Friday, July 23, 2010

Enjoy the 800 Murali - and prepare for disappointment !

"There is also the Frindallian camp of stattos who complain about Murali’s wickets in the ICC Super Series" says John Stern Editor of
The Wisden Cricketer

Not just the stattos John. Cricket historians can find not one shred of evidence to support the view that the ICC XI v Australia was a legitimate Test match:

(1) Every other match of the (to date) 1965 Test matches has been between nations (West Indies a nation for cricket purposes).

(2) When a similar issue arose back in 1970 for the England v Rest of World series the ICC decided that the matches were not proper Test matches. It took them a couple of years to make the decision - but they made it.

(3) The fact that the match was billed as a Test match is irrelevant. So were the 1970 matches so billed.

(4) The ICC has continued to fly in the face of the professional advice they have received from the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS) that the match cannot be regarded as a Test mach for records purposes. The ACS hasn't fought its corner on this as strongly as it should - but I know of no member who actually believes that the match was a test match - other then to say that it must be if the ICC says it was!
(5) In the fullness of time the decision will undoubtedly be changed - it is just plain wrong. It was initially taken to pump up the commercial appeal of the event and it has subsequently stayed in the records because the ICC is too stubborn and fearful. Are you going to tell Warne that he has six fewer wickets than he thought that he had, or Hayden one fewer centuries – or Murali 795 not 800? Thought not. But one day someone with balls will do it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tri-Nations rugby is a big treat for the Rugby nut

The All Blacks have looked pretty impressive in the first two Tri-Nations matches comfortably beating last year’s champions South Africa in both. With the 2011 Rugby World Cup only a little over a year away New Zealand look to be clear favourites – especially as they will be on home soil. But then the Kiwi side is always the favourite for the quadrennial event but, the first tournament apart, they have contrived to underperform every time and have only reached one other final – that of 1995 when they lost to the Springboks. Mind you the New Zealand public seem to be able to cope with these failures well - partly by going into self denial and partly by declaring themselves the rightful champions anyway (see Photo above "All Blacks Champions of the World" was taken in Auckland a couple of years ago not long after South Africa won the world cup)!

Watching the Tri-Nations is always a pleasure – the standard is astonishingly high and there are no more passionate sporting encounters than those between the three combatants. Pretty it isn’t - and the crowds aren’t exactly imbued with notions of fair play either, winning is everything. The boos from the New Zealand faithful every time a South African took a kick at goal would have given the Twickenham old farts apoplexy but I guess that it is par for the course down under.

Most sports have changed a lot over the years but none more so than Rugby – despite that fact that I was a player for twenty-five years and a fan all my life I have no idea at all about some of the modern rules. But the core skills are the same and players like Carter and McCaw, Habana and Roussouw would have been stars in any era. And did you see the final All Black try by Israel Dagg (crazy name, crazy guy) at Wellington. Wow!

One change which I believe is far from a step forward is the fact that the international game is now a 22 man squad affair. Both sides used 21 players last Saturday and that is now the norm. Call me old-fashioned but isn’t Rugby meant to be a 15-a-side game and isn’t part of the challenge to get your fifteen players working effectively as a unit? And isn’t fitness part of the challenge as well – surely you shouldn’t come on the field at the start if you are not fit for 80 minutes? Of course replacements should be allowed for genuine reasons (injury or illness) but do so many tactical substitutions really add much to the enjoyment of the game? The fact that a player is knackered should hardly be reasons for his substitution – if he didn’t have the stamina for 80 minutes what’s he doing on the pitch? Can you imagine what Willie John McBride would have said about this! I’m told that the pace and physical demands of the modern game are such that replacements are essential – this is, of course, a circular argument. Without tactical replacements teams would have to pace themselves as they always used to – and players would only be picked if they were 80 minutes fit. And, what’s more, caps would be more earned and more valued.

The next Tri-Nations is the Australia v Wallabies match at Brisbane next Saturday – I have a feeling that the two sides will be competing for runners up this year and that the All Blacks might be the first unbeaten winners of the tournament for seven years. They do look a bit tasty.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The British Grand Prix - Forty six years on!

I went to my first British Grand Prix exactly forty-six years ago today in 1964. As a seventeen-year-old obsessed by Formula one it was difficult to contain my excitement that I was actually going to see the stars close at hand. It was a golden age – there were five once or future World Champions in the field – Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, John Surtees and the man who, for me, was and is the greatest of them all – Jim Clark. Clark won the race comfortably and there was an all British podium when he was joined by Graham Hill and Surtees.

