arrived in Germany the players had to change formations and styles as they went along. FIFA President Sepp Blatter got it right when he criticised England saying that they should not have “appeared in the second round with just a single striker. This isn't the kind of offensive football you expect from a contender for the World Cup title." (Blatter, in his position, should not have made the statement – but he was right in what he said!).

But it was on the third requirement that Eriksson was most deficient. He could not motivate the players to perform well – and most of the time he seemed not to try. England’s second half performances during most of his time in the job were far worse than their first half efforts. So Sven’s team talks at half-time (such as they were) were actually demotivating! Don’t blame the players for their uninspiring World cup and their under-achievement. It was the icy Swede who made two plus two equal three.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 28th June 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

One of the great clichés in sport, used by fans and the media alike, is that a sportsman or a team “deserves” to win an event. Keen students of this column over the years will no doubt find that I have used this solecism myself – it is a convenient way of celebrating a popular win (or mourning a sad loss). But the reality is that sport is not about “just desserts” any more than it is (only) about style or entertainment. An “undeserved” win is always preferable to a plucky, brave loss in any sport, anywhere, anytime. As the American Football coach Vince Lombardi said “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep the score?”

The neutral spectator might like to see the gutsy trier or the underdog triumph over the knarled, cynical old pro - or the “unlucky” loser eventually get his win. Sure the tears came to the eyes when Jaroslav Drobny eventually won Wimbledon in 1954 after nearly twenty years of trying. And the same would have happened if Colin Montgomerie had won the US Open last week at Winged Foot. But however much most of us would have liked Monty to win, in reality such a win would have been no more “deserved” than that of the actual winner – the comparative rookie Australian Geoff Ogilvy. Monty comforted himself after his loss by saying that he has a good record in Majors having been second five times. Some comfort! Monty knows, in his heart, that nobody ever remembers the Runner up. No trophy, no green jacket, just that feeling deep down that it hasn’t happened AGAIN and now, at the age of 43, that it probably won’t ever happen.

It would need a skilled psychotherapist to dig deep into Colin Montgomerie’s psyche to find out why he has never, in 67 attempts over 16 years, won one of the big four despite his great success on the European Tour and in the Ryder Cup. To carry the descriptor of the “Greatest golfer never to have won a Major” (which he undoubtedly is) must continue to be deeply frustrating for this most driven of men. In fact if you dig a little deeper into Monty’s career record you will see that (one “Skins” game apart) he has never won a tournament of any sort in the United States. He doesn’t travel well - except (of course) in the Ryder Cup, the competition that really brings out the very best in him. It is this that may reveal the real reason that Montgomerie has never won a Major (three out of four of which are played in America). He only feels comfortable in the US when he has the comradeship of a team around him – perhaps in a tournament he is isolated, finds the American crowds hostile and this eventually affects his play. How different from Phil Mickleson who, like Monty, played his first Major in 1990 and also then struggled for years to win one. Then in 2004 the hugely supportive mainly American crowd at Augusta played a key part in helping him to his first win in The Masters. Maybe if Montgomerie had felt that the crowd was behind him at Winged Foot he could have won. Who knows – the crowd were certainly not hostile (as they have been on occasion in the past) but in Monty’s complex mind he may subconsciously have felt that they weren’t really behind him.

I certainly hope that Colin Montgomerie can summon up the necessary strength of character to win a Major – perhaps next month in The Open Championship at Hoylake? It is, I think, all about character not really about technique or natural ability (both of which he has to a very high level). If the conditions are right, and with a friendly crowd behind him, Monty might just break his duck in The Open. I hope that he does - not because he “deserves” to win, but because a player of his talent and one who (despite the odd ups and downs) has brought great credit to the game would be a worthy champion. Montgomerie himself certainly knows that you only win when you play at least one stroke better than the next man, not because the gods have decreed that you “deserve” your turn. Mind you, as always in golf, luck plays its part and if Monty needs the odd lucky bounce along the way few but the churlish would begrudge him that good fortune!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 21st June 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

