Monday, 29 July 2013

English lambs before the Aussie slaughter

You don't have to be Glenn McGrath to know that England have very little chance in the remainder of this series. The dominant Australia batsmen, coupled with their prolific wicket-taking attack will surely be too much for the meagre poor English lambs. Putting aside all emotion and subjectivity, the positive thinking for which us Brits are famed, is there any hope for us?

Yes we have scraped through two matches thus far, reliant on a potent and controversial combination of dubious umpiring decisions, dodgy technology and being better than Australia. There's only so long though that we can rely on greater skill and application, and surely this Thursday will be the time for Australia's brilliance to become apparent. The question must be whether there is anything we can do to stop the surely inevitable demolition?

Let's look at the facts:

- England only have 3 batsmen averaging over 40 in the series. I appreciate that Australia only have 3 over 30, and one of those (Pattinson) is out injured for the rest of the series and the other is a teenage spin bowler, but that won't matter.

- England have no replacement for the likely absent Pietersen. Of course, James Taylor will play but I don't see him scoring any runs against the Australians.

Waterboy or run-machine?
- David Warner is back. Guaranteed to knock get Joe Root out, and fresh from a massive 193 against the mighty South Africa A, he's sure to be a threat. After all, prior to that innings he had scores of 6, 11, 9, 0, 0, 2, 0, 44, 4 and 13. Devastating stuff for England to fear.

- Australia have the series record for the opening, 9th and 10th wicket partnerships. England may have the highest partnership for all the other wickets, but it's how you start and end that matters isn't it?

I think we can all agree that we're in serious trouble. Just because we've won the first two matches, have the better batting line-up, bowling attack, experience and confidence, surely nothing can stop the organised and professional Aussies. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Why Do We Support Who We Do?

At work, we've done a sweepstake on the Women's Euro 2013 tournament in Sweden. To be honest, we love a sweepstake and organise one for virtually any (major) event, so that's probably not much of a surprise. Sports events, baby weights, how late someone will come back from lunch, you name it we sweepstake it. And yet despite the inane nature of them and the almost laughable sums of money to be won, they seem to stir an astonishing loyalty in me for teams I scarcely knew existed much less supported.

This spring I found myself quite unexpectedly a die-hard Kolkata Knight Riders fan for the IPL 2013 campaign. Despite the fact that a few weeks before I had had to do comprehensive research before I could even a name an IPL team, I genuinely cared what happened in KKR's games. I was frustrated by Yusuf Pathan getting out early, Kallis scoring too slowly, Gambhir never converting a start and the failure to select Lee or Ten Doeschate. I downloaded the app and had ITV4 on constantly. My point being, I became a real fanatic. Sadly, the reigning champions and theoretical challengers for the title ended a dismal 6-10 record and early elimination.

Then comes the Women's Euros over the last couple of weeks. The sweepstake is organised, the team names on the bits of folded paper inside the mug. I draw France. Now my knowledge of women's football was such that I knew the USA were the best, and that England were decent, but beyond that, couldn't exactly claim to be an expert. A quick bit of research and I realise France are pretty decent and in with a shout. £16 here I come. Then, when it all came to an end against a stubborn and organised Danish team in the quarterfinals, I found myself genuinely disappointed (and not for the sake of £16 potential winnings).

The reason for my aimless ramblings is that it got me wondering how we come to form affiliations with teams, develop affections or even fanatical passion. It's probably fair to say that most people support a sports team of some description, whether that be football, cricket or tennis, club or national teams. And probably even more follow and support certain individuals in sports like tennis, F1, snooker or golf. 

Glory hunters...
With individuals it's often determined by their nationality (would anyone support Andy Murray if he wasn't British?), as much as by their personality or sporting prowess. But with club teams it can be apparently arbitrary but no less meaningful. Of course a lot support their "local" club (I use speech marks because that usually means the closest team that are good) but there seem to be all manner of other reasons as well - parents' teams, obscure links as a child, kit colour, favourite players etc. I decided to start supporting Sheff Wed around the age of 12 for no particular reason other than they were in the Prem and I didn't support anyone else. 

