Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bring It On!

I felt I needed a week or so to soak the unadulterated joy that Manchester United has provided me by winning the double, viz. the Barclays Premier League and the UEFA Champions league before trying to write about the magnificence of the squad of players that they possess. There have been occasions in the past where the best team in Europe has failed to win the Champions League. Barcelona was probably the top team on paper over the last few seasons and they triumphed only once. This time though objectively speaking, I feel the finest team in Europe has won the Champions League. Man United have played some dazzling football all season long and unquestionably deserved to lift the trophy at Moscow. Though, for all their spectacular attacking play, I believe it’s their astounding performance at the back that has stood out this season.

The back four comprising of Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra have been quite simply outstanding. Brown has forever been regarded as an unpredictable and error prone defender, but given a consistent run in the team this season, he has ensured that the club captain Gary Neville has been scarcely missed. The partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic has been likened by many to the celebrated Pallister- Bruce pairing. Rio much like Pallister is extremely comfortable on the ball and reads the game as well as any defender in the world. Vidic on the other hand is very much in the Bruce mould. He is a physically imposing defender and many deem the manner in which he attacks the ball, as reminiscent of Bruce during his glory days. Evra at left back has been in glorious form throughout the season and in the final against Chelsea some of his link up play with Ronaldo was breathtaking to say the very least.

Even though the season has only just concluded, I still cannot wait for next season to commence. There are rumours that Ferguson will complete all his transfer dealings over the next two weeks or so and although there isn’t much strengthening required, two or three reinforcements will certainly do the team no harm. With the departure of Luis Saha very much in the offing, I would expect United to sign a centre forward. There is talk that Luis Fabiano, Sevilla’s Brazilian star could well be on his way to Old Trafford for as less as 8 million pounds. With Pique returning to Barcelona, there is probably also a need to sign a central defender as a back-up to the presently existing defenders. United would also do well to sign a full back who can act as a long term successor to Gary Neville. It is imperative though that the core of the present team is retained. The stories of Ronaldo moving to Real Madrid have refused to die down with Madrid adopting their characteristically immoral methods in the transfer market. Having said that, I still believe Ronaldo will remain at Old Trafford for at least another two seasons in which time United would hopefully have surpassed Liverpool on the league titles count and equaled their European Cup triumphs. Wishful thinking some may say, but I believe there is nothing that is beyond this team's abilities.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Clincal Chase by Solid England

England’s victory at Old Trafford in the second test is highly commendable considering the position they found themselves in during the middle of the third day. Although I was unable to witness Monty Panesar’s spell, the nature of the run chase on the fourth day showcased the supreme ability possessed by this English team. Andrew Strauss in particular was magnificent as he demonstrated great powers of concentration and discipline in compiling a neat century to lead England’s pursuit of 294. During the early parts of his knock of 106, apart from a couple of glides to the third man boundary, Strauss was quite content to leave deliveries bowled outside the line of his off stump. Anything on his pads though was severely dealt with as Strauss continued his come back from the terrible loss of form that saw him dropped from the team for most parts of last year. Skipper Vaughan on the back of a century at Lords continued to strike the ball beautifully before departing caught behind on 48 courtesy a lazy drive away from his body. But whilst he was in the middle, he played some of his trademark elegant cuts and drives and shared a marvelous partnership with Strauss which laid the platform for England’s success. Vaughan’s departure saw the arrival of Kevin Pietersen who showed some of his best form before being run-out on 42. The unconfident Collingwood and the classy yet circumspect Ian Bell finished the job for England who have now taken a 1-0 series lead going into the final test at Trent Bridge.

On paper England seems to possess an admirably balanced team which could well challenge the Aussies next summer for the famous Ashes urn. The real test prior to the Ashes though will come against the Proteas who play a four match series in England commencing in July. Michael Vaughan needs to ensure that his team maintains good discipline and are continually committed to excellence. The selectors also have a key role to perform in order to ensure that the nucleus of the team is maintained. Unless a player is capable of adding genuine class to the team such as Andrew Flintoff, the present set up must be retained as far as possible. Mark Ramprakash although 38 now, is another player of supreme talent and ability whose performances for Surrey in the county championships over the last couple of seasons shows that he still has it in him to succeed at the international level. He has been treated harshly by the selectors in the past and I firmly believe he deserves a second chance.

