Sunday, December 21, 2008

Weekend Reflections: Brilliant AB and More


1. Yesterday, South Africa completed a fantastic run chase (the second highest in history) courtesy superb contributions from almost all their batsmen. The most impressive performance of the lot though was from AB de Villiers who displayed great tenacity and focus to finish the job for the Proteas. The knock was a sort of a ‘coming of age’ innings from de Villiers who has been regarded as one for the future ever since his entry into South African cricket. As someone who was exceptionally talented in a wide variety of sports including golf, rugby and tennis, it must be said that South African cricket is the better for his decision to pursue cricket. Over the last year or so, de Villiers has moulded himself into a compact test batsman by curbing his swashbuckling natural game and by improving his powers of concentration. Each of his previous three centuries has resulted in fantastic victories for the Proteas. If his 217 at Ahmadabad against India demonstrated his supreme audacity and resilience, his 174 against England at Headingley displayed his fabulous patience and grit. At the WACA Ground though, de Villiers showed all of that and the crucially important desire to stay in the middle till the end.

2. The last few days of cricket has also seen Rahul Dravid return to form with a well constructed century against England. In the ongoing second test at Mohali, Dravid was back to his impregnable best, batting for hours together without ever looking vulnerable. India have for a long time depended on Dravid’s excellence in its own endeavour to succeed, but over the last few games it has been Dravid who has depended on the Indian cricket team to cement his own place in the eleven. Had India not won at Madras, one could have been rest assured that Dravid would have been left out of the eleven for the second test. Very often we are quick to castigate the selectors for their poor decisions, this though is an occasion where the selection committee and the team management need to be applauded for retaining faith in one of India’s greatest ever batsmen.


1. The Real Madrid versus Valencia clash on Saturday night was as open a football contest as one can hope to see. That the final score was only one nil in favour of the defending champions was more to do with the appalling finishing from both sides rather than the nature of the game. It is at times such as these that I fear for the future of English football which is becoming more and more defensive by the day. West Bromwich Albion who play some engaging attacking football are in danger of going down merely because unlike fellow relegation battlers they do not possess a couple of stoppers in the middle of midfield. I continue to stress that English football will lose its sheen if its clubs fail to modify their approach to the game.

2. Is Robbie Keane’s Liverpool future secure after his goal against Arsenal yesterday? I am not so sure. I found Keane’s signing somewhat strange at the time, especially considering the 20 million pounds that Benitez paid for him. Every time a club signs a new player, you tend to look at how the player is going to fit into the tactical system adopted by the club. With Benitez never comfortable playing Steven Gerrard in a conventional central midfield role, Keane was never going to be a certainty in the starting line-up unless an injury forced out one of Torres or Gerrard as the case was against Arsenal. Liverpool could have corrected most of their flaws by signing a quality right winger in the summer in the place of Robbie Keane who for all his intelligence as a footballer is likely to be a failure in the long run.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Of Transformations

Heurelho Gomes transformed from ‘Hapless Gomes’ to ‘Heroic Gomes’ at White Hart Lane on Saturday as he made a few breathtaking saves to keep Manchester United from scoring. It was a strangely steady performance from the Brazilian goalkeeper who parried all shots directed at him away from danger and even managed to catch most aerial crosses directed at him. Some goalkeepers, always seem to get the best out of themselves when they are playing against the top teams and Man United have had a few bogey goalkeepers of their own to contend with. Brad Friedel seems to reserve his best for the Reds, much like Jussi Jääskeläinen does against Arsenal. Jääskeläinen’s superb form against the Gunners has even prompted the press on numerous instances to speculate on a move to the North London club for the Finnish number one. I sometimes wonder on these occasions if certain goalkeepers are members of some sinister society which forces them to perform against the likes of Man United. If so, Huerelho Gomes who has been dismal for most of this season is certainly its chief campaigner.
Arsene Wenger’s achievements are quite extraordinary when you consider the transformation of Arsenal F.C. from the days of ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ to the present day when the Gunners’ fans let go ironic cheers of ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ once Arsenal have thumped a few past their miserable opponents. To contextualise my statements, I am currently reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, in which for the most part he discusses the dreary old days when watching Arsenal play was not too much better than attending a memorial service. Wenger’s revolution can probably be best appreciated only by the fans who have gone through the agony and frustration of watching the tedious Gunners of the past and hoping from the sidelines that the final score will read an almost emblematic ‘one nil to the Arsenal’. Of course, some of Wenger’s decisions over the last few years have been questionable to say the very least, but Arsenal fans need to be grateful to him and the team built by him for producing a brand of flowing attacking football which they could have hardly dreamt of, even during the glory days under George Graham.
Blackburn Rovers are a team that are in desperate need of a transformation if they are to have any chance of surviving this season. In spite of having lost David Bentley to Spurs before the start of the season, one wouldn’t have expected Rovers to struggle this badly. Paul Ince has had a shockingly poor start to his top flight managerial career and I don’t expect to see him at the helm beyond this week. The impression that managers are hired and sacked for fun in the BPL may be legitimate to an extent, but a manager who loses six games in a row surely cannot expect any favours from the board. Relegation battles invariably come down to the transformations that teams can make post Christmas. Pompey had Harry Redknapp’s wheeling and dealing to thank for their survival three seasons back. Blackburn will need a recovery of similar proportions if they are to have any chance of playing Manchester United or Liverpool in the league next season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Upcoming Tests

The next week or so will see the commencement of three test series’, all of them likely to be equally fascinating, albeit for different reasons. Whilst Australia take on South Africa at home in what can be termed as a top of the table clash, New Zealand entertain the West Indies in a quest to discover whether they can top their fellow Islanders when it comes to mediocrity stakes. India on the other hand will be looking to live up to their recently acclaimed top billings at the expense of a courageous yet am sure terrified England.

Before getting into cricketing details, I must mention that England’s decision to tour India in this time of turmoil is indeed commendable. I am not sure the Aussies, the Kiwis or the South Africans would have even so much as ventured anywhere near Asia, let alone the Indian subcontinent. It’s difficult from where we are to judge the state of affairs from the perspective of touring nations and I don’t think anyone could have faulted England had they refused to tour. Agreed, like Steve Waugh said, this might be the best time to tour the subcontinent considering the heightened security, but the families of the English players having watched the events of the past couple of weeks unfold on their television sets will hardly be brimming with confidence at the prospect of the players touring India. Considering the circumstances, especially the more recent threats to Indian airports, the decision of the England cricket team to go ahead with the tour is extremely admirable. I for one loved the picture of Kevin Pieterson showing the thumbs up sign with a huge smile on his face from the team bus after the squad arrived in Madras.

The terror cloud apart, the tour is still not going to be an easy one for the Three Lions, who having been beaten convincingly in the ODI series find the odds stacked up against them. Their test team though possesses a better balance and a more positive look about it. In spite of being trumped by the Proteas at home, I continue to believe that England possess a solid test team who could well give a decent fight to the Aussies for the Ashes next summer.  But playing in India is a different story all together. Having said that, if the wicket in Madras is anything like it was when the South Africans toured earlier this year, England could well head to Mohali or wherever the second test is held, with the honours still even. India for their part would be hoping that the curators at the M.A. Chidambram Stadium can conjure up a pitch that will have something in it for the bowlers right from day one. If the pitch standards are up to the mark, we might well have a fascinating contest on our hands.

Down under, world number one Australia take on world number two South Africa in what should hopefully be an enthralling series. The victory over the Kiwis by itself wouldn’t have done much to improve the confidence of the Aussies, who are still surely reeling from their loss to India. South Africa who have traditionally never done well in Australia will see this as their best chance of putting up a good challenge and perhaps even getting the better of the Australians. Although the Proteas have done fabulously in spite of Jacques Kallis’ poor form, they will be hoping that their ace all-rounder can restore normal service come December 17. In my opinion Kallis needs to perform with the bat if South Africa are to have any chance of success in the upcoming series. Both the teams possess a fair bit of bowling depth, but the series could well come down to Dale Steyn versus Brett Lee. These two are crucial to the chances of their respective teams and if one of them fails the other’s team could well taste sweet success.   

I am not going to go on in length about the other contest down under in which the disgraced Black Caps take on a beleaguered West Indies. The two of them will be fighting a relegation battle of sorts and it’s very important for the Kiwis who have slipped below the Windies in the ICC test rankings to ensure that they win at home. With a lot of players having retired in the recent past, New Zealand wear a typically insecure look and will be banking on the performance of their captain Daniel Vettori who in many ways looks to be waging a lone battle. Although the Black Caps look good to edge this series, the teams’ mediocrity could well ensure an absorbing contest.

