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!