The bowling attack much like the batting line-up wears a solid look to it and Ryan Sidebottom has been nothing short of a revelation since his return to the English set up. James Anderson has been similarly impressive with his ability to produce late swing that caused many batsmen problems during the 2003 World Cup. The stand-out performer though has been Monty Panesar who has raced to 100 wickets in test matches as England finally seems to have unearthed a spinner of international repute. With the imminent return of Matthew Hoggard the bowling attack certainly looks more than formidable on paper. Although there is a long time to go, the look of the present English team suggests that a fantastic contest can be expected when the two arch-rivals meet next summer in a quest to win the Ashes.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Dream ODI Team

For years now, I have been putting down my dream teams for both one day international and test cricket and I feel it is finally time to let the world know of the eleven players who comprise my ODI team. Cricketers whom I haven’t seen play on live television, at least not enough to make a proper judgement unfortunately miss out and that means there is no Sir Vivian Richards, Joel Garner, Imran Khan or even Dean Jones in my eleven. My team is as follows.

  1. Sachin Tendulkar: Without question the greatest ODI batsman of all time, the inclusion of Tendulkar does not require any explanation.
  2. Mark Waugh: The second opener’s position essentially comes down to a choice between Mark Waugh and Saeed Anwar. Anwar was a fantastic one day batsman and I had the privilege of watching his magnificent 194 at Madras, which remains the highest ever ODI score, from the stands. But Waugh’s additional abilities as a part time off break bowler and the fact that he is in my opinion the greatest all round fielder of his generation means that Anwar has to be left out of the eleven.
  3. Brian Lara: Very often only Lara’s great test innings are talked about. But it must be remembered that Lara was an equally good one day cricketer. He scored more than 10000 one day runs at an average above 40 which is no mean feat. Ricky Ponting was the other player in consideration for the number 3 spot, but I guess my admiration for Lara’s genius entails the current Aussie skipper to be overlooked.
  4. Inzamam-Ul-Haq: Inzamam is without doubt one of the finest one day batsmen the world has ever seen. The time that he seemed to possess while playing his strokes was quite simply remarkable. I have always felt that purely on talent, Inzamam is right up there with the best.
  5. Mohammed Azharuddin: Azhar as I have mentioned in previous posts is a personal favourite of mine. He was all elegance and prettiness and some of the strokes he played are incapable of replication. His ability to rotate the strike and score vital half centuries together with his supreme fielding ability means that he occupies the crucial number 5 spot in my ODI team.
  6. Steve Waugh (c): Steve Waugh is not as renowned for his contributions to ODI cricket as he is for his test match abilities. But Waugh in my opinion is one of the most complete ODI cricketers of all time. His grit and determination together with his ability to play the big shots in the slog overs are qualities that are highly admirable. But the aspect, which ensures Waugh’s presence in the eleven, was his superb ability with the ball at the death. They did not call him ‘Iceman’ for nothing.
  7. Andy Flower (wk): The selection of the wicketkeeper is one of toughest decisions to make. Most people would probably put Adam Gilchrist in there but I feel that the only way Gilchrist can find his way into my team as a wicketkeeper is if I select him as an opener. However, considering the talents of Tendulkar, Mark Waugh and Saeed Anwar, Gilchrist can quite simply not be accommodated. This means that Andy Flower, one of the best batsmen of his generation would play as the wicketkeeper. Whilst his glove work was more than decent, his batting abilities were fabulous to say the very least. He was capable of astonishing improvisation and is regarded as one of the best players of spin bowling of all time. The presence of Flower also allows greater flexibility in the batting line-up as he can easily bat at the top order in case the team wants to utilize Inzamam or Azhar down the order.
  8. Wasim Akram: The ‘Sultan of Swing’ was the first name on my team sheet. Wasim when in full flow was magnificent to watch. The things he could do with the ball made me believe that he possessed supernatural powers. Brian Lara described him as the most outstanding bowler he had ever faced in tests and one day internationals and he faced a fair few.
  9. Shane Warne: Warne’s ability to retain his attacking instincts irrespective of the situation has been the most exceptional characteristic of his terrific career. The great variations that Warne at his best possessed would be an asset to any squad and he walks into my team without a hint of competition.
  10. Curtly Ambrose: A choice has to be made between Ambrose and McGrath, but it isn’t as difficult a decision as some of the others were. Ambrose invoked genuine fear in the batsman and was unquestionably the most lethal fast bowler of his generation. Ambrose was just as effective with his line and length as McGrath was but he had the ability to move the ball around a fair bit more than McGrath did and was also able to extract steeper bounce considering his immense physique.
  11. Waqar Younis: Waqar’s ability to swing the ball late caused most batsmen problems and his toe-crushing yorkers at exceptional pace were amongst the hardest balls to face. His 7/36 against England is the finest spell of fast bowling I have ever seen in ODI cricket. He finds a place in my team purely on the basis of his great wicket taking ability.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Deserving Champions