The Football World Cup, by far the oldest established of the quadrennial sporting tournaments (the Olympics aside), has never produced a surprise winner, which is curious given the nature of the game. Soccer, with its low scoring, is a game in which upsets often do occur with underdogs winning against the odds. The last European tournament was won by Greece who were rank outsiders at the start - could this be a precedent for a similarly unfancied team to win in Germany? After the first ten days of the Group stages this looks unlikely - although a number of the lesser teams have performed creditably at times. The Ivory Coast, Paraguay, Trinidad, Angola and (especially) Ecuador and Australia have worried the more fancied teams. There are few really poor teams amongst the 32 and it could well be that two more of the "minnows" (Australia and perhaps Angola) will join Ecuador in the second round. My record as a tipster is not one to follow too closely - but if I was to choose a dark horse candidate to go even further it would be Australia, not only because they have some very good players but because we all know that the Aussies are tough competitors in every sport in which the take part. The "Socceroos" have a few points to prove, as their breed of football is well behind the other codes (Rugby Union, Rugby League and Aussie rules) in Australian esteem.

The Football World Cup is a magnificent event - a month packed full of football with hardly an irrelevant match in prospect. Compare that with the 16 nation Cricket World Cup which lasts two weeks longer and which incorporates a plethora of unnecessary games just to keep the sponsors and the broadcasters happy. But then Football is truly a world game (the only one) whereas cricket, despite the efforts of the ICC, has still to spread out significantly from its base in the old Test cricket nations.

In England there is huge interest and a palpable feeling that the national team might just be able to repeat their 1966 success. Having made the second round they certainly have a chance despite bad luck (the injuries to Owen and Neville) and the eccentric squad and team selections made by manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Forty years ago the late Alf Ramsey revolutionised football by eliminating wings and concentrating on midfield domination as the key to success. Alf's "wingless wonders" (as they were called at the time) did however have some formidable goal scorers in Hurst, Hunt and Charlton. Eriksson seems to have taken Ramsey's model a stage further by only fielding two strikers and then (in the game against Paraguay) taking one of them off in the 55th minute! If this is all part of some predetermined cunning plan on the part of the enigmatic Swede most commentators say that they can't see one. You don't win tournaments without scoring goals and you don't score goals by leaving many of your best strikers back home in England. The folly of this decision has been brought into sharp relief by the Owen injury and by the fact that Wayne Rooney is clearly not match fit. At his best Rooney is up there with Ronaldhino, Ronaldo and Henry as a finisher - a footballer of quite exceptional talent. But he is unlikely to be able to keep going for 90 minutes and is (understandably) not yet at his sharpest. This leaves Eriksson with the rather weird Peter Crouch (who has yet to convince) and the untried teenage Theo Walcott as a potential strike force. If Sven has a plan to cope with this problem then that it is probably to rely on goals from his excellent midfield unit of Gerrard, Terry, Lampard and Beckham. It might just work.

I have a feeling about the 2006 Football World Cup that it will be an attacking and bold team that wins it - and in that respect Germany, Argentina and (especially) Spain look the pick of the bunch. Never write off the Germans - you would expect a team managed by the great Jurgen Klinsmann to attack, and so it is proving with eight goals in their first three games. Germany v Argentina and Spain v Brazil (two of the likely Quarter-Finals) will be games not to miss!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From "" Spring editon 2006

The YNS "Cricket Administrator of the year" award

Cricket awards go to players and sometimes coaches, but the tireless and selfless efforts of the men without whom the game could not exist are often forgotten. YNS puts this right with its annual tribute to the cricket administrators of the world the "Golden Hawke" award. Here are this year's four finalists:

1. Malcolm Crack

Bestriding international cricket like a colossus Malcolm Crack, Chairman of "World Cricket" (WC) has moved the international game positively into the new millennium. "When I took over the WC needed a good flush", he said "and that is what I gave it". Crack is beloved by all as a result - not least for his great political sensitivities. "When it looked as if we were going to have to play cricket in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's tyranny Crack soon put a stop to that" says former England Captain Nasser Hussain (no relation). "Crack is the sort of man who puts the honour of the sport at the top of his agenda - not for him the vulgar pursuit of commercial advantage" he added. Crack attracted much admiration when he and the twenty others running the WC moved from Lord's to the Cayman Islands, a country not known for its cricket traditions. "For myself and my colleagues life in the Cayman's will be much less taxing than in England" he explained, "this allows us to concentrate even better on keeping the WC running well". This typically unselfish attitude makes Crack a leading contender for the 2006 "Golden Hawke" award.