Call me a traditionalist if you please, but I am certainly hoping that watching men attired in white clothing playing cricket in its purest form would add some of the gloss that the game has lost in this day and age of T-20.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Notes from the Big Leagues

Barclays Premier League: Howard Webb, who is supposedly England’s best referee, was terrible at the Manchester derby on Sunday. Of course, it is difficult to say that the referee was entirely wrong in brandishing Ronaldo a second yellow for what was deemed to be a deliberate hand ball. But that episode aside, the card happy referee branded needless yellow cards to Rafael Da Silva and Patrice Evra. Rafael who is all of 18 years of age was given a card for throwing the ball a few feet into the air in an effort to return it to the rightful place from where the free kick was to be taken. Evra who was booked for a tame tackle on Wright Philips which hardly befitted the whistle, let alone the card misses the game against Spurs as a result of the same. I think referees much like players and managers should be accountable for their decisions and I don’t see any reason why they cannot give a post match interview explaining their decisions on the field of play.

Spanish La Liga: Barcelona are playing a brand of fantasy football a la the great Madrid team that comprised of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. Unlike that Real team though, Barcelona are very strong at the back. They have a whopping goal difference of 31 from a mere 13 games and are without doubt the best team to watch in Europe at the moment. To compliment the attacking brilliance of Henry, Messi, Eto’o, Bojan, Xavi and Iniesta, Barcelona possess some solid centre backs in the form of Puyol, Marquez and Pique. I cannot imagine anyone in Spain catching up with the Catalan giants this season.

Italian Serie A: The land of strategic brilliance when it comes to football continues to churn out some of the best tactics. I recently read about and watched the most bizarre tactical ploy that has ever been deployed for an attacking free kick, courtesy the superb column that Gabrielle Marcotti writes for the Times. Catania midfielder, Gianvito Plasmati, who was stationed behind the wall, succeeded in distracting the opposition goalkeeper by dropping his shorts just as the free kick was being taken. Of course there were several observations made about the spirit of the game being damaged and so on and so forth, but that does not take away anything from what was a truly outlandish tactical ploy. (

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Dying Art of Slip Fielding

The palpable decline in the standard of slip catching is taking away from the fans one of the most pleasurable sights in world cricket. Even the mighty Aussies (or should I say once mighty Aussies) who not too long ago boasted of a superb slip cordon consisting of Mark Taylor, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne are lacking in quality when it comes to slip fielders these days. The erudite Bob Simpson once wrote in an article in the Sportstar that the good and the great slip catchers are judged by the number of catches they drop as opposed to the number that they grasp.

Notable modern day slip exponents such as Rahul Dravid, Mathew Hayden and Graeme Smith can never be considered as great slip fielders, as for all the fantastic catches they snatch, they drop the odd clanger. Andrew Flintoff and Mahela Jayawardene are more the exception than the rule in so far as the correctness of their technique is concerned. As Graham Gooch points out, the trick to being a successful slip fielder is to ride the ball. The hands mustn't reach out for the ball as the ball comes towards you. Soft hands, terrific concentration powers and slick movement are all vital ingredients of a good slip fielder, all of which are sadly on the decline in modern day cricket.

Across nations, young upcoming cricketers possess superb athleticism and are exceptional when fielding in the covers or at backward point, but very few of them can be considered as potentially good slip fielders. In India, the likes of Rohit Sharma, S. Badrinath, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina are all fabulous in the outfield, but seem like unlikely candidates to replace Laxman and Dravid in the slips. Of course, the world may never get to witness a catcher like Mark Waugh again, who with his languid grace and elegance made slip catching look ridiculously easy at times. But at least by emphasising on the importance of slip fielding and imparting the virtues of a correct catching technique in cricketers from a very young age, the quality of slip fielding, if not its beauty can be restored to its rightful state.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Martin the Magnificent

Commendable results at the Emirates and at Villa Park against Arsenal and Manchester United respectively have reinforced Aston Villa’s credentials for a top four finish this season. Martin O’Neill has been marvellous at the helm of Villa and his achievements so far seem all that more laudable when one considers the lowly sixteenth place finish of Villa in 2005-06, the season before O’Neill’s appointment as manger. The fact that only two players in the eleven that started against Man United were a part of the Aston Villa squad prior to O’Neill’s reign is testament to the tremendous effort that has gone into making the Villains a compact footballing unit. Although Villa do not possess the largest of squads, the basic nucleus around which the team is built is extremely impressive. O’Neill has got the team to play an entertaining brand of football without sacrificing on the solidity and organization required from a defensive standpoint.

From back to front, Villa possess players of excellent quality. The signing of Brad Friedel despite his age has been a masterstroke from O’Neill, one from which the likes of Spurs could have done well to learn from. At the centre of defence, skipper Martin Laursen and Curtis Davies compliment each other admirably with Zat Knight offering a more than decent back-up option. Nigel Reo-Coker is a big hearted footballer who will always work his socks off as he showed with his outstanding performance at an unfamiliar right back position against the champions on Saturday. Having been embarrassed by Ronaldo in the corresponding fixture last season, Reo-Coker showed superb awareness and ability in keeping United’s wing wizard quiet.

In the middle of midfield, the likes of Gareth Barry, Stiliyan Petrov and Steve Sidwell offer fabulous variety to the Aston Villa set-up. Barry was outstanding against Arsenal at the Emirates and O’Neill’s persistence in keeping the England international at Villa has been of crucial importance to Villa’s quests this season. Stiliyan Petrov’s role has been modified with O’Neill using him in a holding midfield role that ensures that Villa are never too stretched going forward. Steve Sidwell has brought a superior level of composure and technical excellence, which is certain to serve the team superbly in the coming seasons. In addition to the quality in the central midfield, the presence of the ebullient duo of Ashley Young and James Milner in the squad allows Martin O'Neill to play with two traditional wingers, which ensures the sort of balance that most teams would crave for.

But for all the merits of the other players in the squad, it is the dynamic Gabriel Agbonlahor who has been at the centre of most things good about the Villains this season. Agbonlahor has kicked off splendidly from where he left off last season and is probably the quickest striker in the Premier League at the moment. His partnership with big John Carew is a match made in heaven and if O’Neill can keep Carew fit, Villa can cause most backlines severe headaches over the course of the season.

There is no doubting that Martin O Neill has fashioned Aston Villa into an extremely organized and compact unit. However, the lack of squad depth in my opinion could well come to haunt Villa in their quest for champions league qualification. Even a fifth place finish though would be a super achievement for the Midlands club, who have been confined to mid-table mediocrity for more than a decade now. Whether Aston Villa can project themselves as a big club with big ambitions, which is necessary to attract the kind of players to the club that is required to ensure success over an extended period of time, only time will tell. What is certain though is that in Martin O’Neill, they have one of the world’s most capable managers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tribute to the Prince

For all his abilities to outthink and at times irk the opposition into submission with his outstanding leadership skills, I will always remember Sourav Ganguly for his extraordinary stroke play on the offside. Those cover drives are a thing of beauty and in the modern era no man has executed the stroke with as much class and authority as Ganguly has. Indeed, there are so many facets to Ganguly’s character and cricketing skills that it becomes difficult to pinpoint one distinguishing feature of his that will be truly missed now that he has left international cricket. The aggressive captaincy, the gorgeous cover drives, the audacious strokes into the stands played against the spinners with the greatest of disdain, the shirt stripping retort to Andrew Flintoff at the Mecca of cricket, forcing Steve Waugh to wait at the toss and the insistence on doing things on his own terms are all aspects of Ganguly’s personality and cricketing abilities that made him so very special. But, the drives on the offside being so very inimitable and unique in both their execution and their elegance have always stood out.

Sourav has always been a fabulous player of spin bowling and he has been particularly severe on left arm orthodox spinners, which probably explains his dislike in having a spinner of the said variety in his own eleven. Ganguly was a master at coming down the track and clearing the long-on boundary when faced with slow bowling that turned into him. I still vividly remember a shot that he played of Chris Harris at the ICC Champions Trophy final at Nairobi. He came down the track to hoick Harris in typically domineering fashion and Geoffrey Boycott who was commentating at that time said ‘out’ and waited for a couple of seconds before following it up with ‘out of the ground’. Only the sheer grandeur and grace of his drives on the offside give it the slightest of edges over the imperious lofted shots played against the spinners. Ganguly’s timing is second to none and every time I have seen him from the stands, I have been awestruck by his ability to strike boundaries with the utmost of ease. Very often it would only be a gentle push, but the ball would pierce the cover point and cover fielders with the precision of a skilled marksman and race to the boundary at a rate of knots.