Zenit St. Petersburg were highly impressive yet again as they dispatched Glasgow Rangers in the UEFA Cup final last night at the City of Manchester Stadium. The first half was as expected, a tame and uninteresting affair with a typically dogged Rangers’ performance keeping Zenit at bay. There was only one team that was interested in scoring and thankfully for football’s sake they emerged successful at the end of the tie. Just as he had done in previous games in Europe, Walter Smith had set up his Rangers side to defend deep and to make use of chances from set pieces if and when they do arrive to try scoring. Zenit on the other hand tried maintaining a high tempo throughout the game and passed the ball in the quick and precise manner that we are now accustomed to seeing from them. The first half ended goalless as Zenit were mostly content with shots from distance. Rangers were anchored superbly in the first period by Brahim Hemadani and Kevin Thomson who cut out all attacks made by the exciting Zenit playmakers Andrei Arshavin and Konstantin Zurianov. The second half though was to be an entirely different story.

Rangers were forced to come out of their shell in the second period thereby leaving space in the midfield for Zenit to utilize. The half began with Juan Claude Darcheville, Rangers’ lone striker finding space in the Zenit box only for his shot to be saved by Malafeev in the Zenit goal. The rebound though fell kindly for the Gers’ skipper Barry Ferguson whose shot ricocheted on to the hand of a Zenit defender, but the referee deemed it to be unintentional. The first big chance of the game fell to Arshavin who rounded the onrushing Neil Alexander only to have his chipped shot cleared off the line by left back Sasa Papac. The breakthrough though came in the 72nd minute courtesy a wonderful one-two between Arshavin and Denisov, with the latter coolly slotting the ball into the back of the net. Even after Zenit’s opener Rangers efforts to claw themselves back into the game went astray as they were unable to change their tactics to suit the requirements of the hour. Darcheville and Nacho Novo both wasted good chances late on to force the game into extra time. It was Zurianov though who settled the tie in stoppage time by tapping in from close range. At the end of the day I felt that Dick Advocaat’s Zenit although devoid of household names were rewarded for their attacking mindset. Rangers hardly looked like creating meaningful chances and it would have been a real pity had they walked away with the trophy.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Glorious Justine

The elegance and grace in a sportsperson’s execution is what has always drawn me towards them. Whilst players possessing brute power and sheer grit are highly commendable for their values, they never seem quite capable of igniting the same interest in me. I had mentioned in an earlier post that the pleasure generated by an Azhar flick or a Martyn cover drive is indescribable. The same I believe, is the case with a wonderfully struck through ball by Scholes or Fabregas, a dribble by Giggs, Ronaldo, Messi or Henry leaving the defenders with twisted blood, a graceful chip shot by Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia, a scorching on the limit lap by Kimi Raikkonen, a languid yet at the same time imperious Stefan Edberg half volley and a cheeky nutmeg by Laurent Blanc within his own half. There are few sights in world sport better than the ones I have just mentioned. Justine Henin’s single-handed backhand is one of them.