2. David Daffodil

There was some surprise when the modest David Daffodil replaced the abrasive Lord Tesco as head of the English Cricket Council (ECC) - some said that his previous experience ruining (surely "running"? Ed) a small Welsh company "Merthyr Tydfil Widgets" would ill equip him for the task. But Daffodil soon surprised the critics with his eloquence and intelligence. A towering orator Daffodil has often been compared with fellow Welshmen Lloyd-George (Glamorgan 1901 - 1931) and Bevan (Australia 1996-2004). When questioned about the ECC's controversial decision to award cricket rights to a satellite broadcaster he commented incisively "You can't get Channel Four in the Vale of Glamorgan at all, so this is much better for all of us". The Iraq affair caused Daffodil some sleepless nights but he built a good relationship with Malcolm Crack of World Cricket who described him as "A man of great integrity with whom I always enjoy discussing things before I tell him what to do".

3. David Miner

The second "David" at the English Cricket Council Miner, like his namesake Daffodil, came to cricket after a successful business career. Appointed as successor to rough diamond Timothy Sheep, Miner cuts a classier figure and has drawn extensively on his long career as an airline steward in his new job. At cricket dinners his hilarious anecdotes about his years with All-American Airlines often keep his audiences awake for many minutes. A fitness obsessive Miner cuts a trim figure as he walks the ten miles to Lord's every day "How could you expect to set a good example of athleticism to England players if you were short, fat and out of breath" he rightly says. On the subject of TV rights Miner is very clear "We needed to raise more money so that we could give it to the counties so that they could afford to pay for more overseas stars to improve their skills in County Cricket" he says. Clearly a visionary administrator with no lack of lateral thinking Miner is a worthy man on the short list for the prestigious "Hawke" Award.

4. Jagmohan Balti

The doyen of cricket administrators Balti earned his unchallenged popularity as the leading figure in Indian cricket by his honesty, integrity and avoidance of politics. "You always knew where you were with Jaggy," says his great friend and fellow Calcutta man Sourav Ganguly, "in the team as Captain". When the diffident and blameless Balti was ousted in a coup Ganguly was only one of the many innocent casualties. Along the length and breadth of India men and women were openly crying in the streets as the man, often compared to his fellow Calcutta-ite Mother Teresa, was unceremoniously removed from office. The "Keep Jagmohan Out of Jail" campaign (S.Ganguly, Chairman) to fight the obviously trumped up charges against the great Balti soon gained dozens of signatures and raised over twenty rupees in funds within weeks.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 6th June 2006

For the "Bahrain Tribune"

There was a rather surreal atmosphere at the Third Test match at Trent Bridge which finished on Monday. That the sun shone for most of the time was a surprise - although the fact that some in the crowd (ignoring the warnings) removed their shirts in a salute to Apollo rather less so. Nor was it a surprise that fairly large numbers attended the match in fancy dress – a rather strange tradition that has grown up at English grounds for international matches over the last few years. At the end of the match a fellow spectator, who was as disappointed as me at home side’s inept performance, suggested that the winners of the fancy dress contest should have been the eleven England players whose appearance in the England Test kit seemed as improbable as the group of Nottingham policemen (presumably off duty) dressed as Carmelite nuns!