As a one day international batsman, Ganguly’s presence amongst the greatest is in no doubt. Apart from having shared inarguably the most supreme opening partnership with Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly notched up more than eleven thousand runs at an average of forty one which saw him amass twenty two magnificent centuries. As a test batsman, Ganguly’s record is the least impressive amongst the so called ‘fab four’. But Ganguly is one of those batsmen who cannot be judged on their records alone and his contributions in several important Indian victories are evidence of his fantastic inspirational abilities. India invariably seemed to do well when Ganguly scored which is proved by the fact that India have never lost a test match in which Ganguly had scored a ton. The fighting century at Brisbane, the half centuries against South Africa at Johannesburg and Kanpur under treacherous conditions have all been particularly special considering the circumstances and the nature of the opposition. Irrespective of the situation though, Ganguly never lost his sense of style and his batting was always pleasing on the eye.

Whilst his batting has been all about prettiness and splendour, save the handling of balls directed at his rib cage, his captaincy has been one of confidence and swagger. Ganguly might not go down in the annals of history as the most intuitive and tactically brilliant captain, but he will certainly go down as someone who had inspired his team to a form of success which was hitherto unknown to them. Playing at home on dustbowls with Anil Kumble in the eleven had never been anything more than a walk in the park for the Indian cricket team. Ganguly’s greatest contribution as captain was making the team believe that success away from home was not as difficult as it seemed and that with the right attitude and adequate effort it was certainly attainable. Ganguly stirred and stimulated the team into action and the Indian fans finally got to experience the joy of competing away from home at more regular intervals. With M.S. Dhoni showing superb tactical acumen and a Ganguly like ability to motivate and marshal the troops to excellence, we can be certain that India have found the right captain to take it to the next level. But getting to witness a batsman so attractive and stylish in his offside stroke play ever again is as unlikely an event as the Don’s batting average being surpassed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wenger, Adams and the Masters Cup

I have always been of the opinion that a team can be successful without playing a conventional defensive midfielder in the Makelele or Gattuso mould. However, a central midfield combination does require balance and amongst other shortfalls, Arsenal are missing a solid midfield arrangement at the moment. Cesc Fabregas and Denilson are too similar to be paired in the middle of the park and Arsene Wenger certainly missed more than a trick by failing to sign Xabi Alonso for the sake of a few million pounds. Alonso has been Liverpool’s player of the season so far and his ability to dictate play from deep positions in midfield has been the driving force of most things good about Liverpool. Having failed to secure Alonso’s signature, Wenger did nothing to correct the lack of stability in Arsenal's midfield and that has led to calls for Wenger’s dismissal in some quarters, which is unthinkable for most Arsenal fans and unfair in my belief. However, I am of the opinion that Wenger needs to amend some of his ways, if Arsenal are to enjoy any success this season. His obsession with beautiful football is no doubt laudable and produces wonderful entertainment for both the Arsenal faithful and the neutrals, but his side’s inadequacies need to be corrected in the January transfer window (which, admittedly is not the best time to do business) to ensure that they are up there with the rest of the big four.
Tony Adams’ appointment as manager of Portsmouth has been greeted with an equal measure of optimism and cynicism. I think the English game deserves a greater number of home grown managers and Adams’s appointment should be welcomed. They say that great players don’t make the best of managers. Players such as Bryan Robson, David Platt, Glenn Hoddle and several others before them have somehow failed to carry their footballing prowess into the world of management. But that’s not always the case. Roy Keane has made a very good start to his managerial career with Sunderland and Laurent Blanc has been highly impressive at the helm of Bordeaux where he has got his team playing some extremely attractive football. The likes of Kenny Dalglish, Johan Cruyff and Vicente Del Bosque have all been successful as both players and managers. So I think to suggest that Adams would be a failure merely because he was a fabulous player is preposterous. Adams has completed all the required coaching badges and is as serious about the job as anybody can be. Being a natural leader of men, Adams should be given a fair chance to prove his coaching credentials before he is judged.
The Tennis Masters Cup which begins on Sunday should be exceptionally fascinating considering the openness of the competition. Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal due to a knee injury has no doubt removed some of the gloss from the event, but I still expect the tournament to produce some great contests. The result of the Masters Cup has always been difficult to foretell and this year is no different. Roger Federer enters the tournament as the defending champion, but he is by no means assured of success. Andy Murray is in fine form and so too is Gilles Simon who only makes it into the tournament because of Nadal’s absence. The only worrying feature of the competition is the fact that the players after a long and gruelling season would be quite drained and exhausted, which could somewhat diminish the quality of the tennis. But, the format of the competition and the fact that making predictions is as hard as it gets, makes the Cup almost as enthralling as the grand slam tournaments.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Promote Laxman

With the forthcoming retirement of Sourav Ganguly and the apparent decline in Rahul Dravid’s batting, the selectors and the Indian cricket watching public need to truly appreciate the class of V.V.S. Laxman's batsmanship. Over the last couple of years, Laxman has at times held the middle order together single-handedly and yet when the thought of playing an extra bowler arose prior to the Delhi test match, it was Laxman who was in contention to be left out. In spite of the shabby and at times ludicrous treatment that he has received from the selectors, Laxman has gone on with his game with minimum fuss and the greatest of elegance. Laxman’s batting average of 56 over the last couple of years is testament to his ever improving temperament and application, espescially considering the fact that most of these innings' have come with him batting at number 6.

Laxman’s wristy panache has always been a sight to behold and over the last few years he has tightened up his game to ensure that he is always there when the team most needs him. The famous double century at Calcutta, the stroke filled century at Adelaide and the sublime half centuries at Perth and Johannesburg stand out amongst the most regal of Laxman’s contributions to Indian victories abroad. His unbeaten double hundred at New Delhi against Australia in the third test was a reminder to one and all of both the beauty and the dexterity of his batting. In an era typified by the belligerent brutality of twenty-twenty cricket, Laxman’s artistry with the bat has been a throwback to the good old days of orthodox cricket.

Considering the imminent exits of some of the senior cricketers, Laxman in my opinion deserves a permanent promotion to the number three spot, a position from where he can dictate play and set the tone for the innings rather than salvage positions of distress. I am not suggesting that Rahul Dravid’s position is in any doubt. He has time and again demonstrated his immense value to the team and might still have a lot to offer to Indian cricket. But keeping in mind the fact that the test team as a whole is in a state of transition, it might be wise for Dravid and Laxman to swap positions in the batting order. Some of Laxman’s most memorable innings’ have come at the one-down position and I believe with his technique and temperament and his ability to score at a good clip, he will be perfectly suited for the vital spot. Laxman’s performances against the Australians shows that pressure rests easily on his broad shoulders and I am convinced that he needs to be entrusted with greater responsibility, especially considering the current state of the team.

Dravid’s retirement may not be immediate, but one can say with reasonable surety that it’s not too distant. The selectors would certainly not want to put additional pressure on the likes of Rohit Sharma and Subramaniam Badrinath by playing them right up in the order. This is where the precedent set by Australia can be used to good effect to ensure a smooth shift from the days of the ‘fab four’ to the younger generation of talented batsmen. Australia reaped rich rewards by promoting Justin Langer to the opener’s spot and Ricky Ponting to the crucial number three spot after the departure of Michael Slater. Similarly with Mark Waugh’s retirement came Damien Martyn’s promotion to number 4 which proved to be an exceptionally successful decision for the Aussies. I feel a similar tweaking of India’s batting order could ensure a fairly easy transition for what has always been India’s biggest weapon in test cricket.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A More Detailed Fiver

1. The aspect that pleases me most about the ‘Harry Houdini’ like acts at Tottenham Hotspur is the greater freedom offered to Luka Modric by Harry Redknapp, the new manager of Spurs. Tim Vickery of the BBC in a fascinating article describes how contemporary football’s emphasis on strength, pace and athleticism is destroying the role of 'foot on the ball' playmakers such as Juan Roman Riquelme.* Vickery talks about Riquelme’s role in keeping alive two unfashionable concepts in football, viz. (i) change of rhythm, the idea that the game can be slowed down before the application of the killer pass and (ii) surprise - the ball that no one was expecting that wrong foots the entire defence. Modric in my belief is capable of a similar impact as he finally seems to be coming into his own at Spurs. By playing him alongside Jenas and Huddlestone in the center of midfield, Redknapp has offered a greater deal of freedom to Modric and this is already reflective in his performances over the last couple of games. For reasons well documented, I certainly hope Modric can shine and bring back memories of the great playmakers of the years gone by.

2. I am extremely surprised that Rio Ferdinand does not find himself in the list of players nominated for either the Ballon d'Or or the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Ferdinand’s reading of the game and his positioning ability is second to none. One doesn’t see Ferdinand make last ditch tackles like a Carragher or a Terry largely because his superior positioning ensures that there is no need for such a tackle. I am not for one moment suggesting that Carragher and Terry are mediocre defenders, but their poor positioning at times requires them to come up with fantastic tackles. Paolo Maldini during his prime hardly ever went to ground and that is a hallmark of a truly great defender. Even as late as 2007, Maldini was at his imperious best in the Champions League semi final against Manchester United as he nullified the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo with minimum of fuss. Ferdinand’s form over the last couple of years should surely have at least got him a nomination for the awards.