One look at that backhand and I fell in love with it. Whilst it can be equally lauded for its power and efficiency, it’s the elegance and the gracefulness of it that sets it apart amongst shots played by contemporaries. I saw Henin play for the first time in the 2001 French Open where she showcased her regal backhand to the whole world. Very rarely can you describe such an energetic and forcefully struck stroke as stylish, but Henin’s backhand is after all exceptional. John McEnroe once said that she is in possession of the best one-handed backhand in the women’s or men’s game. I would go one step further and say that she has the best backhand, one-handed or double-handed in the women’s or men’s game.

In this day and age where most players seem to prefer the double-handed backhand for the power that can be generated from such a stroke, Henin has displayed wonderful versatility through her one-handed backhand. There is nothing that she cannot do with it. Apart from producing incredible power and finding the most acute angles from the baseline, she has an effective slice which she uses to surprise opponents and she is also capable of hitting the backhand top spin lob, one of the toughest shots in the game with great aplomb. To me there is only one sight in world sport more beautiful in its execution than Henin’s backhand and that is the Cruyff turn by the man himself. Watching videos of Johan Cruyff has an effect that is quite simply spectacular and awe-inspiring. Henin’s backhand creates a similar kind of effect and I would go many a mile just to watch her play one of those splendid backhands.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Misfiring Gunners!

Arsenal FC are trophy-less for a third season in a row and have now failed to win the Premier League since the remarkable run they had in 2003-04. As Arsene Wenger has sought to move from one generation of players to another, the success that he enjoyed with the former group of players has deserted him. Is this due to Wenger’s follies or plain bad luck? I would put it down primarily to the former.

Any comparison between the two set of squads, i.e. the one in 03-04 and the present one always revolves around the names of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell. An examination of statistics will reveal that it is the absence of Robert Pires that has cost them most dearly. If one were to analyze the situation by considering one player at a time it will be seen that the goals and overall contribution of Pires has quite simply not been replicated by any player in the present squad. Without question, the presence of Vieira, Henry and Campbell were vital to Arsenal’s past successes, but Wenger has in some manner or the other been able to replace these players.

Cesc Fabregas no doubt is very different from Vieira, but together with Flamini the pair has ensured that the former Gunners’ skipper has not been missed as dearly as it was believed he would be. Fabregas is one of the finest talents in Europe and clearly along with Ronaldo, Messi and Kaka has the footballing world at his feet. He possesses great passing ability and comparisons with Paul Scholes in my opinion are not too far off the mark. However I believe, it is Mathieu Flamini who has been the revelation for Arsenal this season. He is one of those traditional box to box players and he combines superb energy levels with excellent tackling ability and a more than decent passing range. Flamini acts as a great foil for Fabregas and together they have bossed many a midfield battle this season.

Moving on, Thierry Henry along with Eric Cantona has been the best player ever to have played in the English Premier League and one would have only imagined when he departed that Arsenal would have crumbled without their talismanic striker. But Emmanuel Adebayor who by no means has anywhere near the talents of the great Frenchman, has scored 24 goals in the Premier League this season which is no ordinary effort. Before succumbing to the horrific leg injury, Eduardo da Silva showed that his finishing ability was of the highest class and that Henry would probably never be missed. Sol Campbell who was such a rock at the back for Arsenal during their glory days had pretty much gone off the boil when Wenger decided to sell him. The entry of William Gallas however has ensured that a compact central defensive partnership with Kolo Toure is unharmed. Therefore it can hardly be commented that the likes of Henry, Campbell and Vieira have been missed by Arsenal. The full back positions have also been adequately covered with Gael Clichy taking the place of Ashely Cole and the highly impressive Bacari Sagna replacing Lauren. Robert Pires however is one player who Wenger has not been able to replace.