When Sri Lanka was 139-8 not long after lunch on the first day it seemed that this was to be a grossly unequal contest. And so it turned out, but not in the way that we all expected. That England failed to finish off the Sri Lankan tail was not a surprise – their failure to go for the jugular when on top has been a feature of the whole three match series. But England’s inability to build on the advantage of (eventually) having dismissed Sri Lanka for 231 in their own first innings was culpable. To score only 229 runs on a good pitch and with a side containing six players in the top seven in the batting order who were present in the Ashes winning line up from last year was a dire effort. Worse they took 91 overs amassing their paltry total and only Pietersen and Jones were out to Muralitheran (both slogging). The rest fell to the other Sri Lankan bowlers or (in Trescothick’s case) to a daft run out. Yes this was ultimately to be one of Murali’s finest matches and his eight wicket hall as England’s second innings crumbled was a just reward for the Tamil master. But he only had the opportunity to do this because England played so below par and because his team-mates in the Sri Lankan side batted, bowled and fielded with determination and skill.

Tom Moody, the Sri Lankan’s Australian coach, will have been immensely proud of the efforts of his team during this Test series. The auguries were unpromising as the usual power struggles in Sri Lankan cricket had led to some bizarre selection confusions (not least Sanath Jayasuriya jetting in unexpectedly to play despite having retired from Test cricket). But it all worked out alright in the end and Moody can be particularly pleased that the young players like Malinga, Tharanga and the teenage Kapugedera all played their parts at Trent Bridge and throughout the series. As for England there is little to take away to comfort them from the matches and nothing at all from the third Test match. Pietersen aside the batting was below par (there were only four scores above 50 in the series - apart from Petersen’s two brilliant hundreds). And England’s bowling lacked the penetration and power to support the admirable and always reliable Matthew Hoggard. Even worse England’s injury woes continue with (it seems) Andrew Flintoff now likely to join Vaughan, Jones, Giles and Harmison in the treatment room.

Winning Test matches away from home is the mark of a good side and Sri Lanka’s achievement is put into perspective when we reflect that this was only the second time that England has lost a home Test match in nearly three years (the first Test against Australia at Lord’s last year was the other one). There are some big lessons to be learned for the rather complacent and confused England management before the Pakistan Test series begins in July. Whilst they will with justice say that England’s bowling attack has been severely weakened by injury this is not the case with the batting (Vaughan aside). Meanwhile the Sri Lankans can look forward to the One Day internationals with some confidence. The team spirit is very good and they are well led - Mahela Jayawardene gave Andrew Flintoff a tactical master class at Trent Bridge and I will be surprised if he doesn’t also lead his team to a comfortable win in the five match One Day series.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 25th May 2006

From the "Bahrain Tribune"

The remarkable achievement of Martina Hingis in winning the Italian Tennis Open in Rome on Sunday will be especially welcome to those sporting spectators who favour style over power and finesses over brute strength. Although a chronic foot injury was the main cause of Hingis’s early retirement from the sport it was also clear that she felt at the time that she would struggle to compete with the power game of the likes of the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and the formidable Amélie Mauresmo. Perhaps the emergence of other players in the women’s game (notably the diminutive Justine Hedin-Hardenne and the tall but slight Russian stars like Sharapova and Dementieva) has persuaded Hingis that there is still a chance that her more artistic style can compete with those who succeed with a more muscular game. Since she first emerged as a bubbly teenager (she was only 16 when she won three of the four Grand Slam events in 1997) Hingis was always been a crowd favourite but it asks a lot of any sports person to come back after a lay-off over nearly four years. And if at 25 Hingis has matured as a competitor as well (and if she stays fit and focused) she might yet win another Grand Slam event – and that will be a delight for all of us who have missed the Swiss Miss.

It is not just in Tennis that the battle between style and force always leads to an intriguing contest – sporting history is enriched by the battles between the artist and the artisan. When the young Cassius Clay beat that old brute Sonny Liston more than forty years ago the sporting world rejoiced. And when Sachin Tendulkar, during the 1996 Cricket World Cup, overcame a West Indies attack which included Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop with an exquisite 70 from 91 balls it was again the triumph of the artist. The point about Clay and Tendulkar and Hingis is not just that their artistry is more pleasing on the eye (although it is) but that it is complementary to a sound technique as well. You don’t succeed in any sport if you don’t get the basics right – but if you also have that extra dimension of colour and style as well then the stadia will always be full.