3. ‘Compact’ is a word that Rafa Bentiez loves and Liverpool certainly displayed compactness in their highly impressive victory at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Chelsea sorely missed their ‘bully’ up front, Didier Drogba, who affords them a different avenue when they are unable to break their way through the midfield of an opposition. Against Liverpool, Chelsea were neither able to get their passing going nor did they have the option of knocking the ball up to Drogba. Liverpool however were brilliantly marshalled and although they were somewhat lucky with their goal, Benitez’s tactical nous shone through as they maintained their lead in typically resolute fashion. The performance at the Bridge was certainly more than a statement of intent from the Merseysiders.

4. Sachin Tendulkar rolled back the years to produce an innings of great style against Australia at the Kotla on Wednesday. However even as he was stroking the ball with great aplomb, there was always this feeling that he wouldn’t make a ton. Tendulkar has recently developed a bad habit of not converting his starts, which it must be said, is very unlike the Master Blaster. The quality of the innings though was very much like the ones we were used to seeing from Sachin at his best in the mid to the late 90s.

5. News has just filtered through that Gautham Gambhir has been given a one match ban for his needless elbow on Shane Watson. Having previously committed a similar offence, the match referee is thoroughly justified in banning Gambhir. This is where Gambhir needs to learn from his fellow double centurion of the first test, V.V.S. Laxman. In spite of having made the Aussies look almost pedestrian at times, not a single word of disrespect has been uttered by Laxman towards the Aussies and that is what wins the admiration of fans around the world.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Suhrith's Fiver *

1. Amit Mishra: A pleasure to watch
Watching Mishra bowl brought back memories of the recently retired Mushtaq Ahmed. Mishra mixes his deliveries wonderfully well and he possesses a canny googly, which makes him lovely to watch. I hope he can go on to play many a game for India.

2. Emile Heskey: The missing piece
I read somewhere that the common factor between Amr Zaki, the BPL’s top scorer and Wayne Rooney, the joint top scorer of the European qualifying groups for the 2010 World Cup is that both are partnered by Emile Heskey. No wonder Rafa Bentiez wants him back at Anfield.

3. David Villa: Can do no wrong
Six goals from six starts for Valencia and five from four for Spain means that David Villa is the top striker in Europe at the moment. Rooney has been superb over the last few games, but Villa has been even better.

4. Newcastle, Tottenham: Bottom two
Newcastle and Spurs are in serious danger of relegation, unless they can amend their ways soon enough. Everyone knows that both these teams are too good to go down, but since when has that mattered?

5. Team orders: Why no hue and cry?
Even as Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory at Shanghai, Ferrari team orders ensured that Felipe Massa finished ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. Team orders had been outlawed by the FIA after Barrichello handed victory to Schumacher at Austria. This time however not a single eyebrow was raised as Raikkonen let Massa pass him. I wonder why?

* Inspired by Tony’s Fiver at:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lack of Quality

It was a case of ‘Bravo Bravo Fantastico’ for the second race running as Fernando Alonso stormed to his twenty first formula one victory at the Fuji Speedway earlier today. Alonso’s victory at the Japanese Grand Prix was as close to a perfect race as one can expect from a driver in a season which has thus far been characterized by the ineptness of the title challengers in sealing the driver’s championship. In spite of the fact that the title is far from decided going into the final two races of the season, this season in my opinion ranks as one of the worst ever of the recent past. Yes, we have had the spectacle of the night grand prix at Singapore and some swashbuckling action on the track, but the fact that neither Felipe Massa nor Lewis Hamilton has been able to close out the championship by taking advantage of the other’s mistakes has for me taken much of the glow out of this season. At times it has seemed like neither of them really wants to win the driver’s title with both electing to make ruinous decisions on the track as was evidenced with Hamilton’s move in the opening lap and Massa’s idiocy on the next at the Japanese Grand Prix today.

In my belief, if it had been either Schumacher or Alonso in Hamilton’s place, the title race would have been done and dusted by now. Would Schumacher have tried a daring move on a driver who was not competing with him for the title on the opening lap of the race? I think not. Sir Jackie Stewart once said that a driver cannot afford to make more than one blunder in a season if he harbours hopes of winning the championship. Hamilton and Massa though in spite of their numerous slip-ups this season are the main title challengers with two races to go and this is down to the simple fact that neither of them possesses the capabilities to close a championship out in the manner in which a true great can.

Hamilton for all his racing abilities rarely comes close to flawlessness on the track over the course of an entire race and often seems to crumble under pressure as he did today. He must be warned that he runs the risk of turning into a Jacques Villeneuve unless he can learn to make the right choices under pressure and curb his instinct to race when not necessary. Massa has never ever been considered at par with the likes of Raikkonen and Alonso and his performance at Japan clearly showed why. The manner of the performances from Hamilton and Massa over the last couple of races suggests to me that Robert Kubica who is only twelve points behind Hamilton may well be in with a chance going into the final two races of the season. At least Kubica has displayed the ability to perform under pressure and even if he fails to pull of an unlikely driver’s title, it would only be fair to describe him as the best driver of what has been an appalling season of formula one racing. 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ponting Leads Aussie Charge

I was privileged to witness Ricky Ponting’s thirty sixth test match century yesterday at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore and I must say it was a knock which was filled more with substance than style. Ponting has erased all the demons of his past with this fighting knock and has more than set the tone for what should be an extremely fascinating series. He is usually an instinctive batsman who plays his shots when the ball is there to be hit, but yesterday he showcased a different aspect to his game and personality, one that is packed with grit, determination and commitment. After having lost Hayden to a poor umpiring decision in the first over of play, Ponting provided his country with just the kind of knock that was required of him. He saw off the new ball with untypical circumspection and then handled Harbhajan Singh in a manner which far from suggested the fact that Harbhajan had scalped him on eight occasions before the start of the first test match.

There is no doubt that Harbhajan's and Kumble's innocuous bowling made it rather simple for Ponting to get his first test match ton on Indian soil, but Ponting’s approach clearly suggested that he had come to India with a specific game plan on how to handle the spinners. He refrained from lunging outside the off stump and consciously played the ball as late as possible and most importantly as he himself pointed out in an interview at the end of the day, he trusted his technique which had got him thirty five test match centuries prior to the commencement of the ongoing test match. Once he had settled down, the crowd got to witness some gorgeous extra cover drives of the back foot and a couple of majestically executed lofted flick shots of Harbhajan. With Hussey taking off from where Ponting left off and considering the surprisingly slow pace of the Australian innings, India have their task cut out, if they want to get anything out of this match.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

No need for Makeleles

Previously, I had written about the demise of the ‘trequartista’ in England, a player who pulls strings from the hole between the midfield and the defense of the opposition. A position, however which is very much alive and kicking in England is that of a holding midfielder, a player who is deployed between the back four and the conventional central midfield arrangement of the team. The position has attained such enormous craze that it is sometimes described as the ‘Makelele role’. I for one despise the role and wouldn’t disagree with Cantona’s description of Didier Deschamps as the water carrier of the French national team. I fail to find the logic in statements that trophies cannot be won without a spoiler in the middle of midfield. Manchester United have won silverware for years now without having a single defensive midfielder in their team. Even Owen Hargreaves who was signed last season to offer greater solidity to the team has more often than not been deployed in wide areas to ensure greater discipline. Of course I wouldn’t dispute the presence of a 'Makelele' when the rest of the team is brimming with pure attacking flair and a great deal of defensive indiscipline to go with it, like the last great Real Madrid team did. A manager should however as far as possible be looking to build a team with all round abilities rather than a team with five players possesing glittering attacking talent and one player who spoils and is only of passing the ball five yards to his left or right.

The great Manchester United and Arsenal teams of the 90s did not possess a single spoiler in them and this is testimony to Ferguson and Wenger’s philosophy of building teams that look to win rather than destroy. No doubt the Arsenal versus Man United games witnessed fantastic physical battles between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, but both of these players in their prime possessed immense stamina which enabled them to contribute tremendously to the attacking causes of their teams. Keane for me was the most complete player, the Premier League has ever seen. He was never the most naturally gifted, but he could tackle, pass, head, finish and over and above these qualities, he had the sort of commitment that saw him bully many a midfield battle over the years. Players like Keane, no doubt aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but there are several players who can play from deeper positions in midfield and at the same time contribute to the team from an attacking perspective. Unquestionably, with the rigidity of the everyday back four, managers can seldom sacrifice on the defensive aspect of their central midfielders, but that’s no reason for insisting on one-dimensional players like a Gattuso or a Mascherano in your line-up.