Most would agree that the most passionate/fanatical fans would tend to be those who have a geographic/nationalistic link to their team but there are unquestionably other reasons and factors that lead to fervent support. Why do you support who you do?

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Not Bad for a Dying Format

Unquestionably man of the hour
Short of writing some kind of dissertation-length post, there is really going to be no way of describing what has taken place in Nottingham over the last five days. Generally with major sporting events you can't wait for the next match and struggle to imagine how you'll survive a few days' gap but in this instance I think we'll all be grateful for a bit of a rest so we can let our heart-rates stabilise. I imagine plant life across the UK suffered from all the lack of carbon dioxide in the air as most of the country has been holding its breath since Wednesday. Needless to say, it's was pretty dramatic right to the death.

From Starc's wayward first ball to the inevitable DRS-induced conclusion, this game had the lot. Batting collapses, spin, swing, reverse swing, a century, three 5 wicket hauls, a record partnership and record debut innings, a whole host of controversy and a desperately tight finish. If this match is setting the tone for the rest of the series then 2005 might have to rethink its title of "The Greatest Series". 

A somewhat enjoyable moment
I've scarcely seen a game with the team in the ascendancy changing so often. England started reasonably well, before collapsing to a meagre 215. Australia failed to capitalise, being skittled to 117-9 before debutant Agar (alongside Phillip Hughes) wrestled back the initiative. The Aussies were seemingly on top until Cook, Pietersen, Bell and Broad batted England into the lead again. What had appeared a total beyond the brittle Australian top order then seemed possible at 84-0, 111-1 and 161-3. A brilliant burst last night and consistent wickets this morning left an England win a near-certainty, before Haddin and Pattinson kept hearts in mouths until the last.

There's so much to choose from but here are my particular highlights:

1) Agar: not that he batted so well and isn't it great to see a young man doing so well etc. No, what I liked is that he got out 2 runs short of his century. Come on people, he's Australian (half at least), we have to be ruthless with them. If you don't think 2 runs can make a difference, just ask Michael Kasprowicz.
Unexpectedly gritty
2) Ian Bell: One of the most elegant, stylish batters who has long been seen as fair-weather, only scoring hundreds when conditions are good or England are on top. And yet, he's now joint 10th on the list of English test-centurions, level with Vaughan and Gower, ahead of Atherton, Hobbs, Sutcliffe.
3) This Aussie article which says that cricket won, not England, that pays a decidedly backhanded compliment to Bell, talks about the "inner grubbiness of the soul" in relation to Broad, the vulnerability of Finn, and suggests that no-one can really be sure if Haddin edged it or not. Ah Australia, this is what makes beating you so enjoyable. Hopefully you are going to have a full 6 months of learning how to be better losers.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Anything but an Ashes whitewash?

Unquestionably, England are overwhelming favourites to take the Ashes over the coming weeks, and convincingly so. Apart from the odd Aussie pundit or ex-player, almost all of the cricketing world is predicting a relatively comfortable victory for Cook and his men. 

So is there any realistic danger of Michael Clarke getting his hands on the urn come the end of August? There are obviously a lot more thorough and expert previews of the series available but here's a quick run down of the factors that can/will make the difference:

1) The squads - looking at the respective records, it is hard to see how the inexperienced Aussies can compete with a English team that is extremely well settled and have dealt with a range of opponents and conditions. Although the bowling units are relatively well matched, it is with willow in hand that England will surely dominate. The below table shows the comparison of averages (not too dissimilar in fairness) but also the number of test matches played by each team's potential top 9. The contrast is startling and could be crucial over the course of the toughest series in test cricket.

