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.