In the search for power Tiger Woods put on more than twenty-five pounds in weight over the years taking him from a gangly, 155-pound 21-year-old into the 180-pound athlete that he is now. All of that weight gain was in muscle not fat and it came from Woods following a rigorous gym regime to build up his upper body strength. Each to his own, of course, but I can’t help wondering if Woods really needed to build his power game in this way. Surely a golfer of his supreme natural talent did not also need to be the weight-lifting champion of the tour as well? Indeed golf is the game that perhaps you most think of when you realise that big is not always best. The finesse of a Gary Player or an Ian Woosnam or a Corey Pavin (all small men) can sometimes prevail over the big hitters. Player augmented his natural talent with a fitness regime just as determined as that of Tiger Woods but this was designed not to bulk him up nor make him physically stronger but to help him keep alert. At 70 Player looks the same at a distance as he did fifty years ago – close up he is a bit more gnarled but there is no sign of a paunch! And the style is still there.

And so to Kevin Pietersen the England cricketer who I think is one of the most remarkable talents to have come into the game in recent years - and one who has both the rapier and the bludgeon as a weapon. I have been cautious about hailing the talent of Pietersen up until now but having seen him play a long and mature knock of 158 in the recent Lord’s Test (which brought him to over a thousand Test runs in only 23 innings) I am convinced that he is something special. Not Tendulkar (although it took Sachin five more innings to reach his thousand) – but far from a grinding run machine either. KP has it all - power and timing and shots that you won’t see in any coaching manual – a style that makes him a unique artist who plays the game in the brightest colours and (like Clay, or Hingis or Player) always with a smile on his face.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 3rd April 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

With only three of the eighteen races in this years Formula one season now completed it is too early to detect any real pattern in the relative performances of the teams and drivers – with the one exception that Fernando Alonso looks head and shoulders above the rest of the field. His performance in Australia at the weekend was exceptional and confirmed what his 2005 World Championship had told us – that this is a driver of rare talent. Starting from third on the grid, and taking advantage of Giancarlo Fisichella’s problems at warm up which banished him to the pit lane for the start, Alonso was able to take the lead by the fourth lap with a finely judged, but aggressive manoeuvre which took him past pole sitter Jenson Button. From that point on there was only one likely winner and as the other drivers struggled with tyres, mechanical failures and driving errors Alonso moved on serenely to victory.

Whilst Alonso had a day to remember life was much more difficult for his team-mate Fisichella and at one point his was very openly being berated by Renault team boss Flavio Briatore for his lack of pace. Television viewers around the world heard Briatore tell his driver on the team radio that he was driving far too slowly despite having the same car and set up as the flying Alonso. This was a very public and ill-judged humiliation of Fisichella and showed that there is an obsessive streak in the Renault management – a factor which undoubtedly contributed to Alonso’s decision to leave the team for McLaren at the end of the 2006 season.

But Renault looks to be sitting pretty at this early point in the season, which is more than can be said for Ferrari who had a disastrous weekend. The Ferrari camp is placing all the blame on their tyres for the events at Melbourne (where have we heard that before?) – but in reality it is clear that the Ferrari team has a lot of work to do before San Marino on 23rd April. In Bahrain Michael Schumacher admitted that he was surprised to be on pole - and then to have finished a close second to Alonso on race day. Perhaps he knew that the car was no match for the Renault and certainly since then things have slipped away. Schumacher, like all great champions in any sport, is not the best of losers and at the age of 37 he is unlikely to be motivated to fight with an uncompetitive car throughout the season. But yesterday there was no questioning Schumacher’s determination to overcome the fact that his Ferrari was underperforming - and it was this which eventually led to his crash on lap 33. Even the greatest driver in F1 history cannot make a car with such terminal tyre problems perform.

The 2006 Formula one season is shaping up to being one of the best in recent times. Although Alonso has a comfortable lead at the moment there is now a three week gap which all the teams will be using to try and evaluate what happened in the first three races, and to try and get improvements by the beginning of the first phase of European races at the end of the month. For Ferrari there is a worrying sense of Déjà vu with many of the elements of the 2005 (not least difficulties with tyres) recurring again. The Toyota of Ralf Schumacher performed well in Melbourne to finish third, despite the fact that his car (like the Ferraris) was running on Bridgestone tyres. There will no doubt be much discussion in coming weeks between the Ferrari bosses and their tyre supplier about this curiosity! There will also be much soul searching at Marenello about the performance of Felipe Massa who managed not only to nearly write off one car in qualifying but repeat the trick in the race itself. We saw at Bahrain that Massa is a quick and skilful driver, but we also now have ample evidence that his talent is mercurial and that he is more likely to leave his car piled up in a circuit fence than he is to get it to take him to a podium.