I am not for one moment suggesting that managers should do away with holding midfielders. In fact there is no greater joy than watching the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso bossing the middle of midfield with their bright passing abilities. I am just not one for having a spoiler. The need for such a player has in my mind arisen largely because of the persistence of managers with a four man back four which requires a shield in front of the centre backs to avoid being unlocked with consummate ease by players who drift into the hole between the midfield and the defense of the opposition. In my opinion though this job of acting as a lock in front of the defense can be easily performed by players who are equally adept at creating cross field balls of the most supreme level and therefore there is no real necessity to have someone in your team sheet who can do nothing but ruin the opposition’s play. Spain’s recent triumph at the European Championships is indicative of the fact that success can be earned without installing a player as a spoiler in the middle of midfield. Marcos Senna who anchored the midfield for Spain was equally effective with his distribution as he was with his defensive duties. Fernando Gago of Real Madrid, Daniele De Rossi of Roma and Michael Carrick of Manchester United are all players who can act as an effective lock and at the same time display outstanding attacking attributes. Gago is much like Fernando Redondo in so far as his style of play is concerned. Redondo who anchored Real Madrid to their Champions League victory in 1998, their first since 1966 was a player of the highest calibre who owned supreme passing skills and fine football intelligence leading him to being described by Fabio Capello as a ‘tactically perfect’ player.

Having said that, I do understand the necessity to play spoilers on the odd occasion, perhaps to nullify a truly phenomenal talent such as Kaka for instance, but I find no requirement for such a player day in and day out. The modern phenomenon of insistence on defense minded central midfielders is taking the fun out of the game and managers need to realize sooner rather than later that they can win football games without having a single-minded defensive midfielder in their team.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tactical Blunder

Sir Alex Ferguson got it tactically wrong. It’s as simple as that. In my opinion, Ferguson pulled off a ‘Benitez’ yesterday by picking a team that was brimming with attacking talent and playing them in a system that somehow did not do justice to their abilities. When a team plays with conventionally central players such as Rooney and Anderson on the wings, it is of immense importance that the full-backs bomb down the wings to provide width to the team. Yesterday’s performance against Liverpool was very unlike Manchester United in both the manner of performance and in the manner in which the team was set-up. Anderson and Rooney were constantly tucking into the middle, leaving gaping holes on their respective touch lines which remained unfilled for almost the entirety of the match by Evra and Brown. The very presence of Brown as a full back itself in my view warrants the presence of a conventional right winger in the side, especially if a regulation 4-4-2 is employed. Unquestionably the team as a whole were dismal to say the very least, but I believe Ferguson needs to take a fair share of the blame for getting it surprisingly wrong on the day. 

It’s not often that Sir Alex gets outsmarted in a big BPL game, but that in my opinion is exactly what happened against Liverpool at Anfield. If Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov are to be picked in the same team, it’s of vital importance that a system whereby one of Rooney and Tevez is deployed in a role behind the other two is utilized. Using Rooney on the right side by itself isn’t disastrous, but when Wes Brown is playing at right full back, it’s nothing short of catastrophic. A 4-4-2 works best when you are either playing with traditional wide players or when the four in midfield are engaged as a diamond. On hearing the team line-up I felt Ferguson was installing a midfield diamond with Rooney at its apex, but sadly for Man United it was not to be. No doubt, the team at times defended worse than school boys do, but had Ferguson adopted an approach whereby the composition of the team could have better benefited, Man United might not have come away with nothing from the trip.

Rafael Benitez on the other hand, who was lambasted by critics before the game, got it right for the first time in a big game in the BPL. The pressuring high up the pitch, worked like magic for Liverpool. Dirk Kujt who has the worst first touch in the world, was at his unsurprising industrious best playing in his now familiar role of a defensive forward. Albert Riera the new signing from Espanyol enjoyed a superb debut and caused Brown more than a problem or two with his excellent burst of pace and clever movement. The system that Man United adopted allowed Carragher and Skrtel to both concentrate on Berbatov, with Tevez being hounded by his compatriot, Mascherano for almost the entire match barring the third minute when he failed to track Tevez’s run leading to the opening goal of the game. The defensive efforts of Mascherano permitted the stylish Xabi Alonso to pick up the pieces for Liverpool and run the game in whatsoever manner he deemed necessary, from the middle of midfield.  Overall, Bentiez got one better on Ferguson on the day and United need to sort their tactics out soon. With Ronaldo set to return, probably even for the midweek Champions League encounter, Ferguson I am sure will bring all his experience into moulding the wealth of attacking options that he has at his disposal and you can expect Manchester United to be back with a bang before too long. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hick to Retire

Graeme Hick’s decision to retire from first class cricket at the end of the current season marks the end of an ignominious era in English cricket, an era typified by poor selection decisions and shameful handling of players. It’s highly pitiable that Hick, the man who could have easily been one of the world’s greatest batsmen lacked the adequate support from the backroom staff that his truly precocious talent more than deserved. It is not child’s play to plunder more than forty thousand runs in first class cricket, but that’s exactly what Hick made it look like. On his day, and it seemed like everyday was his, he made attacks look ordinary as he plundered one boundary after another. Hick was a monster of a batsman in the county circuit, but sadly for him and England he couldn’t replicate the same kind of form in the international circuit. I am of the opinion that the weight of expectations placed on him and the manner in which he was handled by the selectors are the prime causes for his failure at the highest level.

For all his malfunctions in the test arena, I still believe Hick had a lot to offer in ODIs, even well into the new millennium, a consideration which sadly never dawned on the English selectors. Hick’s average of 37.33 from 120 ODIs is better than the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Steve Waugh, Yuvraj Singh, Herschelle Gibbs and Mohammed Azharuddin to name a few, all of whom were/are fine ODI batsmen. Hick also possessed bucket like hands which helped him take catches in the slips with consummate ease earning plaudits from Graham Gooch who described him as one of the best slip catchers of all time. Steve Waugh is of the opinion that Hick is “as talented as any other player he had come across” and Shane Warne believes that Hick is “purely and simply a quality player”. Unfortunately for English cricket supporters, Hick’s inability to overcome the uncertainties thrust upon him by the selectors ensured that he was never quite able to showcase his phenomenal abilities at the very highest level.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Return of the 'Special One'

This past weekend, the Italian Serie A kicked off amidst far less fanfare and excitement than what the beginning of the Barclays Premier League attracted. In my opinion, the Serie A is miles ahead of the Spanish and the English league in terms of application of tactics and it comes as no surprise to me that the enterprising Jose Mourinho chose Inter Milan over the several other offers that he surely must have had from the crème de la crème of England and Spain, not to mention the English national team. In spite of all these promising options, I am convinced Mourinho made the choice that would best serve the furtherance of his resume. There is no place like Italy to learn the finer tactical nuances of the game and for all his managerial achievements, the stint at Inter Milan will do Mourinho a world of good.

In Italy as opposed to England, managers are always experimenting with tactics and formations in a bid to ensure that they get the right result for the team. In a day and age where managers are highly unwilling to move away from a pedantic four man back four, Italian managers, constantly think out of the box and use differing formations to suit diverse match situations. Gianluca Vialli in his book with Gabrielle Marcotti titled ‘The Italian Job’ compares the footballing ethos of England and Italy and makes several interesting points about how Serie A managers are never shy of playing three at the back with a conventional sweeper and two wing backs, thereby bringing about a certain level of fluidity to the team and permitting in the process the ‘number 10’ to pull the strings from whatsoever position he deems fit to take. Even a game between Lecce and Palermo generates greater tactical battles than one between Liverpool and Chelsea or one involving Arsenal and Manchester United. In England, we are used to witnessing man to man battles between a Jamie Carragher and a Didier Drogba, but we seldom see teams adapting differing tactical plans, in the manner in which the shrewd Italians do. To me, the greatest tragedy of the commercially colossal BPL has been the lack of adequate tactical combats.

Even though, Italy is the birthplace of the ill-acclaimed Catenaccio, the description of Italian football as boring and dull continues to baffle me. A fiercely contested Milan or Rome Derby will in the midst of all the excitement, generate exceptional tactical contests, the likes of which can be witnessed in no other league. Mourinho has always been more focused on the results that his side achieves as opposed to the manner of football played by them and whilst he was lambasted by most critics of the English game, he will be applauded for such an approach in Italy. Italian football fans for generations have been bothered about the result of the game as opposed to the manner of football played by their team. If the manager gets it tactically wrong, he will be crucified by one and all, but if the team nicks an early goal and defends the lead brilliantly, the manager will get all the applauses even if the team hadn’t managed a single attack of significance subsequent to the goal. Although such an attitude isn’t always healthy, it certainly pressurizes the managers to think more about the game and adjust to different match situations. In Italy the fans take pride in the fact that their team was compact enough to defend their lead magnificently or in the fact that their team outthought the opposition at a pure strategic level.