Pires is one of the most technically perfect players to have played in the Premier League and his effectiveness is evinced by the fact that for a midfielder he scored a goal in almost every third game. Apart from his goals he has regularly been at the top of the assist charts and he possesses a big match temperament which not many are blessed with. Aliaksandr Hleb for all his prettiness on the ball is no Robert Pires. His tally of 7 goals in 89 Premier League appearances more than showcases his inability to contribute in the manner in which Pires did for Arsenal. And Tomas Rosicky who was the player initially bought to replace Pires has spent more time on the sidelines injured than on the pitch. I am sure Wenger is more than regretting his decision not to have departed from the club’s policy of not awarding contracts longer than one year to players above the age of 30. It is crucial to note at this point that Manchester United relented on their policy by providing Ryan Giggs a two year contract at the end of the 04-05 season and he continues to be treasured by the Old Trafford faithful. Pires was said to have been deeply disappointed at the loss of faith of his manager and he decided to part ways with Arsenal and is now plying his trade at El Madrigal with Villarreal where he has played a vital role in helping Villarreal to second place in the La Liga with three games to go.

Although their football has been immensely attractive and at times breathtaking this season, their failure to adapt tactically to different match situations has also in my opinion cost Wenger’s Gunners the title this season. With the kind of start they enjoyed to this year’s campaign, they really should have ensured that they are at least in with a chance of winning the title come the final day of the season. The decision to appoint Gallas as skipper has had disastrous consequences for Arsenal. A team needs their skipper to stand up and be counted and to be brave irrespective of the situation that the team finds itself in. Any player who complains as much as Gallas did when he was at Chelsea could never have made a good leader and I felt Wenger got his captaincy decision awfully wrong. Having said that Arsenal have not also had the greatest of luck this season, particularly in the Champions League where in the quarterfinals against Liverpool, some of the refereeing decisions in both the legs was diabolical.

Wenger however needs to accept that he made a fair few mistakes over the last few seasons and needs to move on and make 3 or 4 quality signings to ensure that Arsenal do not spiral downwards after their disappointments this season. It is already reported that the influential Flamini has decided to move on to AC Milan at the end of the season and there are talks of Hleb being interested in a move to the other Milan Club. This would mean that apart from preexisting holes that Wenger needed to fill, there are new departures which has to be adequately answered. It’s going to be extremely interesting to follow Wenger’s activities in the transfer market this summer and if he continues to claim that quality players are not available and that he only needs to sign one player in the close season, Wenger can kiss the Premier League title goodbye for another few seasons.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Viewer's Woes

It’s a real pity when the quality of the TV coverage fails to match up with the quality of the sport on the field. But this is exactly what has happened over the past few weeks as far as the IPL and the UEFA Champions League and Cup is concerned. Set Max’s coverage of the Indian Premier League has been appalling to say the very least. The pre-match show ‘Extra Innings’ is an insult to the game of cricket, as an anchor not knowing the difference between leg and off spin endeavours to put forward intelligent questions to pundits such as Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar. For instance, during the interval of the match between Delhi and Bangalore, the presenter asked Ms. Kaif her opinion on how the Royal Challengers must go about chasing their target. I am not trying to say that they must do away with the glamour quotient, after all Katrina is a very pretty lady and all of India would love to see her on screen. But surely she can be kept away from a cricket show, cant she?

Besides the third grade pre-match show, the quality of the commentary has also at times been downright dreadful. The other day I had to go through the trauma of hearing Ranjit Fernando describe a 146 kilometer per hour ball from Dale Steyn as a slower delivery. Add to this Arun Lal’s insightful pitch reports, Ramiz Raja’s astute understanding of the LBW law and Aamir Sohail’s perceptive views on the game and we have a wonderfully talented commentary team.