Root - 42.4 (6 tests)
Rogers - 9.5 (1)
Cook - 49.2 (92)
Warner - 39.5 (19)
Trott - 50 (43)
Watson - 35.3 (31)
Pietersen - 49.1 (94)
Clarke - 52.3 (92)
Bell - 45.6 (88)
Khawaja - 29.2 (6)
Bairstow - 31 (8)
Hughes - 33 (24)
Prior - 44.3 (67)
Haddin - 35.5 (42)
Bresnan - 31.3 (18)
Starc - 32.7 (9)
Broad - 24.6 (57)
Pattinson - 28.8 (10)
Swann - 23.2 (52)
Harris – 17.7 (12)
Total = 390.7 (525)
Total = 313.5 (246)
*I appreciate that this won't likely be the order of the Oz batting line up but given that they've selected 19 openers, it's quite hard to predict 

2) The pressure - there has been a lot of talk about how England will cope (or not cope) with being favourites. As the top ranked test team they won just 1 of 4 series and seemed unable to live up to the top billing. Just look at the series in New Zealand back in the spring.
That being said, the vast experience of the English squad, established team spirit and familiarity with being both ahead and behind in games may well make all the difference. There appears to be a good positive vibe and enthusiasm about the Aussies under Lehmann and no doubt they will be pumped up and raring to go on Wednesday morning, but when they're up against it, Clarke and Watson back in the hutch, who will stand up to fight? No amount of Aussie fighting spirit is going to save you from Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann when you're 40-4 and the ball is swinging and spinning. I'd be surprised if we don't bowl them out for under 150 at least 2 or 3 times.

3) The weather - Perhaps the only thing that can stop a whitewash. A few lost days and even England's dominance could be thwarted, at least in a couple of matches. If the weather holds as it is currently then it will help the Aussies feel at home but will also enhance the effect of Swann. Given our respective recent results away in India (Eng won 2-1, Aus lost 4-0) and their lack of a quality spinner, the weather really is a no-win situation for the men from Down Under. 

So in answer to my question earlier, no, there is no danger of Clarke getting his hands on the little urn.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Final Flourish to a Fascinating Fortnight

I think we can agree that it's been an unusual Wimbledon fortnight. After defeating 2011 champion Petra Kvitova, Kirsten Flipkens described getting through to the semi finals as "ridiculous", and really that's not a bad word to summarise the whole Championships to date. Obviously the men's finalists are as the seedings predicted, but everything up to then has kept us entertained and thoroughly surprised.

Early defeats for Federer, Nadal, Serena and Sharapova, alongside withdrawals from the likes of Tsonga and Azarenka meant that we knew come the later stages we were going to have some unfamiliar names (especially to those fans who forget that tennis happens outside of a month in the English summer). Marion Bartoli became the first woman to win the title without facing a top 10 seed, and didn't play anyone ranked higher than herself, despite only being seeded 15th.

Not since 2002 have so many of the big names been eliminated early in the men's draw, and yet it is the top 2 that have made it through. As entertaining as it is to have upsets and underdogs, it's always best to have two of the very best facing off in the Championship match. There's no denying that the final of Roland Garros was something of an anticlimax, especially after the standard of the Rafa-Novak semi. 

Now of course it is unlikely Djokovic - Murray will quite match the drama and excitement of the DelPo semi but hopefully it will be its equal in terms of standard. Undoubtedly it will be a very different type of contest, both Murray and Djokovic's games are built on astonishing return of serve and relentless defensive abilities, movement around the court and staying in a rally. It will be take a lot of adjustment for them both, having had semis against ultra-attacking, go for a winner every shot Janowicz and Del Potro respectively. Having not faced a genuinely top quality player might have made Murray's route to the final easier but perhaps a clash with Nadal/Federer/Tsonga might have helped prepare him. In that sense I don't think it was the worst thing to be pushed by Verdasco and Janowicz, even if neither is in Djokovic's league.

Only time will tell the effect of the previous 6 matches on both men. In truth, there has been so much said, predictions made and analysis presented, all we can do now is watch and enjoy...

By the way, here is an update on the table I posted before the tournament began - whatever happens Federer will be ranked 5th and Djokovic will remain an absolute mile clear:

R1 (10)
R2 (45)
R3 (90)
R4 (180)
QF (360)
SF (720)
F (1200)
W (2000)