Mourinho however isn’t in my opinion going to find it all that easy in spite of the great wealth of talent that Inter Milan possesses. He would have to acclimatize quickly to the Italian game and get his tactics spot on if he wants to enjoy success in Italy. As expected he has taken extremely well to the glitz and glamour of the Italian league in so far as his handling of the media is concerned, but he has unexpectedly failed to make an early mark on his Inter team as they struggled to manage a draw away at Sampdoria. But then none of the big guns have started off too well, with last season’s runners-up Roma and Juventus both managing only a draw from their opening fixtures. Carlo Ancelotti, a genius of a manager continues to suffer from AC Milan’s bemusing dealings in the transfer window as he saw his side lose to Bologna of all teams at the San Siro on Sunday. I think we can certainly expect a hugely interesting season at Italy, with Fiorentina likely to join the Milan teams, Roma and Juventus as potential challengers for the Scudetto. But the big question remains whether the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ will be able to deliver the goods in Italy? Jose is a winner through and through and I for one would expect him to succeed sooner rather than later not merely in the Italian Serie A, but in the UEFA Champions League too.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Problems in North London

Juande Ramos for all his tactical acumen has in my opinion not only missed a trick or two in the transfer market, but has also failed to adopt the right match day strategies that will help Tottenham Hotspur further their ambitions this season. If Spurs need to even so far as come close to qualification for Europe, Ramos needs to amend his ways with immediate effect. Jermaine Jenas and Luka Modric will never do well enough alongside each other in the centre of midfield. Jenas likes to bomb forward from midfield and is at his best when he plays as the link man between the midfield and the forwards. Modric as I have said before is a trequartista of the finest calibre and Ramos needs to deploy him in the ‘hole’ if he wants to see the best of him. My misgivings about the strategy employed by Spurs stem more out of the players deployed by Spurs in the different positions rather than out of the 4-4-1-1 formation that they had employed in the first two games of the season.

If Ramos had played Modric in the hole and Bentley and Bale on the right and left respectively, I am not too sure if Spurs would have done as poorly as they have in the opening two games. Jenas and Modric in the centre of midfield, as I mentioned earlier is an impracticable arrangement and Spurs need to play someone alongside Jenas who can anchor the midfield much in the Michael Carrick mould. I still believe Spurs’ failure to find an adequate replacement for Carrick has been the chief reason for their downfall over the last couple of seasons and is probably the cause of Martin Jol’s departure from the club. Didier Zokora is a player of moderate abilities and Tom Huddlestone in spite of his precocious passing abilities does not seem cut out for the big league. Spurs are in desperate need for a deep lying central midfielder and if they don’t sign one within the end of the present transfer window, I see them finishing below the likes of Portsmouth, Aston Villa and probably even Newcastle who seem rejuvenated under King Kev.

Tottenham have never quite needed attacking reinforcements beyond the odd player or two and singing Modric, Bentley and dos Santos makes good sense only if necessary strengthening has been undertaken in other areas of the pitch, such as in central midfield and up front, where they have already lost Robbie Keane and are looking increasing likely to lose Dimitar Berbatov, the two of whom nearly scored fifty goals between them last season. Signing, albeit a gifted Andrei Arshavin, would in my mind be a colossal waste of resources. Of what use would it be to have a hundred ‘hole’ players in your squad, all of whom are equally capable of threading the perfect through ball, when you don’t possess a striker who can apply the much needed finish? Goals and not passes win football matches and Spurs need to understand that before it’s too late. They must do their utmost in my opinion to sign a quality number 9 and a deep lying central midfielder if they have any interest in qualifying for Europe this season.

Moving on regrettably for Tottenham fans to the bigger club from North London, Arsenal, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher that they are missing Mathieu Flamini in the centre of their midfield. Flamini was magnificent for the Gunners last season and I am not too sure what Wenger has in mind in terms of the central midfield combination for this season. No doubt, Fabregas has missed the first two games with an injury, but even when he does come back, Wenger needs to address the problem of whom to play alongside him. With the signing of Mikael Silvestre from rivals Manchester United, I expect to see Kolo Toure increasingly being used as a defensive midfielder and only time will tell whether the experiment succeeds. Wenger is a past master at getting his players to adapt to different positions on the pitch, but I still think Arsenal will do well to sign a conventional central midfielder of significant experience. If Arsenal can somehow land Xabi Alonso, they can ensure that they are there and thereabouts in the title race come March. Samir Nasri, who was impressive in his debut against West Brom failed to make an adequate impact against Fulham yesterday and whilst he is a talented young player, he will need time to adjust to the rigours of the BPL. It remains to be seen how Nasri performs when a Phil Neville or a Brett Emerton gets stuck into him, but he has unquestionably made a good first impression, by showing a willingness to shoot and tackle when needed.

We can expect Arsenal to play a lot of good football this season much like they did last season, but they continue to lack experience in a few key areas and William Gallas has shown himself to be a very poor inspiration for some of the younger wards, which could prove costly for the Gunners in the long run this season. Having said that, Fabregas remains the key for Arsenal. Fabregas possesses maturity that belies his age and when he does return to the line-up, we can in my opinion expect to see the best of the Gunners.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Phelps the Greatest?

Eight gold medals in a single Olympics is quite simply phenomenal, but whether that makes Michael Phelps, the greatest ever Olympian is a different matter altogether. The debate of who is the greatest of all time is ubiquitous in arguments on any sport. A year back, people were saying that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time, but he seems mortal at the moment losing to the likes of Gilles Simon and James Blake and who not. Even if he goes on to win a few more Grand Slams overtaking Pistol Pete in the process, comparing different eras is hardly viable and it would certainly be unfair on Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver or even Sampras for that matter to describe Federer as the greatest ever tennis player, just as it would be on Pele, Maradona, or Best to label Zidane as the greatest ever footballer.

Calling Phelps’ the single greatest Olympic athlete of all time as Mark Spitz has, not only means that Phelps would have to be greater than Usain Bolt, who was remarkable to say the very least in the 100 metres race, or Yelena Isinbayeva who is going from strength to strength in the pole vault, but would also mean that Phelps is greater than a Jesse Owens, a Nadia Comaneci or a Michael Johnson who were all outstanding athletes in their own right. Comparing different eras is bad enough, but comparing different sports is simply unworkable. Comparing the 100m butterfly to the triple jump or to the 110m hurdles is like comparing the paintings of Michelangelo to the compositions of Beethoven or to the writings of Shakespeare. Usain Bolt’s act was equally impressive and for my money was superior to Phelps’ performances in terms of the sheer viewing pleasure that it created. Isinbayeva took women’s pole vault to a whole new level yesterday and in her own words, ‘she no longer considers the record as a world record, but rather as merely a personal best’. Therefore, even terming Phelps’ achievement as the best at the Beijing Olympics will be unfair to the likes of Bolt and Isinbayeva who have performed remarkably in their respective events. It is difficult enough to call Phelps the greatest swimmer of all time, calling him the greatest Olympian of all time is in my opinion excessive and unjust.

No doubt Phelps’ success is one of gargantuan proportions. Winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics is no joke and he practically made it look like a walk in the park. Matt Slater of the BBC says that whilst Phelps, Schumacher, Woods and many more besides could all still be the greatest, it is a difficult argument to make stick for most people, which is why the majority inevitably come back to more accessible sports. I am not however too sure if even in a sport such as football, it is quite so uncomplicated to call someone as the greatest of all time. I for one would certainly decline any opportunity to christen anyone as the greatest Olympian of all time, but if I was asked about my favourite athlete at the Beijing Olympics, I would without hesitation point to Yelena Isinbayeva whose grace and elegance with the pole and her ability to churn out world records for fun is beyond belief. Michael Phelps, eat your heart out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What more does he have to do?

The selectors’ decision to leave out Subramaniam Badrinath from the ODI squads for the Champions Trophy and the tour of Sri Lanka is both baffling and lamentable. The preference of Parthiv Patel and Virat Kohli to Badrinath is devoid of any semblance of logic and is brimming with favouritism. I am by no means being parochial here, but Badrinath has done everything that he needs to do to merit a place in India’s ODI team and yet the selectors chose players far inferior to him both in terms of skill and temperament.

If the selectors were going merely by performances in the recently concluded ‘Emerging Players Tournament’, Shikar Dhawan who scored a good 120 runs more than Kohli and at a far brisker pace should have found a place in the ODI squads especially considering his excellent displays in the IPL. Badrinath has incontestably proved in every opportunity that he has been given, whether it be at the India-A level, the Emerging players tournament, the Indian domestic competitions or at the IPL that he is a phenomenally consistent and level headed player. He can act as an excellent foil to the other Indian batsmen in so far as he is capable of playing the sheet anchor’s role to near perfection. With the exit of Dravid from the ODI set-up, India is in desperate need of a steady batsman in the middle order, a role which Badrinath is capable of easily perfecting. Kohli on the other hand is primarily a dasher and playing him in an Indian eleven which already possesses the likes of Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj and Dhoni would offer the team no balance whatsoever. In choosing to ignore basic commonsense in their quest to offer a favour or two, the selectors are acting as a hugely detrimental force in Indian cricket.