After having my cricket spoilt by the terrible coverage on Set Max I had to go through the ordeal of watching the European football games on Ten Sports. I don’t bother seeing the pre-match show knowing fully well the extent of rubbish produced by the so-called experts in the studio. But listening to the commentary during the game is something that cannot be avoided. Commentary for Wednesday night games is provided by the Sky Sports team normally consisting of Andy Gray and one of Martin Tyler, Rob Hawthorne or Alan Parry which acts as more than a saving grace. Ten Sports’ in house star commentator Richard Drew is summoned for games played on days other than Wednesday which are telecast on the channel. Yesterday in the game between Zenit St Petersburg and Bayern Munich, Mr. Drew was at his tedious best. He made an interesting football game sound like a telecast of a celebrity funeral. Apart from his mind numbingly boring commentary, he managed to constantly interchange the names of Philip Lahm and Marcell Jansen who were playing at right full back and left full back respectively in the first half. Mistaking the gangly Jansen for the diminutive Lahm is like mistaking a Hummer for a Porsche. In spite of the camera focusing on the back of their shirts time and again, it was not until the beginning of the second half when Jansen was replaced by Christian Lell did Richard Drew grasp that he had got the players’ names wrong.

I for one cannot wait for the day when the telecast rights for European football matches and for cricket matches played in India are once again granted to ESPN Star. But in this day and age where money seems to be the only criterion in determining who wins the telecast rights, the possibility of such an occurrence seems highly improbable.

Zenit and Spirit

It’s been a while since I have seen a UEFA Cup match and I was quite looking forward to the second leg between Zenit St. Petersburg and Bayern Munich played at the Petrovsky Stadium yesterday. I was mostly interested in watching the likes of Luca Toni and Frank Ribery play, both of whom have been highly impressive for Bayern this season. But what I witnessed was an excellent exhibition of counterattacking football from the Russians who put 4 goals past Bayern to win the tie 5-1 on aggregate. Munich hardly had anything to show for their possession as Anatoly Tymoschuk the Zenit captain did a superb job of anchoring the midfield for the home team.

Every time Zenit got the ball, they looked like creating something and they took the lead through a Pavel Pogrebniak free-kick in the 5th minute, which was struck powerfully down the middle and any goal keeper at that level other than Oliver Kahn would have made a better effort of saving the shot. The second goal though was beautifully crafted by Konstantin Zurianov who dropped his shoulders admirably to get past Martin Demichelis before easily slotting the ball past Kahn. In the second half as Ottmar Hitzfeld threw more and more attacking players into the fray, Zenit doubled their first half advantage through a headed goal from Victor Faitzulin and a second from Pogrebniak. They might not be household names, but Zenit were certainly good value for their victory last night which surely must have caused a great deal of embarrassment to the German European Giants.

In other news, the IPL game between the Knight Riders and the Royals yesterday acted as more than just an eye opener as regards issues of spirit of the game is concerned. The Rajasthan captain Shane Warne complained after the match about the antics of the Kolkata skipper, Sourav Ganguly who had allegedly made the Royals’ openers wait for five minutes too long in the searing Jaipur heat before taking the field. Warne also expressed disgust at the fact that Ganguly forced umpire Pratap Kumar to refer a catch taken by Graeme Smith of Ganguly to the third umpire in spite of the Proteas skipper's claims that it was cleanly taken. The question that essentially arises here is whether Ganguly should have walked? Before bringing the spirit of the game into the equation I believe such decisions shouldn’t be referred to the third umpire in the first place. Technology can be helpful only in cases where video replays provide conclusive evidence. More often than not in cases of closely held catches, video replays haven’t been able to provide definitive proof of whether the catch had been taken or not.

I am of the opinion that in such cases the use of technology goes against the fundamental reasons why it is advocated in the first place and the on field umpires must take a decision based on what they saw as to whether the catch was grassed or not. Having said that I felt Sourav could have avoided gesticulating to the umpire to get him to refer the catch to the third umpire. But then again after all that we saw in the recently concluded test series between
Australia and India, one could hardly blame Ganguly. That’s why I felt that the whole talk of the captains having signed a spirit of the game agreement was a load of twaddle and at some point when tempers boiled on the field it was bound to come into question.