To say that I saw the drivers close at hand is not a romantic memory. The photograph of John Surtees in the cockpit of his Ferrari I actually took in the paddock that day. True I had managed to wangle a pit pass from somewhere – but in those days that was not too difficult. We sat on a grassy bank for the race eating a picnic – and we had a panoramic view of the Brands club circuit where all the action was. And if we wanted a closer look we were able to get within a few feet of the trackside – there were hardly any fences. Jim Clark had won the 1963 Drivers Championship by miles – the first of many for Colin Chapman and his pioneering Lotus team. And he and the other top drivers gave you value for money as well – one of the races was for saloon cars and Clark won it in a Lotus Cortina – every boys dream as an aspirational car!

I don’t subscribe to the commonly held view that “Formula one is not what it was” back in the days of Clark and Hill and Surtees. True it was a much more accessible and affordable sport back in the 1960s and every race mattered more - there were only ten races back in 1964 compared with nearly twice that this year. And it was undisputedly a sport then whereas today it is also a billion dollar business. None of the cars on the grid on that sunny day 46 years ago had any advertising on them – or was there perhaps a discrete Esso roundel somewhere on Clark’s Lotus?

The 1964 British Grand Prix was largely accident free but that was the exception not the rule in those days – and accidents often had lethal consequences for drivers and sometimes spectators as well. Of the 24 drivers on the grid that day a third were later to lose their lives in racing accidents – McLaren, Anderson, Bandini, Bonnier, Siffert, Taylor, Revson and, of course, Jim Clark. The improvements in safety over the years have meant that one can, these days, watch a race without fearing for the lives of the competitors. That was certainly not so in the 1960s. This fact alone makes it difficult to compare the drivers of different eras – you have always needed to be brave to drive an F1 car - as well as skilful. But back in the earlier days of F1 you needed a quite extraordinary courage and a great deal of luck if, like John Surtees or Jack Brabham you were to be able to survive and look back from a decent old age. But Surtees for one would sadly have to argue that there is no ground for complacency – his eighteen year old son was killed in a freak Formula Two accident at Brands Hatch just a year ago.

I have been lucky enough to go to many Grands Prix over the years following that initial event back in 1964 – and it rarely disappoints. Sometimes one is lucky enough to get close enough to smell the oil, the grease, the fuel and the sweat. And to see the tension on the faces because despite its modern complexity, technology and hype it is, in essence, still all about the drivers. If you could have a (part-celestial) dinner party with Fangio, Ascari, Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Button at the table you’d find that they have almost everything in common despite their hugely different competitive eras. You might need to keep Ayrton and Alain at the two ends of the table though!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A nation within a nation ?

I will be at Lord’s next Tuesday for the first day of the Pakistan v Australia Test match – and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been a neutral at many Limited Overs matches over the years but this will be my first Test when England is not playing. I’m genuinely neutral and just want to see some good cricket. But whilst I am a neutral the same won’t apply to many thousands of spectators – if the Edgbaston Twenty20 tasters are anything to go by.

At Edgbaston, and no doubt also at Lord’s and Headingley, the grounds will be mainly populated by unmistakable Pakistan supporters. These are not, of course, the equivalent of the travelling "Barmy Army" - here on a cricket supporters’ visit from Karachi or Lahore. No - they were nearly all young people of Pakistani descent who are, I suspect, mostly born, bred and living in Britain - and with British Passports tucked away back home. And when England plays Pakistan later in the summer it will be the same – large swathes of green clad fans will be cheering on England’s opponents. Now in a country with Britain's freedoms these Pakistan supporters are entitled to support whatever sports team they like. That is their right. I just wish that, in sporting terms, they could be committed to the country of their chosen future rather than the country of their ancestors. I wish that they shared the pride of many in their communities when a cricketer of Asian origins (Ajmal Shajad for example) gets into the England team.

Now before anyone tries to "Colonel Blimp" me for holding these Tebbitian views let me explain a little further. If, at my advanced years, I emigrated to Australia (a country I like very much) and even became an Australian citizen it would not stop me from supporting England in The Ashes. Contradiction? Not at all. You do not cast off your personal allegiances of fifty years or more just because you relocate to another country. Once a Pom, always a Pom. But if I had children born and educated and working in Australia I would expect them (encourage them) to support the Aussies.

Sport, even cricket, is essentially trivial but in the case of nationality and allegiance sport can be a force for good, binding people of different backgrounds and cultures together in a common cause. When Amir Khan won a silver medal in the boxing at the Athens Olympics I rejoiced along with him and his family who, whilst of a very different background to me, are all now as authentically British as I am. And there is certainly no more patriotic Englishman than Nasser Hussain (or his late father Jo for that matter) notwithstanding their Indian origins.