The selectors’ attitude is further baffling when one considers the fact that Badrinath was picked in the squad for the final two ODIs against Australia last year, only for him to be neither picked in the eleven nor in subsequent Indian ODI squads. His record in the last couple of years has been quite sensational and this is probably the right time to blood him in the longer version of the game, particularly in the wake of the terrible form that Ganguly and Dravid are in. But, the selectors’ resolution to leave him completely out of the ODI set up suggests to me that they don’t quite have Badrinath anywhere in their radar, which is a terrible tragedy for Indian cricket.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Who else but KP?

Virtually every cricket expert writing on the internet is of the opinion that the appointment of Kevin Pietersen as captain of the England cricket team can either turn out to be a remarkable success or a disastrous failure. It is of course trite to say that Pieterson was the sole candidate in contention for the team's captain’s post, but the fact remains that only Flintoff and him are assured of a place in both the one day and the test set up. Therefore, once the selectors had decided upon appointing a common captain for both the ODI and test units, bearing in mind Flintoff’s injury woes and his previously dire captaincy experience, the choice for the post came down to just one man, Kevin Pietersen.

Pietersen has admittedly not captained at any level of the game and is vastly inexperienced for the job, but captains are almost always new to their posts and one can only hope that they learn on the job and help inspire their team to success. I am sure he will bring his dare devilish approach to batting to his captaincy and for all one knows, England might stand to benefit hugely from such a technique. Having said that, the responsibility could adversely affect his batting and England certainly wouldn’t want its best batsman burdened by captaincy. Only time will tell, whether Pietersen can bring a 'switch-hit' to his captaincy, but how well he takes to the role will be crucial to England’s performances.

Previously, I had expressed my views on the excellent balance of the English team and their preparedness for the Ashes next summer. However, with all the recent happenings and the dismal losses to the Proteas, I am forced to take a backward step or two on my stance. Much of my optimism on a great Ashes contest was based on Michael Vaughan’s presence at the helm of the English team. Vaughan is undeniably one of England’s greatest ever captains. But, whilst his resignation comes as massive surprise, it was probably the right thing to do considering his own batting form and the performance of the team against South Africa. Vaughan has also decided to take a break from cricket and relax for a while before he returns to play for Yorkshire in the County Championships. For all his recent batting misery, Vaughan remains one of England’s top batsmen and it would serve England very well if he can return to his graceful best and regain a place in the top order. The manner in which the Ashes pans out is in my opinion almost entirely dependant on how Pietersen adapts to his role as captain and the impact that the role has on his batting. With the return of Hoggard and possibly even Simon Jones, the English bowling attack will surely have a much more solid look to it, come the Ashes. But, irrespective of the team composition, Pietersen holds the key. If he can lead from the front and act as an inspirational force, England will make more than worthy opponents for the Aussies.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Picks for 08-09

With less than three weeks to go for the beginning of the new season of the Barclays Premier League, I must say that we are in the midst of the most boring off season for years now in spite of the ongoing Ronaldo saga and the constant uncertainty surrounding Gareth Barry. I can’t for one wait for the start of the new season and instead of immersing myself in asinine transfer rumours, I have been trying to figure out whom to look out for in this coming season in terms of performances. I have therefore come out with a list of ten players, all of whom I expect will contribute heavily this season in the drive for success of their respective clubs.

10. Jonas Gutierrez: Gutierrez is one of those who can either turn out to be a colossal hit or a massive flop. It depends almost entirely on how he adapts to the English game as there is no doubting his talents. Gutierrez is not blessed with breathtaking pace, but he is certainly capable of a trick or two and if he plays anywhere near as well as he did for Real Mallorca, we can expect him to be a big hit at Tyneside. The man nicknamed as the 'Spiderman' for the mask he puts on for goal celebrations is certainly the most colourful player signed this season.

9. Leighton Baines: Baines was unlucky to have missed out on a large part of the last season due to injury, but if fit this season, we can certainly expect him to play a big role for Everton not only in the form of helping them acquire clean sheets, but from an attacking point of view as well. Baines is a neat compact defender, but it is his ability to maraud forward from the left-back position that sets him apart as one to watch out for.

8. Gabriel Agbonlahor: ‘Gabi’, as he was referred to by the then Villa manager, David O’Leary has come on by leaps and bounds since scoring on debut against Everton. Agonlahor is blessed with tremendous pace which allows him to be deployed either wide on the right wing or centrally as a support striker. He has probably not fulfilled his potential in terms of goals, but Gabi offers far more than just goals to his team. He is capable of beating opponents both by skill and pace and we can expect far more goals and thrills from Agbonlahor this season.

7. Michael Johnson: News of Manchester City offering the youngster a new five year deal in spite of his current deal running till 2011 suggests that Johnson is a player that Mark Hughes is desperate to hang on to. He is a typical box to box player whose ability to dictate play from midfield stands out amongst several other admirable qualities. Having scored two spectacular goals for Man City last season, I would expect Johnson to flourish under the management of Hughes this season and who knows he may even find himself in the Don’s squad before too long.

6. Nani: Even though Nani impressed many with his performances last season, I don’t think the world has seen the best of him. Last season for the likes of Nani and Anderson was meant to be a time for settling in and adapting to the English game. Both players however took to the BPL like fish to water and I would expect a great deal more from both of them, in particular from Nani. Ryan Giggs isn’t getting any younger and I am sure Ferguson having tested Nani last season would provide him the opportunity to exhibit his talents on a far more regular basis this season and Man United fans can certainly look forward to seeing a whole lot more of ‘leaps of death’ from the Portuguese starlet.

5. Luka Modric: For me, the most exciting signing of the season by a good mile and a half, Modric is an exceptionally gifted footballer. He has two good feet and the unique ability to see passes that others cannot even dream of. The moot point surrounding Modric of course is whether he would be able to cope with the physicality of the BPL. But personally I don’t see why Modric would not be able to excel, particularly if he is used as a trequartista which is the position best suited for his spectacular abilities.

4. Wilson Palacios: Palacios is perhaps the only reason why Steve Bruce’s Wigan Athletic are still in the BPL. He stunned one and all with his supreme energy levels and his ability to make things happen on a football pitch and Arsene Wenger is probably regretting not having signed him instead of recommending him to Bruce as he could have been the ideal replacement for Mathieu Flamini. Arguably this season would be harder for Palacios, considering the expectations upon him after his admirable displays last season, but I would think he is more than capable of rising to the occasion and perform at even greater levels.

3. David Bentley: Bentley is without doubt a player blessed with the abilities to play for one of the big four clubs of the BPL and I am extremely surprised that Liverpool who lack a genuine wide player failed to make a bid for Bentley. Jaunde Ramos has once again played the cards perfectly by using the funds from Robbie Keane’s transfer to secure one of Britain’s brightest young talents. Bentley has an incredible cross and a superb shot on him and is deadly to say the very least from dead balls. Every year there is a lot of talk about how Spurs are going to break into the top four. I am not too sure if they will this season, but with the likes of Modric, Bentley and dos Santos in the squad, it can only be a matter of time before Spurs start challenging for a top four position.

2. Steve Sidwell: Having sat out on the bench for practically a whole season, Sidwell will be raring to get onto the pitch and perform to the best of his abilities in the claret and blue of Aston Villa. Whether Gareth Barry moves or stays, Sidwell will in my opinion have a big role to play in Villa’s quests this season. His splendid performances in Reading’s inaugural season earned him a Bosman move to Chelsea only for him to end up behind several players in the pecking order for a coveted central midfield berth. But this season, I am sure we can witness the best of Sidwell once again as he dictates play behind the likes of Young, Agbonlahor and Carew.

1. Bacari Sagna: Arsenal’s title ambitions last season seemed to spiral downwards almost immediately after Sagna injured himself against Chelsea causing him to miss the final month and a half of the campaign. Had Sagna been fit, I would think the title race would have been far closer than it actually was. Sagna is the kind of player who often goes unnoticed in a game, which is not as bad as it sounds when the player in question is a defender. But apart from offering consistency at the back, Sagna presents wonderful options for the Gunners from an attacking perspective, and I am sure there is a whole lot more to come from Sagna this season.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Need for Review of the Review System

I am writing this almost immediately after the loss of Virender Sehwag to the review system that is being tested for the first time in the presently underway test series between Sri Lanka and India and from what little I have seen today, I am convinced that cricket must not embrace the sytem, at least not in its present form. Under the current system, from what I understand, the final decision lies with the on-field umpire on the basis of the information supplied by the third umpire. Although, the Sehwag dismissal probably arose out of a human error by the third umpire and not merely out of a technological mishap, I am still of the opinion that the review system as is being applied in the India-Sri Lanka test series has no place in cricket.