The Australian Grand Prix confirmed Fernando Alonso’s talent, showed that Michael Schumacher still has fight in him, and revealed that we can add the Toyota team (who had a good weekend) to those of Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Honda as possible Grand Prix winners this year. Things are hotting up nicely!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 20th March 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

Cricket fans watching matches on television should be used to it by now, of course, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. I refer to that common practice of commercial broadcasters (is there any other sort these days?) of using the fall of a wicket for an extended advertisement break. Wickets fall roughly every thirteen overs in a Test match, on average, so one per hour is about what you expect. A pretty rare event and therefore worth treasuring, you might think. Modern technology allows a highly technical analysis of the fall of the wicket, and TV companies employ experts in the commentary box to personally evaluate the footage. A sacrosanct moment then, sufficiently rare and important to merit uninterrupted transmission? But no, because the fall of a wicket is just the moment that the advertisers are waiting for, and the TV rights holder wants to maximise their returns, so that is the moment that we cut to the ads and by the time we return to the live transmission the new batsman will be taking guard.

Some TV companies in some parts of the world are worse than others in their commercial exploitation of cricket coverage. India is bad, and sure to get worse as the new rights holder (who paid over $US500m to the Board of Control of Cricket in India [BCCI] for the rights for four years) attempts to recoup their outlay. The time when ads were only between overs or at the fall of a wicket may seem soon like the golden days. To get a flavour of what it may soon be like let me cite the recent re-broadcast of the amazing South Africa v Australia One Day International in Johannesburg. Having missed the original live broadcast I sat down to watch the re-broadcast yesterday on ESPN (I am in India at the moment). As the climax of the match approached the ad breaks got more frequent and longer. With ten overs to go in the Proteas run chase it seemed that the action and the advertisements were roughly 50/50. It was unwatchable and I turned it off – and remember there are few more fanatical cricket fans than me, and this was one of the greatest games of cricket ever. I’ll buy the DVD!

When commercial considerations dominate then everything else is secondary and cricket in India is entering a period when it is the declared intent of the new masters of the game at the BCCI to exploit the commercial potential of the sport to the full. It all makes the much criticised sale of TV rights in the UK to satellite broadcasters Sky very small beer by comparison. The BCCI will want not only to allow their commercial partners to maximise their returns with advertising and promotion dominating TV coverage, they will also wish to ensure that every match that India plays fully exploits its commercial potential. And they certainly won’t want the international team to play matches that few in India will want to watch.

These dramatic changes will mean not only that the power has shifted away from the ineffable International Cricket Council (ICC) (their own fault entirely) but that it is now in the hands of a body that makes judgments solely on the money earning potential. One Day matches against Pakistan (the biggest of all money spinners) will take place frequently in any venue that can offer a big Asian population to fill the ground and a time zone that works well with peak viewing on the sub continent. This is (incidentally) a model pioneered by my old friends in Sharjah, and whilst the BCCI will take this to a new level, it is the Sharjah model that they will use. If the ICC sanctions the matches and gives their blessing that is fine. But if not they know what they can do!

So the fixture list so beloved of the ICC will be torn up and India will call the tune. The Indian viewer will see more of their beloved team and more of that team against the bigger beasts in the cricket world (especially Pakistan). And TV coverage will be like an electronic souk in which the golden jewels of the cricket will be visible only if you plough your way through the detritus of all the shoddy merchandise that will be so vulgarly on display.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

from the "Cricket Statistician" Spring 2006

I have every sympathy with Bob Harragan’s cri de cœur in Issue number 132 about the inadequacies of the process by which the status of international matches is currently determined.