So sport can be a force for good in binding people together whether it be in the England team (with their disparate national and cultural backgrounds) or those who support them in the stands. So why if you were born and raised in (say) Bolton of parents who emigrated from Pakistan would you support Pakistan and not England? It is emphatically not the same as your choice as to whether to support Bolton Wanderers or Manchester United. The reason any of us supports one club football team rather than another are many and varied and rarely even remotely contentious. But to openly reject supporting the national football or cricket team - the one that represents the country of your birth and of your nationality is a very different matter. All too often the failure of a young person, born in England and who grew up here, to support our national sports teams is an act of protest and a sign that he is, to a degree, alienated from his country. And yes, notwithstanding the triviality of sport, that alienation does matter and is potentially very disturbing.

Now this argument begins to get a bit heavy. Had the young Yorkshireman (born and bred in Leeds) Mohammad Sidique Khan chosen to express his discomfort with the British way of life by wearing a Pakistan cricket shirt and cheering on Pakistan few would have given his actions a moment’s thought. But that was not Mr Khan's choice - he chose to express his alienation as a suicide bomber on a Circle Line train in London on 7th July 2005. Mr Khan's actions were those of someone on the lunatic fringe of the alienated but they stemmed, nevertheless, from the same basic causal roots as the entirely innocent actions of those Britons who choose to support Pakistan rather than England at a cricket match.

I have never believed that, in Britain, cultures should be subsumed into some bland, generic "Britishness" that is predominately white and Anglo-Saxon and has broadly "Christian" values. I enjoy the diversity of modern Britain and don't want it to change back. But I do believe that this diversity can co-exist with a common pride in our nation and our nationality that all can share whatever our backgrounds. And I also believe that to support our national sports teams, irrespective of our origins or roots, can be a spur to the reduction of alienation and to unity. The less alienated any of us feels the more likely it is that the extreme expressions of alienation, such as that which happened in London on 7/7/05, will be less likely to happen again.

To return to cricket. The MCC is congratulating itself for having sponsored the Pakistan/Australia encounters this summer and in purely cricketing terms few would argue that these are not worthwhile matches – especially as Pakistan cannot play international matches at home at the moment. Having said that did anyone at the MCC think about the broader implications and consequences of this sponsorship? The organisers of these matches obviously chose London, Birmingham and Leeds as the venues because of the large numbers of people of Pakistani origin in these regions. But I wonder if the MCC and others responsible for the matches would agree that they have provided another context for the open expression of a Pakistani nationalism by British citizens? For the vast majority of these people the support will be benign – but moves which legitimise this nationalism in a fairly harmless way for the majority also provide a legitimised context for much less benign expressions of nationalism by a minority. Recently the “Centre for Social Cohesion” released details of the profiles of 124 individuals convicted of Islamic terrorism offences in Britain since 1999. This showed that 69 per cent of offences were perpetrated by individuals holding British nationality.

Now it may be that some of the British Asians so strongly supporting Pakistan versus Australia will switch allegiance to the country of their birth and nationality and support England in the upcoming Test matches. But I doubt that it will be many of them! In effect the Pakistan v Australia matches overtly acknowledge – even celebrate - that we have a nation within a nation in Britain and many of us, however liberal our views and welcoming of cultural diversity we are, will regret this – and worry about it.

This article is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the cricket fanzine “Yes, No, Sorry” in 2006

Sunday, July 04, 2010

World Cup memories of 1974

One of the great Football World Cup finals was in 1974 when Germany played The Netherlands and won 2-1 despite conceding a penalty in the opening minute. That was Cruyff v Beckenbauer and Neeskens v Muller of course – and was the first of two near misses for that great Dutch team. History might just repeat itself in South Africa. Surely the Holland side will be too good for Uruguay and this exciting German team has a decent chance of beating current tournament favourites Spain?

In refreshing my memory about 1974 I looked at Brian Glanville’s seminal history of the World Cup – and came across this curiosity.
It was a group game between Italy and Argentina and was, as Glanville put it, “…a nightmare and a humiliation for the Italians”. Here is how Glanville described one of the key features of the match:

“Quite what possessed Valcareggi, the Italian manager, …to set his own creative inside-forward, Fabio Capello, to mark [Housman – the Argentina winger] heaven knows. At all events Capello, turned by this error into a full-back, was run ragged by Housman, who scored a lovely goal…Too late Valcareggi understood what was happening [and] pushed Capello upfield…”

Fabio Capello, 2010 version and presumably 36 years wiser, might have remembered his old Manager’s errors when picking his England team and deciding on playing formations. Wasn’t it a lack of creativity, a stiflingly predictable playing system and some curious team selections which helped scupper England? The truly creative players – Walcott, Lennon, Rooney, Wright-Philips even Defoe and Crouch unperformed because they were either discarded or given the wrong things to do. Just like Fabio himself way back in ’74 perhaps? Odd isn’t it?