A decision on an appeal for leg before wicket for instance can be made best only by the umpire at the bowlers end. The on-field umpire is in by far the best position to determine whether the ball pitched outside the line of the leg stump, whether the ball hit the pads on line with the stumps, and finally whether the ball was going on to crash into the woodwork. Moreover, whilst the review system utilizes hawk eye, other technological aids such as the snickometer and hot spot are not being used as they have not been adequately tested. This is therefore, an admission that hawk eye is foolproof, which is ludicrous considering the number of occasions in the past where hawk eye has been blatantly wrong, just as it was with the Sehwag decision today. The ball had evidently pitched outside the line of leg stump and yet hawk eye was of the opinion that it substantially pitched inside the line and presumably Rudi Koertzen, the third umpire conveyed this information to Mark Benson, the on-field umpire, who in turn on the said basis ruled Sehwag out. Traditions, such as the entitlement of a batsman to the benefit of any doubt, was almost entirely ignored by the umpires because hawk eye told them that the ball pitched in line and that the ball hit the pads in line of the stumps.

The review system, according to the ICC is in place to eliminate obvious errors. Whilst this is indeed a noble objective, the form of the system as is in place presently seems to contribute very little to the goal. The Sehwag dismissal for instance was actually a case of obvious error being created by technology as opposed to being committed by the on-field umpire. I had mentioned in an earlier post that for instances of closely held catches, very often technological evidence is inconclusive and hence a referral must not be made in such circumstances. Similarly in the case of slight knicks, technology, in particular hawk eye is practically useless and if the ICC is not going to utilize the snickometer, there is no point in having the referral system as umpires often need to rely on the sound that is generated in determining a caught behind as invariably the slightest of deviations is not visible either to the eye of an on-field umpire or to the eyes of a third umpire watching through a television screen.

I am not doubting the objectives of the ICC nor the fact that technology can be useful in eradicating obvious errors, but the manner of operation of the referral system doesn’t quite appeal to me. In my opinion, as was pointed out by Geoffrey Boycott during the luncheon interval, for decisions such as an lbw, the on-field umpire must be allowed to have a proper communication with the third umpire and must be permitted to convey the exact nature of his doubts and the reasons why he had ruled either in favour of or against the batsman. Mark Benson in all probability ruled Sehwag not-out on the basis that the ball pitched outside the line of leg stump and since in any event the ball had come in contact first with the front foot which was outside the line of the leg stump. The third umpire Rudi Koertzen was evidently oblivious to Benson’s doubts and completely missed the fact that the ball brushed the front pad first before crashing into the back and thereby the referral system instead of eradicating an obvious error has caused the creation of an obvious error. Of course the system in its limited period of existence has already contributed towards the correction of certain errors by the umpires, but even still on the basis of the Sehwag case, I am of the opinion that the referral system in its current form requires a thorough review and that the ICC must refrain from using it in the same form in future tournaments.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tour de Dope

As I was reading the news on Cadel Evans claiming the yellow jersey after the 10th stage of the Tour de France, I was wondering when the first allegation of drug abuse by Evans would surface, if it already hasn’t. The thought is no doubt quite pathetic, as Evans has probably performed admirably to win the honour of donning the yellow jersey, yet it is something that cannot but surface considering the present state of cycling as a sport. In my opinion, which I am sure most people would agree with, cycling has lost all its credibility; in particular after last year’s Tour de France which was ridden with doping scandals. Although Lance Armstrong, a seven time winner of the Tour de France has never been found guilty of consuming performance enhancing drugs, he has still had a host of doping allegations levied against him. There must surely be something wrong about a sport whose greatest champion has a multitude of cheating charges against him.

I am certain the Tour de France is a cracking contest and makes for enthralling viewing, not least for cycling enthusiasts. But a competition which is almost always subject to controversies that go to the very root of the performance of a participant, somehow fails to appeal to my interests. There are of course several arguments against my viewpoint, one of which is that cheating is prevalent in almost all sports. The question of how I can watch cricket, football or even tennis these days, with all the match fixing scandals is certainly valid. But somehow whilst cheating is perhaps prevalent in these sports, the overall impact that it has had on the sport doesn’t compare with what doping has done to cycling.

Even if Azharuddin is indeed guilty of match fixing, the beauty of his batting will never wear away in the minds of the viewers. But if a cyclist is found guilty of doping, however brilliant his performance was, the greatness of his very skills are put in doubt by the fact that he cheated. I am not too sure if my propositions are logically perfect, considering that I am more than a little confused about my whole standpoint. For instance, it might be argued that if cricket matches are in fact fixed, Azhar was able to bat so beautifully only because the bowlers bowled poorly on purpose. But I do believe that if cheating does exist in immense proportions in tennis, football and cricket, the data to corroborate the same is certainly inadequate. Whereas in a sport such as cycling, allegations of cheating are often in the forefront and this in my opinion is causing the erosion of the whole sport.

Doping and cycling somehow seem to go hand in hand and this leads to discrediting of the excellent performances of many clean cyclists in the eyes of cynics such as me. There is an urgent need for reforms within the sport if it wants to continue generating the kind of keen interest which it deserves. I am not entirely sure about the solutions to the crisis, as the problem as is evident to us is only the tip of the iceberg. There is apparently enough data to suggest that only a small percentage of cheats are being caught by the authorities. There is also however another interesting line of argument which suggests that ‘if you test, you find’ and that since cycling is the sport where the maximum amount of dope testing is carried forward, it contains the most number of offenders. Even if this is true, it doesn’t take away from the fact that a large number of cyclists are found guilty of doping every year, which does no good to the reputation of the sport. Authorities need to act fast to save the sport from declining further into the abyss of disgrace.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Time for a New #7

Sir Alex Ferguson has often deviated from the age old adage, ‘never change a winning team’ in his constant quest to rebuild the structure of the team in a manner that will contribute in the long run without as far as possible impeding the chances of immediate success of the team. But, the situation surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo is far more complex to handle than most issues that Ferguson has been plagued with in the past. Newspaper reports suggest on a daily basis that Sir Alex will go to any extent to keep Ronaldo at Manchester United in spite of the player being seemingly unwilling to stay at the club and Real Madrid’s insistent and immoral pursuit. Personally, as a Manchester United fan, I am of the firm belief that Ronaldo needs to be sold. It’s after all not everyday that a single player is going to fetch close to 150 Million Dollars. Of course many would argue that by retaining Ronaldo at the club for a few more years, United can make more than double of what that they stand to gain as transfer fee. Financially there are several permutations and combinations that come into play and it may well not suit Man United to let go of their cherished asset, but from a pure footballing standpoint, I don’t think there is any doubting the necessity to let go of Ronaldo.

Ronaldo certainly seems to lack commitment to the club and if not this season, he will most definitely want a move next summer or the one after that and retaining him will only lead to a great deal of discomfort amongst the other players. I have wanted to stay as far away as possible from this subject, considering that Ronaldo is a Man United player at the moment who has contributed immensely to the team’s successes in the recent past and since as long as he is a United player, I would want to back him to the hilt. But then again there is the cliché of no player being bigger than his club and Ronaldo’s behaviour for a while now seems to suggest that he believes he is bigger than Manchester United. When selling Beckham to Real Madrid, Ferguson referred explicitly to this old adage and no doubt it took time for United to rebuild, but that is exactly what they did. I just think what Ronaldo is doing at the moment is downright insulting and scornful. He is playing around with the hearts of all true Man United fans by constantly making statements about his dream of playing for Los Merengues. It would serve everyone at the club including its fans well, if he came out with a cut and dry statement of his intentions of playing for Real Madrid this coming season.

Retaining a disgruntled player, irrespective of who he may be, is not going to do the team any good whatsoever. Of course if Ronaldo offers a proper commitment to Man United, I would love for him to stay and one day be considered as a God of Stretford End. But the way things stand at the moment, it seems increasingly likely that his heart lies away from Old Trafford and the only solution to the problem is to sell him at the highest possible value and make use of the funds acquired to purchase a quality centre forward, a winger and cover at centre back and left back. It would be wonderful to see United add a bit of ‘Klass’ by signing Huntelaar from Ajax. From whatever little I have seen of him, he looks a composed finisher and seems to possess the required strength to lead the line effectively. Playing Rooney, Tevez and Nani in the form of a triangle behind Huntelaar would in my opinion have a sensational impact and can more than make up for the loss of Ronaldo. We are yet to witness the best of Rooney and playing him behind a good old-fashioned centre forward like Huntelaar will in my opinion, do him a world of good. The sale proceeds of Ronaldo could lead to a very interesting summer at United as Ferguson will strive to bring in a combination of talented players to Old Trafford. By making the right moves in the transfer market, United can ensure that they continue to win silverware after silverware.