Those of us with long memories (and I suppose that that is nearly all of us) will recall the controversy in the 1970s over the status of the 1970 England v “Rest of the World” “Test” matches. In 1971 Norman Preston announced in Wisden that he had never regarded the matches as anything other than “proper Test matches” and regretted that “… a small minority have sought to have these splendid matches omitted from the records”. True to his word Preston required that the matches be included as Tests in the records in the 1971-1979 almanacks, and his records Editor Bill Frindall duly obliged. But in 1980 Wisden finally came in line. “Much against my will,” said Preston announcing that he had had to bow to the ICC’s ruling (made in 1972) that the matches “were not official Tests and should not be included in Test match records”.

The point of recalling this story from the rather distant past is to show that there is nothing new about disputes about Test match status, but also to show that the issue had (or so we thought) been resolved. When the ICC, Wisden and others deliberated about the 1970 series there was no precedent that they could call upon so a principle had to be established. Wisden, and some others, took one view but the ICC ruled against them and whilst it took Wisden a long time to agree eventually they did. What is clear from a review of this history is (a) That there was absolute sincerity on both sides of the argument and (b) That commercial considerations played no part at all.

Rolling forward to the year 2005 we again have a match between a Test nation, Australia, and a scratch side comprised of players from other Test nations (just as in 1970). In Douglas Miller’s note on the subject in edition 130 of the Journal we have his report on the ICC’s invitation to the ACS to “comment on the wisdom of granting recognition” to this “super Test” and the ACS’s subsequent advice that Test status should only apply to a “match between two nations”. But, he says, “Our representations did not win the day”.

The matching of the ACS, honourable guardians of the integrity of cricket records, and the ICC, an organisation which in Nasser Hussain’s words[1] is led by a man, Malcolm Speed, in whom Nasser “never detected an interest in the spirit and future of the game” and for whom “the priority was always money”, was an unequal match. Douglas reports a “pleasant lunch” with the ICC’s Jon Long and welcomes David Kendix’s (ICC consultant) involvement with the ACS and hopes for a “more fruitful working relationship with the ICC in future”. A forlorn hope I’m afraid Douglas! We must face the reality born out by the facts of this debacle. The ICC was going through the motions in its “consultations” with the ACS and it is abundantly clear that they were never going to change their minds about the status they wanted to accord to the “super Test” (and to the ODIs of course). They were selling the match as a Test match to sponsors, players and the public at large from the start. Without that status it was no more than an exhibition, and, therefore, of far lower commercial value.

Douglas Miller’s forecast that it would be a series “where the players will really earn their spurs” and that it would be a “truly competitive series of matches” proved, as we now know, to be far from the mark. But that is not the issue. The issue is that if the body that arbitrates over the status of international matches is the same body that has a vested interest in selling them, then commercial considerations will always prevail. Precedents as clear as the one from 1970 will be ignored and bodies such as the ACS will be patronised. Bob Harragan is right - there must be a separation between commercial matters (on the one hand) and status/records issues (on the other). The ACS must not be trampled over by the ICC whose modus operandi and motives conflict so much with the principles which it is our duty to uphold.

[1] “Playing with Fire” Nasser Hussain, 2004

"The Wisden Cricketer" April 2006

ICC all about money
(Letter in “The Wisden Cricketer” April 2006)

SCYLD BERRY lands a few gentle blows on the ICC ("Organisng Chaos" TWC March) but his conclusion that the Council’s “achievements… outnumber its defects” is an assertion that few people would agree with.
The awarding of official status to the absurd Super Series match in Sydney brought cricket statistics into disrepute. The continued lack of sensitivity and lack of moral authority over Zimbabwe shows that the mission to ‘protect the spirit of cricket” is phoney. The insistence that the terminally weak Bangladesh and Zimbabwe teams are worthy of Test status distorts the international calendar and leads to too many grossly uncompetitive matches.
For those cricket lovers looking for a common theme which links the ICC actions TWC associate editor Nasser Hussain gave it in his excellent autobiography. Writing of Malcolm Speed, Nasser says: I never detected [in Speed] an interest in the spirit and future of the game ... the priority was always money”.